Thursday, June 04, 2015

Review of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/4

This summer I'm working to improve my scholarship through carefully reading significant books in three fields: systematic theology, science and religion, and literary fiction. For each book, I will write a brief review, which summarize the work and offer a short critique and which will appear on my blog. This then is the first in a series...

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4 (1967), trans. G. W. Bromiley, T&T Clark

But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism.”

Karl Barth introduces this part-volume by admitting that his magisterial Church Dogmatics, even after six million words and thirteen part-volumes, will remain “an opus imperfectum” (vii). He notes that this present Christian ethics, particularly the Sacraments, as a “free and active answer of man” to God’s work and word of grace (ix) and that his doctrine opposes “the custom, or abuse, of infant baptism” (x). He foresees out of this that, with this, his last major publication, he is “thus about to make a poor exit with it. So be it!” (xii) Through this introduction, I got the sense that the reason Barth decided to publish this fragment was his passion in attacking infant baptism.
      Barth begins the actual explication of his doctrine by affirming that the foundation of the Christian life is one’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (2), or alternatively, “the event of the Christian life” (3), how one becomes a Christian (4). My former teacher at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Timothy Lull, used to quip that Barth’s one response to all theological questions was “Jesus Christ!” Though a quip, to a great degree, it is true and certainly a way of summarizing Barth’s concern here: the change that occurs in the individual “has its ground and commencement in the history of Jesus Christ” (17) and nowhere else. How? By the act of the Holy Spirit (27), or put another way, through baptism with the Holy Spirit.
      This act—the baptism of the Holy Spirit—is not identical with water baptism, as Barth makes clear, even though the Spirit’s baptism necessarily connects us to other believers (31-32). This is expanded in the reflections on a “distinctive fellow-humanity” (36ff.) Barth now moves to the specifics of baptism with water, which he is clear to state, is not excluded, but indeed made possible and demanded by baptism with the Holy Spirit (41).
      After seven points on the biblical practice of water baptism, Barth unfolds three key items that fill the majority (over 75%) of this part-volume: (I) the basic, (II) the goal and (III) the meaning of Christian baptism (50).
      In his first major subsection of this paragraph, Barth seeks to discover the basis of baptism, “Why is it practiced, as we have seen, semper ubique et ab omnibus in the New Testament Church?” (50). Though one can point to Matthew 28:19 as the key biblical text (50f.), it is actually John’s baptism of Jesus at the Jordan that forms the basis for water baptism (54ff.) To my mind, this is a somewhat unusual way to find the basis for Christian baptism, but naturally Barth offers an extended exegesis (61-7) to offer a biblical basis for his point. Essentially, Jesus was baptized from below, with water, at the same time as he was baptized from above, with the Holy Spirit (65).
      This act demonstrated both Jesus’s submission to the will of God and his commission as Son of God and Messiah (see 68), who will, as we’ll see in the next subsection, baptizes with the Holy Spirit (70). That then is the goal of baptism. Baptism with water looks forward to baptism with the Holy Spirit (71), that is, God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit (72). (Does one here begin to notice a move that will lead Barth to criticize infant baptism? Namely, that baptism is a “human work of basic confession” in which the church associates themselves “with those who are newly joining it” [73]). It is also, and decisively, different from John’s baptism for several reasons (75ff.), even if they are the same baptism (85) and that John’s baptism looked forward, baptism in Jesus’s name was in fulfillment.
      The third subsection, on the meaning of baptism, fills over half of CD IV/4 (100ff.). It does not take many pages (at least given his loquaciousness) for Barth to consider the meaning of mysterion and sacramentum (108-9), then all the passages in the New Testament (111-27) for him to make the case that baptism is not a “mystery or sacrament” as it has been understood theologically. In other words, baptism “is not to be understood as a divine work or word of grace which purifies man and renews him” (128). Its character is “as a true and genuine human action which responds to the divine act and word” (128). In that light, it is no surprise that baptism is not “part of the traditional and normative pattern of human life” because it must be seen by the candidate “in the obedience of faith” (133). Baptism, for Barth, is an act of obedience and hope. “They say Yes to this Yes [that is, God’s “valid, absolutely trustworthy and victorious Yes”]” (161).
A major part of this subsection begins with Barth’s turning to infant baptism, which either starts on page 164 with a short treatment of the history of baptismal practice (i.e., it has departed from the time of the New Testament Church when both baptized and baptizer knew what they were doing), or on 165 with the actual words “Infant baptism… is, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Qu. 74) the baptism of young children, usually the newly born infants of Christian parents, i.e., of those who in some way belong to the Church by their own confession.” It has not been mentioned so far, but its rejection has been presupposed by the fact that the baptized must make a decision of faith (166). For this reason, Barth can speak of the “astonishing possibility of infant baptism” (166). He notes that infant baptism does not appear materially a part of the wider theology of the Reformers (169-70), and that both Luther and Calvin quickly move to carps and invectives toward their opponents on this front (170-1), even invoking Satan’s direct work in their attacks on infant baptism. Barth finds no exegetical basis for infant baptism, e.g., in Mark 19:13f where Jesus welcomes little children, or in Acts 2:39 where the promise if also for your children (179-83). These are simply not texts about infant baptism, nor applicable for its practice. Notably—at least to this reviewer—he asserts that infant baptism is—with a nod back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1937 phrase from The Cost of Discipleship—“cheap grace” (183). (Later, on page 209, Barth calls it “the grace that is disposable” and that “does not help, save, or sustain.”) Why? Infant baptism takes away the need for God’s liberation, their decision (184). Note that I am leaving Barth’s apposition because human decision and God’s will are inextricably linked for him. What of vicarious faith, as in the paralytic from Mark 2 that was brought to Jesus by his friends? This form of faith is only for others to be “liberated to believe for ourselves” (186). And subsequently, Barth makes this (for him) lapidary statement (one has to record these whenever they occur in his loquacious expositions): “But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism” (186). Soon enough, and after responding to some final reasons often presented for infant baptism, Barth declares, “Enough of this tiresome matter! Theology can and should do no more than advise the Church” (194). Even though infant baptism is “an ancient ecclesiastical error” (ibid.).
      Starting on page 195, Barth returns to the theme of hope (as the twin to obedience, which he dealt with earlier and which led him to the pages on infant baptism). One has the sense that “the horse is smelling the barn,” and that Barth is moving swiftly toward the close of this part-volume. Indeed there are under twenty pages left. Christians don’t look back to baptism (Luther’s reditus ad baptistum), but forward in mission from it (“conversion and progressio baptizati,” 202). Baptism is “obedience to God’s command performed in freedom” and “a grateful response to God’s efficacious and manifest grace” (202). Even in spite of baptism “compromised and denied” (204), the Church does not look in hope to itself, but to Jesus Christ (206-7). And thus, “The final thing to be said is that the meaning of the act of baptism consists in this prayer [of hope]” (209). He finishes with an exposition of 1 Peter 3:21, “a description not unlike a definition”: baptism is “not as the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but as the request to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (210-13). This exegetical excursus is both formally and materially fitting for Barth’s theology, a theology based ultimately on Scripture’s witness as the Word of God. Since it is also a call to ethical action, or a “good conscience” (syneideseos agathos), this is also a fitting end to this part-volume on the “ethics of reconciliation.” Thus Karl Barth offers—and one senses a bit hastily—the final words of his magisterial thirty-six year project, Church Dogmatics.
      Overall, this commentator is led to write that, as in all of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the reader comes away having learned a great deal more about baptism—especially its history, its practice, and the theological controversies surrounding it. It’s hard to deny that Barth has done his homework. At the same time, there is the hint of some frustration that goaded him into publishing this unfinished part-volume, which, as he noted in the introduction, that goad is the practice of infant baptism. One might be tempted to read the entire part-volume as one long introduction to—and then briefer exposition of—his support for adult baptism only. But that seems a bit dismissive of the intensive work Barth does with biblical and theological traditions and of the broader theology of baptism he presents.
      Above all, the issue for Barth is that baptism must be a decisive change; baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to true Christian conversion. I, for one, have not yet decided to change my baptismal practice. Nevertheless, I can attest, as a Presbyterian pastor who has performed and seen many infant baptisms, that the primary concern of the congregation is the cuteness of the baby or toddler, and rarely an obedient and hopeful response to the Gospel. And I don’t take this as tangential, but as a signal that there is nothing the infants are doing to signal baptism as a response of faith on their part. Barth has done yeoman’s service as regards—even in, by his normal standards—this brief treatment of the doctrine of baptism. In the west, we live in a culture that has little use for cultural Christianity, or perhaps better, Christendom, of the kind that Barth cavils against and that is implied in the practice of infant baptism. (Since everyone in this culture is a Christian, whether they decide to be or not, why not baptize infants?) I am not certain how many minds he has changed since 1967 (and he writes on page 194 that had “only the faintest hope” that his theological reflections would be heeded), but I would advocate that the Christian community should still read CD IV/4 almost fifty years after its publication… because we are increasingly in post-Christendom even more than when it was first written. The question remains: As western culture continues to slip from the clutches of the Christian Church, will we be able to release this form of Christendom—or at least discuss letting it loose—or will it cling to infant baptism as a vestige of our diminishing power?

No comments: