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The Theology of Numbering the Ten Commandments

One of the more notable quirks of the broad Christian tradition is the fact that different denominations have traditionally numbered the Ten Commandments quite differently. There’s broad consensus that there are ten commandments—or, in the Jewish tradition, Ten Words—but the precise arrangement of the commandments certainly isn’t consistent across the board.

This can lead to some very amusing miscommunications. For example, a Reformed writer who remarks on a “Second Commandment violation” in a stained-glass window is likely to be met with baffled expressions from his Catholic or Lutheran friends, for whom the Second Commandment covers taking the Lord’s name in vain—not depictions of the Lord.

Unsurprisingly, different traditions’ numbering of the Commandments tends to reflect different theological emphases. At least on the Lutheran side of things, though, this precise subject has often gotten short shrift.

The Reformed tradition has historically identified the First and Second Commandments as “Thou shall have no other gods before Me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, QQ, 103-110 [1]). The WLC explains that the division between these commandments serves to emphasize, respectively, the absolute sovereignty of God and the integrity of worship. And in turn, the former operates as a key organizing principle of Reformed theology as such, and the latter is reflected in the distinctive doctrine of the regulative principle of worship.

The Catholic tradition, for its part, collapses these two provisions into one—a broad mandate that “summons man to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him above all else.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, [2] § 2134.) Instead, in order to fill out the list of ten, Catholic thought splits Exodus 20:17 (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s”) into separate Ninth and Tenth Commandments. On this paradigm, “the ninth commandment forbids carnal concupiscence; the tenth forbids coveting another’s goods.” (CCC § 2514). Or, put more succinctly, the Ninth is a prohibition of lust in particular, while the Tenth “unfolds and completes the ninth” by expanding its scope to cover illicit desire more broadly, which is “the root of theft, robbery, and fraud.” (CCC § 2534). Here, the familiar Catholic theme of right ordering of desires comes to the fore.

The Lutheran tradition follows the Catholic one in splitting the prohibition against covetousness into two, but does so slightly differently. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism [3] bifurcates the broader commandment “thou shalt not covet” into two separate proscriptions: the Ninth Commandment directs that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” while the Tenth dictates that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.”

In many years of Lutheran catechesis, I’ve never heard a particularly persuasive explanation for this split. And on its face, it seems like a pretty arbitrary move to bracket out “coveting one’s neighbor’s house” as a separate commandment. Nor is the Large Catechism [4], which treats all ten of the Commandments in substantially greater depth, any more illuminating on this point: Luther collapses the Ninth and Tenth into a single section, and even refers to them as a single “last commandment.”

Might there be a more theologically fulsome way to explain this numbering divide? Indeed, and the key likely lies in the Small Catechism.

Luther’s one-line “Explanation” for the Ninth Commandment notes that “We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.” So far, so familiar—like the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments, here the focus is on the wrongfulness of disordered desire for things we ought not try to obtain. But the Explanation of the Tenth Commandment heads in a somewhat different direction, interpreting the Tenth as expressing the commitment that “We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor’s wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and do their duty.”

Growing up, any notion of a genuine philosophical distinction here was entirely lost on me.  And yet, when I recently revisited this portion of the catechism, I realized that Luther’s explanations in the Small Catechism implicitly distinguish between the inanimate and the animate. The Ninth Commandment pertains to sinful desire to possess the inanimate property of another; the Tenth pertains to sinful desire to possess living beings who enjoy a measure of agency, and whose allegiances rightly lie elsewhere. That latter form of sinful desire, Luther implies, manifests as the solicitation and subversion of the will of another for selfish purposes.

This particular offense against God is distinguishable from the categories of sin covered elsewhere in the Commandments., and its identification as distinct recalls a dominant theme in Luther’s early theological work. For Luther, to have one’s will bound is to be subject to sin; a fortiori, for a human being to willfully participate in the binding of the will of another human being is to inhabit the role of “the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh.” It is, in essence, to stand in persona Satana, behaving as an agent of evil in that person’s life. One might express this Lutheran reading of the Tenth Commandment in something like this form: “You shall not desire that others do your will, when their allegiances properly belong elsewhere.” To my mind, this reading has rather more theological depth than merely following the Catholic Catechism and treating the Ninth Commandment as implicitly included in the Tenth.

What’s more, this interpretation of the Tenth Commandment may be of great benefit to the Church as a whole in this particular cultural moment. Plenty has already been written about Christianity Today’s smash hit podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which chronicles the rise and spectacular collapse of a Seattle megachurch under the leadership of controversial pastor Mark Driscoll. To my mind, though, the show often seemed to struggle to articulate a genuinely theological account of the pastoral misdeeds involved, other than vague invocations of the qualifications for elders detailed in 1 Timothy. Instead, the podcast regularly fell back on purportedly “neutral” concepts of power and trauma, a move which often seemed to advise a tacit skepticism of religious authority more generally.

The Lutheran reading of the Tenth Commandment offers an alternative, a more theological way of naming the category of misdeed often captured by the phrase “abuse of authority.” The sin at issue here is a form of covetousness—coveting the loyalties of others, when that fidelity does not rightfully belong to oneself. This Tenth Commandment-oriented reading is more precise, as well as less susceptible to shading over into the claim that authority as such is abuse. And this approach has the critical advantage of allowing theology, rather than disciplines that do not share its theocentric premises, to retain pride of place in the Christian thought-life. In the end, debates over the numbering of the Ten Commandments may seem scholastic—even unduly so. But as with so many other theological debates, here the details really do matter. Taking the Word of God seriously demands no less.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post [5], an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms [6]. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.