Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Decalogue for the Early Church

The sessions at the Wheaton Theological Conference are broken into dual lectures. The second pairing combined the church fathers and the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. Dr Alison Salveson from the Oriental Institute at University of Oxford spoke on Origen and the Church Fathers. Then Dr Matthew Levering of Ave Maria University presented Aquinas’ perspective on the Decalogue. Due to technical problems, both lectures were a bit rushed. In the case of Dr Levering, the joke became that of “throwing cargo overboard.” As a result, what is an already heady topic for me became harder to follow, but I will do my best to outline their presentations.

In Dr Salveson’s examination, the treatment of the Decalogue was considered in various Greek, Latin, and Syriac works, with their authors where available. The first four from Greek were the Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. I’m sorry to have failed to grasp the central points on the first two.

In Justin Martyr though we see Decalogue equated with the Natural Law as a universal. However it is also conceived as being embodied somehow by Jesus. This sort of equation is something we will see throughout the church fathers. In a variety of ways they will connect Jesus to the Decalogue.

In his analysis of the Decalogue, Irenaeus didn’t make such a strong correlation with the Natural Law. Instead he said that the Decalogue is a reminder of the Natural Law. He argued that God “prepares man for His friendship through the Decalogue.” As for the rest of the Jewish Law, Irenaeus saw it as bondage.

Moving on to some Latin writers, Dr Salveson looked at the Decalogue in Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. For Tertullian the Decalogue is the written form of a preMosaic, unwritten, natural, and universal law that was applicable from Adam to the present. He rejected it as a “yoke of works”—or action—but maintained that it was a “yoke of moral discipline”—or restraint. The seems to portend later ideas about works and temperance, in my very humble analysis.

Clement argued that the Mosaic Decalogue “defines sins in a way conducive to salvation” and “must be observed.” He also offers his equation connecting the Decalogue with Jesus: Decalogue = iota (jot) = Name of Jesus. This, he says, is the “jot that will not pass away.” However, Clement refused that the higher meaning (Jesus as the embodiment) eliminated the literal meaning (Decalogue as law) but instead affirmed both to be true.

Next, Origen posited that Moses himself embodied the Law of God. He believed that the Decalogue was necessary for human discipline in a way much like the 10 Plagues of Exodus. They both served to chastise the disobedient.

Finally, Dr Salveson reviewed some Syriac documents (please forgive my gloss over of the geographic nuances of these texts). Specifically, she discusses the Didiscalia Apostolorum, Aphrahat, Ephrem, and Liber Graduum. Here I recognized what appeared to my perception as some interesting previews for later beliefs.

The Didascalia Apostolorum interpreted the Law of Moses as coming from Jesus, having spoken through Moses, followed later by Jesus himself speaking directly to us. Thus, this grants Jesus’ the authority to state, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” The D.A. offered a “simple law”: “Do not do to others what you don’t want done to you.” This was primary, followed then by the “second law” of ceremonial observances. And again, another equation: Yod = Ten = Decalogue = Jesus. While this logic may seem irrational to our sensibilities, I thought of similarly confusing--but apparently esteemed--logic in the Gospels (Matt 22:31-32).

Aphrahat picks up the ideas of Tertullian in dividing the Decalogue from the other laws of Moses, considering the 10 Words to be the life-giving light yoke while the other laws function as punishments. The 2 Greatest Commandments (to love God and love others) stand above the law according to the Aphrahat. This leans toward answering Dr Block's question about the prioritization of the Decalogue beside the Law. And similar to commonly held ideas today, the Aphrahat argued that observance of the Decalogue functioned as proof of faith.

Next, Ephrem weighs in on the relationship between the Decalogue and Natural Law saying they are identical. The remainder of the Mosaic Law, he says is instead meant to address the Decalogue in contingent circumstances, that is, in application. This seems to be similar to our own practices, allowing us to set aside the various portions of the Law as culturally bound. Again, this is one way the problem is answered that Dr Block raised on the prioritizing of the Decalogue in relation to the Law. Ephrem begins to set the stage for more modern interpretations like Luther and Calvin (to come) by distinguishing a Covenant of Justice and Covenant of Grace in the functions of the Decalogue and Law.

Finally, the Liber Graduum brings about an early, rather blunt, formulation of ideas that seem to crop up later. It presents a two-tiered concept of the Christian life: those who are Christians and those who are serious Christians. In the terms of the Liber Graduum, these two tiers are the Just and the Perfect. The Just follow the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, and the “minor” Law of Justice. Meanwhile, the Perfect are more serious and follow the “major” Law of the Perfect, the 2 Greatest Commands, and imitate Christ by taking up their crosses and forsaking all. The Just do the minimum amount necessary to be acceptable to God. The Perfect go above and beyond in their commitments to Christ and the Decalogue. Even in this later theological development, the equation inclincation hangs on: Yod = 10 = Decalogue (and Jesus represents the higher Perfection of the Decalogue). This equation corresponds in some way to the two-tiered system of the Liber Graduum.

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