by George W. Reid
For some time, there has been a debate about the death penalty in my country. As a Christian, I’m trying to develop my own views on this issue, but as I study the Bible there seems to be contradictions. Please summarize for me the biblical teaching on the death penalty. Has our church taken a stance on this issue?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has not taken a position on the death penalty, although considerable thought has been given to it insofar as it connects with our advocacy of non-combatancy in military service. Some make an argument that since we oppose use of arms in military settings, consistency requires our opposition to the death penalty. However, the connection is not that obvious.
According to the Scriptures, a person is not at liberty to deprive another person of his or her life. Personal conflicts, however serious, are not to be settled in this way. This concept is inherent in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. Less clear is the question of self-defense in situations of violence. The literal Hebrew reading of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt do no murder” implies an act driven by malice.
But the death penalty is contingent on a legal process that has examined the evidence and determined that there is a guilty party. It is the effort of society, not an individual, to deal with violation of other person or persons. In democratic cultures, death is reserved for only the most offensive of acts, typically murder or murder compounded by other offenses. The death penalty rises above simple revenge to the goal of protecting society from someone who is extremely dangerous and has demonstrated his or her character in violence. Biblically, there is no place for vigilantism.
Romans 13:1-7 affirms the legitimacy of the community to organize and appoint specified persons to act on its behalf for the security of the group. This passage affirms the legitimacy of government, warning that to threaten the safety of the group carries grave consequences. Many understand Paul’s statement in verse 4 to justify even execution of defiant people. It reads, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (RSV). The word translated servant here is applied elsewhere to Christian ministers. Most serious students of the Bible include capital punishment within this passage. Beyond this point lies the question of participation in killing as an authorized agent in military action. But this is beyond the immediate question we are addressing.
George W. Reid, Ph.D., director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
In the past few years new Bible versions have been published in my language. Is this good or bad? Some Adventists prefer the old, classical version of the Bible and others like the new ones. At times there are even arguments about this in our church. How should I relate to the new versions, some of which are easier for me to understand? How can I choose the best?
New Bible versions are generally good. While all the versions do not target the whole of the Bible-reading public, most versions target a specific audience, and since it makes it more understandable for them, this can be helpful. The only time a Bible version would be bad is when it inserts into the Bible interpretations reflecting the translator’s own biases, that are not derivable from the original.
In the English-speaking world, some well-meaning but misinformed people have deliberately set aside clear historical facts, claiming that only the King James Version can be used as a Bible. Something similar could happen in other language areas if an older version has held sway for many years. The problem with the older versions is twofold. First, when they were translated, the oldest Greek manuscripts were not used or available, so the translation does not reflect the more accurate text of the Bible. Second, an older version will not be as clearly understood by younger readers, since the language is at least somewhat out-of-date. One should choose a Bible that is sponsored by all or most of the Christian churches in the country (at any rate a version translated by a group of churches and individuals rather than only one), a modern translation that relies on the most ancient manuscripts, and a translation that is contemporary, accurate, clear, and beautifully translated. God gave us the Bible so that we could understand His will, so it is important to have a Bible that is clear and understandable.
Sakae Kubo, Ph.D., New Testament scholar, Chico, California.