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. I repost this series because of recent public events.
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?