The First Commandment: Faith and Atheism in Early Modern England

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The First Commandment in the renumbered Protestant Decalogue was deceptively simple:

I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

adam_s_creation_sistine_chapel_ceiling__by_michelangelo_jbu33cut-0What this commandment required, however, was nothing short of true faith.  The first component of faith was knowledge.  The future bishop of Llandaff, Exeter and Worcester, Gervase Babington, wrote in his very Fruitful Exposition of the Commaundements in 1583 that the knowledge of God was declared by the magnificence of his creation (the heavens and earth, and all the creatures therein); by his word (in the form of the scriptures); by the holy spirit which brought the knowledge of salvation; and by the conscience of man, which comforted him when he acted in a way of which God approved, and accused him and made him afraid when he committed evil deeds.

The First Commandment provided many commentators on the commandments, including Babington, with an opportunity to explain the doctrine of the Trinity: to know God was to learn about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the relationship between them.  Next came the duties stemming from knowledge of God: to love and fear him above all.  Fear was a powerful and important part of faith: men failed in the duties of the commandment when they allowed themselves to be driven more by fear of men than of God.  They also sinned when they feared God too much, resulting in despair; and when they feared God too little, and allowed themselves to inhabit a false sense of security.

Prayer was also a duty required by the First Commandment, and Babington used this as an opportunity to condemn the false doctrine of Rome, which Protestants held advocated prayer to creatures other than God, such as saints and angels.  Trust in God’s providence was the fourth duty required; a reliance upon God as the guide and governor of all things.  Babington used this duty not only to explain in detail the doctrine of providence, but also the thorny question of theodicy – the vindication of God’s providence in the face of the existence of evil.  The last duty of the commandment was thanksgiving, which Babington recommended should take place frequently, and especially at mealtimes.

atheist_fishWhile the first, civil office of the law merely policed the formal profession of faith, the third, practical, office of the law demanded absolute and total compliance of the elect with every branch and facet of God’s law.[1]  The second, evangelical, office, however, contained within it an alarming corollary.  If the purpose of the First Commandment was to demand faith, and the function of the second office was to condemn mankind’s failure to obey the law, then it followed that before the gift of justifying faith the men and women of early modern England were, to some extent, functional atheists.

Babington’s examination of his conscience concerning this commandment makes for dramatic reading:

These and many such other things I see are laide upon me and al men, and women in this first commandement, & then I thinke or say with my self unto ye Lord, O my good God and gratious father, O my sweete Lord & guide most righteous, what doe I see even in this but one law of thine against my selfe, my soule and bodie, why I should never come in thy kingdome, nor lift up mine eyes to heaven in hope of any comfort? This is but one Lawe of ten, and contayneth but a fewe dueties in respect of all that I owe to thee and my brethren, yet ah Lorde, with wailing woe I speake it, so guiltie I see my selfe, so fowle and ouglie before thy face, and so full of breaches everie way, even of this one commandement, that I am ashamed and confounded to lift up mine eies unto thee my God. For mine iniquities are increased overmine head, & my trespasses are growen up to the heaven, to me belongeth nothing but shame & confusion, it is thy mercie that I am not utterly destroied, yea even thy mercie marvellous, that the earth, as wearie of so wicked a burden, shrinketh not from under my feete, and hellish pit the gulfe of endlesse woe receiueth me not into it?

From simple faith in God, and the requirement not to have other Gods, the First Commandment was therefore remoulded to become a loving pen-portrait of the Protestant ideal of a true and lively faith.  Encompassing associated doctrines such as the Trinity, Providence and Theodicy, and condemning Roman Catholic false worship alongside more general crimes like atheism, what it lost in length the truncated First Commandment made up for in depth, and in its confessionalised Protestant redefinition of what was previously a shared Christian sense of faith.

[1] On the three offices of God’s law, see the first post in this series.

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