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Baptism and Nationalism according to Barth

In response to the recent discussions of baptism here, Kevin has posted the following quote from Karl Barth on infant baptism:

The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.

“Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus,” Lectures given at the University of Bonn, Summer Semester, 1947.

The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, trans. Shirley Guthrie (John Knox Press, 1964), p. 104.


  1. adhunt wrote:

    At the risk of being a blog douche, I thought I might quote another well respected theologian on this matter:

    *concerning the 1662 BCP baptismal rite*

    “…the baptismal event necessarily reminds us that we are born into a context we did not choose…We cannot choose our company – obviously not, as infants, but as adults too – since the solidarity of the secular world continues to distort our perceptions and taste even when we think we are choosing…

    That is to say that what unites us with other human beings is not common culture or negotiated terms of co-operation or common aims, but something external to human community itself, the regard of God upon us…

    The baptismal perspective, in insisting that we are caught up in solidarities we have not chosen, is an admittedly uncomfortable partner for the post-Enlightenment social thinker…

    The reality of the common life in which spirit recognizes itself in the life and welfare of the other has already been established in the foundational events of the Church, and does not depend on any group or individual in later history successfully realizing it at any particular time…baptism, most fundamentally, announces the givenness, once and for all, of the new humanity in Christ”

    Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, p210-214

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  2. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Barth! I love this quote. There is an uneasiness to let people take their own path, because the church would be a small minority with no power, no cultural, political, or economic power. In that sense, rejecting infant baptism would be like Jesus rejecting the devil offering him all the kingdoms and power of the world.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  3. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Also it is something of a misnomer to say Mennonites, Hutterites, Baptists, etc reject infant baptism. We don’t. When people sprinkle water on their babies in church, we just think it is curious. That’s not baptism, that’s just sprinkling water on a baby. So we don’t reject infant baptism because there is no such thing.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink
  4. Thomas wrote:

    That quote is quite plausible if one completely ignores the classical understanding of baptism and the arguments for it, preferring instead to impute questionable intentions to those with whom one disagrees.

    I can play that game too: Barth objects to infant baptism because he is unable to accept that there are things which he has no choice in, and the idea that he is not entirely in possession of himself to the exclusion of all other (God included) is repugnant to him.

    Or maybe Barth is just obsessed with his own personal salvation, to the exclusion of the corporate salvation of the Church, and he wishes to make the Church unnecessary in order to make room for an entirely personal experience with God.

    Or maybe Barth lacks the intellectual firepower to even understand the understanding of baptism given his entrapment in a distinctively modern way of thinking.

    This is fun!

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    The difference is that Barth actually has read and understood those he critiques. You clearly haven’t read any Barth.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    The only douche in this thread is Barth, I’m afraid.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    If you think what Barth has to say here is anything other than illogical and ignorant, I’m afraid you’ve drank the Kool Aid. He’s not making an argument or illustrating any kind of understanding. He’s making baseless, and frankly offensive, accusations in their stead.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Maybe not in this one friggin paragraph. Anyone who has read Barth’s treatment of baptism in the CD IV4 fragment knows that he is not ignorant in the least on this issue. He actually engages at length every single argument for infant baptism that I have ever encountered, including those articulated in the comments on the other threads yesterday.

    To accuse him of complete ignorance and stupidity is just pure hysteria. You may be right that there’s plenty of Kool Aid being drunk, but I’m not sure that Barth or I are the ones imbibing.

    I suppose if this was the only thing Barth ever said about baptism we might have reason to dismiss him, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of Barth’s writings knows that whatever else he may be he is not ignorant of the tradition in any sense whatsoever.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Barth is being appropriately charitable in this comment. I couldn’t say unless I had read further in the work that Kevin has cited, which I have not. However, Thomas’s comment above presents a bogus caricature that anyone with literally any knowledge of Barth would know is complete BS.

    You also have to consider the context of Barth’s statement. He’s speaking to a primarily nominal Reformed Church in Germany (and/or Switzerland) in 1947. That should shed some light on why he is very rightly concerned with the problematic connection between infant baptism and national citizenship.

    To just retort with ‘Oh yeah, well Barth’s a stupid douche!’ is far more reductive, illogical, and irrational than anything in the quoted paragraph.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    Why post something stupid like this as if it is helpful or insightful? Barthians should be embarrassed by passages like this. Instead, they brook no criticism. I reiterate: “addressing” does not imply understanding, and a thousand pages of writing are not neccesarily more convincing than a single sentence–common misunderstanding among Barthians. I’m not even making a theological point, so there is no Kool Aid to be drunk. I’m simply pointing out that Barth is transgressing against logic and basic rhetorical propriety–to no effect.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    Barth is a douche, though. I am too, sometimes, but honestly it’s an appropriate rejoinder in this case. I wasn’t attempting to be logical. If I thought he were an idiot, I couldn’t fault him for being a douche b

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I get the sense that you haven’t read him either. Anyone, and I repeat, anyone who has read Barth’s treatment of infant baptism in CD IV/4 cannot accuse him of not understanding the arguments, at least not while being intellectually honest. His counter arguments may fail to persuade, but accusations of ignorance and stupidity are, well, ignorant and stupid. But whatever, we don’t need to go there.

    If you take the time to think about the context in the Reformed Church into which Barth is writing, that impacts how you understand this. Just stomping the ground and insisting that its illogical doesn’t make it so.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Maybe it would be an appropriate rejoinder if Barth’s argument had simply been that paedobaptists are a bunch of dickheads. Then a reasonable retort might be “Oh yeah, well you’re a douche!”

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I am posting in the comment thread to this post and addressing this passage. Presumably you were trying to make some point in posting it. If that point is also Barth’s point, then you are telling me I can’t even make an argument because I have a bad conscience. You are throwing up smokescreens to defend the indefensible, namely this passage.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    Did you read the passage you quoted? He says that pedobaptists can’t even argue because they have bad consciences. That’s actually a lit more offensive than being called a dickhead. Seriously Halden read this passage and think about it. Are you really associating yourself with what he’s saying here?

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    I posted it because I thought it was provocative and interesting. I post all kinds of stuff. You know that. And there’s not always a “point.” Most of the time I’m just seeing what happens.

    And are you really saying that its legit to make total judgments about someone’s level of knowledge and intelligence on the basis of a few sentences? You’d never let me get away with that if I was lifting incendiary quotes from papal documents and using them as excuses to condemn the writers as ignorant morons and douchebags. You know full well that popes have said way worse stuff than this. If I were bringing that up you’d be responding with the very sorts of things I’ve been saying about historical context, the broader situatedness of such comments in a wider body of literature, etc.

    Why is only a smokescreen when Barth is the one saying things you don’t like?

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Again, as I’ve mentioned several times and you have roundly ignored, Barth is speaking into a very specific ecclesial situation (not directly involving the Roman church, but the Reformed churches) which should inform how we take this comment.

    I would certainly never accuse all paedobaptists of having bad consciences, but I’m not sure that’s what Barth’s doing here either. Remember, this is from a book on a Reformed confession, addressing a Reformed communion at a very specific time in history when zealous nationalism and infant baptism were connected in a way that needed major critique. That’s not just a Barthian point. Balthasar and Bonhoeffer make very similar statements about this issue.

    But fine, I’ll withdraw my charge of innappropriate rejoinder. If accusations of douchebaggery are how you want to respond to this, then ok.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  18. Colin wrote:

    Hill comes off as a reactionary. At the same time, Barth claims to have inside knowledge of the consciences of those arguing for infant baptism. This is anti-critical and serves to silence the dialogue.

    However, I have no problem admitting that I have not read CD on baptism. I’m sure Barth engages with the arguments, but if this statement sums up his motivation, bias, or conclusion I might have trouble taking him seriously.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  19. Thomas wrote:


    That was my point. Rather than dealing with Barth’s arguments (he’s not making one here) I was attacking his motives. The absurdity of my approach just reflected the absurdity of Barth’s.

    And, actually, I would question Barth’s understanding of the traditional teaching of baptism, at least as reflected in this quote. The traditional teaching on baptism (in which baptism is an efficacious act) may or may not be right, but the reasons for baptizing infants follow obviously and directly from it. The connection between the sacramental view of baptism and the practice of infant baptism is as elementary as it gets. Any church that holds to this traditional teaching performs infant baptism as a logical consequence of that teaching.

    The claim that the “real reason” (not a reason, but the reason) for baptism arises for political motives is either made in ignorance of the traditional account of baptism, or accuses the great majority of Christians of completely abandoning their belief in baptism. The former claim, which you probably rightly reject, is ignorant, the latter is groundless and very probably wicked.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Read the CD IV/4 fragment on Baptism and get back to me. Don’t worry, its short.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  21. Thomas wrote:

    I’ll retract my claim if it turns out that Barth is excluding from his criticism the general practice of infant baptism (as performed by the Reformed, the Catholic, and the Orthodox) and is referring only to a specific situation. I took his use of the term “the church” to be more broad than the Reformed Church of Germany in the 1940′s.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  22. kim fabricius wrote:

    If Barth is a douche, could someone please direct me to his theology of vaginal baptism?

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    in nomine patris et filii et clitoris sancti.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  24. Thomas wrote:

    You could make it easier on me by just telling me how my reading assignment would get around the dilemma. Either Barth is unaware that the traditional teaching of the Church necessitates infant baptism, or he is aware that it does and holds that the great majority of Christians lie when they claim to be motivated by that teaching.

    You correctly deny the first possibility, so you must accept the second, or else find a third possibility. The only possibility that I can see is that Barth has some revolutionary reading of the traditional understanding of baptism that alleviates the need for infant baptism. I’d read that.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    I’d say his argument in CD IV/4 is as close as you’ll get to your “third possibility.”

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  26. Thomas wrote:

    Glad to see that Barth revises his view expressed in this quote then, as he fairly explicitly endorses the second horn of the dilemma in the quote above.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  27. Marvin wrote:

    Well Barth is certainly right that abolishing infant baptism wouldn’t necessarily reform the Church. The most nationalistic Christians on this side of the Atlantic tend to be, you know, Baptists.

    It’s not love of Christendom that brings most parents to the pastor asking for their babies to be baptized. It’s a feeling about the sacrament not unlike the feeling toward immunization–that to not ask for baptism for the child would expose them to danger.

    I haven’t read this section of CD, but I did read the whole Wikipedia article on douching, and I feel like this qualifies me to make some important contribution here:

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  28. Nathan wrote:

    Breaking with tradition and forging your own path (autonomy and freedom) is the symptom of a church that’s alive. I’m sure that’s the answer Ignatius and Athanasius would give, right?

    I ordered CD IV from the library; maybe that will prove to be more thoughtful. The real solution, imo, would be to appropriate the tradition (Pelikan), but few have the stomach for that kind of work, least of all the neo-orthodox.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  29. Kevin Davis wrote:

    In the context of the quote, Barth has briefly attacked (1) the disconnect between faith/obedience and infant baptism and (2) the supposedly strict parallels between infant baptism and circumcision. The subsequent attack on nominal Christianity (nationalism) is a return to his first argument, that Christian faith is not a “given,” not to be assumed, but is a conscious obedience. As such, the church is in a precarious position, dependent on the free movement of God, not on the benefit of birthrights. Parents are to minister to their children as persons who must still come to faith and become Christians, not as already members of the church or assumed members of the elect.

    I was truly surprised that anyone would take this brief quote as an opportunity to make grand assertions about Barth’s competence on this topic. You may disagree with Barth, but there are deep issues (about God’s freedom and the nature of faith) that anyone familiar with Barth would readily perceive in this quote.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  30. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I think everyone should just shut-up and wait for Travis’ (WTM — ) essay to come out in Ecclesiology on Barth and Baptism; or even better, wait for his PhD diss. to come out on the same topic. I’m sure he’ll be able to make all of his points, cut through the fog, and all w/o even mentioning douche.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Bobby is right…and this will be my last comment on this topic (related to infant baptism) for that very same reason: this issue needs to be worked out in journal articles and dissertations, edited volumes and books. My own research has shown me that some of the seemingly outlandish criticisms that some of the commenters are making above contra Barth are in fact pretty near to the truth (though I am not sure for precisely the reasons they think), but that is not something that can be defended in a comment box on a blog. Thanks for the engagement, but I really should not have let myself be dragged into this (baptism really is my weakness!). I would encourage all y’all to do the same — go read CD IV/4 if you haven’t (as well as Barth’s 1943 The Teaching of the Church on Baptism), write an article, send it to a journal. Only careful, well thought-out arguments attentive to scripture, tradition, and reason will actually help move along understanding on this issue, and unfortunately, a blog just doesn’t seem to be the place for that to happen (especially with comments boxes). Peace.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  32. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Not trying to be a jerk by the way…

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 6:46 am | Permalink
  33. Chris Donato wrote:

    I think the irony is that for all Barth’s eloquence regarding a covenantal hermeneutic, he shows himself to be most un-covenantal in CD IV/4 and especially in The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism. I think the Archbishop’s quote in combox #1 provides a wonderful starting counterpoint to Barth’s thoughts encapsulated in both of the aforementioned works.

    Even the greats are not immune from getting a little douche in their eyes on occasion.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink
  34. Hill wrote:

    I appreciate Dave’s commentary and want to apologize for any ways in which I may have been in appropriate. I want to clarify, for the sake of charity and understanding, that my principle issue is not with Barth’s understanding of baptism (because I would be unqualified to comment) but with this specific comment, which, if one replaced “infant baptism” with a contentless cipher, would be the definition of an ad hominem attack and conversation precluding. It’s a performative contradiction to suggest that this is provocative (unless you meant provocative of sectarian strife), and my association of this strategy with Barth or Barthians is merely my own anecdotal and contingent experience.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  35. Halden wrote:

    I would also like to express my penitence for any assholery of my own. And, despite the heat that was generated, I do appreciate the discussion, if for nothing else to spur one another on to the sort of sustained theological investigation that this topic warrants.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

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