Peter Lombard (1096-1164) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) on the continuity between circumcision and baptism

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Peter Lombard (1096-1164) was a medieval scholastic theologian, one of the most prominent figures of the Middle Ages, and famous for his Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quatuor Sententiarum), which became the standard textbook of theology at the medieval universities. From the 1220s until the 16th century, no work of Christian literature, except for the Bible itself, was commented upon more frequently. All the major medieval thinkers, from Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, were influenced by it. Even the young Martin Luther still wrote glosses on the Sentences, and John Calvin quoted from it over 100 times in his Institutes. Every theologian read it, and many wrote commentaries on it. So we can see that it is a very significant text in the history of theology. Here Lombard writes on the continuity between circumcision and baptism. Before reading this however, this topic has also been discussed in two previous posts, which can be accessed here:

Jake Griesel on the biblical rationale behind infant baptism:

https://deovivendiperchristum.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/jake-griesel-on-the-biblical-rationale-behind-infant-baptism/

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) on infant baptism and circumcision:

https://deovivendiperchristum.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/zacharias-ursinus-1534-1583-on-infant-baptism-and-circumcision/

But back to Peter Lombard. This comes from his Sentences, Book IV, chapters 7-8:

Chapter VII: ON CIRCUMCISION

Nevertheless there was among them a certain sacrament, namely, circumcision, conferring the same remedy against sin which baptism now does.

Thus Augustine says: ‘From the time that circumcision was instituted among the people of God it was ‘a seal of the righteousness of faith’ and availed for old and young for the purging of original and former sin; just as baptism began to avail for the restoration of man from the time it was instituted.

Again Bede says: ‘Circumcision in the law effected the same means of healthful cure against the wound of original sin which baptism customarily effects in the time of revealed grace, with the exception that they were not able yet to enter the doorway of the Kingdom of Heaven. However, after death, consoled in the bosom of Abraham in blessed rest, they waited with the joyful hope for the beginning of celestial peace.’

In these words it is clearly conveyed that through circumcision, from the time of its institution, the remission of original and actual sin for young and old was offered by God, just as now it is given in baptism.

CHAPTER VIII: WHAT REMEDY THOSE WHO WERE BEFORE CIRCUMCISION HAD

… From this Gregory concludes: ‘What the water of baptism has the power to do among us was done among the ancients in various ways: for children by faith alone, for adults by the virtue of sacrifice, and for those who sprang from the descendants of Abraham by the mystery of circumcision.’

To be sure, there is much in the passage cited that Reformed Christians would reject (ex opere operato sacramental efficacy, the nature of sin and grace, limbus patrum, etc.) and yet clearly this passage shows that neither Calvin nor Zwingli had invented the idea that there is significant continuity between the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision and the New Testament sacrament of Baptism. Lombard’s Sentences had already recognized such continuity much earlier in the history of Christian dogma (as had Augustine, Bede the Venerable, and Gregory the Great).

The Reformed view that there is, indeed, significant continuity between circumcision and Baptism was not a theological novum when it was articulated by Calvin and the Reformed Scholastics. Rather, it reveals how deeply they were drinking from the wells of historic Christian theology, ancient and medieval.

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Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) shows the same continuity. These are from Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 62, Article 6 and Question 66, Article 2 respectively:

“Further, Bede says in a homily on the Circumcision: ‘Under the Law circumcision provided the same health-giving balm against the wound of original sin, as baptism in the time of revealed grace.’ But Baptism confers grace now. Therefore circumcision conferred grace; and in like manner, the other sacraments of the Law; for just as Baptism is the door of the sacraments of the New Law, so was circumcision the door of the sacraments of the Old Law: hence the Apostle says (Galatians 5:3): ‘I testify to every man circumcising himself, that he is a debtor to the whole law.’”

Note that Thomas here cites the same passage in Bede that Peter Lombard cites in his Sentences.

“Further, Baptism  is a necessary sacrament, as stated above: wherefore, seemingly, it must have been binding on man as soon as it was instituted. But before Christ’s Passion men were not bound to be baptized: for Circumcision was still in force, which was supplanted by Baptism. Therefore it seems that Baptism was not instituted before Christ’s Passion.”

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