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Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II

September 13th, 2009 by Matt

In a previous post, Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part I, I discussed some translations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue. I began with the King James Version (KJV), “thou shall not kill.”[1] I looked at problems with this translation most famously raised by Augustine. The New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translate the word rasah as “murder” in an attempt to avoid these problems. However, as I noted in my previous post, this translation fails to capture accurately the use of rasah in Hebrew and turns the command into an empty tautology.

Augustine’s Interpretation
I want to suggest that an adequate understanding or account of the sixth commandment was suggested by Augustine or at least can be constructed from his writings. In Book One of The City of God, Augustine addressed the question of whether suicide is lawful and concluded that it is not. What is interesting is how Augustine interpreted and applied the sixth commandment in doing this.

Augustine’s argument against suicide consists of three observations. Firstly, Augustine takes the commandment fairly literally as forbidding homicide. He states, “The commandment is ‘Thou shall not kill man.’”[2] We saw in the last post that there is a sensible basis for this. The term literally means to slay and is predicated only of human beings; further, while in most instances it is used of unjustified killing, it can be used of a lawful execution. The slaying of humans is a common meaning to the different nuances that its use takes in the text.

The obvious problem for such a reading is that elsewhere the scriptures seem to allow, even command, killing in certain instances. This does not perplex Augustine,

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”[3]

Augustine’s answer is straightforward. The universal prohibition is the general rule while the specific commands are the exceptions to this rule. The law prohibits homicide; however, the law must be read in its context and not in isolation and, when this is done, one realises that other commands and prohibitions offer qualifications or exceptions to this general rule.

There are several reasons for accepting this way of interpreting the sixth commandment. Firstly, it is in other areas a matter of common-sense; as Bahnsen notes,

Human communication by means of language would come to a grinding halt if it were illegitimate ever to express yourself by way of generalizations which do not explicitly acknowledge qualifications and exceptions. Lawyers may specialize in the fine print of complicated legal contracts, but even they do not speak that way in ordinary discourse. A father who asserts that his son is a fine basketball player is not guilty of falsehood or deception simply because he does not add that, of course, his son has some bad games.

Generalizations which state an accurate summary or the prevailing principle are not, as generalizations, faulty or inaccurate.[4]

In fact, not only is this a matter of common-sense, it is a method followed elsewhere in scripture. For example in Exodus 21:12,

Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately…

Here we see a universal principle “Any one who strikes a man and kills him shall be put to death” and then immediately this principle is qualified in the proceeding verses. Moreover, contrary to Bahnsen, this type of writing is common even in legal circles. Even contemporary, legal codes often have a general, universal principle laid down regarding homicide or assault and then add specific exceptions which one can appeal to as a defence to committing actions which fall within the broad definition of the general rule.[5]

As Madeleine has pointed out to me, the legal maxim ‘lex specialis derogat legi generali’ (specific rules override general rules) is still used in legal interpretation today. She said,

If my lecturer said to the class, I want you to go straight to the library and get started on your assignments but then he said, Madeleine and Matt I want to see you two before you leave he would not be saying that he did not want everyone to go straight to the library and start their assignments just because he gave a specific, contradictory instruction to Matt and I and he wouldn’t be saying that we did not have to go to the library to start our assignments after he had finished speaking to us (once the exception no longer applies) because his specific instructions to us do not override the general instruction to all.[6]

Secondly, the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of scripture supports this kind of interpretation. We have a general command prohibiting homicide; then we have more specific rules commanding or permitting homicide in certain situations. To interpret the command as absolute and unqualified would be to render the text internally incoherent.

This leaves two other options; either one understands the general prohibition as the exception to the more specific ones or the specific ones as exceptions to the general rule. The former option is problematic. If a command permitting killing in a certain context is subject to an exception that you can never kill at all then the specific command is redundant and pointless. On the other hand, a general rule that states “do not kill,” except in certain specified circumstances is not redundant. This then seems the more sensible approach.

A third reason for Augustine’s interpretation follows from a voluntarist understanding of the moral law. In several previous posts I have defended a voluntarist (divine command theory) account of the moral law; one that states that actions are right or wrong in virtue of their being commanded by God. On this account, what is fundamentally wrong about homicide is that it violates the law of God. Now, just as homicide is wrong because it violates the law of God, when God commands or permits homicide in a certain context the very property that makes killing wrong ceases to be present and hence the law is not being broken in that instance. It follows then that the killing in question is not wrong in this instance. This voluntarist understanding of Augustine’s position has a long history and is suggested by Bernard of Clairvaux[7] and Aquinas,[8] as well as those 14th century voluntarists such as Andreas de Novo.[9] Contemporary defenders of this position are Philip Quinn[10] and William Lane Craig.[11]

Augustine’s position then is to interpret the command as a prohibition on homicide, understanding that in its context it is subject to qualification and exceptions provided elsewhere in the other commands of the law. His basic insight is that the law lays down the general principle “thou shall not kill man;” given that this is the general norm, one is to assume that any given act of homicide is prohibited unless the law elsewhere qualifies this rule or lays down an exception.

This means that in practice the commandment forbids killing a human being without justification, where justification is construed as an excuse or permission granted by God’s law. In the absence of any other command or permission to the contrary, one should refrain from homicide. In this respect homicide differs from an action that is permissible. One does not need a reason or justification for engaging in a permissible action as one can do it for any reason at all or even no reason. However, because God condemns homicide one needs a reason drawn from the law of God itself before one can engage in it licitly.

This interpretation clarifies Augustine’s argument that suicide is unlawful. Augustine justifies his conclusion by defending two points. Firstly, “he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.”[12] Secondly, “It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books can there be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life.”[13] He adds, “in the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid!”[14]

In other words suicide is homicide and the law does not qualify or grant exclusions to suicide, so suicide is unlawful. It is clear that this inference presupposes the interpretation of the commandment I have defended above. Homicide is unlawful unless the law of God provides grounds or exceptions to the general rule.

In summation, the sixth commandment offers a general prohibition on homicide. This prohibition is binding unless a specific exception or qualification is found elsewhere in the law of God showing that a particular instance of homicide is licit. The procedure in applying the law is then as follows; first, ascertain whether the action in question is homicide and then ask whether it falls under any lawful exception. If an act is homicide then prima facie it is unlawful and a positive argument from some other command is needed to justify the action if it is to be defensible.

[1] Exodus 20:13 KJV.
Ibid, 1:20.
Ibid, 1:21.
Greg L Bahnsen “Cross Examination: In Defense of TheonomyThe Counsel of Chalcedon XIV:5-6 (1992).
I am thankful to David Simpkin for bringing this point to my attention.
I am grateful to my wife, Madeleine Flannagan, for sharing this example she developed from Paul Rishworth.
Bernard of Clairvaux On Precept and Dispensation III.6.
Aquinas Summa Theologicae I-II q 800, a. 8, ad 3.
Andrea de Novo Castro Primium Scripturum Sententiarium d 48, q 2, a 2 Concl. 2. I.
Phillip Quinn “The Recent Revival of Divine Command Ethics” Research Philosophy-and Phenomenological Research (Fall 1990) 345-365.
William Lane Craig & Edwin Curley “Does the Christian God Exist?” A debate held at the University of Michigan (5 February 1998).
Augustine City of God 1:21.

Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part I

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11 responses so far ↓

  • A big jump from Moses to Augustine don’t you think? I think there may be someone quite important between these two men whose statements upon the sixth commandment are not really in line with Augustine’s. I think you would do well to pay a little more attention to this one.

  • Hi Max,
    I addressed that person and his interpretation in a previous post.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II =-.

  • Your take is parallel to Genesis 9

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man,/
    by man shall his blood be shed,/
    for God made man in his own image.

    General condemnation of killing. Specific allowance to kill as punishment.

    Your claim may be correct. (I am often noting myself that the specific overrides the general). But I think the word may have a predatory connotation.
    .-= My last blog-post ..A definition of information =-.

  • Why is suicide unlawful? Agreed it is homicide in that a person is killed, but what is wrong with killing myself? I own my own life, that is I have a property right in my own life and killing myself is no different than destroying my car or house or any other property I own. It is mine to do with as I wish. Unless I don’t have a property right in my own life, that God owns my life and killing myself would deprive God of His property.

  • Mark,

    The idea that a man’s rights are identical to his property rights is far from obvious, notwithstanding some libertarians equating them. For example, most people believe that some rights are inalienable, and cannot therefore be dealt with or traded. For example, my right of freedom of speech or my right to seek justice via the courts can’t be fully offered in exchange for some bargain. In the interests of justice, if I purported to make such a bargain, such a restriction would not be upheld. In the same way if I promised a creditor the right to take my life should I default on the credit contract, it would be no defence for taking my life should I fail to repay. So, if I can’t bargain away my right to life for credit, why should I be able to take my own life in suicide?
    .-= My last blog-post ..Government and Parliament Bypass Consultation on Deposit Guarantee Scheme =-.

  • I think you have answered your own question.

  • David Hillary,

    I disagree, I maintain I do have the right to contract with someone to end my life, subject to whatever conditions are agreed, whether it is as a consequence of my failure to pay my debts or if I am terminally ill and wish to end my life now rather than suffer any more. I agree that such an action is however contrary to law, God’s and man’s. Simply because an action is contrary to law does not make it morally wrong to engage in that action.

  • Mark V

    Well I guess you follow Walter Block on that one. It’s in the spirit of Rothbard, one dimensional analysis of complex and conflicting human problems, conceiving law as a designed mechanism rather than a market selected and evolving set of institutions.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Government and Parliament Bypass Consultation on Deposit Guarantee Scheme =-.

  • very interesting articcle…I believe that suicide is againts christian belief.

  • thanks for sharing, very serious but interesting post

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