Thursday, November 06, 2008
Big Questions about the 10 Commandments
I'm on the rainy campus of Wheaton College today and tomorrow for the Wheaton Theology Conference. This year's conference is "Reading the Decalogue through the Centuries." It is primarily about the interpretation of the 10 Commandments in the Christian Tradition since Jesus.
This morning we had lectures by Dr Daniel Block and Dr Craig Evans, followed by a Chapel talk from Dr Cornelius Plantinga. Dr Block's paper was titled, "Reading the Decalogue Right to Left: The Ten Principles of Covenant Relationship in the Old Testament." In Hebrew, text is read from right to left in contrast to English. This title was somewhat reactionary to a deconstructionist interpretation by David Clines in a paper titled "Reading the Decalogue Left to Right."
Both Dr Block and Dr Evans required much of their listeners, as, I think, is expected in a scholarly conference of this sort. Their focus is on content, not presentation, and I immediately recognized that this conference would exceed my basic exposure to and knowledge of the 10 Commandments.
Dr Block's paper meant to give us an understanding of the 10 Commandments in the context of the Old Testament. Here are some highlights. First, "commandments" is not the best designation for the Decalogue. They are first and foremost the "Words of Yahweh." Secondly, they would be better designated as the "10 Words" or the "10 Principles" than as the "10 Commandments." His point here was that the Decalogue is primarily communicative before it is legislative. In other words, God is in conversation with us his people before he is a law giver handing down obligations to be obeyed. The 10 Words are not so much "enforceable law" as they are "covenant policies," a "framework within which we live."
Dr Block investigated a few questions in his paper: "Is the Decalogue a summary of the Torah?" He also asked, "Who is the Decalogue for?" He argued that the 10 Words are for the "heads of household." Thus, the Decalogue outlines the responsibilities that he (head of household) had to care for and lead his household. The Decalogue wasn't intended to empower the man to govern (patriarchy) but to limit the power with which he lead (patricentrism). The 10 Words were meant to prevent the head of household from abusing his power, thus protecting the covenant community and, more immediately, the head's family and neighbors.
This is a profound interpretation. Patriarchal rule is a charge that antagonists level against much of the Christian activity in society. But in actuality, the 10 Words were meant to prevent such abuses of power and control. This view has implications for concepts like adultery, divorce, and property, all of which we see later in Jesus' conversations in the Gospels. On this subject, Dr Block summarized it with a powerful statement: "Leadership exists for the sake of the led, not the interests of the leader."
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."
The follow-up question we're faced with is whether we treat the 10 Words in the same way we have treated the rest of the Law (as temporary [cultural] and alterable), or whether we extend to the Law the same permanent and unalterable status we give to the 10 Words? There is not an easy answer.
That is why, then, we have a "Reading of the Decalogue through the Centuries." Men and women have answered this question in different ways throughout the centuries. Dr Block set up the problem well. I'm looking forward to hearing the answers that have been offered throughout history.
Posted by Adam at 12:29 PM