Category Archives: Catechism

The Sanctity of Life in the Heidelberg Catechism: the Sixth Commandment

In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).

Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

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The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.

In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.

The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.

Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.

Read the rest of this article here.

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Justice for the Poor in the Heidelberg Catechism: The Eighth Commandment

Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.

Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?

The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.

Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”

Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.

If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”

The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”

In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.

Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.

The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.

Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.

Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.

This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.

Following Jesus in Every Area of Life

In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society – the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament’s version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an “ethics from below,” how are we to implement it when we need an “ethics from above”? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ in to a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.

I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament’s basic principles.

I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament’s ethic – the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve – must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?

Read the rest of this article here, at Reformation 21. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Death and Resurrection with Christ

In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the prominent attention the New Testament gives to the call to Christians to imitate Christ. I introduced this theme as the first step in defending my thesis that the central paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics) in the New Testament is union with and conformity to Jesus Christ, in whom all of God’s purposes for creation are fulfilled. Here in Part 2 I want to argue that the imitation of Christ should be understood as the practical outworking of the Christian’s obligation to be conformed to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is, of course, the Apostle Paul whose writings most clearly emphasize the decisive significance of the Christian’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. What I want to emphasize here, following the Heidelberg Catechism, is that Paul consistently makes the believer’s union with Christ the paradigm for his instruction regarding the Christian life… The driving theme of his exhortation is not a return to the law; it is conformity to Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled.

To read the rest of this article, the second part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue here at Reformation 21.

What Would Jesus Do? The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.

Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.

To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.

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.

Why Didn’t the Church Emphasize the Ten Commandments Until the Late Medieval Era?

A few weeks ago I suggested that the emphasis of Reformed catechisms on the Ten Commandments can obscure the fact that the New Testament’s approach to the Christian life is that of putting on – or being conformed to the image of, or following – Jesus. The ordinary pedagogical approach of the New Testament, I noted, is not to explain the Ten Commandments or urge believers to follow them, but to describe the implications of the person, work, virtues, and commandments of Jesus.

Although this claim may sound radical to modern ears, for most educated Christians up until the 13th or 14th centuries it would have been a matter of course. One thoughtful reader – a student of the early church – wrote this to me:

I’ve continued reflecting on the catechetical and didactic use of the Law, particularly as I’ve been reading William Harmless’ book Augustine and the Catechumenate which details the complex and rich process of preparation for baptism in the primitive church.

I have been on the look-out for mention of the Decalogue as a core part of any of the four parts of initiation: 1) the evangelistic, 2) the catechetical, 3) the illuminative, or 4) the mystagogic processes. In both East and West, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer receive paramount attention, especially in the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil when baptisms would take place. Particularly during Lent, there was tremendous instruction in Christian living and ethics during the daily services which involved teaching, singing, exorcism, anointing, and blessing. But, as I’ve been reading Harmless, he makes no mention (that I’ve picked up on) of a systematic use by the primitive church of the Decalogue. I’ve now become curious as to when (presumably during the Medieval period) the Decalogue became a focus again of Christian discipleship and instruction.

This prompted me to do some research on my own. Is it true that the early church did not emphasize the Ten Commandments in its catechesis? If so, when did the Ten Commandments become a focus of Christian discipleship? And what was the motivation for the shift in focus?

These questions led me to a fascinating (and unfortunately expensive) book by Robert James Bast entitled, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of A Patriarchal Ideology in Germany 1400-1600. Bast’s basic thesis is that during the late medieval era and the early Reformation Christian theologians turned to the Ten Commandments as a focus of catechesis as a primary means of disciplining and ordering a society that was widely seen to be in crisis. The title of the book comes from the stress such theologians placed on the Fifth Commandment as the foundation for paternalistic magisterial authority, and the consequent obligation of godly magistrates to enforce all ten commandments.

In the first chapter Bast sets up the context for his more focused analysis by considering “The Ten Commandments and Late-Medieval Catechesis.” He begins by confirming the judgment of my correspondent above, that early church catechesis involved “a formal period of instruction, usually based on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and moral directives drawn from a variety of sources” (3). It was not until the late 12th Century that the Ten Commandments began gradually to move into a more prominent position. Yet of the tradition before this Bast writes,

Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount). (32-33)

Bast goes on to clarify that the church decisively rejected the heresy of Marcionism, which divorced Christianity from Judaism and the New Testament from the Old. As a result, the church sought to emphasize on the one hand the enduring truth and relevance of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, and on the other hand its fulfillment in the clearer revelation of Jesus.

The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over. (33)

Augustine was somewhat of an exception, Bast points out.

[H]e preached on the Commandments regularly, and a cautious though unwavering affirmation of them runs through his works. Here too, however, the ideological need to preserve the superiority of Christian revelation was maintained, for Augustine was careful to read the Decalogue as the practical exposition of Jesus’ commands to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself. (33)

Augustine’s careful and qualified approach to the Decalogue did not change the church’s emphasis in catechism and discipleship. The typical early church approach to catechesis was solidified during the medieval era by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).

According to Gregory, the commandments of the Decalogue were essentially inferior to the precepts of the Gospel. While the former governed only external actions, he argued, the latter went further, dealing with matters of the heart. The old Law was ‘imperfect’ and ‘weak’; ‘bread for infants,’ given to an immature people for a limited time, but later repudiated by God himself. As … good things cease to be good when compared to what is better, so too, argued Gregory, the Commandments given to the ignorant pale beside the ethical teaching of the New Testament. (34)

Gregory’s Moralia, Bast observes, became the basis for the church’s moral instruction for centuries.

Culling ethical imperatives and prohibitions almost exclusively from the Gospels, the Epistles, and patristic theology, Gregory created a patchwork of moral teaching organized into seven virtues and seven vices (or ‘deadly sins’). (34) Ecclesiastical legislation from subsequent centuries followed Gregory in de-emphasizing the Ten Commandments. (34)

The later shift toward the Ten Commandments did not come from the Reformation. Indeed, it was not a distinctive of the Reformation at all, contrary to popular belief. It began, rather, during the 12th Century, both in response to a new scholarly interest in the Old Testament and the increasing fear of European elites that Christendom was falling into crisis. Many scholars have noted that during the late medieval era, especially after the Gregorian Revolution, the church began to devote tremendous energy to social and cultural reform. The Ten Commandments were increasingly seen as a simple and decisive authority for the illiterate masses (the Ten Commandments can easily be counted on one’s fingers). They were also conceived as an easy and obvious program for enforcement by lay magistrates.

It was no accident that the medieval church turned to Israel and the Law when its mindset revolved around reforming the masses, Bast notes.

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)

In part 2 of this series I’ll consider these developments after the 12th Century. Either there, or in a part 3, I’ll take a look at how the Protestant appropriation of the Ten Commandments built on and adapted the late medieval approach.

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