Given the contentiousness of public life in America today it was inevitable that the bulky stone monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments and placed in the rotunda of the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama would provoke controversy. When Judge Roy S. Moore commissioned Richard Hahnemann to sculpt the monument he surely knew it would be provocative, though perhaps even he did not foresee that it would culminate in his suspension and the removal of the monument under court order. Not long ago the Decalogue was a venerable standard of morality acknowledged by all, but in recent decades the relentless levelers who would scrape American life clean of anything that bears the marks of particularity have mounted an aggressive campaign to depict the Ten Commandments as the arbitrary preferences of Jews and Christians, and hence to confine them to the private world of religious communities.
Yet the Ten Commandments can be read in several ways. In placing the Decalogue on a monument in the rotunda of the Supreme Court of Alabama, Judge Moore wished the commandments to be seen as the form in which a universal code of law has been promulgated, handed on, taught, and codified in the traditions on which this country is founded. Its source is nature’s God, the creator and lawgiver, the transcendent author of moral wisdom. When men and women pass through the rotunda, whether Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, agnostic or atheist, they are reminded that the laws of the land are guided by a moral law grounded in something other than convention, caprice, or imperiousness.
The same text of the Ten Commandments can be found in a wholly different setting. In many Episcopal churches built in the nineteenth century—for example, the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul in Charleston, South Carolina—the Decalogue is inscribed on the walls of the apse. In this setting the commandments are presented and interpreted not as the work of the God of nature, but as the ordinances of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of biblical revelation, and the source of the commandments is identified—chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus. Understandably the commandments are flanked not by quotations from Thomas Jefferson or William Blackstone—as in Judge Moore’s monument—but by the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. For those who read the words of the commandments on the wall of the Cathedral in Charleston, sometimes while kneeling, the Decalogue is presented not as a universal moral code, but as the law given to Moses and an exhortation to Christians. So important is the Decalogue that it is given prominence by placing it in the chancel facing the altar, where the Eucharist is celebrated and the cathedra, the chair of the bishop, is found. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer also prescribes that the Decalogue be read in the service at least one Sunday a month.
Though the text of the Decalogue in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court and in the Cathedral are the same, those who turn their eyes to the commandments as they receive Communion will have a different sense of what they require than those who stop to read them in the rotunda of a state building.
The Ten Commandments are traditionally divided into two “tables,” the first including the invocation of God, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and the injunction to keep the Sabbath day holy, and the second the prohibitions against stealing, adultery, false witness, murder, and so forth. The secular critique of the public display of the commandments focuses in large measure on the first table. The second table is less controversial, though given the strident tone of the critics and their readiness to vandalize anything that has the authority of the past or of religious tradition, they would no doubt find some of the other commandments an affront as well (consider, for example, the prohibition against adultery).
The distinction between the two tables of the law, the first that enjoins duties to God, and the second that sets forth responsibilities to our fellow human beings, is very ancient and has been the staple of Christian instruction and exposition for centuries. In the Institutes, John Calvin wrote that “we ought to ponder what the division of the divine law into two Tables meant. . . . God has so divided His law into two parts, which contain the whole of righteousness, as to assign the first part of those duties of religion which particularly concern the worship of His majesty; the second, to the duties of love that have to do with men.”
For most of the Church’s history the distinction between the two tables was largely catechetical. During a brief period in British ecclesiastical history, however, the classical division between the two tables came to define two parties within the Church: the Puritans and the Anglicans. Although Anglicans and Puritans agreed on the authority of the Decalogue, and both parties thought that all the commandments were binding, they nevertheless disagreed as to where the emphasis should lie. Each accused the other of being “carvers”—that is, of carving out of the Ten Commandments what did not suit the interests of his party. The knife was applied at the cleavage between the first and second tables of the law. Puritans emphasized the commandments of the first table, duties towards God, and Anglicans, the commandments of the second table, duties to neighbor.
At first glance the controversy is puzzling. Neither Puritans nor Anglicans rejected the other table. The Anglicans were no less committed to the worship of the one true God, nor did Puritans eschew the prohibitions against adultery, stealing, or murder. Where one placed the accent defined what each party considered the “bosom sins.” Yet there was a genuine fault line and it turned on the “natural” morality that was embodied in the second table. The moral code in the second table, it was argued, could be deduced by the use of natural reason.
The difference between Puritans and Anglicans is nicely illustrated in sermons from the period. In a funeral sermon preached in 1659 Thomas Pierce (an Anglican clergyman who rose to prominence after the Restoration) said, “Give me leave to tell you, what is not every day considered. The most material part of godliness is moral honesty. . . . The second table is the touchstone to our obedience to the first.” Speaking of the deceased, Pierce went on to point out that he had been “sober and righteous”; hence he was also “godly” and put the lie to those who have only the form of godliness but lack its power.
In turn the Puritans responded that the Anglicans practiced an external virtue while ignoring the genuine worship of God. A good example is Richard Sibbes, master of St. Catherine’s Hall, Cambridge University. The “rise of all sin against man is our sinning against God first. . . . The breach of the First Commandment is the ground of the breach of all the rest.” For some the commandments were not so much divided into two tables as into a single First Commandment, worship of the true God, followed by the other nine. William Perkins said that “the ground of the nine later commandments is the first, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’”
This controversy within the English Church, one of the few instances in the history of Christianity when there was a dispute over the Ten Commandments, shows that Christians have a stake in two different ways of interpreting and using them. On the one hand, the Decalogue can be viewed as a universal law applicable to all human beings, the norm for “civil righteousness” in the language of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, it can be treated as a guide for the Christian life, a set of precepts to lead the faithful into a more intimate relation to God. Neither excludes the other, yet each has its own distinctive character, logic, and application. Both can be traced back to the New Testament and the early Church.
Already in the second century the North African theologian Tertullian addressed the topic: “Why should God, the creator of the universe, the governor of the whole world, the fashioner of human beings, the world, the producer of all peoples, be believed to have given a law through Moses to one people and not to have assigned it to all people?” A reasonable question. Why should a law for all peoples be transmitted through Moses to the Israelites? Tertullian’s answer is that the giving of the law to Moses was only one instance of promulgations of a universal moral law. According to the Old Testament, the law was given not once but many times and to different peoples, first to Adam and Eve (do not eat of the tree planted in the midst of paradise) and later in specific precepts written down by Moses on Mt. Sinai. However, before the law was given to Moses there was an “unwritten law” that was “understood naturally.” As examples of those who knew the law before it was promulgated Tertullian mentions Noah, who was “found righteous,” Abraham, and other figures in the Old Testament who lived before Moses. In Tertullian’s view the law of Moses is not the original law from which all others derived, but the form in which the universal law was proclaimed to the Jewish people at a particular time. This is an argument that can be put to work in the present situation: even something that claims universality will inevitably have a particular origin.
Augustine makes a similar point, but his argument moves more along natural law lines. The law has been “written in our hearts” by our “fashioner,” he says. Even before the law was given to Moses, human beings were not ignorant of it, because they were able to distinguish right from wrong and knew they were responsible for their actions. That is, an implicit ethical standard was built into human nature. At the same time it is not insignificant that the law was promulgated. “To take away from human beings any grounds for complaining that they had not been provided for, a law written on tablets was given. It stated what was already written in their hearts.” Though the law was always there, written on the heart, people could willfully ignore it or claim it did not exist. However, when it was promulgated it stood before them as a reproach that could not be ignored, and men and women were forced to attend to its precepts.
The appearance of the phrase “written in their hearts” in Tertullian and Augustine is noteworthy. It is a reference to the second chapter of Romans, the most explicit statement of the authority of the natural law in the Scriptures. Paul writes: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15).
Biblical scholars debate whether Paul is speaking here of the natural law, but Paul’s argument is so similar to what one finds in other ancient sources, for example, Philo or Cicero, that resistance to such an interpretation seems to stem more from willfulness, the reluctance to acknowledge the presence of natural law in the Scriptures, than from careful exegesis. In any event, whatever the view of contemporary biblical scholars, Romans 2 was taken by the Church Fathers and medieval theologians to refer to the natural law.
In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas cites Romans 2 in his discussion of the moral precepts of the old law. The question was “whether all the moral precepts of the old law belong to the law of nature.” Thomas responds: “On the contrary, the apostle says that the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law.” His argument is that human morality is not arbitrary but depends on its relation to reason. Those acts we call good are in accord with reason. In some cases the precepts are self-evident, in other cases judgment and deliberation is required, and in yet others one needs to be helped by divine instruction. Nevertheless, all the moral precepts belong to the law of nature, “but not all in the same way.” Significantly, Thomas does not draw a sharp line between things that are known by reason and those arrived at with the help of tradition or revelation, a point that is relevant to the use of the Decalogue in a pluralistic society. That something took form in a particular religious tradition does not place it beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse.
From earliest times, then, Christian thinkers have acknowledged that the law of Moses is not a law for the Jewish people alone, nor solely for Christians, but for all men and women. It is the form in which a universal law has been promulgated among the Jews and received later by Christians. In the present debate this would suggest that interpretation of the Decalogue in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court is not alien to Christian tradition or thought, but one Christians of all confessions should applaud and step forward to defend.
Even though the law is written on the hearts of human beings, its promulgation in a specific code forces people to attend to it, reflect on it, and, one hopes, to act on it. It is unrealistic to think that any society can rely solely on the law written on the heart or relegate moral exhortation to the inner life of religious communities or to the conscience of the individual. The sentiments we read on public buildings or find inscribed on monuments and memorials are not abstractions, but concrete testimonies to the lives and convictions of those who have gone before us. As John Lukacs has reminded us, there is “recorded” history and also “remembered” history. The things we remember in our common life quietly convey a precious inheritance that helps us keep faith with the dead and form, in unspoken ways, the sensibilities and attitudes, not to say hopes and dreams, of those who will follow us. There is no greater betrayal than to impoverish a generation yet unborn by willful acts of amnesia. What we honor in our public life has a bearing on how we live as individuals.
In his testimony at the trial concerning the Alabama monument, Rabbi David Novak argued that we should not succumb to the argument that “secular” and “religious” are mutually exclusive terms. Maimonides distinguished between those who accept commandments because of “natural inclination” and those who accept them because of divine revelation. Maimonides went on to say that whether for religious reasons or secular reasons, all persons, religious or not, can affirm the practical authority of the same commandments.
It should not be overlooked that the claim for the Decalogue’s universality is not simply grounded in the argument that one can make a case from reason that stealing, adultery, and murder are wrong. Its precepts are also universal in that they reflect moral codes found in other religions. The most striking case is Buddhism. Within Buddhism there are lists of virtues and prohibitions that are remarkably similar to what is found in the Ten Commandments: not taking life, not taking what is not given, practicing sexual purity, speaking the truth, speaking gently, guarding one’s word, refraining from slander, restraining covetous thoughts of others’ wealth, avoiding thoughts of doing harm to others, sustaining the perfect vision. Buddhist kings made these virtues the center of political law.
The correspondence between this Buddhist list and the Ten Commandments gives strong support to the Christian and Jewish contention that the commandments are not simply the arbitrary and accidental preferences of the religious traditions of the West. Even in particulars they represent a broad moral consensus that embraces both West and East.
Nevertheless, one might argue that the particularity of the commandments of the first table makes the Decalogue unsuitable for our pluralistic society. The offending commands are, “Thou shalt have no other gods” and “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
The Sabbath command seems to me to pose the more difficult case. Though some would purge the name of God from our public life, the invocation of God is deeply rooted in our history, from the Declaration of Independence to oaths in court, to our coinage, to the Pledge of Allegiance, to proclamations on Thanksgiving, to Memorial Day celebrations, and to the religious language used by all our Presidents to this day. Because the Decalogue begins with a command to worship God, it appeals to a higher law than convention, to a standard that is beyond the power of states and people to abrogate. In the words of George Mason, which are quoted on Judge Moore’s monument, “The laws of nature are the laws of God; whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.” Elimination of references to God in our public discourse is alien to American experience and the convictions of most Americans.
The command to remember the Sabbath is of a different order. Of course one might make the argument that any society needs a day of rest, a day unlike other days of the week, when schools and public offices are closed and life moves at a slower pace. (How sweet it is to drive city streets on a Sunday morning.) The command to keep the Jewish Sabbath could then be taken metaphorically to refer to any day of rest, and because of the history and customs of this country, that day is Sunday, the Christian sabbath.
That argument strikes me as strained and artificial. I think it better to acknowledge that every nation or people has a particular history, and the form in which the universal moral law comes to us is derived from Christian and Jewish tradition, that is from the Bible—the Christian Old Testament, the Jewish Torah. Just because some wish to put distance between themselves and the beliefs that formed us as a nation does not mean that all references to the particularity of our traditions must be wiped clean. Why should this history be considered offensive? To brand it as arbitrary is a haughty act of intellectual hubris, thin in substance and contemptuous of our ancestors. It also cuts against the grain of common sense. We are who we are because of our history. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “There is a history in all men’s lives.”
We do not come at anything of worth except through history, and that applies as much to matters of morality as it does to our convictions about representative government, human rights, and religious freedom. What is to be gained by willfully afflicting the society with forgetfulness? A moral code constructed solely on the basis of our own reasonings without foundation in history would be abstract and antiseptic, and in the present cultural climate, a fantasy. Agreement could never be reached. The Ten Commandments are unique, a gift of our history that anchors our moral world more convincingly than anything that would be created anew. That the Decalogue is linked to a particular tradition with a specific historical origin is an argument in its favor, not against it. For Americans the Decalogue is not just “one religious code.”
Which brings me to the use of the Ten Commandments within the churches. Christians recognize that the civic righteousness of the second table is hardly sufficient as a goal for the Christian life. The substance of the Decalogue, however, is presented in the New Testament, and in its particulars. Consider, for example, Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Though Paul knows and recalls Jesus’ summary of the law, he is not content with generalities but spells out in some detail the specific commands that belong to the Decalogue. In Ephesians, he mentions “honor your father and mother” and adds the interesting commentary that this is the first commandment with a promise, “that it may be well with you.” In 1 Timothy, Paul, or one of his disciples, refers to the “law,” by which he means the Ten Commandments, as the list that follows makes clear. Most of them can be identified by the list of sinners, the unholy and profane, murderers of fathers and mothers, manslayers, sodomites, perjurers, or the works of the flesh, fornication, impurity, idolatry, and enmity. When complemented by the gifts of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness— they become a positive program rather than a simple list of prohibitions.
Following the New Testament, Christian writers in the second century took for granted that the commandments inscribed in the Decalogue are authoritative for Christians. The apologist Aristides, for example, presents the ideal Christian life by reference to the commandments of the Decalogue. Later, Augustine (who was the first to treat the Decalogue systematically in the context of Christian catechetics) brought the commandments into intimate relation with the life in Christ. In one sermon he refers to the Decalogue as God’s harp, citing Psalm 144, “O God, I will sing You a new song, on a harp of ten strings I will play to You,” and urges his congregation not to let the harp get out of tune. Elsewhere he interprets the Ten Commandments as tablets given by Christ to his bride, the Church. They are not the ordinances of a stern and distant judge but the loving gift of the bridegroom to his beloved. Given in love, they are not to be feared but embraced.
For Christians the Ten Commandments are much more than prohibitions imposed from without, negative commands having to do with what should be avoided in our external actions. They have to do not only with behavior but with attitudes and dispositions—that is, with the interior life. Recall the great meditation on the law, Psalm 119, a psalm Christians often ignore, partly because of its length, partly because of its repetitiveness, and partly because it has to do with law. What it says about law, however, is quite unconventional, one might even say un-lawlike. I am thinking not only of such verses as “Oh, how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” or “I long for Thy commandments,” but the accent on interiority. “I incline my heart to perform Thy statutes,” a verse that occurs in several forms in the psalm. Psalm 119 forms a fitting backdrop to the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
When we think of observing the law, of keeping the commandments, it is the will that first comes to mind. The psalmist surprises us by making our actions dependent not only on the will or the intellect but the heart, the affections. Only when the heart is inclined to God’s law, only when we love God, can we make the commandments our own.
But perhaps the place to end is with Luther, from whom I first learned the commandments and their “explanations.” Luther does not cite Psalm 119 in his two catechisms, but he prefaces his explanation of each commandment with the phrase, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things,” sentiments that are also found in the psalm. After each commandment is recited, he asks, What does this mean?, and repeats the introductory formula. At “you shall not kill” he comments, “We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life.” For Luther, the commandments have to do with an inner transformation, a change of “thought, word, and deed”—not only doing no harm to our neighbor, but treating him with patience, love, and kindness. Only when the heart “clings” to God and “entrusts” itself to God, says Luther, can we live as the commandments direct us. That, finally, is why the first and greatest commandment in the Scriptures is one that has no place on a public monument, but is to be burned into the hearts of each generation of the faithful: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press).