Is Spanking Your Child Ultimately Unbiblical?

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William Webb’s first book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (IVP, 2001), advocated a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic.”

He argued that certain things in the Old Testament (like slavery and the treatment of women) are “less than ultimate,” “not so pretty,” and “problematic.” Webb argues that “God in a pastoral sense accommodates himself to meeting people and society where they are in their existing  social ethic and (from there) he gently moves them with incremental steps  towards something better. . . . Incremental movement within Scripture reveals a God who is willing to live with the tension between an absolute ethic in theory and the reality of guiding real people in practice towards such a goal.”

In that book he concluded that the spirit or movement in the biblical text itself suggests the abolition of slavery and the establishment of egalitarianism with regard to men and women, but that the commands regarding homosexuality are transcultural.

In 2002 Tom Schreiner provided a long review of the book, taking pains to explain Webb’s position and to highlight many of his good insights, and then showing some of the book’s key weaknesses. For example:

Many good insights are contained in these principles, but his approach to solving the questions raised falls prey to abstraction and overlooks the rich texture of redemptive history. Despite some good insights, the book tends towards an artificial workbook approach in solving the issues raised. In other words, the book fails because it is not clearly founded on biblical theology.

In other words, Webb “tends to raise issues of application in an abstract fashion instead of integrating them well with the story line of the Bible.”

Webb now has a new book out, applying his hermeneutical paradigm to the issue of spanking: Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic (IVP, 2011). One of his arguments is that contemporary evangelical advocates of spanking (e.g., James Dobson, Focus on the Family, Wayne Grudem, Albert Mohler, Andreas Köstenberger, Paul Wegner) have gone “beyond the Bible” and “softened” what the Bible really teaches about corporal punishment. Webb sees this as a good thing—he just thinks they are inconsistent and that they don’t go far enough to the true redemptive spirit of the biblical texts, which would be no corporal punishment at all for children.

Once again, Schreiner has taken the time to work through this work and provides for us a helpful review at TGC Reviews.

Here, in summary form, are Schreiner’s critiques of this new work: “First, Webb doesn’t understand redemptive history, even though he calls his hermeneutic ‘redemptive-movement.'” Second, “Despite Webb’s protests, he fails to perceive the genre differences between regulations in the Torah and proverbial statements.” In other words, he “merges and mashes together different genres of literature in drawing his conclusions.” Schreiner explains:

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.

I am thankful for Schreiner’s careful work on these issues. You can read his whole review here.

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