Examining “the sign of the covenant” (Genesis 17:11)

SUMMARY. Today’s article takes a look at the phrase “the sign of the covenant” that appears in Genesis 17:11, but that also factors prominently in the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. We will examine the phrase in its context of Genesis 17:11 and compare that with the use of the same phrase when Presbyterians (and probably others) sprinkle water on the head of infants.

The most common use of “the sign of the covenant” is not in the exegesis of Genesis 17:11 but is instead in the words used by Presbyterians as the pastor of the church sprinkles water on the head of an infant (or small child, and so throughout the article). In this ritual, called Paedobaptism or infant baptism, the infant child of a professing believer is said to receive “the sign of the covenant” when they are sprinkled with water.

Now, while this practice has gone on for many centuries, first in the Roman Catholic church and then in most of the Protestant churches of the Reformation and beyond, there are difficulties in explaining or justifying this practice from the Bible. There are also difficulties in showing that “the sign of the covenant” commanded in Genesis 17:11 is analogous to “the sign of the covenant” given in the sprinkling of infants with water. This article is going to examine some of those difficulties.

NO EXAMPLE IN THE BIBLE

The first difficulty is that there is no example anywhere in the Bible, in Old Testament or New, of any infant ever being sprinkled with water. Thus, the Presbyterians have no biblical basis whatsoever for assigning any significance to sprinkling water on the head of an infant. Whatever meaning is assigned to the sprinkling is entirely arbitrary. In fact, the ritual of sprinkling an infant and the assigned meaning of that ritual are simply invented with no reference to the Bible. (As an aside, the question should be asked, “How can you maintain ‘sola Scriptura’ and, at the same time, prominently practice a ritual that is absent from the Scriptures?”) In summary of this point, then, the ritual of sprinkling water on the head of an infant is extrabiblical and the meaning of this ritual is arbitrarily invented.

AN ANALOGY BETWEEN CIRCUMCISION AND SPRINKLING INFANTS ?

Next, we know that the phrase “sign of the covenant” appears four times in Scripture. Three of those appearances are in Genesis 9 with the covenant with Noah. The fourth, and most important, appearance of this phrase is in Genesis 17:11, and this is the one that gets the most attention, because this use of the phrase is alleged to hold the key to the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. Let’s try to follow this.

In Genesis 17:2-8, God declares to Abraham what He is going to do for Abraham under this covenant. Since God is the one who declares these things, we know that they will certainly come to pass.

In Genesis 17:9-14, the pronouns change from I (God) to you (Abraham). In these verses, God tells Abraham what his responsibilities are under this covenant. Every male among Abraham’s descendants (seed) must be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (17:10-11). Further, males are to be circumcised when they are eight days old (17:12). This is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham, and it is obligatory. Any male who is not circumcised has broken God’s covenant and shall be cut off from his people (17:14).

Thus, the terms of the Abrahamic covenant are clearly established. All male descendants of Abraham are obligated to be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin as “the sign of the covenant” (17:11).

So far, so good. But now the real work begins, because the Presbyterian needs to show that, as circumcision is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham in Genesis 17, so sprinkling water on the head of an infant is the sign of the new covenant which Christ established by His death on the cross (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).

There are difficulties presented by the task of showing this analogy. Here are a few.

  • Already mentioned is the fact that sprinkling infants with water is absent from all of Scripture. It is therefore difficult to draw an analogy between circumcision, which does exist in Scripture, and the sprinkling of infants, which does not.
  • The phrase “the sign of the covenant” does not appear in any verse of Scripture after Genesis 17:11, where male circumcision is explicitly stated to be the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. It is therefore difficult to connect circumcision with anything in the New Testament, since nowhere in the New Testament can we find a corresponding sign of the covenant.
  • If, despite the fact that there is no sprinkling of infants anywhere in the Bible and despite the fact that there is no identified “sign of the covenant” in the New Testament, we nevertheless made the arbitrary assumption that male circumcision in the flesh of the foreskin on the eighth day was analogous to sprinkling water on the head of an infant, we would need to address the fact that these two signs of the covenant are vastly different in their forms. As seen below, this presents a difficulty, namely, if these are, in fact, analogous, why are they so dissimilar?
circumcisionsprinkling on head
males onlymale and female
on the eighth dayno specific time
cutting with a knifesprinkling with water
“sign of covenant” explicit“sign of covenant” assigned
obligatoryoptional
permanent sign in the fleshtransient sign leaves no trace
biblically commandednot in the Bible
Comparing circumcision and sprinkling
  • The final difficulty in showing that these two rituals are analogous to one another consists in looking at their purposes. We would assume that, if these practices are analogous to one another, then their purposes would provide clues of this analogy. In Genesis 17, the purpose of circumcision is clearly given: to mark the seed of Abraham by a permanent physical sign. But where do we go to find the purpose of sprinkling water on the head of an infant? Since this ritual does not appear in Scripture, we have no way of knowing its God-ordained purpose. In fact, since this sprinkling of infants with water does not appear in the word of God, we conclude there is no God-ordained purpose to this practice. Whatever purpose there is to this ritual must be arbitrarily assigned by man.

So far in this article we have examined the concept of “the sign of the covenant” and have encountered significant difficulties in trying to see how the phrase as used in Genesis 17:11 has any resemblance or connection to the words used by Presbyterians as they sprinkle infants. The magnitude of the difficulties leads us to conclude that there is, in fact, no connection between these two uses of the phrase “sign of the covenant” and that Presbyterians use the phrase when sprinkling infants for reasons that are based on other than exegetical concerns.

SDG                 rmb                 3/2/2022                     #494