Baptism in the Theology of Karl Barth in Biblical and Ecumenical Context

by Ngun Cer Chin (Author)
©2022 Thesis 292 Pages


This book initiates a thorough analysis of baptism in the theology of Karl Barth, particularly how he initially stated his understanding and later modified. His theological context and methodology are analysed from its biblical roots to its relevancy for the key question of the New Testament teaching of Christian baptism and its relevancy for current ecumenical discussion, especially as it is evolved in the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgment
  • Introduction: A Review of Karl Barth’s Understanding of Baptism
  • 1.1. The Theology of Karl Barth as a Theological Substance
  • 1.2. Some Selected Works on Barth’s Understanding of Baptism
  • I. Karl Barth: Development of His Understanding of Baptism
  • 1.1. The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism
  • 1.2. Church Dogmatics Volume IV Part 4: Doctrine of Reconciliation
  • 1.3. A Preliminary Assessment of Barth’s Understanding of Baptism
  • 1.4. Barth’s Understanding of Baptism in the Context of God’s Freedom
  • 1.5. Barth’s Understanding of Baptism in the Context of Human Freedom
  • II. Karl Barth and the New Testament Foundation of Christian Baptism
  • 2.1. The Nature of Christian Baptism
  • 2.2. The Development of Christian Baptism
  • 2.3. The Basis of Christian Baptism
  • 2.4. The Meaning of Christian Baptism
  • 2.5. The Goal of Christian Baptism
  • III. Baptism in the Current Ecumenical Context: Dialogue and Result
  • 3.1. A Review of the Ecumenical Movement
  • 3.2. The Voice of Karl Barth in the Ecumenical Movement
  • 3.3. Baptism in the Lima Document
  • 3.4. Baptism in the Ecumenical Dialogue
  • 3.5. The Biblical Tenability and the Ecumenical Reception of Karl Barth’s View of Baptism
  • Conclusion: Reflections and Remark
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


This dissertation has been written for my Ph.D. degree in the department of the Faculty of Philosophy I at the University of Regensburg, Germany, specializing in systematic theology. The primary aim of this dissertation is to initiate a thorough research into the doctrine of baptism with a view to present it as the source of ecumenical unity among the Christian churches as well as with the purpose of presenting the Gospel as an existential address to everybody. To achieve this, Karl Barth’s understanding of baptism is examined, particularly the way in which he initially viewed it and modifying later. Afterward his theological context and methodology are analyzed from its biblical roots to its relevancy for the key questions of the New Testament teaching of Christian baptism. The finding is further analyzed in the light of how baptism is understood in the current ecumenical discussion, especially as it has evolved in the work of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

Thanking God for this rare opportunity to be trained in a country which I know is the world center for Christian theology, I would like to mention one unforgettable event that leads me to Germany for my doctorate studies. A decade ago, I was very privileged to meet Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Hans Schwarz from Germany in Rangoon together with my mother as she is visiting me in Rangoon from Perth, at that time. A valued meeting with the Doktorvater (supervisor) of many international students at that time is here acknowledged as a beacon for an awesome path to my Ph.D. degree in Germany.

With this memory, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Schwarz, without whom this study would not have been possible. There is no enough words to thank him for waiting so patiently for several years for the completion of my work with his selfless and valuable supports. Not only as a supervisor but even as a father and a mother, Professor and Mrs. Schwarz gave me an insight into the meaning of theology and life. Their concern, their sense of responsibility and their burden for our existential concerns would remain a lifelong inspiration. I sincerely thank Prof. Dr. Matthias Heesch, Chair of Systematic Theology and Contemporary Theological Issues at the University for reading my work and also for making theology extremely engaging. I also want to heartily thank the Examination Board for the amazing experience.

My heartfelt thank expressly goes to Evangelische Wohltätigkeit-Stiftung in Regensburg (EWR) for their long commitment to the Stipendium (scholarship). Words cannot express how much I am indebted to their support. There ←7 | 8→are friends and family members who helped me in many ways throughout the stressful times of academic studies. Though I couldn’t mention it all here, I would like to express my sincere thanks to all for their love and prayerful support. Once again, I am very grateful to Prof. Schwarz for allowing this dissertation appears in his series Untersuchungen zum christlichen Glauben in einer säkularen Welt, and to the publisher, Peter Lang – International Academic Publishers for undertaking the publishing process.

Last but not least, I earnestly thank my family for their loving support throughout my studies. As baptism is the essence of Christianity, in which one identifies himself or herself with the life of Christ, my family has made this interpreted history of Jesus Christ experiential. Especially to Ka Nu (my mother) Mrs. Sui Kor, I would like to say a big thank you for being so thoughtful about necessity of the publication of this work. Treasuring a mother’s love that knows no end, I dedicate this book to my mother.

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A Review of Karl Barth’s Understanding of Baptism

More than a century has passed since the World Missionary Conference, also known as the Edinburgh Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland from June 14 to 23, 1910 with 1,200 representatives predominantly from major Protestant denominations and missionaries from North America and Northern Europe.1 One of the commissions present at the conference was on “Co-Operation and the Promotion of Unity” among Protestant missionaries, and as a subsequent event, members of a Continuation Committee headed to India, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, China, Korea, Japan, and eventually lead to the establishment of the International Missionary Council in 1921 and later in 1948, the World Council of Churches respectively.2 Today, the Conference is widely thought of as a milestone for the genesis of the modern Protestant Christian ecumenical movement, a movement that aims at mutual recognition and acceptance, “the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church’s mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church’s obligation to be one.”3 As they assembled to discuss their different and mutual problems in witnessing to Christ within a divided Christianity, they were reminded that the absence of Orthodox and Catholics members should be rectified in future conferences.4 As this century’s attempt for unity demonstrates the solemn commitment of the Christians to the Lord’s commission and a willingness to share every blessing in Christ in obedience to the purpose of his will, its ←9 | 10→quest for unity is ever leading to a renewed sense of self-understanding in the churches. Hogg describes the Edinburgh Conference as “a lens catching diffused beams of light from a century’s attempts at missionary co-operation, focusing them, and projecting them for the future in a unified, meaningful and determinative pattern.”5 For him, Edinburgh was “part of the metamorphosis from ‘ecclesiastical colonialism’ to global fellowship,” which also reflects a picture of a minority movement set in the war-torn world.6

In retrospect, the Edinburgh Conference came into being because of the pattern of a general missionary conference in every decade.7 Hogg’s review of the history of the Edinburgh Conference and its background provides us a glimpse into long months of preparation, the distinctive character and the success of the Conference. William Carey had proposed such a plan in 1806, envisioning the first assembly at Capetown in 1810 and it is supposed that Gustav Warneck, who initiated an interdenominational missionary gathering in London in 1878, may have had Carey’s suggestion in mind.8 As a period of enormous political changes in many parts of the world, the missionary movement had to adjust to the many changes for the effective execution of the missionary task.9 As external factors dictating the need for the new missionary conference and strategies, China’s Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty and Sun Yat-sen’s Revolution of 1911, the defeat of Russia, a Western power by Japan in 1904, the stirring of nationalism all over the East and the Near East, particularly in Turkey, and the relentless pressure of Islam especially in Africa are remarkable.10 As the Protestant mission had to adjust to racial, national, economic and social tides, effective “generalship” was required than ever before.11 Concern for co-operation had been growing, church union became a recurring topic, and one was hopeful that conference could be a forward step in that development.12 With much effort and preparation, the World Missionary Conference was held at the United Free Church of Scotland, in what is now the Assembly Hall of the ←10 | 11→University of Edinburgh’s New College. As mentioned, the Conference with its outstanding feature of “unity” still stands today as a milestone for the ecumenical movement.

During his ministry on earth, Jesus claimed himself to be one with the Father and that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9,10, NIV), before his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed for his disciples and all believers that “they may be one” as he and his Father are one (John 17:11; 22, NIV), and after his resurrection, he commanded his disciples once again to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to everything he has commanded them” (Mt. 28:19, 20, NIV). Likewise, Apostle Paul urged the Ephesians to live a life worthy of their calling. He wrote: “As a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:1–3, NIV). Though varying in the privilege given to the several members, Christians’ duty and calling to be in unity has to be built on the acceptance of their differences and on the conscious enjoyment of their privileges. Such is the calling of the Church and of Christians today.

Christianity, as rightly said by Gunton, “is a faith that has had, since the beginning of its theological tradition, both outer pressures and an inner drive to be systematic.”13 For this reason, theologians throughout the centuries have tried a systematic attempt to show that Christianity is a faith that seeks understanding, a faith that is guided by reason. Hence Karl Barth once said “Anselm wants ‘proof’ and ‘joy’ because he wants understanding and he wants understanding because he believes.”14 As Christians are, by definition, believers in Christ and followers of Christ, our understanding of Christ, His teachings and His commission are central and determinative of the very character of Christian faith as well as in our attempt for unity. In his Warfield Lectures given in 1962, Barth expressed his concern as this: “I have been speaking of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking for understanding), and the statement and confession about Jesus Christ ←11 | 12→needs understanding. Jesus Christ is a living person–both in the Bible and in us, for God and for men. So in our relation to him and his relation to us there is a mystery–analogous to our relation with our all-too-human neighbor. And Jesus Christ is the neighbor! So the confession that Jesus is Lord is not so easy after all and involves a task with which we have to deal anew each day if we would understand who and what he is.”15 But when we recognize that God is an active being, who revealed Himself in a dynamic relation to many different cultures and contexts in human history, an attempt of the churches in a multicultural society to be one, however, remains a challenging task.

Setting themselves on this challenging task, and with a growing concern for continuing relevance of the role of Christian theology in our secular society, churches are committed to explore the meaning and relevance of the teaching of Jesus Christ and of Christian theology. As they seek for a starting point for doing theology in a global context, a common desire of unity among Christians is remarkably proclaimed. When the Apostle Paul urged the Ephesians to be in unity, he begins to speak about areas where they need to check their way of life, and then about a kind of unity they must earnestly strive for. The Ephesians are to be “completely humble and gentle” in their daily living, “be patient and bearing with one another in love” in their differences, and strive for “unity” so that they may live in peace (Eph. 4:2, 3, NIV) for the reason that “there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” (Eph. 4:4). While there is a considerable distinctiveness in our confessions, it is to our agreement that we all share this same calling and are commissioned to strive for unity in our diversity. Although with a considerable uniqueness in the exercise of our ecclesiastical duties, baptism is the one sacrament that Christians of all denominations share. Despite extensive debates on its theological significance, this practice of baptism has been a contested custom from the very beginning of the church, therefore, there had been church’s disciplinary barriers on how, by whom and when a person is to be baptized.

With the churches, our concern here is a continuing relevance of the role of Christian theology in our secular society. In particular, this research intends to explore the meaning and relevance of Christian baptism for a mutual recognition and acceptance in our churches today. To enter into a theological task both in a biblical and ecumenical context, this research will look at Christian baptism in the theology of Karl Barth by examining basically two of Barth’s major works on ←12 | 13→baptism: The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism and Church Dogmatics Volume IV, Part 4. Because of his exceptional understanding of baptism, especially among many scholars and theologians who are known in the course of theological tradition, Barth catches the attention of his contemporaries and of many of his readers. If we may describe him vaguely, Barth holds that, “baptism is not a sacrament,”16 “there is only one sacrament, Jesus Christ Himself, for only in the incarnation of the Son of God in the man Jesus is there a real sacramental unity between God and man. Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper are human actions made in response to Christ, but are not themselves sacraments since they are not recurrent actualisations of the incarnation or means through which supernatural power is infused into believers.”17 Early in his career, his position was defined regarding his understanding of baptism and then modified decisively at the end of his life. In a nutshell, he asked for a responsible baptism and very much attacked the established churches in Europe for irresponsible handling of baptism. Barth has written the thirteen part volumes of Church Dogmatics published between 1932 and 1967 with a total of more than 9,000 pages, and with the fragment volume 4, part 4, his reflection on the Christian life. He was nearly eighty-one years old and near the end of his life when he penned this essay on the foundation of Christian Life in terms of Baptism with the Holy Spirit and with water.18 Despite the fact that the churches’ answers to the meaning of baptism varied, this study hopes to initiate a thorough research on the topic, aiming to present baptism as the source of ecumenical unity among all the Christian churches. In this endeavor, this study will be particularly concerned to examine the way in which Karl Barth’s initially stated his understanding of baptism and later modified, and then, to analyze his theological context and methodology from its biblical roots to its relevancy for the key questions of the New Testament teaching of Christian baptism, and finally, to see how baptism is understood in the current ecumenical discussion, especially as it is evolved in the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

1.1. The Theology of Karl Barth as a Theological Substance

A significant contributor in Christian theology, a Swiss theologian, Karl Barth (1886–1968) has since proved to be one of the world’s renowned theologians, a ←13 | 14→“modern church father,” who had accomplished a real turning point in the field of Christian theology. He is the man who changed the direction of theology from “liberalism” to “a neo-reformation theology.” His voluminous Church Dogmatics had powerfully communicated Christian faith to the culture and the problems facing the church in their times. Eberhard Busch, an expert on Barth’s theology, who also served as Barth’s personal assistant from 1965 to 1968, once said that “one cannot fully understand Barth the theologian apart from understanding Barth the man.”19 Barth was not only a theologian but also a profound political thinker. He was not afraid to go against the stream for his theological conviction but entered into a new theological task and markedly witnessed with integrity a new turning point in theological understanding. He was described by Pope Pius VII as “the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.”20 Wilhelm Pauck added to this complement by saying that it is not inappropriate to rank Barth to the great speculative theologians of Christian history such as Origen, Thomas Aquinas and Schleiermacher.21 Thomas F. Torrance, a translator of Karl Barth had also compared the contribution of Karl Barth to the history of Christian theology and that of Albert Einstein to natural science.22 With concrete and dynamic theological concepts, Barth had done an awesome task of constructing theology in a new creative way, and it lasted for generations. Perhaps, he had changed theological understanding permanently.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 292 pp.

Biographical notes

Ngun Cer Chin (Author)

Ngun Cer Chin studied Christian Education in the Philippines, and Christian Theology in Myanmar and in Germany. She earned her PhD in Systematic Theology at the University of Regensburg, Germany. She is a pastor of Hakha Thar Baptist Church, she taught at Chin Christian University, Hakha, Chin State, Myanmar and currently serves as a pastor in Nurnberg Chin Christian Fellowship.


Title: Baptism in the Theology of Karl Barth in Biblical and Ecumenical Context