How Many Commandments in the Decalogue (Srsly)?

I love asking my students this question every year.  It’s well established by then that I have a sick sense of humor, and they just can’t figure out what my angle is.  Of course, once one of them bravely suggests that maybe, just maybe the answer is…TEN?, I ask if they are sure.  Then pandemonium breaks loose.

the-ten-commandments1 CATHtencommandments prot

Now they get clever.  Someone inevitably says one, thinking of the Greatest Commandment.  Someone will riff on that by saying two, splitting the Greatest into divine and human.  Someone will think they are being clever and try to say 613, but they won’t quite know what they are talking about and end up using another big, wrong number.

Well hold on, guys.  Those are fine answers but you are playing the game wrong.  Look at the Ten Commandments with me.  But remember, chapter and verse numbers are added later–much later.  To really do this right, you have to undo the editorial decisions made for you, unformat the Decalogue, and read it as a wall-o-text.  Now how many do you see?

And this is no idle question or archaeological curiosity.  Students are shocked to learn that Catholics and Presbyterians (usually) have different commandments.  When I have Jewish students we can roll in that difference as well.  There are ancient Catholic writers who also do some weird things in here (more on that below).

It turns out that Aquinas has an extremely cheeky question about this: ST I-II Q100 a5, whether the precepts of the Decalogue are suitably set forth.  Nothing could seem less important than this question, given Who sets them forth, yet it allows Aquinas to lay out what he takes to be the logic of the ten.

Law directs us in relation to a community; God’s law directs us in the community that has Him as its head.  Our two basic relations that must be governed are to the head of the community and to the members under that head.  This gets us our classic split of the commandments into the “God table” and the “neighbor table.”

There are three things we owe the head of any community: fidelity, reverence, and service.  I guess that sort of spoils how many “God” commandments Aquinas thinks there are.  Fidelity is negatively expressed as not recognizing another as our sovereign.  Reverence is to do nothing injurious to the sovereign, while service is…well, the service one owes in return for the  benefits the sovereign provides.

A quick glance at human communities is instructive (I’ll use the U.S. since that’s where I live and I have blessed internet access to the entire U.S. code).  The fidelity debt is opposed by what we call treason.  The service component is opposed by sedition and subversive activities; the most mundane example I can think of for the U.S. would be failure to register for selective service, or draft-dodging.  In the U.S. Code fidelity and service are packaged together (and we often mash-up treason and sedition both in word and in thought).  Reverence is scattered throughout the U.S. code; there are many special laws governing threats or acts of violence against members of the government.  Interesting that they are not neatly bundled with treason and sedition.

Obviously Aquinas thinks we’ve got three commandments that correspond with these three debts to the sovereign.  Fidelity is expressed in “You shall have no gods before me,” Reverence in “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain,” and Service in “You shall keep holy the Sabbath.”

The second table, directing us in relation to our neighbor, is fairly straightforward but for a single wrinkle.  Let’s save the wrinkle for last.  When it comes to dealing with our neighbor, we are forbidden from doing harm in deed, word, or desire (St. Augustine’s famous definition of sin is a dead, word, or desire against the divine law).  Commandments 5-7 cover deed, 8 covers word, and 9-10 cover desire.

That just leaves the fourth commandment as the wrinkle, right?  Aquinas has a solution for this, but I think it’s worth pausing before we look at that.  There’s something right about this commandment sticking out from the schema so far.  What we owe our parents is quite different from what we owe any old neighbor; it’s almost in league with what we owe God, but of course to push that all the way would be blasphemy.  It’s tempting to put it in the first table, though.  I am quite happy to leave this out as an uncomfortable remainder, a reminder that we owe our parents something quite special.

And there’s Aquinas kicking in the door.  Before he launches into what we owe our neighbor, he divides our debts into general and particular.  In general we are to do no harm; in our particular relations we are to pay our debts.  The fourth commandment governs this particular relation of paying back a positive debt.  Interesting that this is also in play for the third commandment, again making a case for putting the fourth on the first table.


But that doesn’t fully explain why there are ten and not, say, nine.  Reformed Christians all combine coveting into one big commandment (collapsing the Catholic 9 and 10).  If you’re not going to do that, if you are going to split them, then why not use the same tripartite split in commandments 5-7?  Those govern the three basic ways to harm our neighbor in deed: to his person, to a person connected to him, to his property.  But only the second two seem to show up in the coveting section.  Why?

Likewise, the eighth commandment forbids harming our neighbor in word.  Well, why not a tripartite split there?  Can we harm his possessions in word?  A person connected to him?  But at least this one does collapse all word-harms into one law–better than the ninth and tenth!

This is a fun game, and it’s fun because we already know the answer (ten, Catholic-style).  Having the answer at your back liberates you to ask all sorts of questions about how it works, liberated from the fear of breaking the system.  Ask away!  Chop it up!  Laugh at the “absurdities,” since in the end you will be laughing at yourself.

Maybe we should back up, and that in two ways.  First, we need to peek at the previous article, where Aquinas goes over some historical differences in enumeration.  Second, we need to remember one of the great Aquinas memes created by my students: One Does Not Simply Read the Respondeo!  The objections and replies on these articles are absolute gold.  And so…I suppose I have chained myself to another Part II.



2 thoughts on “How Many Commandments in the Decalogue (Srsly)?

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