Results tagged “Ethics” from Reformation21 Blog

Pitying Criminals and Imprisoning Society


In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:

"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.

...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.

It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."

1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Deuteronomy and the Decalogue

It's a common observation, beloved by Reformed folk, that Deuteronomy reflects ancient near eastern suzerainty treaties--international covenants enacted between a superior suzerain power and inferior vassal state. Such treaties follow what we now think of as standard covenant formulary: a preamble introducing the parties and historical prologue tracing the relationship between them, followed by an outline of the terms, an enumeration of blessings and curses, and miscellaneous other items like calling on witnesses, instituting some sort of public sign, and making provisions for depositing an official copy of the treaty and holding a renewal ceremony from time to time.

Deuteronomy fits the pattern extremely well, making it, in W. L. Moran's words, "the biblical document of the covenant par excellence." A rough outline looks like this:

Preamble and prologue: Dt 1:1-4:43
Terms: Dt 4:44-26:19
Blessings and curses: Dt 27:1-28:68
Miscellaneous other items: Dt 29:1-34:12

This is conventional wisdom, probably familiar to most of you. One bit that remains unsettled, however, is how to outline that long middle section that presents the terms or stipulations of the covenant--the body of the book.

One popular approach is to divide this section between general stipulations and specific stipulations at Dt. 12:1. There are good reasons to do so but another approach, perhaps compatible with he former, is even more helpful. Advanced by Stephen A. Kaufman (The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law, 1979) and others after him, including my fellow RTS faculty member John Currid (Deuteronomy in EVP, 2006), this alternative approach views Dt 4:44-5:33 as a summary statement of the moral law set out under ten heads (the decalogue), and Dt 6:1-26:19 as an explication and application of each head of the moral law to Israel. In other words, Dt. 6:1-26:19 is a kind of divine commentary and practical guide to the decalogue. This highlights the continuing priority of the ten commandments as a summary of the moral law within this administration of the covenant of grace--a priority, originating in Eden, that carries over to the new administration of that same covenant of grace, as Rick Phillips recently noted here.

Here is the most common way of outlining this part of Deuteronomy on this view:

First: Dt 6:1-11:32
Second: Dt 12:1-32
Third: Dt 13:1-14:21
Fourth: Dt 14:22-16:17
Fifth: Dt 16:18-18:22
Sixth: Dt 19:1-22:12
Seventh: Dt 22:13-23:14
Eighth: Dt 23:15-24:7
Ninth: Dt 24:8-16
Tenth: Dt 24:17-26:19

To read Deuteronomy this way is insightful. Consider the light it sheds on the relation of the first commandment to election (Dt 7:1-26), or the third commandment to those peculiar dietary laws (Dt 14:1-21). It's also instructive to read the laws related to tithes in Deuteronomy 14:22-29 as an application of the command to rest in God or the regulations concerning judges, kings, priests, and prophets (Dt 16:16-18:22) as applications of the fifth commandment and those concerning cities of refuge, war, and tasseled garments (Dt. 19:1-21:23) of the sixth commandment.

The pattern fits very well until we reach the transition from the eighth to the tenth commandments. The issue lies with identifying what portion of Deuteronomy 23:15-26:19 deals with the ninth commandment.

Deuteronomy 24:8-16, the oft-proposed candidate, is not very satisfying. Though Currid follows this division, his comment on Deuteronomy 24:8-9 on skin diseases is telling: "It is uncertain how this law fits into an exposition of the Ninth Commandment." Though the remaining six verses on collateral and paying day-laborers has a little better claim to taking up ninth commandment issues, I think the primary concern of this set of "miscellaneous laws" remains on "justice in contracts and commerce, . . . rendering to everyone his due," which is how the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 141 summarizes the scope of the eighth commandment.

This concern, it seems to me, continues through Deuteronomy 25:12. It's not until Deuteronomy 25:13-16, concerning the use of just weights in the marketplace, that we encounter a passage that seems to be a solid candidate for the ninth commandment's concern for honesty or "the preserving and promoting of truth between" people (WLC Q&A 144). But even this passage on fair weights and measures falls under the eighth commandment's focus on justice in commerce.

It's not surprising to find one kind of activity covered by more than one of the ten commandments. Using such an activity as a transition from one to the next also makes sense--Deuteronomy 13:1-18 is another example. But this observation suggests another possible solution to the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy: What if the ninth commandment receives no distinct discussion but is a moral enthymeme of sorts? Perhaps the point is that truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition of keeping all the other commandments. If so, then the treatment of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19 may be distributed over the elaboration of the first eight commandments. If you've been studying your way through those, by the time you reach the ninth commandment its elaboration is obvious and requires no distinct discussion.

Whatever we make of the riddle of the ninth commandment in Deuteronomy 6:1-26:19, it is clear that honesty or truth inwardly and outwardly is a necessary condition to keeping the rest of the commands--to being the kind of person we were created to be and have been redeemed to be by the one who is "full of . . . truth" and is "the truth" (Jn 1:14; 14:6).

Advice for Sabbath-keeping

Having preached a sermon that touched in part on the Christian Sabbath (the text was John 5:9-18), I followed it up with a pastor's letter that gave advice to those learning to keep the Sabbath.  I though it might be of benefit to our readers here as well.