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I AM THE LORD YOUR GODChristian Reflections on the Ten Commandments
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE DECALOGUE IN CHURCH AND SOCIETY
The Ten Commandments in the Church in a Postmodern World
The remarks that follow are meant to introduce the subject of this book - the Decalogue. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the Ten Commandments require introduction. Through most of the course of Christian history, this summary of the law, and Christ's summary of this summary ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself"), would have required little introduction. They lay at the heart of Christian piety, standing there both as a standard of public behavior and as a means for individuals to examine conscience and direct their life's future course. Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists all gave the Decalogue a prominent place in public life, public worship, and private devotion. My sense, however, is that within mainline Protestantism the Ten Commandments have been displaced in all these areas by more personal and subjective standards for measuring the health of society and the state of the soul. Indeed, the entire notion of commandments of this or any other sort, in the minds of many, has acquired an unattractive patina. Instead of suggesting the way people are to walk before God, instead of inscribing a common moral law, instead of being a light to the feet of lost humankind, they suggest unpleasant, even destructive, limitations on the lives of individuals that diminish the diversity of societies, constrain the freedom of persons, and inhibit the development of selves. The notion of commandments, in short, cuts across the very way in which we now describe ourselves as moral agents; i.e., as individuals, persons, and selves who are free agents with rights rather than embodied beings with intellect, conscience, and will, placed by God in a morally ordered universe in which we are to live in obedience to a moral law.
To this ecclesial and cultural downgrade of what for centuries had been taken as a summary of God's will for humankind, there came, not unsurprisingly, a reaction from individual officials and public interest groups that sought to inscribe the Ten Commandments in public places and imbed them in the curricula of public schools. That this effort to reestablish the Ten Commandments as a public standard has been led by Christians with Baptist roots is, to say the least, ironical. Baptists are supposed to stand for disestablishment, not establishment. One would have thought the old established churches would be the ones to cry out, but that has not proved to be the case. They have tended to follow the culture away from the notion of a public and common moral law, and toward a more individually centered ethic tied to social diversity and the flourishing of individuals. In this movement, they join more enlightened folk in seeking to "de-publicize" anything like a common morality. Matters of morals, as long as no unjustifiable harm is done to others, are said to be matters for individual conscience or matters for determination within interpretive communities, each of which may have its own take on things. The Ten Commandments do not fare well under the postmodern banners of personal flourishing and pluralism. And I say this even though the New York Times not long ago ran a series of articles on the Ten Commandments and their relevance (or lack thereof) to contemporary society. Careful reading of these presentations shows clearly that their author, Chris Hedges, could deal with the first table only by moralizing it, and with the second only in a most tentative manner. His articles leave one with the impression of a man whistling in the dark.
These observations led me to make a slight change in the original title of this chapter. I have decided to entitle it "The Ten Commandments in the Church in a Postmodern World" rather than "The Ten Commandments in the Church in Late Modernity." Modernity, be it late or early, held to the belief that there is something like a universal moral law. Modernity's most common representatives sought to root this common morality in some aspect of human nature rather than in either divine intellect or will, but they nonetheless held out for a universal moral law. It is precisely this universality that postmodernity rejects. We no longer look to an objective moral order that can be discerned by educated reason. Rather we look to communities of discourse, each with its own take on the world. In such a social world, epistemology is replaced by hermeneutics, and moral judgment is replaced by empathetic understanding.
So, if I am going to talk about the Ten Commandments in a "post" rather than "late" modern way, I must, at the outset, place them within an interpretive community, and so within the life of the church rather than within the life of humankind as such. The problem is that, though I want to do that, I do not want to do that alone. That is, I do not want to introduce the Ten Commandments as simply a Christian or Jewish thing. Neither, however, do I wish to introduce them simply as a generally negotiable form of moral wisdom. In respect to the Decalogue, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want them to inscribe God's will for humankind as such, and I want them to have a special significance within the common life of both Judaism and the church. I have come to believe that unless I can do both those things, I will not have properly introduced our subject.
The question, of course, is how a universal law can at the same time be a particular one. In search of an answer, I propose first to do a bit of historical excavation, and then state why I believe that Christians need to hold to the view that the Decalogue inscribes a universal law laid down by God in creation, and that, at the same time, it has a special significance for Christian people.
In respect to the historical excavation, I propose to begin with a review of what the magisterial Reformers had to say about the issue I have posed, and then move behind the watershed of the Reformation to the period of the early church. There, in what I take to be the exemplary writings of Saint Augustine, I hope to display a focus that faded almost to the point of invisibility in the writings of the Reformers. In a final section I propose to address the question by means of a reading of the Sermon on the Mount, which I regard as the privileged perspective on the basis of which Christians should interpret the Decalogue.
An additional word is necessary as to why these historical excavations are necessary. They are necessary, to be sure, because despite our fear of influence and our desire to be innovative (especially in respect to religion and morals), it is simply the case that thought is possible only within a tradition. About this point postmodernists are absolutely correct. We cannot think about the Ten Commandments apart from a tradition of interpretation. The only question is which tradition we inhabit. However, there is a more important reason to begin with an account of a tradition of interpretation. Given the fact that we have roamed so far from this summary of God's will for our lives, we ought, I think, to regard ourselves, in respect to our knowledge of God and God's will, as less than children, as less even than toddlers. We ought to regard ourselves as infants who must learn to crawl, that we may learn to totter, that we may learn to walk, that we may learn to run. And so we ought, as infants and children must, to learn from our parents in the faith, and most of all from those parents who gave us the Holy Scriptures.
Historical Excursus: The Reformers and the Uses of the Law
Without exception, the Reformers took the Decalogue to be a written expression from the hand of God of the law of nature written also by the hand of God upon the human heart. As all know, they discussed both the natural law and the Decalogue in large measure by reference to their uses. The uses were two in the case of Luther and three in that of Calvin. For Calvin, in its first use (the political use) the natural law (and so the Decalogue) serves as a divinely mandated means to order social life. The Reformers all believed that human reason has access to the basic laws laid down by God in creation, and that these laws make social life possible. They believed also that these laws are inscribed in the Decalogue; i.e., that the Decalogue "republishes" the natural law written originally in the human heart. In its second use (the pedagogical use) Calvin held that the natural law (and so also the Decalogue) serves to remind people of their defection from the law inscribed upon their hearts. As such, the law serves to prepare the way for the gospel. Thus Luther, like Calvin, insisted that if the natural law was to be "reawakened," it had to be preached on the basis of Scripture. Anglicans were also made well aware of this second use by the placement of either the summary of the law or the Decalogue in the anaphora of the rite of Holy Communion in Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. The idea was that conscience was to be examined in the light of the law so as to lead to a plea for mercy, and so also to a holy and effective reception of Christ's body and blood. Cranmer's rite incorporated Luther's pedagogical use into the structure of what he considered the church's central act of worship.
The liturgical setting given to the Decalogue was not taken by any of the Reformers to mean that Christians alone had access to the natural law. There was, however, for them a sense in which Christians had access to knowledge of and compliance with God's law that was unavailable to nonbelievers. Luther and Calvin most certainly believed that both knowledge of God's law and the ability to keep it had been diminished by sin. Sin functions both to cloud the mind and bind the will. So the Decalogue, they argued, was given to an elected people in order that this people would know and follow what God in his wisdom had in creation made the law of all persons. Further, both held that Christ had made known depths of the law not previously grasped and had provided power to comply with its demands not previously possessed.
Historical Excursus: The Third Use of the Law
All of which brings us to the law's third use, namely, that a new (or deeper) knowledge of the law's meaning and new ability to keep it are given to those in Christ. Luther, unlike Calvin, was not happy about ascribing a third use to the law. Nevertheless, there lies within his writings something very much like a third use. Paul Althaus, in The Ethics of Martin Luther, points out that Luther regarded the Ten Commandments as "a summary of divine teaching," and that we should "value them above all other teachings as the greatest treasure God has given us." He notes, however, that Luther's praise of the Decalogue does not refer to the Ten Commandments in their historical form, i.e., as found in Exodus 20. Rather he has in mind the Decalogue as it appears in the entire Bible, and as interpreted and fulfilled by the prophets and Christ. Luther even went so far as to say that Christ and the apostles established a "new Decalogue." In Althaus's words, "they have gone beyond, supplemented, deepened, and fulfilled the law of Moses through the new insights and understanding which Christ and his apostles, as moved by the Spirit of Christ, have brought." Luther claims that "these Decalogues are clearer than the Decalogue of Moses, just as the countenance of Christ is brighter than the countenance of Moses." Or, as Althaus says, "These new Decalogues express the intention of God's commandments better, more completely, and more deeply than the Mosaic Decalogue does." The new Decalogue may thus be regarded as inscribing not only the natural law but also what Luther calls the "Christian law." In giving the new Decalogue, Christ gives new insights and new powers. Thus it would seem that this law provides more and demands more than the natural law and so also the Decalogue, at least in its original Mosaic form. It provides new knowledge of God's will and it demands love. More than that, it demands an extreme expression of love, namely, suffering. Luther noted that even heathen, Turks and Jews must follow the natural law for the sake of peace. They must all practice some form of reciprocity in human relations. Nevertheless, such adherence among Christians, though demanded, is different because it is done out of love, which allows obedience even in the midst of suffering.
Even though I have some sympathy for Luther's worries about a righteousness based on works (and so also a third use linked to sanctification), I fail to see that there is a substantial difference between what he says about the natural law, the Decalogue, and the Christian law on the one hand, and Calvin's delineation of the natural law, the Decalogue, and the third use of the law on the other. Calvin, you will remember, like Luther, believed that the Decalogue is a republication of the natural law originally written on the human heart, but latterly on tablets of stone by the Holy Spirit. This republication was made necessary by the fall, which dulled and distorted moral knowledge and capacity. Nevertheless, even in the fallen state, both the natural law and its written version (the Decalogue) serve to order the unruly wills of people and convict them of sin in a manner that prepares the way for the gospel. These first two uses of the law are operative among unbelievers and believers alike. Reason still has power (and for Calvin considerable power) to discern this basic moral law, even if not in a perfect manner. Among believers, however, reason is corrected and will is empowered. Thus, the Decalogue takes on deeper meanings-meanings implicit from the outset, but revealed through the Spirit only to those who are in Christ.
Christians come to see that the law has at its apex the law of love, and at its base the purpose of God to gather the elect and order their lives within his kingdom. The natural law and the Decalogue in their manifold character are thus viewed as derived from this most basic principle and this most basic purpose. Calvin has no desire to develop a theory of either the natural law or its expression in the Decalogue that is self-contained or independent of Christian belief. As David Little has written, Calvin's theory of natural law "starts from the notion of love ... as the central ethical principle embodied in Christian revelation, and then 'works back' to make room for those generalizations of human nature that Calvin considered the conditions or prerequisites for making the realization of love possible."
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