William J. Webb. Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011, 192 pp., $20.00.
New Testament professor William Webb continues to write provocative books, and in this work he argues that a redemptive movement hermeneutic (explained in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals) should be applied to the matter of corporal punishment, and hence Christians shouldn’t spank their children. Those who promote spanking today (like James Dobson and Andreas Köstenberger) don’t actually follow the OT rules on spanking, according to Webb. He thinks their failure to follow the OT is a good thing, showing that pro-spanking advocates actually have a redemptive movement hermeneutic of their own, though they fail to acknowledge such. Webb hopes they will become more consistent by recognizing that they use a redemptive movement hermeneutic. As a result they should go a step farther, as the author has done, and abandon corporal punishment altogether.
If we truly followed what the OT teaches about corporal punishment, according to Webb, our “discipline” would be much more severe. He insists, for example, that those who spank can’t (if they truly follow the OT) apply age limitations or limit the number of “smacks.” Webb appeals to the overlap between corporal punishment texts and cases in which slaves or those who violated the law were punished (Exod. 21:20-21; Deut. 25:1-3). It is clear from these comparative texts, Webb argues, that punishment of children was much more severe than those who advocate spanking today would tolerate. Nor can we apply spankings to the buttocks alone, for we see in Proverbs (e.g., Prov. 10:13; 19:29; 26:3) that fools were struck on the back. Furthermore, bruises and welts were inflicted on slaves and criminals, and hence those who favor spanking today are inconsistent when they claim spanking should not leave marks on children.
What we must recognize, Webb claims, is the redemptive movement of Scripture. The treatment of slaves and those who violated the law was earthed in ancient Near Eastern culture, and what we find in the OT is an ethic superior to other ancient Near Eastern cultures of that day. The OT was composed in a particular historical and cultural context, and hence we should not say that the laws found in the OT represent the ideal ethic for all time. When we read the Scriptures in terms of a redemptive movement hermeneutic, Webb says, the basis for corporal punishment today is lacking. For instance, no one advocates stoning rebellious children, though the OT commands it (Deut. 21:18-21). Nor do we think a woman’s hand should be severed if she grabs a man’s testicles (Webb spends a lot of time on this regulation), depriving him of the right of begetting children (Deut. 25:11-12). Nor do we follow Deuteronomy’s prescriptions for finding what Webb calls “hot-looking women” (Deut. 21:10-14).
The questions and issues Webb raises have faced Christians throughout history as believers have asked how we apply the OT to today’s world. Webb rightly says that faithfully following Scripture doesn’t mean that we invariably reproduce the world of the Bible. The Scriptures were written to a particular cultural situation, and that must be taken into account in interpreting and applying Scripture. It is not always easy to apply biblical texts to today’s world, especially because the OT applied to a different era in salvation history. Webb’s cultural comparisons and contrasts are helpful, showing how OT regulations were more humane and merciful than those in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
The key question, however, is whether Webb is right about corporal punishment. The answer is no. First, Webb doesn’t understand redemptive history, even though he calls his hermeneutic “redemptive-movement.” He never discusses the relationship of the OT to the NT in order to help readers understand that believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant or the Mosaic law. Such a discussion is fundamental to the issues Webb addresses, and they deserve concentrated attention if one wants to think about how to apply the OT today. But one looks in vain for a careful discussion of this matter in Webb’s book or in his previous work. For instance, he rightly says that Christians reject stoning rebellious children, seizing “hot-looking women,” or cutting off the hand of a woman who grabs someone testicles. And he helpfully notes the cultural differences between the OT laws and the ancient Near Eastern cultures of the day. But there is no reflection on the covenantal difference between the Mosaic covenant under which Israel lived and the new covenant which applies to the church of Jesus Christ. Christians have long recognized that the laws of Torah are not binding on believers today. Jesus himself indicated that some of the laws were given because people have hard hearts (Deut. 24:1-4; Matt. 19:3-12). Some of what Webb advocates, therefore, is not new at all, but his hermeneutical program lacks the exegetical and theological foundation established in the history of interpretation.
That leads to a second objection. Finding the same words for the punishment of slaves, criminals, fools, and children does not justify lumping the texts together in an indiscriminate manner. Despite Webb’s protests, he fails to perceive the genre differences between regulations in the Torah and proverbial statements. As already noted, he does not clearly recognize the redemptive historical nature of the Torah. And he merges and mashes together different genres of literature in drawing his conclusions. Proverbial statements are of a different nature than legal material, requiring insight and reflection in terms of application. They shouldn’t be equated with punishments in legal contexts, for it seems rather heavy-handed and hermeneutically lead-footed to conclude that since physical punishments are mentioned in the same texts they must have been understood in the same way. Webb seems to think if one recognizes that proverbs require discernment in application, then one will endorse his view. But how does that follow? I would argue that such a principle means that wisdom and prudence should be applied in understanding Proverbs, which means corporal punishment for children is not administered in the same way it is applied to law-breakers and adults. Nor is it evident, just because both fools and children are flogged, that the punishments would be of the same nature and to the same extent. Again, such readings are mechanical and forced, failing to see what anyone with wisdom in ancient Israel would see: There is massive difference between adult fools and children. Using the same word for children and fools does not mean they are in the same category! It seems to me that the wise application of what we find in Proverbs is well represented by those Webb criticizes: Dobson, Mohler, Wegner, Grudem, and Köstenberger.
Another brief comment is warranted. Webb is rightly worried about the abuse of children, but one wonders, in considering Webb’s work as a whole, if he is prone to domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions. If Webb is correct, women can serve as pastors and children should be disciplined without any corporal punishment. What is next? Webb is working on a book regarding war in the Scriptures. His reflections on this matter should be most interesting, especially since Yahweh clearly commands Israel to put to death every man, woman, and child in the cities which are in the land of promise. God’s Word does not necessarily fit the cultural mores and thought conventions of our day. In responding to some of the extremes of fundamentalism, Webb must beware that he does not land in the lap of liberalism.
Incidentally, even if Webb is correct about spanking (and I don’t think he is), this book provides no ammunition for the thesis propounded in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. The previous book argued that we can go beyond the ethic of the NT, but this work is limited to what the OT says about corporal punishment for children. Nothing is said in this book about transcending the ethic of the NT, so even if Webb is correct in what he argues in this work, it does not advance the notion that we can go beyond the NT ethic. For that to occur he would need to show that the NT is being transcended ethically, and this book makes no such argument.
Thomas R. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.