Theology, Hermeneutics and Capital Punishment

I just discovered an argument in Kaiser and Silva’s An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics in favor of the view that the Old Testament teaching on the death penalty is of permanent relevance:

“If the reason for a questioned practice or command has its basis in the unchanging nature of God, then that practice or command will have permanent relevance for all in all times. For example, Genesis 9:6 commands that all who shed a person’s blood, by deliberately lying in wait for them with premeditation, must suffer capital punishment. The reason given is fixed in the nature and character of God: ‘because God made man in his own image.’ Consequently, as long as men and women are still in the image of God, they continue to have worth, value and esteem in the eyes of God.

“But what about the sanction of capital punishment? Is that punishment necessarily mandated even for our day just because we agree on the abiding nature of the reason given for the prohibition against taking another person’s life? The force of this moral and theological reason cannot be appreciated until we notice how closely the penalty is linked with the abiding theology of the text of Gen. 9:6. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man [presumably, as later specified, by the hands of the state] shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.’ So valuable is that murdered person’s life that mortals (in this case, the state, to protect society against vigilantes) owe back to God the life of the murderer. This is how the reason for a command or custom helps us to know if both the cultural form and the content are still in vogue.”

– Kaiser and Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (OMF Literature 1998) p. 185

Interestingly enough, the reason for prohibiting a person from taking away another person’s life is the same reason that justifies the State in taking away the life of a murderer, namely, that human beings are created in the image of God.

More interesting is the fact that just a page back in the very same book Kaiser takes the view that certain penalties (capital punishment included), even if founded on an “unyielding theological principle” are subject to modification, presumably because the application of such penalty to a specific situation is culturally relative: “[T]he principle stood even though the cultural application varied.” I quote the pertinent passage in full:

We may retain the theology of a passage (i.e., the principle) but replace the behavioral expression with some more recent, but equally meaningful, expression. That there are biblical precedents for such replacements can be seen from the way that the so-called civil and ceremonial law of Moses functions as illustrations of the abiding moral law of God. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5 the principle of the sanctity of marriage and human sexuality remained, even though the sanction of stoning to death had been changed for the mother and son guilty of incest to excommunication from the body of believers. Behind the moral law of God (as found, for example, in the Ten Commandments and the law of holiness in Leviticus 18-20) stood God’s holy character. That is what made the theological principle unyielding; the sanctions, or penalties, however, were subject to modification. Thus behind both the Old Testament and the New Testament rule against incest stood on the holy character of God and the sanctity of marriage; the principle stood even though the cultural application varied.” [Italics in the original]

On the one hand, I seem to hear Kaiser as saying that capital punishment is an obligation the state owes to God – an obligation which is presumably of abiding value because it springs from a principle of abiding value, i.e., the fact that human beings are created in the image of God. On the other hand, in certain cases, this obligation of abiding value is subject to modification; for example, most people in our culture would consider it barbaric for the State to put to death (whether by stoning or lethal injection is beside the point) those who are guilty of adultery or incest. Is there a contradiction here, or am I missing something?

In fairness to Kaiser, the circumstances in relation to which Kaiser believes capital punishment may be modified involve human sexuality and the sanctity of marriage, not murder. That might account for the difference. Another factor may be the fact that the principle underlying the application of capital punishment in the OT, in cases of human sexuality and marriage, is the holiness of God, not the creation of man in God’s image. Thus, it is not absolutely necessary that capital punishment be always applied in order to emphasize God’s holy character. Other means will suffice. But in the case of murder (and other crimes analogous in principle to murder), even if we were to allow for certain exceptions, the application of capital punishment, as an obligation owed by the State to God, may be inescapable.

2 thoughts on “Theology, Hermeneutics and Capital Punishment

  1. Yes, in principle I am. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful about how and when you implement it. The justification for it is theological rather than pragmatic.The question really is whether the state has certain generic theological obligations that attach to its existence, and whether capital punishment is one of them.

  2. Dennis, am I correct in saying that you’re in favor of the death penalty? I wrote about this in my blog, but I never got around to find an overriding justification to support my stand in favor of the death penalty.

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