Abraham, Moses, And Circumcision

Since the early to mid-19th century, American evangelical Christianity has been largely dominated by a set of assumptions about the nature of redemptive history and the progress of revelation that may be called Baptistic. Not everyone who holds these assumptions or who is influenced by them is necessarily a member of a Baptist congregation but the adjective reflects a shared set of assumptions about what the “old covenant” was, how Abraham and Moses relate, about the nature of the new covenant and what that implies about the nature and life of the church under the New Covenant. Thus, this whole complex of issues must be tackled by those who are transitioning from American evangelicalism to a Reformed reading of Scripture. This set of questions and assumptions has been a frequent topic of discussion in this space:

  1. Moses Was Not Abraham
  2. Abraham, Moses, And Baptism
  3. The Abrahamic Covenant Unifies Redemptive History
  4. On The New Covenant
  5. Baptism And Circumcision According to Colossians 2:11–12
  6. Circumcision And Baptism
  7. Untangling Webs of Assumptions About Baptism

Recently, another question came over the transom: Are there two covenants with Abraham or what was the nature of the promises God made to Abraham? E.g., Why does circumcision belong to both Abraham and Moses? Does that make it impossible to distinguish Abraham and Moses?

Abraham Is Not Moses
Previously I have argued that everything that is distinctively Mosaic in the history of redemption is fulfilled by Christ and has expired or has been abolished. Thus, the 613 Mosaic commandments, i.e., the civil and ceremonial laws are fulfilled and expired. They have been abrogated and are no longer in force. The ceremonial aspects (e.g., the Saturday Sabbath, the land promise) of the Mosaic expression of the moral law, which itself is not grounded in Moses and is permanent, is temporary and has been fulfilled and abrogated. That the Mosaic covenant (sometimes denoted in the NT as “the law”) was inherently temporary and inferior and is now expired and abrogated has been a basic principle of Christian theology and hermeneutics since the 2nd century. This was a bulwark of Christian orthodoxy against the (Jewish) Ebionites, the Gnostics (Valentinians), and the Marcionites, among others. The Abrahamic covenant was not treated in the same way because it is not presented, in the New Testament, in the same way.

This leads us to a necessary corollary to the principle of Mosaic inferiority: The typological period of redemptive history and revelation pre-existed the Mosaic covenant. All of those types and shadows have also been fulfilled and have been expired but that there were typologies (pictures of the coming reality in Christa) under Adam, Noah, and Abraham does not make them Mosaic. In other words, not all types are Mosaic. This is an important distinction. The Mosaic covenant, strictly speaking, the Old Covenant, was typological but not all types and shadows are Mosaic. The Mosaic covenant was unique.

Because of the web of assumptions (see the related articles above) within which many American evangelicals read Scripture, it can be challenging for them to appreciate how the church tended to read Scripture prior to the rise of the Anabaptist movements and prior to the 19th century. I have argued elsewhere that nineteenth-century American evangelicalism was a revival is important features of the Anabaptist movements of the 16th century. See the essay “Magic and Noise” in this volume. Embedded in that culture was a powerful set of assumptions about the new covenant that were deeply influenced by American notions of progress and the superiority of the present over the past.  So, the default assumption for many is the lump together everything that occurred before the incarnation as one thing. This is a mistake. As I have shown in the articles listed above, the NT itself distinguishes Noah and Abraham from Moses. It is only the Mosaic covenant that is described as “weak” and “unprofitable” (Heb 7:18), faulted (Heb 8:7), “becoming old” (Heb 8:13) and fading (2 Cor 3:8, 9). All these are contrasts specifically between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. In that regard, Abraham and Noah have different roles in the New Testament. They are pictures of the new covenant. Abraham particularly is held us as the pattern of the New Covenant believer in Romans 4 and the Abrahamic covenant is described as the permanent norm in contrast the temporary Mosaic covenant in Galatians 3 and 4.

Not All Types Are Mosaic
Because Abraham and Moses both belong to the typological period, to that time in redemptive history before the reality, Christ and his kingdom, had come—not to say that they were not present in any way. They were present under types and shadows—they share certain characteristics and features. Both were marked by bloody rituals that looked forward to Christ’s suffering obedience and death, which was to be the fulfillment of the bloody rituals. There were sacrifices under Abraham. When, in Genesis 22, Yahweh commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the promised child, Abraham did not need a manual or a YouTube video to explain what a sacrifice was. A detailed sacrificial system was instituted under Moses that institutionalized and elaborated on what already existed. The same might be said of the Sabbath. It pre-existed Moses but was instituted on a national, civil level with regulations and penalties about which we do not read under Noah or Abraham. Circumcision was another bloody ritual that anticipated Christ’s death. Paul makes this connection explicitly in Colossians 2:11–12. See the essays above for more explanation but, according to Paul, circumcision anticipated Christ’s death and baptism looks back to Christ’s death. Both are ritual identifications with Christ’s death.

Circumcision, however, does not turn the Abrahamic covenant into the Mosaic any more than the possession of wheels turns a Fiat into a Ford F150. Both have wheels but they are distinct in important ways. Further, contra the assumption made by many under the influence of the broadly Baptistic paradigm, it is not infant initiation that is typological under Abraham but the shedding of blood. Baptism is a bloodless initiation ritual. When Jeremiah contrasts the old, Mosaic covenant with the new infant initiation is not considered a part of the old but the exterior, typological, ceremonial system is (Jer 31;31–34).

The Judaizing Abuse Of Circumcision
There are genuine connections between the Abraham and Mosaic covenants. Both are both administrations of the covenant of grace. Both are typological. God promised to Abraham a land and a seed (Gen chapters 12; 15; 17). As I have argued (see the essays above) the land was a type of heaven (Heb 11:10) and the seed promise was fulfilled in Christ (Gal 3:16) and we who, by grace alone, through faith alone, are united to Christ are his seed (Rom 9:7–8; Gal 3:29). In the history of redemption, the land and seed promises came to be administered through and under the Mosaic covenant but that Old Covenant administration was distinct from the Abrahamic. According to Paul (Gal 3–4), the Mosaic was a temporary addition to the permanent Abrahamic foundation. The Judaizers against whom Paul wrote in Galatians, Philippians, and elsewhere sought to reverse the order. Moses was so important to them, to their identity, that they treated the Mosaic covenant as if it were permanent. Paul specifically repudiates that notion.

Further, and more fundamentally, the Judaizers sought to present themselves to God on the basis of their circumcision, as if it qualified them to stand before God, as if it justified them along with their obedience to the Torah. That is why Paul contrasts law and grace so sharply against the Judaizers. We do not keep the law in order to present ourselves to God. In that regard Jesus kept the law for us. We keep the law because Jesus kept it for us. We keep it under a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works (“do this and live”). Paul’s argument to the Galatians and to the Romans is that anyone who seeks to present himself to God on the basis of his law keeping must keep the law perfectly but the Judaizers cannot do that so they cheat. They lower the bar. That is why he preaches the law to them so forcefully. This is why he speaks about circumcision in the way he did. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3; ESV). Paul was not speaking about circumcision absolutely, as if circumcision was inherently wrong. Rather, he was speaking about circumcision relative to the Judaizing program. If they think that they can present themselves to God on the basis of their circumcision, which he treats as a synecdoche (a symbol of the whole) for obedience to the Mosaic law, then they have placed themselves under a covenant of works. That is why is says that, if the Judaizers think circumcision is so powerful, why do they not go all the way and cut themselves off, i.e.,  emasculate themselves (Gal 5:11–12).

The crisis created by the Judaizers explains why Paul addresses circumcision under the old Mosaic covenant rather than under Abraham. The Judaizers were seeking to turn the Mosaic covenant into a covenant of works relative to salvation, which it never was and could never be. We may say that the Mosaic covenant had a certain exterior, legal quality. We might even say that the Mosaic covenant was a re-expression of the covenant of works made with Adam (as many Reformed writers have done), if only for the purposes of teaching national Israel the futility of seeking to present themselves to God on the basis of their obedience. It is quite another thing, however, to do as the Judaizers tried to do, to appropriate the Mosaic covenant for their legalistic program of salvation (justification and sanctification) through law-keeping. Circumcision was a flashpoint, a symbol of their illegitimate use of Moses and their corruption of the gospel. That is why Paul addressed it relative to the Old (Mosaic) Covenant. He was not writing a dispassionate, systematic treatise on the redemptive-historical significance of circumcision. Rather, he was writing a pastoral letter to address a crisis created by the Judaizers.

Theologically, what the Judaizers tried to do to circumcision is no different from what some Christians try to do to baptism: they conflated the sign (circumcision) with the thing signified (salvation). They thought that the very act of circumcision saves. It does not save any more than baptism itself saves (1 Peter 3:21). Both are ways of being ritually identified with Christ but neither circumcision nor baptism creates new life, faith, nor union with Christ. Only grace gives new life. Only grace gives faith. Only grace creates union with Christ through faith. That is why Paul says that circumcision or uncircumcision is nothing. What counts is new life (Gal 6:15) and true faith that manifests itself in love (Gal 5:16) and in keeping God’s commandments (1 Cor 7:19). Circumcision was a typological sacrament fulfilled by Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of the fulfillment of the promises. We might say the same thing about baptism that Paul said about circumcision. If someone wants to present himself to God on the basis of his baptism, then we say neither baptism or unbaptism is anything. What matter is new life, true faith, and the fruit of those. Baptism is, after all, a sacrament of the things promised and not the thing itself. It was on this basis that Paul distinguished between those, such as Esau who possessed only the sign and Jacob, who, by grace alone, possessed the thing signified (see Rom 9).

It is not the case that, because Paul associates circumcision with Moses, there is no fundamental difference between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace and the Mosaic. Not all types are Mosaic. There were real differences between the earlier, more fundamental Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace, and the Mosaic. Jeremiah and the New Testament writers following him (see the articles above) repeatedly contrast the New Covenant with the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, not with the Abrahamic covenant, which becomes in the New Testament, the paradigmatic administration of the covenant of grace. The continuity between them is the continuity of typologies (e.g., bloodshed) and of the covenant of grace but continuity does not an identity make.

Questions below are welcome but before you write, please take the time to read the various linked essays to see if your question has already been answered.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Thank you.
    I would like to know how to best go about distinguishing the differences between the OT typological expressions (mosaic, abrahamic, etc.) highlighting the >value/intention< of those distinctions, in a way that avoids the accusation 'they' like to use that we are making the mosaic a CoW over and against the abrahamic CoG (and WCF). Are the tensions between the typological expressions intentional (for what purpose?), or due to a misreading?

    • To clarify: I read your conclusion as affirming the differences between the types. I was posing the question in the sense of how do we affirm that against the ‘misreading’ accusation. Sorry.

      • B,

        Arguably the Mosaic covenant was, after a fashion, a covenant of works. As an administration of the covenant of grace the Mosaic covenant could not be a covenant of works for salvation but, insofar as the Lord pressed the law upon national Israel in ways that are unique in the history of redemption, Reformed writers have spoken of the Mosaic (old) covenant as a “republication” of the covenant of works.

        Here is a library of resources on this topic.

        In that regard, the Mosaic covenant is distinct from the Abrahamic.

        As to how we can tell what is a type and what isn’t, if that’s the question, there is always a degree of subjectivity. In the essay I tried to illustrate the difference by appealing to the difference between infant initiation into the visible covenant community and bloodshed. Infant circumcision involves both but I argue that infant initiation is not typological, unless every aspect of the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace was typological, in which case continuity between the Abrahamic and the New Covenant is destroyed and we have contradicted the New Testament teaching about the continuity between the Abrahamic and the New Covenant. Infant initiation only seems typological if one accepts the premise that the new covenant is so eschatological, so spiritual that infant initiation is a priori impossible. If you read my account of the new covenant, you will see that account of the new covenant does not square with Jeremiah nor does it square with the NT characterization of the new covenant.

        Bloodshed is objectively typological. The covenants with Abraham and Moses were made (cut) and ratified in blood. When our Lord instituted the Supper he said, “this is the new covenant in my blood.” The blood of circumcision, of bulls, and of lambs and goats pointed forward to the final, once-for-all sacrifice of the lamb of God. Infant initiation is not inherently typological but administrative. Again, the Baptist view, as I understand it, is an attempt to more or less eliminate the messiness of administration. Thus, they want to initiate only those who can make profession of faith. We are Abrahamic. We follow God’s pattern of initiating the children of believers into the visible covenant community but we do in light of the progress of redemption and the correlate progress of revelation.

        I let the history of theology help me. The early church was unanimous that, e.g., the use of instruments in corporate worship was part of the period of types and shadows, since it was so closely associated with the Levitical priesthood. The Reformed churches in the classical period (16th and 17th centuries) agreed. There ceremonial (religious) laws and system (e.g., the priesthood, the temple, the tabernacle etc) were universally regarded by the fathers and even the medieval theologians, and the Reformers as typological. The civil laws were regarded as typological. Holy war was regarded as typological. There were ways in which the medieval and Reformation churches were not always consistent with their theology but there was general consensus. We are guided in this by the NT.

        We could quibble about details, e.g., Rabab’s red thread as a type of Christ’s blood. There will always be some disagreement about what is a proper type. My practice is to focus on the original text and context first, to see what the original nature and function of thing was. Then I look at how it functions in the history of redemption, do other OT authors pick up on a theme? Finally. the way the NT treats a thing or a class of things (e.g., food laws) is instructive for the way we look at types. E.g., When, in Matt 2, the Spirit says that Jesus is the Israel of God, that his coming up out of Egypt is the fulfillment of a type instructs us that the whole Israelite experience was uniquely typological. Jesus is not the Abraham of God but he is the Israel of God and we are God’s Israel, in Christ.

        I hope this helps.

    • Yes, helpful. Thank you.
      I guess what I am looking/hoping for is an argument wherein the types are identified and explained in a way that that satisfies the contenders against-in the broadest sense- ‘republicationists’, if that is possible. I know your point in the post wasn’t exactly directed toward this issue, but closely related, I think. Why is it so difficult for some to understand that stating the mosaic expression as containing ‘in some sense’ a recapitulation of the CoW, is NOT denying the mosaic as a gracious covenant (and so not contra the WCF)? I certainly do not read you as pitting the abrahamic against the mosaic, but how does one explain the distinct typologies of each in a complementary way? Though there are distinct typological functions in each, how are we to understand/explain the purpose of those distinctions in a way that still places both covanents (along with all the other post-fall covanental expressions and their distinctions I guess, though they seem to come up less in the conversation) firmly and unequivocally under the CoG? I mean, the distinctions have to be there for a reason, right? But what are they for? Why don’t we have a ‘pure’ expression of the CoG, why is it so (seemingly) parsed out in chunks and snippets?

      • B,

        I think of these as two distinct questions: types and republication. The latter is difficult for some to accept for a variety of reasons but I’m not sure typology is one of them. Most who oppose republication accept the existence of types. Further, I’m not sure that republication, at least in all its forms, rests on national Israel being a type. My perception is that one major source of opposition to any form of republication is the rejection of the covenant of works. If the prelapsarian covenant with Adam was not or could not have been a covenant of works then that covenant could not have been republished. The re-definitions of covenant generally, proposed in the 1st half of the 20th century, seem to have been more widely accepted than I realized. Those re-definitions make a covenant of work impossible because, in them, covenant becomes purely unilateral and, by definition, gracious.

        In such a scheme, since works has been ruled out even before the fall, any notion of works or a law-covenant after the fall is not only a priori impossible but downright damaging to theology because, in this system, works are a foreign principle to Christian theology.

        The qualification that the Israel’s obedience under such a republished covenant of works was purely typological changes nothing for this objection because of the controlling power of the a priori conviction.

        The other great challenge seems to be the fear of creating too much discontinuity between Moses and the New Covenant, i.e., the fear of antinomianism by marginalizing Moses. This was not a problem when versions of republication flourished in the 17th century but, in light of the antinomian influence of some forms of Dispensationalism, many today seem more interested in refuting the latter than in embracing the tradition.

        Finally, it seems as if the unspoken assumption is that Reformed theology must be what it was in the 1950s rather than what it was in the 1650s. It’s been interesting to see how (apparently) utterly disinterested many seem to be in the history of Reformed theology. Some simply assume that whatever was being taught in the 1950s must have been what Reformed theology had always been and other simply don’t not seem to care about the tension between the 1650s and the 1950s.

        Further complicating the picture is that there are some who have advocated versions of republication who have always said things judged (in ecclesiastical trials) to be antinomian. For those who fear, misunderstand, or reject any doctrine of republication, this (single case) only strengthens their conviction that teaching republication, in any form, necessarily leads to antinomianism. Never mind that we are talking about the republication of the law that was given to Adam but it seems to some critics anyway that republication, in any form, is just a way to do away with the law by highlighting the discontinuity between Moses and the new covenant.

        I tried to build a bridge between to those are opposed to republication (in any form) here.

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