Are Christians Under the Ten Commandments?

In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”

In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.

Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.

Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.

Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.

In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.

Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.

Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.

One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on February 11, 2013, in Calvin, Confessions, Law, Sunday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Are Christians Under the Ten Commandments?.

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