On the Need for Exegetical Typology: Circumcision as a Test Case

bookLast month the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT) published an article I wrote. In “From Beelines to Plotlines: Typology That Follows the Covenantal Topography of Scripture,” I argued that (most, if not all) typological structures begin in creation, move through the undulating contours of Israel’s covenant history (hence, covenant topography), until they find their terminus in Christ. Then, after being fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ, they are continued in the new covenant people of God. My test case, or textual proof, was the typology of the priesthood. If you are interested, you can read the article online. I’d be interested in your feedback.

Today, however, I’m interested in looking at another test case, namely the typology of circumcision found in the Bible. I believe that the only way we can understand circumcision (and its relationship to baptism) is by looking at its development in the canon. And thankfully, instead of making that case, John Meade has already done so (far better than I could) in his chapter, “Circumcision of the Flesh to Circumcision of the Heart,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologiesedited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker.

Building on his earlier work on circumcision and its cultic origins and priestly intentions in Egypt, Meade shows how circumcision from the start was a sign, with in-built tension designed to lead to a greater reality—namely, circumcision of the heart. Indeed, as one follows the narrative of the Old Testament we can see how, long before the New Testament applies this sign to Christ (Colossians 2:11–12) and the people of faith (Philippians 3:3), the sign of circumcision is already shifting. From a careful reading of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and the Prophets, Meade makes this point, and I share a few of his conclusions below.

Circumcision as a Shifting Sign 

After tracing the history of the sign of circumcision in the Old Testament, Meade summarizes,

While tracing the theme of circumcision through the canon, several important observations were noted:

(1) External circumcision as a sign of devotion to Yahweh was immediately riddled with tension since Ishmael, Esau, and the rebellious offspring of Abraham had the sign but were not devoted to Yahweh as the sign indicated. The sign was at odds with the thing signified.
(2) Circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant underwent development from an early time. The reference to heart circumcision in Deuteronomy 10:16 made clear that internal circumcision would manifest itself in covenantally faithful relationships. Henceforth, circumcision of the heart would be the sign of the true covenant member. Deuteronomy 30:4–7 and Jeremiah 4:1–4 collocate other Abrahamic covenantal terms with heart circumcision. This move generated a significant development in the life of the sign of circumcision and the Abrahamic covenant in general, for now the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant will come only to those who have circumcised hearts.
(3) Jeremiah 9:24–25 predicts a day when Israel will no longer be shielded from the punishment due the nations because their circumcision was external only. In the final analysis Judah is no better off than the rest of the nations.
(4) Deuteronomy 30:1–10 instructs that heart circumcision cannot be attained by human initiative but Yahweh will perform the ritual on the heart at the second stage of the return from exile, that is, the freedom from sin and death itself. (144)

From these four summary statements, it is very possible to see how circumcision was intended to point to something beyond itself. Hence, it was intended to be typological from the start. And thus, Meade concludes, “The OT itself witnesses to a development of the heart circumcision theme before one reaches the NT. The apostle Paul appears to be dependent on this development as he interprets the OT in view of the Christ event” (145). Importantly, Paul is not creating a new way of reading circumcision in passages like Romans 2:29; Colossians 2:11–12; Philippians 3:3. He is simply confirming the shift from circumcision in the flesh to the circumcision in the heart—just as Deuteronomy 30:6 promised.

Thus, we find in this reading of circumcision in the Old Testament how this sign of the covenant with Abraham was intended to foreshadow to its forthcoming substance. This, I believe, reaffirms the argument I made about typology—it follows a covenantal topography as it moves from historical type to Christological antitype. In Meade’s article, his exegetical work puts us on solid ground for rejecting paedobaptism, but it also helps us see how typology works.

An Exegetical Typology of Circumcision Must Reject Paedobaptism

The main point of this blogpost is to address the proper way of understanding biblical typology. That being said, good biblical theology will inform systematic theology and biblical ecclesiology. And in this case, when we trace circumcision through its various stages in redemptive history, we find that it cannot lead to infant baptism. Why? Because the antitype of circumcision in the flesh is circumcision in the heart. In the end of his chapter, Meade makes this point and shows how paedobaptism stands upon exegetical imprecision. 

Without disparaging the biblical convictions of paedobaptists, he observes how this strand of theology lacks sufficient biblical precision. In other words, the argument for infant baptism stands on superficial similarities, rather than exegetical typology which traces the development of the sign from type to antitype through exegesis of passages found throughout the covenant history (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:6-9). This is a strong claim, one that is sure to make a few exegetical enemies, and one that needs proof. But that is exactly what Meade provides, as he interacts with C. John Collins argument for paedobaptism in the Presybterion.

Tackling four lines of argument, Meade shows how Collins fails to consistently root his argument in biblical exegesis. This is different than saying Collins’ argument is devoid of Scripture. The important point is that Collins depends on superficial allusions and echos, rather than covenantal comparisons grounded in thick exegesis. Meade concludes, therefore,

None of these alleged parallels establish a proper biblical typology of circumcision to baptism across the epochs of redemptive history, and one needs to trace this precise development to make the case. Rather, what we have shown is that external circumcision performed by hands is a type that undergoes typological development across the canon until it reaches its fulfillment and terminus in the heart circumcision performed by Christ. Therefore, external circumcision does not relate to baptism in any way when examined from the vantage point of the canon. It pointed forward to a new and better internal circumcision. (145)

Constructively, Meade goes on to show that circumcised of the heart is the antitype of circumcision of the flesh, and water baptism is the covenant rite sign that testifies to ones faith (which results from circumcision of the heart). In this way, it is a typological fallacy to make infant baptism the antitype of circumcision. Why? Because they do not signify the same thing. Circumcision devotes one to God—this is true under the old covenant and the new. The difference is where the circumcision is rendered; the former marks the flesh, the latter marks out the heart by the Spirit.

Baptism, therefore, confirms this devotion to God, as testified by the covenant community (Meade, 156–58). But it does not, in itself, devote one to God; that’s what circumcision of the heart does. Therefore, water baptism is not the antitype of Abraham’s circumcision. Rather, it is Christ by the Spirit who circumcises the heart of his covenant family.

Meade makes the exegetical case against paedobaptism explicit in his illuminating chapter. I encourage you to read it. My point is less to defend credobaptism in this post, although I am happy to do that. My point is to show that systematic theology depends on exegetical typology. That’s what I tried to articulate in my SBJT article; that’s what Meade has done in his chapter; and it is what we must all do in our reading of Scripture and formulation of doctrine.

To that end, let us continue to read the Bible with rigorous precision, aware that biblical types do not simply move from type to antitype. Such typology veers too closely to allegory and impressionism, instead of canonical exegesis. Therefore, let us pay attention to the way typological structures (always) move from historical type to Christological antitype over and through the rocky terrain of biblical revelation. Following these trails is both necessary for understanding the relationship from type to antitype and for establishing attendant doctrines in their wake.

In this test case, I believe John Meade has given us a faithful reading of circumcision in the Scripture—one that elevates the monergistic work of God in his elect and one that clarifies the meaning of baptism and its role in the covenant community. For that reason, I encourage you to read his chapter. And more generally, as you engage biblical typology, I encourage you to consider how those types develop through covenant history.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

2 thoughts on “On the Need for Exegetical Typology: Circumcision as a Test Case

    • Have you ever studied the topic in Scripture? You will never find anything like FGM. Only males are circumcised, a practice that is proven to have hygienic benefits and none of the damage associated with female circumcision–a practice neither commanded or condoned in Scripture.

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