Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“On Capital Punishment” first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Touchstone.
On Capital Punishment
The biggest problem with argumentation about capital punishment is that policies are made and changed on the basis of mere argumentation while the issue impresses serious people as so grave, involving as it does the taking of human life, that if there is any room for reasonable dispute not only the presumption, but also the conclusion as well, must fall on the side of abolition.
The problem is compounded because there are no New Testament prescriptions of the death penalty, assumed as just under the Old Testament Law, but militated against by the mercy of God in Christ—e.g., in the pericope adulterae in John 8 (whether or not it is a part of the original gospel). There are perfectly cogent and decidedly Christian arguments for both sides. Nor does tradition help us much, for the tradition does not appear to contain a fully considered magisterial consensus. Once again, human lives hang in the balance while exegesis and theology refuse to come firmly to our aid. Capital punishment is only one of many issues like this, and full advantage is taken of the fact by those who keep our streets full of murderers in the name of justice and charity.
I do not think that we were left without explicit scriptural guidance under the New Covenant on such matters without the full knowledge and intent of God. We are free to decide—we must decide—what to do ourselves, and we will be judged in accordance with the decisions we make. We must, as free men, probe the mind of God, and we are invited, indeed required, to do so. This is where I would begin consideration of this and every similar matter.
If I were called to argue my case before the Lord, I would say this: I conclude the death penalty to be just and necessary for the ordering and control of sinful society, and would impose it for crimes considered capital under the Old Covenant. It was constituted and ordained as such by the holy law which Christ did not come to destroy. To abolish it would be to destroy the law, and would thus be an ungodly act. There are times and places, however, for royal or gubernatorial clemency. This is the proper way to express the superiority of grace over law. This pattern is, moreover, ancient, intuitive wisdom of the human race, and I do not believe it is wise to overturn it.
If the Lord were to ask me then how I felt free to take the life of another man, even on the basis of old wisdom—for old wisdom is not by itself the mind, will, or even the law of God—I would say that ultimately I had no right to do anything, even to live, and that this and all things I had done, even with a good conscience, and to what I thought was the best of my ability, are deserving of eternal death. And I would plead for the mercy that I didn’t deserve.
Perhaps some who choose not to exercise the death penalty (or fight in wars, and the like) are taking a higher way. Most of them are manifestly not, for their arguments typically do not take proper cognizance of human sin. But it is possible for a such a person to recognize sin for what it is and still resist the death penalty. I will not judge them, for we have no fundamental disagreement; we both recognize the justice of the law and the superiority of grace. But I will vote against him on the death penalty, hoping to save the lives of his children, which he, because he is a better Christian than I, would, in faith, and in imitation of God the Father, give over to suffering and death at the hands of sinful men. (I have never met such a man. Most who do what he would do are simply foolish. But I will allow that he does exist.)
God knows our frame, that we are dust. But dust must, while it is blowing about on this earth, do, as the old Ockhamists told us, what it can.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“On Capital Punishment” first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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