Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 14 (December 1962): 124-125.

I was very interested to read the rebuttal by Dwight Ericsson (JASA, 14, 77, Sep. 1962) of my article on "New Testament Christianity and the Morality of Capital Punishment" (JASA, 13, 114, Dec. 1961). 1 am convinced that this subject is one of greatest intricacy and am not prepared to make a dogmatic pronouncement of the infallibility of the position which I have presented. There are, however, certain profound difficulties raised by the viewpoint advocated by Ericsson which to my mind transcend the immediate question of capital punishment and are therefore worthy of being called to readers' attention.

(1) The implication that New Testament Christianity is not solidly rooted in Old Testament Judaism. Ericsson points out that my article, which claimed to present the New Testament view on capital punishment contained only five quotations from the New Testament as compared to thirty-four from the Old Testament. He comments, "This hardly sounds like a discussion of 'New Testament Christianity'!" The argument that the New Testament, or Christian if you will, teaching on a given subject is not properly derived from a full and proper consideration of both Testaments (the Old Testament is almost four times the length of the New) is one that must be examined with some care if our attitude toward the Bible as the Word of God is not to be changed appreciably.

(2) The implication that Jesus, in speaking of His coming to fulfill the Law, really meant to say that which "amounts, for all practical purposes, to abolishing the Old Testament law code." Yet that very passage seems to indicate something quite different. "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets:

I am not come to destroy but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one title shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Mat. 5:17-19) The stern injunction against breaking these commandments is not immediately compatible with the argument that Jesus really meant to abolish diem. This is all the more true when Ericsson argues that Jesus seemed to repudiate the Noachian law on capital punishment: "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso, sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man." (Gen. 9:5, 6) The major import of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is to emphasize how the requirements of God are far more strict than the letter of the Mosaic law; to conclude that He repudiated a basic law which predated the whole Mosaic economy is a conclusion which merits some careful consideration.

(3) The implication that a system of principles developed from the teachings of Jesus by the interpretational devices of man should have precedence over other teachings of the Scriptures. Ericsson would lead us to believe that the teachings of Jesus on the supremacy of love as the only true way to fulfil the law should lead us to the conviction that "the stress in treatment of criminals ought not to be on punishment but on rehabilitation . . . Restraints . . . should be used . . . for the sake of society, not for the punishment of such men." We can certainly agree with the principle here, but then to jump to the conclusion that the execution of punishment is contrary to Christianity causes one to wonder how to interpret: ". . . for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Rom. 13:4), or "Submit yourselves . . . unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers." (I Pet. 2:14) There is a need to carefully evaluate how far we are going to allow interpreting Scripture by Scripture to become using Scripture to explain away Scripture.

(4) The implication that the criminal may not really be guilty. Ericsson argues, "In many cases, the criminal tendencies of an individual are not his fault, but are an inevitable result of his environment . . . Is it fair to punish man for something that is not his fault? This has the unfortunate ring of shifting the guilt of sin on to God, for what else is the "inevitable result of his environment" except an alternate way of saying the 11 predestinating influence of God"? Ericsson's question was raised already in the early days of the New Testament and the apostle Paul tried to answer it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 9:19-21) Perhaps it is not an answer which is satisfying to our human emotions, but it is there in the New Testament; we dare not simply ignore it.

(5) The implication that there is no difference between personal and institutional responsibility. In formulating the Principle of the Second Chance, Ericsson implies that it is intended for immediate application both to personal and to institutional (or social) relationships. The individual is indeed bound to forgive one who wrongs him, regardless even of whether the guilty one is repentant. The same relationships cannot be simply ascribed to the state, which Scripture clearly teaches to be the God-ordained minister for the execution of "wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Rom. 13:4) and "for the punishment of evildoers" (I Pet. 2:14). The whole problem of the relationship between personal and group responsibilities is a knotty one; it cannot be dispensed with by ignoring it.

After all these negative comments, let me say in conclusion that the emphasis which Ericsson provides is surely much needed. Christians must feel and take responsibility for the rehabilitation of those who have sinned both against God and against man. They are the bearers of the Gospel, of the promise of abundant life in Jesus Christ. Readers of this journal should take both papers treating this subject and review them side by side in the light of the brief comments made in this letter. What is the God-pleasing way of combining the great teachings of love and forgiveness, with the awesome revelation of God as a God of holiness and righteousness, who has committed to men both the ministration of the Gospel and the ministration of justice in His name?

Richard H. Bube
789 Holly Oak Drive Palo Alto, Calif.