(Col. 2:11-13) Does this passage support infant baptism?

CLAIM: Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong writes,

Paul in Colossians 2:11-13 makes a connection between Baptism and circumcision. Israel was the church before Christ [Acts 7:38; Rom. 9:4]. Circumcision, given to eight-day-old boys, was the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, which applies to us also [Gal. 3:14, 29]. It was a sign of repentance and future faith [Rom. 4:11]… Likewise, Baptism is the seal of the New Covenant in Christ.’[1]

The Protestant Heidelberg Catechism (Question 74) states:

(Question) Should infants, too, be baptized?

(Answer) Yes. For they as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and community (Gen. 17:7) and no less than adults are promised forgiveness of sin through Christ’s blood (Matt. 19:14) and the Holy Spirit, who produces faith (Ps. 22:10; Is. 44:1–3; Luke 1:15; Acts 2:39; 16:31). Therefore, they, too, ought to be incorporated into the Christian church by baptism, the sign of the covenant, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers (Acts 10:47; 1 Cor. 7:14). This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), in whose place baptism was instituted in the New Testament (Col. 2:11–13).

Does circumcision prefigure infant baptism for believers today?

RESPONSE: This passage unpacks why we are “complete” in Christ (v.10). Thus, whatever interpretation we take from this passage needs to explain this. Does water baptism fit with the notion of being complete in Christ? We think not.

First, this passage never mentions physical circumcision. Instead, Paul mentions the circumcision made “without hands.” Spiritual circumcision of the heart is the connection Paul is making with baptism (cf. Rom. 2:28-29; Phil. 3:3). Thus it isn’t the ritual of OT physical circumcision, but the reality of spiritual circumcision that is being connected with baptism. This point cannot be understated: Advocates of infant baptism claim that OT circumcision is parallel with baptism, and yet circumcision is not even mentioned.

Second, OT circumcision doesn’t make a good parallel with NT baptism. Physical circumcision made a person a member of the theocratic community in Israel, but never made the person a righteous. Abraham was righteous “without being circumcised” (Rom. 4:11).

Baptism is the complete opposite: A person first becomes regenerate (spiritually) and only then becomes water baptized (physically). The spiritual component was predicted in the OT itself (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:23-24).

Third, Paul likely was addressing Gnostic false teaching—not OT Judaism. In the context of Colossians 2, Paul is not arguing against biblical, OT Judaism. He is arguing against Gnostic, Jewish mysticism (see “Introduction to Colossians”). Thus basing a doctrine on such a passage is questionable at best.

Finally, this passage doesn’t fit with infant baptism, because of Paul’s mention of faith. According to Paul, this baptism happens “through faith,” which wouldn’t fit with infants.

Exegesis of the passage

 “In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” Paul is describing spiritual circumcision performed by God (“made without hands”), showing that this is not referring to a physical ritual performed by people.

“In the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” The “body of the flesh” refers to the old self of sin being crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6). This corresponds to the “transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh” mentioned in verse 13.

“Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” We would contend that this is similar to the baptism of Romans 6, which refers to spiritual baptism—not water baptism (see Romans 6:3-4). However, even if interpreters held that this refers to water baptism, it still wouldn’t fit with infant baptism, because this only comes “through faith.”

“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.” Uncircumcision is contrasted with being “made… alive” with Christ.

[1] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 5.