St. Paul’s Punishment Theory, Part I

Did St. Paul have a theory of punishment? In The Mighty and the Almighty, Paul Writing to the RomansProfessor Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that he did. In this post, I’ll lay out Prof. Wolterstorff’s claims. In the next, I’ll consider them and ask some questions about his interpretation and also about the merits of the punishment theory he ascribes to Paul.

Here’s the context. In Chapter 8 of the book, Wolterstorff has in mind only one of the two dualities of authority that make up his core thesis–the issue of state authority mediating divine authority. In discussing that issue, he explores the extremely difficult and dense Epistle of Paul to the Romans, and specifically Romans 12 and 13. Here Paul is giving some advice to members of the Church about how they should behave toward and within the various institutions that formed civil society: the family, business relationships, and the Roman empire, for example. In Chapter 12, Paul instructs Church members never to “avenge” themselves, but to “leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” Here is the text of the first seven verses of Chapter 13:

1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Wolterstorff says that one standard interpretation of these two Chapters is that 12 contains instructions as to individual conduct, while 13 describes official state action. On that interpretation, the individual is not to “avenge” himself against wrongdoing, but the state may “avenge” that same wrongdoing. Wolterstorff equates “vengeance” with retribution, and so possibly with retributivist reasons for punishment. “The core idea of retribution,” he writes, “is paying back evil with evil, redressing the harm done to the victim with an equivalent harm done to the wrongdoer.” And in rejecting the standard interpretation of Romans 12 and 13, Wolterstorff claims that retributivism understood in this fashion is completely at odds with Jesus’s rejection of this sort of code of reciprocity, a rejection that Paul (at earlier points in Chapter 12 of the Epistle) repeats. From this, Wolterstorff ascribes to Jesus, and so also to Paul, a consequentialist understanding of punishment: “If hard treatment is to be imposed on the wrongdoer, let it be for the sake of achieving some good in his life and/or the lives of others.”

But there is a problem with this interpretation. For in Chapter 13, verse 4 of the Epistle, Paul speaks of the government “execut[ing] wrath upon him that doeth evil.” How does a minister of justice, who is himself also a minister of God in the Christian understanding advanced by Wolterstorff, execute wrath (God’s wrath?) upon the wicked without imposing punishment for retributivist reasons?

Wolterstorff offers the following solution. What this passage means is that the state is empowered to reprove and punish the evil-doer in the way that a parent reproves and punishes his or her children. Government, as the servant of God, has a “God-assigned task”: its function is not retribution but the expression of wrath in response to evil-doing, and the concomitant expression of support for the doing of good. Here is Wolterstorff:

As to what God authorizes the state to do, I am reminded of a way of understanding punishment that has recently entered the lists and that I find compelling, the so-called expressive theory….The expressive theory says that punishment of a wrongdoer should not be understood as retribution–redressing harm with harm–but as a way of reproving what he did and of expressing anger at him for having done it. Speaking anachronistically, Paul was employing the expressive theory of punishment rather than the retributive theory in stating what God assigns government to do. (88-89)

Yet Wolterstorff does not believe that Paul is urging the state to express God’s wrath; precisely whose wrath the state is empowered to express is left unclear. In fact, in light of the “social benefits that Paul cites of government carrying out its assignment,” it seems that the expression of (somebody’s) wrath is only one sort of consequentialist justification for state-imposed punishment. Wolterstorff interprets Paul as advocating a more broadly liberal, consequentialist theory of punishment, to include deterring wrongful conduct: “The God-assigned task of government is to exercise governance over the public for the curbing of wrongdoing.” (90)

These are the broad outlines of Wolterstorff’s interpretation of St. Paul’s theory of punishment. In my next post, I will raise some questions both about the interpretation and about expressivist theories more broadly.

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