Why Did the Medieval Church Turn to the Ten Commandments? Part 2

The Ten Commandments did not play a primary role in the catechesis and discipleship of the early church. While early church catechisms did give pedagogical priority to the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the church’s approach to the Christian life through the 12th Century tended to revolve more around the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of Jesus’ apostles, and the virtues emphasized in the New Testament.

During the late medieval era that began to change. As I suggested on Thursday, the primary reason for this was the church’s increasing concern to reform society. An era of one calamity after another, there was a growing sense that Christendom was in crisis:

the first cataclysmic outbreak of the Black Death; the deflation of wheat prices; dramatic demographic shifts; the decline of agrarian self-sufficiency; the explosive violence of urban and rural revolts; the Hundred Years’ War; local feuds; marauding mercenaries; bloody struggles for the thrones of Europe; the inability of a partitioned Church to provide solace and guarantee salvation – a litany so well known as to risk devolving into caricature. (40)

In addition, the devout could not fail to see that the masses converted under political authority remained far too devoted to paganism and that few seemed to know even the very basics of what the Christian life is all about. Most Europeans had become Christians only as whole tribes converted in obedience to their lords and kings, and the process of education and discipleship had been remarkably slow. The late medieval era therefore gave rise to wave after wave of reformers who called for instruction, social discipline, and the establishment of order.

Under such circumstances it made a whole lot of sense increasingly to turn to the Old Testament as a guide. Unlike the New Testament, which was written to congregations of individuals and families who had voluntarily embraced their calling to be separate from the broader society, the Old Testament was written to a nation of millions, steeped in idolatry and pagan practices, kept in the faith in large part by political authorities. Unlike the New Testament, which could assume a thoughtful devotion in response to grace on the part of Christ’s voluntary disciples, the Old Testament used rewards and punishments to curb idolatry and promote righteousness. Unlike the New Testament, which emphasized teaching and growth in maturity, the Old Testament featured the prominence of ceremony, pageantry, and symbolic instruction at the hands of a select priesthood.

In these ways and so many others the medieval church found its situation to be far more analogous to that of ancient Israel than to that of the early church. It was probably inevitable, under these circumstances, that the Old Testament would increasingly become the paradigm for the life of the medieval church. Reformers increasingly demanded decisive action on the part of those with power, looking to Israelite kings as examples. They called for the authorities to extend their coercive power over institutions and realms of life not previously subject to temporal authority.

Just as importantly, the reformers turned to “new symbols” around which the authorities and the masses could rally.

Obedience to the Commandments became a rallying cry for reform preachers working to combat the perceived dissolution of Church and society, and the changes in the intellectual and spiritual trends of the age wrought by their adoption were real… Diagnosis led to prescription, with the Commandments serving as the intended tonic for a critically ill Christendom. (43)

As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)

Among the first theologians to give new prominence to the Ten Commandments were Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard. Bast writes,

Lombard included in the Sentences a brief exposition of the Decalogue, which reached back to Augustine for the hermeneutical key that enabled the excision of the Ten Commandments from the burdens attributed by Christian theology to the Law of the Jews. Echoing Augustine, Lombard argued that … the moral precepts of the Law were the same as those of the Gospel, though ‘more fully contained’ in the latter. (35)

Much of the drive to educate and reform the masses was inspired and led by the monastic orders. Since the days of the Roman Empire, many of those Christians most devoted to following in the way of Christ had found it edifying to participate in various orders and disciplines that came to be known as monasticism. By the middle ages the monasteries became the place where serious Christianity was practiced, where sacred texts were transmitted, and where theology was studied and developed.

When the monastic orders of the church began to look outward, however, it was obvious that this approach had to be simplified. New catechisms were developed and disseminated for popular use. But in place of the monastic rule, they turned to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, many a cleric pointed out, were easily remembered. They could be counted on one’s fingers. Pound away at the Ten Commandments, tell the people that this was the way of Christianity, and they would follow.

Bast writes of the vernacular (common language) catechisms of this era,

They aimed for utility, eschewing difficult questions of theology and concentrating on simple doctrines and moral guidelines that taught people what to believe, how to act, how to pray – the very essence of the catechism. (13)

As one parish chaplain, Johannes Wolff, boasted, the method was so foolproof and simple that all would learn it “whether they liked it or not,” even those “as dull as a beast, a horse, an ass, or a stone.” (24)

Each Sunday, after the reading of the Creed, clerics were to recite the Ten Commandments slowly in German, counting them off on their fingers, with frequent pauses so that the congregation could repeat the words. (24)

Increasingly attempts were made to classify all of the traditional commandments and virtues under the various Ten Commandments. Although the Ten Commandments were to be interpreted through the lens of the New Testament, it was increasingly the Law itself that set the tone for church discipleship. Bast goes on,

Though it never entirely replaced the Gregorian system of the virtues and vices, by the fifteenth century it had become the single most popular guide for moral instruction in much of Europe – a position confirmed in the catechetical programs of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. Already in the thirteenth century, however, the moral theology of the new mendicant orders was making claims of the Decalogue that would have shocked earlier generations: obedience to the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses is necessary for salvation. (36)

“We should not underestimate the significance of this paradigm shift in moral instruction,” Bast warns. He cites John Bossy’s argument that “with the emergence of Decalogue catechesis, the Western Church exchanged a communal ethic of kinship for a religious code of Old Testament severity.” (36) It was with the Catechismus Romanus at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church “officially designated the Decalogue as the standard according to which the whole realm of moral responsibility was to be read and practiced.” (39)

The churches of the Reformation rejected the place of the law in justification, of course, and they vehemently denied any meaningful distinction between the moral teachings of Christ and the Law of Moses. As concerned to preserve Christendom as were their medieval forbears, however, they gladly inherited the emphasis on the Ten Commandments in catechesis. But I’ll write more about that later.

Advertisements

About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on August 27, 2013, in Catechism, Christian Life, Law, Roman Catholic Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why Did the Medieval Church Turn to the Ten Commandments? Part 2.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: