[A28] Some Minor Questions of the Law (The Small Catechism)
“There are a few questions which… often trouble our people. One is the question which has to do with the number and proper order of the commandments. Our people often, in reading, or discussing the commandments, meet with these difficulties. They find that the order we follow differs from that followed by others. If they read or hear someone speak of the Fifth Commandment, for instance, they find that an entirely different subject is presented from that of which we think when the Fifth Commandment is mentioned. And the same difficulty arises if others hear us or read after us. When we come to understand the facts in the case we find that it is not such a serious matter, but until that time the trouble exists.”
Table of Contents
28. Some Minor Questions Of The Law
“My son, forget not my Law; but let thine heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee. Let not mercy and truth for sake thee; bind them about thy neck, write them upon the tablet of thine heart; so shalt thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man.” — Prov. 3:1-4.
“The Lord said unto Moses, write thou these words… for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” — Exodus 34:27:28.
We have given the commandments a rather extended treatment, not exhaustive by any means; for, as someone has well said, the whole Bible is, in a sense, but an elaboration of the First Commandment. But we have covered fairly well the points of the Law which are applicable to the everyday problems of life. There are, however, a few questions which, while they have little to do with either the interpretation or the application of the commandments proper, often trouble our people. One is the question which has to do with the number and proper order of the commandments. Our people often, in reading, or discussing the commandments, meet with these difficulties. They find that the order we follow differs from that followed by others. If they read or hear someone speak of the Fifth Commandment, for instance, they find that an entirely different subject is presented from that of which we think when the Fifth Commandment is mentioned. And the same difficulty arises if others hear us or read after us. When we come to understand the facts in the case we find that it is not such a serious matter, but until that time the trouble exists.
Let me explain at once that the difference is not to any great extent the result of a difference in interpretation. It has arisen from the fact that God’s Word has not settled the question of the number and order of the commandments. It does not say, This is the second, the fifth, the eighth, or the tenth commandment. It tells us explicitly that there are ten words, or precepts, in the Law of God; but that is as far as the Word of God goes with respect to the question of order or number.
Another somewhat analogous question does not give the same amount of perplexity, owing to the smaller number occupying themselves with the question. It is that which has to do with the division of the Law into tables. The Bible tells us there are two tables, but it does not tell us how they were originally divided or how they are now to be divided.
As with most of the questions that men have to settle for themselves, so, with respect to both the foregoing questions, we find a difference of opinion. As in a good many other things, men probably began to look for grounds of difference because they did not want to agree. And now, finding themselves differing, men are eager to justify their points of difference. I shall attempt to give especially the history of the origin of the different systems of dividing and enumerating the commandments, with the reasons for so doing. But first of all a word with respect to —
The Two Tables of the Law
In Exodus thirty-two and Deuteronomy ten, it is expressly mentioned that there were two tables of stone on which the commandments were originally written. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews corroborates the statement. In Exodus thirty-two, we are told that the tables of stone were written on both sides. But in no place in the Scriptures are we told how many commandments were on either table. From the days of Philo or, probably, before, a good deal of arguing has been done on this subject; all of which is practically useless. It is all mere speculation, which, however ingenuous or probable, can never lead to any positive conclusion. As for the question itself, that affects no vital issue. There are too many people who get lost in the pursuit of these minor problems and eventually lose sight of the main subject. It is well enough for us to have our preferences in these matters, and now, that the difference exists, it is necessary to our peace of mind to know the grounds on which they rest; but it is much more important that we know the Ten Commandments and earnestly seek to heed them than it is to know and be able to quote all the arguments for maintaining that there were three or four or five commandments on the one table and seven or six or five on the other. Whatever we may believe about this subject, let us be sure that all the commandments are written on the one table of our hearts.
When we speak of the Two Tables of the Law we are not thinking of the original tables of stone but of the content, the subject matter, of the commandments. And if it could be shown that there were, for instance, five on the one table and five on the other, it would not seriously affect our view, which is decided by the nature of the commandments themselves. Of course, a Lutheran artist, in making a pictorial representation of the commandments, would reproduce our view: he would have three on the one table and seven on the other.
That the commandments fall into two groups, Jesus Himself shows in His discussion of the nature of the Law, as recorded in St. Matthew twenty-two. These groups are determined by the character of the commandments forming them: the first group setting forth our relationship to God and the duties involved therein, and the second group setting forth our relation to man and the duties it involves.
This twofold grouping is universally recognized, but there is no general agreement as to just where the line between the two groups is to be drawn. The usual view of our Church is that to the First Table belong only the first three commandments, because these alone treat of our direct duties toward God. A good many theologians, however, and among them some Lutherans, include in this table the commandment which treats of the duties of children to parents. The ground for this division is that parents, in a very special sense, are God’s representatives on earth, and because this, our Fourth Commandment, sets forth, as do the first three, a filial relationship and filial duties. Personally I am of the opinion that the ground for including the Fourth Commandment in the First Table is not sufficiently strong. The object of the First Table is to teach us the importance of loving and serving God supremely. And Jesus Himself teaches us that it is possible so to love one’s parents as to become idolaters and unfitted for the reception of God’s love and grace. High and holy as is the Fourth Commandment, it yet stands so far re moved from the First Table and is capable of such perversion that it seems clear to me that it ought not to be included in the First Table.
The Second Table sets forth our fraternal duties, the duties the children of men owe one to another. And, excepting the discussion concerning the proper place of the Fourth Commandment, there is with respect to it practical unanimity.
The division of the commandments as to tables stands then as follows: The older division, followed by our church, embraces only the first three commandments in the First Table, the other seven in the Second. We are guided in this division only by the content, or nature, of the commandments them selves; but the numbers of each, three and seven, are the two most sacred numbers of Scripture. Those who accept our method of dividing and numbering the commandments proper, but add the Fourth Commandment to the First Table, have four to their first and six to their second table. Those who follow the later method of dividing the commandments, that adopted by the Greek church, in which a separate commandment is made of the explanation concerning images, have two pentabs — two tables of five commandments each.
The Division and Number of the Commandments
The great practical difficulty of the people is not about the Two Tables but the division and number of the commandments themselves. The former is not a popular question. But the question as to why our church calls one commandment the second, while another denomination calls the same commandment the third, is always with us. Before proceeding, let us recall that this is not a question to be settled by Biblical statement, for there is nothing in the Bible by which it can be settled. It is a question of tradition, of church history, and of inferences from accepted theological principles.
There are three general methods of dividing and numbering the commandments, though there are, by actual count, fourteen different ways of arranging them. The commandments were first delivered to the Jews. And from earliest times this is the way they divided and numbered them: The words of Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” they considered the first commandment. That which the universal Christian Church considers to be the real substance of the first commandment, the words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” they counted as the second commandment. To this, their second commandment, they added the words prohibiting the making of graven images for purposes of worship. It may be well to note here that this, from earliest times, was the understanding of those to whom the commandments were given. They considered these words concerning images an explanation or amplification of the commandment prohibiting idolatry. Making the preface to the commandments a commandment itself, the Jews were compelled to combine the two statements concerning covetousness, in order not to exceed the number ten.
The Christian Church of the West at first followed the Jewish method of separating the commandments. But under the leadership of St. Augustine, the introductory words, “I am the Lord thy God,” were no longer counted as a separate commandment, but regarded, as is now done by the whole Christian church, as a preface to all the commandments, though having special relationship, not only by position but also in thought, to the First. Augustine agreed with the Jewish method in not counting the words concerning graven images as a separate commandment, but as an explanation of that prohibiting idolatry. But, having omitted the Jewish first commandment, as a commandment, and agreeing with them in not counting the words concerning graven images as a separate commandment, Augustine was compelled to divide the two prohibitions against coveting. And he justified it on the ground of the difference between coveting merely material possessions and the coveting which is largely of the nature of concupiscence.
This view of the Western Church, which adopted that of the ancient Jewish Church, is fundamentally the one Luther accepted. He did not refuse to accept a position simply because those from whom he was compelled to differ on other points accepted it.
Early in the Christian era, under the leader ship of Josephus, certain of the Jews departed from their older method of dividing and numbering the commandments. They ceased to regard the preface as a distinct command, but considered the explanation concerning images as such. Thus, to include all the commandments and not exceed the number ten, they likewise had to combine the two prohibitions of covetousness. This view, adopted and defended by Philo in his Explanation of the Commandments, was accepted by Origen, and became the system of the Eastern, or Greek Catholic Church. And when certain of the reformers could not agree with Luther on certain other points, though they were lineal descendants of the Western Church, they introduced the view of the Eastern church on this point.
It is to be admitted that the arguments used in favor of either division, possess elements both of strength and weakness. The chief argument on the side of those who make a separate commandment out of the words concerning images is that the First Commandment prohibits idolatry — the having of a false god or false gods; while the second, as they number them, prohibits the use of images, or representations, of God or Divine things in the worship of God. It must be granted that intellectually this distinction can be made. The question is whether people of very limited culture, as the Jewish people unquestionably were at the time of the giving of the Law, could make this distinction or appreciate it if made?
The chief ground urged by those who take our position is that the words about images are but an explanation. The First Commandment, in a few brief words, prohibits idolatry. The succeeding verses proceed from the general statement to the specification of instances of idolatry as often practiced then and now. In setting up these words as a distinct commandment, the adherents of this system violate one of the universally accepted principles of the interpretation of the Law. I will give it as it is given in the Westminster Larger Catechism, page 249:
“Under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearance thereof, and provocations thereunto.”
Now if that kind of idolatry which uses images as objects of worship is not of the same kind as any other idolatry, if it is not a means of expressing it, then we should like to find someone who will tell us what the relationship is between the two. And you will find that every theologian who adheres to this system of dividing the commandments, labors under this difficulty. It is extremely difficult to explain the First Commandment without introducing the thought of the representations of God set up for worship. And it is just as difficult to treat of the second commandment of the exponents in question at any length, unless one accepts the extreme position that it is wrong to use any kind of representation of heavenly beings or things in the worship of God. Some do this, but it is contrary to the Word of God. These words them selves expressly prohibit, not the making, but the worship, of these representations.
“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
It was not very long after the giving of these words that God Himself directed these people to make certain images and representations for the adornment of the house of God and for use in His service.
It is urged that the introduction “Thou shalt not,” or its equivalent, marks this prohibition of image worship as a separate commandment. But if this be true, we shall have to admit eleven commandments, for it is on all sides acknowledged that the two prohibitions, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” are so introduced.
The charge that Luther kept the old method of the Western Church because he was in love with their imagery and pictorial representation is as baseless as would be the charge that the other side opposed this system only because of their fanatical iconoclasm. No one was more unalterably op posed to anything which approached idolatry, in form as in essence, than Luther. No one more strongly insisted on a direct spiritual worship than he. The Lutheran Church is just as far removed as any church can be from any approach to the idolatrous use of images or pictures. But we do believe that there is a place for pictorial representation and the splendid service rendered by it.
On the other hand, I am willing to admit that we find difficulty in maintaining the division of our Ninth and Tenth Commandments. And almost everyone of our men who has attempted an extended treatment of the commandments shows this difficulty, just as the other side does in dividing the First Commandment. We can make a distinction, but it is, in my humble judgment, a distinction without much of a difference.
Brethren, we need not perplex ourselves about this difference. It is well for us to know that our position is not a novel one, lacking the dignity of historic worth. We may be thankful to God that both sides have the same matter and recognize it as an authoritative Word of God. We do not deny or question a thing that is in their second commandment. And they have our Tenth, though they conjoin it to the Ninth. Therefore I do not see that there is much to fight about in either the one position or the other.
The Bible writers themselves help to emphasize the fact that order and number have very little to do with the subject matter of the commandments or the spirit in which they are to be kept. If you will turn to the two books of the Old Testament, where the commandments were originally recorded, you will find that the order followed in Exodus 20, is reversed in Deuteronomy 5, so far as the Ninth and Tenth Commandments are concerned. And Jesus Himself, when repeating a portion of the commandments, did not follow the original order (St. Matt. 19:18ff.). The same is true of the greatest Biblical expounder of the Law, St. Paul (Rom. 13:9)
Brethren, the first thing to remember is that there is a Law, that it is the Law of a holy God, that He has given it to us as the rule for our lives. This Law is not merely to be committed to memory, but it is to be written on the tablet of the heart, as our text says. This means that it is to be a living principle of conduct, so that we, out of love to God, keep the commandments from the heart. Having served as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, where we have found forgiveness and new life, the commandments have now become to us the regulative principle of our new life, the rule ac cording to which we seek to live.
“My son, forget not My Law, but let thine heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee… Bind them about thy neck, write them upon the tablet of thine heart, so shalt thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man.”
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- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Ten Commandments”
- Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0