This was not the topic I wanted to write about today—Fridays should be days when nothing of importance is ever said—but sometimes one gets unexpectedly diverted.
Just the day before yesterday, Joe Carter produced a column taking the bishops of Arizona to task for their recent denunciation of capital punishment as incompatible with the gospel, and arguing further not only that capital punishment is permissible from a Christian perspective, but that it is positively required by Scripture. I have never met Mr Carter, but we have corresponded, and he seems like a decent and morally serious fellow; so it is with some regret that I take exception to his column in public. But I thought he treated a difficult moral issue with an ill-advised excess of confidence, and with a very questionable use of Scripture and theology.
I realize, of course, that Evangelicals have their own traditions of reading Scripture, and I would have been surprised had Carter treated, say, the story of Noah with quite the bold, broad allegorical brush-strokes one finds in patristic readings. But Evangelicals are also required to get the details right, and on this occasion Carter didn’t; and certainly Evangelicals know, if only from the words of Christ or Paul, that Christians cannot approach the entirety of Scripture as a collection of infallible oracles issuing directly from the lips of God. One really has to consider how Christian are supposed to read the Bible before proclaiming what Scripture “requires” of Christians (the emphasis is Carter’s).
This, at any rate, is the substance of my disagreement with Carter. He does make a passing reference to the dictates of natural law—at second hand, by way of Edward Feser—but I think that can be largely ignored. To be perfectly frank, most natural law arguments on the matter are hopelessly ad hoc constructions, consisting in prescriptions unconvincingly and willfully attached to endlessly contestable descriptions (that’s an argument for another time, though, when the Thomists have all already had their coffee). But, even if capital punishment is entirely in keeping with natural justice (and I am more than willing to grant that it is), that has next to no bearing whatsoever on how Christians should understand their moral obligations with regard to it.
The gospel, after all, is a terribly disturbing thing. Not only are the law of Christian charity and the workings of divine grace not limited to natural justice; they are often positively subversive of it. There is a kind of apocalyptic indifference to the economy of nature in the New Testament, something altogether unnatural—or, let’s just say, supernatural.
One can scarcely exaggerate the extravagance of its departures from the equilibrium of normal justice. For instance, not only does it place individual prohibitions on even proportional retribution, it demands that the Christian compound certain injustices with an excess of compliance—surrendering one’s coat as well as one’s cloak, or more money than is demanded, going a mile farther than one is compelled to do, meeting violent assault by proffering the other cheek, not resisting evil, forgiving one’s brother seventy times seven, and so on.
And then there are God’s curious dealings with his own “everlasting” promises, freely grafting Gentiles into a covenant on which they have no proper claim, without even the requirements of the law, “contrary to nature” (para physin), as Paul says. And, still more shockingly, there is the central mystery of what is said to have happened on Golgotha: not just Christ on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who are murdering him, but the whole drama of God taking the due and natural penalty of all human cruelty, violence, selfishness, and sin upon himself, the full “wrath of the law,” and then offering forgiveness freely to all, exorbitantly outside the bounds of natural justice—and, at Easter, outside even the bounds of natural causality.
None of this may tell us definitively how we should understand a civil government’s obligations regarding the preservation of order. It does tell us, however, that in trying to understand the Christian vision of the social good, natural justice can be neither the first nor the final consideration. It is important, but as yet too limited; it still belongs to the “former things” that are passing away.
So it is to his credit that Carter makes his argument primarily from Scripture and theology. Unfortunately, on both counts, his argument is defective.
Scripture first. Carter invokes the Noachide covenant from the ninth chapter of Genesis, and claims that its “everlasting” authority encompasses the commandment that whosoever sheds his brother’s blood shall have his blood shed in turn. Now, setting aside the rather profound question of how Christian exegetes are to read the legal prescriptions of the Old Testament, or even the purely historical question of how traditionally they have done so, one should still note that there is something problematic about seeing God’s everlasting covenant—his promise—never again to exterminate all life with a flood, and to tie a rainbow around his finger (so to speak) to remind himself of his resolve, as extending to the laws given in the previous verses. Syntactically, it does not.
And would Carter contend, then, that the prohibition on eating meat with its blood is eternally binding as well? Has every Liverpudlian who’s ever dined on black pudding violated God’s everlasting covenant with humanity? And how then should Christians view the Mosaic prescriptions, which are no less “everlasting” in their legitimacy, but which Paul regarded as of no account not only for Gentile Christians, but for Jewish Christians as well (hence his rebukes to Peter for keeping the law for appearance’s sake)? In any event, Carter’s representation of the passage is simply inaccurate.
More unfortunate, however, is his use of Paul’s words in the thirteenth chapter of Romans regarding the power of the sword and the authority God has delegated to earthly rulers. It always surprises me that Christians can find any encouragement in that passage to believe that capital punishment is morally good. Certainly Paul says nothing of the sort. He uses the wonderfully vivid image of the one in authority bearing the sword “not in vain,” but that is a much vaguer metaphor than Carter seems to think it is.
The sword represents the power of coercion, certainly, though not specifically the practice of capital punishment; it has no more prescriptive force than saying, as we might today, “That’s why the police carry guns.” Even if the “sword” really were clearly meant as a symbol of the power to execute criminals, though, Paul is merely saying that Christians who commit crimes may expect to suffer the wrath of God under the form of civil penalty. He certainly makes no comment on the intrinsic justice or injustice of any particular practice of the state.
One assumes, for instance, that he would not necessarily have regarded the Roman habit of crucifying thieves as somehow intrinsically just, even if he believed that a Christian who stole something and was caught had brought about his own condign condemnation. More importantly still, this passage says absolutely nothing about what punishments baptized Christians who might come to power—a contingency Paul never envisaged in his wildest imaginings—ought to impose on criminals. The moral content of the entire passage extends only to the actions of individuals under the law; beyond that, it provides no moral instructions for rulers or lawmakers, and there is simply no warrant for claiming it requires Christians to approve of capital punishment.
As for Carter’s argumentum de silentio in regard to Christ’s words in the fifth chapter of Matthew, it should—like practically all such arguments—be charitably overlooked.
The more significant flaws in Carter’s argument, however, are theological. It is always odd when a Christian argues that the prescriptions and penalties of the law established in the age before Christ make any sort of unambiguous demands upon Christian consciences or putatively Christian societies.
For one thing, it speaks of a failure properly to appreciate the special provocations of Christ’s own teachings regarding the law. Again and again, Christ “preserves” the law—whether as it concerns the Sabbath or as it concerns the due penalty for adultery—by so radically reinterpreting and re-orienting it as practically to invert its consequences.
For another thing, the entire Pauline theology of grace and salvation asserts that the power of the law has been surpassed by the power of God’s free gift, and so the concrete prescriptions of the law—and this means not just circumcision and kosher regulations, but its criminal and penal ordinances as well—have now been set aside. The eternal moral truths that the law contains (do not kill, do not commit adultery, and so forth) remain, but the wrath of the law has been vanquished in Christ.
I often think that modern Christians would be rather disturbed if they were perfectly aware of Paul’s vision of the created order, simply because most of us tend to assume that he was working from premises much like our own. As a result, we rarely grasp how strange and radical his teachings were.
To begin with, though we may think in terms of God’s providential guidance of nature and history, unlike Paul (and unlike a great many Hellenistic Jews at the time) we do not think of that providence in terms of authority delegated to angelic powers ruling from heavenly courts (archontes and exousiai and so forth), as the governors or even “gods” of the nations. But, for Paul, the old age—the age of a fallen creation—is one in which these angelic intermediaries, who are the often rebellious or incompetent deputies of God, rule over the various peoples and “elements” (stoicheia) of the earth.
We, though, tend to read right past Paul’s remarks to the Galatians that the old law was imperfect because it came not directly from God, but from his angel (the angel who reigned over Israel and who appeared to Moses) and was passed through a human mediator (Moses himself). The promise of the new age, by contrast, is that now all of these heavenly powers have been subdued again, under the foot of Christ, and in the age to come Christ himself will rule over all of creation directly.
The book of Romans, of course, provides a deeper, somewhat more nuanced appreciation of the law of Israel, and that is why Romans provides the most stinging rebukes to triumphalist supersessionists. But, even in Romans, the theological vision is constant. All peoples now belong to Christ as a single body; the partitions of law and custom—even good law and honorable custom—have been broken down; and the wrath of the law has been swallowed up in infinite charity. All had once been bound in disobedience (Jew and Gentile alike), that God might now show mercy on all. And all who belong to Christ have entered already into that new creation, and are forbidden now to retreat again to the “elemental” order of the old.
What, then, does this mean with regard to Christian thinking on capital punishment? For myself, the only compellingly convincing answer is that Christians can have no recourse to it, ever; but I will not go so far as to state that I know that this is what Scripture positively requires—certainly not with those sonorous italics. What I will say is that, if the Gospel is in any measure true, then its challenge is far more radical than the sort of argument Carter makes allows.
In Christ—in the historical event of Christ—so profound a re-orientation of moral and metaphysical perspectives has been introduced into history that all our understandings of nature, of holy law, and of moral obligation have been shaken to their foundations. One must first dwell in the sheer wonder of that event before one then tries to make sense of what it demands of us.
Where this will lead, I cannot say with perfect conviction. But, when trying to think of capital punishment in light of that event, I suggest we begin by contemplating the only two episodes in the New Testament that seem to have any direct bearing on the issue, and that involve any clear dominical or divine pronouncements.
The one is the story of the woman taken in adultery, justly condemned to death under the law, whom Jesus nevertheless refuses to condemn, and sends away only with the injunction to sin no more. The other is the story of Christ’s own condemnation at the hands of duly appointed legal authority, for offenses against public order (the cleansing of the temple, after all, was a fairly provocative and, surely in Roman eyes, dangerous act). And that verdict was, of course, overturned by God, and the penalty annulled.
Taken together, these two stories may not lay out an exhaustive table of laws before us, but they certainly afford us a glimpse of the moral and spiritual order of the Kingdom. And, for Christians, it is the law of the Kingdom that is absolute.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Joe Carter, Rainbows and Electric Chairs