In seeking to establish a biblical theology of circumcision, the two facets on which this book focuses are the key biblical concepts of righteousness and faith. Part of the motivation for that comes from Paul’s remark that Abraham ‘received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised’ (Rom. 4:11).4 Paul’s connection of circumcision with the ideas of righteousness and faith is not limited to this particular verse. The three are also clearly connected in Romans 2 – 4, Galatians and Philippians 3. Moreover, in other places circumcision is linked with related concepts like cleansing (John 7:22–23; Acts 15:1–11), reconciliation (Eph. 2:11–22), forgiveness (Col. 2:6–23) and the receipt of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45; 15:1–11).

However, Romans 4:11 connects the ideas in a way that opens up the subject and some of its inherent complexities. Furthermore, it also highlights Paul’s biblical-theological sensitivity with respect to the meaning of circumcision in so far as it relates to righteousness and faith. Paul’s claim in Romans 4:11 is not first of all anchored in what his opponents thought about circumcision but in how circumcision worked in the OT. Circumcision was given to Abraham as a ‘seal of the righteousness that he had by faith’. In Paul’s mind at least, circumcision was intended to mean something to Abraham. Paul is not making a claim about what became apparent about circumcision later, but about what circumcision already meant from the very beginning. It was intended to communicate something to Abraham about righteousness and faith. That raises the possibility of finding those two themes of righteousness and faith woven into the very fabric of circumcision both in the OT and the NT.

Yet circumcision in the OT presents a somewhat different and apparently more complex picture. Circumcision and uncircumcision are related to Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham and to the promise of land and descendants (Gen. 17; Josh. 5). It is used as a slur (Judg. 14:3; 15:8; 1 Sam. 14:6; 17:26, 36; 31:4; 2 Sam. 1:20; 1 Chr. 10:4). It is used as a metaphor to describe the inadequacies of the heart (Lev.26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25–26; Ezek. 44:7, 9), ears (Jer.6:10) and lips (Exod. 6:12, 30) and even fruit trees (Lev. 19:23). It is linked with blood and possibly sacrifice (Exod. 4:24–26), uncleanness (Isa. 52:1), with those who are judged by God (Ezek. 28:10; 31:18; 32:19–32; Hab. 2:16), with obedience and love for God (Lev. 26:40–42; Deut. 10:16; 30:6), and with pride and the sin of Adam (Ezek. 28:1–10). The diverse portrayal of circumcision within the OT does not immediately suggest that righteousness and faith lie at the very heart of its meaning. Moreover, it is not at all obvious why circumcision is a sign of righteousness by faith. Why not something else? Why not something more visible? And why not something in which both men and women can share?

Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul believed there was some connection between circumcision, righteousness and faith. And the existence of numerous letters and speeches in the early church seeking to clarify the connection between the three (e.g. Acts 7; 15; Rom. 2 – 4; Galatians; Phil. 3) suggests that others thought there was a connection too, even if they misunderstood it.

Taken from Righteous by Promise by Karl Deenick. Copyright (c) 2018 by Karl Deenick. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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