Common Grace 1.9-10

Common Grace 1.9-10 September 17, 2019

What does the government have to do with capital punishment? That what Kuyper is building towards in chapters 9, 10, and 11 (the first two covered here, chatper 11 will be in the next post).

Reformed commentators have traditionally read Genesis 9:6:

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

as establishing capital punishment. Specifically, it is the just result of the sin of assaulting God’s image. This is an ordinance, not a description. This ordinance is to be executed in three ways:

  1. By the government
  2. By individuals raised “for that purpose” (75-76)
  3. By God on the last day

While this has been the mainstream interpretation of the passage by Christians through the centuries,  challenges from the anabaptists and Methodists have meant that we have to show that it is normative, not just descriptive. Specifically, we do this by noticing that God emphasizes “for God made man in his own image.” This cannot be a mere description (i.e. it can’t mean “this is the sort of thing that usually happens to people who murder”), as that would just continue the cycle of hatred.

Nor does this passage mean that our right to execute others in the name of justice is based on the image of God in us. Just as our dominion over the animals is based on the ordinance and command of God (and not on His image), so too is this a command. The “for” clause is likewise an explanation of why the murdered must be punished based on the ordinance of God. In other words, the image of God is the explanation, not the cause. Otherwise, the executioner would himself be a murderer rather than acting in accord with divine justice/mandate.

Having  argued [not terribly successfully, as far as I’m concerned] that this is a command, the question is then raised of to whom the command is given? Clearly it is not to all who desire to carry out the penalty, but rather “according to established rule and order.” Hence this is the basis of government. (81-82) This is not to argue that there was no government before Genesis 9, just that this is the first divinely-sanctioned government. Prior to the Flood, government authority (such as it was) was paternal, after the Flood, it is now institutional.

Which means that Genesis 9:6 is a duty. It is from this perspective that we must engage the objections to capital punishment.

And at this point Kuyper makes a statement that I’m not sure I agree with, though I understand why he makes it. he argues (pg 83-84) that the only real objection to capital punishment is not believing that Genesis 9:6 is inspired and authoritative Scripture. I get why he says that–he’s assuming that we’ve agreed with everything he’s said about the verse up until now. But, if we don’t buy his ordinance vs. description conclusion, then we can still believe the text is inspired without having to endorse capital punishment. (For what it’s worth, I’m a capital punishment supporter, just not from this text theologically.)

But, within the scope of orthodoxy, there are some who try to argue that this command was a temporary ordinance, only in effect until the New Testament. Kuyper responds by pointing out that 1) this text is nowhere overturned in the NT (unlike, say circumcision or the food laws); and 2) this command is given to Noah and his children, some of whom are later not part of the Abrahamic covenant. Therefore, this is a general covenant to all mankind, and therefore it must stand. Besides, Romans 13:4 references Genesis 9:6 as still being in effect.

But what about the objection that capital punishment ends the possibility of conversion? Kuyper responds that the Reformed clearly think this argument is absurd–the elect are never beyond the possibility of conversion. But even Pelagians should be convinced here. I mean, they should be convinced by Reformed arguments in general, what with the Bible and all, but aside from that they should be convinced by this specific argument. Namely, modern war and modern technology kill or at least reduce the possibility of conversion far more than capital punishment, and we don’t see Pelagians lining up to end either of those. Besides, the threat of capital punishment should lead to reflection by the sentenced and a sense of  justice for the victim.

As for the objection that sometimes the innocent are mistakenly executed, Kuyper agrees that this does happen and that it is a terrible injustice. But that line of reasoning would eliminate all government actions. Yes, lives are involved, but lives are always involved when the government does something. Welfare checks go astray and people go hungry; diplomatic errors lead to wars; etc. The mistakes should not govern the principles.

Finally, Kuyper responds to the objection that capital punishment debases the image of God in human beings. To this he says that it can certainly be used badly, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When it is used correctly, the image of God in human beings shines more brightly as His justice is seen in a proper way in the world.

Whatever we think of Kuyper’s arguments, he does have a good concluding point: we should never fall back on statistics in our arguments or use deterrence as a rationale. Capital punishment is either an ordinance or it is not. If it is, then we are to obey. If it is not, then we are under no such obligation to do so.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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