Brief Critique of Welty’s “Circumcision to Baptism”

In a recent thread on the Puritan Board, Philip A presented a brief but excellent critique of Greg Welty's From Circumcision to Baptism. It is worthy of your consideration…

Let me preface my comments by letting you know that over the last few months I’ve come around to the paedobaptist position from what I would previously have called a “Reformed” and “Covenantal” Baptist position. I had first learned Covenant Theology from Richard Barcellos, and had read through his writings on the subject, as well as those by Welty, Malone, Tombes, Coxe, etc., and every Reformed Baptist Theological Review to date. I say that to make it clear that I am at this point arguing against my former self just as much as I am against Welty.

Welty does a good job of identifying circumcision as one of the central elements in the debate, but he falls short in that he misconstrues the meaning of circumcision. If you take a wrong turn at the very start, then whatever you do subsequent to that is of no consequence.

He does the same thing that I did when he deals with the paedobaptist argument regarding the meaning of circumcision ““ he acknowledges it, and then promptly ignores it. He cites a hypothetical response from a paedobaptist on page 7:

"…circumcision points to inward cleansing (Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4, 9:25-26; Ezek 44:7; Rom 2:28-29)"

and follows it up by admitting that this “calls for an examination of these other texts”, but then proceeds to hand waving to dismiss them without the called for examination. Welty says, as you quoted,

"But one might as well argue that since OT sacrifices signified spiritual realities, we have warrant for continuing their use today. Clearly, we do not."

This completely ignores the fact that we have explicit NT texts abolishing the OT sacrifices, which is not the case for applying the covenant signs to children. But not only is the reason for his dismissal of the texts terribly flawed, but in place of them he goes rooting around in Genesis 17 and elsewhere making bad inferences, and then bases much of his subsequent reasoning on that misidentification of the meaning of circumcision.

Also, his argument on page 6 about the “historical-redemptive significance of Abraham’s circumcision” being prophetical of the inclusion of the gentiles is rather far-fetched; I was surprised to see him try and make this argument. Again, he ignores the explicit reason given in scripture for Abraham’s circumcision ““ “it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:11) and tries to back out from Romans 4 a wrongly inferred meaning. Paul is not at all saying “this is what circumcision means“, he is making an argument from the circumstances of Abraham’s circumcision to prove his point that possessing the sign of the covenant is not necessary in order to possess the substance of the covenant, and that is exactly what the Judaizers were arguing ““ no circumcision, no salvation (see WCF 28:5).

On page 8 he says:

"It is quite plausible to hold that circumcision was specifically applied to the seed of the OT people of God in virtue of this prophetic significance of the sign itself."

Again, he is arguing on the basis of “it is plausible for us to hold that circumcision means this”, over and against the texts of scripture that say “circumcision means this”. This was my favorite trump card, the argument from “prophetic significance” or “typology”, which at the end of the day is speculative at best. I could use it to dismiss any argument from the Old Testament that I didn’t like, but in reality it’s just an ipse dixit.

Welty also makes a few faux pas that take away from the credibility of his arguments. For instance, he accuses paedobaptists of using “abbreviated or paraphrased “˜citations'” (footnote 3, page 4), but he then proceeds to do the same thing on page 10, where he throws out his own abbreviated citations of “circumcision is nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), and “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” Gal 5:6), without addressing the context or the sense in which Paul meant those statements to be taken, or reconciling them to other places where Paul says “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law” (Rom 2:25) or “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way”¦” (Rom 3:1-2). When I quote snippets of these texts the way he does with the others, I can make them appear to say the exact opposite of what Welty tries to make the others say.

To sum up, Welty dismisses explicit biblical texts on the meaning of circumcision in favor of his own misconstrued meaning of it, and bases his reasoning on that. His error was the same as mine was; I was ignorant of the spiritual meaning of circumcision, and hence made up my own meaning of it to fit with my theology. Any subsequent arguments based on that premise are all invalid.

  1. Anonymous

    Question: How does a reformed Christian make the transition from circumcision to baptism anyway? I’m a Presbo, and I am currently studying Covenant Theology, Dr. Horton’s book. I’m involved with a PCA and would like to know the logic of transition.

  2. Leino

    1. WCF Chapter XXVII, V. The sacraments of the Old Testament in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

    1CO 10:1 Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

    2. Chapter XXVIII, I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ,1 not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church;2 but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace,3 of his ingrafting into Christ,4 of regeneration,5 of remission of sins,6 and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.7Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.8

    Note especially footnote 3 below:

    1 MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

    2 1CO 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

    3 ROM 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also. COL 2:11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

    4 GAL 3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. ROM 6:5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.

    5 TIT 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.

    6 MAR 1:4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

    7 ROM 6:3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

    8 MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

    Both circumcision and the baptism signified the same thing. Don’t focus on the outward sign, focus on the substance of what they signified.

    Rich Leino

  3. Anonymous

    If they signify the same thing, then how do we circumcise a woman? Just an honest question with little understanding, obviously

  4. Leino

    To note that two signs point to the same thing is not stating that the signs are similar. Both signs point to Christ. One looks forward, the other backward. There is expansion and fulfillment in the New Covenant.

  5. Anonymous

    Hello Rich,
    Your critique of Welty (whom I haven’t read) is too ‘brief’ and a bit too vague for me to make a direct comment on it. However, the point I would make is that circumcision is never connected to anybody’s faith except Abraham’s, and that faith he had before he was circumcised (Rom 4). Neither the faith of the parents nor the faith of the child has any bearing. If you were born a (male)Jew, you had the snip. Someone like Naaman the Syrian (Kings 5) who did profess faith in Jehovah, was not circumcised. Baptism, on the other hand is repeatedly connected with repentance,faith and discipleship (eg Matt 3:6, 11; 28:19; Mark 16:16; John 4:1; Acts 2:41; 8:12, 13, 36-37; 16:14-15, 31-34; 1Cor 1:16: compare with 16:15f; Eph 4:5).

    The conclusion I draw from this is that circumcision was a sign for the physical descendants of Abraham, and baptism a sign for his spiritual descendants (Gal 3:7 etc).

    I work this out in more detail on my blog

    Blessings to you and a very happy Christmas,

    Steve Owen

  6. Anonymous

    Hello Rich,
    You write:-
    “Both circumcision and the baptism signified the same thing.”

    That is what you have to prove, and the quotes from the WCF don’t do it. I wrote on Rom 4:11 before. Here now is A.W.Pink on Col 2:11f:-

    “It is a mistake to suppose that baptism has come in the place of circumcision. As that which supplanted the Old Testament sacrifices was the one offering of the Saviour, as that which superseded the Aaronic priesthood was the high priesthood of Christ, so that which has succeeded circumcision is the spiritual circumcision which believers have in and by Christ: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” (Col 2:11)- how simple! How satisfying! “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (v12) is something additional: it is only wresting Scripture to say these two verses mean “Being buried with him in baptism, ye are circumcised.” No, no: verse 11 declares the Christian circumcision is “made without hands,” and baptism is administered by hands! The circumcision “made without hands in putting off [judicially, before God] the body of the sins of the flesh” has taken the place of the circumcision made with hands. The circumcision of Christ has come in the place of the circumcision of the law. Never once in the New Testament is baptism spoken of as the seal of the new covenant; rather is the Holy Spirit the seal: see Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.”

    The New Testament brings the reality which the O.T. could only foreshadow. The one sacrifice of Christ brought the salvation that the death of bulls and goats could never accomplish. So also the circumcision of the flesh, which could save no one is now replaced by the circumcision of the heart, the New Birth that comes ‘without hands’ from above. The sign for those who receive that New Birth is baptism in water, signifying the dying to the old life and resurrection to the new (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12)

    Steve Owen

  7. Leino

    Stating that those who receive the New Birth are subjects of baptism leaves you with the problem of having the mind of God. Nobody baptizes on the basis of who has received the New Birth for such things are invisible to men and known only to God.

    By noting that the circumcision is made “without hands” this contradicts your own basis for you cannot know that God has actually accomplished spiritually what you attempt to base baptism upon.

    You are left with no basis upon which to actually baptize a person.

    You have to actually base baptism on something historical or you are left with nothing but the eternal purposes of God, which God has not revealed. (Deut 29:29)

  8. Anonymous

    Hello Rich,
    You wote:-

    You are left with no basis upon which to actually baptize a person.

    On the contrary, we ae left with the word of God to guide us. Acts 2:41: ‘Then those who gladly received his word were batized.’ Acts 8:12: ‘But when they believed Philip…..both men and women were baptized.’ That the faith of some will not be genuine is admitted, but that is neither here nor there. We follow the pattern laid down for us in the word of God and baptize people on their (credible) profession of faith.

    Steve Owen

  9. Leino


    Please read the original comment I responded to.

    First, you claimed that those who receive the New Birth are to receive the sign. Per John 3, the New Birth is something that happens according to the Sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. It is given to the elect.

    Those who “gladly receive”, in many cases, have received the New Birth but, by your own admission in your reply, some will not have genuine faith.

    In other words, your requirement for admission in your second reply is not the “New Birth” as you initially claimed but is based upon things the Church can see. It is revealed in God’s Word that those who profess faith and repentance are to be baptized. This we agree upon.

    What we also agree upon (based upon your change in requirement for baptism) is that it is not the “New Birth” that is the basis of baptism but the profession of a man upon which a Church may baptize.

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