The Division and Order of the Ten Commandments

Here’s a question I’ve seen several times over the years, and it’s come up again recently more than once. It could be alarming or deeply troubling to some, so it’s probably worth a short explanation.

First, remember that Christian churches observe traditions of all kinds, and once a tradition is in place, it tends to stay. Traditions are a connection to the past. Those who consider the past to be important consider it important to retain traditions, too. For Lutherans, the only good reason to break with tradition is when the tradition somehow works against the gospel.

When Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism and Large Catechism in 1528-1529, the Ten Commandments were ordered according to a prevalent tradition tracing back to Bishop Augustine of Hippo, who lived about A.D. 400. He was one of the most influential church fathers in the western, Latin-speaking part of the Church. It was not the only way the Ten Commandments had been ordered, but it made sense, served the gospel, and was well known and accepted. That ordering runs like this (in my own summary form to avoid quibbling about the wording):

  1. Have no other gods.
  2. Use God’s name rightly.
  3. Keep the Sabbath day holy.
  4. Honor your parents.
  5. Honor the sanctity of life.
  6. Honor marriage.
  7. Honor the property of others.
  8. Uphold the reputation of others.
  9. Don’t covet another’s estate.
  10. Don’t covet another’s living human or animal associates.

Luther also included a conclusion in the Small Catechism, which he took from the biblical text that explains the first commandment: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…”

The Lutheran Reformation was a conservative reformation. That is, Lutheran reformers sought to reform the faith and practice they had received from antiquity, retaining what was acceptable in the light of scripture, and changing only what was unacceptable. Subsequent reformers like Ulrich Zwingli followed a different approach. Generally, they were convinced that nothing in the papist Roman church was salvageable: neither any of the doctrine, nor any of the practice. Lutherans therefore refer to their work as the “radical reformation.” Their approach is reflected in the way they divided and numbered the Ten Commandments: whatever Rome was doing had to be changed. Here’s the division they used.

  1. Have no other gods.
  2. Don’t make graven images.
  3. Use God’s name rightly.
  4. Keep the Sabbath day holy.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Honor the sanctity of life.
  7. Honor marriage.
  8. Honor the property of others.
  9. Uphold the reputation of others.
  10. Don’t covet anything.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897) says that the ordering used by the non-Lutheran Protestants comes from the Greek church father Origen, so it would represent a point of minor disagreement between Origen and Augustine, who was born 100 years after Origen died. (They were both Africans, but from different regions.) The Eastern Orthodox churches today (Greek Orthodox, etc.) seem to follow the same division of the commandments, which makes sense, since Origen had greater influence on eastern traditions.

Augustine explained his reasoning for his particular numbering scheme in a work called “Questions on Exodus,” where this was question number 71. I may be able to find an acceptable translation of it for inclusion in the comments of this post later on.

Which ordering is right? Which is wrong? Well, neither. They are both acceptable traditions, as long as they don’t change the substance of the commandments. In fact, Jewish numbering of the commandments begins with this one, Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Yet despite these differences, each tradition still numbers ten commandments, probably because of Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4.

Far more important than the division of these commandments is their content. That’s where the Small Catechism of Dr. Luther really shines. The Hebrew text of the commandments has no inspired numbering, and everyone is using it in one way or another. But Luther’s explanation makes the correct and best use of it: to prepare the student for receiving the eternal blessings of Jesus Christ through the forgiveness of sins. Meanwhile, the commandments also instruct the Christian in righteousness, but the main purpose is always Christ, as Galatians 3:24 says, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

By explaining each commandment with the words “We should fear and love God [so that we…],” Luther shows how the Ten Commandments are a summary of God’s moral law, which goes much deeper than most people realize. One might say that his explanation sees the Ten Commandments through the lens of the cross. They are included first in the Catechism because they prepare the student for hearing, understanding, and believing the Gospel, which is summarized in the very next part of the Catechism: the Apostles’ Creed.

Some Thoughts on the Creation Debate

On Tuesday of this week, we had a group of people here at Bethany to watch the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye about whether biblical creation is a valid scientific model of origins. Here are some thoughts about what we saw:

  • Both Ken Ham and Bill Nye ended the debate with the same position in which they started the debate. Ham is a creationist and Nye is an evolutionist.

  • Ken Ham is willing to call both evolutionists and creationists “scientists” in the same sense, but Bill Nye is reluctant to call creationists “scientists,” convinced by his own reason that anyone who believes in creation is incapable of scientific research or engineering, and that unless children learn to be evolutionists, America will fall behind other nations in scientific development.

  • Ken Ham notes a distinction between observational science and a historic kind of science. In observational science, it is possible to apply the scientific method, make predictions, test hypotheses, and make practical applications. Anyone can participate equally in observational science, whether they are creationists or evolutionists. When looking at pre-historic origins, however, everyone is limited to formulating theoretical models from the same evidence, but no conclusive tests can be made to verify whether one model is more likely true than another. The only source of better information would be the witness of someone who was actually present through that prehistoric time. Ken Ham therefore relies upon the information provided by God in the Bible.

  • Bill Nye denies the distinction made by Ken Ham, and denies that the Bible is credible, on the basis of what his own reason tells him. For example, “Miracles are impossible. The Bible describes miracles, therefore the Bible is false.” Bill Nye’s worldview supporting his use of reason is known as naturalism or materialism, and is believed by many people.

  • There are things in Bill Nye’s model of origins that he does not understand or know, like “What existed before the Big Bang?” Ken Ham knows some of those things from the revelation of God (who has always existed) in the Bible.

  • From his description and use of it, Bill Nye does not seem to know much about the Bible, its origin, its transmission, or its contents. His view of science and his naturalistic worldview would dissuade him from learning about it. On the other hand, Ken Ham knows a lot about the scientific theories at the heart of Bill Nye’s worldview. The creationist scientists mentioned by Ken Ham are also highly accomplished in their scientific fields.

  • Bill Nye repeatedly referred to the time of the Flood as 4,000 years ago, but that only seems accurate on his usual scale of millions of years. Abraham (Genesis 12) lived 4,000 years ago, and that was several long generations after the Flood. Furthermore, Ken Ham referred to adding up the lifespans of the generations before the Flood to arrive at the total age of the Earth, but the chapters describing those lifespans are not necessarily written for the purpose of giving a mathematical sum. While the numbers of years are certainly correct there, we know that other writers of biblical genealogies have skipped generations, in order to fulfil another purpose. For example, see Matthew 1:17. The purpose of the pre-Flood genealogy of Noah was to record the names of those faithful patriarchs who passed their faith on to future generations within their own family. So the numbers thrown around during the debate as a supposed biblical age of the Earth, or the time since the Flood, were not necessarily accurate. However, the error in those numbers would be in thousands of years, not millions.

We saw an excellent illustration of Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” Ken Ham knows this, but only because he believes what the Bible says. Bill Nye cannot know this, because he rejects what the Bible says. Jesus described a similar problem when He explained to His disciples why He was teaching in parables (Luke 8:10), “that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.'” St. Paul also described this in Romans 1:20-21, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Christians cannot convince someone like Bill Nye that the Bible is true by simply making an argument or debate with him. That was not Ken Ham’s purpose. Rather, the only way someone can know the true origin of the world is to believe what God says. This faith is completely a gift of God, which He provides through the message of the Gospel. Now, all of us who care about Bill Nye and the truth have the task of praying that God would use the Gospel message to work a conversion in his heart. Ken Ham spoke that message more than once during the debate, and it’s also available to Bill Nye in many other places. God intervened in the life of Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the Church terribly, turning him into the man we know as St. Paul. God can also convert Bill Nye, or any other non-Christian evolutionist.

We should also pray that God would correct and strengthen the faith of those Christians who are tempted to disbelieve the Bible because of the worldly pressure exerted by people like Bill Nye. There are Christian evolutionists in the world, but their Christian faith is constantly under attack within their own hearts by the naturalistic, materialistic worldview of evolution.

Finally, we should imitate our merciful God as we show love to our neighbors, many of whom are confused and misled by teachings like evolution. Since the public school system is unable to allow creationism equal footing with evolution, it would be a good thing for us to teach as many children as possible to understand the world in a biblical way. That’s one of the strong reasons why it would be a wonderful thing if God were to bless Bethany with a Christian day school.