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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.

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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.

Neo-Calvinism and Distinctive Christian Living: A Response to Darryl Hart’s Quibble

Last week at Old Life Darryl Hart graciously ventured his agreement with my basic statement of the two kingdoms doctrine at Reformation 21, though with a qualification. He writes,

My lone quibble with Matt is the sign of lingering neo-Calvinism (which I attribute to his Covenant College education, in part, and which he denies). For instance, he still believes that Christians will look or be different and noticeable when they apply the Bible to their daily lives …

But I also know and I am sure Matt knows, plenty of non-Christians who believe government officials should serve the public, that businessmen should not ruthlessly pursue profits, that husbands should be considerate and loving toward their wives, and that those with resources will share them with those in need. In other words, I see nothing inherently distinctive or biblical in the Christian pursuit of these social and cultural goods. Do different motives exist for Christian businessmen compared to their unbelieving peers? Sure. Can I see those motives? No. And that is the point. The best stuff that Christians produce in public or cultural life is hardly distinct from non-Christian products. Where you do literally see Christianity at work is on Sunday.

Darryl describes my project as an “effort to find a middle way between 2k and neo-Calvinism. This is not how I perceive my own work. Although I do not view myself as a neo-Calvinist any more than I view myself as a representative of some sort of “two kingdoms movement” (I don’t find such flag-waving helpful), I, like David VanDrunen, wholeheartedly affirm neo-Calvinism’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God over all of life, along with its emphasis on the cultural mandate, the antithesis, sphere sovereignty, and common grace (you will recall that in Natural Law and Two Kingdoms VanDrunen, with qualifications, claims Kuyper and Bavinck for the two kingdoms tradition, distinguishing it from neo-Calvinism’s subsequent evolution). Rightly understood, as David VanDrunen argues in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, every one of these principles is fundamentally compatible with, and to a significant extent even presupposes, a two kingdoms perspective.

To be sure, a prominent strand of neo-Calvinism has evolved in a highly problematic, radical direction, in part due to its abandonment of biblical two kingdoms distinctions, and it therefore easily devolves into the worst forms of the social gospel and liberation theology. In between Kuyper, Bavinck, and this radical form of neo-Calvinism there are a plethora of variants and distinctions among self-conscious and unconscious neo-Calvinists, all of which suggest that we should not dismiss the movement as if it is some sort of monolithic beast.

But let me get to the precise quibble about which Darryl is concerned. Yes, I believe that Christians should look different from the world when they work out Christ’s lordship in their daily lives. At the same time, yes, I believe that the same moral law that binds Christians is written on the hearts of nonbelievers as natural law. As Calvin clarified time and again, outwardly nonbelievers often keep the moral law just as well as, if not better, than those who profess the Christian faith. (Once we get into the realm of the “products” of “public and cultural life,” by which I assume Darryl means things like civil laws, party platforms, scientific discoveries, works of art, or manufactured products like homes, clothing, or tools, there is no question that for the most part, the best that Christians do is hardly different from the best work of nonbelievers. But let me focus on the moral question in this essay.)

There are various reasons for this. On the one hand, many who profess the Christian faith are insincere or hypocritical. None attain to the moral standards that they themselves profess. On the other hand, many nonbelievers readily perceive the advantages of maintaining the natural moral order, whether as a result of their own religious convictions or of the influence of the very Christianity which they reject. But as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, the relevant question is not whether every Christian is morally superior to every non-Christian. The relevant question is whether a Christian is more sanctified than he or she would be apart from the work of Christ. That’s why when professing Christians act like the worst unbelievers, the church excommunicates them.

But of course, that sanctification may be outwardly imperceptible in some cases, as Darryl rightly insists. This is particularly true when Christians are compared to those nonbelievers or practitioners of other religions who outwardly live moral lives worthy of the highest human praise, for whatever reason. In fact, there are myriad instances in which even the most sanctified Christians have much to learn – even morally –  from individuals who deny the Christian faith. We need humility. Here again Darryl and I are agreed.

But Darryl overemphasizes the degree to which either Christians or nonbelievers actually live according to the best moral standards. I would suggest that the main reason why Christians often look no better morally than the world is that Christians are plagued by so much vice rather than that nonbelievers are marked by so much virtue. If Christians actually followed the teaching of Christ they would look profoundly different from the world, just as would nonbelievers if they actually obeyed the natural law. I understand Darryl’s desire to reject the “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts” variety of Christianity, but that does not mean our Lord was wrong when he told us that they will know we are his disciples by our love for one another.

The fact remains that even in the works that Christians do that look just like the best works of the most morally admirable nonbelievers, the context for the former distinguishes them from the latter. The Apostle Peter gets at this when he calls Christians to act in ways that the world will respect and admire (which would be impossible if the world did not share the same moral awareness to some extent), but then insists that they always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. Taken as isolated, individual actions, therefore, what Christians do often looks identical to what is done by nonbelievers, but viewed in the context of a life of Christian witness (expressed most directly in worship, as Darryl emphasizes, but also present in the readiness of Christians to testify to the gospel), the same actions look different. As Ryan McIlhenny helpfully explains in Kingdoms Apart,

The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 … of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us (265)

In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole (269).

Christianity makes a difference in the life of anyone who is regenerate. When Christians rightly apply the Bible to their lives, following Christ, their actions will look different than they would have if they had not become Christians, a reality the New Testament explicitly associates with the calling of Christian witness. Does Darryl really disagree with this, understood rightly (rather than facilely)? I doubt it.

The Confessional Reformed View of the Lord’s Day

A thoughtful piece by William Evans posted on the Aquila Report got me thinking today. The post is entitled, “Why I am (sort of) a Sabbatarian.” It is worth reading. Evans is a Presbyterian, and his frame of reference is the Westminster Confession. Mine is quite different, and reading Evans’s piece helped me to appreciate what I regard as one of the great strengths of the Reformed tradition in which I was reared.

I grew up in a “Dutch” Reformed community. What that meant was that virtually all of the people in my church and school were of Dutch background, just about everyone in the church over 55 had come from the Netherlands, and all the people that I knew who were Dutch were Christians. My interaction with neighbors who were not Dutch taught me that people who are not Dutch were probably not Christians, and at best they might be nominally Catholic.

My father, the pastor of our local Christian Reformed (later United Reformed) Church, raised us with an excellent balance of warm piety, Kuyperian vision, and Reformed theology, always reminding us to examine whatever we do, no matter how traditional, from the perspective of Scripture. He worked hard – I think – to communicate to us the freedom and beauty of the Christian life, framing all rules and practices in those terms.

Like most of my Reformed friends, my family refrained from unnecessary work on the Lord’s Day. That was the day on which as kids we could do whatever we wanted – outside of the times we had to be in church – but we did not have to do our homework. We would regularly get to have friends over, or go out to play soccer with a group of friends and neighbors at the local park.

We did not spend much time debating what should or should not be done on the Lord’s Day. Although I heard the Ten Commandments read in church every single Sunday as the rule for my life, the Heidelberg Catechism that taught me how to interpret those commandments carefully avoided the sort of focus on rules and prohibitions for which I knew the Pharisees were famous. For those of you unaware of its content, this is what the Heidelberg Catechism says about God’s will for Christians in the Fourth Commandment:

First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.

Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.

Note that not a single imperative is given regarding an obligation to rest, or regarding a prohibition of work. The whole emphasis is on the worship of God and the care for others appropriate to the “festive day of rest,” as well as to other days. The only reference to the Sabbath is to the eternal Sabbath rest into which believers have entered through Jesus (Isaiah 66:23; Hebrews 4:9-11).

My first meaningful contact with Presbyterians came when I arrived at Covenant College fresh out of high school. And what I discovered there baffled me. Hardly any of these people went to church more than once on a Sunday and the vast majority of them regularly spent their afternoons and evenings doing homework. No one seemed to think any of this was particularly irregular. And yet as I constantly noticed, the college I was attending and the churches from which these people came regularly talked about the beauty and authority of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms.

I was all the more surprised when a Presbyterian pastor told me that one of his concerns about the “Dutch” Reformed churches from which I came was their lack of teaching about the Sabbath. As he pointed out, the Westminster Confession carefully equated the first day of the week with the Old Testament Sabbath day in a way that the Heidelberg Catechism does not, and it requires not only rest from work, but rest from recreation as well.

And yet the Presbyterians that I knew simply ignored their confession, and the “Dutch” Reformed people I knew regularly spent the first day of the week in worship and rest. It was enough to make one wonder, Was there a connection? Does requiring Sabbath observance as a law actually make people less likely to devote one day in seven to worship and rest, whereas an emphasis on using the traditional “festive day of rest” as an opportunity for worship and fellowship makes them view such rest and worship as a blessed opportunity?

This connection became all the clearer in my mind when I discovered John Calvin’s writings on the Fourth Commandment, which I will not review here, and the very clear statement of the most widely accepted 16th Century Reformed Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession. There I read:

The Lord’s Day. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.

Superstition. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.

It was at this point that I began to appreciate my own upbringing, as well as for the first time to see the power and significance of the exhortations of the Apostle Paul regarding Sabbaths and other special days. On the one hand, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” On the other hand, as he writes in Romans 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.”

This seems like a solid approach to me, and as best as I can tell, it is the most effective in motivating Christians freely to devote the first day of the week, which the church has set aside for worship and rest, to just those ends. I refuse to judge another person for his or her mode of observing the day, and for my part I continue joyfully and appreciatively to use it for worship and rest as I always have.

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