Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: The Decalogue through the Centuries

This book is a collection of essays, focused on the Decalogue, its interpretations and devotional usage throughout the centuries. Many of the great Christian thinkers are examined such as, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Aquinas and Karl Barth. The book is edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman, who is the Associate Dean of Biblical and Theological Studies and Professor of Christian Ethics at Wheaton College and Timothy Larsen who functions as the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.

I will admit from the start that this type of book is difficult to review. Each chapter interacts with a “giant” of the Christian thought and boiling down his or her musings on the Decalogue is a challenging task for each of the 14 contributors. Therefore, I am striving to highlight certain chapters, which grabbed my attention for either positive or negative reasons. Please forgive my trendy, categorical approach to this review. 

The Most Interesting Chapter

To its credit, the book begins with a bang. Daniel Block gives a wonderful introduction to the Decalogue and addresses some of the most fundamental issues like, “Why are there ten commands and not five or seven?”, “Is the Decalogue primarily a covenantal document or a recapitulation of moral law?” and “Does the Ten Commands have a special place in the Pentateuch and/or the Hebrew bible?” Block is not comprehensive with any of his answers, but sets a stable foundation for the upcoming chapters.

Block’s most interesting observation is the debunking of the traditional understanding of the two tablets. Tradition states that the Ten were divided (in some way) on each tablet. Professor Block argues that the use of “two” tablets were meant as a Near Eastern covenantal document and therefore, each tablet contained the “Ten” and were kept as a visual covenant between YHWH (one tablet) and Israel (one tablet).

The Most Biblical/Historical Chapters

Chapter two is titled The Decalogue in the New Testament and the subsequent chapter is Early Syriac, Greek and Latin views of the Decalogue. These two chapters will satisfy the cravings of both the Biblicist and Church historian. Dr. Craig Evans does a complete job analyzing the multiple NT texts that deal directly or indirectly with the Decalogue. He also deals with specific individuals of the NT (John the Baptist, Jesus, James and Paul) and their use of the Ten Commandments. In my opinion, his abbreviated summary/chart on the Decalogue’s use in the NT is the most practical (and re-usable) part of the chapter.

Dr. Alison G. Salvesen is a research lecturer at Oxford and specializes in the areas of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. She shows her researching prowess in her overview, which spans to the fifth century. This chapter interacts with both common and obscure characters with her attention placed firmly on the Patristics’ view of the authority of the Decalogue.

To this reviewer, Salvesen’s presentation of Justin Martyr and Tertullian were both informative and captivating. She excavates from the writings of Justin Martyr that he accepts the absorption view of the Decalogue, which views Christ’s two commands (love God, love others) as absorbing the authority and moral emphasis of the Ten Commandments.

Tertullian, according to Professor Salvesen, holds that the Decalogue remains in force but is presently more stringent because Christ expanded its commands. Yet the Latin Father’s dogmatism regarding the communication of the Ten Commandments to Adam and Eve (whether embedded in their conscience, verbalized or written is unclear) is fascinating and thought-provoking.

The Most Pastoral/Homiletical Chapters

If the above category needs further definition, I am referring to the applicational and homiletic aspects of the Decalogue. In examining the decalogical musings of Martin Luther (Chpt. 6) and John Calvin (Chpt. 7), the reader will clearly observe the pastoral sensitivity of both Reformers. Timothy J. Wengert, who teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, spends the majority of his chapter examining Luther’s shorter and larger catechism, which discusses the practical ways to obey the Ten. Of all the essays, Wengert’s is probably the most practical and therefore, the most pastoral.

Susan E. Schreiner, who is a historian at the University of Chicago’s divinity school, provides the reader with a softer view of the Reformer, who is often identified by the doctrine of predestination or the burning of Michael Servetus. Dr. Schreiner’s essay focuses primarily on the third purpose of the law (i.e. sanctification), which is seen through the lens of Calvin’s Geneva, a unique bastion of church and state. One of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy 5:22 emphasized the completeness of the Decalogue and therefore, encouraged his congregants to never add anything to the law, especially by the irresponsible use of imagination. This intriguing application defined Calvin the preacher and provides homiletic help to the pastors of the 21st century.

The Most Confusing Chapter

George Hunsinger, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, has the unfortunate task of presenting Karl Barth’s view of the Decalogue (chpt. 12). I admit that this reviewer has always been stumped by the dialectic method of Barth and his neo-orthodox/Christological hermeneutic is both annoying and refreshing.

I was hoping Dr. Hunsinger would be a “Barth-whisperer” for me, but he did little to defuse my bias towards the Swiss theologian. So unless you are a fan of Barth and his works, this chapter will likely leave you bored and perplexed.

The Most Unnecessary Chapter

I wanted to use the adjectives bias or political to describe this category. Why? Because though I find Christina Rossetti fascinating as an Anglican, as a women and even as a poet, I was convinced her inclusion in these essays is not about her impact in Decalogical studies, rather it was that she was a woman and possibly, a feminist.

Timothy Larsen, one of the editors of this book, spends many pages forming a biological sketch of Rossetti, defending her approach to hermeneutics and her lifelong decision to be celibate, rather the discussing the actual influence (or lack of) she has made in

But the most disturbing element of the chapter is Larsen’s relentless effort to exonerate Rossetti from the label of “feminist”. In one breath, he asserts that Rossetti voted against the woman’s right to vote, but then writes how “gleeful she is when the bible shares that the wife is the more impressive of the pair”. Rossetti seems to have an unusual preoccupation with Eve. Larsen says later, 
“In a striking inversion of Victorian gender stereotypes, Rosetti reads this (the account of the Fall) as the woman being lead by her “mind” and the man by his “heart”. 
Never mind that scripture says Eve was deceived (2 Cor. 11:3) and theologically, there is no distinction between the mind and the heart. The bottom line is Christina Rossetti is a charming character, but she offers little clarity to the issues surrounding the Ten Commandments.

The Most Impactful Chapter

Out of all of the authors, this reviewer was most familiar with the works of Carl R. Trueman. Dr. Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His topic was John Owen and his views of the Decalogue.

There is one reason why this chapter was the most impactful: Dr. Trueman strove to answer this question (from Owen’s theology), “If the Decalogue is primary moral law, rather than covenantal law, what was the purpose for giving the tablets on Mt. Sinai?” It is a monumental task of which Trueman (via Owen) delivers.
The answer? Dr. Owen believes that the delivery of the law at Sinai was essentially a recapitulation of the covenant of works. For this reviewer, who stands in the dispensational camp, this interpretation was original and eye-opening. This is not to say I agree with the interpretation of Owen, but it does provide a robust argument for the legitimacy of the covenant of works, especially since it is assumed to be clearly understood by our first parents (according to Covenant theologians), though the means of divine communication continues to be an in-house debate.


As a resource in Decalogical studies, I judge this work to be of reasonable help, primarily for those in academia or those who have a taste for scholarly work. Unfortunately, most Christians and sadly, most pastors will not take the time to excavate the “diamonds in the rough”. To be honest, this resource would not be in my “top five”, though as a specialized Decalogical study, I would place it in my “top ten”. 

1 comment:

  1. A hearty review indeed. While Barth might seem perplexing and annoying at least his chapter fall under the category of the most unnecessary! Thanks for the review I am intrigue to read the book.