Here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home I try not to dabble too much in intramural evangelical theological debates. This is mostly a history blog that has a large audience of believers and unbelievers. So I hesitated in posting about Albert Mohler’s recent piece at CNN in which he claims that Christians should support the death penalty based on a reading of Genesis 9:6, an Old Testament passage in which God tells Noah that the punishment for intentional murder should be death. Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
Yet, after thinking about this a bit more, I felt the urge to call your attention to Roger Olsen’s response to the piece in order to show that Mohler does not represent all evangelicals on this matter. (Although I think he might represent a good number of evangelical laypersons). Olsen is an evangelical theologian who teaches at Baylor University.
Here is taste of Olsen’s post from his Patheos blog:
I find Mohler’s defenses of capital punishment weak at best. The Old Testament “clearly calls for” many things—including capital punishment for a broad range of offenses including adolescent rebellion against parents. Certainly for idolatry. Does Mohler think we, as a whole society, should then expand the death penalty for all the offenses for which it is called for in the Old Testament? I doubt it. That makes his appeal to the Old Testament extremely weak.
Mohler seems to believe that IF the Bible calls for something American government should practice it. That’s a huge leap off the pages of the Old Testament to modern, secular government. He speaks disparagingly of secular government. Does he want a return to theocracy? If not, he should explain how his argument is consistent with a rejection of “Christian Reconstructionist” theocracy…
Advocates of capital punishment like to say that no innocent person has been executed. Since when? Nobody doubts that in the past many innocent people were executed. I suppose they mean in the recent past. But just recently serious doubts about one executed man’s guilt has been raised by experts including a special Texas panel led by a governor-appointed chairman. (The governor fired one chairman apparently because he was favoring the findings of the panel that Todd Willingham was not guilty of the crime for which he was executed.) Enough evidence of his innocence has been brought forward to now declare that he was almost certainly not guilty of the crime for which he was executed. The new governor-appointed chair and the governor seem to have stopped the panel from declaring Willingham to have been innocent….
Should Christians support the death penalty? Mohler asks. His answer: “I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.” Why rarely? If murder deserves execution and murder is common, why should execution be “rarely applied?”
The fact is that capital punishment is never necessary which is the main reason ethical people, including Christians, should oppose it. Deadly force should never be used when it is not necessary. Capital punishment is absolutely never necessary. A stronger case could be made that sometimes torture, even of innocent persons who might have needed information, is necessary. And yet no Christian ethicists I know of supports torture. Now that the federal government and all states (so far as I know) have sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole and solitary confinement for violent inmates (and if the they don’t yet, they can and should), capital punishment is simply not necessary for any reason—unless blood lust and vengeance is considered a valid reason for it.
If I could ask Mohler one question it would be this: How do you respond to the possibility that God might have some use for the life of a person the state executes? How is the state, supported by you and other conservative Christians, not cutting off God’s ability to use a person in the future?
There is also another dimension of this entire debate that needs to be addressed. Olsen’s blog is read largely by fellow Christians who most likely share the author’s belief in the authority of the Bible. Mohler, on the other hand, chose to publish his argument, which is based entirely on the presupposition that the Bible (in this case, Gen. 9:6) is authoritative and should be obeyed on matters such as capital punishment, at CNN. I don’t know how many readers of the CNN religion blog accept this presupposition, but I am guessing that a lot of them do not.
So here is a message to my fellow Christians. If you want to enter the public square to make an argument about the rightness or the wrongness of a particular social practice, building your argument on a belief in the inspiration or the authority of the Bible is not the way to do it. Such an approach does little to persuade those who do not share your presuppositions.
So are you saying that Christians should develop bifurcated worldviews? One they use in their religious world and one they use in the secular world?
Some Christians believe that the Bible is not only divinely inspired revelation from the God who made and rules all people but that it also has power to draw people to the truth. It seems strange that a Christian would abandon this source of authority for some other source of authority that has lesser value and power. Your statement seems to suggest that the non-Christian world should determine the terms of engagement in these matters. If that is the case, then Christians should give up trying to make their voice heard in the public square altogether.
I'd like to make 2 other comments on Olson's response to Mohler. Genesis 9:6 is pre-Mosaic Law. If you consider the context it has a kind of universal application for humanity (Moses being the porgenitor of the renewed human race in the post-Flood world). This distinguishes it from the theocratic nature of the Mosaic law and therfore has broader application. Too many people reduce all of the OT as something became passe once the NT came about.
Secondly, I doubt Olson has much sympathy for penal substitutionary atonement and this explains in part his opposition to CP. In Christian ethics, the Retributive theory of justice is directly tied to penal substitution. God exacted the death penalty against his Son as a form of justice against the sin of others whom Christ died for because death is the consequence of all sin ultimately.
I meant to say “Noah being the progenitor…” not “Moses.”
MSC, there is no logical necessity of affirming the death penalty if one affirms penal substitution. One might just as well reason that since Christ is the end of sacrifice and the all-sufficient substitute punishment, then all theologically justified retributive punishment by humans has been brought to an end.
No, I don't think there is a necessary connection between the two, but chances are if you reject penal substitution as a Christian you are likely to reject CP.
You're correct, MSC. Olson completely ignored the distinction between the universal law of capital punishment which was given to Noah and the particular laws of Israel which were given to Moses. In addition to this, however, Olson has essentially declared that God was wrong to have instituted capital punishment at any time in human history.
Throughout his article, Olson repeated the claim that “capital punishment is never necessary.” If it is true that capital punishment is never necessary, then that means that it was not necessary at the time that God instituted it in the Old Testament and that “ethical people” should have opposed it then just as he thinks they should now. I suppose if Mr. Olson had been one of Noah's sons, his article would have been entitled “My Response to God's Defense of the Death Penalty.”