Thursday, February 21, 2008

Karl Barth And Infant Baptism

“…the Continental Protestant debate on infant baptism in the mid-twentieth century, as yet has no ending but bears all the marks of interminability. Ignited by Emil Brunner’s brief comment in The Divine-Human Encounter that the current practice of infant baptism was ‘scandalous’, the debate was fueled by Barth’s inflammatory 1943 lecture. According to Barth, baptism is not a ‘cause’ of redemption but an auxiliary rite concerned, as Calvin put it, with the cognitio salutis. Christ’s word and work alone cause salvation but this word and the work seek public recognition and therefore take on a sacramental Gestalt. Baptism thus enables the believer to ‘get sight’ of his fellowship with Christ by picturing death and resurrection with Him. If this is true, candidates for baptism must come to it rather than be brought. Thus, Barth castigates infant baptism as a ‘wound in the body of the Church,’ a ‘hole’ in baptismal practice, as ‘arbitrary and despotic’, turning what should be a free dialogue into an act of violence by imposing a religious identity on the baptized without his consent. Rhetorically, Barth is less ferocious in the fragment on baptism that closes the Church Dogmatics, but his rejection of infant baptism is implicit when he describes baptism as man’s initial Yes to God’s prevenient grace.

In his lecture, Barth takes note of the traditional Reformed analogy of circumcision and baptism but dismisses it with the comment that circumcision was a sign of natural birth into the lineage of Israel. In Church Dogmatics IV/4, Barth concedes that the analogy is ‘intrinsically correct and important’ because it highlights the ‘unity of the old and new covenants in spite of their formal distinction.’ Still, this does not imply that the ‘definitions and meaning of the two were interchangeable,’ because the church, in contrast to Israel, is ‘not a nation. It is a people freely and newly called and assembled out of Israel and all nations,’ recruited not by birth but through the new birth, so that ‘Christian baptism, as distinct from Israelite circumcision, cannot be on the basis of the physical descent of the candidate’.

There are several problems with this. Circumcision was never a sign of purely natural descent, since Yahweh instructed Abraham to circumcise every male member of his household, including servants and their sons (Gen. 17:12, Exod. 12:44). Even conceding that circumcision had a ‘national’ character, it was equally a religious initiation, since the nation was religiously constituted. It would be wholly foreign to the Old Testament to dissociate covenantal faithfulness from life among God’s people: Belonging to Israel meant belonging to the people belonging to Yahweh; ‘your God will be my God’ entailed ‘your people shall be my people’ (Ruth 1:16). Barth’s contrast between Israel as ‘nation’ and the church as freely called assembly hints that the Christian religion no longer has the irreducibly public and political character manifest in Hebrew religion. This interpretation is strengthened by Barth’s claim that baptism is a public expression of Christ’s work of salvation, a formulation that implies that salvation itself is hidden from public view.

Inclusion of infants in Israel was not a ‘formal’ matter, a fact hinted at in Genesis 17:13, where household circumcision is identical to the ‘covenant.’ Redemption is the restoration and glorification of humanity, and Israel was elected as the seed and type of a redeemed race, living in Yahweh’s presence as humanity was created to live. Therefore, the covenant was necessarily as wide as human life itself, embracing the whole communal practice of Israel, from worship to politics, from cradle to grave. Were infants excluded, Israel would no longer have been the initial form of redeemed humanity but an organization for the religiously mature. Barth’s protest implies that, while Israel was the type of redeemed humanity, the church is a religious association, consisting of those who have made free and conscious decisions. Barth’s complaint is really against the Old Testament form of religion, and this radically subverts his affirmation of covenantal unity.

Barth’s complaint is equally against the Old Testament’s view of initiation, for Yahweh not only permitted but demanded the ‘violence’ of an imposed religious identity; to neglect this duty was to break covenant (Gen. 17:14). For the Old Testament, initiation was not a matter of ‘getting sight’ of one’s status, nor the echoing human Yes; for male infants of Israel, it was the prevenient sign that one was included, willy-nilly, under the Yes of God. For Barth, initiation ‘works differently’ in the church than it did in Israel. Semi-Marcionite sacramentology is hard at work.”

-Peter J. Leithart in The Priesthood of the Plebs.

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