Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface

Jonathan Willis

JacketRegular readers of this blog may or may not be aware that I’ve spent the last seven years or so researching and writing a book on the Ten Commandments and the English Reformation, initially with the help of a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, and latterly as a lecturer and then senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  The fruits of these labours are due to be published in mid-October (2017) by Cambridge University Press, as part of their Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History series, under the title The Reformation of the Decalogue: Religious Identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c.1485-1625.  What better way to mark this new arrival into the world of published work, than with a series of blog posts, exploring some of the more interesting and/or unexpected aspects of the Ten Commandments as they came to prominence over the course of the English reformation…

Before I start a series of posts which will focus on each commandment in turn, however, I want to do two things in this preface.  Firstly, I want to ask why are the commandments worthy of attention, and secondly, I want to give a bit of essential context for understanding the Protestant Decalogue.what-is-the-difference-between-arithmetic-and-mathematics-22Long ago (in 1988, in fact), it was the late great historian of early modern Catholicism John Bossy who noted that the reformation helped to cement a shift in what he called the ‘moral arithmetic’ of the Latin Christian West – from a moral system based on the Seven Deadly Sins to one constructed around the Ten Commandments.[1]  For Bossy this shift was embraced by Catholic and Protestant countries alike, and was partly responsible for changing views of the devil, of witchcraft, and of childhood.

Bossy’s insightful essay was my starting point for researching the commandments, but upon closer inspection, it rapidly became clear that the Decalogue was doing much more than repackaging the traditional moral framework of the Seven Deadly Sins in a new scripturally-approved format.  This is more or less what happened in Catholic countries, and in Catholic Catechisms the commandments were often discussed alongside the Seven Sins, the Commandments of the Church, the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, and a whole host of other traditional frameworks for teaching morality (my personal favourite is probably the four sins so ‘manifestly enormous’ that they cry to heaven to vengeance!).[2]

In Protestant countries, and in England in particular, there were significant differences.  Firstly, it was the commandments alone which were used to teach people how to live a Christian life in the brave new religious world ushered in by the reformation.[3]  The Sins, the Ave Maria, the Commandments of the Church, and all the other lists of (largely non scriptural) virtues and vices were expunged from the religious landscape.  Secondly, the commandments were renumbered by Reformed Protestants (although not by Lutherans), who made a separate Second Commandment out of the prohibition against the making and worshipping of graven images, and collapsed all forms of coveting into a single Tenth Commandment.

Perhaps most significantly of all, however, the commandments underwent a radical theological repurposing.  The point of the commandments in the Catholic system was, as we have seen, to serve as one of a number of frameworks to tell Catholics what good deeds they ought to do, and what bad deeds they ought to avoid,  in order to aid their entry into heaven.  The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, however, meant that entrance to heaven was to be secured only through God’s gift of grace: good works were the consequence, not the cause, of salvation.

Protestant divines therefore described not one but three ‘offices’ (roles, functions) of the Decalogue, meaning that the same Ten Commandments applied in different ways to different groups of people and in different contexts.  The first ‘office’ was civil or temporal: the commandments functioned as earthly laws, buttressed by the laws of kings and kingdoms, which ordinary men and women (saved and damned alike) were obliged to obey, or face secular punishment.

adam_and_eveThe second office was theological, concerned with the evangelical doctrines of election (who was to be saved and go heaven) and reprobation (who was to be damned to hell).  The function of the law in this regard was to demand not just outward compliance, but total inward obedience, body and soul.  Such obedience was impossible for mankind to attain, tainted as they were by the indelible stain of original sin, and so the real purpose of the law was to reveal man’s sinfulness.  This was the charge sheet according to which the death sentence of the damned was pronounced, and marked the end of their relationship with the commandments.  The reaction of those predestined to salvation, however, was to feel repentance at the knowledge of their sinful state, and flee from reliance upon their own actions to trust in the saving promises of the Gospel and faith in Christ.

The third and final office of the law therefore applied solely to the saved, in providing for them a guide to godly living, and a means of increasing in holiness (sanctification) and gaining assurance of their elect (chosen) status.  The commandments which threatened to damn them to hell at the point of their conversion afterwards offered reassurance, as they defined the good works which the elect could expect to see proceed from their newly sanctified state.

These changes – the increased focus on the Decalogue, the renumbering of the commandments, and the outlining of three distinct offices of God’s law, together resulted in much more than a new moral system: the ten commandments were transformed by, and also helped to shape, the English reformation in a series of profound and lasting ways.  To start finding out how, look out for the next post in the series!

The First Commandment: Faith and Atheism in Early Modern England

The Second Commandment: The Protestant War on Will Worship

The Third Commandment: What’s in a Name?

The Fourth Commandment: Keeping it Holy

The Fifth Commandment: Honouring ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’

The Sixth Commandment: Killing me softly…

The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along.

The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the Tongue

The Tenth Commandment: The Depth of Sin

[1] John Bossy: ‘Moral arithmetic: Seven Sins into Ten Commandments’, in Edmund Leites (ed.), Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: CUP, 1988), pp. 214-234.

[2] Enumerated as wilful murder, carnal sins against nature, oppression of the poor and defrauding workmen of their wages: c.f. Robert Bellarmine, An ample declaration of the Christian doctrine, trans. Richard Hadock (1604), pp. 257-270.

[3] The Commandments (Charity) were also taught alongside the Pater Noster (Hope), which taught how to pray to God, and the Creed (Faith), which taught the articles of Christian belief.

10 thoughts on “Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface

  1. Pingback: The First Commandment: Faith and Atheism in Early Modern England | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: The Second Commandment: The Protestant War on Will-Worship | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: The Third Commandment: What’s in a Name? | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: The Fourth Commandment: Keeping it Holy | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: The Fifth Commandment: Honouring ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: The Sixth Commandment: Killing me softly… | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery | the many-headed monster

  8. Pingback: The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along… | the many-headed monster

  9. Pingback: The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue | the many-headed monster

  10. Pingback: The Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin | the many-headed monster

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