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Posted March 23, 2004

Book: The Ten Commandments in History: Mosaic paradigms for a Well-Ordered Society
Author: Paul Grimley Kuntz
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. pp.226

An excerpt from the Jacket:

Decrying the loss of the true meaning of the Decalogue in modern times, Kuntz spent the last decade of his life preparing this book, his magnum opu,. The Ten Commandments in History. In his research and writing he left no stone unturned, considering the Decalogue and the history of its use from every conceivable angle.

Kuntz passionately argues here that the Ten Commandments are universal principles of social order that have to be applied in concrete circumstances in order for their meaning to be fully understood. In a nearly seamless discourse about the tradition of the Ten Commandments, Kuntz engages the thought of more than twenty philosophers from antiquity to modernity, showing how great minds adapted to the Decalogue to the needs of their particular age. Among the figures treated in the book are Philo, Aquinas, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Edwards, Kant, Jefferson, Montaigne, Pascal, Hegel and Nietzsche. By demonstrating the crucial role of the Decalogue in the history of ideas, Kuntz hoped that readers would find a new reverence for the Ten Commandments and once again value their place in civil society.

An excerpt from the book:

As theologian, Thomas present the Decalogue in the context of the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. These are learned in catechetical instruction, where the purpose is to answer the question, what should a person do to be saved? In this context the person must believe that creed and pray, and then must “know what is to be done and what is not to be done.” The human faculty of intelligence needs to be enlightened by God. We begin by noting that Saint Thomas addresses himself to the intelligence of his reader. He never demands that the believer blindly accept what the church teaches; but rather, since intelligence is enlightened by God, he wants his reader to grasp the truth of what Moses and Christ taught.

Unfortunately, begins Thomas, man is not as originally created. He is now blinded by passions. The human condition is as described by Saint Paul in Romans: “I know in my members another law, which fights against the law of my mind.” This knowledge allows a further observation: “[This law makes] me slave to the law of sin, which is in my members.”

Both Moses and Christ are presented as liberators. The motive for obeying the commandments is fear, and Moses’ wisdom begins with fear of the Lord. But there is another motive: love. This is the commandment of Christ. He is making the contrast between two ways: fear makes us slaves but love makes us free; the first way leads us to worldly goods, the second to heavenly. Moses’ commandments are a heavy burden, but Christ’s commandments are light and easy to bear.

The laws of love cover all human acts; the result of living according to love is compared to a work of art which conforms to rules appropriate to that art. The analogy is between a virtuous life and something beautiful and perfect.

Why live according to the twofold love, love of God and love of neighbor? Because the results are a spiritual life, observance of the divine laws, a defense against all adversity, and happiness. Love [caritas] leads to forgiveness of sins, illumination of the heart, perfect joy, and perfect peace. Thomas assures the reader that this way to such results is possible, and he does not neglect to explain how. The beginning for us is to love ourselves; if we do this in the proper way, we love the source of our being and others, particularly those to whom it is natural to be grateful. Intelligence develops from nature and bridges to grace; nature is perfected by grace. Much of ths is specified under the individual commandments of the Decalogue.

Aquinas’s method involves first quoting the text of each commandment and relating it to other spiritual texts. The purpose is first to establish what the Scripture means. In the first commandment, “Thou shalt not have other gods before me,” the text does not say what these “other gods” might be — perhaps the stars, or elements of nature, heroes, etc. So one must form an interpretation of the phrase “before me.” Then comes the question why. In sequence Thomas presents five motives for worshiping one God only: the dignity of the Creator, his generosity in sharing being, then the necessity of renouncing the devil and avoiding slavery to him, and finally the goal of winning the greatest prize, eternal life.

For the second commandment, forbidding “taking the name of God in vain,” it is necessary to distinguish when it is right and necessary to use the name of God. For example, there is the good motive of using God’s name when confessing. Several other theological techniques are employed for “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy.” One is to show how this is done in thought [in one’s heart] as well as in word of praise and in deed. In great detail Thomas tells us how to keep the Sabbath — and, he adds, other festivals. The Eucharist, for example, is by sacrifice offered to God, and he specifies that this should be done spontaneously, with glad and willing heart. What is to be done also on festivals is giving of alms to the poor, study of the word of God, and devotional exercises.

The commandment of the Sabbath specifies “rest” from six days of lavor: we must learn the principle Jesus recommended to restless Martha and turn ourselves from the distraction of “many thing.” There is also the metaphorical “rest” from turbulence of sin and “rest” from passions of the flesh. But the highest meaning, the “anagogical” sense, is that “rest” signifies the change from remembering the Creator’s rest to celebrating our new creation in Christ. “Rest,” then, is the anticipation of life in heaven.

Table of Contents:

I. Classical and Medieval

1. The Ten Commandments, ancient and modern

2. Philo Judaeus: a decalogue in balance

3. Saint Gregory of Palamas: the Christian transformation

4. Richard Rolle: the Decalogue of an English hermit

5. King Alfred: the Decalogue and Anglo-American law

6. Ramon Lull: a Decalogue of medieval reasons

7. Thomas Aquinas: Firmness and flexibility in the Decalogue

II. Reformation

8. Girolamo Savonarola: the Decalogue of a fanatic

9. John Wycliffe: a powerful original

10. Martin Luther: a Decalogue of faith

11. John Calvin: the logic of the law

12. Paracelsus: commandments without stone

13. Joseph Waite: ecstasies of the puritan heart

14. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

15. Jonathan Edwards: the commandment of love

III. Modern

16. Montesquieu: the Decalogue of the Philosophe

17. Immanuel Kant: a critical Decalogue

18. Thomas Jefferson: the Decalogues of a civil religion

19. Jeremy Bentham: blunt critic of the Decalogue

20. A diversity of rationalists, Montaigne, Pascal, Spinoza, and Hegel

21. Nietzsche and after: the lastingness of the Ten Commandments