Sunday, November 16, 2008

At the End of the Decalogue

I conclude this series on the Decalogue with both pride and fear.

It is with pride because this is the first blog series I have started that I have seen through to the end. Last weekend, after my first few posts came in a flurry of activity, Mike said to me something like, “The Decalogue really must’ve captured you.” I didn’t respond, but thought about his comment (introvert that I am). I think he was right. Maybe it was the sheer intellectual stimulation of it. Maybe it was the way the Decalogue seems to be as big as world governments and specific as personal consciences. Whatever the case, I wanted to see the series through.

I’ve said to some of you before, “If you get detailed enough, even the most interesting subjects can be boring.” That is my fear with this series. I fear that of the faithful few readers we have (precious readers!), I have pruned a few from that number with this series. I’m sure the word “Decalogue” on this blog was, for many, synonymous with "boredom." While I certainly blogged this series for my own edification, I would not have done it if I didn't think there was value to be had. Still, thank you for indulging me. I intend to return to more customary fare now for a while (and shorter, as one reader complained).

If you missed any of the 13 parts in this series, you'll be glad to have here a full list of the posts.

  1. Big Questions about the 10 Commandments
  2. The 10 Words in the New Testament
  3. The Decalogue for the Early Church
  4. Aquinas’ Decalogue
  5. Luther’s Decalogue
  6. Was I predestined to post this?: Calvin’s Decalogue
  7. Luther and Calvin go head to head
  8. Lancelot Andrewes’ Decalogue
  9. The Greatest Commandment and the Greatest Sacrifice
  10. John Owen’s Decalogue
  11. John Wesley’s Decalogue
  12. Who is Christina Rossetti?
  13. Before the Decalogue: Karl Barth

“We do not write because we know. We write until we know.” And “you don’t really know something until you have to teach it to someone else.” That sums up this series. I was not communicating my own ideas but reiterating the ideas of others.

By the end of the Decalogue Conference, I found that there were are few major questions that the theologians kept answering. I decided they must be important. Here they are as best I could figure:

  • What is the relationship of the Decalogue to the Natural Law?

  • What is the relationship of the Decalogue to Jesus? How is Jesus connected to the Decalogue?

  • What are the uses of the Law? For the un/believer? This is, how does the Decalogue function in the relationship between God and people?

  • Why is the Sabbath commandment included in the Decalogue? Is it a universal law for all people, or a ceremonial law only for the covenant people of God?

If nothing else, I think these questions are a good entry point for someone who wants to think more about the Decalogue, what they believe about it, and—bigger—what they believe about God’s revelation, activity, and mission in the world. Jesus himself said, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law.” Somehow Jesus and the Law are connected, perhaps in a mysterious way. This Conference was all about exploring that mystery.

The 10 Commandments seem simple on the face of it. But once you begin to dig around, you find them to be more multi-faceted than first imagined. This series only scratches the surface of the Decalogue's complexity. It is as far as we go here. Through this complexity, we return again to the 10 Words in their simplicity. There is something called "the simplicity on the far side of complexity." It's a bit like the Hobbits returning home to the Shire after their long journey. Yes, it is home, and it hasn't changed much. Rather, they return to it, seeing it with different eyes, for in fact it is they who have changed. It seems fitting then that we should return home to the 10 Words and, changed, see them again for the first time.

“Listen carefully, Israel. Hear the decrees and regulations I am giving you today, so you may learn them and obey them!

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Sinai. The Lord did not make this covenant with our ancestors, but with all of us who are alive today. At the mountain the Lord spoke to you face to face from the heart of the fire. I stood as an intermediary between you and the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire and did not want to approach the mountain. He spoke to me, and I passed his words on to you. This is what he said:

“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.

“You must not have any other god but me.

“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.

“You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.

“Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

“You must not murder.

“You must not commit adultery.

“You must not steal.

“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.

“You must not covet your neighbor’s wife. You must not covet your neighbor’s house or land, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

2 comments: said...

I think your questions are very thought provoking, particularly "Why is the Sabbath commandment included in the Decalogue? Is it a universal law for all people, or a ceremonial law only for the covenant people of God?"

Many traditional Christians view the Sabbath as only an Old Covenant ritual that is no longer is required for Christians under the New Covenant. Yet, as your questions implies, the fact that God placed the Sabbath commandment among such commands as "honor your father and mother" and "you shall not murder" says something about its importance, and whether it is a permanent and universal requirement for mankind. God could have given the instructions for keeping the Sabbath outside of the Decalogue if He wanted to show us that it was just a ritual limited to the physical nation of Israel and limited to the time of the Old Covenant.

Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not the Jew (Mark 2:27). Since the Sabbath was made for mankind, it is reasonable to look for a description of the Sabbath's creation. The only event given in Genesis that seems to describe the making of the Sabbath day is the account of God resting after the six days of creation (Genesis 2:1-3).

There seems to be a consistancy between the creation of the Sabbath immediately after Adam's creation, the statement by Jesus that the Sabbath was made for man, and the inclusion of the command to observe the Sabbath in the Decalogue along with commands against murder, adultery, stealing, and other universal commands. This does not seem to be just an Old Covenant ritual for the nation of Israel.

Adam said...

Thanks for your thoughts. The Sabbath commandment is certainly an prickly issue. Its context would point to its universality. Its particularity seems to hold that in tension. Its position in the Decalogue makes it an interesting crux between the two tablets. Its universal context and particularized meaning make it a crux of another sort between those moral law and ceremonial law.

Your interpretation of Mark 2:27 also interests me. I've never read it that way, but I could see how you could arrive there.

The divisions we use for moral, civic, and ceremonial law seem to be artificial, that is, man made. Old and New Covenant as terms are biblical, but the exact nature of those distinctions is less clear. As I recorded here, A final question Dr Block addressed is, "Does the Decalogue have greater authority than the rest of the Torah (the Law)?" Along with a corresponding question: "Is the Decalogue permanent and unalterable in contrast to the rest of the Torah?" In essence, his answer, as I understood it, was "no."