Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pulpit Review: The Ten Commandments

Ryken, Philip Graham. Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today's Moral Crisis. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010. 240 Pages. Paper. $14.99. http://www.prpbooks.com/ (P)

Peters, Albrecht. Translated by Holger K. Sonntag. Ten Commandments (Commentary on Luther's Catechisms). St. Louis: Concordia, 2009. 333 Pages. Paper. $42.99. http://www.cph.org/ (P)

Everyone agrees there are "Ten." 

After that, it gets "sketchy."

The Reformed have a numbering system that dominates popular culture. Remember that time you were playing the famous trivia board game and answered a Ten Commandments question with the Lutheran numbering system and got it "wrong"? Christians of the East (Orthodox, etc., have a similar, but more ancient system.)

Rome and Lutheranism share a numbering system because of their shared history. Most Christians alive today and most Christians who have ever been alive seem to have used this common system. 

The Jews have a system that ends like the one of the Reformed and Orthodox, but it calls "I am the Lord your God..." number one. Number two echoes (or perhaps we're the echo) both "no other gods" and "do not make for yourself an idol." The coveting commandments end up together as number 10.

So, can Christians have a productive conversation with one another even if they do not share a common numbering system? 


Phillip Graham Ryken re-presents God's Ten Commandments as an answer for the modern moral crisis in Western society. It is impressive that Ryken, now President of Wheaton College after serving nine years as senior minister at Tenth Presbyterian, Philadelphia, actively interacts with Martin Luther based on his two catechisms.

Ryken claims the Reformed are correct in numbering their second commandment (R2) separately (72, and the coveting commandments together). I'm not surprised by that. I was impressed by the summary he provided for (R2/L1B) Reformed number 2/Lutheran 1B: "the Right God, the Right Way." Do differences remain? Certainly. There are theological and practical considerations for Christian art. One must remain perfectly clear about Exodus 20:3-6. "You shall not bow down to them or serve them..." helps preserve art as art and not idols to be worshiped or "prayed through" or "venerated." Iconoclasm must still be resisted.

I have hope that Written in Stone will remind Lutheran and Reformed Christians that we still have a lot in common. Moralism is to be avoided. A proper distinction between Law and Gospel should be embraced. Perhaps Ryken's invitation will help Presbyterians (and others) read more Luther and perhaps do some more advanced study on Law and Gospel (http://www.cph.org/p-8987-law-and-gospel-how-to-read-and-apply-the-bible.aspx) and benefit pastoral care and teaching and preaching.

Concordia Publishing House has begun publication of an English translation of Albrecht Peters' five-volume Commentary on Luther's Catechisms. Volume one features the Ten Commandments.

In accordance with LCMS governing documents, and since Albrecht Peters made regular use of historical-critical methods of interpretation (10, 56, et al) a "Surgeon General's Warning box" appears on the copyright page (4). It reads:
This material is being released for study and discussion purposes, and the author is solely responsible for its contents. It has not been submitted to the process for doctrinal review stipulated in the Bylaws of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod and odes not necessarily reflect the theology of the Lutheran Confessions or the doctrinal position of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod.
Is the book worth it for the publisher to go ahead and publish and the reader to buy and read? Most certainly!

Consider our ongoing discussion about "graven images" with the Reformed, mentioned above. Peters explains the history behind this seeming "skip" over the text of R2/L1B. Consider Augustine and all of the iconoclastic controversies of Christian history (141ff). He lays out a convincing case for Christian teaching and practice.

I will grant Peters his insights and thank the Lord for them, but like CPH and the aforementioned LCMS Bylaw language, I will not share with those whom I teach his false JEDP musings (Deuteronomist, 141), nor a partition of prophetic books (Deutero-Isaiah, 145). What God has joined together, let not man separate!

Peters excels in organizing his thought and that of Luther. Chapters share a common structure:
  • Wording of the Commandment, Interpretation, (and Arrangement in the Large Catechism)
  • Characteristics of Luther's Interpretation
  • Texts by Luther on the same topic
  • Other helpful Bibliography
The German Edition of Commentary on Luther's Catechisms by Albrecht Peters has long been the gold standard of research on the catechetical texts of the great reformer. This translation makes the wealth of research available in English for both the researcher and the catechist. This is the first of five volumes. 

Future volumes with address the Decalogue, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Sacraments, and Confession with the Table of Duties, Prayers, and the Marriage and Baptismal Booklets.  (publisher's website)

These two books on the Ten Commandments were worth my time and they are well-worth your time and money, too.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.