Learning Luther: The First Table of the Commandments

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

You might notice, straight off, that Luther dispensed with the Prologue to the Decalogue, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…” This is not a slight edit. The prologue provides the ergo, the grounding, of the injunction following: “Have no other gods,” that is, gods who will bring you back again to bondage. Because this God is the liberator, what follows are directives for life of the liberated people of God, “that it may be well with you and that you live long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

What has Luther done by removing this Prologue that has proven so important for modern scholarship’s assessment of the Ten Commandments? Have we here, one might fear, an instance of Luther’s anti-Judaism overriding the plain sense of the text? Or of his social conservatism blunting the force of the Bible’s message of God’s solidarity with the poor and the oppressed? It has been alleged, for example, that in his Small Catechism, “Luther dropped the politically concrete preamble of the Decalogue… [and] extended the command to honor one’s parents to authorities as such. These two symptomatic changes of the scriptural basis of Luther’s most influential catechism are indicative of how Lutheranism became prone to obedience and subservience toward any established order, including severely unjust ones, instead of being faithful to the God of liberation (sola fide) and standing in solidarity with the downtrodden” (#72 of Radicalizing Reformation—Provoked by the Bible and Today’s Crises: 94 Theses). Is it so? What hath Luther wrought?

There are truths contained in this critique, particularly if we fail to make any distinctions between what Luther taught and how he lived what he taught, and what historical Lutheranism after him made of what Luther taught under the exigencies of the Counter-Reformation and the Wars of Religion. But the idea of “radicalizing the Reformation,” as the aforementioned critics would have it, as much as argues that it was Karlstadt and/or Müntzer and/or Menno Simmons who got the Reformation right, while the so-called “magisterial” Reformation held onto, and wanted to renew by reformation, the ideal of Christendom.

But before we are in a position to make a judgment about whether reforming Christendom is a contemporary possibility, let us try to understand Luther in his own right. Why, according to his own lights, did Luther drop the biblical Prologue to the Decalogue?
In the years prior to the Catechisms, attempts in the name of reformation to establish and enforce biblical law in place of local traditions of law had been undertaken by Luther’s former disciples Karlstadt and then Müntzer. Karlstadt saw in Luther’s distinction of law and gospel a false differentiation which reformed the church but left the state and society immune from the criticism of biblical law. So Karlstadt wanted to impose biblical law on Saxon Germany, beginning with the iconoclastic destruction of “graven images,” i.e., the statues and paintings in the churches.

Müntzer took things a “radical” step further than Karlstadt when he realized that Karlstadt’s biblicism mistook the letter for the spirit of the law, which he proclaimed was “revolutionary,” just as the Prologue to the Decalogue might sanction violence against the established order. The spirit of the law, Müntzer maintained, was revolutionary violence against the oppressive powers that be. In a notorious sermon on the Book of Daniel delivered to the princes, Müntzer proclaimed the chilling words, “The godless have no right to exist.” Luther replied, in a tract that became notorious, that neither do insurrectionists. After fomenting the Peasants’ Revolt with promises of armies of angels coming from heaven to the aid of untrained farmers and herders against the trained armies of the princes, Müntzer himself suffered the sword that he had taken up. (Luther’s half-apologetic pamphlet on the aftermath of the Peasants’ War ridiculed the victorious princes for sexually harassing Müntzer’s pregnant widow).

In Zurich just a few years later, Luther’s rival in reformation, Zwingli, suffered a similar fate. Surveying the Christian carnage of attempting to enforce biblical law on unbelievers, Menno Simmons recoiled from these violent appropriations of holy war from ancient Israel and led the Anabaptist movement into a principled life of separation from the powers that be (as well as the powers that would be), where in a disciplined subculture true Christians could live according to biblical law.

Such were the options, played out in dramatic contemporary history, that Luther had before him when he undertook his explanation of how and in what ways biblical law binds the Christian (not a little in dispute along precisely the same lines, let me note, in recent sexuality controversies). It was in this nexus of concerns that Luther omitted the Prologue to the Decalogue. After all, he reasoned, it is not us Gentiles whom the LORD rescued from the land of Egypt; nor was the consequent positive law that Moses delivered to the liberated Israelites addressed to other peoples. What we have in biblical law is the record of the civil code for that time and place in ancient Israel. It is, Luther wrote, the Jewish Sachsenspiegel, using the term for the legal code and case history of the Saxons. It is as such not addressed to us Gentiles and does not bind us.

Sometimes theologians try to distinguish the categorical prohibitions of the Decalogue from the conditional case laws of the legal code, arguing that the former “moral” law remains binding as opposed to the ceremonial and civil law of ancient Israel. Not so fast, Luther replies. Not even the Ten Commandments bind us insofar as they are ancient Israelite law, Luther replies. Thus he not only edits out the Prologue from the Catechism, but for the identical reason he also drops the prohibition of images, deliteralizes the Sabbath commandment in light of Jesus’ controversies of healing on the Sabbath, and sharply critiques the commandments against coveting for regarding wives and domestic servants as property. Luther can only appropriate the Ten Commandments for us today by way of such revisionism! Moreover, he interprets the biblical Ten Commandments in the light of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which both radicalizes the negative prohibitions into positive commands to love and focuses a divine spotlight on the motives for obedience in the heart which the heavenly Father sees in secret and knows in secret.

We Gentile Christians, Luther argues, appropriate the Decalogue of Moses (and indeed all the rest of Old Testament law in the same way), then, as read them through the lenses of the Sermon on the Mount, which makes one’s motivations crucial to true obedience, and through Paul’s teaching in Romans 12–14, which makes the love made known in Christ, who fulfilled the law for those unworthy, the key to all the commandments. We Gentile Christians may receive the revised Decalogue of Moses, then, as a much clearer statement of the natural law indelibly written on the human heart, now made even clearer in the light of Christ, who fulfills the law by loving God above all in selflessly loving the unworthy even to death, death upon a cross.

What takes the place of the historical Prologue? As the root and source of all the other commandments, Luther holds, the First Commandment has us not only eschew idols but positively to cling to the “one, true God.” In place of the liberating act of the Exodus for ancient Israel, Luther grounds or justifies the commandments on the “natural law” that requires reasonable creatures to put all their fear, love and trust in the “one, true God.”

This notion of the “one, true God” might easily be misunderstood today as an assertion of religious superiority, as if our tribal deity were the true one and all the others false. It requires careful examination to understand that Luther has something else entirely in mind; indeed, he is trying with the notion of the “one, true God” to get past the tribal wars of the gods. Just as the prophets of Israel matured to the teaching that God can judge His own people when they turn God into a national idol (cf. Amos 3:2), Luther pits the “one, true God” against the idols manufactured in the religion business for chauvinistic purposes. As he will say later, even if we believed the “one, true God,” it would hardly confirm us in our sense of religiously sanctioned nationalistic superiority over others. It would rather “terrify us.”

What has happened in deleting the Prologue is this. The henotheistic First Commandment of Israel—not to set up the idols of other gods before the empty throne of the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of the invisible LORD Yahweh in the Tabernacle—becomes in Luther’s Christian re-reading (but also in Jewish re-readings as, for example, in Second Isaiah) the command of radicalmonotheism1 to not fear, not love, and not trust anyone or anything less than the one and only true God, that is, the One who is the creator of all that is other than God, unique and incomparable. That is not a Jewish tribal God nor a Christian tribal God, but rather the One who is the creator of all else, of everything that is not God. Only such a Creator of all things “out of nothing” qualifies as the one, true God. This is the God who is the eternal fountain of generosity, who gives without any need of return. This God is the “the one, eternal good,” whose gifts may only be received and blessed with thanksgivings that do not separate the gifts from the Giver but in all things, soli Deo gloria, give the glory to God alone.

This notion of the “one, true God” grounds Luther’s remarkable exploration into what it means “to have a God,” namely, as something more like being had or captivated. Whatever captures desire as its seat in the human heart is one’s operational deity. To “have” a God, then, is like all kinds of other “having” in that something becomes my own, my very own, in an act of personal appropriation, as in, “He or she becomes my beloved.”2 But to have “God” is not like any other kind of possession in the world of creatures that one could come to have disposal over, since God is not a creature alongside others but the one, true Giver of all creatures. This in turn makes all creatures, including the self, gifts of God to be received with joy and thanksgiving and the kinds of love that variously befit these various gifts.

To have God “the Giver,” then, is to fear only God’s disapproval, to value or esteem God’s approval above all, to trust that God’s approval is generous and merciful. To have God is the kind of having that the “heart” has, which can never possess its beloved like a thing to be used, but rather can “have” God in fear, love and trust above all others. Having God in this way of being had by the One who truly gives all, then, entails loving all creatures in and under God as also gifts from God, just as the Second Table of the Commandments goes on to elaborate. By contrast, then, not having One who is truly God entails makings gods of one’s possessions, greedily hordeing them, and justifying one’s greed in the name of rational self-interest. A merely negative civil righteousness, then, which does not visibly trespass the prohibitions, can conceal a self that is greed personified. Or, as in Jesus’ parable, a “fool” who puts an infinite burden of desire on a finite treasure that cannot but fail.

Three final “apocalyptic” notes on the First Table of the law. First, Luther acknowledges the apparent contradiction in experience to all that he has taught in the preceding about having only the one, true God, with the bitter observation that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Faith, having God, having the one true God as one’s only eternal good is often, he observes, in contradiction to experience of the world where the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper. So the mature witness of Israel’s wisdom tradition in the Book of Job, like that of Second Isaiah, comes to bear on Luther’s Christian revision of the Decalogue. Faith in the one, true God necessarily points from the bitter experience of actual evil that contradicts God’s revealed will forward to a future still invisible in the present, groaning under structures of malice and injustice. The just live by faith in the one, true God, as Habakkuk (whom Paul the apostle cites in Romans 1:17) teaches—in hope, then, of the coming of God’s reign.

Second, present appearances, as if the whole of the story, of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous are correspondingly exposed in truth as the lies that the devil spins to deceive, going all the way back to the seduction, “You shall not die! But you will be like God, knowing good and evil!” That is why, if we, unwitting but willing pawns of the Serpent, came to believe in the one true God, it would “terrify us,” so deeply is this faith in God in contradiction to the actual way we live, quite settled down and at home within structures of malice and injustice that usurp the reign of the One who is truly God.

Third, we began this study by asking if we need to “radicalize” the Reformation. Indeed, we do, though not in the way suggested by the 94 Theses project. Luther in his age tried to reform Christendom. That project is over, but Luther’s theology of holy secularity abides. In place of Christendom, we need to think today of the coming of the Beloved Community of God, the rudiments of which are described in the Second Table of the Law.3

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.


1. See further Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 167–73.
2. Arthur H. Drevlow, “The History, Significance, and Application of Luther’s Catechisms,” Concordia Journal 5/5 (1979): 174.
3. See further Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

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