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Monday, January 14, 2013

"The Decalogue Through the Centuries"

TITLE: The Decalogue Through the Centuries: From the Hebrew Scriptures to Benedict XVI
AUTHOR: Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larsen, (editors).
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (224 pages).

This is an anthology of articles that traces the understanding of the Decalogue (also known as the Ten Commandments), from the ancient beginnings to the modern age. Is there really any difference in the interpretations of the Decalogue through the centuries? It is common to have thought that the commandments are so clear-cut that there is little ambiguity about understanding it. Should we read the Ten Commandments as a dogmatic instrument? Can it be read devotionally? What about Jewish and Christian understanding over the years? For New Testament believers, what about the tension between law and grace? For every similarity in understanding of the Decalogue, there seems to be nuances that not only illuminate the scope of applications, but also enlighten our understanding of these classic laws. All of the scholars and theologians agree that the Decalogue is still critical for our modern living. What differs is the extent and the ways we apply our understanding.

This book is a result of a series of seminars organized by Wheaton College back in November 2008. I am surprised it has taken four years for the lectures to be published in a book. Thirteen contributors, both Protestants and Jewish, Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, provide insights into the Ten Commandments. Daniel I. Block begins by agreeing that the Ten Commandments are the most well-known, and also "ignored at best and rejected at worst," and hones his article on the basis of Frank Crusemann's rejection that the Decalogue is a summary statement of the Torah. By tracing the various ways the Decalogue have been affirmed, reduced, redacted, analyzed, and applied, Block concludes that the number 'ten' is primarily used as a mneumonic device rather than a dogmatic treatise, that the Decalogue provides a framework, not a total encapsulation, that the Decalogue is more a covenantal document rather than a legal code. He gives a helpful paraphrase of the Decalogue in terms of basic rights for human people, that the purpose of the Decalogue is more "care and responsibility toward others," and less of "power and authority" over people.

Craig A. Evans studies the references the New Testament makes of the Decalogue, listing down the commandments that are directly and indirectly cited in the New Testament.  He looks at the different ways the laws are summarized, ordered, arranged, and applied by either Jesus or the disciples. The goodness and truths are consistent, but the application of them varies according to the contexts. Alison G. Salvesen looks at the "Early Syriac, Greek, and Latin views of the Decalogue"in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem, and the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles.  His key point is that the intent, the attitude, and the ethical conduct is a higher bar from the legalistic treatment of the Torah. The "Epistle of Barnabas" teaches the difference between rigid adherence vs ethical application. Justin Martyr focuses on the nature of non-Jewish audiences and the Latin writer Tertullian grapples with how Jewish laws can be comprehended by both Jews and Gentiles. Salvesen helps readers to understand the deep struggle of how Gentiles try to obey the law more in spirit rather than the letter. Matthew Levering looks to Thomas Aquinas for guidance, and the view that the Decalogue was given at a time when "human pride" was essentially "deflated." Thus, the Decalogue is an avenue toward "friendship with God". He puts forth four main points for discussion. Firstly, natural laws as well as the Decalogue are supposed to be naturally compatible and easily comprehensible by man. The reason why people resist or refuse to accept the laws is a measure of how sin has obscured man's real sense. Secondly, Aquinas maintains a high view of the Sabbath in that the Sabbath command is both a ceremonial as well as a covenantal command. It promotes fidelity. It advocates reverence. It instills service. Through the Sabbath, one sees how the understanding of creation and new creation are bridged. Thirdly, Aquinas affirms that both Christ and the Torah testify to the grace of God. Fourthly, Aquinas denies that God himself has 'broken' the Ten Commandments. David Novak studies the great Jewish theologian, Moses Maimonides who points out that the Decalogue contains parts that are universally relevant, while some others are unique for Jews. He poses an interesting question: "Did God command us to believe He exists?" The meaning of the Ten Commandments can only be comprehended more fully in the context of the existence of God. He then probes into Maimonides's psychological, philosophical, and theological questions, to eventually argue against the two kinds of atheists in the world. The first view underestimates the human condition, preferring a life of hedonism, while the second believes the world belongs to mankind. Both in denying God, will eventually contradict themselves.

On the Protestant front, Timothy J. Wengert studies the great Reformer, Martin Luther, that through the law, we know sin, and through grace, we know God. Every command has a positive and a negative application. The highest good is still faith demonstrated in good works. Susan E. Schreiner looks to John Calvin, on how Calvin tries to instill the Ten Commandments not as a religious belief but a modus operandi in the culture and society. In Christ, the law reveals the level of sin in people, restrain unbelievers and unrighteous behaviour, and to help believers to grow. Carl E. Trueman looks at the 17th Century Puritan, John Owen, who sees the Decalogue in the light of general realm as well as specific relevance, that only two commandments have wide "ecclesiastical, political, and social significance," namely, the second against idolatry, and the fourth on the Sabbath. Owen's approach is interesting because firstly  it connects the Decalogue and natural laws in a way the Reformers can appreciate. Secondly, all creation has a moral structure. The Decalogue when understood in these two ways will highlight the gravity of sin and the need for repentance and corrective behaviour. Jeffrey P. Greenman highlights the 16th Century Anglican clergyman, Lancelot Andrewes, and how his theological views have helped shaped Christian teachings in England, the liturgy, and the need for self-examination. Andrewes bring out the devotional aspect of the Decalogue and how the moral law is so applicable to daily life, combining learning and devotion with faith and practice. D. Stephen Long argues that John Wesley's view of the Ten Commandments are so antihumanistic that it is wrong to say he advocates postmodern Enlightenment. What Wesley posits is that there is no true humanism without God, and the law together with the gospel forms one whole, and that Christ is the Light and the fulfillment of the Law.  Timothy Larsen studies one of the finest English poets in history, a woman named  Christina Rossetti, examining the gender bias of the Decalogue. Rather than to interpret the laws according to the domain of the masculine gender, she argues that the law assumes that the man and the woman are one person, which does away with any exercise to distinguish which gender is superior or inferior. George Hunsinger studies the contemporary German theologian, Karl Barth, who has a laserlike emphasis on the first commandment, that it is the "fountainhead" to understanding and applying the entire Decalogue, and sees the Decalogue from Reformation views.With the first commandment as the "theological axiom,"  he affirms together with Paul that in Christ, all things hold together. Providing a Roman Catholic theological view, William E. May studies Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and highlights the different ordering of the Decalogue in which the first three commandments are in the first tablet and the next seven in the second tablet of commandments. In contrast, Protestant circles generally see the first four as vertical commands while the latter six as horizontal. Love, responsibility, and catechism are the hallmarks of Roman Catholic interpretation. The latter seven commands are "absolute moral norms," and the Church as the sole authority to interpret both divine as well as natural law. The Decalogue, the Church, and the ecclesiastical authority are tightly knitted in the Roman Catholic thinking.

My Thoughts

This fascinating anthology has given readers a glimpse of how different the understanding and interpretation of the Ten Commandments. While the general understanding is accepted, it is the nuances of contexts, culture, and interpretive authority that distinguish one group from the others. The main way to benefit from a book like this is to be open to learning from each group, without feeling a need to abandon one's initial views. Just knowing that there is an alternative view keeps readers humble and open to understanding another view. This attitude helps us to understand both the letter, the spirit, and the practice of the Decalogue without diluting the contexts or importance of who the Decalogue is written for. All the writers as well as the subjects studied have agreed that the Decalogue is still important and very relevant for moral law and structure of human living. The difference is in the depth and breadth of application. Some like David Novak and Moses Maimonides prefer to maintain that parts of the law only applies to the Jews, while others like Thomas Aquinas sees a more universal application via natural law. The Roman Catholic prefer to retain its interpretive privilege while many Reformers argue from the basis of connecting law and grace and how Christ is the fulfillment of the law. This book will be of interest to anyone interested in a multidimensional understanding in a pluralistic world. In fact, with the increasing diversity of many cultures around the world, this book casts new lights to an ancient document. Instead of being the last word in distinguishing law and grace, ceremonial or covenantal relationships, it points us to the One who truly has the last word: God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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