7 Rules for Reading and Explaining the 10 Commandments

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

It’s odd to think that you need rules for reading rules, but according to Francis Turretin, it’s a must. It’s really just good hermeneutics. Since each type of biblical literature needs to be approached on its own terms as well as within the broader scope the story of Scripture and theology in general, it makes sense to put up some guard-rails in order to protect against distortion, perversion, and neglect. This is especially the case when it comes to the Law of God. I mean, think about Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels–what were most of his conflicts about? The interpretation and application of the Law. “Who is my neighbor?”, or “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” At the heart of life as a member of the people of God, is understanding what to do with the Law. This isn’t about legalism, but simply asking the question, “What does loving God look like when Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15)?”

That’s probably why in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology Turretin has a topic subdivision dedicated to the subject lasting a solid 170 pages. Indeed, one of the subsections (Vol 2, Topic 11, Q. VI) is dedicated to outlining seven rules that need to be observed preachers, theologians, and teachers of the Scriptures in order to properly explain and apply the full meaning of each of the Ten Commandments.

So what are the rules for the rules?

1. Inside Out. First, we have to remember that “the law is spiritual, respecting not only the external acts of the body, but the internal motions of the mind.” In other words, mere outward obedience isn’t all that’s required. Jesus told us that adultery wasn’t only a matter of keeping your pants on, but of guarding your eyes and your heart from lust, and murder is something you can do with a word as well as a knife (Matt. 5:22-28). True obedience flows from the motives of the heart; this is the deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law could muster.

2. “Thou Shalt Not” Also Means “Thou Shalt.” Second, “in affirmative precepts, negative, and in negative, affirmative are contained.” In other words, when the Bible says, “do this” there’s an implied “don’t do that”, and vice versa. So, when the Bible commands us not to be thieves, Luther, in his catechism said that it is also commending generosity and living with an open hand. Or again, Turretin says that the command not to kill means we ought to also “cherish our neighbor’s life in every way we can”, because God “wishes his life to be dear and precious to us.” Having no other God’s but the Lord alone, also invites and enjoins us to truly worship the Lord. As my old pastor used to put it, every “thou shalt not”, has a “thou shalt” alongside it.

3. A Head For a Whole. Third, “in all the precepts synecdoche is to be acknowledged.” A synecdoche is a figure of speech where one piece of something stands for the whole. In other words, the command forbidding one sin, actually is a stand-in for the class of sins of which it is a part. This is another way of looking at the deepening of the Law we see in Jesus’ commands to look at our heart motives. Also, you begin to see that in the rest of the OT law, much of the commands about property are just an expansion of the original command not to steal, or covet. The command against adultery rules out a variety of sexual sins, and so forth.

4. More of the Same. Fourth, connected to that last is that “in the effect, the cause in the genus, the species, in the related, the correlative is included.” This is complicated at first glance, but essentially he means that anything it takes to fulfill a law is also included in the law. So, if chastity is included in your avoidance of adultery, so is your moderation in eating habits which teach you to exercise self-control overall. Or, if children are commanded to honor their parents, parents are also commanded to instruct their children with care, in the Lord, and in loving-kindness. Even more, if you’ve paid attention to any catechisms, usually the command to honor parents is seen as the foundation for respecting the authority of magistrates, judges, and so forth. The same principle underlies both.

5. First Things First. Fifth, “the precepts of the first table take preference over those of the second.” Most Reformed divide the 10 Commandments into two tables, counting the first four commandments as being concerned more directly with the worship of God, and the second set of six being aimed at our responsibilities to our neighbor. With this in mind, when there’s a conflict, we give the first section priority: God comes first. We honor God’s Name over our parents, or the magistrate, if the choice ever comes up. Turretin sees this as flowing from Jesus’ own words when he says our love for mother and father must seem like hate compared to our devotion to him (Lk. 14:26). Or again, moral worship is more important than ceremonial worship because “God desires mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

6. Always Sometimes. Sixth, Turretin tells us that “some precepts are affirmative” (meaning they’re telling us to complete something) and “others negative” (telling us to avoid something), “the former bind always, but not to always, the latter always to always.” What that oddly-phrased principle means is that, even though the positive commands and duties are always in force, you can’t always be currently acting on them. I can’t honor my parents concretely when they’re not around, or give to the poor when I’m driving through a rich neighborhood. That said, I’m always supposed to avoid theft, murder, and so forth. The only command he makes an exception for is Loving God–you can do that wherever and whenever.

7. Above All, Love. Seventh, and finally, Turretin says “the beginning and end of all the precepts is love.” This is his lengthiest and most comprehensive rule. Love is the “end” and the “fulfilling” of the law (1 Tim. 1:5; Rom. 13:10).

Love discharges all the claims of God’s beneficence and of man’s obedience. As all God’s blessings flow form love and are contained in it, so all man’s duties are included in love. The love of God is the fullness of the gospel; the love of man is the fullness of the law. God is love and the mark of the sons of God is none other than love (John. 13:35).

By identifying the two greatest commands, Jesus shows us that love has a “two-fold” object, both God and humanity. As we already saw, the love of God comes first because God must always come first, from which flows the love of humanity. But what do those two commands imply? Why is the first, the “greatest command”, and how is the command to love our neighbor “like it”?

Well, the first is the “greatest command” for three reasons:

  • It has the greatest object, God.
  • It demands the most from us; body, soul, strength, and mind are to be attuned to loving God at all times.
  • It is comprehensive. There isn’t a single action in our life that isn’t directed towards the love of God.

The second is like it, not in terms of importance, but in other senses:

  • It is like it because both loving God and neighbor requires purity of heart.
  • It has the same authority as commanded by God and tending towards his glory.
  • It has the same punishment, as violating both commands leads to death.
  • They are dependent on one another. You can’t love God and hate your brother, and vice versa (1 John 4:20).

So end Turretin’s rules for reading, interpreting, and teaching the 10 Commandments. He goes on, of course, to give four more rules for how to properly obey the commands, but that might be a post for another day.

Before closing, a final observation is in order. Turretin may seem to be repeating the error of the Pharisees in seeming to add laws on top of laws and rules for avoiding the rules. In fact, that’s precisely what he’s trying to avoid in many cases. Not only does he have a section devoted to arguing against addition commands, if you see what he’s doing, in most of these sections he’s simply trying to apply Jesus’ principles to the reading of the Law. For Turretin, Jesus gives us the truest, deepest meaning of the laws God gave. He restores the laws from their false, burdensome interpretations, and reminds us of their deep rooting in the benevolence of God, who gave wise laws to his people in order to lead them down the path of life.

Why should we, as disciples, not learn from our Master? That’s what Turretin did and it’s what he invites us to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

A Kingdom of Forgiven Priests (Story Notes #6)

GoldCalfMy church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Things get screwy when you forget who you are–even for a little bit. For instance, when a poor college kid forgets that he’s a poor college kid, and acts like a rich one–well, that looks like years of credit card debt. The same thing is true for Christians who forget their identity–it can look ugly. Tonight we’re looking at the story of Israel getting its primary identity, and as we look at that, we’ll learn something about our own identity as a Kingdom of Forgiven Priests.

Recap – Now, at this point in the story, God has already set the Israelites free. God basically kicked the Egyptians butts by sending ten plagues from everything like flies, to hailstorms to boils to killing the firstborn in every household and so finally the Pharoah let the people Go (Sunday school style). Yeah, and so Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert and here’s where we pick up in verse 1

Text – Exodus 19:1-6

A Kingdom of Priests — Ok, so here we are at the base of the mountain and God here is about to make his covenant with the Israelites. He’s about to make the deal that will make the Israelites his people and he tells them that if they will be his people, if they will keep his covenant, his ordinances and worship him, then the nation of Israel will be for him “A Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”

Here we see what God was up to in saving the Israelites. He saved them out of slavery to Pharoah in order that they could be free to be for him a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy nation.” He saved them for a task. He saved them so that they might serve God his priests, so that they might be a holy nation “out of all the nations.”

In this context, what does it mean to be a priest? Well, in the ancient world and even today, a priest was someone who stood between God and the rest of the people. He was the person who represented God to man and brought man to God. He was the go-between, the representative, the middleman. He taught people the ways of God and led the people in the worship of God. If you wanted to know what a god was like, you’d go check out his priest.

So, what does it mean for God to call an entire nation to be his “Kingdom of Priests”? Well, God is calling these people, to be his representatives to the world. They were to be a nation that taught the rest of the world what God was like. Like Adam in the Garden, they were to live in a way that revealed God to his world.

Israel and the Church

Ok, now, if you have your Bibles I want you to go to 1 Peter 2:9. Fast-forward from Moses about a thousand years to about the year 60 something A.D. Peter, one of the first followers of Jesus is writing a letter of encouragement to Jewish and Gentile Christians, the beginnings of the Church scattered throughout Asia Minor who are possibly suffering persecution and whatnot. Towards the beginning of the letter here in chapter 2 verse 9 he drops this statement:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy…Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

Hold on there, did you hear that first part? “But you are a chosen people, A ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Do you see what Peter is doing here? He’s writing to this early Christian community composed of both Gentiles and Jews and invokes the Exodus text about the Israelites to apply it now to the community that has formed around the person of Jesus.

He tells this group that they are now to be to Jesus, what the Israelites had been for God back in the day. They are to be the people who declare the praises of “Him” who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. Just as the Israelites were supposed to do this for the God revealed himself in the Exodus, the church is supposed to do this for that same God who revealed himself in Jesus.

This happens in two basic ways, both in the OT and in the NT:

1. Living Good Lives Among the Pagans — See, in just a chapter, Moses is going to lay down the 10 commandments (and the rest of the commands of the covenant) that express God’s expectations for the relationship. As Israel obeys those commands and observes them, the world begins to see what God is like.

It’s kind of like in your family, you have family rules. When you find out about your friends house-rules growing up, you find out about their parents. Are they uptight? Relaxed? Fun? Organized? Etc. In the same way, God’s commands are the house-rules that reflect God himself. That’s because those commands are not just arbitrary rules that God makes up, but expressions of his character. So, when you look at the commands they begin to tell you about what he’s like:

1-3 God demands we worship no other gods, we worship him and honor him properly because he cares about true relationship.

4. God tells us to rest because he is the creator and wants us to trust in him.

5. He wants us to honor our parents, and respect the authority by which the world functions.

6. Lying about our neighbors destroys the fabric of love and respect he wants for the world.

7. Stealing is the opposite of the generosity which characterizes the Creator God.

8. Murder is the opposite of the God who gives life.

9. Adultery is an affront to the value God places on relationships and promise-keeping.

10. Coveting reflects an ingratitude and lack of contentment that denies God’s provision.

The point is, in each of these commands you see something about the world and the God who made it. As Israel lives out these commands, the pagan nations around them find out something about the God that they worship. They would see that the God of Israel had just and wise laws and so was a just and wise God.

The same is true for us. As we live good, just, patient, honest lives in front of our neighbors, they should see something about the God we worship. It should be the kind of thing where, even though they don’t believe in God, or agree with our beliefs, they should be glad we’re their neighbors because of the lives we live with them.

Problem –  The problem is that Israel sucks at this. I mean, really, royally sucks at this. They hear the law, agree to it in a very sacred ceremony, and then Moses goes up the mountain for a 40 day to get the law on Tablets. In the middle of that, Israel get’s antsy and decides, “You know, let’s make an idol. That sounds like just what we need. Let’s get an idol.” Of course, right at the front of the list of commands is, “no idols”, right? Now, as usually happens, when you start worshiping other things, other sins follow. All idolatry leads to immorality somehow. In this case, they start partying, doing weird, freaky sexual stuff, and just getting crazy.

Now, I read this and kinda shake my head, but that’s totally me, right? I mean, I’ll be at church one minute, and then next I’m cursing somebody out in my car, or hating my neighbor, or back at that same sinful pattern I’ve been trying to break. I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe it’s being at that party. The blunt in hand. Blacked out again. Sinfully controlling people around you. Lying to make yourself look better. Disrespecting your parents. Coveting and comparing yourself to your neighbor. Murdering people in your heart.

So, how are we supposed to be priests if we’re caught up in all of this? How do we represent God to the world if half the time we look just like them?

2.  Singing His Praises For Salvation. This leads us to the next way we show the world what God is like. Its something that comes up, not so much in the text of the chapter, but in all the chapters that the Story cuts out. See, over next chunk of Exodus, and the whole book of Leviticus, God lays out a pattern for worshiping him, the other key task of the priests.

“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.(Exodus 25:8, ESV)” Just like in the Garden, God wants to dwell with his people. He gives laws for how the Tabernacle, the traveling tent in which God met with Moses should be made. If you study it, it’s gorgeous and intricate, in-laid with all kinds of craftsmanship. Beyond that, it goes through in painstaking detail the processes involved in dwelling and worshiping the holy God. There is chapter after chapter about how to deal with ceremonial issues, and at the center of them all stands the chapter on the Day of Atonement.

See, God gives the people of God his laws, but the fundamental truth about Israel is that it can’t keep it. Inevitably, they will fail to obey God’s commands and so for them to maintain right relationship, God institutes the sacrificial system in order to deal with that. The sacrificial system teaches two truths simultaneously: God wants relationship with us, and our sin gets in the way of that. God’s holy and perfect character is opposed to our sin, while still loving us.  Throughout the system of sacrifice we see that God is totally holy, perfect, righteous, and will not tolerate sin. And yet, he loves sinners and wants to be near them, so he provisionally accepts sacrifices in their place to pay for their sins.

In the sacrifices, there were multiple levels of meaning going on, but at the heart of it was the recognition that sin deserves death. As the worshiper brought the animal to be slaughtered, they were basically saying, “God, through my sin I’ve chosen to reject you, the source of life, which deserves death. Through sin, I’ve chosen to break relationship with you, the source of life, so I shouldn’t have life with you.” And God accepted that animal in their place.

Thing is, all of this points to the Gospel of Jesus at multiple levels. In Jesus, God makes a way for the relationship to work. In Jesus, God comes near to us despite all of our failures and all of our inability to perfectly keep the Law. Jesus is God in the flesh, coming near to dwell with us. It is God saying, “I know what you’re like. I know you can’t pull this off, or make this relationship work, so I’ll go ahead and ensure it.” And so Jesus goes to the Cross, and actually substitutes himself for us to pay for our sins as they deserve, without destroying us in the process.

So, in the sacrificial system we see why we worship. We worship because God has come near in Jesus and saved us from sin and guilt, and set us free to live for him. And there’s a holy irony about it: when you see God’s grace towards you in Christ, forgiving you for your failure to keep the commands, you begin to worship him more, and the reverse of the idolatry pattern kicks in: you start to obey more.

And this is the pattern that we model to the world. We show the world who God is in our obedience, our praise to God for his mercy on our disobedience, and our renewed love and gratitude for him in that.

What does this Look like? A lot of things, but it includes people who praise God by obeying and singing about his forgiveness for the times they fail. People who strive to live holy lives in front of the world around them. People who are honest about their failure to one another. People who are gracious when others do the same. It looks like a Kingdom of Forgiven Priests.

Soli Deo Gloria