In the previous chapter we viewed the Ten Commandments as categories of moral judgment found universally among all nations. In this chapter we will see how each of the ten commandments is given as an absolute but with very little content. That means that the precise content needs to filled in by moral discussion in the complex situations of life.
But first we should remind ourselves that in the Old Testament the Ten Commandments function as a preface to the criminal and ceremonial laws of the Jewish people from the time of Moses. We also can use the Ten Commandments as a preface to the criminal and ceremonial laws of our own nation and denomination. But Christians burden themselves with guilt if they try to live by the criminal and ceremonial laws of a nation emerging from slavery over three thousand years ago.
The New Testament tells us clearly that we should obey the laws of the country we live in (Romans 13:1-7). Admittedly in a moral conflict the Ten Commandments take precedence over the unjust requirements of our government. The Israelite midwives refused Pharaoh's law requiring the murder of baby boys (Exodus 1:15-20). Daniel and his friends refused an emperor's requirement of idolatry, as did many of the early Christian martyrs.
In contrast to the criminal law of a nation, ceremonial law gives rules for conducting the ceremonies of a particular religion. In the book of Leviticus for example we find instructions for priests in the conduct of sacrificial worship, rules for the the Day of Atonement and the Passover, and detailed rules as to what kinds of meat and fish and birds could be eaten. The ceremonial laws of the Exodus wanderings in the desert changed when Solomon built a magnificent temple of stones. Later the Jewish people who were scattered in the exile began using synagogues for their worship.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the early Christians were told that the animal sacrifices of the ancient world had all been fulfilled. Peter was shown that the ceremonial laws for clean and unclean animals were no longer required for the new Christian churches throughout the world (Hebrews 8:1-10:22, Acts 10:9-16, 11:4-10). Various aspects of the symbolism of temple worship were now connected with the bread and wine of the communion service. And it is evident that ceremonial laws keep changing in each of the world religions, and even in different denominations of the Christian Church.
If criminal law changes from country to country and ceremonial law changes in each denomination of each major religion, how can we view the Ten Commandments as unchangeable absolutes? What does not change is that peoples of all nations and all religions have for at least five thousand years discussed matters of right and wrong under each of these ten categories of moral judgment. But what does need to change is our traditional interpretations of how the commandments might apply to our situation.
In Adultery: An Exploration of Marriage and Divorce (1996), Robert Brow and Mollie Brow showed how there was a huge change in the interpretation of the seventh commandment in New Testament times. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 we see how Paul the Apostle must have learned from Jesus when he set out a model of total mutuality in marriage which was, and still is, unthinkable in a patriarchal society.
It would be possible to make a similar exploration of the model shift that occured in the interpretration of each of the other nine commandments. When the Son of God came to bring the good news of God's kind of love he inevitably gave a deeper content to each of the Ten Commandments. The commandments continued to be viewed as absolutes, but the early Christians learned to give them a new flavour.
In a book called Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966), Joseph Fletcher argued that there are exceptions to every moral rule, and so we cannot view the Ten Commandments as absolutes. We have to be flexible and do the most loving thing in each situation.
The difficulty with situation ethics is that many complex decisions have to be made so quickly that there is no time to calculate from first principles what the most loving thing might be. We never have all the information. And the word 'love' has dozens of different meanings. How do we weigh mother love, good Samaritan love, affection love, sexual passion, self-love, romantic love, love of enemies, in the light of God's kind of love? Many good people feel uneasily guilty for not getting their loving right.
Also if we have no absolutes by way of moral framework, our conscience is short circuited. Trying to order her life on the basis of evaluating the most loving thing to do would soon make the work of a police officer impossible. But if she programmes her conscience to say that murder is always wrong, then she can easily evaluate the dividing line between murder and manslaughter, necessary use of her gun and criminal violence.
To train children in situation ethics would be an impossible task. "Mary, ask yourself when you took that toy from the neighbour's house whether it was the most loving thing you could do." By beginning with the absolute "You never steal" we can then help our children to learn that not all taking is stealing. By the time they are adults they can see that it would not be stealing to take a farmer's truck to the hospital to save his boy who has fallen off the barn and is bleeding to death.
A man who is starving after three weeks lost in the bush of Northern Canada has a right to break into a cabin to take food, but is expected to leave his name and address, report to the police, and send a generous cheque for what he has taken. In those circumstances nobody in his right mind would call him a thief. On the basis of situation ethics the man would also take the food, but he would claim this as an obvious exception to the rule about stealing. At first sight the result is the same, but very soon the absolute wrongness of stealing, murder, adultery, and false witness vanishes in a confusion of exceptions.
The result is that situation ethics either fills us with unresolved guilt, or it destroys our moral fibre by making exceptions to every rule until our conscience can no longer do its work. To view the Ten Commandments as absolutes at first sight sounds a terrifying bind, but we soon discover that their purpose is to free us. Having begun with each of the commandments as an absolute we can discuss with others how they should apply, and slowly learn moral judgment by working at particular cases. This may sound like being back into situation ethics but the outworking is totally different.
Jesus did not in any way weaken the absolutes of the ten commandments. For example the third commandment not to take God's name in vain is often trivialized to rebuke those who punctuate their conversation with words like damn, hell and Christ. Jesus made it clear that it absolutely forbids hypocrisy, which ordinary people consider the worst of sins both among religious people and politicians. It was certainly the sin that Jesus exposed most severely among the Pharisees ( Matthew 23:1-28, see also Matthew 5:37, 15:1-9). Not only is the hypocrite hated by others, but he knows that he is always in danger of being exposed. And the contradiction between his heart and what he pretends to be is a terrible guilt producer.
In Jesus' teaching about the sabbath we can see the principle of maintaining the absolute but carefully considering the situation. On the one hand he had to free ordinary people from the thirty or forty burdensome rules that the Pharisees had defined for sabbath keeping. The work of pulling an animal out of a well on the sabbath day was not breaking the fourth commandment. Nor was it sabbath breaking if his disciples plucked a few ears of wheat to chew on as they went for a sabbath afternoon walk. The sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath. (Mark 2:23-3:5)
As time went on Christians came to see that the fourth commandment was about working six days and resting one day. It was not a matter of keeping Saturday or Sunday as a day without work of any kind. Nurses and airline pilots have to arrange their day of rest to suit their work. But for them, or anyone else, attempting to work continuously seven days a week would soon detroy their ability to function.
Similarly Paul had to deal with the problem of Christians in Corinth who were surrounded by idol worship. The only meat that was available came from the heathen temples where the animal had first been consecrated to a heathen god. Some of the converts felt they had to give up meat and become vegetarian. Others thought that the religious status of the meat made no difference to eating it. Paul made an interesting distinction. If they were invited to a heathen home and offered meat they should take it, but if the host wanted to make a point of the fact that it had been offered to an idol it would be best to abstain (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). But in any case the second commandment that idolatry was always wrong still remained as an absolute.
In Islam the commandment against idolatry was taken literally to mean that there should not be any kind of painting or sculpture that expresses the likeness of anything. Muslim mosques are richly decorated, but not one design must look anything like a flower or bird or person. An exception to this is allowed in Iran where flower decorations are viewed as acceptable. Similarly some of the Puritans after the Reformation used the second commandment to destroy priceless stained glass windows and statues. But most Christians think the point of the second commandment is not to prohibit art, imagery, book illustrations, Sunday School pictures, etc.
The purpose of the absolute prohibition of idolatry is to prevent us making a stereotype, and limiting God to that form and locality.
Idolatry is of course a great guilt producer. Have I made the idol the right shape and colour? Perhaps some other idol or some other location would be better? To pray for my sick mother should I make a pilgrimage to a more powerful idol in some distant place? Have I put on the right flowers, burned the right candle? Was there enough sincerity in my prostration? Do I go often enough to satisfy the deity? The result is that any idol soon becomes a vicious guilt producer. Which is why the prohibition of the second commandment is an absolute.
The opposite of prostrating ourselves before an idol is the carefree love of a little child chattering and singing with a loving parent. That still leaves us with the responsibility of working at the dividing line between idolatrous worship and the use of pictures in Sunday School.