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The Sign of the Gospel

McMaken, W. Travis. The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), xi + 324 pp. $69.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by R. David Nelson (April 29, 2015)



The problem of continuity has hovered in the foreground of Barth studies for the past few decades. Far from being simply a point of neuralgia among Barth scholars, the question of whether and to what extent Barth’s sizeable literary output bears witness to a real change or changes of mind is laden with implications for understanding of developments in Protestant theology and for critical reflection upon the methods and tasks of Christian dogmatics.

Among the several texts typically singled out as acid tests for this problem, Church Dogmatics IV/4—the so-called “baptismal fragment”—stands out for several reasons. It is one of the final texts in the canon to have appeared, written when Barth was in his ninth decade and well into physical decline. Consequently, some scholars have opined that several of the text’s conspicuous features—in particular, its self-asserting tone and Barth’s occasional fastness and looseness when discharging biblical exegesis—are indicative of the moribund dimming of his theological wits. More substantively, since the turn exhibited in the fragment at least appears to be quite severe—and since also Barth insisted that dogmatics and ethics and praxis are, in the end, inseparable from one another—a late reversal of Barth’s thought concerning baptism at least raises the question of the coherency of the contours of his program for Christian theology. The “fragment” on baptism casts its shadow backwards, as it were, over the whole of Barth’s literary output and the theology his writings encapsulate.

Among the several texts typically singled out as acid tests for this problem, Church Dogmatics IV/4—the so-called “baptismal fragment”—stands out for several reasons. It is one of the final texts in the canon to have appeared, written when Barth was in his ninth decade and well into physical decline. Consequently, some scholars have opined that several of the text’s conspicuous features—in particular, its self-asserting tone and Barth’s occasional fastness and looseness when discharging biblical exegesis—are indicative of the moribund dimming of his theological wits. More substantively, since the turn exhibited in the fragment at least appears to be quite severe—and since also Barth insisted that dogmatics and ethics and praxis are, in the end, inseparable from one another—a late reversal of Barth’s thought concerning baptism at least raises the question of the coherency of the contours of his program for Christian theology. The “fragment” on baptism casts its shadow backwards, as it were, over the whole of Barth’s literary output and the theology his writings encapsulate.

Travis McMaken’s fine book makes a signal contribution to contemporary Barth studies by significantly advancing the English-language discussion of this nexus of issues. He sets forth a convincing case that Barth’s late turn away from paedobaptism is a logical consequence of the dogmatics and ethics of reconciliation that unfolds in CD IV. But McMaken also contends that Barth followed one of two possible trajectories in order to arrive at a doctrine of believer’s baptism as the human action that corresponds to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is, McMaken shows, another way through the labyrinth of the doctrine of reconciliation—the end of which is a genuinely evangelical doctrine of infant baptism. In effect, then, McMaken’s study rescues from Barth’s harshest critics both the baptismal fragment and the putative change of mind it encapsulates, and also demonstrates that one can follow Barth closely and still end up elsewhere. For readers of Barth, this at least tacitly entails that his canon—specifically the texts on baptism—must be approached with a hermeneutic that is both sophisticated and flexible. For those interested in the future of the doctrine of baptism, McMaken’s work demonstrates that Barth still has very much to say and that his contribution is pliable enough to inform a range of Protestant baptismal theologies and practices.

McMaken commences his analysis with a brief and selectively plotted survey of the development of approaches to Christian paedobaptism from the nascent church of the first century up to Barth. While, to be sure, more attention could be paid here to the many nuances found in those theological and liturgical traditions associated with infant baptism, McMaken succeeds in establishing the insight that Barth’s contribution and its reception must be seen in light of a broad distinction that may be drawn between “sacramental” and “covenantal” modes of baptismal theology. In short (and following McMaken’s terminology) “sacramental” baptismal theologies pivot on the notion that church rites utilizing tangible media “either impart to the individual the salvation achieved in Christ or else sustain and deepen it” (60-1), while “covenantal” baptismal theologies, typically associated with the Reformed tradition, situate baptism alongside circumcision as signs of the sanctified relationship between God and elected humanity (101).

This differentiation of groupings of traditional paedobaptismal theologies beneath the headings of sacrament and covenant is pivotal for the whole of McMaken’s study. In chapters two and three, he demonstrates and defends, with the support of his own exegesis of critical biblical passages, Barth’s complaints with both trajectories. Barth was notoriously allergic to a general theological concept of sacramentum—not least, as McMaken shows, because it has been employed all too clumsily in the tradition to blur the distinction between divine and human agency (86 ff.). On the other hand, Barth’s christological reorientation of the doctrine of election leaves him uneasy about the juxtaposition of infant baptism and circumcision as signs of God’s grace towards a putative elect group within humanity. In both cases—that is, in regard to both the sacramental and covenantal approaches—material dogmatic commitments lead Barth to reject traditional notions of paedobaptism. Hence, in this negative sense, the baptismal theology of CD IV/4 is ingredient to Barth’s mature doctrine of reconciliation.

In the fifth and final main chapter, McMaken turns to the constructive task of attempting to resuscitate a doctrine of paedobaptism from the very commitments that lead Barth down the path toward credobaptism. It is beyond the scope of the present review to test the doctrinal, liturgical, and ecumenical possibilities at stake in the “relatively new” approach to baptism that McMaken proposes here. It should suffice to suggest that this chapter should be extracted from the present work and expanded elsewhere if the author indeed desires his proposal to be taken seriously as an advance in the tradition. Having voiced this caveat, it should be noted that the chapter does serve a significant role in the present context, as it demonstrates that the basic architecture of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation can, with some tweaking and the help of interlocutors (in the instance of McMaken’s proposal, mainly Calvin), be used as the groundwork for an altogether different baptismal construction.

In the excellent commentary that makes up the fourth chapter, McMaken maps out Barth’s positive case forcredobaptism. For Barth, a dogmatic account of God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ demands proper attention to human actions in correspondence to God. Barth, McMaken demonstrates, is able to establish believer’s baptism as the foundation of the Christian life at precisely this point; namely, as the first act of obedience in response to the command of grace. The distinction between the baptisms of the Spirit and water that features in CD IV/4 unfolds along these lines: baptism with the Spirit is the New Testament locution for “the awakening to faith in which one recognizes the reconciliation wrought between God and humanity in Jesus Christ as pertaining also and directly to oneself”; baptism with water is “the faithful response one renders to God in light of that recognition” (207). Barth’s occasionally bombastic tone and fast and loose exegesis aside, the baptismal theology that emerges in the fragment is, in the end, perfectly consonant with the dogmatics that serves as its basis.

It is the hope of this reviewer that McMaken’s outstanding book will help to mitigate the problematic reception history of Barth’s baptismal theology in the English-speaking world. McMaken prevails in situatingCD IV/4 within an affirmative reading of the continuity of Barth’s program. Moreover, McMaken proves that Barth’s thought can propel careful and clever interlocutors into new and even unexpected theological directions. The book is highly recommended as one of the best recent monographs on Barth and his legacy.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.