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Book Review: The Sign of the Gospel

Book Review: The Sign of the Gospel

Author: W. Travis McMaken

Publisher: Fortress Press

Reading Level: Very High

Pages: 441 (eBook)

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 onseself.” (65)

The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth is a revised version of the doctoral thesis of W. Travis McMaken. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary he is now an Assistant Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University. In this work McMaken address one of the most controversial elements of Karl Barth’s “Reformed” theology: his denial of infant baptism. In The Sign of the Gospel, McMaken explicates Barth devastating criticism against historical arguments for the baptism of infant and concludes by offering a post-Barthian view for the future practice of paedobaptism.

The Communication

The Sign of the Gospel reads like a thesis. Though the book does not incorporate as many of the philosophical elements of Barth’s theology (chapter four’s discussion of causality being a possible exception), it does include a large scope of church theology and necessary theological language. Those studied in theology will not experience any problem with the individuals and concepts that make up the first half of the book.

Those familiar with Barth’s theology this will be even less of a problem. Barth’s doctrine of election plays a crucial part throughout The Sign of the Gospel. McMaken does an outstanding job of boiling down the fullness of Barth’s doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine remains laid out solely as a building block for Barth’s views on baptism and its explanation is best suited for a scholarly monograph. The overall level of communication in this book is not kind to the average laymen seeking to understand Barth’s theology on paedobaptism. Laymen seeking to learn and willing to read slowly will find a wealth of connected ideas to understand Barth.

The communication of The Sign of the Gospel will be most profitable to students of Barth and the theologically astute. Though baptism itself is a doctrine for the church, these materials discussing baptism are for the most part outside of the realm of the average laymen.

The Content

The Sign of the Gospel is presented in five chapters. The first chapter is an orientation towards the historical doctrine of infant baptism. The second and third chapters contain Barth’s “nein!” to the pre-Reformation soteriological model of infant baptism and the covenant model made popular during the Reformation. Chapter four consists of McMaken explicating the positive elements of Barth’s doctrine on baptism and its prominent role in the Christian life. Finally, chapter fives contains McMaken’s re-worked doctrine of baptism drawn from the broader theological teaching of Karl Barth with a focus on gospel proclamation.

The opening chapter, titled “Baptism and Infant Baptism from the New Testament through Barth,” introduces a general history on the doctrine of infant baptism as it pertains to the theology of Barth. Starting with the explicit absence of infant baptism in the New Testament and lack of consensus about the practice (Orgien’s assertions excluded), it is Cyril of Alexandria (circa 350 CE) who first lays out a theology of baptism upon which to build. Cyril is the first theologian mentioned in preparation of Barth’s theology understandably since Cyril’s baptism is both entry into the Christian life and a high liturgy event (22-23). Building upon Cyril, Tertullian is mentioned as being against infant baptism out of fear it “will later be rejected” (24). In the same homily, Tertullian presents alongside his case against infant baptism an argument against any single individual being married. It is clear that early in the church, the soteriological argument did often lead to a pushing back of baptism. Augustine’s life and experience of baptism was no different.  In The Sign of the Gospel, Augustine is the next theologian of note promoting. Utilizing the soteriological argument for baptism, Augustine worked theology of both Original Sin and infant baptism deeply into the church.  With Augustine’s strong arguments for original sin baptism and infant baptism were set as mediatorial act of initial salvation and grace (29-31).

Augustine’s view is the prevailing view of the church until the time of the Reformation. With Luther providing marginal doctrinal improvements, John Calvin and the tension of his covenantal argument become the next major milestones in the doctrine of infant baptism. Moving away form the direct mediation of Augustine and the medieval theology, Calvin introduced a form of secondary meditation that placed the efficacy of baptism on faith while arguing for the validity on the basis of the Biblical covenants (33-36). Like the post-enlightenment theologians before him (e.g. Schleiermacher), Karl Barth eventually found this tension unsatisfying. In typical Barth fashion, his doctrine election provided the basis to unravel both historical arguments for infant baptism.

The second chapter contains Barth’s response to the soteriological argument for baptism. Leaning heavily on the writing of Thomas Aquinas, McMaken describes the common attributes of medieval soteriology in the sacraments (97-101). Of primary importance to the theology of Barth is that the sacraments deliver something of salvation directly to the recipients of the sacraments. This formula is only marginally changed by the Reformers who insert faith as the primary cause and hence the sacrament as a secondary means (102-107). McMaken profitably notes that Markus Barth (Karl’s son) contended that Roman Catholic and Reformation theology was “relative as opposed to irreconcilable” in this regard. And it was against both of these that Barth’s views on election proclaim a loud “nein.”


In Barth’s doctrine of election, Jesus Christ is the one both elected for redemption and reprobation. All of humanity is found in Jesus Christ on the cross. This means that what Christ did for mankind already in fact belongs to mankind (112-114). This objective soteriological element to Barth’s view of election removes any possibility of the sacraments communicate salvation. In fact they remove the sacraments from being sacraments! For Barth only Jesus Christ can be a sacrament (108; CD IV/2, 55). McMaken’s presentation is accurate and powerful. However, Barth’s doctrine of revelation is lacking from this discussion. Jesus Christ is God revealed. And Barth himself spoke “that revelation means sacrament” (CD II/I, 52). Far from being a criticism, this simply points to an avenue of study building off of McMaken’s work.


As well as Barth’s “nein” is described, the hermeneutical excursion that concludes the chapter is lacking. McMaken proceeds through New Testament passages that are often associated with sacramental theology (John 3:3-6, Romans 6:1-7 and 1 Peter 3:21) with a purpose to show that these texts can be seen from a non-sacramental view. This excursion is to refute the idea that Barth lacked the exegesis to support his rejection of the sacramental view (123-124). However, this excursion contains little Barth and incorporates many theologians who share none of Barth’s theological foundations. The hermeneutics provided do show that Barth’s arguments could be defended Biblically but without actual insights from Barth the section doesn’t build off him as strong as others portions of the book.

In the third chapter the covenantal argument for infant baptism is addressed. Much like with the soteriological argument, Barth’s doctrine on the election of Jesus Christ plays a crucial part. However, unlike the previous chapter it is now when Jesus Christ is elected that becomes significant to the relationship between election and covenants. McMaken utilizes the covenant theology of Francis Turretin to demonstrate the type of thinking that Barth responded against (160-168).  For Barth, Turretin’s infralapsarian position (the view that God logically decreed redemption and reprobation after decreeing creation and the fall of mankind) places God’s covenants as the goal of history while mitigating God’s election to mere means utilized (166-167). The results of Turretin’s view are that God’s covenant became the goal and purpose of all Biblical election both in the Old Testament and New Testament. Provided this is true, the symbolism between circumcision and baptism would stand as the Reformed tradition had taught. But in Barth’s doctrine of election, the Jesus Christ is decreed to be the redeemed and reprobate man. Barth’s response was his push for a “purified supralapsarianism” (175). Barth instead sets “the election of Jesus Christ …at the head of all other decrees” (176).

As a practical result of Barth’s perspective, the covenant communities in the Old Testament and New Testament have more discontinuity. Israel is the community that “resists its elections” and the church is the community “on the basis of its election and that believes” (179). In Barth these two communities are sufficiently distinct from each other to alter the relationship of the signs of circumcision and baptism. As mentioned above Barth’s doctrine is applied directly against the infralapsarian view of Turretin. As a minor point of criticism, the traditional supralapsarianism of the Reformers does not get addressed as sufficiently as is required. One is left questioning if Barth’s views on election would provide the same substantial arguments against the covenant theology of a traditional supralapsarian.


In the third chapter’s hermeneutical excursion, the work of Barth is applied to the New Testament passages associated with the covenantal arguments (Mark 10:13-16, Colossians 2:8-14 and Acts 2:37-39). Far from conclusive towards the whole argument, the excursion provides developments in the thought and theology of Barth for the thesis as a whole. It also begins the excursion of New Testament texts that McMaken readdresses in his final chapter. Though the handling of Joachim Jeremias is less than satisfying it does provide the best of responses to his work on infant baptism in the early church (192-194).

In the fourth chapter McMaken describes the positive elements of Barth’s doctrine on baptism. At a very high level for Barth, there is a sharp differentiation in the significance of Spirit baptism and water baptism (229). Spirit baptism is the Divine act of God. Water baptism is the faithful response of man. Christ’s election as the reconciliation of man results in some significant distinctions to Barth’s views on baptism. Christ’s death is “objectively effective for each individual” which is “subjectively actualized” in baptism (231). But for Barth this must explicitly be “on the basis of the divine possibility” (231; CD IV/4. 5) found in Holy Spirit baptism. McMaken spends valuable time addressing the critics of Barth on this point and its relation to human response (238-251).

More practically to the church though are the results of a Spirit baptism which awakens individuals to the objective reality of reconciliation found in Jesus Christ. Empowered by the Spirit, water baptism becomes “the first concrete step of obedience” in the Christian life in response (253). It is the individual’s response of obedience to Spirit baptism. Water baptism is no work of the individual since it comes from the Spirit but this does not undermine human activity (253-254). In Spirit baptism man is freed to respond the only way he can and quite specifically the way he previously could not. Ultimately this is the goal of water baptism. It is man’s freedom now properly defined by the freedom found in Christ’s election and reconciliation. Thus any human response in water baptism is not capable of being a faithful response without the divine act but it is also the only faithful response. From this paradigm it is obvious that infant baptism could not be a proper form of baptism.


It is in the final chapter that McMaken present his post-Barthian view of baptism. After addressing some of Barth’s demands on baptism (308-309), McMaken evaluates Barth’s historical analysis of the Great Commission and John’s baptism attempting to reconfigure a new vision that balances the focus on the “baptizing community” and “the individual baptizand” (311). Coming to the passages with a strong emphasis on the communal elements involved in “authority, mission, and institution” (317), McMaken develops baptism as a gospel proclamation for the church. For Barth the community simply recognizes faith on display in water baptism (CDIV/4, 49). But from McMaken’s perspective on Matthew 28 “the church participate[s] in Christ’s authority insofar as they pursue this mission” (318). This mission is the prclomation of the gospel which baptism does in “visible word” (320-321). In effect, McMaken show that even for Barth’s, Christ’s election is no individualistic election. It is mediated through community (335-339; CD II/2, 196).

So also with water baptism, the church mediates Christ’s objective election through its proclamation of the gospel. For McMaken, this perspective “avoids the pitfalls” of Barth’s previous contention as it is applied to infant baptism (362). Far from requiring infant baptism, this new view permits the church to decide the best form of proclamation as historical conditions stipulate (362-364). To McMaken’s credit, this perspective does provide an outstanding answer as to why the New Testament is “neither requiring nor forbidding the practice” (372). Under his thesis, infant baptism is only properly incorporated when it is done as the communication of the gospel. And the church remains free to determine how it will proclaim the gospel through these means. In this manner, McMaken provides for a thoroughly gospel-centered view of baptism that makes provisions for the practice of infant baptism.


The Sign of the Gospel is a theologically deep book. Each of the chapters presents a subject and discussion that could be the basis for another thesis. Almost certainly many residual nuances and theological objections may arise out of those holding soteriological and covenantal perspectives. But this only shows that despite the level of study presented by McMaken there remain avenues of study to be perused. McMaken has presents great analysis on the doctrine of baptism through the eyes of Barth and begun to build a post-Barthian baptism. Far from closing the book on the subject, The Sign of the Gospel has opened it and written an introduction. By describing so succinctly the arguments of Barth against the soteriological and covenantal view, McMaken has ably navigated Barth’s hermeneutics and theology so that they may be a starting point for future investigations of baptism.

The Sign of the Gospel is scholarly through and through. It is not obvious what impact this book can have on pastors and laymen interested in understanding the doctrine of Barth as it impacts the church. The arguments and points contained are written for the benefit of the church as it seeks to work through the doctrine of baptism. Nevertheless, they are ultimately wrapped up in the power of Barth’s doctrine of election. The full value of McMaken’s work and Barth’s theology is found there. This truth makes this book hard to judge stand alone. Ultimately, McMaken has put forth a work that will drive studies of Barth and baptism in the future. It is both beneficial and essential reading for those interested in ecumenical discussions on the church’s practice of baptism.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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