Quick Book Review: The Sign of the Gospel

signofthegospelTitle: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth

Author: W. Travis McMaken

Bibliographic info: 352 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy

This volume is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2011. McMaken is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University.

In a nutshell, the author’s thesis is that Barth’s doctrine of baptism–and specifically, his rejection of infant baptism–has not received a fair hearing.” Furthermore, while “Barth himself rejected infant baptism, I argue that such a rejection is not necessary on the basis of his mature theology’s broader commitments.” McMaken contends that if one sees infant baptism as a “nonverbal form of the church’s gospel proclamation”, then infant baptism is also compatible with Barth’s mature theology and not necessarily a departure from it.

Apart from the standard introductory and concluding chapters, the book’s makeup consists of these chapters:

  • Baptism and Infant Baptism from the New Testament Through Barth
  • Election, Soteriology, and Barth’s “No” to Sacramental Infant Baptism
  • Election, Circumcision, and Barth’s “No” to Covenantal Infant Baptism
  • Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism, “The Foundation of the Christian Life”
  • “The Sign of the Gospel” – Toward a Post-Barthian Doctrine of Infant Baptism

For the first few chapters, McMaken discusses Barth’s rejection of arguments for infant baptism (the “sacramental” and “covenant” views). It was quite interesting to see why Barth objected to infant baptism, a couple of the reasons being that it could all too easily lead to a systematic across-the-board baptizing of infants, and that if infants are allowed to be baptized then one could make the case that they should be allowed to participate in communion too. And then there is the issue of it opening up the door too much for sacramentalism and sacerdotalism. In the end, for Barth, baptism is a response to the Spirit and an action of public obedience to the gospel.

In the final chapter, McMaken constructs a baptismal doctrine that allows infant baptism, yet is still in sync with Barth’s theology. This view is not sacramental nor covenantal, but is instead a post-Barthian understanding. In this understanding, infant baptism does not have to be employed by the church but can legitimately be utilized as a “a mode of gospel proclamation whereby the church discharges its missionary task.” This is, of course, a preliminary and non-definitive attempt by McMaken at devising such a post-Barthian understanding and will hopefully ignite some ecumenical discussion on infant baptism and be taken further (and, of course, the meaningfulness of this proposal depends in part upon how the degree to which one agrees with a Barthian understanding of soteriology).

While I enjoy reading books on Barth, I am not that well-versed with Barth’s actual writings, so I cannot really offer a comment on whether I think McMaken’s work truly is faithful to Barth’s thought. However, I will say that it is well-written and tightly argued. The historical survey was top notch and ably shows how various concepts (e.g. sacraments and soteriology) have developed throughout church history. Despite the narrow focus of this volume, it is actually quite an illuminating look at Barth’s theology. If you’re interested in Barth, ecumenical thought, or just baptismal doctrine, then I heartily recommend this book.

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