Barth and Baptism

Barth and Baptism April 30, 2014

Barth famously condemned infant baptism as a wound in the body of Christ, and that resounding Nein has been taken as a natural application of Barth’s theology as a whole. Some have seen it as a stark choice: Barth or infant baptism.

W. Travis McMaken thinks there’s more to say, and in his revised doctoral dissertation, The Sign of the Gospel, he attempts to build a defense of infant baptism using Barthian materials and technology.

In the first several chapters, McMaken provides a detailed analysis of Barth’s rejection of what he calls the “sacramental” and “covenant” defenses of infant baptism. In contrast to the notion that the salvation accomplished by Christ has to be sacramentally applied to individuals, Barth insists that Christ has accomplished reconciliation fully and effectively with complete objectivity. Because in Barth election overwhelms covenant, the traditional Reformed covenant defense of infant baptism also falls by the wayside.

More fundamentally, Barth thinks that infant baptism violates the very meaning of baptism. Baptism is the faithful response to Spirit baptism, which awakens to faith. Infant baptism cannot be the foundation of the Christian life because the foundation of the Christian life has to be an act of public obedience to God. McMaken cites Mark Husbands’s conclusion that for Barth “moral responsibility” is the key question, and infant baptism precludes “the possibility of coming to baptism as an obedient and grateful response to divine grace” (207).

By expounding infant baptism under the category of “witness,” McMaken is able to use Barth’s mature theology in defense of infant baptism: “baptism is best understood as a mode of gospel proclamation whereby the church discharges its missionary task.” In this setting baptism becomes an epicletic act that the church administers “in confident and expectant hope that its prayer for the baptizand’s Spirit baptism will be fulfilled, even though the church cannot say how or when that fulfillment will occur.” this is a theology “open to infant baptism” (273-4). 

McMaken’s is a heroic effort, and as an exercise in Barthian theology it is successful. But he hamstrings his account of infant baptism by accepting the terrain that Barth lays out. He notes, for instance, Barth’s objections to “sacerdotalism” that considers water baptism to be an automatic and mechanical administration of grace. McMaken agrees: “The church’s administration of water baptism is in no way an administration of grace, except when and insofar as Jesus Christ grants the church’s baptismal witness a share in his own self-witness within the community of action” (269). 

But that statement assumes a questionable understanding of grace. It doesn’t take account of the fact that water baptism in the name of the Triune God is itself a grace, an unmerited gift from Jesus Christ, a marking-out of the baptized as one named by God. Many forms of sacerdotalism assume the same dualism of Spirit- and water-baptism as Barth’s anti-sacerdotalism, and a healthy defense of infant baptism depends on a foundational renunciation of the dualism. You can cobble together a defense of infant baptism on this dualism – it’s been done for centuries. But it’s unstable, and there are better ways to go.

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