The Doctrine of Capital Punishment -- By: Charles C. Ryrie

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 129:515 (Jul 1972)
Article: The Doctrine of Capital Punishment
Author: Charles C. Ryrie


The Doctrine of Capital Punishment

Charles C. Ryrie

[Charles C. Ryrie, Dean of Doctoral Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

Capital punishment, like so many controversial subjects, has ramifications in many fields of thought and practice. Its implications reach into the fields of penology, sociology, law, justice, but above all, theology. Anything that touches life and death is, after all, theological, and any meaningful discussion must be so oriented. Indeed, one’s theological viewpoint (or, more broadly, his philosophical orientation) will slant, if not settle, his attitude toward such a matter as capital punishment.

Capital punishment is defined as “the death penalty for crime.” The concept includes the ideas that a crime has been committed and thus the person executed is guilty. It also assumes that the government that carries out the sentence has been duly constituted (though the form of that government may vary). The specific crimes to which capital punishment applies cannot be stated in a definition, for this is really a separate question. The only matter to be considered is whether or not the principle of capital punishment is authorized by the Scripture today.

The Current Debate

The arguments advanced today against the legitimacy of capital punishment are usually along these lines. Capital punishment cannot be harmonized with the love of God. The Christian gospel seeks the redemption of evil-doers which is the exact opposite of all that is involved in capital punishment. Jesus, one is told, “always recommended life and forgiveness over death and condemnation.”1 This

is, generally speaking, a view that is an outworking of liberal theology which conveniently ignores Jesus’ teaching about condemnation (Matt 5:21–26; Matt 10:28; Matt 12:32). It is often related to a societal redemption, rather than an individual redemption.

However, it is true that evangelicals are sometimes opposed to capital punishment for reasons unrelated to theology, such as the alleged impossibility of administering the matter fairly.2

Humanitarianism and the dignity and worth of society are other bases for decrying capital punishment. Albert Camus asks for sympathy to be shown for the family of the victim of capital punishment stating that the death penalty strikes at the innocent (i.e., the family of the criminal). Ramsay Clark (while Deputy Attorney General) stated that ...

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