Volume 35 - Issue 1

Does Baptism Replace Circumcision? An Examination of the Relationship between Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2:11–12

By Martin Salter


Reformed paedobaptists frequently cite Col 2:11–12 as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities. For example, question 74 in the Heidelberg Catechism asks...

Reformed paedobaptists frequently cite Col 2:11–12 as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities. For example, question 74 in the Heidelberg Catechism asks,

Q. Should infants, too, be baptized?

A. Yes. For they as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and community (Gen. 17:7) and no less than adults are promised forgiveness of sin through Christ’s blood (Matt. 19:14) and the Holy Spirit, who produces faith (Ps. 22:10; Is. 44:1–3; Luke 1:15; Acts 2:39; 16:31).

Therefore, they, too, ought to be incorporated into the Christian church by baptism, the sign of the covenant, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers (Acts 10:47; 1 Cor. 7:14). This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), in whose place baptism was instituted in the New Testament (Col. 2:11–13).1

Likewise, Col 2:11–12 has often been invoked in significant paedobaptist defences:

These words remind us that salvation comes through faith, and also that the rite of circumcision that once signified the benefits of Abraham’s covenant has been replaced by baptism.2

Paul here names baptism ‘the Christian circumcision’ and describes it thereby as the Christian sacrament which corresponds to Jewish circumcision and replaces it.3

What do these words mean, except that the fulfilment and truth of baptism are also the truth and fulfilment of circumcision, since they signify one and the same thing?4

This brief sample represents how frequently those who claim that baptism replaces circumcision appeal to Col 2:11–12.5 Although people frequently make the above assertions, they seldom defend them with exegetical care.6 The purpose of this article is to examine whether these verses prove that baptism replaces circumcision. To that end I briefly examine the Sitz im Leben of the epistle followed by a concise examination of Paul’s theology of circumcision and baptism. Most space will be given to the exegesis of Col 2:11–12 before summarising the argument and drawing some conclusions.7

The thesis is that the paedobaptist understanding of Col 2:11–12 is illegitimate. First, we shall see that the verses are primarily polemical and thus require caution in drawing firm conclusions regarding sacramentology. Second, I will argue that there is a disjunction for Paul between physical and spiritual circumcision, and it is the latter to which Col 2:11 refers. Third, I shall demonstrate that ‘circumcision’ and baptism do not signify precisely the same realities in these verses. This issue is important and relevant for church practice. If baptism replaces circumcision and signifies the same realities, then as a covenant sign it ought to be administered to infants of covenant members. If, however, we can demonstrate that such a link does not exist, it calls into question practices based upon such a connection, to the extent that they rely on Col 2:11–12.

1. The Situation at Colossae

It is worth briefly considering the situation at Colossae to see if this illuminates the purpose, function, and meaning of Col 2:11–12, particularly if Col 2:8–23 is viewed as the ‘polemical core’ of the epistle.8 The contours of the ‘heresy’ have been variously understood, with some disputing the existence of false teachers completely.9 DeMaris surveys the range of opinion on the ‘heresy’ which spans Gnosticism, asceticism, mysticism and syncretism, among others.10 The clearest statements are to be found in Col 2:8–23,11 with evidence of a particularly Jewish influence as follows:

  1. Mention of festivals, food, purity, and Sabbaths (2:16–21) are all distinctively Jewish elements.12
  2. ‘Circumcision’ appears three times (2:11, 13; 3:11) suggesting it was a contentious issue in Colossae.
  3. Θρησκείᾳ τῶν á¼?γγέλων (2:18), particularly if τῶν á¼?γγέλων is taken as a subjective genitive, has a strong Jewish background.13
  4. The Lycus valley, it is argued, had substantial Jewish minorities.14

It may be that Dunn and Witherington are correct in viewing the heresy as essentially Jewish mysticism influenced by Greek philosophy;15 at the least it is syncretistic.16 It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that there was some sort of Jewish element present within the ‘philosophy’. Thus the inclusion of rites-language within the ‘polemical core’ may well have been a direct response to opponents, or at least a preemptive strike against false teachers imposing certain rites as essential. Paul’s purpose is not to discuss baptism or circumcision per se, but rather to include them within the section highlighting the fullness already possessed in Christ through all he has accomplished.

2. A Pauline Theology of Baptism and Circumcision

This section’s topic is a significantly larger topic than this article’s topic.17 However, a brief consideration of Paul’s views of circumcision and baptism may illuminate our understanding of his use of them in Col 2:11–12.

2.1. Paul’s View of Baptism

Paul’s understanding of baptism can be grouped into three main areas:

1. Baptism symbolises washing, cleansing, and regeneration (1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26; Tit 3:5). First Corinthians 6:11 describes believers as washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God. There is debate as to whether the rite of baptism is in view, but the majority of scholars think it is.18 The mention of washing along with ‘in the name of Jesus’ echoes Acts 22:16, which clearly refers to baptism, and by the mid-50s notions of washing would have likely brought the rite of baptism to mind.

Ephesians 5:26 may also link ‘cleansing’ to baptism. O’Brien thinks it more likely uses the imagery of the bride-bath given the context, but that does not rule out baptism.19 Rather baptism is being spoken of as the cleansing bath that prepares the Church for her bridegroom.20 The reference to baptism is primary, with the notion of a bridal bath secondary.21

Finally, Tit 3:5 links the ‘washing of rebirth’ with the eschatological, saving work of God.22 Commentators divide here into those who see baptism functioning ex opere operato and those who react against this, denying any reference to water-baptism.23 Is it possible that spiritual baptism and the outward rite are both in view, hence Paul’s choice of terminology? Noteworthy is the close link between baptism, sanctification, and new birth as a complex in Paul’s usage.24

2. Baptism incorporates us into the body of Christ (1 Cor 1:13; 12:13; Gal 3:27). Galatians 3:27 speaks of the baptized person as having ‘put on Christ’ (esv). Paul says in 1 Corinthians that they were baptized into the name and body of Christ (1:13; 12:13). For Paul, baptism binds and unites us to Christ and is seen as an initiation into the one body. This is almost certainly speaking of conversion since 1 Cor 12:13b adds, ‘all were made to drink of one Spirit’, and Spirit-reception is a mark of beginning the Christian life (cf. Gal 3:1–5).25 Again, Paul’s lack of concern to distinguish water- and Spirit-baptism should be noted from 1 Cor 12:12–13.26

3. Baptism unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:1–11; Col 2:11–12). It is more than just a picture of our own dying and rising—rather, it is symbolic of our union with Christ.27 In Rom 6:3–4, baptism describes the believer’s participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.28 Moo goes so far as to say baptism is the ‘instrument through which we are buried with him’.29 Thus, for Paul, baptism effects a vital union with Christ. Again, there is debate as to whether Spirit- or water-baptism is in view. As with previous verses discussed, this seeks to neatly distinguish what would have been held together in the early church.30 For Paul and the early Christians baptism and conversion were held together.31

2.2. Paul’s View of Circumcision

We now consider more briefly Paul’s view of circumcision. Paul’s discussions of circumcision are frequently negative. It is easier to construct what Paul says circumcision does not do rather than what it does. In Rom 2:25–29, physical circumcision anticipates the true circumcision of the heart, and inner not outer circumcision defines the ‘true’ Jew.32 The value of physical circumcision exists only if the law is perfectly obeyed (cf. Gal 5:2–3). Once it is broken, circumcision becomes uncircumcision (Rom 2:25; 3:2).33 Thus Paul distinguishes between physical and spiritual circumcision.34

There is a trio of verses that all begin with the phrase ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything’ (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15). The second half of those verses present the antithesis—keeping the commandments (1 Cor 7:19); faith working through love (Gal 5:6); and new creation (Gal 6:15). Inner as opposed to outer is what counts so that Paul can say the ‘true circumcision’ are those who worship by the Spirit (Phil 3:3). The disjunction between the outer rite and the inner reality is made plain.

Positively, physical circumcision is a sign and seal of faith in the case of Abraham (Rom 4:11). Some paedobaptists appeal to this to defend the idea that just as circumcision is a seal linked to faith, so too baptism.35 However, this verse is speaking descriptively about Abraham and not prescriptively about his seed.36 Abraham’s descendants are circumcised as a seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, not because they themselves have faith. Actually all this verse would prove is ‘believer’s circumcision’.

2.3. Significance

The significance of this all-too-brief outline of Paul’s theology of baptism and circumcision is as follows. First, when we encounter baptismal language in Col 2:12, we must remember that divorcing the spiritual from the ritual is unusual in Paul.37 Second, baptism sits within a complex of events, including regeneration, cleansing, incorporation, repentance, faith, reception of the Spirit, and so on.38 Third, there is a distinction in Paul’s writings between physical and spiritual circumcision. Thus we have already begun to see that a close analogy between physical circumcision and baptism is questionable. We shall now look at Col 2:11–12 for a more precise picture of the relationship between circumcision and baptism.

3. Exegesis of Colossians 2:11–12

Although ascertaining section breaks within 2:6–4:6 is not easy,39 it seems reasonable to see vv. 8–23 as a section, comprised of vv. 8–15, which is the positive argument against the ‘philosophy’ outlining the completeness of the spiritual victory we have in Christ, and vv. 16–23, which repeats the warning but supplies the negative side, outlining the erroneous teaching of the false teachers.40 Within vv. 8–15, v. 10 gives the grounds for not being taken captive (‘you are in Christ’), and v. 11 specifies the reason for this union (the activity of Christ in ‘circumcising’ and ‘baptising’ the Colossians).41 The ‘in him’ language ‘runs like a scarlet thread through the passage’ and serves to reinforce the point that Christians appropriate all blessing and ‘fullness’ by virtue of their union with Christ.42 If the Colossians were being encouraged to embrace new teachings or practices as a means to a more complete spirituality, Paul in vv. 8–23 demonstrates that in Christ they have all the fullness and completeness required.43 We now turn to address five key questions pertaining to the referents of, and relationship between, the ‘circumcision’ and baptism. The first three questions consider the ‘circumcision’ of v. 11. Questions four and five consider the baptism of v. 12 and its relationship to the ‘circumcision’.

3.1. What Is the ‘Circumcision Made without Hands’ (περιτομá¿? á¼?χειροποιήτῳ—v. 11)?

What does it mean to be circumcised with a circumcision made without hands? The use of the aorist passive περιετμήθητε demonstrates that the Colossians were the object of the circumcision with God as implied agent and that in context Paul views the action as a single past constative action at the time of conversion.44 Unlike the circumcision of the OT that the Judaizers possibly promoted, it was performed without hands and ‘plainly opposed to that which is made with hands’.45 O’Brien suggests á¼?χειροποιήτῳ is used specifically to refer to what is God’s work alone, a point underscored by the use of the aforementioned passive verbs.46

What is in view is spiritual circumcision, a circumcision of the heart that the OT promised (Lev 26:41–42; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7; Rom 2:28–29; Phil 3:3). Here the contrast between the physical and spiritual needs to be drawn out. God gave physical circumcision to the seed of Abraham as a sign and seal of his covenant with Abraham. It did not equate with spiritual circumcision. Rather, God calls the physically circumcised to circumcise their hearts in Deut 10:16 and later promises to do the job himself (Deut 30:6). In context, this is a promise of grace for after their return from exile (see Deut 30:1–5).47 The Deuteronomic history plays out the failure of Israel to circumcise their hearts, and it is the Deuteronomic prophet Jeremiah who promises that it will ultimately come with the New Covenant (Jer 31:31–34).48 Thus, the circumcision without hands is the new covenant fulfillment of an old covenant promise. Physical circumcision is a type that anticipates the circumcision of the heart.49 As Beasley-Murray says, ‘The prophetic call for heart circumcision is a pictorial application of the rite, not an exposition of its meaning’.50 This is ‘spiritual surgery performed on Christ’s followers at the time of their regeneration’.51 Exactly what is cut away will be seen in examining the next phrase.

Dunn suggests that the use of circumcision language here indicates that circumcision was a presenting threat in Colossae.52 Given what has been said regarding the Sitz im Leben, there are sufficient Jewish elements present in the ‘philosophy’ to suppose that circumcision could have played some part in the problems facing the Colossians. Even if there was no specific false teaching on circumcision, Paul could still be making a preemptive strike, given his teaching on the subject elsewhere (e.g., Gal 1:8–9; 5:12; 6:15).

3.2. What Is the ‘Body of Flesh’ (σÏ?ματος τá¿?ς σαρκÏ?ς—v. 11)?

What then does God cut away in this spiritual circumcision? The ‘body of flesh’.53 There are three major options for the referent of this phrase. First, it could stand for the sinful nature,54 which is how the TNIV renders it: ‘Your sinful nature was put off’. ‘Flesh’ is frequently used in an ethical sense in Paul (Col 2:18; Rom 8:5–7; 13:14; Eph 2:3), and the ‘body of flesh’ would be equivalent to the ‘body of sin’ in Rom 6:6.55 Second, Lohse suggests that the phrase refers to ‘the human body in its earthly frailty wherein it is subject to suffering, death, and dissolution’.56 The ‘body of flesh’ would be equivalent to the ‘body of death’ in Rom. 7:24.57 The third interpretation views the phrase as referring to Christ’s physical body which was stripped off—a gruesome metaphor for his death.58 O’Brien describes it as ‘not the stripping off of a small portion of flesh but the violent removal of the whole body in death’.59 Frequently noted is the almost identical expression (á¼?ν τá¿· σÏ?ματι τá¿?ς σαρκὸς αá½?τοῦ) in 1:22, which clearly refers to Christ’s physical body.60

Two problems arise with this third interpretation. First, the absence of αá½?τοῦ, unlike 1:22, suggests that the phrase more naturally refers to the body of Christians.61 O’Brien responds that the omission may be due to the close connection between believer and Christ or because the words ‘of Christ’ in the following phrase make it clear.62 Neither of these is persuasive. The union with Christ mentioned at the start of the verse and mention of Christ at the end hardly make it clear that we are talking about Christ’s death. Such a usage would be ambiguous and susceptible to misunderstanding. Second, it is alleged that taking the ‘body of flesh’ as referring to Christ’s physical body is ‘dangerously close to a kind of docetic idea in which Christ’s body is a negative encumbrance to be disposed of’.63 To this accusation O’Brien responds that Paul could simply be underscoring that Christ’s death was gruesome and violent.64 Perhaps so, but that raises the further question of why Paul would employ such a gruesome metaphor here. It appears nowhere else in the NT and does not fit the mood of the argument. The first view appears most likely, given the connection between trespass and spiritual deadness in 2:13, and the similar phrase employing the same verb in 3:9.65 The ‘stripping off’ of the ‘body of flesh’ in the ‘circumcision made without hands’ refers to the putting off of the sinful nature as the ‘old man’ dies.66

The preposition at the start of the phrase could be epexegetical, temporal, or instrumental, depending largely on how one understands the object. I take it to be epexegetical, further concretising the more abstract περιτομá¿? á¼?χειροποιήτῳ. The double preposition (á¼?ποÌ? and á¼?κ) on the front of á¼?πεκδÏ?σει has an intensifying or perfective force,67 demonstrating the totality of the spiritual transformation.68 Again, the contrast to the physical rite, in which just a small piece of flesh is removed, is explicit.

3.3. What Is the ‘Circumcision of Christ’ (τá¿? περιτομá¿? τοῦ Χριστοῦ—v. 11)?

The issues addressed with the previous phrase go some way to outlining and answering the difficulties with this one. The way one interprets the phrase depends in large measure on the way one understands the genitive τοῦ Χριστοῦ. There are three main possibilities. First, it could be an objective genitive, speaking of Christ’s death under the metaphor of circumcision’.69 O’Brien notes this pattern found elsewhere in Paul, that Christ died, was buried, and was raised (1 Cor 15:3–4; Rom 6:3–4).70 The problem is that Paul has been talking about what happened in and to the Colossians, not for them; what Christ did for them comes in 2:13b–14.71 Second, it may be a subjective genitive—a circumcision that Christ effects.72 The TNIV reads ‘circumcision performed by Christ’. Third, it may be a possessive genitive—Christ’s circumcision or Christian circumcision.73 Barcellos contends ‘either of these last two options fits the context better than the first option’.74 The third option does not preclude the second. It could belong to and be performed by Christ.75 ‘It is Christ’s circumcision, as opposed to Moses’, the Fathers’, or anyone else’s. It is Christian or New Covenant circumcision because it is under the authority and administration of Christ’.76

It is this third option which appears the most natural and appropriate to the context. As Wright observes, ‘the context requires that Paul say something about what has happened to the Colossians in their becoming Christians’.77 Perhaps, countering false teachers, the superiority of the one who performed their circumcision is stressed.78

So far I have argued that the Colossians have received a ‘spiritual/‘Christian’ circumcision’, namely, the stripping away of their sinful nature/old man, which has been performed by Christ at the time of conversion. These first three questions have served to draw out the contrast drawn by Paul between physical, done-by-human-hands circumcision, which strips away a small piece of flesh and ‘belongs’ to the Patriarchs, and the spiritual, not-done-by-human-hands circumcision, belonging to and performed by Christ, which strips away the entire ‘old man’.

Therefore, if there is a replacement-motif, it is between the physical, done-by-human-hands circumcision and the spiritual, performed-by-Christ circumcision. If Paul here is responding to specific false teaching, or even acting preemptively, the question he is asking is ‘Why would you need physical circumcision when you have been circumcised spiritually by Christ?’ Having noted Paul’s contrast between physical and spiritual circumcision, we move now to consider the ‘baptism’ of v. 12 and its relationship to the ‘circumcision’.

3.4. What Does Baptism Signify in Verse 12?

That baptism signifies a burial is made clear from the start of v. 12: συνταφέντες αá½?τá¿· á¼?ν τá¿· βαπτισμá¿·. But does baptism signify more than just burial? To answer that, we need to inquire about the antecedent of the relative pronoun (á¼?ν ᾧ) in v. 12. If the pronoun refers to baptism, then the ‘raising’ (συνηγέρθητε) is included. If, however, the relative pronoun goes back to Christ, as in v. 11, only the burial is connected to baptism. Dunn thinks it is the latter, that the pronoun refers back to Christ as ‘the fourth of the sequence of “in him, in whom” phrases around which this hymn-like snatch has been composed’.79 There are, however, problems with this. First, it seems the obvious parallel to á¼?ν ᾧ . . . συνηγέρθητε is the immediately preceding συνταφέντες . . . á¼?ν τá¿· βαπτισμá¿·. Otherwise we may have expected ηγέρθητε instead of συνηγέρθητε.80 Further, as Moo notes, it would be somewhat awkward to be ‘raised with him in him.’81 Finally, it seems more natural to see the καιÌ? as connecting συνηγέρθητε and συνταφέντες, rather than the further removed περιετμήθητε.82 Therefore the relative pronoun (á¼?ν ᾧ) in v. 12 refers to baptism, and thus baptism signifies both a ‘burial’ and a ‘resurrection’. The use of the aorist tense for συνηγέρθητε, as with the previous verbs in vv. 11–12, highlights the present reality of the Colossians’ new life in Christ.

3.5. How Does the ‘Baptism’ (v. 12) Relate to the ‘Circumcision’ (v. 11)?

So how does Paul relate baptism, with its burial and resurrection, to the spiritual, performed-by-Christ circumcision in Col 2:11–12? Resolving this question depends upon the temporal relationship of the adverbial participle συνταφέντες to the main verb περιετμήθητε. Is the ‘burial’ antecedent, contemporaneous, or subsequent to the ‘circumcision’?

The antecedent option is unlikely as this would make the ‘circumcision’ dependent upon baptism and place the burial before the ‘stripping off’.83

Barcellos favours the subsequent option: the old man was ‘stripped off’ before burial with Christ in baptism.84 This retains the ‘death, burial, resurrection’ motif except the death in view here is of the old man, not Christ. While this view is attractive, it is not without significant problems. Anderson’s work on this particular participial construction demonstrates that the most significant deictic markers are genre and word order.85 In the Pauline corpus, where an aorist participle follows an aorist main verb, as here, the participle is contemporaneous with the main verb in over 75% of occurrences, with only 1.9% being subsequent.86 This strongly suggests that Barcellos’ view, although possible, is unlikely, and that the best way to understand the participle in Col 2:12 is contemporaneous relative to the main verb.87 Thus, the ‘circumcision’/‘stripping off’ takes place contemporaneous to the ‘burial’ and ‘resurrection’.88

This raises the further question of manner of contemporaneity. Are the two events—burial (and resurrection) in baptism and ‘circumcision’—synonymous or separate or does one happen within the sphere of the other? This may be represented diagrammatically as follows:

The first option (fig. 1) seems difficult since the ‘circumcision’ is a stripping off whereas the baptism is a burial and resurrection. The second option (fig. 2) is possible but perhaps divides the complex of events too neatly. Baptism occurring within the sphere of circumcision (fig. 3) is also unlikely as the resurrection would have to occur within the sphere of the ‘stripping off.’ Circumcision within the sphere of baptism is the most favourable option, particularly given the close link between Col 2:11–12 and Rom 6:3–6.89 In Rom 6:3–4, Paul includes death (as well as burial and resurrection) in his description of baptism. I have already argued that the ‘stripping off’ in Col 2:11 stands for the death of the old man. So Rom 6:3–4 refers to ‘death-burial-resurrection’, whereas Col 2:11–12 refers to ‘circumcision-burial-resurrection’.90 Therefore it seems the ‘circumcision’ in Col 2:11 is parallel to the ‘death’ of Rom 6:3 and should be viewed as occurring within the sphere of baptism. The old man is crucified/stripped off with Christ, buried, and raised with him to newness of life.91 The ‘circumcision-made-without-hands’ is a part of what baptism signifies. Baptism, thus, includes the ‘death’ that is circumcision here, but signifies more, namely, burial and resurrection. While there is a connection, therefore, between spiritual circumcision and baptism, they do not signify precisely the same realities.

Scholarship is divided over whether the baptism referred to is physical or spiritual. As has already been argued, ‘any attempt to distinguish between Spirit baptism and water baptism in the Pauline writings goes beyond what Paul himself wrote’.92 Moo also argues that by the mid-60s ‘baptism’ had become a ‘technical expression for the Christian rite of initiation by water’ and that this seems the most likely way the Colossians would have understood it.93 Thus, Paul links the sign and the thing signified closely together. The NT connects faith, repentance, the gift of the Spirit, and baptism closely together, implying the presence of all of them in each instance.94 Such is the functional unity in Paul between these things that it is difficult to see how one could occur without the presence of the others.

3.6. Summary

In summary, Paul’s aim in this wider passage (vv. 8–15) is to give assurance to his readers of the ‘fullness’ they have received in Christ so that they will not be taken captive by the hollow and deceptive philosophy. Verses 11–12 explain how the fullness of v. 10 comes about. They have been circumcised with a circumcision not done by human hands, consisting in the stripping off of the old man, performed by and belonging to Christ. All this stands in stark contrast to the physical rite which was perhaps being imposed by the false teachers. This ‘Christ-circumcision’ is a part of the death-burial-resurrection that baptism signifies. Given the link with Rom 6:3–6, baptism (both water- and Spirit-baptism) is the sphere in which ‘spiritual circumcision’ occurs, yet they do not signify precisely the same realities. Baptism incorporates the believer, by faith, into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. If there is a replacement motif present in these verses, it is the replacement of physical circumcision by spiritual circumcision rendering the former unnecessary.95 In the sphere of baptism, the spiritual fulfillment of the physical rite is effected.

4. Conclusion

We began by noting the frequent appeal made by paedobaptists to Col 2:11–12 to demonstrate that baptism replaces circumcision, signifying the same spiritual realities. This article demonstrates that to be an illegitimate interpretation of the text.96

First, a consideration of the Sitz im Leben suggests the presence of Jewish elements in the false teaching and that the polemical core (2:8–23) addresses some of those issues. Therefore, mention of circumcision in Col 2 is primarily polemical not sacramental.

Second, an examination of Paul’s theology of baptism and circumcision demonstrates that there is a disjunction between physical and spiritual circumcision. It is the latter which is referred to in Col 2 and which Paul relates to baptism.

Third, the exegesis shows that spiritual circumcision and baptism do not signify precisely the same realities.97 Baptism includes spiritual circumcision but also signifies more, namely, burial and resurrection.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this. First, paedobaptists should not appeal to this passage as evidence of baptism replacing circumcision, signifying the same realities. The replacement and fulfillment of circumcision is spiritual circumcision. Baptism is the sphere in which this occurs.

Second and connected to this, baptism and spiritual circumcision are connected with spiritual cleansing and new life. In this respect they are unlike physical circumcision, which is sharply distinguished from spiritual circumcision and its concomitant realities. Paedobaptists have blurred the distinction between the physical and spiritual that Paul sees so clearly.

Third, both sides of the debate would do well to approach these verses with caution, appreciating that they are concerned primarily with addressing false teaching, not with providing the church with a theology of baptism.

  1. ^ Cited in Lyle D. Bierma, ‘Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions’, in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (ed. Gregg Strawbridge; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 233 (italics added). Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.1c.
  2. ^ Bryan Chapell, ‘A Pastoral Overview of Infant Baptism’, in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (ed. Gregg Strawbridge; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 17 (italics original).
  3. ^ Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (trans. David Cairns; LHD; London: SCM, 1960), 39.
  4. ^ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.: LCC 20–21; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.16.11 (Battles 2:1333).
  5. ^ Other authors who appeal to Col 2:11–12 to prove that baptism replaces circumcision include Robert R. Booth, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), 107; Oscar Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (trans. J. K. S. Reid; SBT 1; London: SCM, 1950), 58–59; Paul D. Gardner, ‘Circumcised in Baptism—Raised Through Faith: A Note on Col 2:11–12’, WTJ 45 (1983): 172–77; Mark E. Ross, ‘Baptism and Circumcision as Signs and Seals’, in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (ed. Gregg Strawbridge; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 102–3.
  6. ^ Of the twenty works I consulted that appeal to Col 2:11–12 to prove that baptism replaces circumcision, only Gardner, ‘Circumcised in Baptism’, provides sustained exegesis.
  7. ^ While this essay does not give space to patristic interpretations, it is worth noting that not until the mid-fourth century was Col 2:11–12 cited as an argument for infant baptism (J. P. T. Hunt, ‘Colossians 2:11–12, the Circumcision/Baptism Analogy, and Infant Baptism’, TynBul 41 [1990]: 227).
  8. ^ Richard E. DeMaris, The Colossian Controversy: Wisdom in Dispute at Colossae (JSNTSup 96; Sheffield: JSOT, 1994), 41.
  9. ^ For example, M. Hooker, ‘Were There False Teachers in Colossae?’ in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (ed. B. Lindars and S. Smalley; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 315–31. Most scholars, however, accept that there was some kind of false teaching present in Colossae.
  10. ^ DeMaris, Colossian Controversy, 18–40. Gunther’s list runs to forty-four possibilities regarding the ‘philosophy’. John J. Gunther, St. Paul’s Opponents and their Background (NovTSup 35; Leiden: Brill, 1973), 3–5.
  11. ^ Ibid., 45. Douglas J. Moo (The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon [Pillar NT Commentary; Nottingham: Apollos, 2008], 51) sketches them out as follows:
    • Hollow, deceptive philosophy based upon human tradition (2:8)
    • Mention of the στοιχεá¿?α (2:8)
    • Does not depend on Christ and has lost connection with the head (2:8, 19)
    • Mention of foods and holy days (2:16)
    • Presence of asceticism and angel worship (2:18, 23)
    • Mention of visions and pride in them (2:18)
    • Involves obedience to human precepts (2:20–23)
  12. ^ David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 29.
  13. ^ T. Lev. 3:4–8; Asc. Is. 7:19; 1 En. 36:4. For the argument for taking τῶν á¼?γγέλων as a subjective genitive, see Fred O. Francis, ‘Humility and Angelic Worship in Col 2:18’, in Conflict at Colossae (ed. Fred O. Francis and Wayne A. Meeks; 2d ed.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1975), 176–81; pace Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 100, who argues for an objective genitive.
  14. ^ James D. G. Dunn, ‘The Colossian Philosophy: A Confident Jewish Apologia’, Bib 76 (1995): 154.
  15. ^ Dunn, ‘Colossian Philosophy’, 166; Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 110.
  16. ^ Arnold, Colossian Syncretism, 90–98.
  17. ^ For a fuller treatment, see F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (2d ed.; 1977; repr., Exeter: Paternoster, 1983); 280–83; James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998); 442–59; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (trans. John Richard de Witt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 396–414; Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul (trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray; Oxford: Blackwell, 1964); Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 371–79.
  18. ^ Fee does not see an explicit reference to the rite of baptism here but concedes he is in the minority. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT: Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987), 247n38. Those who do see a reference to baptism here include C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (BNTC; London: A&C Black, 1968), 141; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 215–16. Thiselton is also happy to see a reference to baptism here but in its broadest terms, i.e., the ‘spiritual event of which baptism constitutes the sign’. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 453–54.
  19. ^ Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Pillar NT Commentary; Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), 422–23. Authors who do see a reference to baptism here include Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 542–43; J. C. Kirby, Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost (London: SPCK, 1968), 151–52; Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC 42; Dallas: Word, 1990), 375.
  20. ^ Schnackenburg, Baptism, 5.
  21. ^ Lincoln, Ephesians, 375.
  22. ^ Ridderbos, Paul, 398.
  23. ^ Those who take a Catholic sacramentalist view include Raymond F. Collins, I and II Timothy and Titus (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 364; Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus (AB 35; New York: Doubleday, 1990), 217. For a Protestant reaction, see I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 318; William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC 46; Nashville: Nelson, 2000), 448–49.
  24. ^ Dunn, Theology of Paul, 443–47; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 216.
  25. ^ Thomas R. Schreiner, ‘Baptism in the Epistles: An Initiation Rite for Believers’, in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant (ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright: Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 72.
  26. ^ Cross argues that 1 Cor 12:13 refers to both Spirit- and water-baptism by way of synecdoche. Anthony R. Cross, ‘Spirit- and Water-Baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13’, in Dimensions of Baptism (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross; JSNTSup 234; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 120–48.
  27. ^ Ridderbos, Paul, 403–4.
  28. ^ Schreiner, Romans, 309.
  29. ^ Moo, Romans, 364. Wright also describes it as ‘the event in which this dying and rising is accomplished’. N. T. Wright, ‘The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections’, in NIB (vol. 10; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 533.
  30. ^ I. Howard Marshall, ‘The Meaning of the Verb “Baptize,”’ in Dimensions of Baptism (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross; JSNTSup 234; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 9. Commentators who consider water-baptism to have been in view here include James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8 (WBC 38A; Dallas: Word, 1988), 313; Moo, Romans, 359; Wright, Romans, 533.
  31. ^ Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1981), 756.
  32. ^ Moo, Romans, 167.
  33. ^ Moo, Romans, 168. The context of Rom 2:17–3:8 is one in which Jewish people thought themselves spared from the wrath of God on the basis of nationality, covenant membership, and circumcision. Moo Romans, 166–67.
  34. ^ Some may object that Paul’s purpose in the verses discussed is polemical and that, therefore, it would be difficult to draw definite conclusions about his view of circumcision. Even if he is being polemical, though, it is not wholly so, for in the context of Romans, it is in part about the new eschatological age of the Spirit as opposed to the old age of the law. See John M. G. Barclay, ‘Paul and Philo on Circumcision: Romans 2:25–9 in Social and Cultural Context’, NTS 44 (1998): 554. Finally, Lemke argues that ‘circumcision of the heart’ is one metaphor that is part of a larger trajectory concerned with spiritual renewal that is fulfilled in the New Covenant (Deut 6:5; 10:12; Jer 3:10; 17:1; 31:31–34; Ezek 18:31; 36:25–27). It is not something intrinsic to the rite itself. There is actually a tension between the physical and spiritual within the OT (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 6:10; 9:24–25). Therefore to read spiritual circumcision into the OT rite is mistaken. See Werner E. Lemke, ‘Circumcision of the Heart: The Journey of a Biblical Metaphor’, in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller (ed. Brent A. Strawn and Nancy R. Bowen; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 317–18.
  35. ^ See Pierre Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism (trans. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes; London: Clark, 1953), 210–11; Cornelius P. Venema, ‘Covenant Theology and Baptism’, in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (ed. Gregg Strawbridge; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 221.
  36. ^ Schreiner, ‘Baptism in the Epistles’, 86–87; Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 86–87.
  37. ^ Exceptions to this may be seen in 1 Cor 1:13–15 and 10:2–5. In 1 Cor 1, Paul is opposing acolytes of certain human leaders. The implication of the rhetorical question in v. 13 is that they are baptized, not into the name of Paul, but into the name of Christ, which I take to be the same as being baptized into Christ in 1 Cor 12:13, thus Paul’s concern is not to distinguish between water-baptism and Spirit-baptism, but between baptism into Christ and baptism into Paul/Cephas/Apollos. In 1 Cor 10:2–5, Paul describes the wilderness generation as baptized into Moses, drinking from Christ, yet God was not pleased with them. In context, these verses warn against apostasy (vv. 1–13). All this text says is that it is possible to receive sacraments and fall away. The analogy should not be pressed beyond that. See Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 445; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 184. We can see that Paul can conceive of somebody receiving the sacrament in vain (thus it cannot be functioning ex opere operato), but in general he holds them together in a functional unity. This is in contrast to his portrayal of physical and spiritual circumcision.
  38. ^ Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit, 281; Dunn, The Theology of Paul, 443–45; Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory, 372. Peter Leithart, a paedobaptist, sees this connection clearly, and although his conclusions are dangerous in my opinion, he is at least consistent in seeing the link between baptism and conversion. See Peter J. Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2007), 53–56; idem, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 165–66.
  39. ^ Wright, Colossians, 100.
  40. ^ Moo, Colossians, 183.
  41. ^ John Callow, A Semantic Structure Analysis of Colossians (ed. Michael F. Kopesec; Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1983), 132.
  42. ^ Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians and Philemon (WBC 44; Nashville: Nelson, 1982), 104.
  43. ^ Richard C. Barcellos, ‘An Exegetical Appraisal of Colossians 2:11–12’, RBTR 2 (2005): 5. I am indebted to Barcellos’s thorough work on this passage, and my argument in many ways builds on his. We diverge significantly when it comes to interpreting the relationship between the aorist main verb περιετμήθητε, and its dependent participle συνταφέντες.
  44. ^ Harris, Colossians, 101.
  45. ^ John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians (ed. W. Young; 2d ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1884), 146.
  46. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 115–16.
  47. ^ J. Gordon McConville, Deuteronomy (AOTC 5; Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 425. Thomson argues that the ‘circumcision of the heart’ in Deut 30:6 is a promise that ‘he will grant them what was previously not granted, namely the ability to obey him’. Christopher James Thomson, ‘Optimism and Pessimism in Deuteronomy 29–32: An Examination of the Relationship in Deuteronomy 29–32 between Optimism and Pessimism Concerning Israel’s Ability to Obtain Life through Obedience to the Law’ (Short dissertation, Oak Hill Theological College, 2007), 21.
  48. ^ Some may object that Jer 31 does not mention circumcision, but note the link between circumcision, Spirit, heart, and law in Jer 31:31–34; Rom 2:28–29; and Phil 3:3. For others who see a link between Deut 30:6 and Jer 31:31–34, see McConville, Deuteronomy, 427; Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 349; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 21:10–34:12 (WBC 6B; Nashville: Nelson, 2002), 740.
  49. ^ Stephen J. Wellum, ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant (ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright: Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 158.
  50. ^ Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 158.
  51. ^ Harris, Colossians, 116; See also James M. Hamilton, Jr. God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments (NAC Studies in Bible and Theology; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 2.
  52. ^ Dunn, Colossians, 155.
  53. ^ ΣÏ?ματος should probably be taken as an objective genitive with τá¿?ς σαρκÏ?ς being an attributive genitive. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937), 104; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 87.
  54. ^ Moo, Colossians, 199; Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 9.
  55. ^ Moo, Colossians, 200. I take Paul’s statement in Rom 6:6 to refer to inaugurated realities, not simply eschatological hope. Moo, Romans, 372–76; Schreiner, Romans, 316–17.
  56. ^ Lohse, Colossians, 102. See also Eadie, Colossians, 146.
  57. ^ As with Rom 6:6, I do not take this verse to be solely about future deliverance. As Schreiner (Romans, 391) says, ‘The genius of Paul’s eschatology is that the future has invaded the present’.
  58. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 116–17; Dunn, Colossians, 157–58; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 152–53; Schreiner, ‘Baptism in the Epistles’, 76.
  59. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 117.
  60. ^ Ibid., 116.
  61. ^ Moo, Colossians, 199.
  62. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 117.
  63. ^ Moo, Colossians, 199.
  64. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 117.
  65. ^ Eduard Schweizer, ‘sarx’, in TDNT 7:136; Callow, Semantic Structure, 141.
  66. ^ I take Paul’s references to stripping off the body of flesh, putting off the old self, and the death of the old self to refer to the same reality in Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22, Col 3:9; 2:13; and here in Col 2:11. All of these passages in their contexts speak of (1) a death or putting off on the one hand and (2) a putting on, new self, renewal, being made alive, or new life on the other. What is being spoken of here in Col 2:11–12 is the death, burial, and resurrection of the believer in Christ. For further exposition of these links, see Jung Hoon Kim, The Significance of Clothing Imagery in the Pauline Corpus (JSNTSup 268; London: T&T Clark, 2004), 159–70.
  67. ^ Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 8; Harris, Colossians, 101. BDAG 100b describes it as a ‘removal’ or ‘stripping away from’.
  68. ^ Lightfoot, Colossians, 183.
  69. ^ Dunn, Colossians, 158; O’Brien, Colossians, 11 7–18; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 152; Schreiner, ‘Baptism in the Epistles’, 76.
  70. ^ O’Brien, Colossians, 119.
  71. ^ Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 10. Further, this interpretation does not fit easily with the conclusions drawn on the previous phrase (‘the stripping off of the body of flesh’). It is not impossible that our sinful nature is stripped off in Christ’s death. This indeed seems to be the force of the argument in Rom 6:2–6. However, á¼?ν τá¿? περιτομá¿? τοῦ Χριστοῦ as a stand-alone metaphor for Christ’s death would be even more ambiguous.
  72. ^ Lenski, Colossians, 105.
  73. ^ See Harris, Colossians, 102; Moo, Colossians, 200; Wright, Colossians, 105; Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 9–11.
  74. ^ Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 10.
  75. ^ Ibid.
  76. ^ Ibid.; Eadie, Colossians, 147.
  77. ^ Wright, Colossians, 106.
  78. ^ Callow, Semantic Structure, 141.
  79. ^ Dunn, Colossians, 160.
  80. ^ Harris, Colossians, 104; Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 154.
  81. ^ Moo, Colossians, 203.
  82. ^ Harris, Colossians, 104. See also Lightfoot, Colossians, 185; Moo, Colossians, 203.
  83. ^ Harris, Colossians, 103.
  84. ^ Barcellos, ‘Col 2:11–12’, 12.
  85. ^ See Charles A. Anderson, ‘“Time, Time, Time. See What’s Become of It”: Factors on the Temporal Relation of Aorist Participles and Verbs in the New Testament’ (paper presented at the annual meeting of the SBL; Washington, D.C., 19 November 2006), 3, 13.
  86. ^ Anderson, ‘Time, Time, Time’, 13.
  87. ^ Cf. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 624. The word ‘relative’ is important here. Strictly speaking, since we are dealing with the aorist tense, we are viewing them as an undifferentiated whole (see Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood [SBG 1; New York: Peter Lang, 1989], 98). Any time-reference is relative, not absolute. Therefore, to say the ‘circumcision’ occurs contemporaneously with the baptism is not to speak in terms of hours, seconds, or minutes, but rather that the events can be grouped into a contemporaneous complex of events in union with Christ. Moo (Colossians, 202) explains that Paul ‘identifies baptism as the “place” where our spiritual circumcision takes place’ (italics mine). There is a sense in which this union, death, burial, and resurrection is actually atemporal. See Moo’s comments on Rom 6:5 (Romans, 371).
  88. ^ Moo, Colossians, 201–2.
  89. ^ See Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 152.
  90. ^ Paul’s polemical purpose may explain why he here uses the terminology of circumcision rather than death.
  91. ^ In Rom 6:5, resurrection is connected to the future verb á¼?σÏ?μεθα. Given that Col 2:12 speaks of resurrection in the aorist, I take Rom 6:5 to allude both to the physical future resurrection and the realized spiritual resurrection of believers (cf. Rom 6:11). Eduard Schweizer, ‘Dying and Rising With Christ’, NTS 14 (1967–68): 3; See also Moo, Romans, 371; Wright, Romans, 538.
  92. ^ Cross, ‘Spirit- and Water-Baptism’, 120–48.
  93. ^ Moo, Romans, 359.
  94. ^ Moo, Colossians, 202.
  95. ^ It is interesting to observe that Paul nowhere employs the ‘baptism is the replacement for circumcision’ argument in his confrontation of Judaizers. If this were the case, then in Acts or Galatians, for example, it would have been simpler for Paul to refute his opponents by appealing to baptism as the replacement for circumcision. The fact he does not should make us question the connection often made by paedobaptists. See Dunn, Theology of the Apostle Paul, 454–55.
  96. ^ This paper has not attempted to tackle paedobaptism in its entirety. Its aim and thesis is simply to demonstrate that paedobaptists illegitimately use Col 2:11–12 to prove that baptism replaces circumcision and signifies the same realities.
  97. ^ Contra Calvin, Institutes 4.16.11 (Battles 2:1333).

Martin Salter

Martin Salter is Associate Pastor at Grace Community Church, Bedford, and part-time PhD candidate at Highlands Theological College, Scotland.

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