ON THE BAPTISM / CIRCUMCISION PARALLEL
This correspondence examines the weakness of argumentation behind the system of thought known as Covenant Theology which seeks to establish a carnal basis for infant baptism and generational godly favor based in Colossians 2:11-13.
Sent: 12/27/2014 8:38:18 PM
Subject: Thoughts on the Baptism Circumcision Parallel
Col. 2:11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
Just a few thoughts on the Covenant Theology teaching that uses this passage to justify infant baptism by linking it to Jewish circumcision (and which I was brought up to believe and once defended).
There is truly a linking of the two concepts circumcision and baptism in this passage. The question however is, does the connection made here by Paul support the extrapolation derived from it by Covenant Theology?
The extrapolation teaches that Christian baptism is the after type of Jewish circumcision, and because Jewish circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, and was to be performed on the babies, therefore Christian baptism is a covenantal sign connecting generations of believers in Christ and should be performed on their babies.
The problem with this extrapolation is that it ignores the clear adult decisional context of Paul’s comparison above and the adult decisional context of the conversion rite to Judaism that included both baptism and circumcision. For while it is true that in Judaism circumcision was practiced on the babies, it was practiced only on babies subsequently to first being practiced on the adult converts who were simultaneously baptized, whereas the babies were not baptized in the Jewish context.
You have to understand that Paul is not just making up a spiritual connection here between two otherwise unconnected rites across the covenants, but is rather drawing from what was already a complete Jewish practice that included both baptism and circumcision on adults simultaneously. Covenant Theology is ignorant of this actual connection in Jewish practice. So let me explain.
First, it is important to understand that circumcision was not just performed on babies. It was performed on adult converts to Judaism. And it was performed on adults before it was performed on babies. The first ones ever circumcised were the grown man Abraham and his adult male household including Ishmael (Isaac was not even born yet). Again, the Covenant Theology extrapolation ignores this and just goes straight to the application to babies afterward.
In the command to Abraham however, circumcision was to be applied to all who were “bought” (i.e., “redeemed”) by purchase into his household.
Gen. 17:12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised:
Catch the import of the concept of redemptive purchase here. Then remember that Paul is writing from a context of spiritual conversion which he also ties elsewhere to the concept of redemption (“For you were bought with a price…”)
So far so good. Now for the baptism piece.
Much later, baptism was instituted with the Mosaic Law. The priests were baptized on initiation into their office. (And as Fruchtenbaum points out, all Jewish baptism was done by immersion. That is all the Jews ever knew. And that would have included Paul.)
Later still in Jewish history, baptism was added to the rite for adult conversion to Judaism, a rite which already included circumcision inherited from the Genesis 17 command above. In all, three acts came to mark the ritual of conversion to Judaism: circumcision, baptism and a sacrificial offering.
For all the detail on this and the joining of baptism to circumcision in the Jewish conversion rite, please read Part II of my article online By Blood and Water: The True Story and Meaning of Christian Baptism. I have reproduced the important section below
- Proselyte Baptism: Symbolic Cleansing Plus New Identity
By John’s time, the Jews had extended the uses of ritual bathing. One of these was to add it to the ceremony for inducting Gentile converts (“proselytes”) into Judaism.
The proselyte induction ceremony, based in Exodus 12:48, originally included circumcision and a sacrificial offering only. The bathing they added to it—called tevilah—corresponds to the priestly bathing of Exodus 40. Tevilah was conducted by immersion, some say self-immersion. Interestingly, by doing this, the Jews in their own way created a new linking of blood and water!
Combining tevilah and circumcision into one ceremony profoundly affected the symbolic meaning of ritual bathing. Circumcision had always indicated new identity. Bathing had traditionally symbolized purification. But by joining tevilah to circumcision, the meaning of bathing expanded to also include new identity. Henceforth, tevilah (baptism) and circumcision become interchangeably linked in the Jewish mind to symbolize cleansed new identity. (See e.g. Colossians 2:11-12.)
Once the proselytes passed through the three-fold ceremony of sacrifice-circumcision-tevilah, they were officially pronounced born again into Jewish society. The term born again was a common term at that time and actually had several meanings and applications within Jewish culture.
All told, the transforming of tevilah bathing into a sign of cleansed “reborn” Jewish identity forms the context of John’s baptizing and the message he tied to it.
Once you understand all this, you understand the true context and meaning of Colossians 2. Paul is not drawing a connection between a “new” practice called baptism and an “old” practice called circumcision done only on babies and so to draw a connection that justifies baptizing babies now. He is re-describing what was already a complete Jewish conversion ceremony involving baptism and circumcision together as it was practiced only on adults. (The babies were not immersed, only circumcised later as they were born into the converted families.)
That Paul has the adult decisional aspect of this conversion in view and not the baptizing of babies is clearly seen by the phrase in 2:12 “through faith”
12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
So he is speaking of the baptism of adult believers, and the circumcision is thus in reference to adult circumcision, not that of babies. The context speaks for itself.
This again shows us why it is important to get to “author intent” and to do so from the frame of mind and reference the author would have had. Theologies like Covenant Theology are ignorant of author intent and cultural context, even though the clues are already embedded into the text (“through faith”) . Bypassing this, they create their own illegitimate connections to justify their own practices.
We already know that faith cannot be inherited. It cannot be passed down through generational osmosis. Every child and man must come to faith for himself through a clear conversion experience. And since that is Paul’s clear context, the concept of Covenant Theology passed on through infant baptism is invalid, no matter how you try to slice it and dice it.
Parents cannot believe on behalf of their children. The children have to come to their own faith. Parents cannot circumcise the hearts of their children. Only God can do this. And in Judaism, only believers were baptized, not babies. Baptism was a sign of identificational change as we already saw.
Covenant Theology is a half-baked Reformation leftover from Catholicism. Remember we said that the Reformation only corrected some things Catholic, but not all. Catholics believed (and still do) that by baptizing babies you save their souls should they die before reaching any age of accountability.
The Reformation only softened that error by removing the salvation element. But they still kept the whole rest of it and developed the Covenant Theology around it to justify it. Meanwhile, the Anabaptists had always rejected infant salvation by baptism and had nothing to come out of in that regard and therefore no theology to concoct to justify any remnant traditions.
So that gives you a greater historical perspective as well on where that whole covenant thing came from.
Hope this helps. I have enjoyed writing this for you. But now, I will leave it to the Lord to make sense of it for you and persuade you as He sees fit.
First Love Ministry
- a ministry of Anglemar Fellowship
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