Ruling on the Decalogue
Acton Institute Powerblog

Ruling on the Decalogue

I have to admit that I’ve never been able to get that fired up about the controversies surrounding the various public displays of the Decalogue. It no doubt has to do with my view that it is far more important for the law to be written on our hearts rather than on stone (see for example Jeremiah 31:27-40).

It’s all (on both sides) struck me as a little to much like public posturing, and for the Christian conservatives who support the displays (sometimes rabidly), the zeal seems misplaced. After all, the function of a public display of the Ten Commandments could only at best be as an expression of the “civil” use of the law, “as an external discipline, necessary to restrain those who are not saved (and in some cases those who are saved, because of their remaining temptation to sin).”

But the “external” matters of discipline have overwhelmingly been viewed as relating to the second table of the Decalogue, the laws for relations between neighbors. The relationship between God and the individual person stands outside the realm of the magistrate, as emphasized again and again by the reformers.

No doubt a firestorm will ensue following today’s Supreme Court decisions (No. 03-1500, van Orden v. Perry and No. 03-1693, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky), which seem only sure to spur more debate on the issues. But no doubt much of the controversy arises because of the explicitness of the first table commands with respect to the identity of God.

For example, Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting in the Texas case (No. 03-1500, Van Orden v. Perry), which upheld the public display, notes that in large letters the monument proclaims ‘I AM the LORD thy God,’ and argues, “The message transmitted by Texas’ chosen display is quite plain: This state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian God.”

The words of an editorial in this month’s Christianity Today are valuable here, regarding claims by some Christian leaders that we need to reclaim the nation’s Christian foundation:

The not-so-subtle equation of America’s founding with biblical Christianity has been shown time and again to be historically inaccurate. The founding was a unique combination of biblical teaching and Enlightenment rationalism, and most of the founding fathers, as historian Edwin Gaustad, among many others, has noted, were not orthodox Christians, but instead were primarily products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, we should recall, has never been much of a friend of biblical Christianity.

There may be much value in arguing for the implementation of law based on a Christian recognition of the civil use of the Decalogue. But that validity does not carry over into attempts to institute worship, reverence, or adoration for the Christian God into American law. That simply is not the role of the civil magistrate, and the church should jealously guard its role in proclaiming the Gospel. And the church should certainly not petition the government to take over any aspect of this task.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.