Abraham & circumcision understanding at inauguration

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Puritan Board Sophomore
I've been reading a lot recently to better understand covenant theology. I grew up Baptist, so I have plenty of questions to ask. *Please note this is in the Covenant Theology forum, so covenant theology responses only please*

In the OT, it is very clear that God did not require Israelites to merely be circumcised in the flesh...but to have circumcised hearts. But what evidence would we have that there was an understanding of the need for a circumcised heart when circumcision was initially given in Genesis 17? Do we know this simply because God-requiring-a-circumcised-heart does not seems to be a new idea when this issue is brought up by Moses or the prophets? How was it made clear what this sign of circumcision was pointing to...or was this not fully understood until further revelation came along?

Would Abraham have understood the full theological importance of circumcision when the sign was given to him...since we do know that God preached the Gospel to him previously in saying he'd be the father of many nations? (...so maybe the full significance of circumcision was made clear to him then, too?)

Similarly, was it understood what was required to be faithful to the covenant? Obviously, faith needed to be exercised...but what else would he have known regarding how he was to obey God (especially since this was before the Law was given)?

Thank you very much for the help!!


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The NT tells us circumcision was a sign of faith. And it tells us that Abraham understood that, Rom.4:11; cf.Heb.11:10,16.

Now, I'll just turn your question around, and query: What other evidence is necessary that circumcision is spiritual-in-nature, beside the fact that God gave it?

We aren't able to put ourselves precisely in the sandals of Abraham, and receive his revelation de novo, right beside him. Other than the limited record preserved for us, we don't know "the rest" of what God says to him. And sometimes, we act as though the people who lived biblical events and encounters stood in the same relationship to the revelation that we do. By which is meant, that their relationship to particular revelatory events conveyed exactly the same thing to their minds that the record of those events covey to later generations, alone, apart from any other information.

But this is naive. We have no idea what or how much of this revelation was recorded by Abraham himself in his own time. How much was in writing? How much was oral? How much was so well-known or common-sense, it required no further notation at the earlier moment? I'm not making an argument here for "tradition," the way the Pharisees and later RC apologists propose an "unwritten" tradition alongside Scripture. But what I'm saying is that in Moses' generation, he codifies all previous revelation. It Moses who makes sure that we not only know about Abraham, but we also know the meaning of those things, because he preserves it forever in writing.

It's Moses who informs us of God's covenant with Abraham. Its Moses who informs us (in no uncertain terms) that circumcision is a matter of the heart. So, on the one hand it is an unanswerable question, "What (precisely) did Abraham know about the interior-focus of circumcision, an outward rite?" On the other hand, our starting assumption should be that Abraham understood circumcision pretty well, that he taught the meaning of these signs to his household as well as he could. Especially as the NT writers teach us that his spiritual perception was excellent.

Of course, there is an expansion and an unfolding of revelation through time. But we cannot ignore the fact that the prophets accompanied God's people all along. Later revelation in writing is often something new and fresh from the divine Word, but sometimes it is the distillation of generations of reflection and preaching on the previous revelation. In this way, that which is true, and has always been true, and has become the assured interpretation is confirmed by its inscripturation.

Holy Spirit himself puts his imprimatur on the prophetic testimony. So, men like Moses, Samuel (probably), Isaiah, Ezra--these men (besides having some new Word from the Lord) gather the work of several past decades or generations, and set what is worthy for preservation into permanent for future ages, by the direction of God. With the result, we have exactly what we need for the coming age.

As for what men are to obey, regarding God's moral law: the "Ten Commandments" are nothing less than natural revelation, things that all men know or ought to know, if they weren't so busy suppressing the truth. But for all their suppression, they still find use for some basic morality. God preserves his ways and means to some degree, even among the heathen, "so that men are without excuse," and will have to answer to God for that which they did know (and violated). It is an evidence of his goodness and kindness, that he gave such a clear summary of the whole to his people, as their legal cornerstone.

Now, if God has any other commandment, a "positive" decree or injunction, then he makes such things clear to those who receive that Word. Circumcision was such a teaching. Or much earlier, sacrifice for propitiation was taught to mankind. All such things are either explicit or implicit in the text.
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