For a Believer’s Baptism: Against the Sacramentalized Infant Baptism of Augustine

Augustine took infant baptism to a level it hadn’t been theretofore prior to his development of a doctrine of original sin contra Pelagius’ theology. My friend (who I had a falling out with some years ago), W. Travis McMaken, offers a nice sketch of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and its necessary remedy through the Church’s sacraments, particularly through infant baptism. Travis writes the following in his published dissertation entitled: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. For Augustine, 

Original sin brings with it the state of guilt because sin dwelling in our flesh ensures that the fruit of such a tainted sexual union is likewise tainted. This taint is not mere inclination toward sin but the actual condition of sin insofar as one is born with “disobedience of the flesh.” So Augustine, speaking of newborn infants: “the sinful flesh of those through whom they are born gives them a guilt which they have not yet contracted in their own life.” 

Thusly did Augustine joint original guilt to original sin by means of infant baptism. Infants are baptized, and this must be done for a reason. The only intelligible reason is that they are in need of the forgiveness from sin that baptism brings. But since infants have not yet committed any sins of volition, we must look elsewhere for the source of their guilt. This source is found in their birth and in the network of sexual reproduction that stretches from each person back to Adam and Eve. Given such an account of sin, Augustine was able to advance against the Pelagians a robust account of grace and predestination as that which rescues an individual from their hopelessly guilty state.  

Infant baptism was practiced in extremis in the early Christian centuries, but it was always something of a practice in search of a theology. By pressing into service in his dispute with the Pelagians, Augustine “provided the theology that led to infant baptism becoming general practice for the first time in the history of the church.” This was not his intent. In fact, he argued that it was already the church’s general practice, and had been since the time of the apostles. Other sources considered above belie this claim. Further, the logic of his argument moved away from the practice of infant baptism and toward the establishment of his doctrine of original sin and guilt. However, once “original sin was established as the basic framework for thinking, then it was natural for it to become the principal reason for infant baptism.” This resulted in infant baptism quickly becoming established as standard practice—and, indeed, the definitive form of baptism—rather than an in extremis concession. As Karen Spierling notes, “infant baptism was an established practice of the Christian church” within one hundred years of Augustine’s dispute with the Pelagians. 

In this way, Augustine provided Christian theology with the first of its two great arguments in support of infant baptism, namely, the sacramental argument: all humans are sinners in need of salvation, and the sacraments in general and baptism in particular are the appointed means for removing sin and securing salvation, therefore infants ought to receive baptism lest they die in their sins. This argument, and Barth’s rejection of it, is the subject of further consideration in chapter two.1 

In McMaken’s purview Augustine represents the paragon of a developed sacramental doctrine of infant baptism vis-a-vis original sin. Travis is not alone, and stands on the shoulders of others in this unremarkable understanding in regard to Augustine as the sacramental theologian par excellence. 

My own view, as a Baptist, follows Barth’s, and the New Testament’s teaching which entails a credobaptism (or believer’s baptism). Indeed, prior to Augustine’s development, believer’s baptism was the preferred method for baptism; particularly as people paid attention to the teaching of the NT, and the Apostolic practice. It wasn’t until later, like Augustine and following, wherein infant or paedobaptism took on an ecclesial life of its own. As McMaken will turn to next (in his section on a survey of the development of a doctrinal baptism), he identifies the Reformed ‘covenantal’ rationale for infant baptism. While there is some discontinuous theological rationale within the Reformed development of a paedobaptism, there clearly is some continuous overlap between the so-called covenantal and sacramental arguments for an infant baptism.  

As someone who follows the Protestant Scripture Principal though, I am compelled to reject the theological reasons for an infant baptism, and solely affirm believer’s baptism. Because of my commitment to a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, as funded by Barth’s and Torrance’s doctrine of election, respectively, I can appropriate certain themes from both the earlier developed sacramental and covenantal forms of infant baptism, without committing myself to infant baptism simpliciter. These things represent a complex that we will not have time to disentangle in this post, but suffice it to say that if we see Jesus’ vicarious humanity as the speculum (mirror) of our election and justification in general, then it follows as corollary, that we can posit His baptism, both in the Jordan, and at Golgotha, as both sufficient and efficient for fulfilling the conditions that a baptism entails (canonically). What the Christian does, in the wake of His baptism for us, is bear witness to the always already finished work of Christ, as we participate in and from His life for us. Indeed, Christ meets both the objective and subjective sides of baptism for us, just as He meets those more generally as the Electing and Elected Godman for us. As we come to recognize what He has already accomplished for us, as we come into a spiritual union with Him, it is in and from this participation that following Him into the waters of baptism find their gravitas; indeed, as we stand where He first stood first for us, that we might now bear witness to His always already finished work of redemption all the way down.   


1 W. Travis McMakenThe Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), loc. 379, 386, 395. 

Responding Further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Critique that Evangelical Calvinism Fails: With Appeal to Karl Barth as an Accessory to Thomas Torrance.

It is time to respond a bit further to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s[1] critique of Evangelical Calvinism. Remember I wrote that post awhile ago letting you all know about the chapter length critique KJV offered of us in the edited book he was a contributor to entitled: Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians andPICKWICK_TemplateNew Testament Scholars; his particular chapter title is: The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism). If you do not remember the post I am referring to where I got into this then click here. For the remainder of this post I am going to respond to his most basic, and I think he thinks, damning critique of the whole Evangelical Calvinist project and premise (in regard to both Christology and its implicate soteriology).

KJV, and many others by the way, believes that the theo-logic of Evangelical Calvinism necessarily leads to some form of Christian Universalism, and if it doesn’t, KJV believes that there is a glaring incoherence. Here is what he writes:

Torrance does not want to say that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect.” However, what he does say, in agreement with John Cameron (1579–1625), is remarkably similar, namely, that Christ died “conditionally for all, absolutely for the elect.” The difference is important inasmuch as it describes two different ways of construing the plan of salvation, two different meanings of “the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The outstanding challenge for Evangelical Calvinists is to explain, from Scripture, how God elects all but not all are saved, for at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace. Specifically, does divine grace take the place of freedom, enable libertarian freedom, or secure freedom? As we have seen, human freedom is a libertarian link in the chain of Evangelical Calvinism’s ordo salutis, the weakest link that reintroduces the very contingency into the ordo that the notion of incarnational union was designed to eliminate.[2]

To clarify, initially, we don’t subscribe to an ordo salutis or order of salvation in the classical sense that KJV or ‘classical Calvinists’ in general would; I will have to explain that aspect of our approach some other time.[3] But even being able to highlight this helps illustrate what KJV’s critique is ultimately missing; i.e. it is missing the point that Evangelical Calvinism is not working from vanhoozereither the formal or material prolegomenon (theological methodology) nor theologoumena (learned theological opinions present within the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologian’s judgments) that impinges upon and shapes KJV’s own commitments. Does this mean that KJV, or others, cannot  attempt to make material critiques of our (Evangelical Calvinist’s) theological conclusions; that we have been hermetically sealed off from any heat or light that someone might want to apply to us and our theological theses? Nein! No!, it doesn’t mean that, and we are open to critique. But it is important, again, to clear ground (as I did in my first post in response to KJV) and let everyone know that if the ruler being used against us is only a twelve inch ruler and we start operating on the twenty-fourth inch then the measurement (critique) really does not even get started.

That notwithstanding, KJV’s critique does need to be responded to. This is the problem that I would say almost everyone has with Evangelical Calvinism; if indeed someone has a problem with it, it is this point. It is the question that KJV highlights in what I quoted from him: i.e. if God in Christ elects all of humanity for salvation in His election of humanity for Himself which is temporally realized and given concrete expression in the Incarnation; and if Jesus dies for all of humanity at the cross; and if Christ’s union with us in our humanity is more than declarative, juridical, or forensic, but it is also ontological, meaning the eternal Word, Jesus Christ assumes all that humanity is, at ontic depth, and redeems it from there; then how can it be said that some, even the many are doomed, damned, and not eternally “saved?” For someone like KJV, a classically Reformed/Calvinist, there is a logical-causal deterministic relationship between who Jesus dies for on the cross, and who ends up getting “saved” through union with Him; which is why for his system of thought it is so important to major on the idea that there are individually elect people who Jesus died for. So we can see what is informing the premise upon which KJV is attempting to critique the Evangelical Calvinist’s ontological theory of the atonement; if we followed his logic it looks like this: Jesus dies for you=you will be saved in an irresistible beyond a shadow of a doubt way (because you are elected to it). But you will notice further, that in KJV’s critique he also thinks that our only way out of this dilemma, since we indeed repudiate Christian universalism (e.g. eventually all people will be “saved” through Christ even post-mortem), is to fall back into some form of libertarian free agency, which would end up making us look something like an Arminian and consequently undercut the objective de jure reality for all of humanity that Christ ostensibly accomplished in His choice to elect humanity for Himself, and thus be for all Humanity resulting in the reconciliation of all things unto God (Col. 1:15ff).

But, not so fast! It is important to remember something, what we have identified as Evangelical Calvinism comes from a theological tradition; especially in regard to election and salvation. When Vanhoozer critiques Evangelical Calvinists at the point that he does, he also, of course is critiquing the one who has inspired the language of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas F. Torrance (which Vanhoozer clearly understands), but he is also critiquing the ‘founder’, as it were, of the tradition that Evangelical Calvinism largely works from: i.e. Karl Barth.

Thomas Torrance responds that something like Vanhoozer’s critique fails because he (TFT) is not bound to the metaphysics or logico-causal necessitarian deterministic mechanics that Vanhoozer is, and thus on those grounds alone Torrance would demur. But he would go further than that; he might say (my paraphrase): Indeed, all of humanity has been elected/assumed by the humanity of Jesus Christ, and thus He died for all, and all the conditions are present for all of humanity to be saved, but not all humanity in the end is saved; and all we can say is that this is a ‘surd’ that sin is inexplicable and a mystery, and this is why people reject what has been done for them in Christ—we cannot explain that. But we can explain why people say yes to their election and salvation in Jesus Christ, because of the Holy Spirit’s vivifying activity in people’s lives bringing them to repentance and salvation through the vicarious repentance and salvation accomplished for them in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So Torrance’s response turns on an asymmetrical response to Vanhoozer’s question: i.e. we have a positive answer for ‘why’ someone says yes to Christ, and a negative answer to ‘why’ someone else says no to Christ. But this is not satisfactory to Vanhoozer.

Beyond Torrance, though, we have Karl Barth, and Torrance gets much of his thinking on this particular point straight from Barth. As such, it is fitting to understand how Barth would respond to a similar critique of his view of election applied to soteriological questions and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual people.

Karl Barth has of course as many critics, if not more, than Thomas Torrance; some of those critics are more charitable in their critiques (as far as tone) than others. W. Travis McMaken (a friend of mine over the years through blogging) wrote his PhD dissertation on Barth and Baptism, and it has recently been published by Fortress Press; it is an excellent book! In his development of various ‘Barthian’ themes throughout the body of his book he engages with and develops how Barth has responded to similar critics of Torrance, especially in regard to human free agency and how that gets worked out in Barth’s view of election. As I have already noted, but to reiterate, Barth and Torrance are open to the same types of critiques. McMaken highlights three critics of Barth on election, soteriology, and human free agency; the same theological loci that Vanhoozer thinks is the Achilles heel in Torrance’s presentation. These three critics of Barth are Nate Kerr, Suzanne MacDonald, and Michael Horton. In a fundamental way these three critique Barth the same way Vanhoozer critiques Torrance. For them they wonder how it is that Barth can maintain the universal scope of election, atonement, and the offer of salvation for all and at the same time not fall into universalism and/or give way to some sort of libertarian free agency. Here is how McMaken (in an abridged form) responds to MacDonald and Horton (he responds more to Kerr just prior to what I am going to share from him here):

signofgospelThis raises the second aspect of the “twofold diminution in the Spirit’s role” that McDonald finds in Barth’s theology, namely, that Barth’s understanding of the Spirit as the one in whose power the individual awakens to faith implicitly reestablishes something like the traditional Reformed double-decree.

Given that the Spirit awakens some but not others, and given that Barth credits this awakening to divine power in the mode of the Holy Spirit, does it not follow that God has made some unknown decision about whom to awaken and whom to pass over? Of course, Barth wants to do no such thing. Part of his criticism of Calvin’s doctrine of election concerns how it functions to make sense of precisely that sort of question. For Barth’s money, however, basing one’s doctrine of election on “a datum of experience” such as this is “decidedly to be rejected” (CD II/2, 38;
KD II/2, 39–40). All this does play into Barth’s reticence in affirming universal salvation, however. He honors this observation, but locates its meaning not in any lack of divine action but in a persisting disobedience on the human side—and this persistence is not to be taken lightly. But Barth insists in the very next paragraph that the possibility of universal salvation should not be renounced (see CD IV/3, 477–78; KD IV/3, 549–51).

Some believe that Barth’s refusal to simply affirm universalism as the logical consequence of his doctrine of election ultimately smuggles a deus absconditus back into Barth’s theology. For instance, consider the following comment from Michael Horton, who asserts that Barth’s holding back from universalism “presents . . . [the] ominous threat of a breach between the hidden and revealed God. Barth holds that, despite one’s being chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified, it is at least possible that one may not at last be glorified but will be reprobate after all.”

Horton incorrectly implies that Barth is reticent about the eternal condition of those who have awakened to faith. In truth, Barth is more interested in a fundamental optimism about those who have not yet awakened. But the logic of Horton’s argument deserves fuller treatment: (1) Barth argues that all are elect in Jesus Christ, (2) some people seem to have faith while others seem not to, (3) those who seem to have faith only have it—if they do—because the Holy Spirit awakened them to it, (4) this means that those who seem not to have faith—if they do not—lack it because the Holy Spirit has not awakened them, (5) such selective pneumatological deployment must depend on a divine decision concerning whom to awaken and whom not to, (6) this decision must be independent of election in Jesus Christ, or else all would be awakened, and (7) ergo, a rather traditional Reformed predestinarianism lies hidden in Barth’s theology.

This criticism is misguided, however. Barth’s intention is not to introduce a gap between humanity’s election in Christ and the eternal condition of individuals; rather, it is to recognize humanity’s eschatological location. As those baptized by the Spirit and living under the second form of the parousia, we do not yet know what the parousia’s third form will be.

We cannot explain why it is that some people, and even the vast majority of people, seem not (yet?) to have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Some things we do know, however: we know what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, we know of our election—and of all humanity’s election—in him, and we know that election includes not only our own but also their baptism by the Spirit. In other words, we know that the eschatological consummation will be the consummation of Jesus Christ, of his history. All this we know and confess by faith, without understanding how God will close the gap between what we see and what we believe. To attempt closure of this gap ourselves would be to cease treating Jesus Christ as a living and active agent, and to transform him into a principle.

We can only live as those who confess by faith that Spirit baptism is always already on the way to each and every human being and, perhaps even more strikingly, that this renewal is likewise always already on the way to us. Consequently, and as Hunsinger puts it, “we will not abandon hope for anyone, not even for ourselves.”[4]

I am certain that this will also and equally be just as dissatisfying of a response to Vanhoozer as is Torrance’s. Especially given the universalistic tone of Barth’s (according to McMaken) trajectory. The thing is, the Apostle Paul has a universalistic tone throughout his epistolary corpus; and Paul only gets really particular when he qualifies that type of discussion of his with “in Christ.”


We have run way too long for a blog past, in fact the word count on this almost makes this 3x longer than an acceptably lengthed blog post of a thousand words.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer believes that us Evangelical Calvinists have misread the Apostle Paul and Calvin, he writes, “It is not self-evident that Evangelical Calvinists have understood either Paul or Calvin, or that they have done a better job at explaining the relationship between election, incarnation, and redemption than their Calvinist forbearers.”[5] You will have to read his whole argument at some point to see if this statement is a bit triumphalistic or not. But maybe we are not necessarily trying to out-narrate our “Calvinist forebearers,” maybe we are attempting to identify a parallel possibility and reading of things, from within the Reformed tradition, of the Apostle Paul and Calvin that is resourceful, constructive, and faithful to the implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself.

Hopefully at the very least what this exercise has done, appealing to McMaken’s Barth as I have, will throw KJV’s critique of us Evangelical Calvinists and Thomas Torrance into some critical relief. That there is a way to respond to the charges made by those who I call “classical Calvinists,” and that the theological well provided for by the Gospel is deeper than the Hellenists could have ever imagined. When we abandon modes of theological methodology that require us to fit the Gospel into predetermined a priori philosophically derived categories (like those that Vanhoozer’s tradition work from) we have the freedom to stand in front of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and say at points: ‘I don’t know.’ This does not usually sit well with the theological types, but we should be excited to realize that even when we come to a point where we must say ‘I don’t know because the Bible hasn’t told me so … and neither has the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ’, like Torrance and Barth do, particularly on this issue, that it is still possible to have over six hundred published works on theological issues as Torrance accomplished in his life, or to have written six million words on Jesus, as Barth did in his Church Dogmatics, and still satisfy the longing that every theologian has which is: to know God in Jesus Christ. Take heart!

[1] KJV hereafter, or if you prefer Textus Receptus. 😉

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism) in Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer eds., Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars (Germany, Tubignen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 33 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].

[3] At most it could be said that Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a via historia (way of history relative to salvation’s unfolding and temporal expression).

[4] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 357 Scribd version.

[5] KJV, 34 [pagination does not correlate to published volume].