Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reassessing Barth’s Treatment of Baptism in CD 4.4 – Introduction from my AAR / KBSNA paper

Shortly before Thanksgiving I had the honor of addressing the members of the Karl Barth Society of North America at this year’s annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I intend to submit my paper for publication in the very near future, but I also wanted to give folks an idea of what I covered in that paper. So below you will find the introductory paragraph to my paper, which sketches the argument.


Few subjects within the field of Barth-studies have been so divisive as Barth’s doctrine of baptism and, specifically, his articulation of that position in Church Dogmatics 4.4. Reception of Barth on this point has been divided into those who support his rejection of sacramental and infant baptism, and those who do not. In what follows, I work through a fivefold thought progression in an effort to reassess this portion of Barth’s theological legacy. First, I identify Eberhard Jüngel and John Webster as paradigmatic examples of those who regard Barth’s treatment of baptism in CD 4.4 as either definitive or defective, highlighting the common assumption that underlies both positions. The common assumption is that Karl Barth changed his mind concerning the relationship between divine and churchly human agency between his treatments in CD 1.1 and CD 4. Second, I interrogate that assumption and argue that although Barth’s mode of presentation changes, he demonstrates a basic continuity of thought on this subject. Third, I will move beyond the confines of the Webster-Jüngel divide on the issue by considering the notion of paradoxical identity as a way of describing Barth’s understanding of how divine and human activity relate. Fourth, I will turn to the text of CD 4.4 to argue that Barth’s understanding of this relation in that material is neither defective in Webster’s sense nor definitive in Jüngel’s sense. Rather, it is deft. Finally, I will conclude with some reflections on how this reassessment of Barth’s account of how divine and churchly human activity relate might provide a background for the advancement of a post-Barthian doctrine of infant baptism.

[**For more on Barth's doctrine of baptism, buy my book!]



Kevin Davis said...

I just happened to read this in the latest issue of First Things, from Douglas Farrow's feature article:

"The first consequence of turning Jesus into a reconciling event, into a divine-human Happening that (unlike other happenings) is everywhere and always taking place, is that the Church becomes nothing more than a community of witnesses, a community of people who with the eyes of faith see and confess what is everywhere and always the case. The sacraments themselves become mere acts of confession. Torrance, to his credit, resisted Barth's drift in this direction, even pleading with him not to publish the fragment of the final volume of the Dogmatics that rejected infant baptism." ("T. F. Torrance and the Latin Heresy," FT, December 2013, p. 29)

I thought the historical tidbit, about Torrance asking Barth not to publish IV.4, was fascinating. The article is basically Farrow's "Why I am no longer a Protestant" apologia.

Anyway, just thought you might be interested.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Hi Kevin.

I actually have extensive thoughts about how TFT fits into this, and I was talking to Paul Molnar at AAR about possibly addressing the TFT Theological Fellowship on the subject in a year or two. We'll see if that pans out. If you are accurately representing Farrow, he may be misrepresenting the story a little bit. TFT has a published account in one of his Karl Barth books also, I think the one that has the word "Biblical" in the title (blanking on more than that).

More broadly, I'd quibble with the "nothing more" in your description of Farrow's position. Whether or not this is Farrow's position is secondary; lots of people argue like this. But it is special pleading. The implication is that there is this normative and high view of the church, and that others depart from that and are somehow deficient. What if "a community of witnesses" is precisely what the church should be? Perhaps anything else is a departure from that.

Those sorts of implications make me fighting mad pretty quickly - I have zero-tolerance for them. (I'm not saying that you're making that kind of argument yourself, btw).

W. Travis McMaken said...


My previous was through my Droid - I see now that you were quoting Farrow.

Kevin Davis said...

Paul Molnar is actually speaking at our campus (Union in Charlotte) this spring for our annual theology lecture. I encouraged our dean to invite him, and so he did. I also encouraged our dean to ask Molnar to address Barth's importance for Catholic-Protestant engagement, and so he will. I'll be sure to address these issues, with the sacraments in the forefront of my mind -- as I've addressed both baptism and the Eucharist on multiple occasions on my blog. Of course, I should read your book before the lectures!

I agree with you about the way "high church" ecclesiology frames itself as the default against which other positions must justify themselves -- at least, that is how I understand what's going on. Nonetheless, my respect for Rome is well beyond what a healthy Protestant should have! This is why I gravitate toward Torrance, Balthasar, and Webster, and away from McCormack and all you crazy Princeton folks! But don't worry -- I don't take my current understandings too seriously.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Do you read much of the Mercersberg stuff?

Also, say high to Josh Ralston (perhaps Dr or Professor Ralston to you, I don't know how he wants students to address him) for me the next time you see him.

Matthew Frost said...

Seriously, I'm a high-church Lutheran and I can't respect what I hear Farrow suggesting needs to be the substance of big-c-church and the sacraments. Those things that he describes in your quote, Kevin, as "nothing more" and "mere" sound an awful lot like the res of
a sacrament—but from where comes the Word that makes them what they are? And is Barth really deficient in his grasp of the constitution of these substances by the Word?

Travis, "fighting mad" is about right.

Kevin Davis said...

Yes, I like what I've read of Mercersberg theology. I did a little post on Nevin here:


I'm currently reading The Principle of Protestantism by Schaff, but I had to put it aside to do an OT exegetical paper. It is now among a rather tall stack of books I want to read over Christmas break!

I haven't met Dr. Ralston yet. He was hired for the Richmond campus, but I think he may do some stuff in Charlotte on occasion (or, at least, as a hybrid course online). I would like to take his course on Christian-Muslim Dialogue. And apparently he is teaching Barth-related stuff as well.

At the Charlotte campus, we are getting Richard Burnett from Erskine, beginning next fall (though, I am not sure if this has been finalized yet, so don't quote me on it.) Burnett recently edited the Westminster Handbook on Barth. As you may or may not be aware, he has been criticized heavily by neo-fundamentalists within the ARP for teaching Barth favorably and questioning inerrancy.

Rich said...

Yes, a community of witnesses! e.g. Luke 1:1-2, Acts 4:20

W. Travis McMaken said...

Indeed, Matt, indeed.

Kevin, I'm very glad to hear that about Richard and will hope that it all gets finalized smoothly. Speaking of that handbook, I'm getting ready to do something exciting with it here on the blog...

Good to see you, Rich. :-)

Joshua said...

It was a great session and I hope to see it in print somewhere soon...and I concur with Travis that the normative assumption of the sacramentality of the Church (or it being the ongoing incarnational presence of Christ) is a major hindrance to theological exchange and ecumenical dialogue.

Kevin, I do hope you can take a class with me at some point. My Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue course for this coming Spring is in hybrid format so you'd only have to come to Richmond twice during the year. Courses and plans are in the works for the coming year(s), so maybe we can cross paths at some point in your studies.

Kevin Davis said...

Richard, thanks for alerting me to the hybrid option. I'll have to see about the next academic year. I am already nearly done with all of my electives, but that would be a good one. However, I also want to take Merwyn Johnson's class on the Reformed confessions and/or his class on Calvin's theology -- too many good options!

Kevin Davis said...

Ooops, I meant "Joshua." I'm writing a paper right now for Richard Boyce and had his name on my mind!