Markus Barth, Sacraments, and Mysteries - Mondays with McMaken

Time for another self-serving installment of this “please go buy a copy of my book” series.

This time, I want to highlight a very interesting argument that I found in the work of Markus Barth, Karl’s son and noted NT scholar. Markus seems to have arrived at a full-blown rejection of sacramental baptism sooner than did Karl, and Karl acknowledges the role that his son’s work played in his own development on the question.

One of the arguments that often gets made in support of a sacramental understanding of baptism is what might be called “appeal to mysteries,” that is, the idea that the New Testament pictures baptism in a way consistent with how ancient “mystery cult” rituals are pictured, especially with reference to efficacy to produce the thing represented. Below is my attempt to communicate Markus’ argument for why that appeal is misplaced.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 37–38.
A significant aspect of how Markus worked out his rejection of baptism as a sacrament was through a discussion of whether baptism in the New Testament is properly understood as a mystery. Despite the close parallels that many church fathers drew between baptism and ancient mystery cult rituals, Markus argues against the notion that baptism’s meaning ought to be determined on the basis of these parallels. In these cults, the ritual symbol “does not only recall to mind, make evident, sharpen consciousness, or induce experience. . . . It is a real image and creates reality,” such that if baptism’s meaning is determined by appeal to this concept, it becomes an effective depiction of Christ’s death. Such conception is easily recognized as the bedrock that lies behind my previous discussion of the sacramental argument for infant baptism. [Ed. note: look here for a little more on the sacramental argument.] But, Markus asks, is this a properly Christian notion? His answer is a resounding Nein! He fails to find such a conception promulgated by Christ or Paul and, given the pagan parallels, concludes that this notion of baptism as a mystery “is not a specifically Christian intellectual production or the result of a specifically Christian worship experience.” In other words, to understand baptism as a sacrament or mystery is, according to Markus, to understand Christian ritual as simply one more instance in an ancient religious class. While this is certainly how Christianity appeared on the religious and philosophical buffet of the ancient world, and while the church fathers often engaged in apologetics aimed at demonstrating Christianity’s superiority to these other options on the latter’s own terms, the fathers nevertheless remained committed to the belief that Christianity is concerned with a unique and uniquely true revelation of and relation to God. Markus draws the pregnant conclusion that to understand baptism as a mystery is to establish a Christian cultus that “is neither in its value nor nature fundamentally different from other religions.
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