Against Infant Baptism, Me and Uncle Barth: W. Travis McMaken on Eberhard Jüngel’s Explication of Barth and Baptism

Travis McMaken (Travis)[1] has recently (2013) had his PhD dissertation published in Fortress Press’ Emerging Scholars series. His published work is titled: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth. I just picked it up and started reading it and I am glad that I did; it is an excellent introduction (and thick development) to not just Barth’s signofgospeltheology of Baptism, but to baptism’s theological development through the Christian ages. As I just worked my way through the first chapter I came across many gems and insights, but since this is a blog I will have to limit myself to one; one that resonates most deeply with me, you see, I am a Credobaptist after all, like Barth.

For me, in the first chapter the insight that resonates most with my sensibilities in this area of consideration is the brief coverage that McMaken gave to Eberhard Jüngel’s engagement and clarification of Barth’s theology of baptism. Jüngel’s point impacts me the most because it, in a simple and straightforward way makes clear the way that Barth tied his understanding of credobaptism into and from his doctrine of election. As McMaken highlights, for Eberhard this served as the locus classicus for understanding and approaching Barth’s theology of baptism vis-à-vis his doctrine of election. In a word, the reason for this (for its centrality i.e. ‘election’ for Barth) is: response.

Travis McMaken on Eberhard Jüngel on Karl Barth

(At length)

Eberhard Jüngel provides a unique contribution to the reception of Barth’s doctrine of baptism. This contribution consists in pointing to the fundamental importance of Barth’s doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2 for his doctrine of baptism. Precisely their inattention to this point constitutes the weakness of the reception Barth’s doctrine of baptism receives from the previously discussed authors, especially among those who are otherwise sympathetic to Barth’s theology. Of those theologians discussed above, only Roman Catholic Aldo Moda notes that the impulses that control Barth’s late doctrine of baptism can be traced back to his doctrine of election, and he has been informed by Jüngel’s work. Furthermore, attention to the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election for his doctrine of baptism aligns with the most recent work on the development of Barth’s theology. For instance, Bruce McCormack has argued that Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2 represented a new stage in the clarity and self-consistency of Barth’s christological theology. While the discontinuity of what follows this decisive part-volume with that which came before can sometimes be overstated, it is nonetheless true that Barth’s doctrine of election towers over the Church Dogmatics as a whole.

jungelJüngel estimates that people will not likely penetrate to this realization. Rather than recognize the integral relation between Barth’s doctrine of baptism and his theology as a whole, readers fixate on the practical fruit of that doctrine. They then reject these practical consequences while failing to engage with the dogmatic premises that lie in the background.

For his part, Jüngel means to make those dogmatic premises explicit. He does so with reference to the ethical context of Barth’s doctrine of baptism CD IV/4. Jüngel notes that the vital thing for Barth is the baptizand’s responsiveness, which implies responsibility. This has direct ties to Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2. There Barth establishes Jesus Christ as not only the electing God but also the elected human being. This means that “God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself” (CD II/2, 94; KD II/2, 101). Such a twofold determination provides the context for the responsiveness that Barth is after in his doctrine of baptism. God has determined to be God in relationship with humanity, and that humanity will exist in relationship with God. Humans live up to their election by being responsive to, and responsible before, God. For Barth, Christian baptism is a decisive moment in this responsive relationship. As far as Jüngel is concerned, all of this protects one of Barth’s most vital insights, namely, that God is God and humanity is humanity; “Just as God proves that he is himself through acts of divine being, so humans should prove to be human through acts of human being.” Baptism is a definitive instance of an act that proves one as a human being in responsible relationship with God.

Thus Jüngel advances his claim: “The doctrine of baptism is … not an appendix to the Church Dogmatics, but rather … a test-case.” Consequently, anyone who “wants infant baptism should not seek nourishment for the pulpit from Barth’s doctrine of election…. It is one or the other—one must decide for oneself.”

Both those who argue that Barth’s doctrine of baptism can be met by resources to traditional Reformed arguments and those who would revise his doctrine of baptism from within—and especially those who offhandedly claim this as a possibility—stand under Jüngel’s judgment.[2]

Don’t all roads always lead us back to Barth’s doctrine of election? Indeed! I am a big fan of Barth for so many reasons; his theology of baptism is just one more of those. I am a Baptist thinker, when it comes down to it (at least in a relative sense). I am a big advocate for a response based understanding of salvation, and Barth’s doctrine of election as related to baptism helps to illustrate how a robust theology of response ought to look in my view.

I commend this to you for your consideration! And thank you Travis for your work on all of this!

[1] Travis has been a friend of the blog, and of mine now since probably in and around 2006 or 2007 (since the time before he ever even had an MDiv let alone a PhD).

[2] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 82 Scribd version.

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6 thoughts on “Against Infant Baptism, Me and Uncle Barth: W. Travis McMaken on Eberhard Jüngel’s Explication of Barth and Baptism

  1. Have you read other books in the Emerging Scholars series and would you recommend them? PhD theses are like armpits, everyone’s got them and most of them stink.

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  2. My own view is that neither baptism nor the lack of baptism matters. What counts is faith expressing itself through love.

    I agree with TFT that Christ has done everything for us already. I’m more on the infant baptism side of the spectrum.

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  3. Oh, I think baptism is a serious matter before the Lord and that we ought to follow from Jesus in the obedience of His baptism. I also don’t think this is a relative thing; scripture requires that we have a conviction on this one way or the other.

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  4. But isn’t the major theme of this book, The Sign of the Gospel, finding a place in Barth’s theology for infant baptism, not as a necessity, but alongside credo-baptism as an equally legitimate “sign of the gospel”, depending on the circumstances and context the Church finds itself in? Doesn’t McMaken think that, in the framework of Barth’s theology, Christians may, in different times and places, legitimately practice either form of baptism?

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