Why We Don’t Stone Adulterers

There has been a bit of blogging chatter of late over certain sexual sins, precipitated in no small part by some of the goings on in contemporary American politics as well as the goings on in certain Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiastical assemblies and synods. Providentially, Ryan Glomsud, Executive Editor for Modern Reformation magazine, has recently supplied us with a thumbnail sketch for “why we don’t stone adulterers.” The answer to that question is good for answering a whole raft of questions that seem to hang on the larger question on the difference between the theocratic dispensation and the present exilic age.

The Bible is a mysterious book to many people, not least because of the peculiar (and harsh) laws and punishments one finds in the Old Testament. I can recall a discussion of religion and ethics on Larry King Live a number of years ago, when the evangelical guest was asked why he could be so adamant about enforcing the Bible’s morals when the punishments assigned for breaking these rules seemed so outrageous. Obviously we don’t stone people for their sexual activities, so isn’t the sin just as outdated as the punishment? Sadly, the pastor was completely flummoxed as to how to interpret these sections of the Bible.

Calvin and the Reformed offer a few simple guidelines to help you get started solving these alleged conundrums for yourself. Accordingly, there are three different kinds of laws in the Old Testament: ceremonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial laws regulated the believing community’s life of worship, including the intricate sacrificial system oriented to the temple. The civil laws pertained to the “nation” of Israel as a unique theocratic society. Some scholars describe these temporary arrangements as a kind of martial law phenomenon, a state of “intrusion ethics” in which the normal order of affairs is suspended and God rules his people directly in a way that hints at the final intrusion of the kingdom of God in the age to come. Finally, there were and are moral laws written on every human’s conscience; these are the basics of what is right and wrong. Calvin equated this with “natural law” and insisted it could be accessed via general revelation. In that sense, it was rooted in God’s creation of the world (that is, “natural”), and some relative degree of justice in the world is possible because of “common grace”–the superintending work of God that restrains evil and lets the rain fall on the just and on the unjust.

As Christians, we rejoice in the fact that Christ has fulfilled all the law (Rom. 10:4). The ceremonial laws are fulfilled because Jesus was the final and perfect sacrifice (Heb. 10:10-12). The civil laws are abrogated because the church, Israel, is made up of a people in exile without any socio-political expression in this phase of redemptive history. We do not, in other words, live in a period of intrusion ethics. We have no need, therefore, of ecclesiastical officials to govern the affairs of state and nation, nor do we need the sacrifices of goats and bulls to atone for our sins. But what of the moral laws?

For Calvin, Christ has redeemed us especially from the consequences of breaking the moral law; he has fulfilled all righteousness and has taken upon himself the curse of the law so that in him we might have abundant life. We then pursue a life of piety out of gratitude. Our adherence to the moral law can profit us nothing in relation to our justification before a holy God, yet it continues to inform all of the interactions between creatures, believer and unbeliever alike. In this sense, the moral law remains in effect such that right is right and wrong is wrong.

What then is the quick answer to the question of stoning adulterers? Our approach flows out of this basic categorization of laws and a Reformed understanding of where we are currently situated in redemptive history. The moral law remains in effect in this qualified way so that adultery is wrong at all times and in all places. But the stoning punishment of Deuteronomy 22:23-24 is no longer in effect because this particular code belonged to the civil law that temporarily governed the nation of Israel but has long since passed away.

Ryan Glomsrud (D.Phil., University of Oxford), “Why We Don’t Stone Adulterers,” Modern Reformation, Issue: “Interpreting Scripture” July/August Vol. 19 No. 4 2010 Page 23.

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9 Responses to Why We Don’t Stone Adulterers

  1. Rick says:

    But can we paint a large scarlet letter “A” on them?

    This is a helpful article. Thanks.

  2. Ken says:

    I guess the follow-up next month is “why we don’t execute murderers?”

  3. Zrim says:

    Ken, if by “we” you mean “the church,” then that might be a good suggestion for the next installment, yes.

  4. Ken says:

    I think there’s a reason why Glomsrud chose the offense of adultery – a sin deemed noncriminal in this current cultural climate and thus not worthy of civil punishment – instead of murder or lying.

    Since Glomsrud evidently deems Calvin the eminent authority on this question, does he delve into Geneva’s civil punishment for adultery and other sexual sin deemed detrimental to society?

  5. Ken says:

    “The civil laws are abrogated because the church, Israel, is made up of a people in exile without any socio-political expression in this phase of redemptive history. We do not, in other words, live in a period of intrusion ethics. We have no need, therefore, of ecclesiastical officials to govern the affairs of state and nation”

    Of course, this isn’t Calvin’s nor his contemporary Reformed brethren’s position, and Glomsrud should have noted such instead of glossing his own contemporary analysis as part of the more ancient, and evidently more authoratative, magisterial reformers. Surely he could have referenced a Van Drunen – but that wouldn’t have quite the same cache now would it.

  6. Zrim says:

    Ken,

    First, the piece was meant to be cursory and not exhaustive (that’s what I meant about it being a “thumbnail sketch” and what Glomsrud likely means by “Calvin and the Reformed offer a few simple guidelines to help you get started solving these alleged conundrums for yourself”), so the “glossing” criticism seems a little irrelevant.

    Second, you might be right about why he chose the offense of adultery. But switch out the problem of adultery with murder and lying and disobeying parents and Sabbath desecration and you get the same answer: we, that is the church in the exilic age, don’t exact capital punishment for trespassing the moral laws that still stand. Instead, we exercise church discipline. Those are two entirely different things.

    Don’t worry, the final theocratic age is coming where the church under God’s perfect authority will sit in righteous judgment over the nations, etc. But if you get too impatient about it and want to take matters into our own hands now you just end up looking pretty self-righteous. And scary.

  7. Ken says:

    But Zrim, there are sins that you consider the purview of the state as much as the purview of the church.

    We both agree that if a church member murdered another church member and was unrepentant that said murderer would be excommunicated by the church. We’d also expect the civil authority to exact punishment as well – perhaps the death penalty and in some situations perhaps something else.

    What you evidently find scary is that I consider some sexual sins worthy of civil punishment. Fair enough, but what I find scary is that there are folks out there that might believe your view is the reformed view. It isn’t; it’s novel.

  8. Zrim says:

    We both agree that if a church member murdered another church member and was unrepentant that said murderer would be excommunicated by the church. We’d also expect the civil authority to exact punishment as well – perhaps the death penalty and in some situations perhaps something else.

    Well, I’d qualify that heavily by saying an unrepentant sinner should be excommunicated. Even then, though, it’s still discipline which has an eye toward repentance and reconciliation. And I’d not quibble at all with the magistrate carrying out his duty to said lawbreaker. Hopefully he’d repent and come back into communion before he was put to death. Remember when Pat Robertson wanted Karla Faye Tucker’s execution stayed because she converted? There’s a good example of confusion.

    What you evidently find scary is that I consider some sexual sins worthy of civil punishment. Fair enough, but what I find scary is that there are folks out there that might believe your view is the reformed view. It isn’t; it’s novel.

    Well, I think the difference here is that you seem to be talking about civil punishment and I’m talking about ecclesial discipline. Like I’ve suggested, the “we” is key here. What is scary to me is that you seem to be confusing the civil magistrate with the Christian church. When Glomsrud, for example, says “we” don’t stone adulterers he’s talking about the church.

  9. tbordow says:

    Ken,

    The laws of Geneva were already on the books before Calvin arrived. He did not change them – just lived with them. But out of curiosity, where is the evidence for sexual sins receiving civil punishment in Geneva? I’m not yet disputing such but would like to see it. Have you read the Geneva session minutes, where Calvin dealt with fornication all the time, and never mentions, warns of, or recommends civil punishment?

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