Barth, Baptism, and Grace – A Brief Response to Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart recently published a short review of my book, The Sign of the Gospel, over at his corner of the First Things website. I am, of course, grateful for the publicity and am happy to have my book read by any and all interested parties. The more the merrier!

Some folks have contacted me to ask what I think of Leithart’s review, and the criticisms he makes of Barth’s (and, consequently, my) understanding of grace with reference to baptism. I was initially very reluctant to respond, but I have come to the considered opinion that some disambiguation will be salutary in this instance.

I take Leithart’s review as largely positive. He basically says that my interpretation of Barth is cogent, and that my constructive building upon Barth “is successful” “as an exercise in Barthian theology.” This is a gratifying judgment, of course, because it is one that I share. Leithart is not an expert on Barth, but it is nice to know that non-specialists can recognize the family resemblance (as it were).

Now, with reference to the primary issue of grace, Leithart writes that “he [McMaken] hamstrings his account of infant baptism by accepting the terrain that Barth lays out.” But it is not grace per se that is really at issue here. Rather, this is a question about the more specific topic of how to understand the relation between divine and human activity within a soteriological context. The charge is that Barth and I have a dualistic understanding of these things, as evidenced by Barth’s distinction between water and Spirit baptism. Leithart’s conclusion is: “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.”

The charge that Barth’s doctrine of baptism contains a lurking dualism is not a new one. Its primogenitor is Thomas Torrance, but it has been taken up more recently by others (sometimes only indirectly). I discuss the relation between Torrance’s and Barth’s doctrines of baptism in a couple of long footnotes in the constructive chapter of my book, and the question of dualism is a large part of that running commentary. Indeed, I am currently working on an essay dealing with Barth and Torrance on these matters. The short version is that Torrance is right to worry about dualism, but that he is wrong to find it in Barth. My discussion of “paradoxical identity” in my book (and in work since then) as a way to interpret Barth’s understanding of divine and human action is aimed (in part) at showing that Barth does in fact have a unitive account, even if he is careful—in his characteristically actualist manner—to guard the distinction between divine and human action. It is my hope that a Barth specialist would recognize the systematic importance of these considerations in my constructive material, but it is understandable if a less-specialist readership requires that they be highlighted more explicitly.

In conclusion, I am grateful for Leithart’s review and I hope that it will help my book to attract a more engaged and knowledgeable readership.


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