The Second Commandment: The Protestant War on Will-Worship

Jonathan Willis

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

Of all of the Ten Commandments, it is probably the second which has received the most attention from historians.  The Protestant renumbering of the commandments took the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image … thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, or worship them’ out of the Catholic First Commandment, and made it into a separate precept.  This gave a lot more emphasis to Protestant hostility to the making and worshipping of idolatrous images, but it did not create it: it merely gave it added prominence and urgency.

JacketIt is one of the arguments of the book, and of this blog post, that historians have done two contradictory things: they have given too much importance to the Second Commandment, and they have also viewed it too narrowly.  They have emphasised it to the extent that they have ignored some of the (frankly) more significant changes taking place at the other end of the Decalogue (for which see the last post in the series, on the Tenth Commandment).  And they have also failed to recognise that the Second Commandment was but one element of a much grander description of how to worship God (and how not to worship him), which encompassed the whole of the first table.

The Ten Commandments had traditionally been divided into two parts, or ‘tables’ – when Moses was illustrated he was invariably depicted with not one but two stone tablets detailing the precepts of his law.  The second table (commandments 5-10 in the Reformed numbering scheme) detailed man’s relationship with his fellow man, while the first four commandments of the first table concerned man’s relationship with God.  The Hampshire minister Osmund lakes explained, in his A Probe Theological, that while in the First Commandment ‘the Lord have charge to know and acknowledge him for the only true God’, and knowing him ‘to worship [him] in all inward affection of heart’, the Second Commandment instructed mankind ‘to keep that worship unto him pure and uncorrupt’.  The Third Commandment went on to define ‘the glorie and praise of God’s holy name’ for ‘the whole terme and race of our life in this world’, while the Fourth ‘prescribeth the manner, how all this may be kept and practised in ourselves, and continued unto our posteritie’.[1]

defaced-horsham-female-saintThe Second Commandment was therefore but one pillar of four which, taken, together all supported the proper worship of God.  But it also did much more than simply condemn the making and worshipping of images, or ‘idols’.  Many historians have seen this as the ‘iconoclasm’ (image-breaking) commandment, and in some sense it was.  However, the Protestant definition of idolatrous worship went far beyond the creation and veneration of statues and images of saints, angels, the Virgin Mary, and the persons of the Trinity, although these were amongst the most heinous of breaches.  Reformed readings of the Second Commandment started from a simple premise: that all worship was due to God, and God alone, in the manner in which he had commanded (in spirit and truth).  Any worship misdirected to anything else – saint, angel, person, object, statue, image, ritual, practice – was therefore a theft of something that rightfully belonged to God.  In fact one of the most common metaphors employed was that of idolatry as a form of ‘spiritual adultery’, and even the commandment itself spoke of ‘the LORD thy God’ as ‘a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’.  Just as heinous as misdirected worship was worship according to a manner or form of man’s devising, rather than of God’s commandment.  Such actions were decried as part of a broader category of ‘will-worship’, and were a testament to man’s ignorance, arrogance and iniquity.

The making and worshipping of idols therefore paled into insignificance against this broader category of ‘will-worship’, and the Second Commandment was the most common location for lengthy denunciations of Catholicism.  For, of course, in defining the pure worship of God, Protestants dwelt lengthily on describing its opposite – the corrupt and false worship of the Roman Catholic Church.  Lakes explained that ‘were God carnally to be served, there is no service under heaven comparable to that of the Romish Church’, and listed among its offensive rites ‘beads’, ‘Procession after the Crosse’, ‘creeping and crowching to the holy Roode’, ‘Popes pardons’, ‘Wakes … Church-ales and other belly-meetings for pretended maintenance of neighbour-hood’, and more.  Against the false and carnal worship of the papists, the Reformed Second Commandment opposed the words of John 4:24: ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth’.

what-are-ten-commandments_833_460_80_c1The new prominence of the Second Commandment as a result of the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Decalogue must therefore not be over-exaggerated, because the whole of the first table taught mankind how to worship God: how to know him, worship him in spirit and truth, glorify his holy name, and conduct regular religious worship corporately and in private.  But neither should the Second Commandment be presumed to speak only to issues of idolatry and iconoclasm, for the denunciation of ‘will-worship’ led to a much more totalising portrait of how worship as a whole ought, and ought not, to be conducted.

[1] Osmund Lakes, A probe theologicall: or, The first part of the Christian pastors proofe of his learned parishioners faith (1612), STC2: 15136.

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One thought on “The Second Commandment: The Protestant War on Will-Worship

  1. Thanks Jonathan – I’m really enjoying reading the series and finding out more about your new book! This one in particular is going to be really useful for discussions with my students about liberty of conscience in worship – of course a principle that was central to religious reform in the 1640s and 50s.

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