Colossians 2:11-12 and the Circumcision-Infant Baptism Analogy, Part 1

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2018, with permission.

Most Baptists have heard of Reformed and Presbyterian churches who baptize babies, because “the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament (OT) is replaced by infant baptism in the New.” Verses cited in support of this analogy include Gen. 17:7–8; Gal. 3:9, 14; Col. 2:11–12; Acts 2:38–39; Rom. 4:11–12; 1 Cor. 7:14; Matt. 28:19; Mark 10:13–16; and Luke 18:15.1 The challenge for those who use this analogy is that these passages either mention circumcision (Gen. 17:7–8; Rom. 4:11–12) or baptism (Acts 2:38–39; Matt. 28:19) or neither circumcision nor baptism (Gal. 3:9, 14; 1 Cor. 7:14; Mark 10:13–16; and Luke 18:15). What is required for this analogy to work is a link between circumcision and baptism.

There is only one text in the Bible that mentions both. That passage is Col. 2:11–12. Is this the missing link that connects circumcision to baptism and therefore justifies infant baptism? Before addressing this, it remains of vital importance to understand that the analogy has always been and can only be between physical circumcision (involving a literal cutting of the flesh) and water baptism. Those who use this analogy connect it to Abraham’s participation in God’s covenant with physical circumcision as the sign of this covenant (Gen. 17:1–16).

My purpose here is to demonstrate that Col. 2:11–12 makes a beautiful analogy between spiritual circumcision and water baptism. This understanding fits within the context of the passage and the New Testament (NT) understanding of baptism. In order to accomplish this, I will examine the nature of circumcision, the nature of baptism, and the context of the passage. Applications abound when the text speaks accurately.

The KJV says:

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

What seems obvious at once is the fact that Paul is not talking about normal circumcision as practiced in the OT. How could Abraham (or anyone else) perform a physical circumcision without using hands? However, the alternative view I am suggesting needs biblical corroboration. As a literal interpreter, I do not choose a “spiritual” understanding easily.2 Is there an understanding anywhere in the OT or NT of such an idea? There is, and it appears in both Testaments.

Spiritual Circumcision in the Bible

God spoke through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy some 700 years after the institution of physical circumcision to Abraham and his seed as a mark of their covenant relationship with God. Deut. 30:5–8 says that when they would come into the Promise Land, “the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart… to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.” This cannot be physical circumcision, since cutting away part of someone’s heart would be fatal. What does it mean? Simply this: to be dedicated to the God who brought them there.

We can see this understanding in Deut. 10:15–17. God warned the people to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.” He loved them and chose them as His people. He wanted them pure and dedicated to Him. Lev. 26:40–42 also gives this caution with the same language.

Other OT writers wrote in this same tone. God spoke to Jeremiah pleading with the people to return to their God (Jer. 4:1–4). He asked them to repent and dedicate themselves using the same language as Moses did some 800 years earlier: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Israel’s loving God warned them of the coming wrath and wished them to avoid it. He wanted them pure and dedicated to Him.

Is this figurative language in Scripture completely distinguishable from physical circumcision? The reality is that there are passages that mention both spiritual and physical circumcision. Jer. 9:25–26 mentions God punishing His people and the Gentiles, both those “circumcised with the uncircumcised” (v.25). Then the prophet lists the nations who have offended God, including Judah in his list: “For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart” (v. 26). The Bible provides a distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision with the corresponding desire to see God’s people repent and be dedicated to God (v. 24). Ezek. 44 also mentions those “uncircumcised in heart, and uncircumcised in flesh” (v. 7, 9).

Spiritual circumcision in the OT is not limited to a symbol of the heart. This helps make the spiritual understanding of circumcision clear. God is weary of the people’s ignoring of His warnings to repent. Jer. 6:10–11 says their ears are uncircumcised. That is hard to picture in a literal way, but God wanted them to return and be dedicated to Him.

Is this spiritual circumcision solely found in the OT? Paul’s discussion in Rom. 2:27–29 gives an answer. There is a contrast mentioned regarding a Jewish person’s standing before God. Someone can have the physical sign of covenant membership but not have the inward reality of a dedicated life to God, because “circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (v.29). Stephen also mentioned spiritual circumcision (both “in heart and ears”) in his speech before his martyrdom (Acts 7:51).

Notes

1 These are all taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith: Baptism, XXVIII:4.

2 This is not an uncommon view. Other sources that discuss a similar understanding include: See J.P.T. Hunt, “Colossians 2:11–12, the Circumcision/Baptism Analogy, and Infant Baptism,” Tyndale Bulletin 41, no. 2 (November 1990): 243-244; Thomas R. Schreiner, “Baptism in the Epistles: An Initiation Rite for Believers,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 75–79; Wellum, Stephen J., “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006): 119-124; and Shawn D. Wright, “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 239.

Ken Rathbun 2018 Bio


Ken Rathbun serves at Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary as Vice President for Academic Services and Dean of the College. He is an adjunct teacher in both the college and seminary. Previously, Dr. Rathbun served as a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary to Jamaica for 14 years, serving at the Fairview Baptist Bible College. He earned his B.A., M.A., and M.Div. degrees from Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. He also completed an M.A. degree in the History of Religions from the University of Iowa and his Ph.D. from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

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J. Baillet's picture

The sign and the thing signified are closely linked. The former points to and illustrates the latter. Physical circumcision points to spiritual circumcision; physical baptism points to spiritual baptism. Where one is mentioned the other is conceptually there. The primary question lies in the relationship, if any, between spiritual circumcision and spiritual baptism. I would suggest that spiritual circumcision does not simply mean “to be dedicated to the God who brought them there.”

JSB

Dan Miller's picture

Thanks for this article. 

I don’t have a copy with me, so I can’t quote, but Jay Adams wrote a little book called Meaning and Mode of Baptism. (I think that’s the title.) in it, he argues that Col. 2 is talking about spiritual baptism,not water. 

Ron Bean's picture

I'm glad I can still learn things.

I'm a Baptist who's a member of a Bible Church (so sue me!) who had enjoyed debating modes of baptism with my Presbyterian friends for years. One of their favorite passages was I Peter 3:20-21 where they loved to point out that the only ones "immersed" were the wicked. Lat week I heard one of the best sermons I've ever heard on baptism where it was pointed out that immersion into the water signifies the fact that we were under condemnation for our sins, coming up out of the water signifies our deliverance from condemnation, and we leave to walk in newness of life. 

If baptism only signifies cleansing and or separation/dedication, then pouring or sprinkling will do.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JohnBrian's picture

So here's the story:

All of my siblings, myself excluded, were born in Jamaica to BMM missionaries, who served there for 24 years (the longest serving BMM missionaries to Jamaica). I was born on a furlough. My brother (a Jamaican citizen and Presbyterian), along with his family, returned to Jamaica for a 5-year term, and was there during the years the author was there.

The author clearly does not like his Presbyterian brothers. He knew that my brother was not a Baptist, and the first time he met me, asked me if I too was a Presbyterian. I answered, "Almost."

It appears that he is very focused on the mode of Baptism!

p.s. Both of my daughters are Presbyterian, with the eldest having worked for Sinclair Ferguson a few years ago, and the youngest, currently attending a Presbyterian church, where her husband serves on staff. 

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TylerR's picture

In a purely fleshly way, I really like the Presbyterian form of church government, but don't tell anybody ...

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that the word for immerse--used to mean everything from immersion to washing and dyeing fabrics--is one of those commonly used words in Greek that lend themselves to a lot of confusion.  The words for "servant" and "apostle" are similar that way.  

Count me as well in favor of multiple elders, if not the full Presbyterian model.  Multiple people able to teach at least ought to be a bulwark against a domineering spirit in the pulpit, though people who have experienced Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald might argue the point with me.  #way off topic, sorry.

Andrew K's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

It strikes me that the word for immerse--used to mean everything from immersion to washing and dyeing fabrics--is one of those commonly used words in Greek that lend themselves to a lot of confusion.  The words for "servant" and "apostle" are similar that way.  

Count me as well in favor of multiple elders, if not the full Presbyterian model.  Multiple people able to teach at least ought to be a bulwark against a domineering spirit in the pulpit, though people who have experienced Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald might argue the point with me.  #way off topic, sorry.

Yeah, but weren't Driscoll's "elders" functionally a rubber-stamp committee, and intentionally so? Don't ask me for a source...

As to the original topic/scripture, I feel there's misinterpretation on both sides. I mean, one can see the passage as referring to water baptism, and yet also recognize that the grammar doesn't make the analogy as tight as the P&R crowd might like.

For example, one OPC author I read stated flatly that in this passage the "circumcision of Christ" is water baptism.

No, it's not.

In context, the circumcision of Christ is clearly the "cutting off" of Christ from his people--that is, his death, to which circumcision pointed.

Bert Perry's picture

Andrew; no argument on Driscoll.  Interesting note is that among Driscoll's so-called "accountability team" were James MacDonald and others who saw no problems until things really blew up.  It's the fundagelical equivalent of CEOs putting their golf buddies on corporate boards to decide their pay, really. 

Also no argument that both sides probably obfuscate in terms of "baptizo", either.  These common words are hard for that very reason.

 

kenrathbun's picture

My own brother is a Presbyterian, and I like him just fine. Smile

kenrathbun

Andrew K's picture

kenrathbun wrote:

My own brother is a Presbyterian, and I like him just fine. Smile

It's fine to like him. Just try not to trust him much. Especially if you have young kids. Stealth-baptisms are all the rage in paedo circles these days. :D 

In all seriousness, I've attended Presbyterian churches for the past decade. Except for the baptism issue, I feel more at home in OPC churches than nearly any Baptist church I've ever attended, sadly. And you always know what you're going to get when you step into an OPC church, unlike your typical Baptist church (be they Southern, GARB, Reformed, IFB, or whatever other subcategory you choose for a parallel to the OPC denom). We've got huge quality-control problems.

kenrathbun's picture

Thanks!  Good advice! :)  My post was in reply to "the author," above.  

kenrathbun

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