Friday, August 24, 2012

Barth on Baptism: Excerpts of Summer Reading Part 1

Amber and I went back and forth when it came to the decision to baptize Noah and Lily. We were both baptized as infants. Actually, I was also baptized as an adult. [1] So when our kids were at the age when most babies in our PCUSA congregation are sprinkled with the sacred and sending waters, we had more than a few conversations.

And I was unsure.

I have always understood baptism as one's profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and the union of the new believer with a particular community of the baptized. It is a human response to the good news of God's once and for all saving action in Christ.

I have also understood baptism as a sign and symbol of God's claim on the baptized. It is God's announcement that "this is my child whom I love and am well pleased."

But which comes first- the human response or God's claim? When is someone old enough to respond? Should we not celebrate the good news that God claims us in Christ before we can even speak a word? But how can someone be baptized into a faith that is not actually their own?

Should we just double-dip everyone?

Is that what confirmation is all about, i.e. when we claim our baptisms and respond to God's already announced claim on us?

So we pondered: should we baptize Noah and Lily as infants or wait until they are old enough to profess faith on their own? Our tradition leaves it up to the parents, recognizing all forms of baptism, i.e. infant or believer's; sprinkling or immersion.

We ultimately decided to have our kids baptized on September 11, 2011 at the ripe age of nearly five months. It was a beautiful and sacred moment when we were able to celebrate, with our church and extended family, God's covenant made with our children and the shared responsibility to raise them in the Way of Jesus until they can claim this faith and covenant as their own.

But I still ponder, have we watered down the significance of baptism when we choose to sprinkle infants? Has baptism as a rite replaced baptism as a calling for new believers? Why is it so infrequent to see adult's baptized within Presbyterian and other mainline congregations? Are we not welcoming new believers into our communities?

I recently read through Barth's, "The Foundation of Christian Life," an excursus on baptism and the final published portion of his Church Dogmatics (Vol. IV.4) before he died in December, 1968 [2]. In this, the Swiss doctor of the church reminds the people of God that in and through our baptisms we become a "bearer of a new name," i.e. the name of Christ (3). We enter into covenanted relationship with all other gathered and scattered baptized as we live into the mission of God in and for the whole world. We join our history with the history of Jesus Christ, who continues to move the faithful forward and into the future redemption of all of creation (13).

Noah and Lily have not quite understood all this yet, despite my occasional whispering Scripture and Dogmatics into their ear. My prayer is one day they will. I also do not regret for a second the decision to baptize our babies versus wait until they are "of age."

Nonetheless, here are some excerpts from what I read recently, with minor commentary on a few surprising statements by the greatest Reformed theologian.

Church Dogmatics IV.4: "The Foundation of Christian LIfe"

[note that while language is not "inclusive" the assumption is that the implication of these statements are intended to be inclusive]

"The possibility of God consists in the fact that man- eye of a needle or not- is enabled to participate not just passively but actively in God's grace as one who may and will and can be set to work too" (6).

"A Christian, however, is a man from whom it is not hidden that his own history took place along with the history of Jesus Christ" (13).

"The Christian comes from Him, from His history, from knowledge of it; he also looks back thereto. This is the ground on which he stands and walks. This is the ground on which he stands and walks. This is the air which he breathes. This is the word which he has in his ears before, above and after all other words. This is the light, the one light, the incomparably bright light, which illumines him" (14).

"Christology is now swallowed up by a self-sufficient anthropology and soteriology" (20).

"To be sure, a man to whom the Word of Jesus Christ comes in the power of the Holy Spirit is not only called by the community but also called in some form to the community, to participation in its ministry...How can he be a Christian without realising that he is bound to members of the community as to brethren, that he is commonly engaged and committed with them" (32)?

"The Church is neither author, dispenser, nor mediator of grace and its revelation. It is the subject neither of the work of salvation nor the Word of salvation. It cannot act as such. It cannot strut about as such, as though this were its calling. Its work and action in all forms, even in the best possibilities, stands or falls with the self-attestation and self-impartation of Jesus Christ himself, in which it can only participate as assistant and minister" (32).

"A man becomes a Christian, and is thus freed for that response and summoned to it, on the basis of the initiative of Jesus Christ and in the event of the life, act and speech of Jesus Christ present for him. He either becomes a Christian in this way or not at all" (33).

"This is the foundation of the Christian life on this side. This is the primary foundation. The divine change, man's baptism with the Holy Spirit, is not half-grace, or half-adequate grace. it is not just an incitement given to man, but his quickening. It is not just his enlightenment from without, but a lightning up from within. it deserves and demands full, unreserved and unconditional gratitude" (35).

[Barth deciphers between "baptism with the Holy Spirit" and "baptism with water." The former is God's initial calling of an individual towards the divine change and transformation that comes with a person's union in Christ. The latter is the human decision to respond to that call and enter into covenanted partnership with the baptized community called the church. In other words, baptism of the Spirit is God's action; baptism with water is human response.]

"[The baptized] unavoidably discovers himself to be the companion, fellow and brother of these others, bound to them for better or for worse, a participant in their strength and weaknesses, their joys and sorrows, their little victories and greater defeats, their whole life and enterprise and action" (37).

[I wonder what Barth would say to the the transient church populous, whom are constantly looking or "shopping" for the "right" church? What does this mean for clergy whose tenure is short-lived in one particular congregation in favor of advancement in clerical careers? I also wonder what this means when tempted to leave one local body and move to another because particular programs are better down the road? Again, baptism into a community of faith and the covenantal nature have, in some cases, been watered down.]

"As a man's baptism with the Holy Spirit, the beginning of the new Christian life is and remains a real beginning. It is not perfect. It is not self-sufficient, definitive, or complete. It is a commencement which points forward to the future. It is a take-off for the leap towards what is not yet present. it is a start which involves looking to and stretching for a future. it is a start which involves looking to and stretching for a future" (38).

"The people of God, whose member he is, is the pilgrim people of God...but he is constantly running towards [the kingdom of God]. Apprehended by Jesus Christ, he constantly seeks to apprehend it" (40).

"Christian baptism is the first form of the human decision which in the foundation of the Christian life corresponds to the divine change" (44).

"The goal of baptism is God's act of reconciliation in jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, God's act of judgment and grace, of salvation and revelation...Baptism is administered in the Christian community with a view of this divine act, in orientation to it, just as it is with reference to it that the community believes, loves, hopes and comprehensively serves the world in its work and witness. Baptism is for those who newly join the community the first concrete step of faith, love, hope and service" (72).

[This is potentially the most powerful page within this whole fragment of Dogmatics. I would suggest that this page sets the stage for much of what has become contemporary missional theology.]

"[Baptism] is not a collective act but a personal one...It is a public declaration on the part of the baptised that they stand in a personal relation to the Lord of the Christian community as the only source and cause of all salvation" (83).

"[Baptism] is not itself, however, the bearer, means, or instrument of grace. Baptism responds to a mystery, the sacrament of the history of Jesus Christ, of His resurrection, of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. it is not itself, however, a mystery or sacrament" (102).

[This is, initially, a rather shocking remark. However, Barth is sure to affirm throughout the Dogmatics that nothing is to replace the person and work of Jesus Christ as the object and subject of Christian faith. That is, not even baptism, when stamped with a sacramental label, can surpass Jesus as the One who enacts salvation. Barth, on account of this danger, rejects baptism as a sacrament of the church and chooses instead to affirm baptism as a human response to the divine change. While some may see this as semantics, it is indeed a bold theological declaration that should be considered.]

"Baptism was plainly an element in the life of the New Testament community rather than its teaching. one searches the New Testament in vain for a theology of baptism such as that which we are attempting here, particularly in relation to the question of its meaning" (111).

[Sure grounds for an embrace of the plurality of baptismal truth? At least this reality is firm footing for on-going ecclesial discourse.]

"[Baptism] cannot remain a private affair" (147).

"Baptism is the first step of the way of a human life which is shaped and stamped by looking to Jesus Christ. It is the first step which the baptised person who has come to see Jesus Christ takes along with the community. It is also the first step which the community, which is already on that way, takes along with the one baptised. In baptism a human life comes into the life of the community. it is not submerged therein. It does not lose its individuality. In all its individuality, however, it becomes the life of a member of the community" (149).

"In each individual baptism [the church] documents God's universal will of grace and salvation...The task of every Christian- not additionally but from the very outset, on every step of the way assigned to him in baptism- is his task as a bearer of the Gospel to the others who still stand without" (200).

[What I have not highlighted in this post, for it is a lengthy element within the fragment, is Barth's clear caution against infant baptism. While Barth values the witness of infant baptism to the "free and omnipotent grace of God which is independent of all human thought and will, faith and unbelief," (189) a newborn is unable to claim and profess faith in this divine change and abiding grace. This leads baptism to become an act where a child "borrows" the faith of their parents and the community until they are able to claim it for themselves. This is a "new" and unfounded praxis in the earliest teachings of the church and New Testament.

While I agree with Barth's cautionary statements and theological vigor, I do not believe ecclesial communities need to boycott infant baptism altogether. Instead, we must hold together the tension of God's action and human response as we move forward in mission, grounded in the love and faith of Jesus Christ. Barth's theology of baptism should launch the church into deeper reflection with children, per their baptismal vows, so to lead them in the way, truth, and life of the gospel they can one day claim for themselves, e.g. confirmation. Even more so, the church must not cease to invite new neighbors into the fold and encourage new friends of the faith to enter the sacred and sending waters of baptism as witness to the divine change that has occurred. The church has a lot to learn and reform on both accounts.] [3]

In essence, Barth underscores baptism as an act of faith, love, and hope of both the baptized individual and baptizing community. Baptism is a commencement into the life of Christian service in and for the world whom God loves and promises in the end to save. Baptism is also a prayer, whereby individuals and communities gathered and scattered invoke the name of God and cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus" (210).

Maybe this is the beginning of our baptized children's faith formation, to pray with haste the simple prayer of hope, "Come, Lord Jesus."

Or maybe, as our family continues to grow into our identity as disciples, we pray and live into with regularity the prayer Jesus taught us. After all, for Barth, this was an excursus on the Christian life itself. [4]

That's probably where this blog will wind up next...


[1] in my Baptist days it was required of all members to be baptized by immersion as an adult. That said, I was baptized twice, something Barth found to be a ridiculous practice. In hindsight, I agree. Needless to say, I just may be doubly sanctified :)

[2] Barth never actually completed his Church Dogmatics. The intention was to wrap up volume four with "Ethics of Reconciliation" and reflections on The Lord's Prayer and the Lord's Supper, believing these, combined with baptism, marked the foundation, essence, and renewal of Christian life. Only fragments of his lectures on the Lords Prayer were left, published post-mortem as The Christian Life. Barth never actually began the projected fifth volume on redemption and eschatology. It is only fitting that Barth's work remains incomplete, better said, uncontained and unable to be fully possessed.

[3] There as a great engagement with Barth and other prominent theologians on the baptism debate in, Faith Seeking Understanding.

[4] "The foundation and renewal of the Christian life are to be dealt with in the doctrines of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and between these the Christian life itself is to be portrayed in an exposition of the Lord's Prayer" (p. xi of Preface to Eerdmans edition of The Christian Life).