Thursday, September 27, 2007

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church

The debate over the proper recipients of baptism is not a new one. It arises in the Fathers (most whose opinions are recorded seem to permit, or to actually be in favour of, infant baptism; Tertullian is a notable exception), and arose again at the Reformation, since which time it has never been put to rest. I don’t intend to try to solve that controversy! But I do need to clarify my own thinking, and to ensure as far as I can that it is in line with God’s revelation in Scripture. To that end, I’ve started writing something explaining (largely to myself) my own thoughts on baptism. I am a credobaptist, but because most paedobaptists take their argument from the Old Testament rite of circumcision, I begin by discussing my understanding of this rite. I hope to then move on to discuss baptism in the New Testament, and then finally to explore the subject of the membership of the church. I would welcome any comments, either about things that are unclear or things that you think are wrong! So without further ado, here are my thoughts on circumcision. I'm aware that they're really much too long for a blog post, but I can't shorten them and I don't want to serialise them...


Circumcision in the Old Testament

Circumcision is introduced in Genesis 17 as “a sign of the covenant” between the LORD and Abraham. It’s significance is not particularly explained, except to say that it implies the perpetuity of the covenant – for all of Abraham’s male descendants are to be circumcised on the eighth day on pain of being considered covenant breakers. It is noteworthy that the sign is also to be applied to all Abraham’s slaves, whether born in his household or purchased. It is also noteworthy that by the end of the chapter, despite the fact that the LORD has said that his covenant will be with Isaac and not with Ishmael, Ishmael has been circumcised. So the sign is applied to all those closely associated with Abraham, whether they are of the covenant line or not. This is significant.

There are further references to circumcision through the Pentateuch. The inhabitants of Shechem are circumcised in Genesis 34, although it did them very little good and given the circumstances nothing of doctrinal import can be derived from the story. Moses’ son is circumcised in a curious incident when the LORD threatens to kill him in Exodus 4, presumably because Moses is in breach of the Abrahamic covenant. Circumcision is preserved in the Mosaic dispensation and its performance is codified in Leviticus 12, although again the significance is not explained. I suggest that it is not until Deuteronomy that the meaning of circumcision becomes clearer.

What, then, does circumcision symbolise? Two key passages are Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6. In 10:16, Moses urges the people to circumcise their hearts, and stop being stubborn. In context, he is urging them to love the LORD and obey him in response to his electing love of Israel. To circumcise their hearts implies setting their hearts wholly on the LORD. In 30:6, the symbolism is the same but the agency is ascribed to the LORD – he will circumcise your hearts. It is certainly not coincidental that this is described as occurring after the people have gone into exile for their disobedience and covenant breaking. For this symbolism to have worked, the Israelites must have understood circumcision of the flesh to imply that their bodies belonged to God. So circumcision of the flesh signified belonging to God; but circumcision of the heart was necessary in order to actually love God.

The circumcised people of Israel show this necessity clearly through their history from Moses to the exile. It does not take much reading between the lines to realise that most Israelites throughout this period were probably not even monotheists, let alone committed followers of the LORD. We are not therefore surprised to find the LORD speaking through Jeremiah – “I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh… all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (9:25-26). We should perhaps be more surprised than we are to hear the same prophet delivering a gracious promise of a future “new covenant”, a covenant “not like the covenant I made with their fathers” (31:32). This covenant is described as the writing of the law on their hearts (31:33), and it is said to differ from the old covenant because “they shall all know (the LORD)” (31:34). These differences are without a doubt significant, and I will suggest that they are important to our discussion of circumcision.

To summarise, my reading of the Old Testament gives me a picture of circumcision as a rite to be administered to all males attached in any way to the descendants of Abraham, including through economic slavery; a rite symbolising belonging to the LORD; a rite insufficient in and of itself to bring about a relationship to God; and a rite that is used in Deuteronomy and the prophets as a promise pointing forward to the new covenant of circumcision in the heart and not the flesh.

Circumcision in the New Testament

Circumcision is an issue in the New Testament in two ways. Firstly, there is the controversy over Gentile Christians – must they be circumcised? It is not difficult to piece together the case made by the group that has come to be known as “the circumcision party” (and other less complementary names given them by Paul). On the grounds that the covenant with Abraham is promised for perpetuity, and that conversion to Christianity is also joining Israel, it is argued that Gentile believers must receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Interestingly, it is very clear that these teachers have assimilated the covenant of circumcision to the Mosaic covenant, and intend by the circumcision of the Gentiles that they take up the whole burden of the law.

Paul’s controversy with the circumcision party is heated, and his arguments against them are many. I am intrigued, though, by some of the things that he does not question. Firstly, he does not question the circumcision party’s assumption that to be circumcised it to take on the obligation of the Mosaic law: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3). In fact, in spite of the fact that circumcision is clearly given to Abraham, Paul is at pains to drive a wedge between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic. This is clear in Galatians 3, where Paul stresses the distance in time between the giving of the promise and the giving of the law (Gal 3:17), and in Romans 4. In Galatians, circumcision is very clearly aligned with the legal, Mosaic covenant and not with the Abrahamic covenant of promise/faith, hence Paul’s strong appeal to the Galatian Christians not accept it. In Romans, the argument is more nuanced, referencing as it does the circumcision of Abraham. For our purposes at current it is sufficient to note that Paul’s use of Abraham’s circumcision in Romans 4 is designed to show the priority of the covenant of promise/faith over the covenant of circumcision, something that he still connects to the law (Romans 3:27-31, 4:13-14 [in context these verses link the previous thoughts about circumcision with a more general denunciation of law as a means of justification]). In summary: circumcision in Paul’s thought, as in his opponents’, is linked to the law of Moses, and implies an obligation to keep the whole law. As such, it is opposed to the “law of faith” and “covenant of promise”.

Secondly, Paul does not argue with the circumcision party over whether Gentile Christians really have to become part of Israel. In fact, he is clear that they do (see Romans 11:17ff). However, he radically redefines Israel to make circumcision irrelevant to membership of that people. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring…” (Gal 3:29). Abraham is the father of the circumcised who walk by faith, and the uncircumcised who share in the same faith (Rom 4:11-12). Indeed, if it were not so “faith is null and the promise is void” (4:14). In fact, Paul draws on the “remnant” theme of the prophets to argue that it was ever thus: Israel has always been defined not by circumcision but by faith. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (Rom 9:6-7 – remember that Ishmael was also circumcised but was not the recipient of the covenant as Isaac was). So Paul is clear: membership of Israel was always defined by faith, and not by circumcision. Therefore, engrafting into Israel is dependent on faith alone.

It is worth noting that Paul does also share the circumcision party’s assumption that the covenant with Abraham is an enduring one – but he disconnects circumcision from that covenant. The covenant that endures is based on God’s promise met by faith; the legal covenant (to which he always attaches the sign of circumcision) is temporary. Paul would doubtless agree with the author to the Hebrews that the covenant of circumcision is now obsolete and ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).

This discussion would not be complete without observing that, despite his blistering rhetoric in Galatians, Paul sometimes expresses (and demonstrates) indifference towards the issue of circumcision. In 1 Corinthians 7, he claims that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Colossians 3:11 states clearly that the circumcised and uncircumcised are now one, with no distinction between them. In Acts 16:3, Paul himself – having just won the right of Gentile Christians not to be circumcised – circumcises Timothy, apparently in order to ease their ministry to Jews, Timothy being only half Jewish. It appears that for Paul, circumcision as a cultural practice is a matter of indifference, and he will even go so far as to pragmatically circumcise Timothy to aid the spread of the gospel. It is only when circumcision is being put forward as a necessity for salvation or sanctification that he perceives a denial of the gospel of grace.

So much for the circumcision controversy. Circumcision also plays a role in the New Testament in a quite different way, connected to the promise of “heart-circumcision” in Deuteronomy. The New Testament presses this image: “For no-one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter” (Rom 2:28-29). The echoes of Deuteronomy 30:6 are clear, and so is the implication. Paul is claiming that the promise of Deuteronomy has been fulfilled in the Christian church. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that circumcision of the heart is now a reality for Christian believers. This is surely connected to the promise of the new covenant: the law is not now a “letter”, but is written on the heart. So, irrespective of physical circumcision, Christians – that is, true Israelites, whether Jewish or Gentile – are circumcised in their hearts.

Colossians 2:11-12 is important in this connection. Paul describes the Christians as those who have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith…”. It is clear that circumcision of the heart is again in view here, and the image is given more form by the addition of the phrase “putting off the body of the flesh”. The image recalls the removal of the foreskin, but goes very much further: the whole body of flesh (that is, sinful human nature, as usually in Paul) is removed. This is done “by the circumcision of Christ”, which either points to the agent behind this circumcision (i.e. “the circumcision performed by Christ”) or to the cross as the point when Christ gave up his flesh for the salvation of Christians. Either way, it is clear that the Christians to whom Paul writes have been circumcised in their hearts, and that this is achieved at the cross and applied as they identify with the death of Christ in faith through baptism. We will return to this passage in the discussion of baptism later.

Philippians 3:3 adds to our understanding of circumcision in the New Testament, by asserting very clearly that it is followers of Jesus, those who have the Spirit, who are the “real circumcision”. This statement is made as part of the “circumcision controversy”, against those who want Gentile Christians to be circumcised, but it is noteworthy that Paul does not argue that circumcision is unnecessary for any other reason than that the Christians are already circumcised. Clearly, then, he opposes the Old Testament rite of circumcision of the flesh to the New Testament blessing of circumcision of the heart. Where the latter is, the former is unnecessary, and dangerous if taken as essential for salvation.

Theological Conclusions

Since the Bible does not anywhere unfold a systematic “doctrine of circumcision”, we are left to draw what conclusions we can from the evidence we have examined. I wish to set out a number of theses which I think explain the Biblical evidence, and provide a backdrop for the debate over the recipients of baptism.

  1. Circumcision in the Old Testament is a forward-looking rite. No-one of a reformed persuasion is likely to debate this. However, I believe that its significance is more than is usually allowed. The people of Israel in the Old Testament were not a regenerate people, by and large. Therefore circumcision was not a rite indicating something that had happened to them, but a rite pointing forward to something that the LORD would do in them – namely, the circumcision of their hearts. Circumcision should have pointed the Israelite towards the promise of God’s saving activity amongst them; from our vantage point, we can see that it should have pointed them to the cross of Christ and to Pentecost.

  2. Circumcision in the Old Testament is connected to, but separable from, the covenant of promise/faith. We have seen that Paul consistently separates God’s promise to Abraham, received by faith, from circumcision, which he regards as something added later. This does not make circumcision unimportant. Rather, coupled to point (1) it constitutes Abraham’s descendants as a forward looking people, thus reinforcing the promise.

  3. Circumcision is a legal rite. Paul testifies that anyone who accepts circumcision as a means of justification or sanctification is thereby obliged to keep the whole law of Moses. This in no way contradicts (1) and (2), but rather points to the fact that the Israelites, in their state of “heart uncircumcision” were entrusted to the law as a guardian until the promise came (see Galatians 3:19-29).

  4. Circumcision is an obsolete rite. This can be observed on several levels. Firstly, that to which it pointed forward has come, namely the incarnation and the outpouring of the Spirit. Secondly, the law, to which it was annexed from Sinai onwards, has passed away. Thirdly, the racial marker is no longer necessary because there is no longer Jew or Gentile in the church, but all Christians are descendants of Abraham by faith.

  5. The New Testament counterpart of circumcision is “heart circumcision”. It is this to which the rite of circumcision always looked forward. This heart circumcision takes place when the outpoured Spirit writes the law on the heart of a believer; this in turn occurs when a person turns to put their trust in the death and resurrection of Christ.

  6. To jump the gun somewhat, whereas in the Old Testament most Israelites were circumcised in flesh but not in heart, in the New Testament all “Israel” – that is, the whole church – is circumcised in heart. This is implied in Jeremiah’s contrast between the old and new covenants, and by Paul’s manner of addressing his churches. However, this belongs properly to part three of this project, and will be discussed more fully there.


  1. Anonymous5:26 pm

    Thanks for this post, Daniel. Clearly a lot of time and thought has gone into it and you have provided us all with much food for discussion. I'll make a start with a couple of thoughts, shall I?

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but there are a few points where I think you draw conclusions that aren't justified.

    You write: 'The New Testament counterpart to circumcision is "heart circumcision".' To me, this gives the impression of an almost Marcionite physical-spiritual dichotomy between Old and New Testaments and perhaps it stems from conflating circumcision as it was employed in Paul's day and circumcision as it was instituted. The counterpart (if you like) to circumcision as a work which we must do to be justified is the heart-circumcision which is the fruit of the cross.

    But while circumcision is promissory, even in the Old Testament it was meant to be a sign and seal of heart circumcision and in the faithful it actually was. The Psalmist writes of the righteous in whose heart is the law of his God (Psalm 37.31, Psalm 40.8). Romans 2.28-29 looks back as much as it does forward. So in this sense, the New Testament counterpart of circumcision is not heart circumcision. Even in the Old Testament, circumcision was to be the outward sign of heart circumcision.

    Clearly in the New Testament, heart circumcision is enjoyed in a new way. As Jeremiah says, "I will write my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts... They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest." It would be a mistake in applying fulfilment of prophecy not to recognize that this will be fully seen when Christ returns (which of course has implications for who comprises the church). But nevertheless, even in the Old Testament, circumcision was not something merely physical and external. The question remains, therefore, what is the counterpart in the New Testament?

  2. Excellent work Dan, I really enjoyed reading this. To respond to Mr Newman, I don't think Dan is arguing that heart circumcision is absent in the OT but that the definition of who Israel is now heart circumcision alone and not physical circumcision, as it was in the OT where circumcision is clearly a mark of being under the covenant with God. I don't think a distinction between the physical and the heart is Marcionite, or at least if it is then Paul is Marcionite too because he makes the same point in Rom 2:28-29.

  3. On a first skim, very good I'd say. Perhaps you've been reading Malone (one of the foremost reformed baptists to have written on this issue)?

    I'll comment properly after a proper read. But for now, I have a question or two and a text worth thinking about.

    Does Paul always/only attach circumcision merely to the law which came after the promise to Abraham?

    Romans 4:11
    And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.

    So why then did Abraham circumcise Isaac at eight days old, rather than wait for him also to show that he had the faith that receives the righteousness signed and sealed by circumcision?

  4. Anonymous11:49 pm

    The distinction between physical and spiritual is not Marcionite. The OT-physical, NT-spiritual divison sort of is, though. Paul's point however, isn't to oppose physical and spiritual in Romans 2.28-29, but to highlight that physical circumcision needs to be accompanied by the circumcision that "is a matter of heart".

    Certainly true Israel is marked out by circumcision of the heart in the New Testament. But then again, it was in the Old Testament, too, existing within Israel the covenant community marked out by circumcision.

    This is an important point to be clear on, I think, because it demonstrates why a physical equivalent to physical circumcision hasn't been done away with in the Christian era.

  5. Thanks for these articulate, clear thoughts Daniel. There is loads I agree with here. I'm simply not sure that the conclusions you draw are always necessary implications of the biblical material you've covered.

    Firstly, I basically agree with Daniel N when he says that

    'Certainly true Israel is marked out by circumcision of the heart in the New Testament. But then again, it was in the Old Testament, too, existing within Israel the covenant community marked out by circumcision.'

    Or to put it another way, in relation to your own comments, it could be said that Old Israel are not simply/always a forward-looking people with respect to heart circumcision, just as they were not with respect to many of the blessings we associate with the new covenant - forgiveness of sins, justification by faith etc. Surely romans 4 and Hebrews 9 make this very apparent.

    This makes circumcision not just a forward-looking rite. Again, Romans 4:11 makes this very clear with regard to Abraham.

    Secondly, I think you may be reading too much into the new covenant passage in Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah 32:37-41 must also be considered. A friend of mine has written about this passage with regard to reformed baptist uses of jer 31, though as yet his work is unpublished. I have blogged (very crudely and in a summary sort of way) about it at

    Thanks for writing and also for hosting this discussion.

  6. Gents,

    Many thanks for your comments. I have time at the moment only to offer a few remarks in return, and I want to focus on a couple of points that seem to me to be of special importance.

    Firstly, I detect an important disagreement about the state of OT Israel - a disagreement which, I suspect, shapes much of the rest of the debate. I confess that I am a pessimist when it comes to the old covenant. My reading of the OT leads me to believe that very few "Israelites" in the OT period were in fact Israelites. I think that Moses' remark in Deut 29:4 ("the LORD has not given you a heart to understand...") applies to most of the people of Israel during most of the period of the OT. I think that this is the background to what I genuinely do see as the opposition between external and internal circumcision in the NT. I can see that on a more optimistic account of the OT period - the assumption that many, perhaps a majority, of OT Israelites were "heart-circumcised" - it would not make sense to think of heart circumcision as being the mark of the new covenant as opposed to the old. However, since I do find that opposition in the NT, I find my pessimistic conclusions regarding OT Israel reinforced.

    Understand that I do not deny the presence of "heart-circumcision" in the OT; I merely think that it was rare enough that "flesh-circumcision" should be considered to be promissory in the sense argued for in my essay.

    In response to Pete's specific query about Romans 4:11, I think that the force of this verse is precisely to separate circumcision as a rite from the covenant of promise/faith. In context, the point is that circumcision was given after Abraham's faith, showing that Abraham is the father of those who believe irrespective of circumcision. The fact that Paul transitions so smoothly to talking about the law in 4:13ff indicates to me that he is associating circumcision with the law here. Come back to me on this...

    Abraham therefore circumcises Isaac because his descendants according to the flesh have been constituted the people of promise, those looking forward to the completion of the sign of circumcision in the circumcision of their hearts. I think.

    Jer 32 I will have a think about. Your friend is also a friend, or at least acquaintance, of mine, although I've not seen him for a couple of years. He would be a formidable opponent indeed! Someone point Mr Jeffers over here to join in the conversation?

    Grand - keep going, I feel at the very least we're getting to the heart of the disagreement, which is the first step in both clarifying our own thinking and understanding others better...

  7. I take your point re. circumcision in many ways. I think my issue is with what you're not saying about, rather than with what you are.

    So, Paul's general argument is (as you say) to show that the promise did not depend on law, and that Abraham's righteousness was by faith not by circumcision. He proves this by showing that Abraham was righteous by faith, long before he was circumcised. Given that general argument, it makes 4:11 all the more striking - in the midst of asserting the separation of righteousness by faith and circumcision, Paul gives us a statement with declared their connectedness (albeit in a very different way to the way his opponents were saying was the case).

    Whatever else is being said about the law (as represented in circumcision as a work of the law) and the promise - Romans 4:11 is also saying that circumcision is a sign and a seal of righteousness by faith.

    This relates to your other comments re. OT Israel.

    Even if you're right re. most of Israel not being true Israelites (and certainly, at many times throughout their history I'd have to agree with you, but not at all times) that doesn't take away from circumcision being a sign and a seal of heart-circumcision (just as it is a sign/seal of righteousness by faith). It just means that many of the Israelites didn't combine the receiving of the sign with faith, and therefore didn't receive what the sign signified (I think what I've written is english!). They received the sign of the covenant but, through lack of faith, were covenant-breakers. But for those who believed, circumcision was the outward sign/seal of their heart-circumcision (and righteousness, etc. etc.)

    One can be optimistic or pessimistic about OT Israel (I agree it's hard to persistently optimistic, though surely there were some good and some bad phases) - it doesn't change what the sign of circumcision stands for.

    Of course, in the church, it is very possible to receive baptism in the same way (1 Corinthians 10, for e.g.). And I imagine, looking out across some periods of church history, one could argue that many (most?) who recieved baptism but through unbelief proved themselves to be covenant-breakers and apostates too. This would not change the meaning of baptism though.

    I think that makes sense. And I hope that's helpful for the discussion.

  8. Anonymous11:12 pm

    I really just want to echo Pete's comments. He has said what I wanted to say pretty clearly.

    The rarity of heart-circumcision in OT Israel does not mean that physical circumcision was not meant to be the sign and seal of heart circumcision, even under the Old Covenant.

  9. Thanks again, chaps, for useful comments. There are a few things in particular that I need to take on board.

    Firstly, if I revise this post for future circulation, I will need to be more nuanced in the relation between OT/NT and flesh-circumcision/heart-circumcision. I agree that Romans 4:11 indicates that one of the purposes of circumcision was to be an outward sign of Abraham's righteousness (credited to him through his faith). I'm grateful for the insight. Working that insight through, I wonder how it fits in with the overall picture of circumcision that I've painted as something that is annexed to the law and therefore done away with? I think that overall picture does fit the evidence...

    Secondly, I'd want to show more carefully that I am not making a simplistic "faith came before circumcision, therefore faith comes before baptism" argument. Instead, I want to argue that the sign of circumcision, given to Abraham as a seal of his righteousness-by-faith, becomes to Israel a forward-looking sign, invested with further significance by the Deuteronomic references. The point is that I don't think circumcision is simply a sign of membership of the covenant people. I think the overall thrust of my essay - that circumcision points forward and promises "heart-circumcision" for all God's people - is correct. I'll work at stating it more precisely.

    Thirdly, and this may be something I tackle in the second part of this essay (the bit on baptism, which is likely to be mammoth in size), we clearly are meant to understand that there is a big difference between the old and new convenants - otherwise I can't understand the Apostle Paul's clear renunciation of the former. This is not to deny the unity of the one, over-arching covenant of grace; merely to try to work out what exactly changes (and what stays the same) with the advent of Christ. My feeling is that reading the OT as if circumcision is basically the precursor to baptism blurs the lines unacceptably, and also produces some confusing results: eg. Paul circumcising Timothy even though he has presumably been baptised.

    I'm happy to keep chatting about this, but in my mind I've moved on to the second part. I look forward to your reactions to that! I promise, I will be criticising baptists as well as paedobaptists...

  10. I suspect I have much to think and say with regard to the continuity/discontinuity of the covenants issue. But I'll wait until you formulate your thoughts on it in part two.

    For now though I'd want to simply assert that the paedobaptist position (properly presented) does not merely regard circumcision as the pre-cursor to baptism in an un-nuanced way, nor argue that there is no discontinuity of any kind between the covenants. Discerning the shape of that discontinuity/continuity is one of the major tasks for all theologians and preachers.

  11. On a completely different not, is there any significance in the sign of circumcision being a permenant sign (in the flesh), while baptism leaves no outward mark?

  12. Daniel, I've found reading your thoughts & the ensuing discussion very helpful. Funny, I clicked on comment to write and found Daniel Newman had said what I was thinking in the first comment - and better put :) But in your last comment you said, "The point is that I don't think circumcision is simply a sign of membership of the covenant people." I don't think any paedobaptist would say that it's 'simply a sign of membership'. That's a credobaptist reading - 'sign and seal of the covenant' being the usual phrase as you know, indicating a promissory, forward-looking aspect to the 'membership sign'. Physical circumcision was used to call the people to heart circumcision, rather as a witness to them (or against them). Therefore beyond that it pointed to a greater need for heart-circumcision, as prophesied. It is not that circumcision is the precursor to baptism in a straightforward way, but that circumcision was a sign & seal of heart-circumcision and thereby shows us something of how God's covenant applied with sign and with extent of membership. I wonder if it hasn't got more to do with God's way of working often through households too, and headship. None of this is automatic of course, but it seems to me that that isn't expressly discontinued in the NT - surely we come with a much more individualistic reading than the 1st century would've done?

  13. To respond to a couple of comments...

    Joshua (are you a Joshua I know?) - my suspicion is that there is no particular significance, but it is an interesting thought: circumcision leaves an indelible mark on the flesh, baptism leaves an indelible imprint on the heart? I'll ponder it...

    Rosemary - I think most of your comment is saying what I've also tried to say. Specifically this bit: "Physical circumcision was used to call the people to heart circumcision, rather as a witness to them (or against them). Therefore beyond that it pointed to a greater need for heart-circumcision, as prophesied." I agree with that, although I'd perhaps lay more stress on circumcision as a witness against Israel, and therefore on the forward-looking nature of the sign. I'm still thinking through to what extent I think circumcision is a sign and sign of heart circumcision, though. Since I only really find reference that might seem to indicate this (Rom 4:11), and since it seems to me to run contrary to what the overall picture is saying, I am wondering whether there is some other way to interpret the verse. My working hypothesis is that the "sign of circumcision" given in Romans 4:11 is the whole ongoing covenant of circumcision, and that therefore the "seal" of Abraham's righteousness-by-faith is the promise contained within that covenant of the coming Messiah. Did circumcision therefore function as a seal of righteousness for most of Israel? I think the Biblical evidence is that it did not.

    BTW, I'm still working on the next installment of this, but I'm probably being too thorough and I have a houseparty at the weekend which will go better if I write talks for it... ;o)