The Death Penalty Debate Previous | | Next | | E-Mail | | Contents | | V&FT

God's Will and God's Law

I believe that we must ask this question in order to resolve the Death Penalty Debate:

Is it Now God's Prescriptive Will
for One or more Men
to Shed Another Man's Blood
for Capital Crimes?

The first of these issues ("Is it now God's Prescriptive Will...") prompts this question:

Q.1: Where do we find God's will for our lives in general and God's Law concerning Capital Punishment in particular?

The "Theonomy" (= "God's Law") school of ethics has raised the important question of how we determine God's prescriptive will for our lives. This school of thought is best represented by the Chalcedon foundation (R.J. Rushdoony, President) and similar research groups.

A decade ago, fundamentalists did not speak at length on capital punishment, because they would have to refer to the Old Testament, and they all claimed to be "New Testament Christians." As a result of the "Theonomic" influence, the Old Testament is quoted by fundamentalists without much embarrassment.

Newsweek magazine identified Chalcedon as the "think tank" for the Moral Majority and other components of the "Religious Right" (Newsweek, Feb. 2, 1981.) These "Reconstructionists" are responsible for the Creationist movement, the Christian School movement, and the growing involvement of Conservative Christians in politics.[4] It is these groups which are the most vocal supporters of Capital Punishment.

In fact, a cursory search of the Internet would lead one to think that the only thing Reconstructionists advocate is the death penalty -- particularly for homosexuals. And it would seem that discussion of how the State can cure our nation's ill by executing the right people (that is, those who do wrong) dominates Reconstructionist thought, while discussion of what it means to be truly human is underemphasized in Reconstructionist circles

I used to be a regular contributor to The Chalcedon Report, and have written other articles for other publications of the "Christian Reconstruction" movement, in which I called for the death penalty for crimes as they are mandated in the Bible. I still hold to the essential planks of the "theonomic" position. But after some thought, I am ready to conclude that it is an error to assume that adherence to the "theonomic" perspective necessitates support for Capital Punishment.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics

What is the "theonomic" position? While most evangelical Christians assume that a given Old Testament law is no longer obligatory unless it is specifically repeated in the New Testament, the "Theonomists" have shown that this does an injustice to the eternality of God's Word. In such books as Theonomy in Christian Ethics by Greg L. Bahnsen and Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J. Rushdoony, it has been conclusively demonstrated that we must assume that unless the Old Testament law in question has been specifically qualified by the New Testament, it remains in force. Bahnsen speaks of "the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail." Jesus did not come to abrogate the Old Testament; He came to purify it and put its intentions into force (Matthew 5, esp. vv. 17-20) by empowering His People to obediently fulfill its promises. The dynamic New Covenant difference is not the Standard of Righteousness, but the Spiritual ability we have to obey it (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:27; Jeremiah 31: 31-34 + Hebrews 8:8-13; Romans 8:3-5 + Ephesians 4:13).

It is obvious that some things have changed. In some cases we don't even need the New Covenant to tell us that some Old Testament laws are no longer letter-applicable: the Old Testament itself tells us about the dramatic change of priesthood that was to occur with the coming of the Messiah; many laws would someday obligate no more. As Bahnsen puts it,

The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superseded (Heb. 7:11f.,28) . . . . The former commandment with reference to ceremonial matters was set aside . . . in order that God's people might have a better hope, for the ceremony was imperfect and kept men at a distance from God (Heb. 7:18f.). [S]uch a change in stipulation is also a confirmation of the Older Testamental law as implied in Psalm 110:1,4. (Theonomy, pp. 208-209).

Of course, in a sense, all of the Old Testament Laws are still binding upon us. For example, we are still responsible to bring before God the blood of a sacrificial lamb. But we also know that that Lamb is Christ (John 1:29). It makes sense, then, to expect, for example, that most of the Old Testament laws concerning the shedding of blood find their satisfaction in Christ.

It would seem, then, that the first question receives a fairly straightforward answer:

A.1: God's will for our lives and His Law concerning Capital Punishment is found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with the Old Testament Law and Prophets carrying in our day the full authority of God's written Word unless specifically qualified in the New Testament.

I want to emphasize that I still hold to this basic "theonomic" position. The "only" thing that I have changed is my view of the State (taking a more Anabaptistic view) and my view of the requirement to shed blood. I am going to suggest that the shedding of blood is no longer God's required response to Capital Crimes, but this is not a denial of "Theonomy," no matter how many "Theonomists" defend capital punishment. Bahnsen writes in his summary volume, By This Standard, "(T)hose who agree with the foundational conclusion of (Theonomy) - that God's Law is binding today unless Scripture reveals otherwise - may very well disagree among themselves over particular matters in interpreting what God's law demands at this or that point, or ... may disagree over how these demands should be followed today" (p. 9). The bulk of Bahnsen's lengthy treatise on Theonomy does not discuss politics, but the basic concept of the abiding validity of the Old Testament generally. Indeed, the section which does address politics is called "Application of the Thesis to the State" (p. 315). Bahnsen's particular application of Theonomy to the State is not the theonomic thesis itself, but only an "application of the thesis."

Bahnsen's particular application, and that of Rushdoony, Gary North, and other "Reconstructionists," has disturbed many theologians. Particularly alarming is application of capital punishment to everyone whom the Bible declares "worthy of death." In attacking this application of the theonomic thesis, these anti-theonomic theologians have insulted God's perfect Law, inadvertently defended homosexuals, adulterers, and incorrigible criminals, and tangled themselves up in a great knot of contradictions.

I am convinced the theonomic thesis cannot be refuted. I am also convinced that if opponents of the death penalty wish to untie the knot that binds them, they will have to begin with Theonomy and then apply it in a more Biblical manner than do Rushdoony and Bahnsen. I agree that the Reconstructionist movement has certain tendencies which are dangerous. Every movement needs to be checked by other movements. If the picture many theologians have of a Reconstructionist theocracy is frightening, may I suggest they cease insulting God's Law in the Old Testament and begin questioning traditional applications of those laws, as well as traditional views of the State.

We All Think in Circles

What I seek to do in this paper is accomplish two things. First, I want to show that the Bible does not require Capital Punishment. It will be difficult to persuade many readers of that proposition, because for nearly 2000 years, capital punishment has been a part of Western Civilization and the "Common Law" Tradition. So I will also be forced to show that Capital Punishment is based on Roman Law, not Biblical Law. If you have Jesus' attitude toward the Scriptures, you will not care whether human legislators and jurists have based their laws on Humanistic traditions, so long as that tradition happens to coincide with Biblical Law. So I'm back to trying to persuade you that the Bible does not require Capital Punishment, which runs against 2000 years of Western Tradition - well, as you can see, our thinking tends to be presuppositional, or circular. You the reader will be required to read the entire paper in order thoughtfully to put the pieces together.

Go to Who Should Throw the Switch?


4. These words were first written back when conservative Christians were putting Ronald Reagan into office. Since that time, it is hoped that they are becoming more politically skeptical.  [Back to Text]