Circumcision Versus Baptism: Joined to the Law or Joined to Christ

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6:12–13).

The Greek term for body (σῶμα) is a permeable identity within an environment so that it is the capacity to act and be acted upon by an environment. The body can be attached to either sin (Paul uses the phrase, “body of sin”) or to the body of Christ, indicating that the body mediates and is permeated by the environment of which it is a part. The issue is, which is the constituting environment? As Paul employs the term in Romans 6, the body can re-environ itself in Christ, and set aside sin (and the law). The body joined to Christ in his death and resurrection becomes one with Him, no longer subject to sin in the environment of the law.

We might imagine the problem is the body or the flesh. The flesh opposes the spirit, and so we need to get rid of the flesh, maybe cut it off, as symbolically and literally carried out in circumcision; a sort of shedding of the body. Paul explains that this is not a battle that can be won in this manner, and in fact this oppositional antagonism is the problem. The resolution reveals what that problem is in the first place. Paul pictures it as being constituted in the environment of either law or grace: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Sin thrives in the environment of the law – but why?

Where law reigns, or where law is the constituting factor, there is a deadly split or antagonism. As Romans 7 describes, the body or the I has the ability to objectify or split the self (to reflect on the self), which is most often experienced in the negative capacity for self-estrangement or self-alienation. We become our own worst enemies in acts or thoughts that are inherently self-punishing or in which the “body of sin” or the “body of death” is pitted against us. The ego (or I) views its own body, which is its self, as an alien force which has been colonized by that which is not the self. Paul describes it as two laws working at cross purposes within him: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22–23). Is Paul’s problem that he cannot align himself with the law of his mind due to the law of his body, or is Paul’s problem the law per se and the manner in which this law has overwritten his life and identity? Is it just a matter of getting the law straight?

Paul argues that there is a deception that works through the law. Part of what it must mean to be deceived in the most fundamental sense, is to be deceived about reality. Not reality in the abstract, but the reality of the human body, or the reality of embodiment. The law would negate, cut off, or override the body, which is the problem constituting, in Paul’s description, the “body of sin” or the “body of death.” This negating, obscuring, or overriding is the dynamic of deception at work in sin. The naked and ashamed would clothe themselves in the law, but this clothing obscures reality. The human body, inclusive of thought and language, is the ground of reality as we have it, but part of the deception is that we do not have access to the reality of ourselves and the world as we are written over or inscribed into a deception.

This deception is directly experienced as a futile desire or an exponential covetousness, which Paul links to death: “I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:7-8). This desire is shaped by the particular environment, the command, permeating the body, such that particular cultures, particular religions, or particular legal constraints, do no so much curtail desire as deceptively direct it. Particular systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of desire.

As I have described it (here), the violence of “Christian” pedophiles, sexual abusers, and whore-mongers – or to state it differently the characteristic forms of perversion found in Roman Catholicism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, respectively – on Walter Benjamin’s scale of violence (per his “Critique of Violence”) amounts to “law-maintaining” violence. That is, these systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of sexual transgression as part of the necessity of maintaining the status quo of these forms of belief and their institutional structures.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is obvious that systems structure desire, through law or doctrine, in such a way that the transgression supports the desire. Fundamentalism gives us a steady flow of Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts, and evangelicalism churns out its endless Bill Hybels, in the same way that Roman Catholicism seems to manufacture pedophiles. By not coming to grips with the characteristic nature of sin these systems reconstitute it.

It is precisely the forbidden object which shapes the desire. The object of desire is that which is relinquished or lost and this loss is definitive of the identity. This identity produces a split within the body such that the law of the mind (be it that of Roman Catholicism or of fundamentalism) is established through the transgression of the flesh.  The law always has its transgressive support – doing a particular form of evil so as to produce a particular form of the good. This is Paul’s definition of sin – which indicates that these forms of faith may perpetuate, rather than identify and dispel, sin.

Circumcision literalizes the loss, in that the desire that is supposedly cut away (with the foreskin), becomes definitive. Circumcision would excise, cut off, or mark the alienating force. It is aimed at bringing the body and mind and the spirit and the flesh, into alignment by getting lust and desire under control. It is meant to bring about a correspondence, putting the body under control of the ethical principle of the law. But being written over with the law, marked in the flesh, does not resolve the problem, according to Paul, but it accentuates and even aggravates it. The symbolic is paid for by the cutting of(f), the removal of the desire of the body, but this accentuates the antagonistic dialectic between the mind and body, which is an obscuring of the reality that both are of the body.

The body of sin is one that disowns the empirical bearer of the “mind” or the “soul.” Being written over with a particular sign (the law) is to be interpolated into the law, with the body serving as the literal place of inscription. The sign is the means of achieving the signified. The letter is the means to the spirit. The name contains the reality. Language, symbolization, signs, convey truth, by virtue of their mark. There is an equation of logos with Logos, or trues with Truth, or doctrines with God. The presumption is that the one who possesses the law, or the one written over with it, is at an advantage, but Paul’s point is this presumption is itself the problem. It is not simply the Jewish problem but the problem of Adam and all who are his descendants.

 As Paul describes his experience in Romans 7, there is the “I” and the not “I” and sin taking advantage of this split privileges the “not I.” As Paul states it, ‘it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me’ (Rom. 7.20).  This “body of sin” or “body of death” (Romans 7.24) may be perceived or experienced as the physical body getting out of hand or out of control, but the reality is that it is the self in its experience of the self that is out of control.

Or is it the case that I only know myself in and through this antagonistic relationship with myself. Who am I apart from this struggle? This is the entry point into the attachment to binaries, antinomies, dualisms, and dialectic. The sorting out of the I and not I is at the base every knowledge of good and evil. Every circumcision/uncircumcision, law versus no law, Jew versus Greek, slave versus free, male versus female, is a sorting out of myself. A discerning of who I am. I am at stake in the dialectic as it constitutes who I am. The law being worked out, into which I would interpolate myself in my striving, is the means of being a self, or at least that is the delusion of sin.

This negative understanding can be, and needs to be, extrapolated from the solution of baptism. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  His description is of “the body of death” or (its parallel in 6.6) “the body of sin” put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the body of death as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to loss, negation and death, is joined to the “body of Christ.” Where in sin, the Subject can only be joined to death and death drive, Paul pictures a Subject “joined” to Christ with a “likeness” or ontological certainty on the order of Christ’s incarnation.  

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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