What is "Evangelical"?

Travis has started "Mondays with McMaken" over at DET (wholly appropriate, since he's the proprietor), pushing bits of his new book with Fortress, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Now, part of me is enthusiastic about this book because it's by a friend of mine, it's a Barth book, it seems quite well-written, and it represents a coup for my "home team" over Ashgate et al. (One of several lately!) However, I am also enthusiastic about it as a Barth scholar and a Lutheran whose communion believes in paedobaptism as a norm (but not an ideal) of our sacramental practice.

As I have been trained to understand it, our position on paedobaptism is at least partly contrarian—and definitely connected to that streak in Luther himself! It means, for us, that we do not only baptize adults who can articulate the faith for themselves, but also infants who cannot. With Luther and the confessors, usually in opposition to the "Anabaptists," we believe that the evangelical character of the sacrament is most clearly demonstrated in the baptism of infants. The baptism of infants is a kind of quid sans quo, rather than a quid pro quo. It makes a statement about the true nature of the sacrament.

Whether we take infants as prototypes of the unbeliever, or as those who instinctively trust—and the tradition does both—faith is not to be undervalued. However, it is also not to be understood as constitutive of the sacrament and its validity. God's actions for us, and indeed upon us, are the ground on which faith grows afterwards—and without which there can be no faith. As Luther says, "We maintain that we should baptize children because they also belong to the promised redemption that was brought about by Christ"—and in extending the rite of baptism to children, we likewise extend the promise of their redemption already achieved in Christ. (SA III.5)

Travis, in writing on the doctrine of baptism, also raises the question about what is "evangelical" about it. His post today gives a teaser of the meaning of that term: it "treats of the God of the Gospel." That god is revealed in our εὐαγγέλιον, which Travis employs as a translation for "gospel," and I always prefer to understand in a more literal sense as our "proclamation," the thing we announce, in which we announce God and what God has done. "Evangelical theology" is therefore theology attentive to that proclamation. The first sense Travis gives for what that means is that such a theology is attentive to Jesus Christ, his person and his work, as the content of that proclamation. All subsequent senses are left to be read in the book itself, but that also leaves a challenge for the blog reader to further develop the sense of this word, "evangelical."

So: in our articulations of dogma and doctrine (the opinions and teachings of the church), an "evangelical" theology is one that is attentive to the gospel we proclaim about God, specifically to the facts and implications of God's action in Christ. I'm going to accept that and extend it. I doubt this is the direction Travis has gone—but we are, after all, rather different theologians.

1) To the extent that such a theology is "evangelical," treating of the God of the gospel in the person and work of Jesus Christ, it must also be epangelical—that is, it must not only be announcement, but also promise. This is part of the nature of our proclamation of God in Jesus Christ: not the announcement of a finished and merely historical act, but the announcement of an historical act of the living God who has shaped what is definitively true for us—and you—today. Not only a fact of past action with implications to be worked out, but also an assertion about its relevance for present reality and future hope. An ἀγγέλιον, an announcement, which is not only true and good, εὐ-, but which may also be relied upon, ἐπ-.

This is part of the evangelical nature of the sacrament of baptism, and indeed of the sacrament of the table as well, for Luther and the confessors. As in the quote above from the Smalcald Articles, the means of grace are a matter of "the promised redemption that was brought about by Christ." The sacraments, in our ritual enacting of them, are a means of our reliance upon the promises of God. To the extent that we proclaim that God has so acted, and does so act, we also speak the promise that God will so act for us. We declare that the grace of baptism and the grace we receive in the eucharistic meal are the promised grace of God for us.

2) To the extent that such a theology is "evangelical," namely attentive to Christ as both fulfillment and extension of promise, it must speak of the God who is eternally, endlessly faithful. Just as a theology of Christ in his person and work is incomplete without attention to the aspect of promise, so a theology attentive to the aspect of promise in the gospel is incomplete without attention to the fidelity of the god who keeps these promises.

Nor, in speaking of God's fidelity to promise, do we speak of every word of scripture. God who speaks the promises that we trust and proclaim also speaks conditional and contingent words, to which the status of promise does not apply. Likewise, we must say that not every word of scripture is gospel—that is, fit for proclamation as a true and reliable word about the god in whom we trust in Christ. A theology that is evangelical is not merely Biblical. An evangelical theology is one that proclaims the promises of God to which God is faithful in Christ, and the actions of God in fulfillment of those promises.

Nor is this limited to forms of "Christian" truth. Paul's proclamation of Christ is not separable from the promises made to Israel. This God is the same god, now of Jews and gentiles alike. In that God has faithfully fulfilled promises to the Jews in Christ, God has also extended them far beyond the Jews. This god who keeps faith with the Judean people throughout their long history now also keeps faith with us. The same redemption that is promised them is now also promised us in Christ—and we trust that in Christ it has been made real by God.

The gospel is not discontinuous with what went before it because we receive it in Christ. This God, who is now our god, is not different because we know God in Christ. God has never become a different god for having engaged in a new action in history. Therefore a theology of baptism that is evangelical must speak of God faithful to this promise in Christ, and situate this doctrine in history not by relation to other similar practices, but in continuity with God's eternal faithfulness in promise and fulfillment.

I'm not sure I can add a third thing to that. To the extent that such a theology is "evangelical," it treats of the God of the gospel in its attention to Jesus Christ and God's history of faithful fulfillment of promise, and announces that promised fidelity as relevant for us in Christ. To that extent, an "evangelical" theology—especially of the sacraments—ought to be particular without being either supersessionist or exclusivist, and scriptural without being Biblicist.

Certainly these last things can't be said of all historic claimants to the "evangelical" moniker, or even of all of today's claimants. But I'm think it's reasonable going forward. The points regarding promise and faithfulness can certainly be relied upon generally, even though my characterization of them is absolutely born of my place in history and society. An exercise of what Barth calls my "freedom in limitation."


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