Tuesday, 9 March 2010

New Testament Circumcision

It took me a while, compared to some other issues, to decide that the New Testament definitely takes a Baptist position (as opposed to a paedo-baptist position). This was because many/most of the old books (by the Reformers, Puritans and other historic Protestant Evangelicals) who had been my guides and teachers were written by paedobaptists. The other problem was that I did not know many convinced Baptists.

One of the major factors in convincing me was study of the New Testament passages which directly and intentionally address the relationship between Old and New covenants, and their ordinances. I came to believe that a good deal of the theology specifically supporting paedobaptism is constructed out of special pleading which read out of other passages on different issues. Why was the theology not being built out of these passages which are on the very relevant topic, I wondered?

Enough history. I'm teaching Galatians 5 this week at Bible college, God-willing, and it contains an example passage (verse 5-6). (There are several in Galatians):
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
One question which I think every evangelical paedobaptist should be troubled by from Galatians is to Paul's complete silence on the belief that, supposedly, baptism is the New Covenant replacement for circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of being one of God's covenant people before Christ came, and baptism is afterwards, so they say. This has a kernel of truth in it, of course; nobody is denying that Jewish males were circumcised and that Christians are baptised. But when faced with the Judaising heresy in Galatia and the sight of many Christians at least considering being circumcised for their justification, would not the simple observation that circumcision is unnecessary because we are now baptised have gone a terribly long way? Seems like a killer argument to me - and yet Paul never seems to even approach it. The belief that "the sign was changed, the significance remained the same" I cannot recognise as one that Paul held. That's why he never thought of this argument; it was not actually consistent with his beliefs. Circumcision and baptism have overlapping, but essentially different - not the same - significance.

If you look at those verses above, then if you read them with paedobaptist glasses on you may see nothing to challenge you - we all agree that circumcision is not significant in Christ, and that we by the Spirit wait in faith. So what? But I believe that verses like this are very significant if you instead take of the glasses and try to read the verses from a more neutral point of view - not asking whether you can assimilate such words into your system, but which system of thought would be naturally more likely to produce such verses. Paul in these verses, I believe, is expressing consistently with a Baptist point of view that the Holy Spirit who works by faith, hope and love in an individual is the essential sign of the New Covenant. In other words, that the New Covenant is an era of fulfilment in reality - not just in the coming of Christ, but in the membership of God's people and in what fundamental, essential realities characterise them. We do not have to wait until heaven for the true people of God to be only those who love Jesus, even whilst fully conceding that "false brethren" will worm their way into churches. Today - not just in the future - all the merely outward (being a Jew, being circumcised, etc.) is of no value, because now that Christ, the reality has come, the external scaffolding that existed before his coming is taken down.

Again I concede that a convinced paedobaptist can give an explanation of these verses that does not imply any of this. But that's not my point or argument here. My point is to ask which reading of these verses is more consistent with the direction and contours of the letter as a whole, and all its various statements on the significance of circumcision and the relationships between the covenants. It was asking those questions about Galatians and the rest of the New Testament that were major factors in my becoming a convinced Baptist.

Here's a quote from the "Preacher's Study Papers" by Grace Baptist Mission (intended for preachers in the third world) making the same point:
In these verses Paul does not put baptism as the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament circumcision ceremony It is not biblically correct to say we must now baptise the babies of Christians because the Old Testament Jews circumcised their babies. According to Paul the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament sign of circumcision (to show a person to be one of God's people) is the possession of spiritual faith, hope and love. That is one reason why Baptists baptise only believers who by their faith show that they are God's New Testament people.

1 comment:

Dissenters said...

I have been reading Genesis 12-18 recently. Circumcision was a sign that Abraham's descendent had been called out by God to be holy. There was a cutting off by water at the time of Noah, and later at the Exodus. A cutting off from Egypt by water that is symbolised by baptism. As Paul notes we are now a new creation in Christ, cut off from the old flesh.
Andrew S