What is Wrong with 10

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 7, No. 1   September 2006

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments on the Courthouse Lawn?

 by Dr. Bruce Prescott

The monument at Stigler endorses a Reformed Protestant interpretation of the Ten Commandments. The division and numbering of the commandments on the monument follows a scheme that has been accepted by most Protestants, other than Lutherans, since the sixteenth century.

The original language of the Ten Commandments was Hebrew. Every translation from one language to another necessarily involves some interpretation of the text. The Ten Commandments monument at Stigler engraves excerpts, with some additions and changes, from the English language translation of the Bible that was authorized by King James I and first published in 1611.

The division and numbering of the commands of the Decalogue into Ten Commandments also involves interpretation. Interpretations differ according to the theological concerns and emphases of the various faith and sectarian traditions.

The Jewish division of the Decalogue begins with an affirmation rather than a prohibition.  For Jews, the first command is a statement of faith,

"I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage."

The second command, for Jews, combines the prohibition against "other gods" and the prohibition against "graven images."

Since the first Jewish command literally applies exclusively to Jews, Christians have interpreted the passage as a mere preamble. The divergence between these interpretations is fraught with substantial theological and historical consequences for the communal identities of the differing faith traditions.

The monument at Stigler omits the first command in the Jewish interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In the eyes of some Jews, the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the courthouse at Stigler sends an unmistakable signal that the Christian interpretation of the Bible is being endorsed and that millennia of Jewish scholarship -- reflecting theological nuances based on the original Jewish division of the Decalogue -- has been repudiated.

The monument also endorses a sectarian interpretation of the Bible.

The Ten Commandments monument at Stigler reproduces the Reformed Protestant numbering and division the Ten Commandments which reflects the iconoclasm of early Protestantism. The Protestants of the early Reformed tradition condemned the use of images and pictures in Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the strongest terms.  John Calvin's appraisal of the religious images of renaissance art is characteristic:

"The pictures or statues that they dedicate to saints -- what are they but examples of the most abandoned lust and obscenity? If anyone wished to model himself after them, he would be fit for the lash. Indeed, brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than the churches show those objects which they wished to be thought images of virgins. For martyrs they fashion a habit not a whit more decent. Therefore let them compose their idols at least to a moderate decency, that they may with a little more modesty falsely claim that these are books of some holiness!"

Opposition to images led John Calvin, the foremost leader of the Reformed tradition, to contend that "Any use of images leads to idolatry." His interpretation of the Ten Commandments singled out the prohibition against "graven images" for emphasis and set it aside from the prohibition against "other gods.”

Lutherans and Catholics followed the Jewish division of this commandment which viewed the prohibition against "graven images" in conjunction with the prohibition against "other gods."

When Lutherans and Catholics number the Ten Commandments, they merely advanced the second Jewish command to the first place.. Whereas Judaism viewed the combined prohibitions against "other gods" and against "graven images” as the second commandment, Catholics and Lutherans viewed it as the first commandment.

 Historically, the divergence between the Catholic/Lutheran and Calvinist interpretations of the Ten Commandments has, at times, contributed to conflict and strife between Christians.

 For example, in 1520-21, at a crucial moment during the reformation in Germany, Luther was excommunicated and forced into hiding in the Wartburg. During his absence, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt filled Luther's pulpit at Wittenberg. In January 1522 the town of Wittenberg passed an ordinance calling for the removal of images from the churches and Karlstadt published his On the Putting Away of Pictures arguing that the worship of images was idolatrous. An iconoclastic riot ensued. Luther had to risk leaving his hideaway to restore order. Karlstadt was dispatched and Luther eventually wrote a refutation of Karlstadt's opinions under the title, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525)].

Some Protestant sects still teach their adherents to avoid social contact with Roman Catholics as much as possible because they consider the images associated with their worship to be idols.

The monument at Stigler inscribes the Reformed interpretation and numbering of the Ten Commandments.  The prohibition against "graven images" is a singled out and separated from the prohibition against "other gods."

Roman Catholics and Lutherans who compare the numbering and divisions on Stigler's Ten Commandments monument with the numbering and divisions of the Decalogue that are published in the books and catechisms of their own faith traditions will note the discrepancy.

In the eyes of some, the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the courthouse at Stigler sends an unmistakable signal that the Reformed Protestant interpretation of the Bible is being endorsed and that millennia of Roman Catholic and Lutheran scholarship -- reflecting centuries of theological nuances and divisions of the Decalogue within those faith traditions -- has officially been rejected.




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