Reading Barth Backwards, IV/4: Jesus’ Baptism as Normative for Christians [Baptism with Water, #6]

In the Christology and Soteriology survey course I teach at a Pentecostal university, I focus in on the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist as being pedagogical, in the sense that these sacraments teach us about what it is to be a follower of Jesus. The lecture I give on baptism is inevitably the most controversial lecture of each term. This surprised me the first time I taught the course this way, but it has held true each time I’ve taught it since as well. Many evangelicals are conditioned to believe that what really matters for salvation is whether one has made a personal decision to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, and received reconciliation with God. Barth is no less concerned that Christians are (in his verbiage) “baptized in the Holy Spirit” through divine bridging of the chasm that exists between God and humanity. And while Barth is careful to not collapse the distinction between baptism with water and what he calls baptism with the Holy Spirit, he also does not fall into the evangelical habit of making baptism something that is mostly ancillary from salvation itself. For Barth, the importance of this baptism lies in the example of Jesus himself, and his submission to John’s baptism at the start of his Messianic ministry.

“The [early Christian] community certainly did not have to enter upon a new Messianic and saving office of its own. But it did have to enter on the way of those who are called to be His witnesses, and who are thus called to fellowship with him (I Cor 1.9). As they entered on this way, the beginning of His way could not be of mere historical interest for them. It necessarily became exemplary, normative and binding in respect of the form of the beginning of their new life. When in faith in Him the beginning of a life of fellowship with Him was at issue, it had to follow His act of obedience, His subjection to God, His solidarity with men, His acceptance of service both of God and of men. It had to submit to this, to integrate itself into it. It had to perform the same act of acknowledgement and commitment as that with which He began His work as Man. It had to do this with reference to Him and to His beginning, yet resolutely for this very reason. Since His concrete act was baptism with water, it had to perform this act in the same concrete form.

Could it be obedient to Him, or follow Him, without perceiving, affirming and accepting in practice the fact that there, in and with His baptism in the Jordan, an order was set up which embraces and applies to all his disciples, to which they must all submit, since there the community was in fact commanded to baptize, and all who seek to attach themselves both to Him and to it are commanded to have themselves baptized? This is a train of thought which is not to be found anywhere in the New Testament, perhaps because its content and conclusion were so self-evident to the New Testament community.” (68)

This also poses important questions to those in communities which baptize infants, particularly in that the rite of confirmation must be made to be as self-evidently Christological to the participant – it must not collapse into the mere affirmation of church membership or, worse yet, the “graduation ceremony” from participation in the life of the Christian community. On a similar note, those denominations which emphasize the covenant made between person and God at baptism must also be careful to continue to emphasize the exemplary character of Jesus’ baptism, and that this is a necessary first step to following the narrow road of salvation, rather than an end in itself which assures one’s own salvation.


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