Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism and Rejection of Infant Baptism
Karl and Nelly Barth with Markus (aged 1) and Franziska (2) in 1916, just as he was beginning work on his commentary on Romans.

Karl and Nelly Barth with Markus (aged 1) and Franziska (2) in 1916, just as he was beginning work on his commentary on Romans. (source: kbarth.org)

Karl Barth's rejection of Infant Baptism is infamous, yet gravely misunderstood, because he also rejected rebaptism. Karl Barth was baptized as an infant, and refused to be rebaptized as an adult, even after he had rejected the practice of Infant Baptism. Barth seconded Augustine's affirmation of heretical baptism that improperly performed baptism were to be accepted as true baptism and for this reason, those who have been Infant Baptism likewise should not be rejected or rebaptized. This is an incredibly helpful and ecumenical solution to the pathology of rebaptism in American Evangelical Churches.

I am a Presbyterian and Infant Baptism is a normative practice for me and Barth's rejection of Infant Baptism is problem for me! I've discovered an excellent book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward and Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth by W. Travis McMaken to help me sort through Barth's rejection of a baptismal practice I dearly love.

In a future post, I hope to share McMaken's solution, but before that, I want to explain Barth's baptismal position. So what is Karl Barth's doctrine of Baptism? It is summarized and explained in the following quotation from The Sign of the Gospel. This five point list is a brief and helpful understanding of Karl Barth's understanding of baptism in Karl Barth's 1948 lectures on The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism that would be fully expanded and repeated in full form in the Church Dogmatics IV.4 fragment.

What doctrine of baptism does Barth advance in this lecture [The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism]? Eberhard Jüngel explicates this material under five admirably succinct points.

First, "Baptism has a portraying, attesting and--in the sense of attestation--imitating, symbolic, signifying function." It is an image of the salvation history that occurs between God and humanity in Jesus Christ, and not itself that which it attests.

Second, the power of baptism does not reside within baptism itself or within the faith of the one being baptized. Rather, it resides within Jesus Christ. Jüngel clarifies this notion in five subpoints, the sum of which is that baptism has the necessity of a command, but that baptism is not a necessary or indispensable means of salvation.

Third, "baptism is an exclusively cognitive event" that "seals" or reinforces subjectively the truth of the objective reality it attests. It is not a causal or generative event creating that reality.

Fourth, the administration of baptism ought to be characterized by responsibility, both on the side of the church and on the side of the baptizand. Although the power of baptism cannot be questioned because that power is located in Jesus Christ, deficient baptismal order can lead to subjective questioning of baptism's meaning. Baptismal order must be reformed for this reason, and that means--among other things--the abrogation of infant baptism.

Fifth and finally, baptism's effectiveness resides neither within its administrator nor its receiver, but within Jesus Christ. Baptism possesses the character of an eschatological sign that determines and equips the one who has been baptized.

This much is clear from Jüngel's explication: in this essay, Barth takes an approach similar to Schleiermacher's with reference to the inherent tension in Calvin's legacy on the doctrine of baptism. Barth wants to maintain that baptism is an instrument of Christ and the Holy Spirit employed for the strengthening of our faith, which Barth casts as "cognitive" here in a way that is perhaps more reductive than Calvin would have liked. Like Schleiermacher, Barth maintains that faith is necessary for baptism to be effective even if it is valid when faith is absent, although Barth jumbles the terminology a bit because he ties baptism's objective aspect, the question of efface, to the operation of Christ and the Holy Spirit rather than to the confluence of ritual and faith: "Baptism without the willingness and readiness of the baptized is true, effectual and effective baptism, but it is not correct; it is not done in obedience, it is not administered according to proper order, and therefore it is necessarily clouded baptism." Thus while infant baptism is valid, or complete in a formal or objective sense, it is improper insofar as it is deficient in the subjective sense of being irresponsible--this "willingness" and "readiness" is not present in the baptizand.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward and Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, pg32-34

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  1. Cheers.

    You’ll note as you keep reading that Barth’s position changes significantly after the essay discussed here. While he rejects infant baptism in this essay, he still maintains a certain sort of “sacramental” baptism. He will move away from that in his later work, and thus his rejection of infant baptism become more consistent.

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