Martin Salter has recently argued that Reformed paedobaptists are mistaken in citing Col 2:11-12 'as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities.'1 His essay is a model of exegetical care, and he approaches the contentious issue of the application of covenant signs with graciousness. His position is that for Paul there is a disjunction between physical and spiritual circumcision, such that in Col 2:11-12 he is referring to the latter, and Salter seeks to demonstrate that 'circumcision' and baptism do not signify precisely the same realities.
In this response, I argue that Salter's article has the potential to advance the debate which surrounds credo- vs covenant baptism precisely because his essay is largely an exercise in missing the point. I do not intend to engage in a detailed response to his exegesis of Col 2:11-12 for the simple reason that, as a Reformed paedobaptist, I can agree with most of it and still find myself happily at home in a theological world which regards baptism of infants as 'the jewel displayed upon the engagement ring of God's covenant promise.'2 My claim is that Salter explains a biblical text but not its place in biblical theology, and he does not see how the text he understands fails to undermine a theology he does not. To put it another way, Salter makes a theological mountain out of an exegetical molehill.
Part of the history of the credo- vs paedobaptism debate is the venerable tradition of proponents speaking past each other. I am not so naïve as to think that my essay might prove to be anything other than one more example of the problem. Nevertheless, in showing why covenantal Reformed theologians do well to affirm the substance (if not every detail) of Salter's treatment of Col 2:11-12, my hope is that both essays, taken together, might add at least a little clarity to how this tradition perceives the relationship between circumcision and baptism. There is a need for such clarification because misunderstandings are common. The significant recent study of the biblical covenants by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum cites Salter's article approvingly in arguing that it is spiritual circumcision which is tied to union with Christ and baptism. This means that baptism does not replace physical circumcision in the way paedobaptists suggest.3 Although I cannot here offer a complete defense of paedobaptism, I argue that the credobaptist critique based on Col 2:11-12 typically mounts only an invalid criticism of the practice. 4
My argument is that in Reformed creeds, confessions, and various theological writings, the language of baptism 'replacing' circumcision needs to be understood as a form of theological shorthand for a nexus of ideas tied to a particular understanding of covenant signs. It is that bigger picture which credobaptist theologians do not share and which causes them discomfort when others use 'replacement' terminology. Supersessionist language is usually controversial when it is deployed in other theological contexts, and no less so here. But when seen against a larger theological canvas, there is nothing in Col 2:11-12 or Salter's exegesis of this text which militates against using 'replacement' vocabulary because those who do so usually know how they are intending it.
To make this case, I do four things: (1) I summarize Salter's argument and try to highlight his view of its significance for paedobaptists. (2) I supplement Salter's 'all-too-brief outline of Paul's theology of baptism and circumcision'5 by showing some serious difficulties with how he conceives of circumcision in its OT context, particularly in relation to Abraham in Rom 4 and Gen 17. I suggest that Salter misconstrues the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in the Abrahamic covenant. (3) I connect the Reformed understanding of covenant signs with Salter's exegesis of Col 2:11-12 and agree with his argument that the fulfillment of physical circumcision is spiritual circumcision. My aim is to show why this does not contradict the sacramental supersessionist motif which exists in Reformed texts. (4) Contrary to the impression Salter gives, I show that this exegetical argument is not news for paedobaptists, and I consider John Calvin as an example. This test case suggests that, despite his exegetical care, Salter uses inexact language when he argues for circumcision and baptism not signifying precisely the same realities and so confuses the theological categories of sign and the thing signified.
1. Summarising Salter's Argument
Martin Salter's thesis is that the paedobaptist's 'baptism-replaces-circumcision' thesis is illegitimate, and his argument unfolds in three clear stages.
First, a brief treatment of Colossians' Sitz im Leben leans towards the view that the believers in Colossae were under threat from a 'heresy' containing a mixture of Jewish mysticism and Greek philosophy. This provides the caution that Paul's purpose is primarily polemical, not sacramental.
Second, Salter outlines a Pauline theology of baptism and circumcision to contend that 'there is a disjunction for Paul between physical and spiritual circumcision.'6 A close analogy between physical circumcision and baptism is questionable because of how Paul views them both. Baptism symbolises washing, cleansing, and regeneration; it incorporates us into the body of Christ; and it unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection. 'For Paul, baptism effects a vital union with Christ.'7 The argument here is that baptism 'sits within a complex of events' which are irreducibly connected to spiritual life (regeneration, cleansing, incorporation, repentance, faith, reception of the Spirit), so it is hard to connect in a like-for-like sense with Paul's understanding of circumcision. It is 'easier to construct what Paul says circumcision does not do rather than what it does.' Salter sees in Paul a clear distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision and a disjunction between the outer rite and the inner reality.8 Whereas spiritual renewal is in some way intrinsic to the rite of baptism itself, no such thing is intrinsic to circumcision.
Salter's third section forms the main body of his essay. He aims to demonstrate that spiritual circumcision and baptism do not signify precisely the same realities. Colossians 2:8-23 teaches the believers that by virtue of their union with Christ they have fullness in him and need neither embrace new teachers nor seek new practices. Colossians 2:11 specifies the reason for this union with Christ, and Salter asks a series of questions of 2:11-12 to perceive the referents of and relationship between 'circumcision' and baptism.
The Colossians have received a spiritual or 'Christian circumcision' (περιτομῇ ἀχειροποιήτῳ), which cuts away the sinful nature (ἐν τῇ ἀπεκδύσει τοῦ σώματος τῆς σαρκός) and which Christ has performed at the time of their conversion (ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ). So if there is a replacement theology operative in the text, 'it is between the physical, done-by-human-hands circumcision and the spiritual, performed-by-Christ circumcision.' 9
In 2:12, baptism signifies not just burial with Christ but also resurrection with him. The final piece of the jigsaw is Salter's argument that the adverbial participle συνταφέντες is contemporaneous relative to the main verb, περιετμήθητε. Different strands of the exegesis come together here to make an important point. In Rom 6:3-4, Paul presents baptism as a 'death-burial-resurrection' rite, whereas Col 2:11-12 presents it as a 'circumcision-burial-resurrection' rite. That is to say, the spiritual circumcision Christ performed is another way of describing the death of the 'old man' or sinful nature, so it parallels the 'death' of Rom 6:3. Just as this death occurs within the sphere of baptism in Rom 6:3, so this spiritual circumcision occurs within the sphere of baptism in Col 2:11-12.
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.10
This exegetical material leads Salter to his main conclusions. Paedobaptists should not appeal to Col 2:11-12 '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.'11 Correspondingly, baptism and spiritual circumcision are connected with spiritual cleansing and new life, and in those respects they are 'unlike physical circumcision, which is sharply distinguished from spiritual circumcision and its concomitant realities.'12 Paedobaptists blur what Paul sees clearly: the distinction between the physical and the spiritual.
Salter provides a close reading of Col 2:11-12, and the exegetical detail appears to make his case compelling. I argue that a number of other details which Salter either overlooks or handles in confusing ways means that his argument fails. It fails not because his reading of Col 2:11-12 is wrong per se, but because he does not perceive how its substance belongs in paedobaptist theology as much as credobaptist.
2. Supplementing Salter's Outline of Paul's Theology of Baptism and Circumcision
The question of baptism replacing circumcision is both exegetical and hermeneutical. Wider frameworks of thought are in play on both sides of the baptismal divide when considering individual texts in detail. Paedobaptists do not usually contest this. Calvin, for instance, clearly bases his defence of infant baptism on the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace and on a parallel between circumcision and baptism as covenant signs. 13 His approach is both exegetically derived and hermeneutically influential. Exegetical parts contribute to a theological whole which informs exegesis so that there is a symbiotic rather than strict linear relationship between exegesis and theological presupposition.14
This is important because Salter's article provides a good illustration of the effects of such scaffolding for exegesis. It is clear that his essay works by viewing an individual biblical text through a wider hermeneutical lens. Salter first of all outlines Paul's theology of baptism, and then Paul's theology of circumcision, and the result is a range of explicit theological commitments which operate in the background as he examines Col 2:11-12 in the foreground.
In so doing, whether he intends to show this or not, Salter's methodology reveals that a detailed examination of one important passage cannot correct the perceived theological misstep that paedobaptists take. That is because a significant part of Salter's exegetical case-the contrast between physical and spiritual circumcision-rests on a particular understanding of the nature and meaning of physical circumcision which is not unequivocal in the text of Colossians itself. Salter's exposition of Col 2:11 is tied closely to his earlier brief presentation of a Pauline theology of circumcision, both drawing on its argument and providing some development. On Col 2:11, he states, 'Here the contrast between the physical and the spiritual needs to be drawn out,' and he provides a brief biblical theology of circumcision to help explain the 'circumcision made without hands.' 15 I argue that Salter engages Col 2:11-12 with a seriously deficient understanding of physical circumcision writ large in his interpretive framework. To be clear: I am not suggesting that his hermeneutical lens is not itself exegetically derived; I am suggesting that it is exegetically wanting and therefore hermeneutically misleading.
For Salter, physical circumcision has both positive and negative aspects, and in his presentation of these aspects he says things which are clear and true but also things which are demonstrably incorrect and confused. At the heart of Salter's position is a disjunction between physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision, but he is unable to state clearly what physical circumcision means. For instance, he says, 'it is easier to construct what Paul says circumcision does not do rather than what it does.' He then follows this immediately by referring to Rom 2:25-29 and states, 'physical circumcision anticipates the true circumcision of the heart, and inner not outer circumcision defines the "true" Jew.'16 This is confusing because it actually explains with an active verb what circumcision does do: it anticipates the true circumcision of the heart. The second half of the sentence states what circumcision does not do, but Salter says more than he appears to realise. Similarly, he can say, 'the circumcision without hands is the new covenant fulfillment of an old covenant promise' and also that physical circumcision 'is a type that anticipates the circumcision of the heart.'17 On a straightforward reading of Salter's own terms, we should want to exercise caution in driving too large a wedge between physical and spiritual in our understanding of what physical circumcision means. In what sense can something physical be a type of something spiritual and yet thereby still be disjoined from it? How can it be purely physical?
This kind of language is accompanied by other phrases which are also open to important qualifications. Here are three examples: (1) Circumcision of the heart is 'not something intrinsic to the rite itself.'18 What does Salter mean by 'intrinsic'? It would be problematic to say that heart circumcision is intrinsic to physical circumcision in an ex opere operato sense; but perhaps it is intrinsic to it in a typological and signifying sense. (2) 'To read spiritual circumcision into the OT rite is mistaken.'19 What does Salter mean by 'into'? Again, it would be a mistake to see spiritual circumcision in physical circumcision in the ex opere operato sense, but to distinguish is not necessarily to separate. (3) Physical circumcision 'did not equate with spiritual circumcision.'20 This faithfully reflects Pauline argument in terms of his polemic against Judaisers but, as I try to show below, a lack of strict identity between physical and spiritual does not entail the total absence of connections between them.
At every point Salter's aim is to separate physical from spiritual circumcision as part of showing the 'disjunction' between circumcision and baptism. Physical circumcision is just that, but since baptism actually participates in spiritual realities, it cannot replace circumcision. This means, when Salter does come to state positively what physical circumcision does, the depiction is very limited. It is 'a sign and seal of faith in the case of Abraham (Rom 4:11).' The connection of faith and physical circumcision in Abraham's case does not carry implications for a connection between faith and physical circumcision in the case of his descendants. Romans 4:11 'is speaking descriptively about Abraham and not prescriptively about his seed. Abraham's descendants are circumcised as a seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, not because they themselves have faith.' 21
So Salter presents us with two key issues to address: (1) What did circumcision mean for Abraham and his children? (2) What light does this shed on the relationship between the physical and the spiritual aspects of the Abrahamic covenant? These questions are very closely connected, and their answers overlap. I outline my responses by working backwards from Rom 4:11 to Gen 17 and then forward again to trace my understanding of how circumcision functions in its covenantal context.
2.1. The Circumcision of Abraham and His Children
We should note, contrary to Salter, that Rom 4:11 does not say that circumcision was a sign and seal of Abraham's faith but rather 'a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith' (σφραγῖδα τῆς δικαιοσύνης τῆς πίστεως). 22 Circumcision is a seal of God's promise of righteousness, not of human faith in the first instance. A 'seal' is the outward validation or confirmation of a message or a reality. Paul regards the Corinthian believers as the seal of his apostleship, the mark of his authenticity (1 Cor 9:2; cf. also John 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; Rev 7:1-3). This understanding of σφραγίς makes a lexical contribution to seeing τῆς δικαιοσύνης in Rom 4:11 as an objective genitive so that circumcision is the authenticating and confirming mark of the righteousness which was Abraham's by faith (with τῆς πίστεως understood as a genitive of source). This means that to speak of circumcision's connection to faith is necessary but not sufficient, and to speak only of faith here is to undermine the spiritual significance of circumcision even in Abraham's case.23
Close attention to the text, therefore, means we may ask this: Is circumcision a seal of faith (i.e., of Abraham's response to the covenant promise), or is it a seal to faith (i.e., of the covenant promise which elicited his response)? In many respects how we answer this question may be connected with our reading of Gen 17 (see below). But I take Paul's meaning to be that 'circumcision is the authenticating mark that certifies the truth of God's promise, that he will give righteousness to the one who has faith.'24 Circumcision is sign and seal that God justifies the wicked (Rom 4:5). 'Since the "sign and seal" have reference to the same reality according to Rom 4:11-12, circumcision should also be understood as a seal of the promise of God's grace to be received by faith, not of the faith that received the promise of grace.' 25
If circumcision signified justification by faith alone for Abraham, then the very heart of the issue is discerning what it signified for his children, and here Salter's argument goes astray. It is true to say that Abraham's descendants are not circumcised because they themselves have faith, but it is not true to say that they 'are circumcised as a seal of the covenant God made with Abraham.'26 Rather, according to Gen 17:7, they are circumcised because of the covenant God made with them. The text is quite emphatic about this. The covenant is between God and Abraham (בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ) and his offspring after him (וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ), throughout their generations (לְדֹרֹתָם), to be God to Abraham (לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים) and to his offspring (וּלְזַרְעֲךָ; v. 7). As part of that covenant, God will give the land to Abraham and to his offspring after him (לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ) for an everlasting possession, and the Lord will be their God (וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים; v. 8). Abraham and his offspring (אַתָּה וְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ) are to keep this covenant throughout their generations (לְדֹרֹתָם; v. 9; cf. v. 10). Circumcision is to be the sign of this covenant, a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham's offspring (לְאוֹת בְּרִית בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם; v. 11) and this command is given not just to Abraham, but to his descendants as well (וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם; v. 13). Moreover, it is not the one who fails to administer the circumcision who is cut off from the people, but rather the one who himself is uncircumcised-he, the uncircumcised one, has broken the Lord's covenant (אֶת־בְּרִיתִי הֵפַר; v. 14). In sum: Abraham is circumcised because God makes a covenant with him, and his descendants are circumcised because God makes the same covenant with them. But what did their circumcision mean?
2.2. Physical and Spiritual in the Abrahamic Covenant
As Salter recognises and states, the OT promises a day when God himself will circumcise the hearts of his people (Deut 30:6). The OT itself spiritualises the physical rite by promising a heart renewal. But the critical question is whether the promise is there from the very start, attached to the rite's inception as it were, or appears only later. Salter cites Beasley-Murray's argument that 'The prophetic call for heart circumcision is a pictorial application of the rite, not an exposition of its meaning.'27 This sees spiritual and promissory understanding in circumcision only at a later stage of Israel's history; an originally physical sign comes to have a spiritual significance. To put it another way, it demands that the promises to Abraham are physical, but they are taken up into a spiritual dynamic which emerges later on, perhaps in stages; so the later seers within Israel can take the physical sign of circumcision and apply it to the promises of the new covenant.
The major problem with this, of course, is that it conflicts with the scriptural understanding that the original presentation of the covenant and its signs to Abraham and his descendants is spiritual as well as physical. This is precisely where the Reformed argument for the unity of the covenant of grace gains some of its traction and has a direct bearing on the meaning of sacramental signs and seals. 'In this way we ought to understand all the earthly promises given to the Jewish nation: that the spiritual promise, as the head to which they refer, should always hold the first place.' 28
The spiritual promise is the head to which the earthly promises refer: this is not a theological construct placed on the text but one which emerges from, for instance, Gen 17. The meaning of circumcision for Abraham and his descendants is bound up with the promise of the covenant. He and his descendants enter an 'everlasting covenant' (לִבְרִית עוֹלָם; v. 7), and God gives them the promise of the land of Canaan as an 'everlasting possession' (לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם; v. 8). Both times, in vv. 7-8, the covenant promise is that this God, the Lord, will be Abraham's God, and for his descendants he will be their God as well. The significance for circumcision should not be missed. If this is what the covenant promise actually is, then to receive the sign of it is to be marked for spiritual ownership, not simply national identity. The male Israelite body carried a mark of belonging to one God in particular.
Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum follow the research of John Meade in seeing an Egyptian background to the rite: only the priests in Egypt were circumcised, but the circumcision of every Israelite male was an appropriate sign for a people who would be known as a kingdom of priests. 29 Regardless of whether the priesthood motif is certain, it does seem correct to view circumcision in Gen 17 as symbolizing complete devotion to God. Furthermore, as Victor Hamilton observes, God actually calls circumcision itself 'my covenant' (בְּרִיתִי; v. 10) as well as being a 'mark' or 'sign' of the covenant (לְאוֹת בְּרִית; v. 11).30 Both ideas coalesce in the striking words of v. 13: 'My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant' (וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם לִבְרִית עוֹלָם). If physical circumcision is the inscribing in the flesh of the everlasting covenant as a sign of devotion to the God of the covenant, then its significance is much more than merely physical.
Credobaptist arguments often treat this point inadequately. Shawn Wright, for instance, appears to see no spiritual significance in circumcision at all: 'Circumcision was a physical marker of ethnic Israel identifying them as distinct from other nations.'31 Paul Jewett does see a double reference in circumcision to both the earthly and the heavenly aspects of the covenant, but maintains that because this sign of the covenant is 'given to all those who are Abraham's seed according to the flesh,' then the 'emphasis is entirely on this outward relationship.' 32 Stephen Wellum's position is more nuanced again. Although he holds that the meaning of circumcision in Rom 4:11-23 applies to Abraham 'and to him alone,'33 Wellum also says that circumcision has a two-fold typological significance in that it anticipates Christ and anticipates the need for a new heart. Yet for Wellum the 'most important' meaning of circumcision is that 'it marks out a physical people and nation.'34 On the one hand, it is hard to understand how circumcision's christological significance can be less important than its physical significance; even more to the point, Wellum provides no exegetical evidence for this position at all. As we have seen, the view that circumcision's dominant meaning is to mark out a physical people is hard to sustain from Gen 17. It is also hard to see what kind of weight this argument can bear since it seems that circumcision pre-dated the Israelites and their patriarchal ancestors and since many of their contemporaries also practised it. Jeremiah 9:25-26 records Egypt, Edom, Ammon, and Moab as co-practitioners. 35
This is not to say there were no differences between the Israelite practice and that of the surrounding nations. One of the distinguishing features of the Abrahamic rite was its application on the eighth day after birth, rather than at puberty or arrival at adulthood. But this intensifies the question of circumcision's meaning. Interestingly, Gentry and Wellum see important theological implications in this distinctive practice of the Israelites: 'the eighth day is the beginning of the new creation, and this fits with the new creation imagery connected with Abraham as the new Adam.' 36 Given that Abraham himself was not circumcised on the eighth day, the new creation understanding of circumcision necessarily attributes significant spiritual meaning to the circumcision of his offspring.
This line of thinking connects with traditional Reformed understandings of the rite. Geerhardus Vos argues that because the promises of God in the OT had proximate reference to temporal and natural things, there was a danger that 'natural descent might be understood as entitling to the grace of God.' But infant circumcision pointed to the fact that human nature is bound in sin, and the removal of the flesh signified the need for the uncleanness to be taken away. 'Circumcision teaches that physical descent from Abraham is not sufficient to make true Israelites.' 37 And so within the wider covenantal framework the connections to baptism as a covenant sign are profound. Each generation must not think that the promises are theirs by mere physical descent. The promises are all of grace, and for that reason covenant children are severed and sprinkled. They are of the flesh, so they need to be cut and cleansed.
Doubtless biblical scholars will continue to debate exactly what the ancient practice of circumcision signified. My point here is a simple one: categories which neatly separate the physical from the spiritual are too imprecise to build an adequate conceptual framework for understanding covenant signs. 38 Scripture is clear that the covenant promises, containing as they do the promise of the physical land of Canaan, simultaneously contained typological and spiritual significance. In Gal 3:6-8, Paul understands the covenant promises to Abraham to include justification by faith for the Gentiles as the gospel was announced to him. Abraham made his home in the Promised Land, but he did so 'like a stranger in a foreign country . . . for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God' (Heb 11:9-10). Abraham is one of the great exemplars of living by faith, one of those who did not receive the things promised: 'they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one' (Heb 11:16). The physical promises have an inherent futurist orientation built into them, and Paul shares this perspective in Rom 4:13, where he understands the promise of the land as the promise of the earth: 'It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.'39
The important point here is that the circumcision of Abraham and his offspring was a sign of all these promises, for they are what the covenant actually is. In Deut 10:11-22, the Lord commands Moses to lead the Israelites to possess the land, reminds them of his covenant love for their forefathers, and then instructs them: 'Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer' (v. 16). As Douglas Wilson explains, 'Thus, on one level, the sign of the covenant did signify the promise concerning Canaan. However, of necessity, it also signified the heart condition that would make the keeping of this external covenant possible.'40 In this way, we should see spiritual circumcision-a circumcision of the heart which the OT regularly promises (Lev 26:41-42; Deut 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7)-to be no more in opposition to physical circumcision than the promise of the heavenly country was in opposition to the promise of the land. The physical signified the supra-physical, pointing from itself beyond itself, both to show what God truly required of his people (heart circumcision) and what he truly promised (a redeemed world). Likewise, in places like Rom 2:28-29, it is not so much that Paul separates physical and spiritual circumcision but rather that he puts them in correct relation to each other to show that the former without the latter is pointless, just as the latter derives some of its figurative meaning from the physical fact of the former. To distinguish is not to separate. 'God placed a spiritual value on physical circumcision only so far as it represented a circumcised heart (cf. Jer. 9:25-26). As a sign, circumcision was external. But as a sign it was also given to point to spiritual realities.' 41
The upshot of my argument is that the spiritual significance of circumcision for Abraham was the same as for his children precisely because it was the sign of the covenant and the covenant meant the same thing for both. Abraham believed God, was counted righteous, and was circumcised as sign and seal of that righteousness which he had by faith (Rom 4:11-12). Genesis 17 shows us there is no difference in the meaning of the circumcision given to his children. For them, as for Abraham, it is the sign in their flesh of the everlasting covenant.
This is a further point of confusion in credobaptist critiques of paedobaptism. Salter suggests that Abraham's descendants are circumcised because of the covenant with Abraham, not with them, and so states that all Rom 4:11 can prove is 'believer's circumcision.' 42 In this Salter is following Thomas Schreiner, who finds it 'mystifying' that Rom 4:11 could be used in support of infant baptism. This is because Schreiner sees the text speaking only of Abraham's circumcision, not the rite in general, as well as teaching a specific sequence of events: circumcision follows Abraham's faith, so Schreiner wonders how it can possibly apply to infant baptism, which is the reverse (baptism followed by faith).43 The reason, however, is that Gen 17 makes it clear that circumcision is the sign and seal not only of Abraham's righteousness by faith but also that of his descendants, just as Paul makes it clear that the promise of inheriting the world through the righteousness that comes by faith was given to 'Abraham and his offspring' (Rom 4:13). Abraham believed and then was circumcised; his children were to be circumcised and then believe. The simple yet far-reaching fact often overlooked in credobaptist arguments is that the covenant was not made with Abraham alone.
3. Connecting the Reformed Understanding of Covenant Signs with Salter's Exegesis of Col 2:11-12
This sketch of a biblical theology of circumcision presents us with an alternative hermeneutical framework for reading Col 2:11-12. Salter approaches this text having 'already begun to see that a close analogy between baptism and circumcision is questionable.' For him, baptism as a ritual is not something that Paul normally divorces from its spiritual meaning, and baptism 'sits within a complex of events including regeneration, cleansing, incorporation, repentance, faith, reception of the Spirit, and so on.'44 Thus, because there is a 'disjunction between the outer rite and the inner reality' of circumcision, there can be no connection between circumcision and baptism: circumcision corresponds simply to the outer rite and baptism to the inner reality. But 'disjunction' is a noun easy on the eye and hard on the theological senses. What does it actually mean?
I contend that when we use the language of baptism sitting 'within a complex of events' associated with spiritual life, then we need to see that circumcision in the OT likewise sat within a similar complex of spiritual events listed above. This is not to say that physical circumcision and water baptism are indexed to spiritual realities in exactly the same way.45 It is simply to claim that Salter tends to slide between the language of 'type,' 'anticipation,' 'disjunction,' 'contrast,' and 'distinction' without any real concept of both the theological relationship and nuanced differences between such terms. In a confined space these words are being asked to do some very heavy lifting.
My differing biblical theology of circumcision necessarily leads me to suggest that Salter has not understood how and why Paul perceives of circumcision negatively. Paul does so because those who have it on their bodies are meant to have it in their hearts. His God-given gospel and apostolic mission, however, are regularly opposed by those of his own race who contend for the physical without the spiritual. They bear it in their flesh but not in their hearts, yet they believe they are in a right standing with God. Paul's argument in Romans and Galatians is that this flatly contradicts the chronology of salvation history and the rite's meaning as God originally gave it. Salter appears to think that Paul speaks negatively because circumcision is physical. I argue that Paul speaks negatively because his opponents have not perceived in the physical sign what the everlasting covenant required of them. In the sign, Paul sees the need for a righteousness which is by faith, but his interlocutors find in it either their own righteousness or a supplementary fullness to what they have received in Christ.
None of this minimises the strength of the point Paul is making by sidelining the circumcision performed by humans hands in Col 2:11. Peter O'Brien shows that the LXX uses the adjective χειροποιήτος ('made with hands') to denote idols, false gods and images, and the NT regularly uses it to 'set forth the contrast between what is constructed by man and the work of God alone.' 46 Yet as O'Brien also notes, Jesus said that he would erect a temple within three days 'not made with hands' (Mark 14:58). The disjunction here between type and antitype is not the kind which implies the physical temple had no connection whatsoever to spiritual realities.
This hermeneutical framework points very naturally to the same exegetical conclusion about Col 2:11 which Salter reaches in his essay: it is the spiritual, performed-by-Christ circumcision which fulfills and replaces the physical, done-by-human-hands circumcision. This is the clear meaning of v. 11 even though, as Salter shows, the exact sense of 'body of flesh' and 'circumcision of Christ' are open to different interpretations. But whether we take the meaning to be that (1) Christ's physical body was stripped off in his death, so that 'circumcision' is a metaphor for the 'violent removal of the whole body in death'47 or (2) Christ has stripped away the sinful nature, 48 in v. 11 it is that act by Christ which is the circumcision the Colossians have received. On this level, then, the claim of Salter and other credobaptists that baptism does not replace circumcision appears valid. Another way of putting this might be to say this: Christ's coming has not terminated circumcision but transformed it. The fulfillment of physical circumcision in the circumcision of Christ means that circumcision still continues today. It is not now done by the hands of men, but by Christ for all those who are united to him by faith.
However, the way in which Salter develops his argument in relation to v. 12 leads him to seriously overstate his case with regard to what this replacement motif does and does not mean in relation to baptism. Salter makes it very clear from a detailed treatment of Col 2:12 that baptism signifies not just burial with Christ, but also his death and resurrection, with the spiritual circumcision of v. 12 being parallel to the 'death' of Rom 6:3 and 'should be viewed as occurring within the sphere of baptism.'49 That is to say, baptism functions as a kind of meta-term to encapsulate the spiritual reality of being united to Christ in his death/circumcision-burial-resurrection. It is the sign which signifies the sum total of these realities. But here is the key point: unless the baptism of v. 12 is taken to be purely spiritual (and therefore not referring to water baptism), then it is this very position which commits one to holding that a physical rite signifies a spiritual reality. And it is only Salter's alternative hermeneutical framework, not the text of Colossians itself, which prevents him from seeing that one physical rite (baptism) now signifies what another physical rite (circumcision) previously signified.
Rightly, Salter holds that the baptism in view here in v. 12 cannot be purely spiritual. Throughout his essay he argues for a now well-established position that 'any attempt to distinguish between Spirit baptism and water baptism in the Pauline epistles goes beyond what Paul himself wrote.' 50 This view holds that our attempt to distinguish Spirit-baptism from water-baptism in texts such as Rom 6:3-4 would have puzzled Paul and that the early church viewed the gift of the Spirit and water baptism simply as components of one unified experience. 51 But the import of this view, of course, has to be that it is not wrong to see the baptism of v. 12 as referring to water baptism (even if it also refers to Spirit baptism). A physical rite signifies spiritual realities with the sign and the thing signified linked very closely together.
If we follow Salter and argue that the adverbial participle συνταφέντες in v. 12 is contemporaneous to the main verb περιετμήθητε in v. 11, then it is important to stand back and see the wood for the trees and observe what Paul is actually saying to the Colossians. It could be paraphrased like this: 'You have been circumcised. It is a circumcision done by Christ (spiritual). It is not a circumcision done by the hands of men (physical). You were circumcised spiritually in Christ, having been baptized. When you were circumcised, there was no knife present-but you did get wet.' And if this baptism is 'the technical expression for the Christian initiation rite by water,'52 bound as it is to Spirit baptism, then it is the physical sign of the spiritual reality. It may signify more than spiritual circumcision, as Salter shows, but it does not signify less. The question is this: Has anything else physical ever signified spiritual circumcision? Yes: physical circumcision, and that is what baptism replaces. Some kind of replacement language has to be warranted because baptism itself is a 'backward-looking' sign of the thing signified (death-burial-resurrection of Christ and union with him) which 'replaces' circumcision as the 'forward-looking' sign of the thing signified (death-burial-resurrection of Christ and union with him). Figure 1 represents this diagrammatically:
This way of thinking allows the paedobaptist to say that spiritual circumcision fulfills and ultimately replaces physical circumcision, while still arguing that there is a biblical basis for replacement language in relation to water baptism as well. This is because water baptism does not fulfill the spiritual reality but rather signifies it. It is the sign which has been replaced, not the thing signified.53 Patrick Fairbairn explains, 'The relation between circumcision and baptism is not properly that of type and antitype; the one is a symbolical ordinance as well as the other, and both alike have an outward form and inward reality.'54 In relation to baptism and circumcision, 'replacement' language works on two levels: the type/antitype level of fulfillment and the level of signification. Spiritual circumcision fulfills and replaces physical circumcision, but baptism replaces physical circumcision as the sign of the spiritual reality.
It is this very signification of spiritual realities in baptism, however, which leads credobaptists to argue that paedobaptism cannot be in line with the Scriptures since the NT 'connects faith, repentance, the gift of the Spirit and baptism closely together implying the presence of all of them in each instance.'55 Baptism is something radically new when seen in comparison to circumcision. As Wellum puts it, 'circumcision as a type, pointed to a spiritual regeneration. Baptism, on the other hand, testifies that by faith these realities have occurred.'56 Given the explicit connections between baptism and faith, not only in Col 2:12 but throughout the NT, many credobaptist theologians are frankly amazed that some who share a high view of Scripture would sit so loosely to the clear chronology of faith followed by baptism.
Such concerns are understandable if the paedobaptist position is presented as containing an ex opere operato efficacy which necessitates the baptismal regeneration of infants. Reformed paedobaptist theologians, however, understand the connection between faith and baptism such as we find in Col 2:12 within the covenantal framework I outline above. The reason the sign of the covenant may be applied to infants before there is any faith on their part is not because of a lower view of baptism or a weaker view of the necessity of saving faith. It is because God's covenant promise of righteousness by faith for all those who believe has always been for their descendants as well. Just as God made the covenant with Abraham and his offspring, so it is important to see that when God promises to circumcise his people's hearts, he also promises to circumcise 'the hearts of your descendants' (Deut 30:6; cf. Ezek 37:25; Isa 65:23). This is why the sign of the new covenant in Christ is held to apply to the children of believers as well. Sinclair Ferguson shows that, without exception, divine covenants in redemptive history are made with believers and with their seed. In the light of this integral relationship between covenant and the seed principle, he notes that the abrogation of the 'you and your seed' principle would require a specific divine edict and even wonders 'whether it could be abandoned and the covenantal administration itself remain.'57
At this point the paedobaptist and credobaptist diverge not in their view of the importance of faith but in their view of the covenantal significance of faith. For instance, Jewett states, 'It is beyond all cavil that in the NT faith is the threshold over which the individual must step into the Christian life, a step which is symbolically taken in the initiatory rite of baptism.'58 Given that Jewett intends such a statement to critique infant baptism, the response is simply to say this surely compromises Paul's very argument in Romans and Galatians that salvation has always been by faith. 'For is it not beyond all cavil that in the Old Testament, too, faith is the threshold over which the individual stepped into a saving relationship with God, a step which was, beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, symbolically taken in the rite of circumcision?'59> It is the paedobaptist who is preserving the fundamental unity of God's saving purposes precisely by regarding his children in the same way covenants have always regarded children.60
To argue in this way, of course, begs the question of whether this wider covenantal perspective is valid. Perhaps there are both qualitative and quantitative differences between the OT covenantal arrangements and the new covenant in Christ which classic Reformed theology has not perceived. At this point, however, I do not need to provide a detailed defence of the covenantal paradigm for my argument. For although the overall coherence of paedobaptism is bound up with that paradigm, my gesturing in its direction is intended here comparatively rather than definitively. That is, I am simply attempting to parallel Salter's wider hermeneutical framework with an alternative one as a way of showing that the exegetical parts are capable of contributing to more than one theological whole. There is nothing in the text of Col 2:11-12 itself which renders the covenantal paradigm invalid.
Indeed, when we consider the data of this text on its own, it is modern forms of credobaptism, not paedobaptism, which actually struggle to align themselves with the exegetical details. Colossians 2:11-12 fits into the NT norm of baptism being part and parcel of conversion as the initiatory rite of the faith. Salter quotes with apparent approval Moo's position that 'baptism is the instrument through which we are buried with [Christ],' and Salter states, 'for Paul, baptism effects a vital union with Christ.'61 It is not clear to me what meaning words such as 'instrument' and 'effects' have in the modern varieties of credobaptism, where baptism is subsequent to conversion, sometimes after several years, and perhaps only following a period of interview and assessment by the leadership of a church. In theological terms, it appears that the covenant sign of justification has become a functional sign of sanctification.
4. Distinguishing the Theological Categories of Sign and the Thing Signified: John Calvin as a Test Case
This final section draws the various strands of my argument together by showing how Salter does not understand the way some of the Reformed texts he cites use 'replacement' language. Salter states that he consulted twenty works which appeal to Col 2:11-12 to prove that baptism replaces circumcision, but only one of these provides sustained exegesis, and the aim of his essay is to show that when Col 2:11-12 is examined in detail the replacement motif is seen to be invalid.62 On the face of it, this observation is much less significant than it appears. We might just as easily argue that Salter arrives at his view of baptism not replacing circumcision because he does not provide sustained exegesis of the meaning of circumcision in Gen 17 and its OT covenant context. Nevertheless, there is more to be said here about at least one of the figures to whom Salter attributes the common Reformed replacement mistake, namely, John Calvin.
At the start of his essay Salter cites this question from Calvin, where Calvin is referring to Col 2:11-12: 'What do these words mean, except that the fulfillment and truth of baptism are also the truth and fulfillment of circumcision, since they signify one and the same thing?' 63 Salter includes Calvin among those who make the 'baptism-replaces-circumcision' claim but who do so without 'exegetical care.' This is unfortunate, for it ignores what Calvin says about Col 2:11-12 in his commentary and so fails to see that Calvin also believes that the ultimate fulfillment and replacement of physical circumcision is spiritual circumcision. Here is what Calvin says on Col 2:11:
Let us therefore bear in mind that outward circumcision is here compared with spiritual, just as a figure with the reality. The figure is of something absent; hence it destroys the presence of the reality. What Paul contends for is that, because what was shadowed forth by a circumcision made with hands has been fulfilled in Christ, it now has no fruit or practice. Hence he declares that the circumcision which is made in the heart is 'the circumcision of Christ,' and that therefore what is outward is not now required; for where the reality exists, that shadowy sign vanishes, since it has no place except in the absence of the reality.64
Calvin is clear that it is spiritual circumcision which replaces physical circumcision: 'where the reality exists, that shadowy sign vanishes.' That reality is not baptism but the circumcision of Christ. This is actually the same meaning as the words Salter quotes above from Calvin's Institutes in 4.16.11, for Calvin does not say there that baptism is the fulfillment and truth of circumcision. Rather he says that the fulfillment and truth of baptism and circumcision is the same thing, that is, something other than both of them and which both of them signify. It is obvious that 'the same thing' is spiritual circumcision. This much is evident even from the immediate context in Institutes, 4.16.11.
It is with this understanding that Calvin brings circumcision and baptism into relationship with each other in his exegesis of Col 2:12: 'Christ, [Paul] says, accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign, which was in force under Moses, but by baptism. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of the thing exhibited, which when it was absent was figured by circumcision.'65 This position is the same as the one I argue for above. For Salter, it is either spiritual circumcision or baptism which replaces physical circumcision. For Reformed paedobaptists, it is both-and precisely because of the relationship between the sign and the thing signified.
This means that if we include Calvin in a school of thought which holds that baptism 'replaces' circumcision, then we must recognise that such language is a necessary but not sufficient description of his position. It is in this way that the Reformed use supersessionist terminology in relation to circumcision and baptism. Baptism replaces circumcision, not by fulfilling it, but rather by being the new sign of the same thing that both signify. Using replacement language is simply theological shorthand for the fundamental unity of covenant signs. It is not intended in the sense of baptism 'fulfilling' circumcision nor as a complete description of every aspect of the relationship between the signs. Indeed, Reformed texts state that baptism replaces circumcision precisely because they understand that spiritual circumcision fulfills physical circumcision.
That Salter has not understood the way the Reformed understand the terminology of the sign and the thing signified is evidenced in a recurring use of confusing language from the start of his essay and which appears in glaring form in his conclusion, again in relation to Calvin. Here is how Salter introduces his argument:
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 2:11-12.66
In the first sentence Salter speaks of physical and spiritual circumcision, but in the second sentence 'circumcision' appears in quotation marks. The quotation marks are a way of showing that the word 'circumcision' is capable of more than one meaning and that on one understanding of the word- spiritual circumcision-baptism and 'circumcision' do not signify the same realities. This denotation matters because in the fourth sentence above Salter says, 'If baptism replaces circumcision and signifies the same realities . . . '; so I understand him here to have reverted to speaking about physical circumcision again.
This makes Salter's outline of his own argument confusing. It takes the paedobaptist premise (baptism replaces circumcision and signifies the same realities) and refracts it through Salter's exegetical lens (spiritual circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities), with the result that he changes the terms of the debate. None of the paedobaptist examples Salter cites claim that spiritual circumcision and baptism signify the same realities, so it is not clear who he is speaking to when he argues that they do not signify the same realities. All those texts say that physical circumcision and baptism signify the same realities (spiritual circumcision among them even though it is not exhaustive of them).
Salter's way of construing things causes him to misrepresent the paedobaptist position in his conclusion. His exegesis 'shows that spiritual circumcision and baptism do not signify precisely the same realities,' and here Salter states that this position is contra Calvin, again citing Institutes, 22.214.171.124 If Salter is referring to the same quotation given earlier from Calvin ('What do these words mean, except that the fulfillment and truth of baptism are also the truth and fulfillment of circumcision, since they signify one and the same thing?'), then the error is obvious. For Calvin does not say that spiritual circumcision and baptism do signify precisely the same realities, nor could he have said anything like this within the terms of his theology because it contains a fundamental confusion about the sign and thing signified. As we have seen, Calvin's position is that spiritual circumcision is the thing signified by baptism, and it is inimical to his thinking to talk of spiritual circumcision 'signifying' when used in relation to the language of baptism. Physical circumcision and water baptism, for Calvin, are the entities which do the signifying; what they signify is spiritual circumcision, which is the truth and fulfillment of both.
The only conclusion I can draw is that in using terms the ways he does, Salter has not grasped the paedobaptist understanding of the relationship of physical circumcision and baptism to the shared reality of what they signify. He does see, however, that 'If baptism replaces circumcision and signifies the same realities, then as a covenant sign it ought to be administered to infants of covenant members,'68 and there is nothing in the text of Col 2:11-12 which tells against this conclusion. 69