Corporal Punishment: Thoughts?

William Webb, in his newest book, Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts, examines what might be called the traditional view of spanking among evangelical Christians. He calls it the “two smacks max” or “two spanks max” method.

He begins with that method and examines whether it is really biblical. Thus, “Christian advocates of spanking [and he names James Dobson, Focus on the Family, Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Andreas Koestenberger, and Paul Wegner] generally claim that their practices have the backing of Scripture, and thus God’s approval” (25). Thus, obedience implies corporal punishment. They use some typical scriptures, and here are a few of them:

Prov 13:24: Whoever spares the rod hates their children,  but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.

Prov 23:13-14: Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.  Punish them with the rod and save them from death.

How do you approach/understand these texts on corporal punishment? What is your theory of corporal punishment?

Webb admits he used to use those passages as do advocates for the “two smacks max” approach, but no longer. But he asks first whether or not the advocates are truly biblical, and Webb finds seven areas where these advocates have diminished what the Bible says, softened it in one way or another, and not been fully biblical. He says they have moved “beyond the Bible.” Here are the seven:

1. The age limitations: most today advocate spanking up to six years or old or pre-elementary, though it used to be pre-teenage years. But the Bible indicates corporal punishment for teens — and perhaps even beyond.  The beating of fools in Proverbs seems to be focused on teens, and probably older than teens but it is a punishment that applies to children and older. E.g., Prov 18:6; 19:25, 29; 26:3; 29:19

2. Number of lashes or strokes: the max today is two (hence, two-smacks-max). The Bible sets corporal punishment at 40 lashes (Deut 25:3). Webb suggests it moves gradually in the ancient world from children who are smacked to forty when they are teens and adults.

3. Bodily location of the beatings: hand or buttocks are where modern advocates for spanking use corporal punishment. Check out the Bible on this one: in Deut 25:2 a punishable person had to lay down and was beaten on the back; Prov 10:13 says the back (often the back is the place); later Sirach 30:12 punishes the “sides” of the person. The biblical location for punishment is the back, not the buttocks. Why? Webb suggests permanent damage is not thereby done, while beating the sides or back can lead to welts and scars and internal injuries. Here we see movement in a positive and helpful and healthier direction. Webb sees redemptive movement in these advocates.

4. Resultant bruises, welts and wounds: advocates today are adamantly opposed to abusive acts and therefore are just as opposed to leaving any marks. Bruises and welts and wounds are seen as abusive and deplorable. But this is not what the Bible says. The Bible restricts punishment to (1) not killing, (2) no permanent injury or dismemberment, and (3) the person must be able to get up for activity in two days (cf. Exod 21:20-21, 26-27), and no more than forty lashes. The ideas of Christian advocates are not in accord with these biblical teachings, and Webb is glad they have moved in this redemptive movement direction. Wounds were part of disciplinary corporal punishment, according to Webb. Prov 20:30: “blows that wound [or bruise] cleanse away evil.” [Webb discusses this text more extensively on pp. 42ff.]

5. The instrument of discipline: advocates believe in the hand or in the hickory stick/switch or a paddle. Again, the rod was used and it was an instrument, and the hand was not the normal means … and advocates have softened this in a redemptive movement direction. They’ve gone beyond the Bible.

6. Frequency and offenses punishable: it is the “last resort” and only for severe cases and connected to willful defiance and should be infrequent.The Wisdom of Sirach sees beatings as “often” (30:1), while Prov 13:24 does not seem to indicate last resort of infrequency. Webb cites a study that thinks corporal punishment was applied to as many as 160 offenses in ancient Israel. Again, beyond the Bible.

7. Emotive disposition of the parent: spank in love, not anger. Webb likes the pervasiveness of this idea among spanking advocates. But he says this is simply not biblical. Parental love, to be sure. As God’s discipline is depicted in anger, so also the parent’s: see Isa 10:5; 30:30-31. But, again, Webb (who offers no support for a parent being told to discipline in anger, but infers it from God’s disciplinary use of the rod out of anger) agrees with the advocates’ softening; it goes beyond the Bible though.

So, big point: if we really did follow the Bible, well, the texts above are clear enough. Advocates today have gone beyond the Bible. But they claim to be doing what the Bible says. This is a form of biblicism that has been softened into a redemptive movement hermeneutic and is not genuinely biblicistic, even if it theoretically claims to be the biblical view. So, as Webb will show, we need to ask what does it mean to be biblical?

I want for readers today to see what Webb means by the Redemptive movement hermeneutic, and this chart of his is the one he uses in his books to illustrate what he is getting at. X is the culture out of which, in which, with which and over against which the Bible speaks. But the big point Webb makes is that there is an ongoing response in the Bible over against its various cultures, and he sees a notable redemptive movement in those responses, and the movement is headed toward Z as the Bible unfolds, the ultimate ethical application (of what the Bible indicates). That ethical application is already seen in the spirit (and words) of the Bible’s own ethical statements. Some Bible readers have a forward posture of movement from where we are to where we are headed, while others he contends adopt a more regressive — looking back — posture.

What is your response to this redemptive movement hermeneutic?

Here’s his big thesis: “We do not want to stay with the static or frozen-in-time ethic reflected in the concrete-specific instructions of the Bible, rather Christians need to embrace the redemptive spirit of the text and journey toward an ultimate ethical application of that spirit” (62). And then this, and if you get this you get the whole: “Movement is (crucial) meaning.”

Both Bill Webb’s supporters and critics know that this approach to the Bible is profoundly significant for how we both understand and apply the Bible. So, Webb is asking in this book how this way of Bible reading understands both what the Bible says about corporal punishment and how we should “apply” that today. It is my contention that the church has always used an approach more or less like Webb’s redemptive movement hermeneutic. Though some will say “stop here” (which means they want no “redemptive movement” on a given topic), in one way or another most ethical postures of any major significance (take war as an example) will show Christians who have used some of this hermeneutic. What is instructive for corporal punishment is that Webb observes that the pro-spanking (“two smacks max”) approach already has some redemptive movement. For them to criticize this method, then, undercuts their own approach. Folks, the issue here is not “if” but “how much.” It’s that simple. It’s not “yes” or “no” but “how much?”.

Webb’s control model is what the Bible says about slavery. Take, for example, the biblical regulation that prohibited a slave owner’s master from beating his slave in such a manner that the slave could not get up after two days of suffering. Exodus 21:20-21. But this (Y) must be read over against that culture (X) wherein slaves could be beaten to death, and thus it is a redemptive prohibition in that world, though not final, because even that prohibition is on its way toward Z.

He gives other examples on slaves, leading to the clear view that the Bible — at the surface level says things Christians today don’t do and won’t do and are seen as wrong — but when seen at the spirit and redemptive level they indicate the direction of how God wants God’s people ultimately to live. And then you get to Galatians 3:28 or Colossians 3:11 where there is “neither slave nor free” and you see the redemptive design of God.

That design is abolition. Anyone disagree with that? If you do, then how did we get from the slavery texts to abolition? Webb’s contention is that we have (all) used a redemptive movement hermeneutic to get there.

Yes, the Bible has less-than-ultimate rules and regulations, it does not achieve that abolition, but it sets the trajectory for that ultimate ethical application. Webb gives two pages of texts where the Bible (Y), when read over against culture (X), is moving toward Z.

Webb finally observes this is not new: we find it in the Civil War days.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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