Should the Ten Commandments be in the church or in the courthouse?

One of the reasons why it is worthwhile to pay attention to history is because we discover people who think in ways entirely counter-intuitive to us. It serves as a reminder that our assumptions are not obvious, and that our most basic claims need to be justified.

In the early years of the Reformation there was a debate about the relation between the Christian justified by faith and the law of the Old Testament. Christians offered different paradigms to make sense of that relationship, and Martin Luther himself said that while the Christian is not bound to the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments should nevertheless be preached in the churches and taught to children in order to teach people their guilt and lead them to Christ. This alarmed some who saw the preaching of the law as works-righteousness.

One such theologian, John Agricola, made this startling claim, as quoted in Peter A. Lillback’s The Binding of God, p. 72:

The Decalog belongs in the courthouse, not in the pulpit. All those who are occupied with Moses are bound to got o the devil. To the gallows with Moses!

It is hard to imagine a claim that grates more harshly on the typical assumptions of Americans (both Christian and otherwise) regarding the relationship between church, state, and the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not belong in the church!? They are fundamentally political?! In contrast to such claims, in our time it is (some of) the Evangelicals who want to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, and (some of) the secular elites arguing that they should be kept out.

Agricola’s claim hardly represents the mainstream Reformation, of course. But it does point to the fact that many leading reformers viewed the Ten Commandments as integral to government and law (as they were, and have been, in the western tradition), and yet as needing careful theological qualification in the way in which they were preached in the churches. Christians were not viewed, strictly speaking, as being under the law, although it served to guide them in terms of how to obey God, given that all Scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16). On the other hand, one of the primary purposes of the law was to restrain those not led by the Gospel to act justly. This was the law’s civil use.

What would the Reformers think about American law and the American courts? Would they see the wisdom grounded in experience of separating church and state? I think the Reformers were wrong to assume that government should enforce all of the Ten Commandments (particularly the first four), although I do not think the Reformed tradition has always faced up to why, theologically, they were wrong. On the other hand, it seems to me that commandments 5-9 (protecting life, marriage, property, legal testimony, and the authority of parents over children) deserve greater recognition in our legal system. At the very least, it is worth remembering that whatever may be the flaws of John Agricola’s claim regarding the place of the law in the church, the Ten Commandments have been foundational to the western legal tradition. One need not confuse church and state to recognize this fact, and to fear the danger of abandoning them wholesale.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 25, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Should the Ten Commandments be in the church or in the courthouse?.

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