It is the intent of Poythress in his signature work “The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses”, to do two things: one, to demonstrate to the reader exactly how the ancient Hebrew traditions described in the Torah relate to and foreshadow the coming messiah Jesus Christ, and two, to compare and contrast the punishments that the Old Testament prescribes for certain crimes to the penalties imposed by our modern penal system today. The aim of this review, however, will be to analyze Poythress’ treatment of his latter point. Given that Poythress has obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics as well as a Th.D. in New Testament, along with several other advanced degrees, it is certainly safe to say that he has the credentials needed to make the reading of this work worthy of your time and effort. As helpful and edifying as I personally found this book to be, I unreservedly recommend this reading to anybody who wants to more fully grasp the prefiguring of Christ in the Old Testament law.
Again, I will only be dealing with “Part II” of this book where Poythress devotes 120+ pages to examining specific penalties of the Mosaic Law. He begins this section by outlining the Bible’s prescribed penalties for false worship, namely holy war. Here the author offers a very effective justification of Israel’s use of holy war to combat false worship, but he is then very careful to explain how the institution of the new covenant through Jesus Christ has since rendered holy war an unfitting punishment for false worship, concluding that “until the time of Christ’s coming, then, false worship is to be met with the spiritual power of the gospel, not with physical punishments.” (Vern Poythress 1991, 153).
Poythress continues his analysis by discussing Old Testament punishments for many other crimes such as theft, murder, assault, usurpation of authority, and sexual crimes. In each case, he offers to the reader his opinion on what a principally equivalent punishment would look like in modern contexts. From there he proceeds to explain what he sees as the main difference between the biblical methods of penalty versus the methods most employed by today’s societies. Biblical penalties, he argues, propose justice as being found in “restoration and punishment.” That is to say that “each crime deserves a penalty that justly fits it, a penalty that restores damage and brings balanced punishment on the offender” (Vern Poythress 1991, 162), whereas modern punishments promote a system of “deterrence and rehabilitation”, that is, “encouraging them not to commit the crime in the first place (deterrence) or helping them out of a pattern of crime (rehabilitation)” (Vern Poythress 1991, 162). He maintains that modern “justice” relies too heavily on deterrence and rehabilitation rather than restoration and punishment. Although he does admit that in some instances the Old Testament does prescribe methods of deterrence and rehabilitation, he holds to the conviction that these instances are few and that complete dependence upon deterrence and rehabilitation alone blatantly ignores the major emphasis that the Mosaic Law places on the idea of restoration and punishment.
So as you can see, Poythress’ treatment of this subject is expansive and detailed. He doesn’t cut any corners or ignore any difficult issues, and for the most part, in my opinion, his ideas are respectable and noteworthy. He does a very good job of taking a subject as intricate as the Old Testament law and presenting it in such a way that is clear, concise, and easily understandable by any type of reader. However, this does not mean that his work is completely exempt from criticism. For example, Poythress’ hermeneutic seems inconsistent throughout. There are instances when he will offer an opinion on an issue and be able to explain very succinctly from Scripture why he believes his opinion to be valid. But then there are other instances when Poythress resorts to philosophical and ethical reasoning to support his conclusions, conspicuously leaving out how Scripture plays into his decisions. He does this even when his reasoning for one deduction completely contradicts his reasoning for another.
Let me give you an example. In the instance of unruly children, Poythress holds to the conviction that the death penalty that the Old Testament prescribes is still applicable and should still be carried out today. This punishment seems extremely harsh, as Poythress acknowledges, but notice how he defends his position:
“The death penalty for wholesale violation of parental authority may seem harsh to modern sentiments. But I would argue that it is not only just but realistic…If a person does not receive instruction from parents, the chances of receiving instruction from the state’s more impersonal discipline are nil. The person who rebels in wholesale fashion against parents will also rebel against the state and create general destruction and disorder until eliminated. It is mere sentimentality to refuse to come to grips with this reality.” (Vern Poythress 1991, 189)
It is plainly clear that in this instance Poythress is resorting to a hermeneutic that caters to the benefit of society at large. According to Poythress, an unruly child should be killed as a means to prevent the child from causing trouble after he or she has entered larger society. However, this is inconsistent with the reasoning Poythress uses to advocate a high role of restoration and punishment when determining penalties for crimes: “Only when we appeal to principles of justice and fit retribution can we avoid undue severity and undue leniency. Only so do we treat criminals as responsible human beings rather than as mere objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the larger society” (Vern Poythress 1991, 225-226) (emphasis added by author). This is obviously in direct contradiction to Poythress’ earlier comments about by we should still kill unruly children.
But say for instance Poythress did in fact apply his hermeneutic of “restoration and punishment” to the case of the unruly child. This unfortunately would lead us to another contradiction. If Poythress were to be consistent in his reasoning, then just “restoration and punishment” for a child who usurps the authority of its parents would be something similar to imprisonment. According to Poythress’ idea of “fit retribution”, the child must pay back to its parents the authority that he or she robbed, therefore submitting themselves back under the parents’ authority, ideally for the amount of time that the child spent in rebellion. Then, the child must on top of the restoration pay a penalty similar to the offence that he or she inflicted on the parents. The child took away all authority of the parents; therefore all authority must be taken away from the child. What a better way to carry out that punishment than imprisonment? This seems to be a much more consistent conclusion than killing the child. But this penalty flies right in the face of the entire chapter that Poythress devotes to explaining why he believes that imprisonment is an inadequate and inefficient means of administering justice (Vern Poythress 1991, 235-240). So either route Poythress could have taken, an inconsistency would have arisen. This proves to me the inadequacy of the hermeneutic that Poythress relies on to draw his conclusions. It would have served Poythress better, as well as his readers, if he would have developed his hermeneutic a little more before tackling some of these issues.
However, in spite of Poythress’ hermeneutical inconsistency, this book is still one that holds priceless treasures for the Christ-centered Christian. Poythress’ views allow us to understand more fully how all of Scripture points to Christ. He is able to take certain aspects of the Bible that may seem boring and irrelevant to us today and show us how they are actually vehicles to show us amazing aspects of the glory of Christ. And for that reason, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to any and everybody.
In conclusion, Poythress has provided us with an effective treatment of Old Testament law and how our current legal system matches up. His writing style is very readable and his explanations are pointed and concise, as would be expected from such a distinguished scholar. The only weak point in this work is the author’s hermeneutical irregularity, which will leave most critical readers slightly annoyed and longing for consistency. However, the discrepancies that do arise are few and far between, and do not detract enough from the work to render its value nil. The treasures in this book are worth digging through a little dirt to find.
Also published on Medium.