The Freedom of the Christian as a Contravention of Paedobaptism and the Church’s Tradition

I am stuck on a baptism tip at the moment; reading a gargantuan book on it by Everett Ferguson. I have taken no small amount of push back on Facebook and Twitter in regard to my position on baptism; if you missed that I am credobaptist (indeed, I am quite baptistic in orientation — at least when it comes to this locus). Famously, well in the right circles, Karl Barth also maintained a credobaptist position; but my other favorite, Thomas Torrance, didn’t. Torrance was critical of Barth on this point, and believed it was a rationalist thread left-over in Barth’s thinking; but I don’t agree with Torrance. I think Barth was attempting to allow Scripture to chasten his theo-logic, and thus wasn’t willing to submit to the type of hermeneutic that has given rise to infant or paedobaptism. At certain important points it is noteworthy that TF Torrance operated under a more decisively ecclesiocentric hermeneutic, whilst Barth functioned with a radically Christo-centric one. Interestingly, many of Barth’s students are paedobaptist; indeed, many of them are Presbyterian. But I am baptistic, and go with Barth’s understanding of baptism. When I refer to credobaptism, I am not referring to ‘adult-baptism’ only. No, credo-baptism includes anyone, of any age who confesses Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But I wanted to provide a greater context for the way we think about the Church; and the way I think we ought to. As I noted above, ecclesiology plays a large role in the way that people arrive at either paedo or credo baptism. Some of us are committed to more episcopalian church understandings, with its hierarchy of authority in place. Others of us operate in the Free Church tradition; we might see this as a modified expression of what took place in the so called Radical Reformation (the Anabaptists come to mind). I would suggest that while Barth is Reformed in orientation, his understanding of the Church fits best with the Free mode of operation; a mode that eschews ecclesial authority in favor of a Christ-centric authority that is constantly breaking in upon the Christian Church, such that she is free to think freely juxtaposed with the Church’s tradition. In other words, the Free Church tradition has the capacity to think as if God speaks over against, and often in concert with Church tradition. But it is this over-againstness that hierarchical theories of Church government have a harder time contravening. In this tradition it is seemingly harder to not see the Church herself, through all of her accretions of traditions, as authoritative; even, and especially when it comes to the teaching of Holy Scripture.

We should not think that Barth himself balked at the significance and placement of Christ’s Church as a highly and significant place wherein God still speaks. But it is this that is most important; i.e. that God still speaks, and thus the Church and her traditions can be contradicted, or augmented with constructive new realities about God becoming known in the Church’s wrestlings with Him as He speaks to her. What we will see in the following, from Barth, is how he nuances his appreciation of the Church of Christ, while at the same time underscoring how he sees her situated vis-à-vis the Christ. I want to share this, and then use this sort of paradigm as a marginalizing-tool in regard to the authority that Church tradition ostensibly has in regard to the interpretation of Scripture’s teaching. Barth writes:

In New Testament passages like Rom. 12.4f; 1 Cor. 10.16f, 12.12f; Col. 1.18.24; Eph. 1.22f, 4.12, 5.23 29f, etc., the Church is described as the body of Christ. One meaning of this description is undoubtedly this: that the existence of the Church involves a repetition of the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ in that area of the rest of humanity which is distinct from the person of Jesus Christ. The repetition is quite heterogeneous. Yet for all its heterogeneity it is homogeneous too (although the uniqueness of the objective revelation forbids us to call it a continuation, prolongation, extension of the like). The fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Him “bodily” (Col. 2.9). In Him God immediately (but also, of course, externally and visibly) delimited, touched and determined human history. In this particular history one man or person (for that is at least one meaning of body) delimited, touched and determined another and all others, so that now they are no longer what they are without this One who delimits them. And all this is proved to be real in the history of the Church, in the historical, the externally and visibly actual form of the totality of those who are delimited, touched and determined by Him as the Son of God. The co-eternal Word of God built in the womb of the virgin His house, a human body, and joined to it the church, as members to a head (Augustine, De civ. Dei XVII, 20, 2). “He was by his sufferings buried in the earth and, like a root unset, hidden in the world, and there grew from it that fair tree, the Christian Church, outspread over all the world” (Luther, Pred. üb. Röm. 15, 4 f., Adu. Post., 1522, W.A. 10.12, 91, 10). “He will not be content that the story occurred and he fulfilled it for his person, but he mingleth it with us and maketh thereof a brotherhood, that he might be a common good and heirship for us all; he setteth it not in a absolute context, but [in] a context of relation, to say that he hath done so not for his own person or sake, but as our brother and for our sole good; and we will not be otherwise regarded  and known of us, save as he who with all this is ours and we in turn his and so we belong together most intimately, so that we cannot be more closely tied, like those who alike have one father and are set in the like common and undivided inheritance and can assume, glory and take comfort in all his power, glory and goodness as in our own” (Pred. üb. Mc. 16.1f; E.A. 11, 208).[1]

An interesting take on the Church, and its significance vis-à-vis the persons who make up the Church as that is given reality in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I think the point that stands out to me most is Barth’s point about what he identifies as relationis (‘context of relation’). This fits well with the notion that the Free Church operates with, in regard to its ability to emphasize the sort of I/Thou-Thou/I relationship that the Christian can operate within insofar as that space has been made for them before God in Christ’s vicarious humanity. The emphasis of this sort of ‘personhood’, of the sort grounded in the history and reality of the Christ’s humanity, allows the Christian, in this milieu, to operate under the condition that God has spoken and continuously speaks, afresh and anew, such that the Christian can live as if they can really hear their Lord speak to them; both individually, and as the Church. But in this context the Church does not have the authority to speak, but only bear witness to the living voice of God that speaks over and again to His Church; and to those who make up His Church as that is grounded in Jesus Christ, and the esse of God’s Triune Life.

So, how does any of this apply to a doctrine like Christian baptism? I don’t know (LOL). No, maybe you’re picking up what I’ve been laying down, a bit. I am trying to create space wherein the Christian is able to approach the Church’s tradition and the Bible’s teaching as if the the latter has priority over the former; and the former only has reality as it corresponds to the latter. I am trying to suggest that the Christian has a conditioned freedom as they hear from God, afresh and anew; and that within this context the Church’s tradition is understood, as it ought to be, in its eschatological reality. I am trying to push forward the idea that the Church’s tradition, and often, the natural theology that funds it, is open to the interrogation of God’s voice as that comes afresh and anew to the Christian in the attestation of Scripture’s disclosure.

I must think, then, that paedobaptism is a development that has taken place in the Church’s tradition. As such, it is open to the interrogative voice of God as that is given to the people who find their reality in His reality in Christ. As such, paedobaptism, at the very least, is open to the critique of Scripture’s teaching insofar that that teaching finds its reality in Christ; a Christ not bound by the Church’s tradition, but by His own Free reality as God for us.

In sum what I am attempting to note is rather simple, really: Viz. 1) That paedobaptism is an innovation of Church tradition; 2) that Church tradition, for the Protestant, is subordinate to Scripture’s teaching; 3) that Scripture’s teaching has a freedom given to it as it is located in God’s voice for His people; 4) Therefore, at the least, credobaptism, as an prima facie teaching of Scripture ought to be given due recognition, even among adherents to paedobaptism. All of this because Christians have a relationship with God, through union with Christ, that allows them to hear His voice afresh and anew; a voice that has the capacity to contradict the traditions of the Church. Now, could my thinking be flipped-on its head? Maybe credobaptism is a development of the Church’s tradition, and not the prima facie teaching of Scripture that I have suggested it is. But the history of interpretation doesn’t actually bear this out. What we find is that infant-baptism is indeed a development of the post-Apostolic tradition. And paedobaptists would want to insist, I’d think, that credobaptism, in fact, is not a development of the Church catholic’s tradition; primarily because the paedobaptist gives the Church’s tradition a privileged place vis-à-vis their interpretation of Scripture’s teaching.

Remember: I’m thinking all of this on the fly. I’m thinking out-loud. I recognize there might be some holes here and there. But in general I think the thesis built into my thinking has something to it.

[1]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 §16, 13-4 [italics mine, they are the translations of the various Greekisms and Latinisms Barth has in his text].


Some Probing Thoughts on My Constructive Position on CredoBaptism as that is Funded by the Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ

I am baptistic in orientation. I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor. I have shed many distinctives that Baptist doctrine is comprised of, but one doctrine I haven’t shed is the Baptist understanding of Baptism; some would call it Zwinglian, or the memorial position. What I affirm can also be identified as credobaptism; in other words, my position is that a person who is baptized in water must first be a believer in Jesus Christ. I see baptism as a witness to the church and the world that a person has confessed faith in Christ, by the faith of Christ. As a constructive innovation on my position, or we might say, as a ‘dogmatic’ turn, I also maintain that the reality of baptism is first grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. I take Christ’s baptism for us to be decisive, indeed the baptism that sets Christ himself a part for us unto God; indeed in the perfect tense. As such, it is as we are brought into union with Christ’s humanity, by the Holy Spirit, that we partake in the sanctified humanity, the initiate humanity of the risen Christ wherein baptism comes to make sense. As a result, I see baptism as a signum (sign) of God’s reality (res) for us in Christ. As such I see the faith of Christ as the ground upon which baptism makes ultimate sense, in regard to its relationship to justification before God. In this way I can see baptism in a riffed way on the Calvinian motif of what he calls duplex gratia (double grace); I say riffed because I am taking that holistic way of thinking, in regard to salvation, and applying that to what takes place in the baptism of Christ. It is because Christ first trusted the Father for us that we might trust in God. It is in this Spirit moved trust that we see the Son lovingly condescend and assume humanity with the purpose of dying, being buried, and rising again as the new creature of God that we might, in and through union with His humanity, also partake in the new creation that God has destined us for in His pre-destination to not be God without us, but with us. It is in this frame that I see baptism making sense as a ‘sign’ to the world that we have become participants in the Divine nature through the new life we have entered into through the baptized humanity of Jesus Christ.

As a result of my position on baptism I see it grounded in a reality that has objective or ‘carnal’ reality whether we affirm it or not. This is, again, is why I see baptism primarily as a locus that has to do with witness-bearing to the world that God in Christ is for us and not against us. It bears witness to the reality of what Christ has accomplished for us as a work that only God good undertake in our stead as He entered into our status that we might enter His through the risen humanity of Jesus Christ. In this frame baptism is not grounded in the ‘believer’ per se, but in the One who believes for us; in Jesus Christ. So, there is a de jure and ontological character to baptism that is not contingent upon my belief, per se. But it is as I come to a spiritual union with Christ, as that is actuated by the Spirit in and from the faith of Christ that I as a believer come to the point that my confession, grounded in Christ’s, is attested to by entering into the waters of baptism that Christ alone entered first for me. It is in this action that the new creaturely reality I have already entered into, first because Christ entered into it for me in his vicarious humanity that becomes formally acknowledged as my purposeful confession of and for Christ; as that has been realized and fully realized in the reality of Christ’s baptism for us.

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.