The Sixth Commandment: Killing me softly…

Jonathan Willis

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

One of the most striking aspects of the Commandments of the Reformed Decalogue was the sheer range of actions which they came to be seen to enjoin or prohibit.  However, this tendency to expand the commandments from the specific action forbidden (or exhorted) in the text to spiritual and temporal acts, in thought, word and deed, and to other similar types of offence, had impeccable biblical credentials.  Christ himself, in Matthew 5:21-22, had explained:

Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whoseoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

HellfireThe four short monosyllables of the Sixth Commandment – thou shalt not kill – were therefore stretched and twisted by expositors of the Decalogue into some quite astonishingly intricate patterns, which reflected the religious and moral climate of the day.  The godly vicar of Ryton, Francis Bunny, explained that the commandment forbade killing with hand, heart and tongue, ‘and all the things that tend to the hurt of any mans person’, including bereaving him, spoiling his goods and possessions, or omitting ‘such duties, as tend to the safety or good of other men’.[1]  This was a totalising portrait of how to live one’s life with the utmost care for the lives of others. Continue reading

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The Fifth Commandment: Honouring ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’

Jonathan Willis

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

justinian-law-codexThe Fifth Commandment was the first precept in the Second Table of the Reformed Decalogue, heading the list of precepts which ordered man’s relationship with his fellow man.  The Edwardian reformer and Bishop of Gloucester John Hooper, in his Declaration of the Ten Commandments of Almighty God, explained that in the Second Table ‘is prescribed how, and by what means, one man may live with another in peace and unity in this civil life, during the time of this mortal body upon the earth’.  None of the great lawmakers of the classical world – Lycurgus, Plato, Cicero, Constantine, Justinian – individually or together had ‘prescribed so perfect and absolute a form of a politic wealth, as Almighty God hath done unto his people in this second table and six rules’.[1]  The Fifth Commandment provided for obedience to authority, the sixth provided for peace, the seventh for legitimate reproduction, the eighth for private property, and the ninth to facilitate the prosecution of transgressors.  ‘These be the fountain’, Hooper explained, ‘of all politic laws’. Continue reading

The Fourth Commandment: Keeping it Holy

Jonathan Willis

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

After the Second, it is probably the Fourth Commandment that has received the most attention by historians, because it outlines what became one of the key priorities of Protestant (and specifically Puritan) piety: the observation of the Sabbath.[1]  The Fourth Commandment was also the longest in the Decalogue:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

The Sabbath was a potentially controversial and complex notion for several reasons.  As it had been instituted for the Jewish people in the Old Testament, the Saturday Sabbath was counted as part of the Ceremonial Law along with other ritual aspects of Judaism, such as the dietary requirements that forbade the eating of pork and shellfish.  Christian doctrine held that this Ceremonial Law had been abrogated – superseded and therefore rendered obsolete – by the coming of Christ.  Many aspects of Judaism were considered to foretell important features of Christianity, such as the welcoming of male infants into the Jewish faith and community through infant circumcision as a foreshadowing of the spiritual induction into the Christian community provided by the sacrament of baptism.  Once Christ had come to earth and sacrificed himself, these weak glimmers of true religion were replaced by the blinding light of the gospel. Continue reading

The Third Commandment: What’s in a Name?

Jonathan Willis

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

The Third Commandment of the Reformed Decalogue was ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain’.  It would therefore be easy to assume that the primary purpose of the commandment was to forbid blasphemy – employing God’s name in the uttering of profane curses or the swearing of false or deceitful oaths.  In fact, the third commandment was much more sweeping in its scope than this.  The Pembroke College graduate and Suffolk minister Robert Allen explained that the scope of the commandment was nothing less than ‘to shew what ought to be the ordinarie course of the of the whole life and conversation of the true worshipper of God, both in word and deed’.  Secondly, it was

To declare what is the chiefe end of life, and of all the thoughts, words, & works thereof; not only in the duties of God’s worship, both inward & outward, according to the first and second Commandment: but also in every other duty according to all the Commandments of the whole Law of God.[1]

The third commandment was therefore pretty totalising: it did not just apply to oaths and curses, but directed the whole ordinary life of the believer outside of the context of religious worship. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface

Jonathan Willis

JacketRegular readers of this blog may or may not be aware that I’ve spent the last seven years or so researching and writing a book on the Ten Commandments and the English Reformation, initially with the help of a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, and latterly as a lecturer and then senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  The fruits of these labours are due to be published in mid-October (2017) by Cambridge University Press, as part of their Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History series, under the title The Reformation of the Decalogue: Religious Identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c.1485-1625.  What better way to mark this new arrival into the world of published work, than with a series of blog posts, exploring some of the more interesting and/or unexpected aspects of the Ten Commandments as they came to prominence over the course of the English reformation…

Before I start a series of posts which will focus on each commandment in turn, however, I want to do two things in this preface.  Firstly, I want to ask why are the commandments worthy of attention, and secondly, I want to give a bit of essential context for understanding the Protestant Decalogue. Continue reading