Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Sign of the Covenant (Part Five: The Sign Transformed)

This final installment will conclude my argument proper. All that is left is to demonstrate that circumcision is no longer the sign of the covenant. Christ instead has commanded baptism as the sign of membership in the covenant. This final post will be considerably shorter for this reason: As I will argue, I don't think Baptists disagree with this point (although they might protest a bit).

I think we all agree that there is a sign of membership, and that this sign is baptism. If you are a Baptist and you disagree, speak up! I think there may be some that will argue about this, but in the end they implicitly agree. Why do I say that? Because every Baptist church of which I have ever been a member or of which I have ever heard requires baptism in order to be admitted as a member. Since they do not believe in baptismal regeneration, it is perfectly consistent to argue that they see this as a sign of entrance and membership into the covenant community. This is further established by the argument that they make with regard to Jeremiah 31/Hebrews 8. Their argument is that we cannot give baptism to infants because infants are no longer members of the covenant community. This argument assumes that baptism is the sign of covenant membership. Otherwise it is hard to see what support Jeremiah 31/Hebrews 8 has to offer the Baptist argument. And since we both agree that Baptism is now the sign of covenant membership, I'm not compelled to make an extended defense of the point in this post.

There is a finer point that will come up, however. Since we (and here I mean Presbyterians) believe that it is a sign of covenant membership, and since we believe (as do the Baptists) that circumcision was the OC sign of membership, we Presbyterians believe it is legitimate to take the principles found in the narrative surrounding baptism and bring those principles forward to the NT. This is legitimized by a single little word in the Hebrew of Genesis 17: Olam. Forever. While the outward form of the sign has changed, the thing signified has not. The covenant established with Abraham is an eternal covenant. It has Christ as its head (the one through whom the promises of the covenant are fulfilled). As such, the sign is commanded forever. So although that outward form changed, the principles underlying it did not. It is for our children. It is forever. It is about God's faithfulness to his promises, not about being our public profession of faith.

(On a side note, wouldn't circumcision be an odd sign to use for a public profession?)

Baptists, who, as I've demonstrated above, do see baptism as a sign of membership in the people of God, and do believe that circumcision was this sign in the OT, often do not wish to draw a parallel between the two signs. This is typically for two reasons. First, they do not believe that the church is Israel. They believe there are two people of God in redemptive history. Circumcision was the sign for Israel. Baptism is the sign for the church. If they were correct about God having two people, this might be a formidable argument. However, as we have seen, the division of the one people of God is a terrible mistake of exegesis and cannot be sustained. In fact, fewer and fewer dispensationalists (the group that started this theory) are even trying to argue for the separation anymore. They have incrementally withdrawn from this position over the past 50 years.

An alternative reason for softening or disregarding any parallels is a view called New Covenant Theology. This view uses Jeremiah 31/Hebrews 8 in order to make the argument that the one people of God is now entirely composed of regenerate people. These passages speak of a New Covenant that God will make with his people. Under this New Covenant the people will no longer be covenant breakers. They will no longer need to teach one another to know God because they will all know God. Hebrews 8 says that this New Covenant has superceded the Old Covenant, and is better than the OC. For this reason, these Baptists will argue that the prophecy of Jeremiah 31 has been completely fulfilled. The one people of God is now only the regenerate. And since the composition has changed, commands with regard to the circumcision of infants are no longer valid. (I've yet to get any answer to the question of what God meant in Gen 17 when he said your infants are to receive the sign "forever").

There are several problems with this view. First, the prophecies of Jeremiah have only been partially fulfilled. Certainly the New Covenant has been inaugurated by Christ (Luke 22:20). This has made certain aspects of the NC a present reality. But it has not changed the makeup of the community, which is still a visible community composed of regenerate and unregenerate people, as I've argued from Scripture (Matthew 13, 1 John 2:19). While those espousing the NC view often accuse us of an under-realized eschatology (in other words, failing to recognize that the promises are ours now), Scripture and experience tell us that theirs is in fact an over-realized eschatology (they claim too much for themselves right now). We instead find that the promises of Jeremiah are finally fulfilled in Rev 20-22. As for Hebrews 8, most of the most widely read and highly appreciated commentaries are in agreement: The OC is passing away, but is not yet deceased.*

The second problem with this view is that it makes it impossible to appropriately administer baptism. Since baptism is a sign given to the covenant community, and since (by their view) this community is only made up of the regenerate, and since we cannot know who is regenerate, then how can the sign be applied to anyone? Baptism is a visible sign. It must be applied to a visible community. But the New Covenant view of the community is that it is invisible. And here's the kicker: So they must apply the sign to the visible community. They argue that the sign is only for the invisible community, but are forced to apply it to the visible. You can feel their tension when they speak of trying to overcome this. They speak of doing their best to make sure the person is regenerate. While admirable in its own way, this only highlights the problem. Despite their best efforts, they admittedly will make mistakes. And for those that have been in the Baptist church, you will probably recognize how rampant these mistakes can be. Here is an article just written by a Baptist pointing to the problem of rebaptism in their churches, just as an example. If the standard for baptism is regeneration, no Baptist should baptize anyone with a clear conscience. And their attempts to separate the weeds from the wheat seem contrary to Christ's instruction in Matthew 13 (a parable about the kingdom, which is the church). The closest the NT comes to giving us license to do this is only after they are members, and then we call it discipline. Even this, however, is not based upon regenerate or unregenerate status. Otherwise, not knowing their status, we could never exercise discipline! Instead it is based upon covenant keeping and covenant breaking.

Additionally, Paul connects the concepts of circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12. He says the Christians at Colossae had been circumcised. But this circumcision was not physical, it was spiritual. It was the circumcision of the heart spoken of in the OT. But when? When had this happened? Paul says in vs 12 it happened when they were buried with Christ in baptism. Paul says they were circumcised by baptism. This links the two signs in a significant way. It equates them as to their meaning. True circumcision in the OT was circumcision of the heart. But this is no sign (since it is invisible!). The sign of such was given to the visible community. Being buried with Christ in baptism (the spiritual reality of it) is no sign. It's the invisible reality that must be signified. But we give this visible sign itself to the visible community. Just as the two (circumcision and baptism) are spiritually the same, they are connected in their physical application as well.

So it appears that the argument isn't really about whether or not baptism replaced circumcision. Both sides agree that both are signs of covenant membership, and Paul connects the two logically in Colossians. So in some sense it certainly did. The argument is really only about who should receive this sign. I have tried to establish in my previous posts that children were once commanded by God to receive it forever, and that nothing has since transpired to rescind that order. Therefore our children are to receive the sign, and that sign is baptism.

As I said, this concludes my argument proper. In my next post I will line up some of the most common Baptist arguments and offer a response. In my conclusion I will offer the entire argument summarized in a single paragraph with Scripture proofs as applied in these posts.

* Harold Attridge (Hermeneia); Philip Hughes (Eerdmans); Paul Ellingworth (New International Greek Testament Commentary) to name but a few.


Jared Nelson said...

The early church would agree with linking circumcision and baptism. Justin Martyr (in the 100s) did so in his Dialogue with Typho (XIV, XIX) and Cyprian (in the 200s) dealt with a problem in Carthage where people wanted to know if they needed to wait until the 8th day to baptize like circumcision. It lets you know how the early church view the relationship between baptism and circumcision.

Matthew Bradley said...

Nice. I'm already working on my next post and have included a brief section on the historical objection.

M. Jay Bennett said...

On a side note, wouldn't circumcision be an odd sign to use for a public profession?

That's hysterical! If circumcision were still the sign of entrance, adult converts from paganism would probably be far more committed on the front end.