In the Name of the Father…
A comparison of Karl Barth and Leonard Vander Zee on Baptism
Lordship, Nicea Term
Karl Barth was a genius. He published over six million—yes, six million words in his magnum opus Church Dogmatics alone. His commentary on Romans is considered to be one of the most important theological treatises since Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. And, he was an absolute bastion of Orthodoxy—once asked if he could sum up his life’s work in a single sentence, he paused for a moment before responding with a smile: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” So, when Barth takes a position, we should give that position a great deal of respect, and not reject it lightly.
Leonard J. Vander Zee is the author of several books and multiple magazine articles, as well as being the pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church. He is highly respected throughout most of the reformed world, and our own Peter Leithart praises his Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “the most satisfying introduction to sacramental theology that I've come across.”
So, we have a highly respected pastor who disagrees with a nearly legendary theologian. Not surprisingly, it is over baptism.
In any debate, the parameters are paramount—when debating an issue, you must have defined terms. This is the most exigent point for clarity, without which we cannot hope to make real progress in any type of dispute. So, in this debate on baptism, let us look at the debater’s actual definitions of baptism, for this is where the disagreement occurs: what is baptism, and what does it do?
Karl Barth says that baptism is
"The representation* of a man’s renewal through his participation by means of the power of the Holy Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therewith the representation* of man’s association with Christ, with the covenant of grace which is concluded and realized in Him and with the fellowship of His Church."
This is quite clear. Baptism is a physical representation of a spiritual reality, and that is the reality of a man’s regeneration. As it is a representation, it should not be expected to do anything—it points to what has already been done, or what is being done, it re-presents, perhaps in a symbolic and more clear fashion, what has elsewhere occurred.
However, Vander Zee does not agree, to put it mildly. He states that “In the sacraments we acknowledge in faith that whatever happens to Christ also happens to us,” and “Baptism plunges us into the waters of His vicarious human life, uniting us and identifying us with this new humanity.” Their disagreement continues, as Barth states “That it (baptism) is only* a picture is evident…” while Vander Zee says “(baptism is) truly a means of grace…”
Their fundamental opposition should now be quite clear, andit truly is a tremendous difference. Baptism to Barth is a representation of our union to Christ, but to Vander Zee, it seems to accomplish our union. To Barth, baptism is a symbol pointing to a reality as a statue points to a man; to Vander Zee, baptism is in and of itself the actuality, the brass tacks if you will. This is the heart, soul, and extent of their disagreement: baptism as a symbol of our union with Christ verses baptism as an agent of our union with Christ. Put another way, Barth says that webaptize to symbolize our union with God, while what Vander Zee says is more along the lines of God baptizing us into a union with Him.
So with their differnces now clear, we must ask the question: who is right? Or, more properly, which one represents Scripture more accurately?For this, we must turn to the Bible, which is far from silent and entirely “other than neutral.” 1 Peter 3 states that “There is an antitype (of Noah’s salvation through the flood) which now saves us*—baptism…” In Colossians, Paul is no less explicit, declaring in chapter two that baptism itself unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection. Romans 6 declares that “as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death…Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3 blithely states that it is via baptism that we “put on Christ.” And, throughout Scripture, the symbolism of baptism is pervasive, and almost never used to symbolize a small or simple event, but usually cataclysmic and earth-shattering events. Indeed, usually creations or decreations—the Holy Spirit upon the surface of the waters in creation, the flood, the birth of Israel through the Red Sea, and again through the Jordan River. Elijah and Elisha part and pass through rivers in their ministries, Moses and Jonah are both given unique baptisms which result in the salvation of a nation and a great city, respectively. We have so many more that I do not have time to list them, but again, they are almost universally tremendous, glacial events—the ministry of the “greatest man of woman born” was baptism, and he declared that the ministry of the Messiah would be a greater baptism, and then the ministry of this Messiah, our Lord the Christ Himself was initiated at His own baptism.
What we are never given in Scripture—and I speak with great respect of a man whose stature I cannot even comprehend, let alone aspire to—but what we are never, never—not even once—given in Scripture is the picture of baptism that Barth gives us: a representation of a greater event. No, baptism throughout Scripture is without exception presented as Vander Zee has portrayed it—a mysterious, momentous event that raises nations and casts them down, that changes the course of history time and time again—a great, epochal and monumental event.
Someone will ask—someone always asks—“Why does this even matter?” The question is fair, and to an extent I agree. No one should decide not to fellowship with another Christian because of their baptistic theology, as this is an area upon which great orthodox men of faith disagree. But when the fruits of the varying beliefs upon “what baptism is” are seen, we end up with a spectrum of lifestyles ranging from paedobaptists to Anabaptists; we have infants raised in the “paidea” of God, and we have godly teenagers who are still estranged from the table of Christ’s body and blood, and are raised outside of the covenant community to which they are heirs. In the words of the Apostle: My brethren, these things should not be so.
Barth, Karl. The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism (Eugene: Wipf and Stock
Vander Zee, Leonard J. Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the
Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004).