David B. Hart once told me and a room full of students that one of his chief definitions of an incompetent moral theologian is one who thinks he can justify capital punishment from the teachings of Paul or from the Gospel of Christ.Well, them's fightin' words in their extremity, so I started thinking about the possible lines of Hart's thought, and what might be said in response.
Let me note here that I no longer have an opinion on capital punishment, or rather, only a coward's opinion. Because we are no longer a nomadic or impoverished village society, and can afford to spare a few people to keep dangerous criminals separate from the population, capital punishment is no longer the only practical choice. As with teachings on divorce, the Christian can understand that some things were allowed by the law as an accommodation in the OT, but might be superseded now. The increased danger of getting the wrong criminal as a society's population increases makes caution, and perhaps even forbearance, more reasonable. For these reasons I am uncertainly against capital punishment. I am aware of the arguments about deterrence, bringing repentance to a focus, and the possible psychological need humans have for justice. I don't reject these arguments, I just don't think about the issue much, and haven't for decades. Perhaps I should revisit it.
I was pleased then, when Hart wrote a followup essay at First Things. He anticipated my objections - or perhaps I should say that the objections I tried on covered most of the better ones - and answered them nicely. I don't know that he has entirely convinced me. For that, I will likely need some repetition and reflection. But my experience reading the essay was similar to reading many of Lewis's God In The Dock essays in my 20's: an initial disagreement, brought sharply into question by solid logic.
It's a nice bit of reasoning.