Biblical Theology and Politics
A topic that’s been on my mind recently is how does a Biblical Theology informed interpretation of Scripture impacts one’s political ideas. The key example I’ve been thinking over is capital punishment. I believe it will prove useful to examine the following: a common position Christians hold towards capital punishment, how Biblical Theology - exemplified in Hebrews - impacts interpretation, a sketch of the Kingdom theme, how the New Covenant deals with Old Covenant laws, and how a Christian’s political beliefs could shift in light of a Biblical-theological interpretation.
I can’t speak for all Christians’ experiences in various sections of the country or around the world. However, from the perspective shaped by my West Coast, American background, it appears that many professing Christians are in support of capital punishment relating to murder. Many Old Testament verses are cited in support:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” – Genesis 9:6
“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” – Exodus 21:12
“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.” – Leviticus 24:17
Admittedly, there are many other Biblical and social issues that influence a Christian’s political views and affiliations, but we don’t have the time to dive into them. I aim to stick with the one example of capital punishment in discussing this topic.
A key question at this junction is does Biblical Theology impact our interpretation of verses relating to capital punishment, and if so, how? I am not using Biblical Theology in the noun sense, referring to the discipline itself; but in the verb sense, referring to studying a Biblical subject in light of how God’s has progressively revealed more information on that subject throughout redemptive history.
As has been discussed in a prior post (How Hebrews Informs Old Testament Interpretation), the book of Hebrews is rife with Scriptural expositions showing how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. Stated simply, Hebrews interprets Old Testament institutions, figures, and events in light of redemptive-history pointing to Jesus Christ.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. – Hebrews 9:6-12
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:1-4, 11-14
These two brief examples show us the hermeneutic Hebrews posits. The Old Covenant sacrificial system pointed forward to the age when Christ would come, enter through the “greater and more perfect tent”, and secure redemption for His people through His blood. These Old Covenant sacrifices served as a reminded of sin and could never take them away. Rather, they pointed forward to Jesus’s single sacrifice which could. Not just institutions, but also events and figures are interpreted redemptive-historically in light of Christ.
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” – Hebrews 4:8-10
The rest Joshua provided for the Israelites was but a foreshadow of the greater rest Jesus would provide for those redeemed through His blood. There are many, many more examples in Hebrews showing how Old Testament institutions, figures, events are to be interpreted redemptive-historically in light of Christ. I hope the few referenced here suffice to show the hermeneutic.
Building on the foundation of the Bible’s commitment to Christ-centered, redemptive-historical interpretation of itself, many Biblical Theology (noun) books have been written studying major Biblical themes with that hermeneutic. One main theme present in Scripture is that of the Kingdom. The theme of Kingdom admittedly isn’t made explicit until the New Testament.
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” – Mark 1:14-15
However, Jesus’ audience never questioned what He meant by the Kingdom. Stated briefly, lingering at this time was the prophetic expectation for a coming savior – judge who would deliver Israel from her enemies. Also expected was the promised Davidic king who would rule Israel. These and other expectations coalesced into the Jews’ understanding of the Kingdom.
The components of the Kingdom can also be discerned throughout the Bible. Stated succinctly, in the Garden of Eden we see the establishment of the Kingdom. We see God ruling over His people (Adam and Eve) in the place He designated (Garden of Eden). After the fall, flood, calling of the Patriarchs, and exodus, we see a sort of typified re-establishment of the Kingdom with ethnic Israel. God rules, initially directly and then through a king, over His people (the Israelites) in the place He designates (the Promised Land). However, that didn’t last and the nation fell into sin and eventually was exiled. We then get to the prophetic era where God promises a future savior-judge-king to rule over His people who will be delivered from exile. In the New Covenant era, we see the manifestation of the prophetic hope in a way likely unforeseen by those in the prophetic era. We have Christ ruling as king over His people, the Church, following a spiritual exodus out of slavery to sin. In eternity, Christ will rule over His redeemed people in the new creation. For such a redemptive-historical, meta-theme, it can be hard to build a comprehensive structure off of isolated verses. However, the foundation for such thematic analysis lies in Scriptures own example of redemptive-historical interpretation and positing of themes. I leave further discussion and provision of relevant verses of the Kingdom theme to the many books which have been written (see the Recommended section of this blog).
As we have seen in Hebrews, Scripture teaches the Old Covenant and various Old Testament institutions, events, and figures are to be interpreted redemptive-historically, and serve to drive us to the person and work of Jesus. Additionally, we have also briefly sketched the Kingdom theme seen throughout Scripture, wherein the nation of Israel appeared to typify and serve as a foreshadow of what would be established through Christ. The question is how do these truths impact how we view capital punishment, as many verses supporting it are from the early Old Testament era. In light of the Bible’s redemptive-historical hermeneutic and the progression of the Kingdom theme, we must interpret the Old Covenant’s laws in such a light. The Bible itself supports such activity.
And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” – Acts 10:10-15
Here, God overtly overrules a command given in the Old Covenant, in the New Covenant established in Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses living graciously with those whose consciences are still affected by Old Covenant rules.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. – 1 Corinthians 8:7-13
It appears that such a superseding of commands might exists in regards to certain applications of capital punishment as well. Not just murder, but adultery was also a capital crime under the Old Covenant.
“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” – Leviticus 20:10
However, in Jesus’ interaction with the adulterating / fornicating Samaritan woman, he didn’t call for her death but rather proclaimed the Kingdom to her.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” … Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” … The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
- John 4:7-10, 16-18, 25-26
What purpose then did the many Old Covenant rules and regulations serve? In light of the Bible’s redemptive-historical hermeneutic and the New Covenant’s overturning of many Old Covenant laws, it can be reasoned that while God typified His coming kingdom in national Israel, He gave them laws which set them apart from neighboring pagan nations (laws against tattoos, certain food customs, etc.) However, once the Kingdom of God came through the death and resurrection of Christ, such foreshadowing laws were no longer needed. Hence, we see the falling to the wayside of many Old Covenant commands. Another key point is that Christians aren’t under the Old Covenant. We weren’t privy to the Old Covenant ratification at Sinai. We are only participants in the New Covenant through Christ’ death. Hence, by default, any commands binding on us, relating to capital punishment, must come from the New Covenant.
Returning to the question of how a Biblical Theology informed interpretation of Scripture impacts one’s view of politically related issues, such as capital punishment, we must realize that we can’t blindly use isolated Old Testament verses to support opinions without first interpreting those verses within the broader redemptive-historical trajectory of Scripture. To do otherwise would be to ignore the Bible’s own Christ-centered, redemptive-historical hermeneutic. Additionally, we must be aware of the transition between what was binding under the Old Covenant and what is binding under the New. Ultimately, I don’t aim to provide an answer as to what verses one can use to support their view on capital punishment. Rather, I hope Christians first interpret all Scripture redemptive-historically in light of Christ before ever trying to justify political views with isolated verses.