The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth – W. Travis McMaken

Let it be know up front, if you have come to this blog hoping to discover what the “W” in W. Travis McMaken’s name is, you have come to the wrong place. For whereas this book proved to be informative and challenging in many ways, it left the reader to wonder “what about that W?!”.  I can only imagine I have lost half of my readers at this point, the mystery remains, but for those of you left I would like to write a quick review of this book; which, spoiler alert- was very good.

I am not a neutral spectator on the issue of infant baptism, I myself was baptized as an infant into the Catholic church, and both of my daughters have been baptized as infants into the Nazarene church, infant baptism is a practice I support and encourage. That being said, I am also a fan of Karl Barth, I am slowly working my way through his Church Dogmatics, and have read scores of authors influenced by Barth or directly responding to Barth (Some of those texts I have read recently include Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Reoccupation by D. Stephen Long, and The Witness of God by John G. Flett, both challenging and illuminating texts that have increased my desire to dive into Barth further).

My support for infant baptism and my appreciation of Barth has had its issues. To my dismay Karl Barth takes a rather intense stand against infant baptism going as far as to say

To all concerned: to theologians, for unfortunately even theology has not yet realised by a long way that infant baptism is an ancient ecclesiastical error; to Christian congregations and their pastors; to Church leaders, presbyterial, synodal or episcopal; to all individual Christians , however simple, let it be said that they should see to it whether they can and will continue to bear responsibility for what has become the dominant baptismal practice, whether they might not and must not dare to face up to the wound from which the Church suffers at this genuinely vital point with its many-sided implications…

Long, D. Stephen (2014-02-01). Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Kindle Locations 5776-5784). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Long is quoting Karl Barth from Church Dogmatics 4.4.

An ancient ecclesiastical error?! That stance seemed so Ant-Barthian to me, what of this man of Revelation, so powerfully speaking God’s role into our lives?!

Insert W. Travis McMaken’s work, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. This book had me hooked by title alone; it appeared to be a text that would support my frustration with Barth and give me scholarly clout to back it up. I had all kinds of ideas for what I wanted this book to be. To my surprise and delight, it turned out to be none of these things.

Rather than summarily dismissing Barth’s stance on infant baptism as I was hoping McMaken would do, he decided to take seriously Barth’s stance and theological objections to the practice. McMaken explores Barth’s “No” to sacramental infant baptism, and Barth’s “No” to covenantal infant baptism, placing them in context and showing their consistency with Barth’s Soteriology and views on covenant. Where I hoped Barth’s stance was nothing more than an odd opinion, he held at the end of his life; that hope was quickly dismissed by McMaken as he quoted Eberhard Jungel’s insight on the matter:

“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.” [149]

McMaken, W. Travis (2013-08-01). The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Emerging Scholars) (Kindle Locations 919-922). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

I wanted Jungel to be wrong, and in fact I contacted McMaken on twitter after reading that quote early in his book hoping he would laugh it off as a fault of Jungel’s. Instead, that insight seemed to help shape the book as McMaken explores Barth’s stance as just that, a test-case.

Included in McMaken’s work are a few excursuses (I looked up the plural of excursus on Google, Word Hippo may have led me astray) that engage Scriptural texts and Barth’s interpretation of them. These excursuses are fascinating and challenging as they started to make clear to me my desire to outright dismiss Barth’s stance may indeed be foolheaded. I found myself explicitly convicted of this when I read the following quote towards the end of McMaken’s second excursus.

But those who dismiss Barth’s position on the assumption that his exegesis is less than convincing have not yet grasped this nettle. Their cavalier dismissal of Barth on this point says more about their own theological presuppositions , which they bring to the biblical passages in question, than it does about the quality of Barth’s exegesis or the exegetical support for his doctrine.

McMaken, W. Travis (2013-08-01). The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Emerging Scholars) (Kindle Locations 2050-2052). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Now a fascinating testimony to the quality of this work is that whereas this book was nowhere near what I expected it to be; I could hardly put it down. The book was great. McMaken has a familiarity with Barth that I can’t help but envy. His research and in depth scholarship shine throughout the text, and ultimately he prods the reader on with a well written book that pushes beyond Barth’s conclusions only after faithfully placing the reader into the context in which Barth formed his stance.

If this book was what I hoped it would be; a dismissal of Barth’s stance on infant baptism and an apologetic for the practice, than the church wouldn’t benefit from the very sound critiques that Barth brings to our practice of baptism. McMaken allows the critiques of Barth to shape a more robust and more faithful theology of infant baptism that places it into “a lifetime of catechesis about which the church must be intentional” (Ibid, 268).

I don’t want to spoil the text and flesh out all of the suggestions McMaken posits, but I do want to highly recommend this book as a helpful and challenging resource on the very important topic of infant baptism.