Last week the Nebraska Unicameral voted 32-15 to abolish the death penalty in my state. Governor Pete Ricketts may veto the bill, but since it only takes 30 votes to override the veto the bill is likely to pass regardless of what the governor does.
After the verdict was announced one of our local pastors took to his blog to explain why he is opposed to capital punishment:
I wish I could say that I am so full of godly love and peace at all times that I simply can’t fathom how one could justify the taking of a human life. But I can’t. The truth is every time I see that another innocent little girl has been raped and killed at the hands of some sociopath I feel about as Christian as a switch blade. As a dad to two little girls of my own, I want vengeance (ahem, I mean “justice”). Shoot, depending on the day, I may even volunteer to pull the switch. But that’s my flesh talking, not the Spirit of God.
If I base my beliefs on what I feel is just, I can get on board with the death penalty most days. But when I set aside my own thoughts for a moment and open up the scriptures to consider what God thinks on the issue, things start to get a little uncomfortable. I find myself confronted once again with the possibility that perhaps God is very unlike me.
As he continues to develop his argument we are, unfortunately, met with the sort of reasoning that we’ve heard far too many times before. The way many American Christians get around this is by essentially saying that Jesus’s example overrides the endorsement of capital punishment given in the Old Testament. We might call this the President Bartlett Maneuver so named for the president in Aaron Sorkin’s (very good) The West Wing.
The maneuver is simple enough to understand: Any time someone uses an Old Testament passage to argue for a specific idea about morality, you should start talking about shellfish and mixed fabrics. This works particularly well if you can adopt the sermonizing tone of Martin Sheen and have an impressive-looking Allison Janney standing behind you:
Anyway, Pastor Loy:
Now I can flip to various passages in the Old Testament to try to make me feel better. I can pull from Leviticus or other places to justify any blood that I want spilled. I may even to venture to call it God’s will, as some have been known to do. And as long as I don’t turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, I’m generally okay. But the moment I fix my gaze on The One in whom the law was fulfilled, this Jesus in whom we see God as He truly is, all of my arguments and thoughts on the matter fall painfully short.
Pastor Loy, of course, is hardly unique in making such an argument. Here is Jonathan Merritt one year ago:
Such thinking requires a bit of arbitrary Biblical picking and choosing. Sure, the Old Testament prescribes death for anyone who commits pre-meditated murder. But it doesn’t stop there. The Hebrew Scriptures also prescribe the death penalty for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:12), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), making a sacrifice to a false god (Exodus 22:20), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual behavior (Leviticus 20:13), and premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
A priest was instructed to burn his daughter alive if she was guilty of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9). If a “son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” entices you to practice a false religion, they were instructed to “show them no pity” and “stone them to death” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Do you have rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) or kids who’ve hit or cursed you (Exodus 21:15-17)? Off with their heads!
And, not to be outdone, Shane Claiborne has made a similar argument at–you guessed it–Red Letter Christians. I bring up the name of the site that hosted Claiborne’s article for the simple reason that their name alone make my point for me: What all these arguments have in common is the idea that we can basically dispense with whatever we want in the Old Testament by appealing to a few obscure verses in the Pentateuch meant to horrify modern listeners.
All we need, apparently, is the red letters. The Old Testament God is angry and vengeful and not very Christian, but New Testament God is great. Old Testament God is just God in his teen years when he was ready to fight if you looked at him the wrong way. But New Testament God has grown up. He doesn’t lose his temper over little things any more. He’s chill now. He listens to NPR and loves Portlandia and is kinda embarrassed by all that wrath and judgment stuff in the Old Testament. So don’t worry about that 2/3 of the Bible. Just read about Jesus and you have everything you need to understand Christian ethics.
Of course, to any student of church history this thinking should sound familiar. All of these arguments trade in a form of Marcionism, the ancient Christian heresy attributed to Marcion, a second century Christian who rejected the Old Testament.
What particularly frustrates about this approach to arguing about capital punishment–or any other ethical issue where an Old Testament text is often mentioned–is that it needlessly gives away so much. The argument ultimately turns on a basic reductio–you appeal to this Old Testament text to support your argument, be it something concerning capital punishment, same-sex marriage, or something else entirely–and I whip out an obscure OT law that appears to us today to be obviously absurd, thereby destroying your argument.
But there are two things to note here.
First, this sort of reductio tacitly establishes contemporary WEIRD norms as the standard by which something is judged absurd and, therefore, a good example to use when running a reductio. In other words, we tacitly baptize the norms of rich white people living in the contemporary west and act as if they are the measure by which we judge something absurd. But why should we treat the presuppositions of such people as valid? This argument is little more than a quite brazen form of ideological imperialism which is particularly ironic given the writings of Claiborne on other issues in the past.
Second, this line of arguing functionally acts as if Christians have never dealt with this problem before, as if it has never occurred to anyone in 2000 years of church history that there might be some difficulties in reconciling certain OT texts with certain NT texts.
But, of course, this problem had occurred to Christians living prior to the year 2000 and it has been dealt with in a way that has generally been considered satisfactory by many Christians. For centuries many Christians have said that the Mosaic law can be divided into three portions–the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. The civil law and ceremonial law are specific laws given to the people of Israel that were fulfilled and done away with by Christ. They are no longer in force–which is why I can have shrimp for dinner tonight if I feel like it. The moral law, however, is the set of moral norms that stands behind the civil and ceremonial law.
This distinction is not a new thing, either. The Westminster Confession, a confession written in the 1640s, makes this distinction quite clearly and argues for its legitimacy. Going back still further, you can find Thomas Aquinas arguing for a distinction between moral and ceremonial parts of the law. Armed with this distinction it’s incredibly easy to deal with the rather trivial arguments made by President Bartlet or our functional Marcionite friends linked above.
None of this means that Christians are obliged to support capital punishment, of course. We ought to reject the argument that the death penalty is innately unjust, but as I said earlier this week, it’s quite reasonable to express serious reservations about how the death penalty is functionally carried out in the USA. And if you wish to argue on those grounds it’s possible to do so. What you can’t do, particularly as a Christian leader, is talk like a functional follower of a man the church condemned as a heretic 1800 years ago. Unfortunately, that is precisely what many younger evangelical leaders seem most eager to do.
NOTE: I did some revisions on this post last night that somehow didn’t get saved so I’ve made a couple edits this morning to try and restore the work I did last night that was lost. I don’t know what happened but I’m going to blame WordPress.
But aren’t the punishments (as well as the legal procedures leading to sentence) prescribed for violations of the moral law part of the civil (a.k.a. judicial) law? Surely Christians can argue against capital punishment (especially one imposed by a state that is not a religious entity) on grounds that are neither “Red Letter” nor merely “functional.”
Yeah, I think anytime you see sentencing, it is part of the civil law. The civil authority can only dole out punishments under civil law. But if a just, immutable God imposed a civil law that included the death penalty, no categorical objection to the death penalty can stand. We must at least concede that the death penalty is just in some times and in some places. Therefore, while arguments against it may not need to be ‘functional’ (I don’t really know what he means by that) they at least need to be particular and not categorical. At least if you wish to preserve a high view of the OT.
This is a good point. I don’t think we have to be for the death penalty in all cases or at all. We can make rational arguments why imprisonment is a better solution because of the opportunity for redemption, etc. What is problematic is the assertion that the way many Christians argue against the death penalty uses a faulty and problematic hermeneutic.
Well written post Jake. I have to admit I am a bit conflicted with capital punishment. I guess what bothers me most is how some Christians seem to see it as some great victory over the worst criminals. They will even celebrate it and share across their social media feeds. I can see it being used for the worst of crimes but it should never bring joy but instead a deep sadness. This criminal will now stand before a just God. His judgement has eternal implications.
Why can’t it bring both sadness and joy–sadness for the utter brokenness and suffering of all involved, and yet also joy in justice? I find myself experiencing both sometimes.
I don’t know Justin. I just think that whenever a life is taken it should give us pause. – Justice in this world but what is that person’s fate in eternity. As I mentioned I am conflicted. Laws are very weak at controlling crime (The OT proves that) yet we can’t come close to civil society without them.
Thanks so much for writing this, Jake. The thing that really troubled me about the discussion of “turning the page from Malachi to Matthew” was how confusing such language is. Does that mean that we are encountering a different God in Jesus than the God we encountered in the Old Testament? Or does that mean that Jesus was the outvoted member of the Trinity when the Father and the Holy Spirit were decreeing and inspiring the capital punishment laws in the Old Testament?
That’s the problem with the Marcionite heresy—it really strikes at the heart of Trinitarian theology. I don’t really think that many people are intending to side with Marcion—I suspect that they just aren’t thinking through what they are saying enough to realize the consequences of their arguments, or maybe they are just wording these really poorly. Regardless, however, Christians have *never* considered the Marcionite position to be a minor error, much less a point of legitimate disagreement.
In terms of the modern debate about capital punishment, I think that there two issues at stake.
First, I think that we must recognize that the discussion of capital punishment precedes “the law”—that is, the requirement for capital punishment precedes the Mosaic law. God established capital punishment as the proper way to uphold the sanctity of life in the covenant that he made with Noah in Genesis 9—before Moses, but even before Abraham. Importantly, the covenant with Noah is still in effect with all of creation, so that, just as much as God’s rainbow still promises that God will never again destroy the world with a flood, so it is also the case that capital punishment is the moral necessity of rulers today.
And in regard to the shellfish laws—those are explicitly abrogated in the New Testament, both by Jesus himself in Mark 7:19, and by the vision Peter received in Acts 10. The requirement to execute murderers is never abolished, and in fact, Paul insists that God has appointed the state to be God’s “avenger” right after declaring that all “vengeance” (same root word in Greek) belongs to God.
Second, it is VERY legitimate to argue that a certain threshold of evidence must be ascertained before instituting capital punishment. The Old Testament law required two or three witnesses before executing a murder—capital punishment was never to be executed on the basis of only one witness (Num. 35:30). The old covenant civil law is no longer binding on the state, except so far as the “general equity thereof” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4) would require it, and this is a clear case of that. We should not execute people where we don’t have absolute evidence of their guilt.
But, we should certainly execute people where do DO have absolute evidence of their guilt. This means that the racial disparity of how capital punishment is applied is an abomination before God. In the end, we should be executing people who are not being executed right now, but we should also NOT be executing people who ARE being executed right now.
Jake, as you have suggested, a more historically informed reading of the Old Testament could provide a lot of help here. Thanks again for writing this—you are spot on.
Yes, thank you. I always felt that the “idea” of the death penalty is not in error, per se. However, the functionality of death penalty – the way it is used to coax innocents into a plea bargain, the racial disparity, the execution of people who are mentally diminished, and even the execution of people who have been dubiously convicted, not to mention the death row exonerations – has convinced me that we need to pass on this form of justice.
Great post. Thanks for bringing up this issue. I think part of the issue of the current ‘Marcion’ thrust of a good bit of modern evangelicalism is inspired by the law-gospel denying Christocentric/monist Karl Barth. I doubt Claibourne and many of his cronies have read much Barth, but they are all influenced heavily by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas who are both Barthians of a sort. Though Hauerwas and Yoder are not Reformed per se, they borrow Barth’s Christocentric theology as a basis for their theological ethics. One could accuse Barth of many things, and Marcionite might be one of them, but at least he’s got a theological rationale for denying the two covenants and his strong Christocentric theology, whereas the much less theologically informed “red letter” folk, basically think we just need to read Jesus’ words and follow them, while ignoring the rest of the bible. Its a form of left-wing evangelical fundamentalism, moving from an unthinking conservative fundamentalism to equally simplistic unthinking liberal fundamentalism. The product is a form of unthinking identity politics that reflexively supports liberal positions because they are “obviously” more Christian. Hence, your insightful comment that Jesus turns out to look like a modern liberal progressive. Who’d a thunk?
OT was written for a physically distinct group of people as God’s kingdom, the Jews. In Christ he has abolished the dividing wall and there is no distinction now in God’s kingdom, the Church. OT is earthly kingdom of Israel, NT is spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men across all physical borders.
OT teachings were applied as law of the land. NT prescribes secular governments function to institute law of the land, not the Church. The church judges those in it’s ‘jurisdiction’, as pertains to spiritual matters. And hopefully as salt and light is influencing the secular government laws.
I find the ceremonial/civil/moral law distinctions to be a man made template laid down over the Scriptures. I am not aware of anything in the Bible that indicates any such distinctions in the law. I’m going to guess there is no agreed upon distinction, and if so who is the authority in this regard? Is it really merely civil with zero moral judgment or influence involved in prescribing death for adultery? (for example)
I believe that the NT gives the teachings that we are to follow, some of which are the same as the OT, some of which pertain to the Church and so are much different than laws intended for an earthly, physical kingdom. Unless it is also taught in the NT I am going to have a hard time enforcing an OT teaching now.
It does not mean the OT Law is meaningless at all, it functions to convict of sin and to consider the holiness of God.
“Unless it is also taught in the NT I do not think we should enforce an OT law now.”
I think this runs counter to your own argument.
I agree that the Mosaic Law is an instantiation of God’s righteousness applied to a particular culture and time, and that the ceremonial / civil / moral distinction is a subjective post-hoc classification rather than inherent in how the Law is written. I also agree that the Mosaic Law is written as the law of the Land, not the Church.
As Gentile Christians, we are not bound to the Mosaic Law for 2 reasons: we are not Jews, and we have been freed from the judgement of the Law because Christ has taken it for us. Further, you are correct in observing that we are not under Jewish theocracy, but secular government.
But, “we should enforce” muddies the categories. The Church looks to the Mosaic Law for instruction, but “we” do not enforce it, especially not the civil aspects of it. But the “we” in “we should enforce” is not the Church, but modern Society, and it is wise for Society to look towards the Mosaic Law not for instruction (that is the Church’s role now) but for precedent. If it was a good and righteous act to execute a murderer under the Mosaic Law, then we should consider wisely whether that may well still be true.
That is arguably the oldest civil Law in Scripture, dating explicitly from the time of Noah and implicitly from the time of Cain. Indeed, the death penalty is inseparably built into life post-Fall, whether divinely given as to Adam and Eve for their rebellion, or from man to man as in law given to Noah. All wrongdoing brings death, yet some wrongdoing is so egregious that man should take the death penalty into hand to apply to man. The NT does not disavow this; Paul observes that the secular authorities are agents of justice, and “do not bear the sword for nothing”.
The Church is not the agency of secular justice, and therefore is not in the business of handing out civil penalties. But that is not sufficient basis for denying such measures to the civil authorities.
I’m not sure that Scripture is capable of giving any kind of clear answer here. The New Testament corollary to capital punishment is excommunication from the church. So, at best, these passages indicate that these are offenses for which the church may excommunicate someone.
Capital punishment in the modern state is best judged by whether its current form serves any benefit relative to its cost. In my view, the benefits may outweigh the costs only in very limited circumstances. When a prosecutor elects to pursue the death penalty, the costs of prosecuting a defendant increase 10-fold. Further, the costs of maintaining a “death row” are also expensive. I’d guess that most states could use the money elsewhere.
[…] Christian Ethics, Evangelicals, and Functional Marcionism Jake Meador, Mere Orthodoxy […]
Thank you for the reminder to dig deeper into the question of continuity between the Christian and the Jewish Bible.
I’m not convinced though. It seems to be very easy to accuse those thinkers of mere Marcionism, which is pretty much of a very simplistic understanding of what the dualist Marcion thought about the OT. Also, most of those evangelicals would not really abandon the whole OT due to it’s brutality and focus on matter (which was Marcions thought), but would more clearly prefer a simplistic understanding of a progressiv revelation.
Also, Marcion was much more fond of Paul then of Jesus, but that’s just a sidenote.
So it would be way more helpful here to show, that Jesus was not particularly critical of capital punishment (and for that matter, the whole NT). Because IF these guys are right (which I don’t judge this claim for now), then we there would be a pretty strong problem. Since, IF the OT does support capital punishment at all stages of culture and spiritualty, and Jesus doesn’t, then whom should we follow?
Clearly, you wouldn’t agree that this discontinuity does exist (or do you?). But if – and that is what Claiborne seems to be suggesting – it would be more safe to follow Jesus, wouldn’t you agree?
Of course, I’m only talking IF’s.
But just accusing those guys of Marcionism, which is both a misrepresentation of Marcions thoughts and those evangelicals, does not lead us on in this debate, does it?
Love, and Peace, and All.
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The Old Testament forces me to accept that capital punishment is not inherently bad. But this does not mean it isn’t bad or at least inadvisable in certain situations. We live in a society where lengthy imprisonment is a practical alternative, which the ancient Israelites did not – given we have that alternative, and there are good arguments that it is a better way of punishing people, shouldn’t we use it?
Jake, I greatly appreciate this conversation. However, when I hear of Christians discussing the death penalty, I often wonder and ask myself several questions. One of those questions is whether or not we realize that any death penalty exercised in scripture was always ordered by, or administered by God himself. In a secular system, the verdict of whether or not the individual deserves penalty by death is decided upon by men. Needless to say, there is no corporate prayer before the verdict, and the judge is operating on the law of the land (secular values). As an African American male, I know historically that the American justice system has its flaws. In a study done to see how many wrongly accused have sat on death row, they found some interesting results (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/28/innocent-death-penalty-study_n_5228854.html). Therefore, due to my own personal flaws, I continue to keep myself away from being the deciding factor as to whether someone else is sentenced to death in a secular society. While I know your argument is in regard to Marcionism, and I greatly understand what its philosophical position is, I’m not sure as to whether or not that is really the issue around the death penalty. Our secular death penalty doesn’t have a biblical background. I can say this because the God of the bible is not involved in not one of its verdicts. I know this also because of the many errors found at the hyperlink I shared above. We serve a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent God. He doesn’t kill innocent men, but evil men do. I believe the real question to be asked is, “What is wrong with us as a nation to where we choose when someone dies for their wrongdoing, and are we God now?” Our penal system fails to rehabilitate adequately, and allows many perpetrators back onto the streets daily (sex offenders are one of the biggest numbers). Here’s a scholarly piece on a comparison of American prisons to Western European prisons (http://www.dropoutprevention.org/engage/incarceration-within-american-and-nordic-prisons/). True belivers know the power of rehabilitation, and restoration, but the world doesn’t. The worldf understands studies and experimentation. The church understands spiritual discernment and salvation. Many offenders have been victims themselves before they became offenders. How do we determine to kill and not to kill? Exactly! We cant! The Lord tells us that when we are angry at our brother, we have murdered him, but yet there are still men walking around angry at their brother without the penalty of death. Should we round all of them up and determine which ones die, and which ones don’t? Of course not, but for some reason we’ve decided to round up the ones who have taken their anger a bit too far. I guess we’ll just wait for the others to snap eventually. Let us also remember that we decided to kill Jesus and let Barabbas go under thee worldly death penalty. If it is costing us to keep men locked up, then so be it! Perhaps we will work harder at figuring out better means of rehabilitation for our criminals. Maybe we’ll realize that we’re not as much of a nation under God as we say, and we’ll enact 2 Chronicles 7:14!
My point here is that we need to be very careful as Christians when we get involved in secular conversation regarding how they conduct their business and government. Because many of us have not arrived, are still being perfected, and working out their salvation daily with fear and trembling, I think we may want to look at the appeals of our brethren that you shared a bit different. Calling a man of faith a Marcionist is highly judgmental. Making this type of reference can be scarring to a man’s reputation and ministry. It can suggest that he is preaching another Jesus when in fact he is simply being compassionate and insightful concerning his faith. Let us remember Galatians 5, and take special note to Galatians 5:18;26. Remember, we are supposed to be the salt of the earth. God’s judgment will come soon enough, and believe me when I say that none of us will certainly not be exempt from it.
In conclusion, I say that as Christians, we should consult our bible for our issues. Otherwise, let the world work out their problems in their way. The world’s arguments should never succeed in creating divisiveness amongst God’s people. This challenge has always seem to have been an issue amongst the body of Christ. Its quite funny if you ask me because if we really followed the example of early Christians in Acts 2, we would find that we should have all things common woth no lack, but we don’t. Some of us still want to be earthly rich while some of us remain spiritually poor. Some of us want to be worldly influential while some of us want to be spiritually humble, and lastly, some of us want to be judges of others while some of us are working on ourselves toward a lighter judgment. Be patient brothers. The Lord is soon to come, and He will correct all of this when he gets here! Amen!
“One of those questions is whether or not we realize that any death penalty exercised in scripture was always ordered by, or administered by God himself.”
Can you clarify this? As it stands, I can think of three explanations, and all of them are nonsense:
(1) All executions in the OT took place at the explicit command of God.
Counter: there are plenty of executions in the OT that occur – by pagans and sinful Israelites – without any reference to God.
(2) All morally good executions in the OT took place at the explicit command of God.
Counter: There are plenty of executions in the OT where the narrative does not record any form of circumstantial divine sanction, nor does the Law require – in the general case – that the people inquire of God via a priest before executing anyone (e.g. Ex 21:29 does not require divine inquiry or blessing before carrying out the death penalty).
(3) God’s Law explicitly allows for execution for certain crimes.
Counter: This is true, but is a highly contorted reading of your claim, nor does it support your argument.
The fact that you argue on behalf of pagans and SINFUL Israelites tells me where your heart is. Not only that, Exodus 21:29 is mandated by God Himself. You should start reading the beginning of 21 because it certainly wasn’t man’s choosing. As I said in my posting before. These arguments for or against the death penalty are not for God’s children, but yet for the people of this land that we have spiritually chosen to come out from amongst. It is my belief that I am removed from the judgement of this world, but I am always subject to the judgment of my Heavenly Father. I pray you stop trying to argue and submit to His will for us. One of the biggest criticisms I get about Christians from nonbelievers is that we are disunified and we are hypocrites. People today are looking for grace and not judgment. They want eternal life versus death at the hands of their fellow man. Its easy for us “good” people to have an opinion about such a challenging topic, but how hard do you think it is for the loved ones who have someone in prison facing the death penalty? Stop thinking about yourself and weep for others once in a while? If you are a believer, that should not be hard to do. God bless!
Do you have an actual answer to my questions, or is a ringing declaration of piety sufficient?
(Do you even understand my questions? Is there something I can clarify for you?)
[…] Functional Marcionism– This discusses the common error of simplistically rejecting some part or concept out of the Old Testament on the sole basis that the New Testament has improved on it (in a way that comports with our modern sensibilities, of course). […]
As much as the arguments seen here lack support from the whole Bible, the sensitivity toward what happens when the death penalty is carried out should be applauded.
I have noticed the same Marconism frequently. Unfortunately the division of the law argument is a variation of the same since it imposes categories which you do not find in the Hebrew Scripture.
Moreover, the counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15 in dealing with circumcision deals with the issue by appealing to the older Noahic precedent but issues a restriction which most would say falls into the ceremonial category by demanding abstinence from blood.
Don’t know that there is an exegetically sound and theologically consistent hermeneutic for determining what prescription and prescription are moral and uninversal. Neither the Marcionite tact nor it’s orthodox cousin, division of the law, prove helpful in settling many issues from Sabbath keeping to gay marriage and beyond.
It’s true that those divisions of the law are not found within the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t think anyone would say that they are.
Rather, the divisions are found (or, at least, implied) within the New Testament. The book of Hebrews, for example, goes to great length to explain the abrogation of the ceremonial laws under the new priesthood of Jesus Christ—or rather, the priesthood that precedes the Levitical priesthood, being of the order of Melchizedek. Furthermore, the entire New Testament announces Jesus Christ as the once-for-all sacrifice for the people of God. Therefore, the ceremonial law of temple, priests, and sacrifices have been done away with.
As far as the civil aspects of the law go, those details are pulled into church government and polity rather than civil government and polity. So, the New Testament talks about obedience to rulers, but not so much about being the rulers. Instead, the rulers of the New Testament (overseers, episkopoi; elders, presbuteroi) govern the church. Therefore, the New Testament implies that the civil laws simply do not apply in the same way now that the new covenant community is no longer an ethnically homogenous, theocratic nation-state, but rather an kingdom of peoples from all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations.
Now, you bring up a reasonably valid point about the council at Jerusalem requiring abstinence from blood and what is strangled. I have thought a lot about that passage this week. In addition to abstinence from blood, there is also the prohibition of what has been dedicated to idols, and from sexual immorality.
Of those three, sexual immorality is clearly forbidden in the rest of the New Testament in many places. It is impossible to make an argument that the New Testament permits sexual immorality with any degree of faithfulness to the Scriptures.
The other two, regarding food, are a bit trickier. Here, the council says that Gentiles should abstain from food sacrificed to idols. Paul, however, says that there is no fundamental theological problem with eating such food (1 Corinthians 8), except insofar as it may cause a person to stumble by drawing them back into idolatry.
Furthermore, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, the food laws are explicitly overturned twice in the New Testament, by Jesus himself in Mark 7:19, and by the vision Peter received in Acts 10.
But regarding the prohibition regarding blood….I will admit that I have been thinking much about that, and that I’m not sure what to say about that. The general principle of dividing the law into three categories is an exegetically strong position, but this specific issue of blood is a bit trickier. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.
I think the Jerusalem counsel was to some degree more pragmatic than theological. A little split the difference (no pun intended) seems to be at work. Gentile Christians get relieved of an onerous and painful ritual duty but still must respect the Jewish Christians in table fellowship by refraining from blood and things strangled. This seems not to extend to kosher laws. Perhaps it was a matter of don’t make me bleed and I won’t insist that you eat blood soup.
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I agree with you about the impoverished reasoning along Marcionite lines, but just because those arguments aren’t sound doesn’t mean “We ought to reject the argument that the death penalty is innately unjust.”
I think there are other lines of thought that could be developed. Traditionally Christian thought has argued the State is ordained by God (Two Kingdoms and variations), but even so, is there a difference between a State which got its laws directly from God (Israel) and those that did not (all others)? If the State under which we are governed has not encoded all the moral law (e.g blasphemy, coveting, Sabbath) to what extent should it be bound, on grounds of justice, to adopt the punishments?
What if anything changed after Constantine when Christians and civil leaders began to merge and should it have?
Another line that could be developed: If the wages of sin is death, and God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, is there any argument to be made that death is no longer a legitimate function of human justice? Paul seems to have regretted his “harshness” toward the Corinthian man he condemned.
Where are the explicit arguments for the death penalty in the NT, either in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles of in their actions, besides the one by Paul mentioned above? If looking with lust and anger are morally equivalent to adultery and murder and contain the same spiritual penalty (death) do they merit the same criminal penalty? Why not? Is there anywhere Jesus affirmed capital punishment as a general principle as he did marriage? Is his forgiveness of the adulterous woman to be understood broadly and can it be applied legally?
I’m not the one to develop those threads, but I am opposed to the death penalty, and not just on pragmatic grounds, though surely that. I don’t think opponents like Yoder, Hauerwas or Arnold could be accused of being Maricon, so while I agree I think there are non-Marcionite-esque arguments against the death penalty that are ignored.
As flattered as I am to be discussed alongside the likes of Shane Claiborne, this post makes me really sad.
First of all, I neither think nor believe as Marcion did. Some others have pointed out that this accusation is probably not fair and I appreciate that. I fully affirm the OT as being inspired by God, as I do the NT. This Sunday at the church I pastor we begin a study of Exodus, so to accuse me of an OT-denying heresy like Marcisonism is more than a little funny. It’s a big accusation based on a short little blog post. It’s simply not true, nor is it fair. (Also, for the record, I don’t like Portlandia and none of my liberal friends would ever venture to call me liberal. But I suppose it’s easier to falsely characterize people as belonging to a group their readers are already suspect of than to actually dialog with someone).
And speaking of dialog, what the average reader probably doesn’t realize is that the author of this article and I live in the same town and are connected on Facebook. So here’s a question, is this how we as Christians dialog now? If someone suspects I am in danger of teaching heresy (a very serious allegation btw) and we are close to each other and can easily communicate with one another, might a one-to-one be in order? Might that be a tad more appropriate than taking to the blogosphere to impersonally throw a pastor under the bus? The truth is there are a lot more appropriate, God honoring, Church serving ways this could have been handled.
I really hope those who curate this site will think twice before pushing content like this in the future. You’re better than this guys.
Aaron – Two brief thoughts:
a) I think it’s possible to teach through the Old Testament and still believe that it doesn’t have anything positive to teach us or that it’s an almost entirely negative example (which is what your post seemed to suggest) or that it’s intended for some group other than Christians (which is what the dispensationalism I grew up in would say).
From your post it sure seemed like you fit the second category–the Malachi to Matthew line certainly suggests as much. IE: If I only had the Old Testament, then I’d have a god who is as vindictive and judgmental as me, but when I turn to Matthew that falls apart.
b) On the point about face-to-face dialog, I’d be happy to get coffee and talk sometime (I live in Everett so we’re within walking distance of Cultiva, the Mill, and the CoHo), but I didn’t think that was necessary for a post about a fairly common problem in evangelical circles where you are only one of three examples I gave. I could’ve written this entire post without mentioning your post at all and the argument would hold b/c of what folks like Merritt and Claiborne have written. (And I’m Twitter friends with Merritt and have corresponded with him on a very limited basis. I like him. I think he’s dead wrong on this issue, but I still like him.) I mentioned your post b/c it was an easy example of the problem I was discussing, but my focus here was on the issue, not on any one person.
Also, you published a blog post in a public forum; I responded in a public forum. Where’s the foul? I said hard things, sure, but if I’m reading you correctly, then they seem merited. If I’m not, tell me where I’m wrong. How does your Malachi to Matthew line not suggest a kind of functional Marcionism in which the OT exists as this purely negative example of an angry vindictive God who gives way to the happy sweet God of the NT?
I mean, it sure seems like there’s biblical precedent for this sort of thing–Peter and Paul in Galatia, John in 2 John, Paul and Barnabas, etc
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. If you’d like to meet sometime I’d definitely be up for it.
Hello Jake, thank you for sharing your perspective. One of the main culprits in this, and many other tensions, is the deep and structural ignorance within Christianity about Judaism. It’s a bit like a farmer relishing a very tasty apple, but showing absolutely zero interest in the tree. The roots of replacement theology go very deep into history. Even so deep that I feel uncomfortable with many references to “the Jews” in New Testament texts. If one would take the trouble to study the entire Torah, but study it from a Jewish perspective, and spend time to read the rich (and often diverse) perspectives in the Talmud and Midrash, one would discover a richness in balance and perspective, and a profound temperance of judgment. In general, its focus is on man’s responsibility before God, rather than God’s responsibility towards man (they leave that respectfully and appropriately to Him), and basically never encouraging us going about playing god or judge over the other. This entire discussion cannot and may not take place outside a serious attempt to study the very tree the Christian is grafted in to: a discipline whole lacking in Christian theology and education.