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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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What do Christians think marriage is really about?

Amid all the controversy over sex and marriage in the modern era, it is easy for conservatives and Christians to imagine that the church has always had it right, that if we could only get to a past era of godliness and morality, following the light of the Christian tradition, or the example of the saints in Scripture, all would be well. Skeptics have no trouble pointing to the flaws in this view. So many of the heroes of Scripture – Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and many more – were polygamists. The Torah seems to have tolerated polygamy in the same way that it tolerated divorce.

And what of the Christian tradition? Consider the views of the greatest early church father Augustine:

Conjugal intercourse for the sake of procreation carries no fault; intercourse for the sake of satisfying lust, provided that it takes place with a spouse, carries a forgivable fault (venialis culpa) because of marital fidelity; but adultery or fornication carries a mortal fault. Therefore, abstention from all intercourse is better even than marital intercourse that takes place for the sake of procreation.

So writes Augustine in his treatise The Good of Marriage, which he wrote around 410. For Augustine there is a hierarchy of virtues and vices when it comes to human sexuality.

  1. Perfect Virtue – celibacy
  2. No Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation
  3. Venial Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire
  4. Mortal Fault – sex outside of marriage

As bizarre as it may seem to most Protestants today, this view of marriage was not out of the ordinary in Augustine’s day, particularly for an intellectual or a philosopher. Sexual desire was viewed by Platonists and Stoics alike as a form of enslavement to the passions of the body, which rational human beings seek to transcend. The early church widely identified the passion of sexual desire with original sin, or concupiscence. Augustine speaks for that tradition when he insists that sex is only fully virtuous when the sexual partners view themselves first and foremost as parents rather than as passionate lovers, sex being a problematic means to a laudable end. Augustine stresses with absolute clarity that sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire is not permitted per se. It is simply forgivable.

In fact, Augustine’s view of sexuality powerfully shaped the medieval church (its influence is still obvious, if diminished, even in John Calvin) and to a significant extent that of the Roman Catholic Church to this day. The path of perfect virtue, for Rome, and the path that all priests must take, is that of celibacy. Married partners who engage in sex without being open to the possibility of procreation fall into sin – hence the ban on artificial birth control.

Augustine’s view of polygamy in the Old Testament makes his understanding of marriage seem all the more bizarre. For while Augustine believed celibacy is the way of perfect godliness after the incarnation of Christ, he insists that in Old Testament times procreation was an obligation of such importance that polygamy itself was legitimate, so long as it was engaged in for the purpose of procreation. Why? Because all of God’s promises of salvation for his people, and of blessing for the human race, were tied up in the propagation of a godly seed.

Among the ancient fathers, of course, it was permissible to take another woman, with the permission of one’s wife, and to produce children that were shared in common, the husband providing the seed and the intercourse, the wife providing the right and authorization. Whether this is also permitted in our own day I would not be so rash as to say. For today there is not the same need of procreation that there was in the past. In those days it was even permissible for husbands who could have children to take other wives in order to produce more numerous progeny, which is something that is certainly not allowed today.

One of the consequences of the church’s classic obsession with procreation as the only perfect justification of sex has been that it didn’t seem difficult at all to demonstrate why homosexuality is sinful. Sexual desire itself was suspect. How much more sexual desire entirely removed from its one legitimate purpose?

Since at least the Victorian era, however, the West has embraced romantic love as the perfect form and expression of sexuality, with procreation falling to the side as a possible – though by no means necessary, and often inconvenient or feared – byproduct. The result, as we all know, is that sexual fulfillment has become its own virtue, more important than marriage (hence adultery, no-fault divorce, fornication, and cohabitation) or potential obligations to the human beings who receive life from it (hence abortion-on-demand).

Catholics will point out that Protestants themselves have exacerbated these trends through their over-eagerness to distance themselves from classic Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. It is probably more accurate to say that Protestants fell into a form of biblicism that led them to abandon natural law, reason, and careful reflection on why what the Bible says about sex and marriage is true. For liberal Protestants this meant that the collapse of biblical authority opened the floodgates to the modern infatuation with sexual autonomy. For conservative Protestants it has led to a stand for traditional marriage that is more tenacious and rigid than ever before – but all too often lacking in the thoughtfulness and wisdom that would make it persuasive to outsiders. God says marriage is between a man and a woman. We shouldn’t question why. Just obey.

Scripture, of course, offers the sort of reflective guidance that could have spared the early and medieval church from its troubling denigration of sexuality, which owed more to Greek philosophy than to the teachings of Jesus or Paul. It also offers sufficient guidance to spare the modern liberal church from the increasingly accepted alternative – affirmation of whatever sexual relationships seem mutual and loving.

Jesus and Paul both pointed their hearers not to the bare, isolated commands of Scripture, removed from their context (a tactic too often followed by all three groups identified above), but to the norms of creation as revealed in Genesis 1-2. Thus Jesus overturns Deuteronomy’s permissive approach to divorce by declaring that Moses permitted this “because of your hardness of heart,” but “in the beginning it was not so”:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5; Cf. 19:1-12)

Paul likewise characterizes marriage as something more than simply a means for procreation by appealing to the same text in Genesis. Marriage, he says, is a mysterious (sacramental!) representation of the complementary love between Jesus and his church, expressed in the complementarity of the male-female sexual bond.

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32; Cf. 5:22-33)

What is striking about both of these prominent examples is that they emphasize the unconditional, comprehensive, and complementary nature of marriage without reducing the purpose of that unconditionality, comprehensiveness, or complementarity, to procreation. God made them male and female in the beginning because “it is not good for man to be alone,” and a woman serves as a breathtakingly satisfying partner in part because even as she is so similar (unlike the animals), she is also so happily different! Moderns detect here the misogyny and exploitation of women that has characterized millennia gone by, but the text is clear that the woman was created to be an equal helper (the Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is often used in Scripture to describe God), and that both the desire for domination and coercive rule represent the curse of the fall:

To the woman he said … Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

To be sure, procreation is one of the two important tasks given to human beings, created in the image of God as male and female. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …” But the other important task, to be equally fulfilled by male and female working together, is to “subdue it [the earth] and have dominion.” (Genesis 1:28) Needless to say, this is not exactly the picture of the late Victorian nuclear family with its separation of spheres, though we do see such a potential separation in the proclamation of the curse due to sin (Genesis 3:16-19).

The point here is not to debate gender roles or the expression they have taken at various points in American history. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that the story of marriage to which both Jesus and Paul point Christians is a story that affirms the comprehensive, unconditional, complementary sexual bond not simply for the purpose of procreation, but for the purposes of solidarity in work and cooperation in life, as well, presumably, as companionship.

What this tells us is not that the non-procreative purposes ought to be used to leverage a view of marriage that abandons its foundation in gender difference. What it tells us, rather, is that gender difference, unconditional love, and comprehensive commitment serve fundamental purposes far beyond simply the biology of procreation. The most lofty of these reasons is that the unique bond of male and female, expressed in sex, life, and work, beautifully portrays the love between God and his people, between Christ and the church. Even more mundane, if less distinctly Christian, is that this bond is central to human flourishing, or to the good life, both of individuals and of society. If marriage is, as Aristotle says, the first human institution, it is because it brings men and women together in wholehearted solidarity and mutual support in all the endeavors and trials of life, bonding them through the mutual satisfaction of sexual desire as well as the procreation and loving nurture of children.

That’s not to say there aren’t other social bonds that can’t be equally deep (i.e., same-gender friendship) or even more important (i.e., the church). It does suggest that marriage is something worth defending.

Does the Christian tradition agree that property rights trump the rights of the poor?

In political debates I occasionally hear Christians who are influenced by libertarian political philosophy make an argument that runs something like this:

My money is my own property that I earned. The government did not give it to me. Therefore, the government has no right to confiscate my property in order to give it to someone else, except for purposes of protection, national defense, or associated government functions. For the government to confiscate my property for purposes of poor relief is not legitimate taxation. It is theft.

To be sure, I have never heard a political theologian or theological ethicist make this argument. But I have witnessed thoughtful and well-read Christians give expression to it, and I have even heard it propounded from various pulpits. And amid the recent rise of the Tea Party, the growing influence of libertarianism within the Republican Party, and the debates over Obamacare and the federal debt, it appears as if this general sort of argument is gaining currency.

The point I want to make here is that this argument is profoundly out of step with the Christian political theological tradition, running from Ambrose and Augustine through the medieval canon lawyers and Thomas Aquinas and all the way to the great reformer John Calvin.

What is wrong with it is not that it supports capitalism and the free market, or that it suggests that the American government provides too much support for the poor. There are good reasons why Christians can oppose socialism and the welfare state while remaining solidly in step with the Christian political theological tradition. I am not defending Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, or any other particular political policy.

But I do take issue with arguments that suggest people have absolute property rights that the government cannot infringe upon, not even for the sake of justice for the poor.

The problem with these arguments is that they presuppose a notion of property that makes it absolute, without qualification by the needs of others or of civil law. It assumes the argument of John Locke that human beings possess property before they enter into any significant social or legal connections, and that therefore no social or legal body has the right to take that property from them. It assumes that even if a person fails to use his or her property in service to the needy, no one, not even the government, has the right to force that person to use his or her property justly.

In contrast, the early church fathers Ambrose and Augustine believed that property was the result of the fall and would not have existed in a perfect world. They argued that human law created the institution of property in order to maintain peace between sinful and competing human beings.

Later in feudal society holdings of land were considered to be inextricably connected with social relationships and with the obligations and responsibilities associated with those relationships. Neither lord nor serf enjoyed the absolute right to do whatever he wanted with his possessions; rather, those possessions were to be used in fulfillment of concrete social obligations.

As feudalism evolved and the roots of a market economy began to develop, canon lawyers struggled to reconcile the arguments of the church fathers with developing understandings of property. Janet Coleman writes in the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought concerning the greatest of these jurists, Gratian:

Gratian notes that the human race is ruled by two norms, natural law and custom. The first is that which is contained in the Old Testament and the Gospels … This natural law is common go all nations, held everywhere instinctually rather than by positive legal enactment, and it sanctions the coming together of men and women, procreation, the common possession of all things, the liberty of all, the acquisition of whatever may be taken by air, land or sea, the restitution of goods or money loaned, the use of force to repel force. It is by natural law that all things are common to all men. But the laws of custom and legal enactment enable men to say ‘this is mine’. [Gratian cited] Augustine, who argued that private property was a creation of imperial law and was not a characteristic of natural man before the Fall. (617)

However, Gratian left the tension between natural law and human law unresolved, and many other canon lawyers and theologians were forced to work it out. Two decretists, Huguccio and Johannes Teutonicus, provided perhaps the most influential solution:

Natural law, equated with rational judgment, tells us that all things are common, to be shared in times of necessity with those in need. Natural reason teaches us that we should retain for ourselves only necessities and therefore distribute what is left to neighbors in need…. Johannes Teutonicus avoided the implication that communal ownership was a norm, and explained Ambrose’s text by saying that private property is not denied; rather what is denied is the right of anyone to appropriate to himself more than suffices for his own needs. Thus, in times of necessity any surplus wealth is to be regarded as common property to be shared by all those in need. (618-619)

To be sure, the canonists “never developed arguments concerning private property with egalitarian implications. And they took into account that superfluity of wealth was to be measured according to what was considered decent and fitting to one’s status in society” (619). Nevertheless, they were clear that the rights of the poor trumped the rights of possession.

The greatest medieval debates over property, of course, pertained to the church’s vast material wealth. Many canonists agreed that the church merely holds stewardship over its wealth and that that wealth ultimately belongs to God, or even to the poor.

The poor and needy were to be supported from the goods of the Church for they had a right to this support from the common property of the Church. On this view the use of church property on behalf of the poor was not charity but an established legal use of public property whose purpose was the maintenance of the common welfare and especially the sustenance of the needy poor. (620)

Of course, the reason why the canonists viewed the church this way was because they believed that as an institution it was to express God’s purposes for human beings according to natural law. The standards for the church, in essence, were the standards to which all human beings were to seek to attain.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at Thomas Aquinas’s account of property and I’ll also make some comments on John Calvin’s view, both of which are in direct continuity with the views described above. But it should already be evident even from this brief post that Christian political theology has always denied the existence of absolute property rights, and indeed, has questioned whether property rights are grounded in natural law at all. The tradition is marked by a virtually unanimous consensus that individuals and social organizations are to use their excess possessions subject to the primary claim of the needy as a matter of justice.

Bloomberg’s Nanny State

According to today’s story in the New York Times,

New York City plans to enact a far-reaching ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts, in the most ambitious effort yet by the Bloomberg administration to combat rising obesity.

The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.

Welcome to the nanny state. Have whatever kind of marriage you want, destroy your fellow citizen’s marriage in any way you find amusing, kill the child within your womb if it strikes your fancy, but please don’t purchase a soda of more than 16 fluid ounces. For the same of the common good. For the good of the commonwealth.

According to the old proverb the need for many laws is directly proportional to the lack of virtue among the people. The view of the founding fathers that a government of freedom by the people depends on the virtue of the citizens is so well-known as to be a cliche.

But really, what do you do here? After all, we have a serious problem.

In New York City, where more than half of adults are obese or overweight, Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner, blames sweetened drinks for up to half of the increase in city obesity rates over the last 30 years.

Don’t forget that the trend in this country is toward government-subsidized health care. I don’t know the statistics for New York, but I suspect hundreds of thousands of the city’s citizens are already fully insured by Medicaid. And New York, unlike most cities, likes to do things. At least so says Mayor Bloomberg:

“New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” he said. “I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

So is this really what Americans want? Do we all agree that government should not legislate morality in any way, shape or form, let alone try to promote virtue within the populace? Do we prefer government to limit our choices rather than to be forced to choose well? Should government pay for all the health costs that arise when we don’t make those choices wisely? If so, is it really so bizarre for government to tell us how to eat?

I’m really not sure how the broader public would answer these questions. But it strikes me that the real lesson of this story, in light of other high-profile controversies of the past few months, is that as Americans we are entirely confused about what government is for and what it is supposed to do. That confusion, of course, is directly related to our view of ourselves. Augustine said that those who love themselves above all use the goods of this world in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with true justice. I’m not sure what he would have thought about the American experiment of self-government. But I doubt he would have been entirely surprised at some of its silliness.

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