Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Baptism IV: "Circumcision in the NT"

Following on the heels of last week's post III on circumcision in the OT, I'm going to keep on fleshing out my current beliefs about the Christian rite of water baptism. As you read, please consider that I am only hoping to clarify for myself and others what I believe and understand; I am not trying to develop a comprehensive theology of anything. And I hope to do this all without being like those who, according to St. Paul, "have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers . . . without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Tim. 1:7).

In Part III I hoped to show that circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant. Receiving circumcision also marked off those belonging to Israel and set them apart to a holy life.

The New Testament speaks much the same way about baptism and indicates that it replaces circumcision under the new covenant, which is for all peoples, Gentile and Jew alike. What did new converts do as soon as they heard the gospel of the God of Abraham and followed in his footsteps of faith? They were baptized (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; 8:12-13). What was the outward event that represented consecration to the Lord and a clean heart? Baptism. When the Ethiopian worshiper of the Lord (who read the Old Testament and considered himself among Israel by traveling to Jerusalem to observe the festivals) came to faith in Christ and realized the fulfillment of the new covenant promises, what happened? He was baptized (Acts 8:36-39)! Like foreigners in the past wishing to join themselves to God’s covenant community, who received circumcision, here and in Acts 10:45-48 Gentiles instead received the sign of baptism. Both circumcision and baptism signify God’s covenants, mark inclusion into his covenant people (the church, the body of Christ; 1 Cor. 12:13), and place persons under God’s authority and ownership (this ownership and authority is likely what is meant by being baptized “in [or into] the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; Matt. 28:19).

Why baptism with water? Why not circumcision any more? (1) Blood-shedding was now done with, finished. Jesus’ shed blood has sufficed, and no more does blood need to be shed to point us to God’s redemption. Jesus’ death was referred to as a “circumcision” (Col. 2:11; note the link between circumcision and baptism here). (2) Water is highly illustrative of new covenant realities. Water is an agent of cleansing, showing the work of Christ to purify us from our sins. Special bathing made both priests and others ritually clean to approach God. Water was used in consecration to priesthood, and we are all now a “kingdom of priests” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6) who all have access to God to offer works of service. Water is linked to the “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit, who creates life and renewal (Ezek. 36:24-27; Joel 2:28 [Acts 2:]; Isa. 44:3-5; Rom 5:5).


Ted M. Gossard said...

First of all you communicate your position well, and I commend you for that.

How can water baptism be more than a symbol or sign? If it's a seal then it is the same as old covenant circumcision. But nowhere do I read in the New Testament that it's a seal.

The old covenant is the time of promise and looking ahead to the reality to come, so a rite as a seal was necessary and given by God.

The new covenant is the time of fulfillment and the promise of Abraham is the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or the blessing of the Spirit. The Spirit is the seal (Ephesians 1), not baptism.

So I have to ask again, How can water baptism be a seal? That would need to be demonstrated to me better. It's an erroneous assumption started by Calvin, I don't know- but also promulgated by a church who for centuries made water baptism into something that neither Jesus, Paul (1 Corinthians 1) or the New Testament makes it out to be.

What do you think, brother? (hope I'm not coming across as strident here, we all need some good vigorous theological challenge sometimes)

(my eyes are sore from having completed Witherington's book on baptism which I restarted today, but well worth the read!)

Andrew said...

"The old covenant is the time of promise and looking ahead to the reality to come, so a rite as a seal was necessary and given by God.

"The new covenant is the time of fulfillment and the promise of Abraham is the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or the blessing of the Spirit. The Spirit is the seal (Ephesians 1), not baptism."

Yes, promises of Abraham were coming to their fulfillment, but can we say that all aspects of the new covenant are presently fulfilled? I think not. Yes, the "fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11). But we are yet hoping for the full content of our salvation (Rom. 8:17-30). Most of our salvation--the consummation of the kingdom--has NOT yet come. We await our glorification, our freedom from sin, that final verdict of "Righteous!"

You say that we can't count baptism as a seal because it's not described as such in the NT. But I can't think of any place where baptism is directly called a "sign" or "symbol" either, yet you (and I) think of baptism as a symbol.

More than anything, I think the biggest thing of baptism is the act of RECEIVING the sign/seal/whatever. It's the rite that matters; Paul speaks about it always as an act, in verb form. Even in Rom. 6:3-4, where it's a noun, it has a much more "active" bent than words like "sign" or "seal" or "symbol" or anything like that. What do you think that means for baptism?

Ted M. Gossard said...


Thanks for the come backs. I'll try to answer them as I have time, one by one. I hope that by doing this, not necessarily to change your mind, but to make you think, since no theological position on water baptism is, I believe completely perfect. If it were, I tend to think this would be just a reflection of it being clear and agreed on (like the Trinity) from Scripture. I also think that Witherington helps us see that point quite clearly; I find his book helpful, even if I don't track or agree with him on everything.

I think you have to decide if there is indeed a Spirit baptism and a water baptism. In Acts this is very evident I think, at times water baptism like John's baptism coming first (Witherington thinks this is the norm but not the only) as in Acts 2:38-39. At other times water baptism done after the evident Spirit baptism, the Spirit coming upon the exercise of faith in the word (which I think is probably more the norm) as in Acts 10:44-48 and I quote Acts 11:15-17:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God's way?

Faith in the New Testament is consistently the way of receiving the Spirit.

The Spirit as you know is said to be a seal:

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:13-14

It is interesting that Paul says that Abraham "received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised." And while I don't think it's a stretch to call water baptism a sign pointing to the work of God in a believer's life, without being that work itself- after all humans administer water baptism- but pointing to the Spirit's work even the baptismal work of the Spirit in the washing of regeneration (water baptismal imagery used to portray or point to this transforming work of the Spirit), the reality or seal of the sign is the Spirit. Even though you are quite correct to say we're in the beginning of the time of fulfillment, yet we are in that time, the time of the new covenant.

Water baptism is surely a symbol of our union with Christ, a symbol of our participation with him in his death, by faith. The reality I take it as Christ's death and the Spirit's work as a result of that, inclusive of course, of Christ's resurrection. This was fulfilled at Pentecost and in the Church to this day in the gift and work of the Spirit, making us one Body in Christ.

Romans 6:3-4 I believe occurs when one places their faith in Christ in accordance with Romans 3-5. Water baptism portrays that, in fact water baptismal language is used for that, though we know it is grace through faith that this salvation and reality occurs, not by water baptism. I just can't believe it's only the believers who are water baptized who have experienced what Romans 6 speaks of, certainly the crucial matter is faith, of which baptism should follow (follow, I take it, rather than precede as paedo-Baptists would take it for their babies).

While in a way you're right, that we await most of our salvation, yet in a way I see that we have the guarantee of that, not from water baptism, but from the Spirit. And the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are God's children.

What flaws do I have here?