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Baptism and Circumcision

Is New Testament Baptism Analogous To Old Testament Circumcision?

Among some Christians, an analogy is drawn between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New Testament, and this analogy is used to justify the baptism of infants in Christian households.

The history of this circumcision/baptism analogy among Protestants can be traced back at least to the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1562 as an expression of Reformed beliefs.  In answer to Question #74 - "Are infants also to be baptised?", this answer is given:  "Yes; for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are though the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed".  This is basically how Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and some other denominations have viewed baptism for hundreds of years, but the analogy simply fails the test of Scripture.  (Lutherans and Roman Catholics view infant baptism somewhat differently, believing that the act of baptism actually regenerates.)

The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, adopted in 1645, states, in the section on baptism, "The seed and posterity of the faithful born within the church have, by their birth, interest in the covenant and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church, under the gospel, not less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament".  This view of baptism considers children of Christian believers today as belonging to the visible church by virtue of their birth and believes that they should receive baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant just as the eight-day-old infants of Israelites did in the Old Testament.

However, baptism in New Testament times is not analagous to circumcision in Old Testament times and certainly does not "supersede" it, as some have suggested.  The Israelites were both circumcised and baptised when they came out of Egypt.  According to Joshua 5:5, all the people who came out of Egypt were circumcised and according to Exodus 12:48, no uncircumcised person was to eat the passover.  This circumcision is a distinct matter from the Israelites passing through the Red Sea in Exodus 14, of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:2, "all were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea".  Also, in Colossians 2:11-12, "circumcision not done by hand" and baptism both have their application to the Christian.  Circumcision is the cutting off of the flesh, while baptism is burial with Christ, as we see in these two verses.

Christian author James B. Stoney distinguishes helpfully between baptism and circumcision, writing as to Colossians 2:11-12:  "'Circumcised with the circumcision ... of Christ'.  That is what God did on the cross.  And now I am 'buried with him in baptism'".  (From Ministry by J. B. Stoney, New Series, volume 3, page 131).  Stoney also writes as to these verses, "Now you get two things; one is circumcision - the cross, the other is baptism".  (Ministry by J. B. Stoney, New Series, volume 5, page 88).

In a Bible study, when Christian teacher James Taylor is asked about the the difference between circumcision and baptism, he replies:  "Circumcision deals with the flesh viewed in its power.  Baptism refers to what is outside you; you reckon yourselves dead indeed to sin.  It is what is outside of you, but circumcision is what is inside you; the work of the flesh inside."  (From Ministry by J. Taylor, New Series, volume 14, page 9).

See also Romans 2:29, which reads, "but he is a Jew who is so inwardly; and circumcision, of the heart, in spirit, not in letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God".  Clearly circumcision (of the heart) and baptism both apply to New Testament Christians.

Consider also Acts 15, where "certain persons, having come down from Judea, taught the brethren, If ye shall not have been circumcised according to the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved".  A council was arranged to consider this matter and there is not a single mention of baptism in this chapter.  Surely if baptism is the New Testament counterpart of circumcision, the whole question could have been resolved simply by stating that the Gentile believers had been baptised!

In conclusion, it is clear that the attempt to liken New Testament baptism to Old Testament circumcision is not Biblically sound, and should not be used, as the 1562 Heidelberg Catechism and the 1645 Westminster Directory use it, to justify baptising infants in a believer's household.

Stephen Hesterman

Baptism and Circumcision