How Many Commandments? Part II

Previously I threw out a joke about there being more or less than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments and then took a look at how Aquinas sets forth the logic of the Ten.  Honestly I never stop giggling over that question: hazard of teaching adolescent boys.

Let’s resume trying to figure out how many there are.  If we back up to Q100 a4, Aquinas looks at a few variations on breaking down the ten.  He’s obviously familiar with a tradition that separates “I am the Lord your God,” “You shall have no gods before me,” and “You shall make no graven image” into three commandments, since that is what the first and second objections are about.  He’s also aware of the oddity I mentioned last post about coveting.  It seems logical to keep the covet commandments as one.  That’s the third objection.  These objections foreshadow the disagreement between Catholics and Reformed Protestants on enumeration.

Where it gets interesting is in the respondeo.  Why not throw out the Sabbath commandment?  That’s the approach taken by Hesychius, who rightly points out that we don’t observe the Sabbath anymore.  We observe the Lord’s Day instead, which seems to indicate that the Sabbath observance is a temporary commandment.  So that shouldn’t count.  Hesychius ends up with four God commandments (I am, No gods before me, No graven image, Lord’s name in vain) and six neighbor commandments (he collapses coveting into one).

Aquinas doesn’t get into the Sabbatarian controversies here, he just states the obvious: if it ain’t supposed to be a commandment, why’s it in the Ten Commandments?  Even Aquinas thinks we can overthink things some times.  But that would put us at eleven if we put it back in, and twelve if we split coveting (which we are totally going to do).

Now he looks at my first theological crush, Origen.  Origen connects “I am” with “No gods before me” by reference to the Sermon on the Mount (that’s Rule 1 on reading Scripture in the Church!).  There Christ says that no one can serve two masters; applied here it means that “I am” and “No gods” are just two sides of the same coin.  Cool, that got us back down to eleven.

Now we go Rule 3, analogia fidei, with graven images (and this puts us smack in Reformation territory).  The commandment not to make graven images is given so that we don’t worship them; otherwise it would be perverse for God to command Moses to make graven cherubim for the tabernacle.  It’s not that we can’t make any images–that’s iconoclasm, suitably done with at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD (and there’s Rule 2!  Trifecta!).

And since coveting a person and coveting a thing are two different kinds of concupiscence (another post!), they are suitably split.  If not, there would be nine commandments in the Ten Commandments, and that just ain’t right.  You could actually get down to eight if Hesychius were right about the Sabbath!

But wait.  Let’s flip back to Q100 a5 and look at the objections.  There are some really cool ones.

Like…why are there no commands aimed at self?  We can certainly sin against self, and not just in the general “all sin hurts the sinner” kind of way.  Don’t we need a command about not hurting ourselves?  Well, as Aquinas points out, “be good to yourself” is not typically our problem.  Quite the reverse!  We tend to love ourselves too much in fact, and look out for #1 (think about how perverse that very expression is!), so there’s no pressing need for a self-commandment.  We might add, the harms we can do to ourselves just get filed under another existing commandment anyway.

Ok, well if we are going to have a commandment about worship of God, why not all the feasts?  I hear Passover is a big deal.  There’s a few others that show up fairly often.  But Sabbath commemorates creation itself, and looks ahead to the eternal rest of heaven; Passover and the other festivals all commemorate temporal divine favors given only to a few.  And while Passover does prefigure our Redemption in Christ, that component of it is subsumed in the Sabbath observance.  QED.

Neat.  But why isn’t there a commandment directing parents in their affairs with their children?  Seems like an oversight, especially since in any modern examination of conscience that’s exactly where parents are prodded to reflect on how they are raising their kids.

This one is pretty cool and probably deserves a post all its own.  To riff on something I said in the previous post, the parent-child relation has an asymmetry to it similar to how we relate with God.  It’s not clear that the parent owes their child, given that they bring them into existence; moreover Aquinas will say that parents naturally love their children as a part of themselves.  We need to be reminded to love our children in the same way we need to be reminded to love ourselves: not so much.  That’s a fascinating claim in need of some poking…some other time.

Now we get to a messy remainder.  Why don’t we have “desire commandments” for five and eight, but we do for six and seven?  Stealing is bad, so is desiring to possess another’s.  Adultery is bad, so is desiring to possess another’s wife.  Killing is bad, but…?  False witness is bad, but…?  Thanks to the intensification of the commandments in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (you have heard it said…), Catholics usually examine the internal component along with the external deed.  But why is that not handled in the Ten directly?

The answer is typical Aquinas-cool.  Killing and falsehood are both, of themselves, evils–things that we shun rather than desire.  It is natural to us to love our neighbor and love truth.  When we will to kill or lie, we always will them for the sake of some other good.  But adultery and theft regard goods–objects of natural desire (pleasure and utility are very much good things!).  So we do have an inclination to these objects of desire, and we need a commandment to direct us internally.

Or just play the dumb layperson card here: how often have you actually wanted to murder a human (not as a joke, really kill them)?  How often have you desired sexual gratification or to possess things?  Thought so.

The other questions I raised briefly in my previous post (and some objections that I skipped) all fall under a recurring theme in these articles of Aquinas: the Ten are given as low-bar, easy-to-see dictates.  They can’t be so easy that we already know them directly (like self-love), but they also can’t be extremely remote.  And they need to govern those aspects of virtuous living that we find difficult.  A thing like doing harm to another’s possessions in word–even if it is a sin–is a more remote, less practical kind of thing.

The Ten is a starter kit.  Remember, we’ve still got Beatitudes and Gifts and Fruits and…

So it’s ten in the Ten.  Definitely ten.  Right?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s