Following Biblical Law
Following Biblical Law

Following Biblical Law

We live in a highly divisive politicized climate. Unfortunately, the church too often fails to show any real grasp of the relationship of the kingdom of God to politics.

November 21 st 2012
Following Biblical Law

God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible by Jonathan Burnside. Oxford UP, 2010. 584pp.

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William J. Webb. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 269pp.

It is undeniable that we live in a highly divisive politicized climate. Unfortunately, the church too often fails to show any real grasp of the relationship of the kingdom of God to politics. With the passing of another presidential election, the relation of biblical law to the laws of the nation-state has been a heated debate. What is the nature of biblical law? How best should it be understood? How does God's call to God's Torah people (both Israel and the church) to be his light to the nations help us conceive our relationship to citizenship within a given nation-state and questions like the proper order of marriage?

Both Jonathan Burnside's God, Justice, and Society and William J. Webb's Corporal Punishment in the Bible offer helpful insights in understanding the import of biblical law and its role. Burnside seeks to assist his reader through a canonical approach to the biblical texts and a commitment to interpreting the breadth of biblical law as a normalizing and universally applicable set of regulations. Webb offers his reader an understanding of the nature of biblical law through a particular issue: the practices of corporal punishment in light of Scriptures' ultimate ethical goals. Both authors offer the faithful significant tools for fruitfully navigating their world, but both also provoke key challenges to one another.

In Corporal Punishment in the Bible, evangelical scholar William Webb hopes to reshape his readers' understanding of corporal punishment with the same redemptive-movement hermeneutic that he developed in his Slavery, Women and Homosexuals (which will be of interest to anyone who struggles with these difficult texts or is interested in hermeneutics or Christian witness). First, he offers a deconstructive account of the "traditional" appropriation of corporal punishment texts and practices that exposes its internal inconsistencies. Webb takes as his primary interlocutors the "two-smacks-max" pro-spanking advocates who claim to be standing upon the "concrete-specific" teachings of Scripture. Deconstructing the apparent biblical license for the pro-spanking argument begins by demonstrating that its concrete-specific platform already instantiates a biblically inspired movement beyond the concrete-specific texts it claims to stand upon. Since this group already offers a different account of who can be disciplined, how often discipline can be administered, the number of permissible strikes, where a person can be disciplined, whether it is appropriate to leave marks, and the harshness of the implement, the notion of adhering to concrete-specific texts appears questionable. Rather, Webb claims the pro-spankers have already made several of the moves Webb finds necessitated by being faithful to the ethical thrust of scripture.

After demonstrating the fact that the pro-spankers have already moved "beyond the Bible with the Bible," Webb describes what is entailed by his "redemptive-movement" hermeneutic and how it applies to our understanding of corporal punishment texts and our practice of discipline. Despite the newness of its name, the redemptive-movement hermeneutic should not be interpreted as a new hermeneutical method. Instead, Webb understands it as a development within the grammatical-historical method (the standard method utilized by evangelical scholars) that pays close attention to a text's historical context, immediate biblical context, larger canonical context, and the texts ultimate ethical horizon. Slavery texts are offered as an example in the redemptive-movements of God. When taken at initial face value, texts like "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slaves dies as a result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two" (Exodus 21:26-27) strikes the reader as utterly gruesome. However, viewed within its historical setting where a master's ability to murder a slave was customary, such a text displays the redemptive nature of God's work over against the concrete practices of other nations. God's redemptive work with corporal punishment within Israel was even more pronounced, where a master's maiming of a slave (loss of eye, tooth, ear, and so on) meant the slave was set free. Webb finds the ultimate ethical horizon, the denouement of the redemptive-movement, within slave texts in claims found in Galatians and Ephesians about the equality of all the members of Christ body which eventually emerged in its final form in the abolitionist movement (as opposed to the pro-slavery proponents usage of a static, concrete-specific hermeneutic).

After exposing the inconsistency of the pro-spankers' claim to adherence to concrete-specific textual commands and a delineation of the redemptive-movement method with regard to slaves, Webb provides the pay-off of his argument: the specific theoretical grounds for moving beyond the two-smacks platform to non-corporal discipline (as opposed to punishment). First, he finds the replacement of corporal for non-corporal discipline is more befitting the "purpose meaning of Scripture." In the case of discipline, this is to prevent folly and inculcate wisdom, which is non-corporal discipline carried out while meeting the redemptive criteria. Next, he affirms that non-corporal punishment is more befitting the increasing dignity afforded to every creature created in God's image and can curtail the breadth of potential abuse. Finally, Webb believes that the Christian practices of non-corporal discipline offer the world a greater witness to the peaceful life of Jesus Christ. The conclusion to the argument is followed by a bevy of creative preventative and corrective disciplinary practices that, when taken as a whole, could foster the type of joyfully disciplined family life that does indeed manifest the very love of Christ.

Jonathan Burnside, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Bristol's School of Law, seeks in God, Justice, and Society to articulate a unified, coherent, and relational account of biblical law as the culmination of God's purposes for all creation. His account begins by showing the pertinence of the study of biblical law as a better way to understand legality and justice that is currently available in the modern West. Such is the case for two reasons. First, it provides the background against which modern law emerged. Secondly, the narrative texture (beginning with creation, moving through the Exodus event, and projecting forward into the eschaton) and structural complexity of Burnside's account can accommodate for pluralism better than either modern secularism or false understandings of biblical law as a type of "theo-tyranny" (a conception that infects poor theological and a-theological conceptions of biblical law). Burnside labels this broader, more flexible, more complex, more fulfilling conception of law, "spiritual jurisprudence."

The profundity of spiritual jurisprudence arises, for Burnside, not simply because biblical laws are the divine mandates descending from on high, but because they are the outworking of God's cosmological order which intends to integrate all of creation into an interrelated web (society) wherein God, creation, Israel, and all humanity can achieve their innate good. Such a cosmological order bears four marks. First, it is founded upon a certain continuity between God and creation, which functions as the foundation for both particular revelation and its universal manifestations. Thus, biblical law is a particular form of natural law, such as that the fourth commandment can be read as an echo of the creation account. Second, such a natural, relational cosmic order implies that creation is responsive to its human overseers; Hosea 4 suggests the land of Israel suffers direction from the moral failings of Israel. Third, it implies that there are definitive forms of universal knowledge—Amos 2:10 suggests that the nations are judged for ignoring a natural moral consciousness. Finally, it entails that human judgments that follow the grain of the cosmic order participate in God's own wisdom and justice. Thus, biblical law is based upon a conception of an entire cosmic order answerable to and embodying the will of God.

While affirming an intimate relationship between biblical and natural law, Burnside maintains that all true conceptions of justice must be textured by the biblical narratives and God's acts of justice therein. Thus, structurally, law bears the marks of God's own relational concern (as manifest in God's particular and universal covenants) for the oppressed, the democratization and diffusion of property and power, and the deep importance of land. This is a holistic conception of the true good of all humanity. Burnside reminds the reader that, unlike modern law, biblical (and natural) law is characteristically an inclusive reality. Biblical law is not a collection of individual precepts, but the interconnection of all of the various "instructional" genres of the Bible. Biblical call is primarily instructional. It is made to inculcate God's own wisdom into communities and individuals. Because biblical law is diverse, incomplete instruction, Burnside suggests it is better read as similar to virtue theory that allows for a habituated mind to apply the wisdom of God in multi-realizable ways to ever-new situations. As such, biblical law orders rather than regulates human behaviour. The ability of people and communities to apply the practical wisdom of God to new situations—to perform justice ever anew—is the calling and vocation of all humanity. God makes this call explicit to Israel, and through their witness calls all creation to uphold it. Having paid such painstaking attention to the texture of biblical law, Burnside turns to investigate key areas of biblical law—the environment, land, social welfare, homicide, theft, marriage, and sex—and is able to highlight aspects of the Bible's articulation of justice in each case.

Both Webb and Burnside offer the church valuable tools for navigating the world. God, Justice and Society's direct relevance to engaging issues of public justice are immediately obvious. It offers a conception of biblical law and justice that can easily operate within pluralist societies and legal and governmental systems, as well as goals for which to work within those systems. Creating a more just ordering within the North American context is, therefore, a legitimate possibility. However, Burnside's ultimate desire is not to foster such a change through lawyers. Instead, he hopes to entice every member of God's people to see their everyday lives, relationships, and societies as the area of their concern and to inform them they are equipped with powerful tools to achieve a well-ordered society with biblical justice. Webb's work, while important, does not offer the immediate mass social impact Burnside's work provides. That being said, it does remind us that our ethical comportment, of which he engages only corporal punishment, is open to the movements of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit carries forward God's redemptive plans in history. It is precisely at this point where Webb's argument, though confessedly less precise than Burnside's argument, could improve God, Justice and Society. Webb's discussion of redemptive-movements within Scripture reminds the reader that both Israel and the Church are eschatological entities that can never be mapped directly unto the modern socio-politics (the nation-state or United Nations) or into the modern social imagination. The thrust of biblical law is forward and, thus, it places the faithful in a cross-grain position to the ethos of the nation-state. Without the intensity of Webb's understanding of God's ultimate eschatological horizon, a reading of biblical law like Webb's can potentially be used to baptize the workings of a particular government or society.

Topics: Justice Religion
Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is working towards a Ph.D. in philosophical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Christopher's work explores the relationship of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology with what Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell have appropriately termed the "ordinary." He holds a M.Div. in Mission and World Christianity from Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary and B.A. in Christianity and History from Houston Baptist University.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?