(Criminalizing) blasphemy is wrong?: a response to Doug Wilson...
Over at Blog and Mablog, Pastor Doug Wilson takes on blasphemy laws. He says some unhelpful things that merit a response. So here goes.
First, Pastor Wilson incorrectly defines “blasphemy” in such a way that the word loses its central meaning and purpose. Pastor Wilson writes: “In Scripture, blasphemy is railing, vituperative, incendiary, and inflammatory language. It is not mild disagreement – even if the disagreement is registered on a very important topic.” He adds, “Also in Scripture, blasphemy is defined by what is going on – the manner or content of speaking – and not defined by whether or not it is directed against divine things.” (emphasis added.) At times, Pastor Wilson treats blasphemy as equivalent to “fighting words” or “slander.”
This gives the reader a false impression of what blasphemy is and leaves him wondering why Christians for centuries have taken it so seriously they’ve criminalized it along with slander...
Let’s start with a definition from a Bible dictionary, which first provides a meaning from the Old Testament and then an expanded meaning from the New Testament. Blasphemy’s Old Testament meaning is “an act of effrontery in which the honour of God is insulted by man. The proper object of the verb is the name of God, which is cursed or reviled instead of being honored.” New Bible Dictionary 142 (3d ed. 2006) (eds. I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, & D.J. Wiseman).
The meaning of “blasphemy,” while extended in the New Testament, shows that God’s honor is still the fundamental concern:
God is blasphemed also in his representatives. So the word is used of Moses (Acts 6:11); Paul (Rom. 3:8; 1 Cor. 4:12; 10:30); and especially the Lord Jesus, in his ministry of forgiveness (Mk. 2:7 and parallels), at his *trial (Mk. 14:61-64), and at Calvary (Mt. 27:39; Lk. 23:39). Because these representatives embody the truth of God himself (and our Lord in a unique way), an insulting word spoken against them and their teaching is really directed against the God in whose name they speak (so Mt. 10:40; Lk. 10:16) . . . .
The term is also used, in a weaker sense of slanderous language addressed to men (e.g. Mk. 3:28; 7:22; Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Tit. 3:2). Here the best translation is ‘slander, abuse.’ These verses condemn a prevalent vice; but their warning may be grounded in a theological as well as an ethical context if we remember Jas. 3:9. Men are not to be cursed because on them, as men, the ‘formal’ image of God is stamped and the human person is in some sense, God’s representative on earth (cf. Gn. 9:6). Id.
Scripturally speaking, then, detraction from God’s honor, and not man’s, is the sin of blasphemy.
The civil law against blasphemy in Christian countries pursues the same fundamental end: promotion of the fear, honor, and reverence of God. An American legal dictionary defines “Blasphemy” as:
Any oral or written reproach maliciously cast upon God, His name, attributes, or religion. In general, blasphemy may be described as consisting in speaking evil of the Deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God. It is purposely using words concerning God calculated and designed to impair and destroy the reverence, respect, and confidence due to Him as the intelligent creator, governor, and judge of the world. It embraces the idea of detraction, when used toward the Supreme Being, as ‘calumny’ usually carries the same idea when applied to an individual. It is a willful and malicious attempt to lessen men’s reverence of God by denying His existence, or His attributes as an intelligent creator, governor, and judge of men, and to prevent their having confidence in Him as such. While blasphemy statutes still exist in certain states, such seldom, if ever, are enforced.
In English law, blasphemy is the offense of speaking matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the Book of Common Prayer, intended to wound the feelings of mankind or to excite contempt and hatred against the church by law established, or to promote immorality. Black’s Law Dictionary 171 (6th ed. 1990).
Similarly, the primary meaning of “blasphemy” recorded in a major English-language dictionary is: “Profane speaking of God or sacred things; impious irreverence.” II Oxford English Dictionary 264 (2d ed. 1989). The second and obsolete meaning is “Slander, evil speaking, defamation.” Id.
The point of this is not to bury us in dictionary definitions. The point is to show that Pastor Wilson’s definition of blasphemy is wrong and so necessarily is the evaluation of blasphemy laws he builds on that error. Yes, the Greek word for blasphemy is sometimes used to mean slander, but that is a secondary and weaker sense.
Pastor Wilson treats blasphemy laws as if their fundamental purpose is to keep the peace among men. They do serve that purpose, especially in cultures that take God seriously. But that’s small potatoes cosmically. The fundamental purpose of blasphemy laws is for the commonwealth to keep the peace with the Living God. The law so regards God as holy that no evil word may be publicly spoken against Him—by a Christian, an infidel, or pagan—without drawing civil censure.
Second, Pastor Wilson’s poor definitional foundation causes serious problems in his assessment of blasphemy laws. Pastor Wilson claims it’s possible for Christians to commit blasphemy against false gods: “In addition, it would be possible to blaspheme false gods, which Paul’s pagan friends in Ephesus were glad he had not done (Acts 19:37).” False gods, to the contrary, have no honor deserving of protection by laws of the land. They should be exposed as frauds.
Elijah didn’t blaspheme Baal or slander that idol’s 450 prophets at the showdown on Mount Carmel:
Then they [i.e., Baal’s prophets] took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, ‘O Baal, answer us.’ But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made. It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.’ (1Kings 18:26-27.)
By Pastor Wilson’s standard, these are “fighting words” and this is blasphemy of a false god.
Then again, what about godly King Josiah’s remediation of the land whose spiritual condition at the time resembled Hiroshima after the atomic blast? His zeal and intensity are mind-boggling. He was no respecter of false gods or their priests.
Among other things, King Josiah brought out from God’s temple all the vessels that were made for Baal, Ashera, and all the host of heaven and burned them. He broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes. He defiled the high places where the priests burned incense. He defiled the place of burning so that people would stop sacrificing their children to Molech. He defiled altars with human bones that were burned or ground to dust. He slaughtered priests on altars on the high places. (2 Kings 23.) About every idol and false god man could dream up was defiled. This wasn’t blasphemy.
Likewise, the Apostle Paul didn’t blaspheme Athena by rebuking the men of Athens for their “ignorance” in “thinking the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” (Acts 18:23, 29.)
Surveying the Christian character of American law at the time, a New York lawyer had this to say about the logical impossibility of multicultural profane swearing:
“There is not a state perhaps in the union—I am sure there are not many, for I have searched far without finding one—in which penalties are not established by law against profane swearing. And again I ask, why is this, if not because it is found written, ‘thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy god in vain?’ What is it to swear profanely? Is it to insult the deities of Hindostan or of ancient Rome? to speak lightly of Vishnoo or of Jupiter-tonans? Or is it rather, to do irreverence to the christian’s God? Is there any form of the offence but this, that could possibly attract the notice of the laws in question?” Henry Whiting Warner, An Inquiry into the Moral and Religious Character of the American Government 90 (1838) (emphasis in original) (can be found on Google Books).
Pastor Wilson’s belief that false gods can be blasphemed seems suspiciously consistent with what the world has been telling us for some time and, of late, with more urgency. After the recent Muslim riots and terrorist attacks, NPR busted out legal experts to suggest that perhaps there were limits to First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech. Fighting words has always been a category of unprotected speech, you see. With advances in technology and instantaneous communication around the world . . . Well, you get the picture.
Because idolatrous mobs 8,000 miles away might riot and incommode American foreign policy escapades, Christians will have less freedom to bear witness to Jesus Christ in America.
No. We can’t all just get along. We must not hand over what remains of our birthright--freedom of Christian conscience--for the pottage of false peace. We must not drop our claims to exclusive Truth. We must not dishonor Almighty God by making nice with false gods. We must love God and our neighbor by honoring God’s holiness.