“No one can fault Jonathan Merritt for lack of audacity.”
Such was the opening line of a rebuttal to my commentary on Christian corporal punishment by David Prince, professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s not the first time a blogger has opened an article with a backhanded compliment, but one can only hope that Prince trains young preachers to interject more grace into their sermon introductions.
But the irony of Prince’s tone stretches far beyond his opener. While chiding me for “audacity" and “bravado,” and calling the article a “short piece that reads more like a tantrum,” he goes on to make an audacious assertion himself: “Merritt is domesticating Scripture to fit the prevailing spirit of the age.”
The most effective way to combat “bravado” is apparently to supersede it.
Prince’s insult sounds fresh at first, but only to those who haven’t followed such debates in evangelical circles. It’s actually a recycled meme that is more tired than novel. For example, when William Webb, adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Tyndale Seminary wrote Corporal Punishment in the Bible, Prince’s colleague Thomas Schreiner said Webb’s views would lead to “domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions.” Sound familiar?
It’s a textbook marginalization tactic used by religious and political partisans: drag out a boogeyman from under the bed to send people running. Leftist partisans will simply call their opponent a “fundamentalist.” And those on the Right call their opponent a “liberal” or claim they are sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern culture. In the end, [tweetable]assuming anti-spanking Christians are feckless is like assuming pro-spanking Christians are heartless.[/tweetable] And simply saying so doesn’t make it true.
Interestingly, it is Prince who actually seems to be bowing to the prevailing winds of a larger community. By his own admission, he is concerned with “the majority opinion of evangelical biblical scholarship” and alarmed that “Merritt rejects the majority report” and cites examples of those who are “representative of the majority evangelical understanding.” He may not be bowing to modern culture, but this article appears to genuflect to evangelical culture. The latter is no more noble than the former.
But whether a majority supports a belief is irrelevant to whether or not that belief is true. So why is Prince so concerned with conforming to the “majority opinion?” It’s difficult to say.
Even still, if you’re the kind of reader who can "eat the fish and spit out the bones," you should still give Prince’s essay a read. In fits and starts, he makes interesting counter-arguments to the debate that should be seriously considered. He cites relevant commentators such as Tremper Longman whose treatment of relevant verses in Proverbs cannot be dismissed out of hand.
These arguments may change your mind, even though they have not changed mine. I still believe, for example, that one must never build an entire ethic upon the book of Proverbs. It is not a book of universal and literal commands, but rather a collection of general wise aphorisms that often bear the fingerprints of the culture in which they were written.
Even the conservative editors of Christianity Today recognized this when they editorialized on the matter of corporal punishment in “Thou Shalt Not Abuse: Reconsidering Spanking”:
We also believe it is more consistent with the full counsel of Scripture—in short, more biblical—to provide relief to people in pain than to actually "give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter" (Prov. 31:6, NASB). In the same way, it is more biblical to understand the praise of "the rod" as a reference to discipline than to limit its application to physical blows.
The editors of this “evangelical publication of record” conclude "God's first and ultimate response to his children's rebellion is not to treat them violently." Prince makes no mention of this editorial presumably because it does not conform with the “majority.”
Like the editors of Christianity Today, my argument is not that the Bible forbids spanking—though I think the non-violent principles of the New Testament seem to lead us away from it—but rather that the Bible does not require it. There are many Bible scholars who agree with this position, though they may not win in a nose-counting contest.
Additionally, I do not think Christians can ignore the findings of social science as many in the evangelical majority do. A growing body of research shows that corporal punishment is not effective, increases the risk of child abuse, and can cause emotional and psychological damage. It also shows that when parents who claim to spank their children rarely or calmly are monitored, it turns out they spank more frequently and often out of anger.
Scientific data may not be sufficient for evangelicals to construct an entire ethic, but it is significant and cannot be dismissed. When science is considered in light of what the Bible does and does not say about this matter, I have concluded (along with many other Christians) that spanking is not advisable.
If that is a position of “audacity” or “bravado,” so be it.