Making Waves in the Baptismal Font: Karl Barth and Infant Baptism

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Jack Mulder, Hope College

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This material is based upon work supported by the CrossRoads Project under a Faculty-Study Research Grant funded by the Lilly Foundation.


At the height of World War II, the German church buckled under the gravity of the Führer’s will. As a generation of young men died on the battlefields of Europe and millions of Jewish refugees sighed their last breaths in Nazi prison camps, the German church baptized the infants of Nazi patriots. Such profound unfaithfulness emboldened the great 20th century German theologian Karl Barth to break with the Reformed tradition over the practice of infant baptism. A concern for the ethical context of baptism centered prominently in Barth’s reexamination of the classical Reformed understanding of baptism. With the exegetical assistance of his son, Markus Barth, Karl Barth reexamined the New Testament basis for baptism and concluded that infant baptism gravely distorted the biblical view of baptism. Such a radical departure from the orthodox Reformed tradition is uncharacteristic of Barth and constitutes a provocative turn in his thought. This essay argues that while Barth’s ethical concerns provide a useful critique from which to reevaluate the classical Reformed understanding of baptism, Barth’s treatment of infant baptism is unsatisfactory for two primary reasons. First, in rejecting infant baptism, Barth’s argument seeks to dismantle the classical Reformed argument connecting baptism and circumcision. However, his rejection fails to exegetically surmount the New Testament passages connecting baptism and circumcision, which lie at the core of the classical Reformed argument for infant baptism. Second, Barth’s own construction of baptism is troubling in the extent to which he distinctly separates Spirit baptism from water baptism. With the help of Calvin’s treatise on the sacraments, this essay demonstrates that Barth’s bifurcation of baptism is inconsistent with the ecumenical Christological formula crafted at the council of Chalcedon.

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