Scripture's account of God's command to Abraham to
"circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" (Gen. 17.11; KJV) affords Calvin ample
opportunity to reflect on the reality and nature of sacramental signs. Thus he
is keen, in his comments on this and surrounding verses, to emphasize the close
relationship of sacramental signs to God's covenant word of promise (and so
the need to articulate that word of promise when administering said signs). He
is equally keen to highlight the critical role that such signs, being "sculpture[s]
and image[s] of that grace of God which the word more fully illustrates," play
in sustaining human faith. He is likewise keen to insist that God's promises
are themselves, apart from those signs, "effectual to... salvation," and so to
discourage his readers from "restrict[ing] God's own effectual working [of the
spiritual realities that sacraments signify] to those signs." And closely
following from the last point, he is keen to censure any person who holds God's
sacramental signs in contempt, and so -- "feigning himself to be contented with
the bare promise" -- violates God's covenant "by an impious severance of the
sign and the word" (i.e., by a failure to observe the sacrament).
Yet Calvin does not fail, in the midst of such sacramentologizing,
to note the remarkable character of what God actually commands Abraham to do in Gen. 17.11. God's bidding of Abraham
to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" is particularly noteworthy, in
Calvin's estimation, given the unprecedented nature (to Calvin's knowledge) of such
a surgical procedure in the ancient world, not to mention the primitive nature
(again to Calvin's knowledge) of ancient medicine if measured in terms of
proper surgical tools, adherence to principles of hygiene, possibilities for anesthesia,
and so on.
"Very strange and unaccountable would this command at first
sight appear," the Reformer reckons. Calvin further speculates about what
Abraham's thought process might have been regarding this "strange and unaccountable... command": "this might [have] come into his mind, '...if, by this symbol, [God]
would consecrate me to himself as a servant, why has he put me off to extreme
old age? What does this mean, that I cannot be saved unless I, with one foot
almost in the grave, thus mutilate myself?'" Reservations about circumcising
himself (and his household) might, Calvin reflects, have likewise stemmed from
the prospect of "acute pain" associated with the act, some "danger of [the loss
of] life," and the almost certain consequence of being made the "laughing-stock" of his immediate world.
Such consideration of Abraham's sentiments toward the act he
was bid to perform ultimately serves to highlight the remarkable character of
Abraham's faith and obedience. "He must, of necessity, have been entirely
devoted to God," Calvin reasons, "since he did not hesitate to inflict upon
himself [that] wound." Abraham likewise "circumcised the whole of his family as
he had been commanded," testimony both to Abraham's obedience and to the
respect and trust he had previously earned from his servants, who "meekly
receive[d] the [same] wound, which was both troublesome and the occasion of
shame to carnal sense." Abraham's promptness in obeying God also deserves note:
"he does not defer the work to another day, but immediately obeys the Divine
All in all, one gets the impression that Calvin considers
Abraham's willingness to trust and obey God in this command almost as
extraordinary as his subsequent willingness to trust and obey God when ordered
to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar some years later.
But Calvin is equally keen to discern some motive on God's
part for issuing such a strange command, beyond (of course) the appropriateness
of the ritual commanded to represent the peculiar promise of God's covenant.
And, naturally, Calvin succeeds in this, ultimately arguing that God's command
served its own peculiar role in humbling Abraham.
On this score again the sign corresponds to God's word of
promise, which itself elicits humility by reminding Abraham (and every true
believer) that ultimate blessing lies outside any person's grasp and is freely
offered to those (and only those) who understand and feel their inability to
seize such blessing by some effort or merit of their own. God's command to
Abraham to circumcise himself and his household humbles the patriarch in two
distinct ways. Abraham is humbled, first of all, by the sheer and simple "shame"
associated with the act he is ordered to perform. "It was necessary," Calvin
comments, "for Abraham to become a fool , in order to prove himself obedient to
But Abraham is humbled even more profoundly by God's further
instructions, having just identified circumcision as "a sign of the covenant
between you and me," to circumcise both his sons and his slaves without any
apparent distinction between the two. By these further instructions "the
pride... of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons,
gathers together both freemen and slaves."
Calvin's logic runs something like this: by administering
the sign of the covenant to his slaves, Abraham was -- at God's express bidding -- extending God's twofold promise of redemption through the Seed and inheritance of a (heavenly) land to persons who, at least according to their earthly station, never
expected (nor were expected) to inherit much. Abraham was, in other words, reminded
that God shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11) in the distribution of his grace and
gifts, no matter man's natural proclivity to privilege sons over slaves in the
bequeathing of material blessings. The truth so clearly expressed in Gal.
3.28-29, then, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
slave nor free, there is neither male nor female," but all are equally "heirs according to promise" was
foreshadowed at the earliest expression of God's promise, when Abraham extended
the sign of said promise to all (both slave and free) within his household.
Calvin's teaching on this point yields several practical considerations. For one, it reminds us that God seldom -- or rather, never -- shares our biases, whether such be founded on social, economic, racial, or other differences. For another, it reminds us that humility is indispensable to securing a share in God's promise of eternal fellowship with himself. Indeed, God's promise itself induces humility (inasmuch as faith entails humble recognition of one's need). But even in our day, the signs that God has attached to his promise can do their part to hasten the debasing of our pride. Few things, after all, are as un-cool (by the standards of the world) as having water applied to oneself in the Triune name, or regularly breaking bread and sharing a cup in remembrance of Christ with fellow members of Christ's church.