Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Hermeneutics of Sentiment: Criminal Justice According to God

If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.
- Numbers 35:30-34

There are a number of professing Christian groups that work against capital punishment in the United States. The most prominent is the Catholic Church. However, it is most-closely associated with churches of the pietist and Anabaptist tradition, such as Mennonite statements here and here.

I suggest that there are two hermeneutical errors involved. The first is placing sentiment ahead of obedience in approaching Scripture. The second is a disparaging of the Old Testament. The first is a matter of obstinacy, not reasoning. However, the second is based on faulty reasoning. After all, when Jesus quoted Scripture, what did He quote? The Old Testament, of course, such as Deuteronomy during His temptation (see Matthew 4:1-11). When Paul commends Timothy for his knowledge of the Scriptures, at the knees of his mother and grandmother (II Timothy 3:15), for the knowledge they give of salvation in Jesus Christ, the New Testament hadn't even been written yet. This is especially telling in verses 16-17, the classical statement of Scriptural inspiration and infallibility. When Anabaptists disparage the Old Testament, they go against the examples of both the apostles and of Christ Himself!

Even their sentiment speaks against the Catholic and Anabaptist attitudes. They place victim and perpetrator on a level, something that Scripture testifies against. Isaiah 5:20 anathematizes the one who equates good and evil. Jesus in Matthew 12:35 tells us that actions come from the nature of the heart, whether good or evil. Good people and evil people are not the same! (This is a different issue from fallenness, by which all men are sinners.) And Amos 5:15 and Romans 12:9 give a testimony in both testaments to the requirement of justice in order to true love! Sentiment is hatred; justice is love!

In Numbers, we see God's standard of justice. The unlawful taking of life creates an imbalance of injustice that exposes both land and people to the judgment of God. To restore the balance, the blood of the guilty must be shed. This is required by the very presence of a holy God among His people. The importance of this principle is so great that even the inability to convict a murderer does not dispense with the requirement. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 establishes a procedure for dealing with an unsolved murder. According to Moses here, a virgin heifer is to be killed, and the blood poured out in symbolic judgment on the actual human murderer. That is, the shedding of guilty blood is so important to God's justice, that He even commands the symbolic shedding of blood when actual guilty blood cannot be determined.

The standard isn't man's love, but God's holiness!

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