Volume 43/Number 2
"The Circumcision of the Christ":
The Significance of Baptism in Colossians and the Churches of the Restoration
Institute for Christian Studies
The practice of believers’ baptism is central to the Restoration tradition of Christian faith and practice. Accordingly, there has been no shortage of reflection on the importance of baptism in the writings of leading figures of the Restoration Movement, in the teaching of its churches, or indeed in the pages of Restoration Quarterly; in the forty-two volumes of the journal completed to date, baptism figures prominently in no fewer than thirty-three articles. Of these, the great majority (20) appeared in the journal’s first decade, over a third (12) in the first year of publication; this perhaps reflects a decline of interest in the topic of baptism in the past four decades, at least among the movement’s scholars. In any case, it remains undeniable that the baptism of believers as the mark of entry into the church and the means by which individuals appropriate God’s gift of salvation in Christ has heretofore formed a constitutive element of the Restorationist way of being Christian.Most directly it aligns Restorationist churches with the “stepchildren of the Reformation”—with the biblicists among the sixteenth-century Radical Reformers—as well as with the English Baptists of the seventeenth century. As these Christians and their successors have often observed, the baptism of believers is the only rite of Christian initiation clearly attested in the NT. Less widely recognized, believers’ baptism remained a common practice well into the fourth Christian century so that such prominent church leaders as Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and Ephraem the Syrian—all reared in committed Christian households—were baptized only as young adults. While Tertullian and Cyprian can be found defending the baptism of infants, not until the fifth-century Pelagian controversy is it appealed to as common practice.
In the sixteenth century, the moderate Catholic reformer Desiderius Erasmus rediscovered believers’ baptism as apostolic practice and broadcast the rediscovery in the annotations to his widely used edition of the Greek NT; it was Erasmus’s interpretation that was taken over and promoted so vigorously by the Radicals, whom Catholics and magisterial Protestants alike persecuted as “Rebaptizers” (Anabaptists), as Augustine had the Donatists.In more recent times, such varied authorities as Anglican evangelist John Wesley, Reformed theologian Karl Barth, Lutheran church historian Kurt Aland, Methodist minister William Willimon, evangelical author Charles Colson, and Roman Catholic liturgist Aidan Kavanaugh have recognized believers’ baptism as normative Christian practice. At various points across the confessional spectrum, we thus find concord with the Restoration’s affirmation of the importance of believers’ baptism.
It is possible, however, to emphasize the importance of baptism yet neglect its significance—to neglect what baptism signifies. Yet it is only what baptism signifies that warrants the importance that it has historically been accorded in the Restoration Movement. If Restorationist Christians neglect what baptism signifies, it will prove difficult to maintain for very long the importance of baptism in the life of our churches. This is especially the case in a milieu of increased openness to other traditions of belief, such as can be found in many Christian communions as we cross the threshold into the third millennium in which Christ has been named as Lord. While no Christian of good will would dispute that the engagement of confessional differences and the identification of common ground with believers outside our communion are worthy pursuits, entering into such interconfessional conversation with a lack of clarity about what baptism signifies may lead Restorationists to a premature surrender on this question. Such a surrender, however well intended, is ill advised. Renewed attention to the significance of baptism is called for if the importance of baptism is to be maintained with conviction.Like all of Paul’s letters to churches, Colossians was written to a community already formed through the acceptance of the gospel in conversion and baptism. Thus in Colossians, as everywhere in the Pauline corpus, baptism is mentioned only in the context of patterns of exhortation that might be termed “baptismal parenesis”; a Pauline letter does not introduce baptism to its hearers but appeals to them to live out the implications of their baptism.
Indeed, Colossians is structured around the most extensive baptismal parenesis in the Pauline letters, and the central section of the letter (2:6–4:6) constitutes the longest sustained reflection on baptism to be found in Scripture. With no pretense of exhausting the subject, the remainder of this essay draws from this baptismal parenesis three suggestions regarding what baptism signifies. These are offered in the hope that a recovery of the biblical theology and practice of baptism may further renewal of the covenantal life of churches committed to the Restorationist way of being the Christian community.
First, as the symbolic climax of the Colossians’ conversion, baptism signifies the converts’ transfer of allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. Recalling the recipients’ conversion is a major interest of Paul in Colossians. Their initial acceptance of the gospel is first mentioned at the opening of the letter’s introductory thanksgiving (1:6–7). The conversion is first given a definite characterization at the close of this thanksgiving, where Paul characterizes conversion as a transfer from one sphere of authority to another, “from the authority of darkness . . . into the reign of his beloved Son” (1:12–13). We shall see that as the letter proceeds the recollection of the baptismal pledge of allegiance to Christ remains a major concern.
The occasion for Paul’s emphasis on recalling the baptismal pledge is provided by the circumstances in which the Colossian ekklesia came into existence and the situation in which it now finds itself. “The saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae” (1:2) were brought to faith not by Paul himself but by Epaphras, a missionary associate of Paul (“our beloved fellow slave . . . a faithful servant of Christ,” 1:7; “a slave of Christ Jesus,” 4:12; “my fellow captive,” Philem 23), and a native of the Lycus valley (“the one from among you,” 4:12, as also Onesimus, 4:9).In Colossians, then, Paul addresses not a church of his own founding, but one established by a convert and missionary associate.
The letter suggests that some time has elapsed since Epaphras’s founding of the Colossian assembly—enough for Epaphras to return from Colossae to rejoin Paul and inform him of the church established there, for Paul to add the Colossians to the group of churches for which he regularly prays, and for at least the pair of them to suffer confinement.Yet the founding of the church, thus also the conversion of the addressees, lies not too far in the past; Paul writes a fledgling church whose few members have never seen his face (2:1) and who must continue in the absence of their immediate founder since Epaphras is detained with Paul. The letter notes the concerns of both Epaphras and Paul for the church, expressed in their constant and agonized prayer for this fledgling Christian community (1:9–12; 2:1–3; 4:12–13).
But this consensus is increasingly challenged; Walter Bujard’s stylistic analysis has furthered the recognition that the primary concern of the letter is not the engagement of heresy but the exhortation of the community. From the numerous reconstructions of “the Colossian heresy” in the secondary literature, we might scarcely guess that the explicitly polemical passages of the letter total only ten verses out of ninety-five, all of them found within chapter 2. To construe the letter in its entirety as polemical, these clear references to dangerous teaching have to be filled out with conclusions derived from a “mirror reading” of passages that are not clearly polemical; the most optimistic verdict that can be pronounced over such adventurous interpretations is “not proven.”
These undoubtedly polemical passages occur within the framework of the recollection of the Colossians’ conversion; the polemical interest of the letter is subordinated to Paul’s pastoral interest in strengthening and nurturing this young community in its commitment to the allegiance to Christ that they have accepted in their conversion. We might refine Bujard’s assessment slightly and characterize Colossians as a letter of confirmation; that is, the letter reminds the Colossians of the significance of their conversion to Christ, in order to confirm them in the convictions and moral dispositions appropriate to their new faith.
The central appeal of the letter is found in 2:6–7: “As then you have received (παρελάβετε) Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted and fortified in him and confirmed in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Paul looks back to the Colossians’ conversion as an acceptance of the tradition that Christ Jesus is Lord, and he appeals to them to exhibit a manner of life that conforms to this confession. Paul appeals here to a characteristic formulation of the heart of his gospel. He elsewhere uses the acclamation “Jesus [Christ] is Lord” to summarize both the missionary proclamation by which he founded Christian communities (2 Cor 4:5) and the confession that his converts made in accepting his proclamation (Rom 10:9). This pledge of allegiance to Christ the Lord was doubtless affirmed in the context of baptism, for Paul reminds his Corinthian converts that they “were washed, . . . sanctified, . . . justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).The simple sentence “Jesus is Lord” is the presupposition for Paul’s frequent appeals to “the Lord Jesus Christ” whom Christians serve. In Phil 2:11, the acclamation occurs in a hymnic passage that shows that the church’s confession of Christ as Lord anticipates the acclamation that will usher in the new age, when every knee will bow, every tongue confess, and every sentient being in existence acknowledge Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, and exalted as Sovereign over all creation.
In Colossians, as in the Pauline corpus generally, the lordship of Christ is universal; the Son of God’s love is sovereign over all that he has been instrumental in creating; thus he is identified as “first-born of all creation” (1:15), “pre-eminent among all things” (1:18), “the head of every rule and power” (2:10). But Christ’s lordship is also eccelesial, as it is in the church that it is presently exercised; he is “the head of the body, the church” (1:18). And the lordship of Christ is individual, as submission to Christ is expressed concretely in the individual response of obedience; this is implicit in all the specific ethical directives of 2:20–4:6, but the individual’s response of obedience is especially evident in the exhortation to slaves (“fearing the Lord,” 3:22; “work as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive . . . be slaves of the Lord Christ,” 3:23–24) and masters (“realize that you also have a Lord in heaven,” 4:1).
Richard Neuhaus captures the heart of the Pauline gospel for the contemporary church. The gospel announces that God has raised his crucified Son Jesus Christ and installed him as sovereign over all things, and the gospel offers its hearers the possibility of ordering our lives now under the sovereignty that will be manifest to all when Christ returns in glory. This demands the renunciation of other, lesser sovereignties that vie for the allegiance of people in the twenty-first century no less than the first. To be a minister of Christ, then, as Paul and Timothy and Epaphras were, is to be an ambassador of this disputed sovereignty, inviting others to turn from the reign of darkness in whatever form it is offered and to embrace the light of life under the reign of God’s Son.That transfer of allegiance to the service of Christ the Lord is fundamental to the significance of baptism.
Second, baptism signifies entry into the eschatological covenant people of God. The first explicit mention of baptism in Colossians comes at 2:11–13:
In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by hands, in the putting off of the body of flesh, in the circumcision of the Messiah; [you were] baptized with him in the [aforementioned] baptism, in which you were also raised through trust in the power of the God who raised him from among the dead. And you, dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made alive together with him, forgiving us all our trespasses.
Baptism, while a deeply personal act, is not the solemnization of a private relationship between solitary individuals and their Creator. Rather, baptism is a public action by which an individual is granted membership in the new covenant people of God formed by the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ. Baptism is an action of communal and not merely individual significance. It marks our point of engagement with the God who through Christ has formed a new people, or who has rather renewed his people Israel.
The admission to the people of God granted in baptism is presented in Colossians as the work of God the Father himself; it is only God who can grant us admission to his people. The action of God in conversion, thus in baptism, is evident as early as 1:13: it is God who has “delivered us from the authority of darkness and transferred us to the reign of his beloved Son.” In 2:12, baptism is described as a “circumcision not performed with hands,” that is, one divinely accomplished. In the verses following, the actions that take place in baptism are presented as the actions of God the Father. Paul reminds the Colossians that in the act of baptism it is God who has “buried you together [with Christ] in baptism” and “raised you in Christ” (2:12; also 2:20; 3:1).God has “made you alive together with Christ” and “forgiven all the transgressions” (2:13); God has “blotted out the written accusation against us” and “removed it, affixing it to the cross” (2:14); God has “stripped bare the principalities and authorities” that formerly claimed the allegiance of Christians; and he has paraded them in the open, leading them like a conquered people in a triumphal procession, having defeated them in Christ (2:15).
Baptism in Pauline teaching is characterized neither by an emphasis on elements requisite in human response to the exclusion of divine action (what might in contemporary terms be labeled “legalism”) nor by an emphasis on divine grace that makes human response insignificant (what we might label “grace/license”). Rather, baptism is significant because it is the occasion for our engagement with the action of God in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ; we might say that the creaturely actions involved in baptism are the medium in which God’s saving action is expressed.That is equally as true of the life of covenanted obedience to which baptism is our introduction, and with that we arrive at our final suggestion.
Baptism signifies the moral transformation of the people of God into the image of his Son. Baptism is described in Col 2:11 as circumcision with a difference; it is not a removal of only a bit of flesh as literal circumcision is; rather, “the circumcision of the Christ” involves the putting away of the body of flesh as a whole. The crucial phrase “the circumcision of the Christ” is ambiguous; it can refer either to a circumcision that the Christ has undergone himself in his “putting off the body of the flesh” on the cross or to an operation performed by the Christ on those whom he grants membership in his people.The context commends both interpretations, for Christians are clearly the objects of a divinely accomplished circumcision (v. 11a), yet they are also made participants in Christ’s own burial and resurrection through their baptism (v. 12). The ambiguity of the phrase may thus be intentional, and Paul’s reference is to that “removal of the body of the flesh” that Christ completed in his death, and in which he makes the baptized to share. In any case, in the exhortation that follows, it is clear that “putting away the body of flesh” refers to the rejection of vices and the adoption of virtues characteristic of Christ, shared by those in fellowship with him. Baptism, then, as the circumcision of the Messiah, signifies the abandonment, by divine power, of a life appropriate to the flesh.
From the image of circumcision as a removal of the fleshly body, Paul modulates to the more familiar image of baptism as the removal of the old humanity of Adam and the assumption of the new humanity of Christ as participation in the death and resurrection of the second Adam. Wayne Meeks has argued that this complex of imagery represents an interpretation of the baptismal rite as it was practiced in the first century, with a disrobing before the immersion of the baptismal candidate and reclothing afterward, as is depicted in the earliest artistic representations of baptism.In any case, this baptismal image provides the framework for the general exhortation that follows: “If you have died with Christ” do not submit to regulations deriving from the elemental spirits that rule the present age (2:20); “if you have been raised with the Christ, seek the things that are above, where the Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (3:1); “put to death your members which are on the earth” (3:5); “but now remove” (like pre-baptismal garments) all the vices in which you once walked (3:8); “as God’s elect, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with love” (3:12). Colossians depicts the moral life in terms drawn from baptism.
The moral transformation of the baptized is not automatic, a magical effect of the rite’s performance. It must be informed, directed, and encouraged; one might say that in all of his correspondence with churches, and indeed in the ministry of which that correspondence forms one instrument, Paul’s project is the shaping of communities in conformity with baptism. Indeed, it is the business of the minister in every age to further the transformation of the baptized into the moral image of Christ. Thus it is to baptism as the defining moment of Christian life that Paul appeals to encourage this transformation in the Colossian Christians.
The worship of the gathered church is mentioned briefly in 3:16–17. Referred to in the context of moral exhortation, the worship of the church is to fit the worshiping community for a life that exhibits the virtues appropriate to the baptized enumerated in 3:12–15. Specifically the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” of the Christian community are mentioned as instruments of teaching and admonition; they appear instrumental to Christians’ conduct of the whole of their life “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 17), the name owned at baptism as we noted in 2:6. The church’s worship, then, renews and deepens the commitments made at baptism and equips the worshipers for a life that in word and deed expresses the disputed sovereignty of the Lord Christ.
This mention of the church’s worship forms a transition between the general exhortation to the church and the exhortation to Christians in particular stations of life. In 3:18–4:1, Paul addresses the members of the Colossian ekklesia according to the role they occupy in the households in which they live. This code of household duties has parallels in a wide range of Greco-Roman moral literature beginning with Aristotle.Since the work of Krister Stendahl and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, it has been common to treat such codes of duties in the NT as signaling a retreat from the radical egalitarian ethics of Paul himself, a retreat called in the second Christian generation by a church of rising social status, eager to accommodate to the hierarchical society around it. But in fact, in 1 Cor 7:17–24, in the context of an exhortation to husbands and wives, Paul outlines the quietistic, non-revolutionary household ethic that he says he teaches in all the churches: “Let each walk in that station in which the Lord has called him” (1 Cor 7:17, 24); he then mentions as examples of such stations circumcised and uncircumcised, master and slave—status pairs mentioned also in Col 3:11 (as in Gal 3:28 and 1 Cor 12:13). In Philemon, Paul does not offer general moral advice but advises a convert, a Christian master, in a concrete situation of difficulty with his newly converted slave; Paul appeals not for the release of the slave Onesimus but for his gentle treatment, as befits one who is now “more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philem 16), and for the return of Onesimus to Paul to assist him in his “prison ministry.” Thus in the unquestioned letters as in Colossians, Paul is concerned to advise his converts how to live as wives and husbands, parents and children, slaves and masters who have been baptized into the sovereignty of Christ.
This essay has done no more than draw attention to some aspects of Paul’s letter to the Colossians that deserve closer attention if the significance of baptism is to be reclaimed. This is a task requiring much exegetical and theological work, both because the significance of baptism, presented in such a concentrated way in Colossians, is further disclosed in more diffuse fashion in numerous other texts of the NT and also because a full appreciation of the significance of baptism ultimately involves the whole substance of our faith.These reflections are offered in the conviction that faithfulness to the biblical witness requires the churches of the Restoration to cultivate an appreciation of baptism in our teaching ministry, in our baptismal practice, and indeed in our common life. It is by a rediscovery of the significance of baptism as a symbolic action expressing the whole of our faith and calling us to the life of covenanted obedience that Christians of the Restoration tradition may justly hope to be “renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator,” together with all his saints.
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