By Mark LaVoie
"In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead."
Not a few paedobaptist writers have turned to Col. 2:11-12 to support their contention that the N.T. ordinance of baptism has now taken the place or moved into the room of circumcision. A few examples should prove adequate to demonstrate this point:
In commenting on Colossians 2:11-12, the expositor William Hendriksen writes, "The definite implication, therefore, is that baptism has taken the place of circumcision" (Exposition of Colossians and Philemon [New Testament Commentary ], p. 116).
In the Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church is found this: "Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision (Col. 2:11-13), the children should be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant" (Grand Rapids, 1959, p. 86).
And Berkhof, in setting forth his Scriptural basis for infant baptism, writes, "As circumcision referred to the cutting away of sin and to a change of heart, so baptism refers to the washing away of sin and to spiritual renewal, Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:11,12. The last passage clearly links up circumcision with baptism " (Systematic Theology, p. 634).*
To substantiate such claims, we would expect to see in this passage a clear reference to circumcision as performed by the hands of Abraham upon all male descendants. Secondly, we would expect a clear reference to water baptism which was commanded by Christ at His commission of the disciples. And finally we would expect some sort of pronouncement that the N.T. rite has now taken the place of circumcision. But even a cursory examination of this passage will demonstrate that neither ordinance is in fact present in Colossians 2, nor is the connection made between the two rites, as is so frequently assumed.
We'll begin by looking at the mention of "circumcision" in Colossians 2. Several indicators within the text conclusivley demonstrate that the circumcision referred to here is in sharp contrast with that initially performed by the hands of Abraham. "Made without hands" (cf. Mark 14:58 and 2 Cor 5:1), for instance, is plainly opposed to that which is made with hands (Eph. 2:11). Moreover, "the removal of the body of the flesh" is contrasted with "the manual circumcision of only a portion of one member of the material body" (John Eadie, Colossians, p. 151; also R.C. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians, p. 104). And finally, "the circumcision of Christ" is that circumcision which belongs specifically to Him, in contradistinction to that which belonged to Abraham, Moses, or the law. These characteristics are carefully set forth so that the kind of circumcision referred to would be easily understood and unable to be misinterpreted. Surely no one would see in this a plain reference to the rite performed among the nation of Israel. The meaning is purely figurative - no less real - but still spiritual in nature (A.T. Robertson,Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 492) and not to be understood literally.
There is, admittedly, a correlation between the circumcision "performed in the flesh by human hands" (Eph. 2:11) and the circumcision of Christ "made without hands." Yet the relationship is that of shadow to substance (Alford, p. 219) or type to its antitype. The former anticipates the latter. Although Abraham could cut away the foreskin of the male organ, he was entirely impotent in affecting "the body of the flesh" - Israel remained uncircumcised in heart (Lev. 26:41; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:26; Acts 7:51). But it was this very removal of the flesh that was called for throughout the O.T. (Deut. 10:16). And this, of course, anticipated the promise made to Israel that "the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deut 30:6). We dare not pass by the fact that this promise has now been fulfilled in Christ - not in the N.T. ordinance of baptism as Lenski (p. 105) and others would have us think - "in Him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands." The promises of God are centered in Christ, "in Him they are yea, and in Him amen" (2 Cor. 1:20); in Him all things "which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms" achieve their fulfillment (Luke 24:44); in Him the covenant promises addressed to Abraham and his seed are realized (Gal. 3:16)! Paedobaptists, in their zeal to see circumcision carried on through baptism, have often failed to comprehend the full significance of this fact (see Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, [The New International Commentary on the New Testament ], pp. 36-38). It is this circumcision of the heart, which we have received in Christ (not in water baptism) that, according to Paul, is the true circumcision (Rom. 2:28-29; Phil 3:3). And having received it, we now "worship in the Spirit of God."
But, admitting a correlation between the shadow in the O.T. and its fulfillment in the New, we do not in any way mean that the one is equal to the other. When we speak of the fulfillment of an O.T. type, as here, we should avoid the error of drawing attention away from the true substance in order to focus back on the shadow. Here we have the fulfillment, the circumcision of Christ; that which is effected by Him (F.F. Bruce, [The New International Commentary on the New Testament], The Epistle to the Colossians, p. 104). Therefore we have, as has already been noted, a figurative sense given to the term circumcision. There is no reference to the literal ordinance as was performed throughout Israel - as we would expect in a passage that is purported to link circumcision with baptism.
Having considered Paul's use of "circumcision", we'll now turn to the mention of "baptism" in Colossians 2. O'Brien is correct when he writes, "Some have allowed thoughts concerning baptism to dominate their exegesis of [this] passage by interpreting the statements about circumcision in v. 11 as equivalent to or an explanation of [water] baptism" (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 44, p. 119). The question for us to consider, then, is this: is the N.T. ordinance of baptism anywhere developed in this passage so as to receive such emphasis? When the apostle Paul wrote, "having been buried with Him in baptism, did he intend his readers to understand that they were united in Christ's death (signified by His burial) in the waters of baptism? Or are we to understand, as Alford, that the body of flesh "is put off in [the waters of] baptism" (The Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 219) and the new life, therefore, is "begun at baptism" (ibid., p. 220)? If either of these are the case then we could not avoid the charge of teaching baptismal regeneration. The rite of baptism would be required to complete man's salvation, for a man could not possibly be raised with Christ before he has first been buried with Him, which - if we understand this passage to be speaking of literal water baptism - could only be accomplished through baptism. Do we dare grant such efficacy to the waters of baptism? Would Paul thank God that he had baptized none "except Crispus and Gaius" if such efficacy were attached to this rite (1 Cor. 1:14)? Again, if our burial with Christ is accomplished through the waters of baptism, was Jesus correct in assuring the criminal on the cross adjacent to Him that he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43)? Could such be true without him having received the rite? The answer to these questions should be readily apparent. The Scriptures without equivocation teach that salvation with all of its blessings is through faith alone. Therefore, whatever the meaning we apply to the word baptism as used here, it cannot possibly mean the literal rite employed in the NT. As Hendriksen carefully notes in his commentary on this passage, "the apostle definitely excludes the idea that the act of baptizing . . . has spiritual value." (Hendriksen, p. 115).
So what is the significance of baptism as it is mentioned here? To answer this we must keep in mind the surrounding words used by Paul. Clearly we would agree with Eadie that "the entire statement is spiritual in its nature--the death, the burial, and the resurrection; the circumcision and the off-putting of the body of the flesh" (Eadie, p. 153.). The question we must then ask is this: Can we not also see the baptism mentioned here as spiritual in nature as well and in no way intended to bring in the thought of the waters associated with the N.T. ordinance? If all the other terms are to be understood in a figurative sense, is it not justifiable to see baptism in the same manner as well?
Such figurative usage of the term "baptism" is found throughout the N.T. For example, Jesus said toward the latter part of his earthly ministry, "I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished" (Luke 12:49, 50; cf. Mark 10:38). Surely we do not think that Jesus was making reference to water baptism! Again, Paul says of national Israel that "all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:2). Would we understand this to mean that they were somehow, through the waters of baptism, united with Moses? Elsewhere Paul says that we, by one Spirit, "were all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). Here too, the presence of water is nowhere intended but is to be understood in a figurative or spiritual sense. If we understand this to be otherwise, than we again place ourselves alongside of those teaching baptismal regeneration. The same case can be made for baptism as it is mentioned in Rom. 6:3-4.
The point of all this is to demonstrate that in every NT occurrence of the word "baptism" we cannot automatically conclude that the water baptism associated with the NT ordinance is suggested. That this is the case in the passage presently in question has already been demonstrated.
Having said this, keep in mind that the rite of water baptism was given to the church to signify our union with Christ (John Murray, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 214). Never was it intended to be understood as that through which our union with Him is accomplished! The application of Christ's accomplished work upon God's elect is carried out exclusively through the work of the Holy Spirit. As A.W. Pink correctly observes, "the mission of the Holy Spirit in the world today is to apply the benefits of Christ's redemptive sacrifice" (The Sovereignty of God, Banner of Truth, p. 68). And again, "the new birth is solely the work of God the Spirit and man has no part or lot in causing it" (ibid., p. 69). The apostle Paul then, in using the term baptism in Colossians 2, is merely referring figuratively to that which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. He has simply changed metaphors from the removal or cutting away as is carried out by the knife to the cleansing or washing away as is accomplished by water. Neither figure, obviously, is to be understood literally as the actual rite given to Abraham or commanded by Christ to His church. To summarize, when the apostle Paul wrote that we were buried with Christ in baptism, he was in no way referring to the rite of water baptism but rather intended the term to be understood figuratively in conformity with the other terms in the passage as well.
Now we'll return to the argument set forth by the great majority of paedo-baptists, who contend that this passage supports the claim of water baptism's replacement of circumcision. With only a cursory look, we'll notice that a critical oversight has been made. How can a passage which speaks nothing in regard to the rite under Abraham nor to the N.T. rite of baptism be made to support such a claim? If both circumcision and baptism in this passage are to be understood figuratively of that which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, how do we then - without a serious distortion of the text - make this to say "baptism has taken the place of circumcision"? This would be comparable perhaps to one's attempt to replace orange trees with apple trees by using a passage of Scripture speaking of apple sauce and orange peels. Quite reasonably we would ask, "where are the orange trees, and where are the apple trees? And how can we associate the two when there's no mention of either?" Such unwarranted claims appear to be quite desperate.
Even if we would briefly entertain the thought that the rites of both baptism and circumcision are present in this passage, is there still anything in the text which would indicate that one has replaced the other? The end result of such imaginative interpretation will only entangled us further. Notice, the aorist participle, suntafevnteB, ("having been buried", v. 12) precedes or, as is more likely in this instance, concurrent with the preceding verb, perietmhvqhte ("you were circumcised", v. 11); in other words, the burial in verse 12 took place at the time of "the removal of the body of the flesh" in verse 11 (Lenski, p. 105; Eadie, p. 152; Alford, p. 220). Without any wording in the text to support the idea of one replacing the other, the only possible way to read this would be to understand that the rites of both circumcision and baptism together must be maintained. That is, if we are to see in this passage a reference to literal circumcision and water baptism, then both must be practiced in order to obtain the results specified in the text. Now this is hardly what we would find the apostle Paul to be advocating.
One final thought: If we are to understand that baptism has now come in the place of circumcision, we must not fail to ask why this connection was never brought forth by the apostles during the deliberations of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). The knotty question of the necessity of circumcision might have easily been solved with the explanation that baptism has now taken its place. The fact that baptism was never considered by the apostolic church as simply replacing circumcision seems quite evident. Similarly, if such claims were indeed true, the apostle Paul could have soundly concluded his argument with the Galations in their return to circumcision (Gal. 5:2-4). Of all his writings, this would seem the most reasonable occasion to set forth the connection between circumcision and baptism. Its omission here, as throughout the whole of the N.T., appears mighty conspicuous.
* Other examples are found in H. Hoeksema's, The Biblical Ground for the Baptism of Infants : "A more direct proof that circumcision and baptism are essentially the same in meaning . . . could not be given." (p. 11)