Baptism and circumcision -are we misreading the covenants?

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I picked up on this article recently which gives an other example of why it’s important that we do our text work right. First of all though I’d like to respond briefly to the point made here:

“Our credobaptist brothers and sisters have to demonstrate that the Bible teaches that professing believers, and no one else, are to be baptized.”

I think the case has been thoroughly made over the years and it boils down to the question of what baptism is and who it is for as covered in previous posts. Scripture’s instruction is that you should “repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sins.” That instruction makes it specifically and unambiguously clear as to who baptism is for.

The burden of proof lies therefore not with Baptists who are holding to the clear sense of Scripture but to those who are asking us to either understand Scripture differently or to make some kind of special allowance for some.

If I could also just make a small comment on tone and approach. The writer refers to another, unnamed and uncited article saying:

“What surprised me most about this brother’s article was how frequently he misunderstood covenant theology and its implications for baptism. Before we can ever move forward together on this doctrine, we need to correct these kinds of misunderstandings with as much clarity and grace as possible. And it is in that spirit that I offer the rest of this article.”

As a rule of thumb I would say:

  1. If you are seeking to be gracious then don’t announce that you are trying to muster as much “grace as possible.”  This does not come across as gracious, it comes across as passive aggressive and patronising. What I hear is “you Baptists are stupid, annoying, illiterate, borderline heretics. I don’t know why I’m wasting my time with you. However, so no-one is without excuse let me have a go.” If you mean to write graciously, then just do it.
  2. Graciousness is then found in what you actually do not in a statement of intent. So represent the arguments of your opponents fairly and one way to do this is to actually cite them so that you can see whether your representation is fair.

However, the substantive point I want to look at here is Richard’s claim that the argument for paedobaptism is based on a correct understanding of the New Covenant as being “essentially the same as the covenant with Abraham.”

His argument is that the two covenants are the same. We are therefore as believers admitted into that covenant and not into a separate and different covenant. This means that there should be continuity in terms of the signs and how they are applied.

Let’s pause there for a second. I am in general agreement that there is continuity between the covenants.  This should then push us to look at what the Covenants are and how they relate.  So, the first bit of text work we need to do is on Genesis. First of all, we have the command and the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3

 “Go from your country[b] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[c]

You will notice that the promise is of blessing instead of curse. That blessing is seen in terms of honour for Abraham’s name, a land/home and a people, that he will become a nation. Not only that but those who seek to oppose, dishonour and curse Abraham will be cursed but there is blessing for all people in Abraham.

Then in Genesis 15, the covenant ceremony is described. There we are told that God said.

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 

Genesis 15:5

Then we are told Abraham’s response.

And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Both parts are crucial to our understanding of the Gospel and are picked up by Paul in the New Testament. First of all, Paul insists that the reference to “offspring” as a specific and singular fulfilment. It is not just to offspring or seed (plural) in general but to one specific offspring/descendant.  This is important because what Paul is arguing is that the specific promise was Christ. In other words, the New Covenant is the Abrahamic one because the Abrahamic one was always about Christ. It’s not that God made a promise to Abraham of land and people, then somehow, he needed to find a new way of including us in that covenant. Rather, it is that God was always promising Christ. The covenant was always about the Gospel. Yes there is continuity between the covenants but the direction of chronological travel is not forwards from Abraham to Christ but backwards from Christ to Abraham. We understand the Abrahamic covenant in the light of its fulfilment in Christ.

Secondly, Paul picks up on Abraham’s response and the result in Romans 4. He is as pains to point out that Abraham believed prior to circumcision, not after. This reinforces the point that righteousness is through faith not works and that inclusion in the Covenant is therefore through faith, not works, including circumcision.  This makes Abraham the Father of all who are justified by faith, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. 

What this means then is that circumcision and/or any related and successor outward symbols is simply not seen as relevant to the question of covenant continuity. It is not the vehicle by which the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in Christ.

This is important because Richards  falls into the trap of misreading and rather mutilating Colossians 2:11-12. He argues that:

Colossians 2:11–12 makes the theological connection between circumcision and baptism explicit by applying both spiritual circumcision (of the heart) and spiritual baptism (of the Holy Spirit) to the Christian. If inward circumcision and inward baptism are linked, then surely their outward signs—that is, physical circumcision and water baptism—are as well.

Well, let’s have a look at Colossians 2:11-12. The context is a warning against being deceived and led astray. Paul reminds us that we are filled with Christ, the one who has the fullness of deity and then says:

11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 

Well, yes, I guess that there is a connection there, if by connection we mean that the two words appear side by side in those verses. However, that doesn’t mean that baptism is connected to circumcision by being a fulfilment or replacement for it.  Look again. Paul is saying that there are two inner works which correspond to outer symbols. Circumcision is linked with the circumcision of the heart, the putting off/cutting away of sin by Christ.  Baptism on the other hand is connected with being raised with Christ. At no point is it suggested that baptism is a replacement for circumcision. We need both aspects of the inner work.

Indeed, Paul goes on further in verses 13-14 to talk about Christ’s death as being the solution to our uncircumcised state. We might even say that Jesus was “cut off” from the living, so that our fallen nature could be cut off.

There is therefore no basis at all in any of the texts to get hung up on needing to provide a replacement sign for circumcision for babies at 8 days old.

Richard closes off his article by going on to talk about “household” baptisms.  This is perhaps the strongest if not the only possible argument for paedo-baptism that Acts talks about people being baptised with their whole household.  I say it is the strongest argument because it does cause us to consider the possibility that there were babies and children included. However, I don’t find it particularly persuasive. Why? Well because we need to interpret those descriptions in line with the command and not in a way that would undermine it. Remember that the command is to “repent and be baptised.”

Have a look at Acts 16:30-34. Here, Paul has been in prison and an earthquake has struck. The prison jailer is convinced the prisoners have fled and is about to commit suicide. Paul intervenes leading to a Gospel conversation.

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Notice again that the passage if understood the way paedo-baptists require would prove too much. This works in two ways. First, the application should not be “baptise babies” but rather “when someone professes faith and comes to be baptised, do the whole family at the same time.” The argument is not for paedo-baptism but household baptism. Further, that baptism then would be based on the federal headship of the husband/father.  Paul says

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and all your household.”

If we assume that this is meaning that infants are included, then we must also recognise the inclusion of adults too. Husbands, wives, servants, older children, possible a widowed grandparent, the whole shebang.  In other words, you would need to assume that his wife was saved on the basis of his faith and should be baptised too, whether or not she wished to.

Now, I note that in verse 34, we are told that “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed God.” This suggests their conscious and voluntary involvement in events.  The Gospel causes joy for them all.  So, I would suggest that it’s not that if he believes then all his household gets saved but that the household are also called to believe with him. Now that there seems to be a level of togetherness and corporate response may be different and surprising to our individual culture but that doesn’t take away from the point that they are baptised together because they believe together. The probability is that we are dealing with a mature household and there’s no suggestion that babies were passively included.

The article concludes with that emphasis on households and a repetition of the arguments made previously about there being no controversy about the cutting off of children from the covenant. We’ve dealt with those arguments previously.

The problem is that a top level framework has been put in place.  Paedo-baptist thinking is read back into Covenant Theology and then that thinking is used to shape interpretations and decisions.  This results in a misunderstanding of the text and a missing of thing it says. Better to start with the hard work of exegeting what the Bible says.

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