A Conversation on Capital Punishment and the Old Testament

I’m pleased to introduce Casting Across the Pond, a conversation with three of my favorite young thinkers.

Alastair Roberts and Derek Rishmawy have both written for us here at Mere-O, and are well known in many parts of the blogging community.  Derek is one of the most irenic and thoughtful young writers I have read, while Alastair’s plodding and thorough approach to the world always turns up provocative thoughts and genuine insights.

Andrew Wilson first came to my attention several years ago for his epic and incisive conversation with Rob Bell, and since then has distinguished himself as one of the most astute theological observers around.  Having newly been justly awarded a monthly column in Christianity Today, Andrew is about to become a lot more well known to US audiences.

They recently gathered to have a chat about recent stirrings online about capital punishment and the Old Testament. The conversation is unadorned with bells and whistles, but full of good conversation.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely how we like it around these parts.

Some pertinent reading, for your ongoing education:  Brian Zahnd on Jesus and Biblicism, Andrew Wilson on the Jesus Tea Strainer, and Derek Rishmawy on how we relate the two testaments

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  • chrisblackstone

    Matthew, any plans to make this podcast “subscribable” in an app like iTunes?

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      That’s probably the next step. We’ll be chatting about this. Thanks for the interest!

      • http://calebwoodbridge.blogspot.com Caleb Woodbridge

        I’d also appreciate this. You can unlock podcasting capabilities from Soundcloud on request, and it’s straightforward to submit the feed to iTunes, though you might want to use something like Feedburner as an intermediary to capture download stats.

      • Andrew

        I agree. If you can change the Soundcloud settings to allow listeners to download as an mp3 file, that would be great :)

  • http://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/ Episcopius

    Thanks for uploading. Very good. What bothers me about the progressives who throw around the word ‘biblicism’ is that they themselves are often biblicist about the gospels. It’s just they then don’t follow the view Jesus had of the OT (as Wilson points out).

  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel Held Evans

    Really like what y’all said about living in the tension of the various biblical texts – that, for example, the Wisdom Literature without Job would give us an incomplete view of the complexities of life. I totally, 100% agree. This is something I love about the Bible. And I totally, 100% agree that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So It’s not about saying “Jesus trumps the Bible”; it’s about saying “Jesus fulfills the Bible.” So we look to Jesus for our explanation, our ultimate example, of what’s biblical. (I suppose I don’t draw as fine a distinction between Jesus and Law as Brian does.) Anyway, I guess my point is I suspect you agree with those of us who are arguing for a more Christ-centered hermeneutic more than you may realize. :-) The reason I wrote on this last week was because I felt that Mohler’s “biblical” defense of the death penalty was incomplete without at least addressing the words of Christ. It is Mohler who often argues for a “straightforward” reading of the biblical text without regard to context, language, authorship, purpose, tensions, etc, (particularly regarding Genesis) so, based on this conversation, i daresay you agree with me more than you agree with him! For me, it’s not about pitting Jesus against Scripture; it’s about recognizing Scripture’s ultimate fulfillment in the person, teachings, and actions of Jesus Christ.

    This was a good conversation. Thanks for letting us listen in.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Hey, Rachel! Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you drew attention to the differences between you and Brian, as our discussions did pocus almost entirely on the approach that Brian took as opposed to the rest of the respondents.

      thanks for listening!

    • Alastair J Roberts

      Thanks, Rachel.

      As Derek said, while Zahnd’s remarks occurred within a broader context and conversation, our discussion focused on his claims in particular.

      I suspect that Andrew, Derek, and I would also each have somewhat different approaches to the death penalty debate. I am not sure that any of us would side with Mohler. For instance, I would follow such as Oliver O’Donovan in maintaining the great importance of the death penalty in principle, while pushing for its removal in practice.

      On the more exegetical question, I don’t believe that Christ disqualifies the practice of the death penalty in his teaching. Regarding John 8, for instance, I think that O’Donovan is right in his assessment—‘Were that community to carry out the death penalty on that woman, the line between innocence and guilt would have been drawn wrongly.’ My particular reading of that passage could be pieced together from this and this post.

      If we don’t have a direct word from Jesus on the subject (and it should be remembered that John 8:1-11 isn’t in the oldest texts of the gospel), our approach to answering these questions will reveal much about our broader hermeneutical commitments and strategies. What I believe is that Jesus and the NT bring an end to the holy status of the polity of Israel, with the associated elevated penalties of its divinely established civil law, and a re-situation of the primary application of OT death penalty principles to a transformed use within the church (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:13). It also heightens the preference for mildness in judgment where possible, encouraging a determined movement away from the actual practice of the death penalty.

      I agree with your points about how essential a Christ-centred hermeneutics is. However, I increasingly wonder whether we could all benefit from unpacking the suitcase of this expression and examining its contents from time to time. The fact that people who all claim to hold a Christ-centred hermeneutic nonetheless arrive at sharply contradicting interpretations leads me to suspect that the really important details are found inside the suitcase of the terminology, rather than on the label on the front.

      I suspect that Derek, Andrew, and I would all have contrasting contents to our particular ‘suitcases’, which suggests to me that a future conversation on the subject could be mutually challenging and beneficial.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • Wesley

    I have a lot of thoughts on this. Instead of typing them all again, here is a blog I wrote about it a while back.
    http://comeletusreasontogetheris118.blogspot.com/2014/01/are-we-consistently-pro-life.html

    • Alastair J Roberts

      Thanks for the comment, Wesley, and thanks for sharing your post.

      Our discussion didn’t really get into the issue of the death penalty itself: it was more focused upon the way that the OT is spoken of within the context of such discussions.

      That said, I find arguments that draw a direct line between being ‘pro-life’ on abortion and being ‘pro-life’ in opposing the death penalty to be highly problematic both in their logic and in their use of Scripture. Genesis 9:6 grounds the right for human government to exercise the death penalty upon murderers upon the value of human life as created in the image of God. That is, the murderer has violated something so valuable in the eyes of God and man that human government, authorized by God, pronounces a heavy sentence upon the act, disowning it in the most uncompromising terms. Where society does not disown, reject, and respond to such acts in a decisive manner, human life is cheapened.

      The same logic applies more generally. Because we value liberty so highly we deprive those who assault the liberty of others of their liberty, locking them up. Should a consistently ‘pro-liberty’ person empty all of the prisons?

      None of this means, however, that we should take the sort of disproportionate and unnecessarily punitive approach that the professor you described takes. Nor do I believe that we should be locking people up on the sort of scale that we see in the US. I regard this as a sign that something is very seriously wrong. I believe that an important part of social development should involve a movement towards more restrained forms of punishment, enabling us firmly and strongly to disown and condemn certain actions, without resorting to the most extreme punishments open to us. I also believe that Christian principles would press us in this direction.

      I’ve referenced him already, but I think that Oliver O’Donovan is really helpful here (besides, I get brownie points from Matt whenever I mention him). The following quotation is from The Ways of Judgment, pp.122-123:

      There are basic conditions for any penal system, and they can be derived from the words of Genesis 9:6, promulgating the Noahic covenant: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This is not a formulation of the lex talionis as a determination of penalty; it is, rather, an expression of the basis of retributive practice itself. We are all mortal, and our life has a limited expectancy. That fact gives all crime and all punishment its meaning. Two years in prison are “two good years of my life”; if we were immortal, they would count for nothing. A heavy fine is a drain on resources needed for food, clothing, and shelter. Corporal punishment weakens the bodily constitution. Every serious injury is an assault, directly or indirectly, on the victim’s life; so every punishment, too, is an assault on the offender’s life.

      What we look for in a system of punishment is a flexible range of intermediate measures that hedge that infringement on life around with alternatives, so that we are not driven too quickly back upon the ultimate resort of taking life directly. The art of penal development is the multiplication of a carefully differentiated range of intermediate assaults. Yet its horizon is the ultimate possibility of death itself. Even if a society formally removes the death penalty from its criminal sanctions, it does not abolish death as its ultimate recourse, for when crime becomes uncontrollable by normal means, society resorts to making war upon it. The armed patrol takes the place of the hangman.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

    Are we not able to download the conversation?