On Circumcision & Baptism: Interacting with R. Scott Clark

I have always found R. Scott Clark to be abundantly clear and precise when it comes to explaining his theology. I appreciate his commitment to the regulative principle of worship and have enjoyed interacting with him once upon a time concerning his volume titled, Recovering the Reformed ConfessionBecause I’ve found him to be a reliable theologian, I thought it might be good to interact with the Presbyterian view of the Covenant of Circumcision insofar as he discusses it in one of his articles on the Heidelblog.

In answering one of his readers, he begins as thus, “Circumcision was always a sign of what the Spirit does within his elect. It is not the case that the circumcised heart replaced circumcision. Your question, however, is a good opportunity to look at what Scripture says about circumcision.”

This initial response does a great job setting the stage for a profitable conversation, largely because the Particular Baptists agree! It’s always great to begin on some common ground. We also believe that the earthly or physical sign of circumcision signifies a deeper reality, that is, regeneration. He also writes, “In Galatians 3:11, however, the Apostle Paul quotes this verse and interprets it as the preaching of the law, as a re-statement of the covenant of works that God made with Adam. Sinners, of course, can not “do and live.” This is encouraging since it appears Dr. Clark recognizes at least a form of republication in the Mosaic Covenant.

At this point it would be helpful to clarify that we would not strictly refer to the Mosaic Covenant as a covenant of works. It’s not that simple. It’s formal basis may be conditional or of law (i.e. do this and live), yet there is much grace to be found in how God administrates this covenant with His people. Thus, it can’t be a covenant of works sharing the same purpose as the Adamic covenant of works. Justification before God by works is a lost opportunity in the post-lapsarian era (Gen. 3). Dr. Clark goes on:

The circumcision of the heart promised in Deuteronomy 30:6 signals to us that circumcision was never really about the cutting away of the foreskin. It was always, even under the types and shadows, about our need for new life, or, figuratively a new heart. The new heart, the circumcised heart, is something that only Yahweh gives and it was promised under the types and shadows in terms of the sacrament of types and shadows, circumcision but it signaled the same realities signified by baptism: a new heart.

We could agree with this as well, if qualified. In one sense, circumcision was about the cutting away of the foreskin in that by doing so one was fulfilling the antecedent condition of covenant inclusion. In Genesis, we read, “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant (Gen. 17:14).” The failure to circumcise meant preclusion from the covenant and subsequently estrangement from the earthly covenant promises (only “his people” would inherit the land). In another typological sense, however, circumcision pointed toward, among other things, the circumcision of the heart—a spiritual reality. He continues:

What God has always wanted, what circumcision always signified was a new heart. Thus, we should not conflate the external administration of the covenant of grace with its internal realities. There has always been both an external administration and an inward reality.

It is here where Dr. Clark and the Particular Baptists part ways. Circumcision did not signify a new heart, it pointed toward (or typified) it. In other words, circumcision is never said to be a sign of regeneration, but a sign of inclusion within the covenant of circumcision (Gen. 17:14). This was the earthly sign of the earthly covenant which contained earthly promises (i.e. national land). Circumcision is a type not a sign of regeneration. This covenant was made on a legal basis and, in fact, stipulated the keeping of the entirety of the law. Paul writes, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law (Gal. 5:3).” How could this covenant be the covenant of grace if it’s conditioned upon works?

When Clark goes on to speak about the external and internal aspects of the covenant, it becomes unclear as to how the distinction carries any real meaning. For example, what would it mean to be in the covenant externally? Seventeenth century Particular Baptist, Hercules Collins, writes concerning this perplexity:

If we ask what they mean by Infants of Believers being in the Covenant of Grace? They answer, they are in the External part of the covenant; if you ask, what is that? They say, the Administration of the Covenant; if you ask, what is that? They will tell you it is Baptism; so that the whole amounts to no more than this, such children they ought to be baptized, because they ought to be baptized.[1]

Collins’ point is that a significant part of paedobaptist covenant theology stands or falls on the pre-commitment of infant baptism. There is no reason to see an external administration of the covenant of grace in two administrations unless one first assumes that infants must be baptized since the external administration of the covenant of grace has virtually no substantive meaning beyond baptism for the sake of baptism. Clark goes on to utilize Peter, citing Acts, “That pattern continued in the new covenant, where Peter repeated the Abrahamic promise: ‘For the promise is to you and to your children and to the Gentiles’ (Acts 2:39).”

This is a passage often used to support the mirroring of baptism with circumcision. Yet, Paul says, “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Rom. 9:8).” We need consider the text as a whole and see Peter’s words in the broader scheme of the text. Paul is simply using the same language he used in Galatians, where he says, “And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise (Gal. 4:28).” These children of the promise, like Isaac, relate to God in a different covenant than that of the bondwoman and Ishmael. The latter were related to God in a re-publicized covenant of works, as Clark has apparently admitted (see above). Their lot was the earthly land promised to the ethnic nation of Israel. This earthly promise typified, of course, what the children of promise would ultimately inherit in Christ.

Therefore, there appear to be two covenants in Abraham, and there are two different peoples (children of the promise/physical posterity), promises (land/heaven), conditions (circumcision, law-keeping/grace-given faith). One covenant has curses (i.e. cut off from people), the other does not. Moreover, one covenant was formally established, and the other was not. The covenant of grace is promised, in places like Gen. 12 & 15, yet not inaugurated. However, the covenant of circumcision is inaugurated in Gen. 17.

Considering this along with Acts 2:39, the promise being for the believing seed and those who come after them is completely consistent with the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and exposited by Paul in Galatians 4 and Romans 9. This could also explain how Paul thinks of Timothy as a son in the faith, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Cor. 4:17).” In summary, Clark writes:

The promise remains: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” So the fundamental realities are unchanged. Regeneration has always been the product of God’s sovereign grace. Since the fall God’s elect have always needed a new heart that only the Spirit can give. Under the types and shadows those realities were signified by a bloody ritual, circumcision. Under the new covenant, those realities are typified by baptism, which, like circumcision is a ritual identification with Christ’s death. Paul says this in Colossians 2:11–12 when he appeals to circumcision as an illustration of Christ’s death, then points to the cross, and then to baptism. It is substantially the same doctrine in Romans 6. Like circumcision, baptism is an outward identification of Christ’s death. Circumcision anticipated his death, his being cut off (Rom (9:3; 11:22) outside the camp (Heb 13:11–13) for his elect, as our substitute. Baptism looks back to those realities but they are the same realities. What changed was the mode of administration.

The God being a God to “you and your children” is not something which necessarily entails inclusion in the covenant of grace. God would be a God to his people and their children so long as they are in a covenant relationship with Him. That does not ipso facto require inclusion in the covenant of grace. Baptism signifies much more than regeneration, it signifies the entirety of our life, or union, in Christ. Circumcision did not picture this. In Colossians, Paul says, “…and 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 (Col. 2:11, 12).”

The other aspect of Clark’s summary that’s important for our purposes here is typology. We view typology as being in reference to something pointing to something other and greater than itself. The paedobaptists see typology as being in reference to something that points to something better, but not necessarily other. For example, circumcision pointed to regeneration, something other and greater. The land promised to Abraham and his earthly seed points to heaven, something other and greater. Baptism shows forth the fullness of our union with Christ which will be realized at His return and the consummation of the Kingdom. It is a sign of our membership in the covenant of grace.

[1] https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/are-the-covenant-promises-definite-a-paedobaptist-discussion/. Emphasis added.

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