Why was Circumcision Removed? An Anabaptist Reading of Galatians
Reading through Galatians in my devotions, I simply am struck with its power and beauty, its revolutionary character. Something new always hits me with it, and this time around (I cannot count how many times I have meditated through Galatians) – this time around something new struck me. I will attempt to bring this out by meditating through Galatians and James.
I call this an “Anabaptist” reading, as it loosely conforms to an Anabaptist soteriology, which historically has seen obedient action to be apart of faith, grace, and salvation. As the cherished axiom states, there is no “faith without following.” It is also, loosely “New Perspective” in its understanding of Paul, but I will show that this perspective is in agreement with Anabaptist principles of interpretation of the law where any conviction is evaluated by (1) a Christocentric concern, (2) the leading of the Spirit, even beyond the literal teachings of Scripture, and (3) interpretation in the law of love.
In Chapter 2:11-12 it reads, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.” Here it seems that Paul connects the “circumcision fraction” with those sent from James.
Now within Paul’s writings, in particular Rom. 4:12 and Col. 4:11, the circumcision party is also simply those “circumcised” or the “Jews,” which suggest that the group was must larger than just James. Knowing what Paul accuses this group of also and what we know of James, James is innocent of the hypocrisy Paul accuses some of the Judaizers of. It was a wide spread mentality of Jewish Christians, who wanted to hold on to their Judaism, even it if meant imposing aspects of it on Christians.
So, we can see that the Jewish-Christians, an understandably conservative fraction within the church, saw what Paul was doing as promoting moral laxity. While they did not use the word, it is not far-fetched to characterize Paul as a “liberal” within this movement: emphasizing his immediate religious experience over sacred writings, seeking to revise cherish beliefs, etc. I use this word vivaciously because Paul was not a liberal in the modern sense of being concerned about foundational principles of individual reason and rights. Perhaps “radical” is a better word. Whatever the case, James, a conservative, was not pleased. Many commentators attempt to lighten his words in his epistle to make it sound like his arguments are not directed at Paul’s theology and his followers, however, the polemic reads fairly plainly in James 2:14-26:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Notice a few things that suggest is directed to Paul’s followers. James and Galatians are early documents written around the same time. James and Paul use the same vocabulary of “faith and works,” “justified by faith,” “justified by works,” etc. James cites Abraham’s example, same as Paul (cf. Gal. 3; Rom. 4), as if in a proof texting battle. Now, most conservative commentators refuse to recognize that this is a disagreement between Paul and James (or each others’ followers – some of the accusations Paul and James lob at their opponents don’t match them, but perhaps radicalizations of their positions) mostly because they assume the early church somehow must have had perfect doctrinal agreement, which is a really idealistic and a rather silly assumption. The New Testament documents controversy after controversy that the early church leaders faced, within and from without. They were human after all. The more evident interpretation is that between Paul referencing James as part of the circumcision group, the confrontation at the Council of Jerusalem, and James’ polemical tone in his epistle, we are witnessing in the record of the New Testament canon a doctrinal feud between a form of Jewish-Christian conservatism and Paul’s radicalism. Paul, obviously, eventually won out.
Nevertheless, James seems to think that justification by faith removes all moral obligation, which is why he attacks it so hard. However, as we will see, Paul does not have anything against doing what is right or obeying loving commands as part of trusting Christ. The two misunderstood each other perhaps.
So, let’s draw near to the text of Galatians to understand what Paul is doing. Paul comes to the realization that removing circumcision is the way to go. It is interesting how he comes upon this. It is a matter that displays his charismatic experience. In Gal. 1:12 he reports that his gospel message, which includes the abrogation of circumcision, was from a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is not just his original vision on the road to Damascus, as he continues to report that “after 14 years…I went up in response to a revelation” (2:1). This was intensely personal, since no one else had this revelation, not Peter, James, Titus, or Barnabas. No one else. Paul, led by a private experience, was compelled to cease the practice of circumcision in his mission to Gentiles. Titus, even more interestingly, does not receive a revelation, but simply does not feel “compelled” as if it was simply not a burden to his conscience. This is why I, with tongue-in-cheek, refer to Paul as a liberal: he appeals to religious experience and reports Titus’ appeal to personal conscience.
Refusal to obey the laws of circumcision is no small step. Gen. 17:13 writes, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.” It was a prerequisite for the Hebrews to participate in the Passover (Ex. 12:44). In fact, the eschatological promises of Isaiah 52:1 prophesy a day when the “uncircumcised” will never enter Zion. In the New Testament, Jesus was circumcised even, and he never explicitly denounced the practice. So, we cannot under-appreciate just how radical a move Paul is making here. He is virtually doing the equivalent of a Catholic ripping out the Apostle’s Creed from the liturgy, or for a Baptist to remove personal Bible reading (or, perhaps, the holy ordinance of the pot-luck). Paul is calling into question the heart of the religion he was raised with.
Some would say that Paul abrogated circumcision because it was apart of the “ceremonial law,” which has been a standard Christian interpretation from very early on. There are several problems with this:
(1) There is no distinction in the NT that divides the OT law this way. Grouping all the abrogated commands together as “ceremonial” was the interpretation of post-biblical thought. Doing so, however, does not work well when we realize that Jesus abrogated ethical commands also, such as divorce laws and retaliation laws (Matt. 5-7).
(2) There is no distinction in the OT that divides the OT this way either. The laws of Deuteronomy, as any contemporary commentary will point out, flow from the Ten Commandments. Thus, all specific commands do not fall into a schema of “ceremonial, governmental, and moral” but rather all the commands are read as specific applications of the Ten: all are understood to be moral. The ceremonial was ethical in the Jewish mindset. In fact, as any Jewish commentary would point out, to disobey circumcision, because it identified God’s people as a sign of the everlasting covenant, was an ethical, not ceremonial offense. It would be the same as a Christian today refusing to be apart of a church or refusing to pray. Similarly, to disobey the Sabbath was apart of the Ten Commandments, and thus, deeply ethical (something that Jesus transgressed by healing and picking wheat on). Consumption of pork was an ethical guideline, not just for health reasons as in the popular estimate, since it seemed to be associated with deviant pagan ritual (cf. Isa. 65:4; 66:17 – although the exact details of these rituals are unknown).
(3) We should even note that Paul has no problem with circumcision being practiced among Jewish Christians as Peter taught (Gal. 2:1-10). Paul was comfortable with multiple practices as long as both “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10). In fact, in Acts 16:1-5, Paul insists that Timothy, whose mother was Jewish, ought to get circumcised in order for it not to hamper his missionary efforts with Jewish people. Paul does not have anything against circumcision, it is really the way in which it was held by some. It was the manner or “mode” in which it was held, we might say.
(4) Paul retained other ceremonial aspects of the law such as baptism and communion, both obviously given new importance by Christ, but nevertheless, both are based on aspects that could be understood as ceremonial. Baptism, especially, is based on the ritual washing laws of Leviticus, which if Paul was out to remove all ceremonial aspects, the idea that dipping in water for the forgiveness of sins one would think would be among the first to go. Thus, Paul is not objecting to circumcision based on its ceremonial character. That is simply inaccurate.
So, why did Paul remove circumcision from the retirements of new Gentile believers? Here our inherited Reformed theology offers us sloppy answers. It is not that it is wrong (Luther and Calvin resolutely insisted on God’s grace, to which we all inevitably say a big “Amen” to). But it used categories in a way that could be more precise. Paul is not saying that salvation does not require any effort on human parts or that obedience is part of understanding one’s salvation. Paul is quite explicit in the later end of Galatians that the Law does apply to all believers as it is interpreted through love (Gal. 5:14). There is the “law of Christ” that must be obeyed (Gal. 6:2). The law is still in effect, but it has been reinterpreted, such that actions that are against this love, namely the vices of 5:19, mean those who do them will “not inherit the kingdom of heaven” (5:21). Here Martin Luther’s interpretation of justification by faith is utterly unhelpful, as disobedience, even if one believes in Christ, is seen to have severe salvific consequences.
Now, losing the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven does not necessarily mean one is not going to heaven, but it does put it in doubt and it does mean that one has shut a form of grace out of one’s life in the present. Grace does in fact depend on, at least in part, what a person freely does. For instance, merely trusting in Christ while one chooses to continue in a drug addiction does cause one to lose grace in the present. A drug addict may end up in heaven by trusting God’s free grace, but that person is not “inheriting the kingdom of heaven” in the present if the addiction drives them to harm themselves and others, swallowing them up in shame and self-deception. A part of “inheriting the kingdom of heaven” is removing that addiction so that the person can have a better life. Thus, in Paul’s understanding, obedience is important still. Obedience is new life (similar to the Anabaptist emphasis). It just begs the question of what kind of obedience.
Paul is not against doing something as part of grace, he is against a particular perversion of “works.” As we see in Galatians, it is not that he had a problem with ceremonial aspects. He is not against the idea that obedience is apart of grace. As we saw, the ceremonial-moral interpretation of the OT law is a false dichotomy. So what is his reason for abolishing circumcision then?
(1) He is against any action that sees one’s salvation as self-initiated (such as how the Judaizers were appropriating circumcision), which downplayed the surprising, unmerited gift of Christ. Obedience is apart of grace, but obedience does not make God have grace on us. Repentance is only possible because of the opportunity God gives in the first place. Obedience is what God and people do together, not just the person by his or her own autonomous strength. Paul does not have anything against obedience, he has something against self-righteous attitude in obeying, the “holier-than-thou” complex. It is the mode of action that he is disturbed at.
(2) Since the event of the Spirit was a spontaneous event, that did not happen through taking on full observance to the law and circumcision in particular (Gal. 3:3-4), the idea that doing so after the fact was putting trust in the wrong place. He was against circumcision being used as a barrier, preventing Gentiles from coming to Christ, especially since the gift of the Spirit was happening while Gentiles were uncircumcised.
(3) For Paul (and this is prevalent in inter-testimental literature also), circumcision became associated with the ethnic identity of Jews, that which separated them from Gentiles, and Paul concluded that this was something that should not be imposed on the non-Jewish converts. It seems that Judaizers made this a cause for arrogance and superiority over Gentiles, in the same way men could claim religious superiority over women or free people over slaves (thus Paul’s axiom in Gal. 3:28). Paul saw the confidence in circumcision as ideological, causing racial inequality, regardless of the fact that it was “biblical,” and therefore sought to revise it. Since Christ became a curse (Gal. 3:13), God’s presence was found in that which was excluded from the law, no marker between those with the law (Jews) and those outside (Gentiles) could be left up, except those that functioned to bring people close to Christ and those that were loving.
(4) Within the context of Gal. 5, Paul seems to suggest that circumcision was abrogated because it was unloving, or at least ineffective in the Galatian context.”For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), or “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22). This insinuates, if the Galatians are evaluating their moral obligations they had inherited from the Hebrew Scriptures with such criteria, circumcision will fall short and therefore be non-applicable. This makes sense of why some commands remain while others do not. One can only imagine that the expectation that a new convert had to cut some of their genitals off to be in the church would be perceived by that believers as excessive and unloving! Meanwhile, ceremonial acts like baptism, Sabbath practice, communion, etc. were not seen as unloving and unproductive for Gentile believers, and therefore still applied.
Trusting circumcision downplayed confidence in Christ’s work; it did not accurately describe the experience of the Gentile Christians, who were given the Spirit (the true mark of whether they were included in Abraham’s blessing) apart form being circumcised; and moreover, the expectation of circumcision was simply unloving. We see here that the removal of circumcision was a radical revision that Paul initiated by a Christocentric interpretation of his Scriptures, a Spirit-led approach, in the law of love, that made him feel justified with forsaking thousands of years of teaching, removing the sign of the everlasting covenant, even to the point of battling it out with his fellow Apostles, who disagreed with him. Eventually, of course, Paul won out, and the Jewish-Christian conservative fraction dwindled.
If this is the way the early Christians interpreted their Scriptures, we should in some way do the same today. The question then becomes how do we apply these interpretive criteria to the Scriptures and the ethical dilemma’s of our day?
So, abolishing circumcision had quite a lot to do with racial reconciliation and equality. It had a lot to do with listening to the Spirit speaking, and prophetically evaluating one’s beliefs. While it had specific theological elements that only Jews and Christians share, its application demands that anywhere a group claims to be closer to God because of something they have, can be seen as ideologically. Whites are not closer to God than Blacks. The rich are not more favored by God than the poor. Straight people are not more loved by God than gays and lesbians, and where there are barriers in the church to reinforce that kind of spiritual inequality, we should follow Paul to tear these barriers down.