Berkouwer’s Critique of Barth’s Rejection Of Infant Baptism

Ever since Karl Barth began around 1940 to oppose the justifiability of infant baptism, the controversy has continued unabated. Even though it cannot be said that Barth’s criticism exerted great influence, his considerations nevertheless gave rise to new reflection and a tremendous number of publications. But one should not think that it was only Barth’s criticism that evoked new reflection. In the Netherlands there is also a controversy about infant baptism in the Reformed churches—not, to be sure, about its justifiability, but about the background of infant baptism, involving such questions as the connection between baptism and regeneration, and the difference between infant baptism and adult baptism. When we see all these points, we understand that a very important question is involved, namely, whether the relation between baptism and faith still plays a role of significance in infant baptism. Almost all questions revolve about this problem of correlation, in the Anabaptist controversy of the sixteenth century as well as in the discussion of Barth’s criticism.

This question of correlation is especially important because we have already seen that the relation between faith and sacrament plays such an important role in Reformed sacramental doctrine. Both Luther and Calvin emphasize repeatedly that the sacrament is nothing without faith and that we participate in the blessing of the sacrament only if we use it in faith (usus sacramenti). If something really essential is involved here, can we then still adhere to the justifiability of infant baptism? (For one cannot speak of a believing use of baptism on the part of children.) With adults there is a letting-oneself-be-baptized, but not with children. The infant does not let himself be baptized, but is baptized. Does it not follow then that infant baptism automatically becomes problematical? It seems to us that this question touches the core of the criticism against infant baptism and that the answer to this question is decisive for the correct practice of the Church in the administering of the sacrament to the children of believers.

This question came sharply to the fore when Barth began to direct his criticism against infant baptism, for he posed the thesis that the correlation of baptism with faith made it impossible to baptize children. Baptism, as he put it, is a matter of a cognitive relation, not a causal working, and hence baptism without a confessing person to be baptized is like an execution without a convict. Elsewhere I have argued that Barth’s criticism is based fundamentally upon the correlation-motif, and I am still of the opinion that we are confronted here with a most important question involving the whole baptismal doctrine. It need not surprise us, therefore, that discussions about infant baptism are repeatedly concentrated upon the relation between faith and baptism, asking whether this relation is indeed so important that it can lead to a rejection of infant baptism.

One could get the impression that the problem of faith and baptism is purely a dogmatic one, requiring mainly clear rational analysis. But this is not so. The only proper basis for infant baptism is the authority of Scripture, and as we look to Scripture we find ourselves involved in a set of complex relationships that require careful exegetical study. We must inquire, for example, about circumcision and baptism, Old and New Covenant, the Covenant and baptism. All these qucstions are profoundly related to infant baptism. We need to discover the total view of Scripture with respect to the children of believers and the covenant relation between God and these children, and the manner in which these children also share in the salvation of the Lord.

This is clearly revealed in the repeated appeal of the Church to baptism as taking the place of circumcision. This “replacement” has played a great and decisive role in the institution and defense of infant baptism, because one sees already in the Old Covenant a specific relation between believers and their children, which leads one to reflect on that relation in the New Covenant. Barth has directed his criticism against this very institution and foundation. To be sure, he accepts the idea that baptism has come in the place of this circumcision, but he denies that therefore the sign of the Covenant may now be administered to the children of believers. This is because circumcision deals with the natural, namely, the sacred lineage that was reaching its end with the coming of the Messiah. Circumcision was pre-messianic, but for that reason a decisive turn came with the coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God, which requires faith in the Messiah rather than family lineage. Circumcision is the sign of the sacred lineage in Israel which ended with Christ; hence this sign has now lost its significance.

Barth’s later considerations show how seriously he meant this. In his ethics he speaks of the redemptive-historical change which has come about in the relation between parents and children. In the Old Covenant, marriage and propagation were determined by their place in the history of redemption: before Christ came there was “a redemptive-historical necessity of propagation.” But after Christ came this necessity ceased to exist because the sacred lineage had found its fulfilment and hence also its termination. “It could be continued, but it did not have to.” Christ’s coming also implied a re-evaluation of the relation between man and woman.

Since the coming of the Messiah, salvation is no longer bound to the succession of generations. “It was now a matter of man being God’s child in his spiritual communion with the one Son of God and Men, Of God’s children it can henceforth be said with John 1:13 that they do not receive life by means of the will of man, but from God. God’s Kingdom has come, and for that reason regeneration is all that matters. To be sure, natural birth (and marriage) is still “a gift of God’s goodness,”11 but since Christ’s birth the natural relation between parents and children no longer plays a constitutive role. Now faith is the essential thing, and hence infant baptism is not legitimate within the Kingdom of God. In this practice the Church sets its clock back to the pre-messianic period, and thus travels a road that leads to theological Judaism, to a past which God himself has closed off because it has been fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. Our relation to God is now no longer determined by our belonging to a sacred line of descent, but by the grace of God. And because this grace of God is at stake, only faith as an individual act can recognize and accept this grace of God. That is why in the New Testament Church only this order of events is mentioned: preaching of the Word, faith, and after that as the visible sign of this spiritual birth, baptism. It is flagrantly contradictory to the Kingdom of God as it now exists to baptize someone who does not consciously desire this baptism.15 One must come to baptism by an active deed, and without that deed baptism becomes an objective act of the Church in which the relation between faith and baptism is broken.

It turns out that the fundamental point of Barth’s criticism against infant baptism lies in a contrast which he assumes between natural and spiritual birth. It need not surprise us that precisely at this point he has received serious criticism. For this contrast is completely unknown by Scripture. To contrast spiritual birth since the coming of the Messiah with natural birth in the lineage of Israel, is to misunderstand the spiritual significance of God’s Covenant and of circumcision. One cannot say that under the Old Covenant natural birth was constitutive, while under the New Covenant spiritual birth is constitutive. It was never the case in the Old Testament that natural birth, apart from faith, placed a person automatically among the people of God. This was precisely the notion that the prophets criticized, as we also find in the New Testament when Christ turned against those who, without repentance or faith, appealed to their having Abraham as a father (John 8:33, 39). Christ did not deny natural descent (John 8:37, 56), but therein lies no guarantee or privilege of a good relation with God. In their unbelief they do what Abraham did not do; there is a contrast between Abraham and his children (John 8:40). That is why Christ speaks of a different father, namely, Satan, whose will they do. The line of the Covenant of God is understood in its richness and responsibility only in repentance and faith.

When Christ spoke with Nicodemus, he did not announce something so new that Nicodemus could have had no knowledge of it when He said: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Christ speaks here of spiritual birth, and when Nicodemus then asks how these things can happen, Christ answers him: “Art thou a teacher in Israel, and understandest not these things?” (3:10). It is therefore incorrect to say that the Kingdom simply replaced natural birth with spiritual birth, for otherwise Nicodemus as a teacher in Israel could not have known of spiritual birth. And hence the foundation of Barth’s criticism of infant baptism in the Kingdom of God is clearly refuted. As Paul says, “Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). The blessing of Abraham has come upon the gentiles in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:14).

The redemptive-historical fulfilment in the Messiah does not exclude faith from the Covenant with Abraham, and therefore no contrast can be made between natural and spiritual birth. Rather, we see a continuity which does not, to be sure, negate the decisive significance of the fulfilment, but which nevertheless points to the unity of God’s work, in which believers from both Old and New Covenant are called to salvation in Christ.

All this corresponds fully with the Old Testament itself, in which prophetic criticism inveighs against unbelieving pretense on the basis of natural birth. It calls for circumcision of the heart. Natural birth is never detached from the calling, the admonition, and the comforting of God. Every appeal to this natural birth or to circumcision is nothing but a serious perversion of the Covenant of God, while the continuity becomes clearly visible in the connection between faith and the sign of the Covenant.

Cullmann is therefore correct when he writes: “According to Romans 4, continuity refers to faith,” For in Romans 4 we read that Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had possessed in his uncircumcised state (4:11). That is why he could be a father of believers, namely, of those who not only are of the circumcision, but those also who go in faith, the faith which our father Abraham possessed in his uncircumcised state (4:12). Without this faith, the meaning of circumcision is empty. It becomes a mere “natural” sign of the sacred line of descent, which in its “naturalness” no longer functions in the hands of the God who reveals himself. The mystery of circumcision lies precisely in the fact that the sign of the Covenant was not given objectivistically apart from faith and repentance. To be sure, the sacred lineage existed for the coming of the Messiah, but this purpose is not detached from the Old Testament believers who are repeatedly called to seek and affirm this great mystery in the sacred lineage. The mystery of Abraham and the mystery of Israel do not lie in a natural preparation in the natural sphere for the coming Messiah, but it is the redemptive-historical prelude that cuts through the hearts and is involved with faith.

There is a divine perspective on the progress of the generations, which becomes clearly visible already in the Old Covenant. This progress was not just a matter of God going his way through the centuries and the generations, but of the acts of God in the midst of the changing generations, calling for belief in the coming of the Messiah. All of Israel’s life was involved in that. Precisely this sign of the Covenant called for surrender of man’s heart to this God of Israel. That is why it is understandable that we can read in the New Testament that Abraham had two sons and that thereby no distinction was made between natural and spiritual (Gal. 4:22–23), but rather the qualitatively different distinction between unbelief and faith in the promise of God. When Christ says: “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8), he is not denying the sacred line or the natural descent from Abraham, but he is indicating that other contrast which, as God’s judgment cuts right through the natural line.

It is God’s judgment that condemns the statistics of unbelief, and the failure to recognize the living God in his Covenant and the sign of the Covenant. This judgment is directed against abstracting a formula from the words of God: “You and your seed” (Gen. 17:7ff.; Acts 2:39; 7:6ff., etc.), and turning it into an arithmetic problem. These words were not given to be calculated with, but to be understood in faith.

It does not follow, then, that the relation between parents and children in the New Covenant no longer has significance because the Kingdom of God is at hand. Hence when the Reformed confessions declare that baptism has come in the place of circumcision, this must be seen not as a supplanting but as a fulfilling. Cullmann speaks correctly of the “redemptive-historical fulfilment of circumcision.” Paul’s polemic against Judaism, which made the blood of circumcision still necessary, is based on this fact of fulfilment and on this “replacement” of circumcision by baptism. But that does not lead him to a contrast between the natural and the spiritual. To be sure, he can say with emphasis: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter” (Rom. 2:28f.). But this contrast between “in spirit” and “in the letter” indicates that he is not concerned with a contrast between natural and spiritual, but with understanding the divine sign of the Covenant. Besides, he speaks of a contrast that was already revealed in the Old Testament.
There is no devaluation here of circumcision. Paul allies himself with the criticism in the Old Testament against abstracting circumcision from its natural connections. In the Old Covenant, the call and the warning are spoken: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10:16). This admonition goes to the “seed of the fathers” with whom the Lord had made a covenant (Deut. 10:15). So also we hear the word of promise about the sacred lineage: “Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6).

We see here clearly the fact of natural circumcision, and along with it the critical function of this sign of the Covenant. Circumcision is not a self-evident and automatic guarantee of God’s favor and grace. Rather, it is a sign that points to the salvation of the Messiah, which can be understood only in the circumcision of the heart.

In opposition to the isolating of the natural sign in the flesh, Paul can write that the gentiles who do not know the law of Moses and who nevertheless do the things that are in the law, will judge the circumcised Jew who, with his ancestry in Abraham and with the law of Moses, does not know the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:24–29). His critical remarks have nothing to do with what later will be called spiritualism because he does not devaluate the outward sign but protests against making it an automatic guarantee of the inward sign. Dodd is correct when he calls Paul’s words in Romans 2 “an echo of prophetic teaching.”

This echo does not set forth a contrast between natural and spiritual, but presents an outlook on the fulfilment of circumcision in which the old is truly fulfilled in the new. When the question arises what the advantage is of the Jew, and what is the profit of circumcision, Paul’s answer is: “Much every way … they were intrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2), and—as he writes later—“[theirs] is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). There is a sacred, purposeful continuation of the generations, but there is no such contrast with the New Testament situation as would supposedly find its core in the contrast between natural and spiritual birth.

In the light of what has been said above, it is understandable that the Reformation should state emphatically that baptism had come in the place of circumcision, not in a sense that makes infant baptism unlawful, but as one of the strongest arguments for the lawfulness of infant baptism. This is because the contrast between the natural and the spiritual had no place in the Reformed redemptive-historical concept of “replacement.” It was emphasized, rather, that Christ was the end of the law, that he had done away with circumcision, and that he had given in its place the sacrament of baptism.21 Precisely for that reason baptism could also be given to children “who we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children.”

This sameness of promise is something different from identity, for identity neglects the differences; what is referred to here is the promise of God of which the confession says, “what circumcision was to the Jews, baptism is to our children.”

…One can say, therefore, that every criticism of infant baptism runs the danger of falling back on the position of the Anabaptists, who always started from the contrast between nature and grace. They could not believe that “the natural” could have a place in the Covenant, because they thought that this threatened “the spiritual” of the Covenant. The Reformers, however, always maintained that the contrast was not between nature and grace, but between flesh and spirit, sin and grace, and that for that reason the richness of baptism could not be threatened by normal life, unless it be through superficiality. The position of the Reformers is inviolable here. It rests immediately upon Scripture. Against those who asked for a direct scriptural proof in which infant baptism was divinely commanded, the Reformers courageously pointed at the injustice of this question. In response, they asked their critics precisely where the Bible says that this fundamental Covenant relation is broken in the New Covenant.

G. C. Berkouwer, The Sacraments: Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 162–170, 175.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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