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God, moral judgement and the death penalty

30 January 2008

In an article on Religion and the death penalty Walter Berns argues that religion and the death penalty are inextricably linked, and suggests that you can’t have one without the other.

Dr Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the USA, summarises the article as follows:

In a fascinating new look at capital punishment, Professor Walter Berns of Georgetown University argues that support of the death penalty is tied to belief in God. He documents the link between secularization and declining support for capital punishment.

In “Religion and the Death Penalty,” published in The Weekly Standard, Berns begins by observing that the best case for the death penalty “was made, paradoxically, by one of the most famous of its opponents, Albert Camus, the French novelist.” Indeed, in opposing the death penalty Camus seems to have grasped what others had missed.

And goes on to comment:

The absence of God — and thus the absence of a transcendent standard of judgment and morality — inevitably weakens all moral judgment. This certainly applies in the case of the death penalty, but it must also apply in other cases as well. When a transcendent standard of judgment and value disappears, the regime of therapy remains. Crime becomes anti-social behavior, wrong-doing becomes a syndrome, and moral judgment is endlessly hesitant and constantly renegotiated.

Thanks to Father David MacGregor for drawing my attention to these articles on religion and the death penalty.

What strikes me about it, however, is not so much the difference between religion and secularisation as the difference between Orthodox and Western theology. Mohler contrasts moral judgment and therapy as if they are somehow incompatible, if not polar opposites. There seems to be an assumption that our Lord Jesus Christ did not come into the world to save sinners, but to punish them, because saving them would weaken moral judgment.

Orthodox responses are somewhat different:

When prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized, his life was transformed. Previously he had had little restraint or self-control. His baptism radically changed his behaviour, but he did not become morose or retiring, but helped the poor, the orphaned, and the sick. His court retained its fame for banquets as it had in heathen days, but instead of inviting the powerful and the rich, Vladimir invited the hungry and the afflicted. He built homes for the aged and the invalids, and
his attitude to criminals changed radically. He sought to abolish capital punishment, and was convinced that torture and execution had no place in a Christian community. Several outstanding rulers followed his example – Prince Vladimir Monomakh (d. 1125), the Empress Elizabeth (d. 1761) and Alexander II (d. 1881). [1]

After the time of Peter the Great (the great enemy of Orthodoxy) the rulers of Russia tried to modernise and Westernise the country, a process that culminated in the Bolshevik period of the 20th century, so there were moral tensions for Elizabeth. On her accession Elisabeth swore never to sign a death warrant, and in 1744 she formally abolished capital punishment, but in the 1750s, with the revision of the criminal law, the number of capital offences actually increased.

Back in the 11th century Boris and Gleb differed from Greek saints, yet were the first ones canonized by the new Russian Church. Unlike Greek saints they were laymen, not monks, priests, martyrs or ascetics. And the important feature of their sainthood was the character, not of their lives, but of their deaths. The act of non-resistance is a national Russian feature, an authentic religious discovery of the newly-converted Russian Christians. A reflection of this evangelical light can be seen in Prince Vladimir’s doubts about the legitimacy of the execution of robbers. The bishops who said he must execute robbers would hardly have required from his sons a useless sacrificial death. [2]

Western theologians have recently come up with the term “narrative theology”, but for Orthodox Christians there has always been narrative theology, in the form of the lives of the saints (hagiography). The actions of Prince Vladimir and his sons Boris and Gleb speak louder than words. “Theology”, if taken literally does mean words, words about God. But again, it is understood differently by Orthodox and Western theologians. For the Orthodox, a theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.

There are only three Orthodox saints who are given the epithet “theologian”: St John the Divine, St Gregory Naziansus and St Simeon the New Theologian. Orthodoxy has no “systematic theology” in the Western sense. The nearest thing to Western “systematic theology” is perhaps the exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St John of Damascus, but it is not very systematic, and is not complete.

A friend of mine once wrote

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:24)
Jesus shows us that he gives us his word only on condition that it holds unconditional power over us. We are not to select, interpret, apply, test or consider this word, nor are we to make it an aim or ideal. We are only to hear and do it. It also is not for us to understand – it stands over us. The Bible does not depend on our opinion for its importance; it is important because it is God’s judgement. Either we decide about the Bible, or in the Bible Christ has decided about us. [3]

And that is what we see in St Prince Vladimir. He did not select, interpret, apply, test or consider the word of God. He heard it and did it, and abolished capital punishment.


  • [1] Nicolas Zernov, The Russians and their Church (London, SPCK, 1978), p. 7.
  • [2] G.P. Fedotov. The Russian religious mind (New York, Harper & Row, 1960), p. 104.
  • [3] John Davies. “Religion versus God” (Paper read at the second national conference of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, Modderpoort, 1960).


For more on some of the differences between the Orthodox and Western approchaes, see The Orthodox mind.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh S permalink
    30 January 2008 4:09 pm

    There seems to be an assumption that our Lord Jesus Christ did not come into the world to save sinners, but to punish them, because saving them would weaken moral judgment.

    That’s an interesting hypothesis, but lacks any basis in Western theology itself. The idea is rather that Jesus (among other things) took the punishment sinners rightly deserved. This follows from the fact that Hell isn’t therapy (for non-Platonists, anyway).

  2. 30 January 2008 7:32 pm


    The point here is that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The church is not a podium for the perfect, but a hospital for sinners. Thereapy — healing the sin-sick, is what
    it’s all about.

  3. 27 March 2008 5:38 am

    I agree with Steve

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