Why We Shouldn’t Stone Adulterers

(This is a follow-up to a previous post of mine: How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?)

I suspect that for the majority of people who come across this blog, whether Christian or non-Christian, this is an obvious question. Most would consider it beyond dispute that stoning adulterers—and more generally, treating private sins as capital crimes—is barbaric and inhumane. In fact, they would argue, that point should be so self-evident to any rational person that even raising the question is deeply offensive. After all, we’re not the Taliban. But the instinctive hostility that most people feel toward this practice faces one major problem: it’s biblical. Leviticus 20:10 reads, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” So how can we call this practice barbaric and inhumane, without also saying the same thing of the God who commanded it?

Christians have had different ways of dealing with this difficulty. At one end of the spectrum are dispensationalists,¹ who argue that Old Testament law applied only to ancient Israel. They say that trying to appropriate Israel’s laws for ourselves is a lot like “reading other people’s mail.” Therefore, what may have been appropriate for Israel might nevertheless be unconscionable for us today. But this view is problematic for a number of reasons. First, we Christians believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So we should expect the OT to reflect his unchanging moral character just as much as the NT. Second, Jesus himself says that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matt. 5:17-19). And third, it proves too much. There are many other Old Testament laws given to ancient Israel that do clearly apply to us today, like the commands to love God (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-40) and to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:8-10). The NT goes even further in saying that all Scripture (here meaning the OT) is meant for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-6). So the question we need to ask is not whether Old Testament civil laws apply to us (they do), but how.

At the other end of the spectrum are theonomists (theos = God, and nomos = law),² who advocate a direct application of nearly all OT laws (penalties included) to modern civil society. Now theonomists generally acknowledge some degree of cultural conditionality in these laws, but for the most part their operating principle is, “Every OT law directly applies to us today, unless the NT explicitly repeals or modifies it.”³ And although most theonomists believe that this process should happen gradually only as a culture becomes increasingly Christianized, their end goal is to see all the nations of the world governed by the law of Moses.

Now in my opinion, there is a lot that theonomists get right. First, they rightly affirm the continuity of the OT and the NT. Second, they rightly affirm the lordship of Christ over all the nations of the earth. And third (and this is tied to the second), they rightly reject a split between the sacred and secular realms. So in general, I am much more sympathetic to theonomy than dispensationalism.

With that said, I want to explain why I am not a theonomist.4 Since a comprehensive critique would get pretty lengthy for a single blog post, I’ll limit myself to two basic points. Negatively, I will attempt to make a brief case for why, in general, we should not directly apply OT penal laws to civil society today. Positively, I will offer some suggestions for how we should determine particular laws and penalties today.

Now I should point out here that the OT never explicitly states that Israel’s civil laws should be directly applied to Gentile nations.5 Then again, it never explicitly states that they shouldn’t be either. Therefore, any argument one way or the other will depend on one’s prior hermeneutical framework and inferences from the biblical texts (much like the issue of infant vs. believer baptism). Further, considering the particular perspective6 from which one approaches the evidence will go a long way in determining who really bears the burden of proof. Theonomists tend to emphasize a normative perspective, focusing on the universal character of God’s laws. But in my opinion, they neglect the situational perspective, which takes into consideration Israel’s unique cultural and historical position, as well as their unique covenantal status before God.

Taking into account Israel’s unique covenantal status is especially important when considering the nature of OT penalties. The Mosaic law is frequently couched in the language of covenantal privilege and responsibility. Consider, for example, Leviticus 11:45: “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” With great privilege comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes greater punishment for transgression. That is why God says to Israel in Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The sanctity of Israel was paramount in her mission—more so than for any other nation, then or now. No other nation is covenantally bound to God like Israel was.7

This, I believe, is precisely why penalties were so severe for those crimes that demonstrated covenant infidelity, such as adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10), idolatry (Deut. 13), and rebellion against parents (Deut. 21:18-21; according to Wright, the family was the primary unit in which the covenant relationship was preserved and experienced).8 On the other hand, the death penalty for murder had a different basis; it was rooted not in the Mosaic covenant, but rather in the more universal Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5-6). And the reason here for the death penalty had nothing to do with Noah’s unique covenantal standing (a privilege enjoyed only later by Abraham and his offspring), but rather with the fact that humans are made in God’s image. For these reasons, I believe that a case can be made for the continuing validity of capital punishment for murder and related crimes, but not for covenant infidelity.

I also believe that theonomists fail to account for the typological character of OT penal laws (this is one of the main points of Poythress’s book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses). These laws served as symbols and shadows pointing to a reality that was fulfilled in the finished work of Christ. Like the tabernacle, sacrifices, and ceremonial purity laws, we can say that the OT penal laws were intended to point us to the greater destruction of sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fullest expression of God’s justice is therefore found not in the OT laws themselves, but rather in the person and work of Christ. The OT laws certainly reveal God’s justice, but only in a subsidiary sense, as they point us to Christ. This Christological orientation of OT penalties means that we should not necessarily expect a direct, one-to-one correspondence with our situation today.

So if we can’t base our penalties today directly on the Mosaic law, then how should we determine the appropriate penalties? And how far should our legislation go? Should it also encompass so-called “private” and “moral” offenses? Here I can only give some preliminary considerations. For one, I am rather skeptical of the libertarian principle: “Persons should be free to harm themselves and consenting associates … as long as they do not harm others or infringe on their rights.”9 Theonomist Greg Bahnsen rightly points out that this principle is ambiguous, arbitrary, inconsistently applied, and (above all) not biblically derived.10 I would also add to Bahnsen’s objections the fact that adultery, for example, most certainly does cause harm to, and infringe on the marital rights of, the betrayed spouse. As a consequence, I would at a minimum reject the notion of “no fault” divorce laws.

Beyond that, different kinds of offenses need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As I mentioned above, we should expect the severity of penalties to be different outside a covenantal context such as Israel’s.11 So instead we need to take into account the kind and degree of harm caused by the offense. And we need to ask questions like, what will be the effects of imposing such-and-such penalties on such-and-such offenses? Conversely, what would be the consequences of not imposing such penalties? And what kind of values should our laws seek to foster within a society?

I’ll conclude by highlighting some of the insights that we should draw from theonomists. For one, they rightly point out the fact that our current judicial and penal system is seriously broken. The U.S. currently has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at about 743 adults per 100,000. This is combined with a very high rate of recidivism (re-arrest/imprisonment after release). By contrast, there is no OT precedent for incarceration as a form of penalty. Instead, penalties took the form of corporal punishment (Deut. 25:1-3), exile (19:1-10), and restitution (Ex. 22:1). It is worth considering whether such penalties would be a viable alternative to our current system. We should also ask what it might look like to have an entire community directly involved in the execution of a criminal, as was the case with Israel. At the end of the day, we may find that some of our emotional reactions about these issues derive more from cultural prejudices than from biblical authority.

Postscript: if you’re a Christian, I’d discourage you from appealing to John 8 (the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery) in discussions on theonomy. In all likelihood, this is a spurious text; it’s not found in the earliest manuscripts of John, and it differs in style and vocabulary from the rest of John’s gospel.

1 Dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, by relegating the former to an obsolete “dispensation” of God’s dealings with humanity. Leading representatives have included John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer.

2 Theonomy is also variously referred to as Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. Leading representatives have included R.J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary DeMar, among others. While certain theonomists have also called for rather particular civil reforms—such as a return to the gold standard or a radical commitment to laissez-faire capitalism—these points are more peripheral. I would consider any position to be broadly theonomistic which advocates the (more or less) direct application of OT penalties to modern society.

3 The Westminster Confession of Faith distinguishes three categories of law: moral, civil, and ceremonial (XIX). It further states that while the moral law continues unchanged today, the civil and ceremonial laws have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. Theonomists instead argue that only the ceremonial laws have been abrogated, while both the moral and civil laws continue. This description is helpful though somewhat simplistic, since the OT itself does not categorize its laws in so neat a fashion.

4 I am indebted to a number of sources for my critique. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), Appendix B (available free here online); Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 403-408.; Gary Scott Smith, editor, God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1989).

5 Theonomists might point to proof-texts such as Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2. However, with respect do Deut. 4, Poythress points out how the perspective one adopts informs what one notices in this passage (Poythress, Appendix B, Part 2). When the Gentile nations look in envy at Israel and her laws, do they desire to adopt Israel’s laws wholesale for themselves (normative perspective), or rather to enjoy the same unique covenantal standing with Israel’s God (situational perspective)? And with respect to Isa. 2 and Mic. 4, we cannot automatically assume that these prophetic texts speak of the Mosaic law extending to the Gentiles in every respect and without modification.

6 Here I am indebted to John Frame’s theory of multi-perspectivalism. A brief primer to this theory can be found online here. For a more in-depth treatment, see Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).

7 Historians and Bible scholars have described Israel’s unique covenantal status as a “theocracy” or “church-state nexus” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.17; C. John Collins, “A Study Guide for the Old Testament Prophetical Books,” [Covenant Theological Seminary, 2008], 96). In a sense, theonomists believe that the entire world is on its way to becoming a theocracy. Eschatologically speaking, this is true. But that does not mean that nations today (even Christian-majority ones) can become specially, covenantally bound to God before the arrival of the New Jerusalem.

8 Wright, 407.

9 Ronald Sider, “An Evangelical Vision for Public Policy,” Transformation 2.3 (Jul-Sep 1985), 6.

10 God and Politics, 43.

11 Technically, no one exists outside a covenantal context. Our very humanity binds us to God in a covenantal relationship. That is why I have consistently attempted to speak of Israel’s “special” or “unique” covenantal status throughout this post.


13 responses

  1. Kyle, I think this is really good. I still have a few questions and critiques, but on the whole I think this is very well done. My critiques/questions are as follows:

    To Poythress’s point (footnote 5), I would say, “false dichotomy.” To envy the covenantal relationship without envying the covenant (i.e., covenant obligations and blessings, etc.) just doesn’t make sense in the context of the OT or Deut 4.

    Concerning Amos 3, Amos is writing about corporate judgment, which, of course, is covenantal. The context makes that clear, especially the preceding two chapters. Though it is interesting that in those two chapters God holds other nations accountable to moral standards. Thus, Amos doesn’t prove your point that the punishments were harsher because of Israel’s covenantal relationship. All Amos can be appealed to support is that Israel as a nation will be conquered and exiled because of their iniquities. Many of the OT penalties aren’t directly related to the covenant with God, though. They are about establishing justice in society. So if you steal from me, the just resolution to the situation is for you to restore with interest (e.g., four fold, though that’s not the only metric). Under your argument, “four fold” restitution is only just because of Israel’s call to be holy. But presumably, under your view restitution of some sort is still just and it would be up to a wise judge to determine how much restitution–I agree, but I think this is exactly how the law was meant to be applied *in the OT*.

    Furthermore, I think in light of the inapplicability of Amos 3, your idea that the punishments were severer because of Israel’s covenantal relationship is speculative. It lacks hard evidence (I actually agree, sort of, especially when it comes to things like the laws of idolatry, etc., but for other reasons). There is one place that might support your view–Acts 17:30–31, in which Paul notes that God overlooked the “times of ignorance.” The problem with this passage is that if you use it to support the idea that the OT laws/punishments didn’t apply to other nations in the OT, you’re left with the view that they *do* apply in the NT! Hence, God’s command “to all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”

    I am uneasy saying that the OT law reveals God’s justice only as they point us to Christ. Why can’t it be both? They reveal God’s justice in themselves and in the way they point us to Christ?

    I’ve noted my problems with the Noah example before. For what it’s worth, though, marriage is grounded in creation, even before Noah. Granted, no penalty is given in Gen 2, but Gen 2, like Gen 9, is not intending to give a comprehensive law code.

    Good point about John 8. I would add that it’s unclear why Jesus did not sanction the killing of the woman. It is significant, though, that the man was not brought with her, which suggests that there was some very serious funny business going on (she was “caught in adultery” so where was the man she was caught with?).

    You conclude by saying, “different kinds of offenses need to be considered on a case-by-case basis” but this, I think, is exactly how the OT law was supposed to be applied in ancient Israel. We still need some framework for making such case-by-case judgments though. You say that the penalties were more severe due to the covenantal relationship. Fair enough, but then what schema of punishments is applicable? How do we know what is *too* severe and what is not severe enough? We’re left completely without guidance as to appropriate levels of severity. All we know is that we need to be less severe than the OT.

    Anyway, sorry for the long response! I hope it doesn’t detract from my comments of appreciation. I do think this is great stuff, I just think there are some unanswered questions here.

    1. Peter, with respect to Poythress, he actually says “false dichotomy” too. The laws are themselves just, but their justice cannot be detached from their covenantal and redemptive-historical context without significant modification. After all, that is precisely what Christians argue today about the ceremonial laws. Were Israel’s pagan neighbors expected to want to adopt the kosher food laws too?

      As for Amos, notice the kinds of sins for which the pagan nations were indicted, in contrast to those for which Israel and Judah were indicted. The pagans were judged for their pride, violence, oppression, and violating international treaties (these themes are consistent throughout judgments against pagan nations in the prophetic literature—even Sodom is indicted for pride, greed and neglect for the poor in Ezekiel 16:49, rather than for its undeniable sexual immorality). But the indictments were a little more particular in the case of Israel and Judah. Look especially at Amos 2:7, which states that God’s holy name was profaned due to Israel’s sexual sins. This is in keeping with the description of sexual sins within the context of Israel’s holiness laws in Leviticus 18 (especially v. 3). Sexual purity was one means by which Israel was to be kept distinct from her pagan neighbors. Therefore, I see an explicit connection between sexual sins (and the punishment thereof) and the sanctity of Israel’s unique covenantal status. But again, I’m not saying that there should therefore be *no* penalties against sexual sins today.

      Also notice the causal relationship between the clauses in Amos 3:2—“You alone have I known… THEREFORE [‘al ken] I will punish you.” That is my primary reason for expecting covenant privilege to entail more severe punishment. Your point about the corporate nature of the judgment in this context is correct, but since the corporate is also the aggregate of individuals, I would expect the same to apply for individual Israelites (and also Christians today). So I believe that an apostate Christian who commits the same sin as a pagan will be punished more harshly.

      As for penalties for offenses not directly related to Israel’s peculiar holiness or unique covenantal status, I think a good case could be made for their continuing applicability, as you point out in the case of restitution for theft. I have no beef with theonomists on that point.

      As for my typological argument, I tried to choose my words as carefully as possible. I don’t want to denigrate OT laws, but I cannot deny that, apart from their fulfillment in Christ, they are incomplete, and in that sense are inferior to the total and perfect expression of God’s justice. So I guess I’m not saying that they reveal God’s justice *only* insofar as they point to Christ, but their revelation of God’s justice is still an imperfect shadow as they stand by themselves. Christ is better.

      As for Noah, it’s true that the purpose of that covenant was not to lay out a comprehensive law code. But the fact that capital punishment for murder was singled out here at so early a place in the canon suggests a place of priority for that law in civil society today. And as for the prohibition against consuming blood (which to us may sound like much less of a priority), I think it actually reflects the importance of having an appropriate understanding of sacrifice. The idea of “life is in the blood” is a central redemptive motif, which points clearly to Christ.

      And with respect to determining appropriate penalties today, I readily admit the relative ambiguity we face. I’m not entirely sure what penalties against adultery would be appropriate outside a covenantal context, since the Bible isn’t explicit on that point. But we are not left “completely” without guidance, as we still have the situational and existential perspectives to consider. Hence my remarks about effects and values.

  2. Kyle:

    Well-expressed argument, as always. Great summation considering length limitation inherent in blogging.

    Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Law (Torah), and his atoning death and resurrection conclude the old expression of God’s covenant with his people and inaugurates the new expression (I say “expression” to avoid implying discontinuity between the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures — I am a Calvinist). The Mosaic Law gives us worthwhile *principles* that can inform our political beliefs — although, needless to say, Christians are going to interpret and apply those principles differently — but it does not and should not be construed as offering a normative political system or specific legislation for contemporary societies, Christian or otherwise.

    A contemporary political issue about which American evangelicals (and other Christians) get into this debate about applying the Mosaic Law to our lives is immigration, which you and I have discussed and which is a hobbyhorse of mine. It is amusing to me how many Christians who would normally be resistant to the (generally right-wing) theonomists, and wouldn’t dream of calling for the stoning of adulterers and so forth, are quick to chant “love the stranger” (an allusion to Torah verses mixed in with all those other Israelite statutes) in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants and a mass immigration policy in general, and act as if that invocation ends debate on the subject. Christians of all stripes — and there are many, many, many stripes of Christian, although some American evangelicals don’t seem to be aware of that obvious truth — need to agree that our Savior and our Scriptures offer no particular earthly political agenda, as such things, being the handiwork of mortal man, are inevitably fallible as men are.

    A quick comment on capital punishment: For my two cents, I see that subject as analogous to the scriptual treatment of slavery. Slavery is never explicitly and unambigously prohibited in either the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures. Rather, it is regulated in great detail, setting a high moral standard for slaves’ treatment but repeatedly reaffirming masters’ authority over them. Centuries passed after the time of Christ before any prominent voices in the Church (universal) called for the practice’s universal abolition (as opposed to the humane treatment of slaves, or the abolition of slavery in particular geographies or for particular classes of people, both of which were common from the time of the apostles). Over time, Christians began to realize that the moral standard set by God over the institution of slavery was as a practical matter impossible for sinful man to meet, the temptations to the abuse of slaves being too great and numerous, thus necessitating its abolition in civil law, though not its redaction from the pages of Scripture. (Secular factors, such as the economic and social changes wrought by industrialization, were also of course significant to the genesis of the abolition movement).

    Similarly, while no verse of Scripture explicitly prohibits capital punishment, and indeed the practice is minutely regulated and repeatedly reaffirmed, I have come to believe that the moral standard set by God for this practice is as a practical matter nearly (though not absolutely) impossible for fallible man — especially fallible government bureaucracies — to meet. The central act of the gospel narrative, the act which gave us the most widely-known visual symbol of the Christian faith the world over for two millenia, was an execution of an innocent man. Christians of all people should be horrified by the reality and the prospect of anyone being put to death by the state for crimes which he did not commit (or should not be capital offenses). On top of that, spending the rest of one’s life, decade upon decade, in a small cell would seem to me much stiffer punishment than a painless death by lethal injection (the usual method in the US today). I would make exceptions for what can be called “national security” offenses, which threaten society as a whole (treason, espionage, war crimes), but in general capital punishment should go the way of slavery, as it indeed it has in most advanced countries.

    1. Noah, for what it’s worth, the OT recognizes different *kinds* of slavery. The kind of slavery that existed in the American South was punishable *by death* (Exod 21:16). In fact, not only was man-stealing punishable by death, but merely being in possession of a slave was a capital offense. Thus, in the OT (and in the NT, for that matter, in which different forms of slavery also existed), our word “slavery” obscures the fact that these were very different senarios. Certain forms of slavery were more like what we would call “indentured servitude,” and for what it’s worth, I think this is a point where the OT provides a very helpful model for current society. Indentured servitude provided a dignified way to provide for one’s family, contribute to society, and to get out of debt (granted, it can’t be applied one for one because the jubilee law is only applicable in a context in which God has explicitly given certain portions of land to certain families/clans).

      So I think your analogy fails. The OT condemns (in much stronger terms!) the kind of slavery that we condemn.

  3. Noah, I’d reiterate what Peter said about slavery. Also, I’d highlight slavery’s dissimilarity with capital punishment, in that a *creational* basis is given for capital punishment (it’s the just response to the destruction of God’s image), but not for the institution of slavery. Therefore, the practice of slavery was tolerated and highly regulated in the OT, but the death penalty was in fact *mandated*.

    And I don’t think our inability to perfectly implement the death penalty requires that we abolish it altogether. After all, Israel was never able to execute perfect justice, but that didn’t stop God from giving them his law!

    On a side note, I do think that certain forms of slavery exist in modern society today; we just don’t call it slavery. A good example would be military service. 🙂

  4. Peter and Kyle:

    The form of slavery that existed in the antebellum American South was not “man-stealing.” European slave-traders did not go traipsing about the jungles of Africa grabbing random passersby and clapping them irons. Rather, they bought legally persons enslaved and marketed by native African slave-traders and then imported the slaves to the Americas. Perhaps (heck, even likely) those African “wholesalers” (so to speak) engaged in man-stealing, and that may have been a factor in arousing the eventual Christian revulsion at the transatlantic slave trade, but man-stealing is not a charge that can be made *directly* against European slave-importers and certainly not their retail customers in what became the United States. Most slaves in the US were born here from, say, the early 18th century onward, and assuredly so after the banning of slave importation in 1808.

    Moreover, the man-stealing condemned in the Torah would appear to be limited to the kidnapping of Israelites: see Deuteronomy 24:7. Exodus 21:2, which begins the discourse on slavery and other matters that includes verse 16, which you, Peter, cited, refers to Hebrew slaves specifically, and 16 is amid verses about family matters, i.e., disputes among Israelites. Slave-trading by Israelites of gentiles is permitted under Leviticus 25:44-46.

    As for capital punishment being “mandated,” unless you are asserting that the practice should remain mandated for murder today, no exceptions, we are left with the question of which murders or murderers call for the ultimate penalty, and which do not. I submitted my narrow uses for capital punishment, but otherwise there is abundant evidence that the practice is characterized by caprice, malice, and ineptitude (as well as great monetary expense) to the point that I cannot see how we as Christians and as citizens can have confidence that our system of justice will always spare the lives of the innocent — in other words, will never make a mistake that cannot be corrected (unlike merely incarcerating the wrong person, which is pretty bad by itself). There is also little evidence that capital punishment deters murder overall.

    1. Noah, you missed the fact that I noted that simply being in *possession* of a slave was a capital offense. So the fact that Europeans didn’t engage in man-stealing themselves is irrelevant.

      You are right, of course, to note that the law describes Israelites. However, that points to one of the discontinuities in the OT context and our own. So to direct my comments to Kyle for just a second, I would note that this is where recognizing that we live in a global theocracy actually has significant gains. In light of the breaking down of the dividing wall between Jew and Greek and Jesus’ (theocratic) reign over the world (Matt 28:18–20), the prohibition against man-stealing is no longer confined to the nation of Israel but applies to all nations and nationalities. And to return to Noah, this provides justification for understanding how the law you cite (Lev 25) ought to be applied by us. Since there is now no longer Jew nor Greek, the sort of cross-national slavery that the OT allowed is no longer legitimate.

      1. As far as I can tell, Exodus 21:16 is prohibiting possession of the kidnapped slave by the kidnapper, not by a later purchaser (and definitely not a purchaser who is unaware of the circumstances of the slave’s original enslavement). The different English translations of this verse leave some ambiguity, but most of them that I have looked at suggest the interpretation that I just wrote (although, to be fair, the ESV states it more as you are claiming — anyone purchasing a stolen slave is as guilty as the man-stealer). I am by no means a Hebrew scholar, but a change of subject (from man-stealer to someone else possessing the slave) does not seem obvious (again, to my extremely amateur reading of biblical Hebrew) in the original.

        I neglected to mention all of this in my last response to you.

    2. Note that Paul calls “manstealing” a sin in 1 Timothy 1:10, where his own context was the ethnically mixed church. That suggests that Paul took it as a universal prohibition, even if the original context of Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24 was limited to fellow Israelites only.

      As for the misuse of capital punishment today, as the Latin saying goes, “Abusus usum non tollit.” There will always be wrongful convictions as well as wrongful acquittals, but that doesn’t nullify our efforts at achieving justice. When God gave Noah the commandment concerning the death penalty, were he and his contemporaries in any better of a position than us to avoid wrongful convictions? Nor is the death penalty primarily about deterrence. It’s a statement about the value of human life, and the wickedness of wrongfully taking it. So yeah, I think that in general we should enforce it without exception, while still taking into account the biblical distinction between murder and manslaughter.

      1. Of course no human system of justice is perfect, but I am puzzled as to how you can be so sanguine (in both senses of the word) about the possiblity and reality of wrongful executions. One wrongfully imprisoned can be later released, and one wrongfully fined can be refunded his money, although in neither case can the justice system return the wrongfully convicted’s lost time or restore his damaged reputation. In the case of the wrongfully executed, there is no recompense: he is dead, and no “sorry” or payment to his kin can atone for such an injustice. And the injustice is of course compounded by the fact that the real murderer remains unpunished.

        As you are (rightfully) adamant about the sanctity of life, what do you say is the punishment *for the state* when it takes a citizen’s life unjustly? Should the judges, juries, prosecutors, and governors (who, in many cases of wrongful capital conviction, did not make honest misjudgements but condemned the wrong man because of negligence and/or malice) face execution? Where does it all end?

        Forgive me if it seems as if I am belaboring the capital punishment issue, as that was not the main thrust of my first comment here.

      2. Noah, I absolutely empathize with your worry about wrongful executions. But please understand that my commitment is first and foremost to the authority of God’s Word, so considerations about potential effects and misapplications will always be secondary for me. I am convinced that it was right and necessary for Noah’s generation to enforce the death penalty, in spite of their potential (like ours) for wrongful executions. And the *basis* for the death penalty then was upholding the value of the image of God. Since this original justification for the death penalty still applies today (murder is still destroying God’s image), I conclude that the death penalty (in principle) still applies today as well.

        I therefore only see two possible lines of reasoning for abandoning capital punishment categorically today:

        1) Say that it was wrong in Noah’s day too. But this argument directly contradicts God’s authority.
        2) Say that we now lack the necessary conditions that originally warranted the death penalty in Noah’s day. In this case, the burden of proof is on you to specify what those conditions are.

      3. (Sorry, I realized I didn’t directly answer your question.) When a state wrongly takes a life, it needs to consider where it went wrong. Was the fault with the system? If so, address the systemic problems as best as possible, while realizing that there will never be a perfect system. Also remember, a wrongful execution can still be rectified when we all stand before the perfect Judge of all humankind.

        If the fault lies with a particular judge or magistrate, then we have to determine the nature of his/her fault. An honest mistake may warrant a reprimand or disbarring; negligence may warrant harsher civil penalties; malice may even warrant execution.

  5. […] to the libertarian principle of a supposed “right to self-harm,” as I have discussed here. Choices that harm ourselves will inevitably cause harm to those around us (just ask any family […]

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