Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Barth on infant baptism

Karl Barth makes clear that the main problem with the Reformed case for infant baptism is that it fails to distinguish sufficiently between the people of Israel and the Church of Christ, and it does so because it fails to see that in Christ the history of Israel is fulfilled.  This fulfilment, far from kicking off a new era much like the old, but with the role of Israel now played by the Church, brings in the end of the ages.  It is an eschatological reality, not a merely historical one, which forms the foundation of the church.  And seeing this gives Barth the opportunity to make the following sarcastic comments about infant baptism, which I share for your delectation.  His conclusion is that many of the problems in the church in the West can be traced to the fact that so few can remember their baptism and therefore really see their identity as grounded in Christ himself in his death and resurrection.  I tend to agree.
Instead, [the Church] began to act as if it were a natural community continuing from generation to generation and bound by ties of kith and kin.  It identified itself (on the plea of what was later euphemistically described as "Christianisation") with a whole succession of genuinely natural communities, and finally with the whole of the West, which came to be thought of as the "Christian West".  The freedom of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of the divine election and calling, the freedom in which Christ awakens faith in Himself and in which the Christian Church alone can be constituted, was no longer respected...  It was thought to be known in advance who would become Christians, members of the Church and members of the body of Christ, i.e., all children who find themselves within the sphere of the Church and are born of ostensibly "Christian" parents.  Were not the male children of the Israelites circumcised on the eighth day and thus separated as participants in the covenant?  And are the children of Christians to be deprived of a privilege enjoyed in Israel?  So the argument ran, forgetting the tiny detail that now that the covenant has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, it is no longer possible to foresee and arrange and anticipate the divine separation of participants.  With the generous inclusion of girls, all children born in a Christian environment were regarded as potential Christians, as though the Church were a natural and historical entity like Israel.  And since they could not be asked about their desire for baptism and required to make a profession of faith, they were baptised without making this question and therefore baptism a matter of personal responsibility commensurate with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.  They were made Christians by millions in their sleep and over their heads as it were...
CD III/2, 586


  1. Despite being far more sympathetic to the anabaptist side of the Reformation than the magisterial, I would actually posit that the NT does suggest the children of Christians are to be counted as part of the church, rather than being pagans until they say the right words, and therefore worthy of the sacraments. This doesn't efface 'the freedom of election' as they may not persevere - which they must of course be encouraged to do. The question otherwise is what children are even for in God's purposes, if not to serve and strengthen the cause of Christ's body from the off (and hopefully for the rest of their lives). Are they, after all, primarily commodities to suit our lifestyles and maternal/paternal desires, as they have largely become in society at large?

    1. I'd be interested to hear how you'd substantiate that from the NT, to be honest. (Not going to let you get away with just positing it!)

      I think there's a fairly large space between 'pagans until they say the right words' and 'part of the church... worthy of the sacraments'. 1 Cor 7:12-14 seems to me to create a third category. I'd also just point out that 'saying the right words' is a fairly dismissive description of saving faith. I assume you wouldn't put it that way with reference to actual pagans?

      I think there is also quite a large space between 'to serve and strengthen Christ's body from the off' and 'commodities to suit our lifestyles and desires'. Seems to me there is an inadequate doctrine of creation in play if those are the only two options; what about just the propagation of the species, for example?

      Anyway, safe to say I'm not so sure about this comment...

    2. Thanks, Daniel. I always appreciate your feedback.

      I didn't mean to be dismissive of saving faith at all - more pondering the status of Christian children. I don't think there's a third category between holy and unholy (without wishing to caricature - is it possible to be half-in, half-out of the Body?). More like various shades of faith (thinking of the different kinds of ground) which are all treated as being part of the visible/temporal church, even in the absolute weakest sense of the unsaved spouse, who can hardly have any hope in the long run without personal repentance.

      So I do think that, say, not teaching children to pray to God as Father until they've made a personal declaration is quite consistent with the Baptist view, as He's not their Father until then under that thinking. But the 1 Cor 7 passage (as well as 'the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these'; John the Baptist being Spirit-filled from the womb, and so on) would suggest that, after all, natural bonds do seem to be an avenue God uses in *some kind* of special way for churchly purposes, if only by the fact that most Christians come from Christian families.

      For me, another key passage is in Ephesians 5, about how we are to raise children in the fear and discipline of the Lord. Since the natural man can't understand the things of the Spirit, and the Father only disciplines His children, it would seem that Jesus really is the Lord of Christians' children too.

      As for propagation, it's worth noting that 'be fruitful and multiply' (not a primary concern anyway, given our demographic's birthrate) is given to the pre-fall garden community. So any children would have been born into that new creation community already, as the children of Israel were (and saved through the Red Sea with their parents, etc.) - so the creation mandate was never for the bare fact of propagating the species without adding to God's people. That doesn't discount a change under the New Covenant, but it would seem like a strange restriction or lack of restoration for the covenant founded on better promises.

      Just a few thoughts there, open to discussion.