Revisiting Karl Barth's doctrine of baptism from a perspective on prayer

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    Abstract

    This article focuses on Karl Barth's mature doctrine of baptism, as it is developed in the final part-volume of the Church Dogmatics. Published in 1967 (English translation in 1969) as a fragment of the ethics of the doctrine of reconciliation, Barth's theology of baptism is not without its controversy. Among the critiques that the baptism fragment has generated, one of the most significant concerns is over its presentation of the relation between divine agency and human agency. The formal division in the baptism fragment (and its sharp distinction between ‘Spirit baptism’ and ‘water baptism’) is taken to imply an uncharacteristic separation of divine agency and human agency, which renders his doctrine of baptism inconsistent with other areas of his thought. The argument proposed in this article, however, is that better clarity as to what Barth is theologically up to in the baptism fragment can be gained by reading his mature theology of baptism in connection with his theology of prayer. Barth's theology of prayer is rich and extensive. Although very present across all of his writings, his thinking on prayer (and indeed the Church Dogmatics itself) culminates in an intriguing set of meditations on the petitions of the Lord's Prayer. Although unfinished, these lectures on prayer were published posthumously as The Christian Life in 1976 (English translation 1981). Together with his doctrine of baptism and his unwritten doctrine of the Lord's Supper, the finished lectures on prayer would have formed the ethics of reconciliation. Importantly, Barth insists that baptism and the Lord's Supper were to be understood not only in the context of prayer but actually as prayer, as ‘invocation’. Rooted in the motif of ‘correspondence’, which is deployed at a number of key points throughout the Church Dogmatics, Barth's theology of invocation is based on a highly participative account of the divine–human relation: divine agency and human agency ‘correspond’ in the crucible of prayer. From the perspective provided by his writings on prayer, invocation and the motif of the ‘correspondence’ of divine and human agency, this article revisits the critique that Barth unduly separates divine and human agency in the baptism fragment.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)255-272
    JournalScottish Journal of Theology
    Volume68
    Issue number3
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2015

    Keywords

    • Agency
    • baptism
    • Karl Barth
    • correspondence
    • invocation
    • prayer

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