Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Is Circumcision Sinful in Itself for a Christian?

I have been focusing on the issue of Luther's interpretation of Paul in a number of recent posts. One reason is that I don't think philosophy, world views, or deep structures of thought have much to do with the history of Christian doctrine. Instead, as I said here, "I would like to suggest that one's interpretation of a relatively small number of [Biblical] passages will determine one's theology." For example, is Romans 7 about Paul before he believed in Christ, or after? That, not nominalism, or any other philosophical idea, is going to shape your view of sanctification of the believer.

Another question no one has asked is: how come the Catholic monk William of Rubruck had such a different view of fermented mare's milk from the Eastern Orthodox? To put it differently, what was Latin theology doing right in its understanding of culture, that Greek theology was doing wrong? (Background for this question here).

The answer lies in Augustine and Jerome's debate over circumcision and the interpretation of the passages on circumcision in Galatians. Paul says in Galatians 2:3, that he did not have Titus circumcised, but in Acts 16:3 he did have Timothy circumcised. Jerome and Augustine had a great debate over this question. Jerome contended that just as Paul's conflict with Peter in Galatians 2:11 must have been a kind of play-acting, because for Jerome (and following him Erasmus) Peter as an apostle could not sin and was beyond attack, just so, Paul's circumcision in Acts 16:3 must have been a pretence, and "deceitfully" should have been added into the text there. That is, Paul fooled the Jews into thinking he had circumcised Timothy, because once Christ had come circumcision was fatal. (Luther sums up Jerome and Origen's view point with the adage, "But after Christ the ceremonial laws were fatal"; see Luther's Works, vol. 26, Lectures on Galatians, p. 123.)

By contrast in the Galatians 2:11 passage, Augustine wrote, "It is intolerable to suppose that there was pretense in Paul, for he confirms with an oath that he is speaking the truth" (cited in Lectures on Galatians, pp. 107-08, from Augustine, Expositio epistolae ad Galatas, 15). Similarly he argued that circumcision was "not to be withdrawn from Jewish practice as if abominable and reprehensible" (Bede the Venerable: Excerpts from the Works of Saint Augustine on the Letters of the Blessed Apostle Paul, p. 219). As the place of my citation shows, the series of letters between Jerome and Augustine debating this this issue was well known in the Middle Ages, and was referred to by Luther as early as his Lecture on Romans.

Here is Augustine arguing against Jerome:

It is I, Paul, telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. (Gal. 5:2)
Di he deceive Timothy, then, and make Christ of no benefit to him [Acts 16:3]? Or, if it was done deceitfully, was it then no hindrance? But [Paul] did not specify, and say either if you have yourselves circumcised truly, or deceitfully, but without limiting it he said, if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.

As you want to make room for your interpretation, so that want us to supply the words 'deceitfully' [to Acts 16:3], so I am not demanding unreasonably that you also allow me to intepret the words if you have yourselves circumcised as being addressed to people who wanted to have themselves circumcised because they supposed that they could not be saved by Christ otherwise. [Or as Luther would say, they made it part of justification.] To those circumcised in this state of mind, with this desire and intention, Christ was of no benefit, as [Paul] clearly states elsewhere: 'If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.' He also makes this declaration which you yourself have quoted: 'You who are seeking to be justified by the law have been cut off from Christ; you have falled from grace.' Surely he was rebuking those who were trusting in themselves, not those who were legitimately observing the [commandments] out of respect for the One who commanded them, not those who understood both why they were commanded -- to foreshadow the truth -- and how long they should endure [i.e. only until the Christ came].

. . .

I say, then, that circumcision of the foresking, and other things of this kind, were divinely given to the earlier people through the covenant that we call 'old', to represent the future things that were to be fulfilled through Christ. When [the future things] had come, these were left for Christians to read solely for the purpose of understanding the prophecies that had gone before. They did not necessarily have to be carried out so that the revelation of faith, which was represented here as to come in the future, may come, as if it was still being awaited.

But although these things were not to be imposed on the Gentiles, they were not to be withdrawn from Jewish practice as if abominable and reprehensible. Slowly and gradually, then, all this observance of prefigurations was to be ended by the passionate preaching of the grace of Christ, the only means believers have of knowing that they are justified and saved -- not by those prefigurations of things once future, but then already coming and present, as at the calling of those Jews whom the Lord's physical presence and the period of the apostles found in this state [i.e. circumcised]. This was enough to suggest that [this observance] was not to be avoided as abominable and similar to idolatry, but that it had no further use, lest it be supposed necessary -- as though salvation came from it and could not exist without it -- as heretics supposed. [The heretics, Judaizers in this case], while wishing to be both Jews and Christians, could be neither Jews nor Christians (Hurst, trans., pp. 218-19).

And here is Luther writing about their debate:

But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek (Gal. 2:3)
. . .
Thus Paul did not reject circumcision as something damnable; nor did he by any word or deed compel the Jews to give it up For in 1 Cor 7:18 he says: Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. But he did rejected circumcision in the sense of something necessary for righteousness . . . Nevertheless when Jews who were believers but were still weak and zealous for the Law heard the statement that circumcision was not necessary for righteousness, they could not take it to mean anything else than that for this reason circumcision was altogether useless and damnable. . . In the same way we today do not reject fasting and other pious practices as something damnable, but we do teach that by these practices we do not obtain the forgiveness of sins. When the common people hear this, they immediately conclude that we are condeming good works. And the papists abet this impression of the people through their sermons and books . . .

. . .

Jerome and Augustine engage in a bitter controversy over this passage. The term "was not compelled" supports Augustine's case. But Jerome did not understand the issue. The issue here is not, as Jerome supposes, what Peter or Paul did about circumcising or not circumcising. Therefore Jerome is amazed that Paul had the authority to denounce in Peter what he had himself done [i.e. observe on occasion the Jewish law]; for, he says, Paul circumcised Timothy and lived as a Gentile among Gentiles but as a Jew among Jews. Jerome imagines that what is at issue here is not very important; therefore he concludes that neither Peter nor Paul had sinned, but he imagines that both had covered things up with a "white lie." As a matter of fact, however, this entire controversy of theirs was, and is, serious business; it deals with the gravest of issues. Therefore it was not a matter of covering things up.

The basic issue was this: Is the Law necessary for justification, or is it not? Paul and Peter are in controversy here over this particular hteme, on which the whole of Christian doctrine depends. Paul was too responsible a person to launch such a public attack on Peter in the presence of the entire church of Antioch on account of some trivial issue. He is attacking him on account of the basic doctrine of Christianity. For when there were no Jews present, Peter ate with Gentiles; but when the Jews arrived, he withdrew. Paul rebukes him because by his pretense he was compelling the Gentiles to do as the Jews did. The whole emphasis lies on the phrase "you are compelling." But Jerome did not see this.

Therefore Paul did not require that anyone who wanted to be circumcised should remain uncircumcised, but he did want to know that circumcision was not necessary for salvation. Paul wanted to remvoe this compulsion. Therefore he allowed the Jews to observe the Law as an obligation; but he always taught both Jews and Gentiles that in their conscience they should be free from the Law and circumcision, just as the patriarchs and all the Old Testament saints were free in their conscience and were justified by faith, not by circumcision or the Law

In fact, Paul might have permitted Titus to be circumcised; but when he saw that they wanted to compel him, Paul refused . . . (Lectures on Galatians, p. 84-85)

As one can thus see, Augustine had already gotten the debate on circumcision to a point pretty close to where Luther took it. One may presume, therefore, that readers in the medieval church had the chance to assimilate the Augustianian view of circumcision and hence religious culture (as I've termed adiaphora here). In this view, the issue is not such rituals in themselves, but whether they are done for salvation or not. This laid part (not all, but part) of the groundwork for Luther's reading of Jerome, and moreover, accustomed Luther to thinking that great figures in the church like Jerome could go badly wrong.

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