Righteous by Promise

A Biblica Theology of Circumcision

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Karl Deenick
New Studies in Biblical Theology
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Circumcision is a neglected topic within biblical studies and often relegated to dictionary entries. Karl Deenick, a senior pastor and guest lecturer at Reformed Theological college, remedies this lack of detailed study on circumcision with the book Righteous by Promise: A Biblical Theology of Circumcision. As part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, Deenick explores the theme of circumcision from an evangelical perspective and articulates a holistic summary of the meaning of circumcision as found in the Protestant Christian canon. While circumcision sounds like a benign subject, exploring circumcision thrusts Deenick into hotly debated topics within both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, namely the nature of the covenant in Genesis 17, and the so-called “new perspective” on Paul found in Romans chapters 2-4 and the letter to the Galatians. Deenick’s work shows that circumcision, when considered within the entire Protestant Christian canon, is a sign of the Abrahamic covenant that points to Jesus as the means of fulfilling both God’s promise to Abraham and God’s demand for righteous living required by the covenant (129 n. 100; 216).

After an introductory chapter (chap, 1), Deenick’s volume exhibits a balanced treatment of circumcision within the Hebrew Bible (chapters 2-3) and within the New Testament (chapters 5-6), a transitionary chapter that covers the intertestamental period’s understanding of circumcision (chap. 4), and a conclusory chapter (chap. 7). The first half of the book (chapters 2-3) explores the institution of circumcision in Genesis 17 and other key passages within the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 10, 30; Joshua 5). Genesis 17 records God’s promise to increase Abraham’s descendants, and circumcision is the sign of this covenant. Through an extensive word study, Deenick argues that “walking blamelessly before the LORD,” found in Genesis 17:1, signals that righteousness and complete obedience to God function as the condition of the covenant. Yet, Deenick holds this condition in tension with God’s promise to fulfill this covenant, creating a covenant based on both trust in God to fulfill the covenant and righteous living as a precondition for the fulfillment of the covenant. Deenick ends his discussion of Genesis 17 showing how Genesis 17 predicts a future righteous monarch who will fulfill the condition to walk blamelessly before the Lord. 

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 10, Joshua 5), Deenick notes how circumcision transitions to the metaphor “circumcision of the heart,” which is a figure of speech for repentance or humility. The metaphorical use of circumcision supports Deenick’s interpretation that the Abrahamic covenant includes the condition of absolute obedience. Likewise, Deenick claims that Jeremiah 4:1-4 forecasts that a future monarch will fulfill this requirement of the covenant, echoing Genesis 17’s allusion to a future monarch. To his credit, Deenick devotes chapter 4 to demonstrating the continuity between the concept of blamelessness and circumcision as found within the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint), pseudepigraphic writings (Testament of Benjamin), and in the literature found at Qumran (notably, the commentary on Habakkuk, the Damascus Covenant, and the Community Rule). 

Within the New Testament, Deenick continues to show how circumcision is a sign of a covenant built upon righteous living and trust but highlights how New Testament writers clarify that the prerequisite of righteous living is met through faith in Jesus (Galatians 3, Romans 2). Deenick spends the bulk of his time detailing the arguments in Romans chapters 2-4 and Galatians, concluding that the emphasis on circumcision as a sign of the covenant was not on the nation of Israel as the descendants of Abraham, but on Jesus as the promised descendant of Abraham (204). As the promised descendant of Abraham, Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant by becoming the means of attaining righteousness through faith in the efficacy of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Thus, the New Testament shifts the means of obtaining a blameless status from the sacrificial system found in the Hebrew Bible to trust in Jesus’s death and resurrection. This shift, from a righteous status through sacrifice to a righteous status through faith in Jesus, supports the Reformed theological concept of imputed righteousness, the concept that Jesus’s righteousness as a moral standing is ascribed to those who believe in him (213). In this way, Deenick’s work impacts the broader theological discussion on the purpose of Jesus’s death and resurrection. 

Deenick proves his thesis through exploring the syntax and words within each individual text about circumcision and then placing the meaning of each text within the context of the entire Protestant Christian canon. While this methodology is sound, his approach tends to be monolithic, mostly relying on word studies. For example, he examines over ten words within the first two chapters while ignoring key linguistic tools like genre and discourse analysis. Although Deenick does limited discourse analysis in his exploration of New Testament passages, the use of genre and discourse analysis could have bolstered his argument and made his thesis even more convincing. 

Overall, Righteous by Promise succeeds in filling the gap of scholarship concerning circumcision. Deenick demonstrates that, within the entire Protestant canon, circumcision is a sign of a covenant based upon a righteous condition attained by the seed of Abraham, who is Jesus (213). The reader should be warned that this book is dense reading due to the detailed nature of the study, but Deenick provides an accessible guide, provided a reader has a Bible open to follow Deenick’s exploration of the biblical text. However, a reader will benefit from Deenick’s deep engagement with both evangelical scholars and non-evangelical giants within the field of biblical studies. Ultimately, this book serves scholars of both the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, Christian pastors, and students interested in the relationship of circumcision, faith, and righteousness across the Christian Protestant canon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Bayer is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karl Deenick is Senior Pastor of the Branch Christian Church, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. He is also a guest lecturer at the Reformed Theological College, Melbourne.


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