Cullmann Answers Barth’s Rejection of Infant Baptism

Oscar Cullmann wrote several treatises on the subject of Christian worship. His treatise entitled Baptism in the New Testament was originally published in 1950 and was intended as a rebuttal of Karl Barth’s infamous rejection of infant baptism (see Barth and McMaken).

Cullmann treats the subject under the following four heads: The Foundation of Baptism in the Death and Resurrection of Christ; Baptism as Acceptance into the Body of Christ; Baptism and Faith; Baptism and Circumcision.


7 Responses

  1. He sounds a lot like a Lutheran in his treatment on the efficacy of baptism. His take on 1 Cor 1ff and Rom 6ff seem very similar. Was he in the Reformed tradition?

  2. I struggle greatly in what the NT says about baptism. My convictions on sola fide and the doctrines of grace keep me from what the baptismal texts clearly seem to say. At the end of the day I find myself unsatisfied with the Reformed’s treatment of the baptism texts in the epistles or the Lutheran’s treatment of election and apostasy. I am in a theological catch 22. It’s quite depressing and confusing to say the least. Ive all but given up on christianity on what is supposed to be such a basic core belief acc to Heb 6:1ff, yet it seems to be the most divisive subject even among those of us who cherish sola scriptura. Lord have mercy and grant me wisdom. Someone please help. Im tired of wavering.

    1. Michial,

      Baptism is a tricky subject. I’ve been seriously wrestling with it for around 15 years. Don’t give up. Keep studying the texts of scripture and reading good theological literature. I want to commend to you The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century by Hughes Oliphant Old. That book really helped me to understand the Reformed doctrine of baptism.

      I think it’s important to remember that when Paul treats the subject of baptism in his letters, faith is often presupposed even he may not explicitly mention faith. In other words, when Paul explains the efficacy of baptism, he’s considering the efficacy of the sacrament when faith is present. Presbyterians believe that a child can be baptized prior to faith, but we do not believe that baptism conveys any saving benefits apart from faith.

      The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration. The administration of the rite may be separated in time (and often is) from the saving efficacy of the right. There is a connection between the baptism of an elect person and his regeneration, but those two things might be separated in time.

      If a non-elect infant is baptized, he becomes a member of the visible church, even though he will never be regenerated by the Spirit. Our doctrine of baptism is inseparable from our doctrine of the church. We make a distinction between the visible and invisible church. Baptism makes us members of the visible church, and as a member of the church, we are numbered among God’s holy people.

      However, not every member of the visible church is an elect person. Not every member of the visible church is or will be regenerate. Non-elect members of the visible church will not be regenerated and will not, therefore, persevere in faith. Their baptism does not secure their salvation, so a baptized person (though a member of the visible church) may be lost. That’s what texts like Heb. 6 and 1 Cor. 10 have in mind.

      The people of Israel who were delivered from slavery in Egypt were all baptized into Moses (a typological parallel for baptism into Christ); they all ate the same Spiritual food and drank the same Spiritual drink. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them. They perished in the wilderness (never making it to the promised land) because of their idolatry.

      Paul uses that story in 1 Cor. 10 to warn the Christians at Corinth to flee from idolatry. If they fail to do so, they may suffer the same fate as their forefathers. I.e. they cannot rely on their baptisms to save them. They must persevere in faith if they are to be saved.

  3. I find the paradoxes of the scripture compelling. The hypostatic union, 100% God and 100% man, yet not two persons but one to be above our reason, though scriptural. The incarnation itself is mind boggling when not glossed over as a logical and scriptural assumption. I find similar paradox between baptism and sola fide, the eucharist and two natures, and preservation/perseverance and real apostasy as a few examples which may not fit into a neat system.

    Some see these views as a cop out but I am not so sure. The Lutherans use of ministerial reason vs the Reformed use of magisterial reason seems more in accord with the whole of scripture and its paradox. They seem more willing to accept the paradox than the Reformed who must have it make logical sense. I am not opposed to logic, nor are Lutherans, inasmuch as that logic doesn’t supplant revelation.

    Both stances are admirable. Which is correct? Which accepts the full weight of the texts without trying to pigeon hole it into a system? I am not settled, yet I find the Lutheran view more scripturally compelling at the moment. Regarding baptism and the Supper, I find the NT witness to be much more soteriological than their typological counters of circumcision and passover meal. I do not see a one to one identification in their meaning. The witness of the NT seems much more substantive.The Reformed is compelling from a more watertight theological system but I am not so sure our systems must make anymore sense than the revealed truths of the Trinity or the hypostatic union do to be valid.

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