The Ten Commandments Make Life . . . Livable – Peter Leithart

Christians sometimes wonder if the Old Testament law is intended for us. After all, Paul said we’re free from the law, and warned about subjecting ourselves again to slavery. Debates surrounding the law have raged, seemingly without resolution, for centuries.

As is often the case, the proof is more in the pudding than in the recipe. What convinces us that the law is useful isn’t a theological scheme but a wise, mature, and Christian reading of the law. That’s just what Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender provides in his recently released Thy Will Be Done: The Ten Commandments and the Christian Life.

The Ten Commandments as Bonds

Several themes run through the book. One is evident from the table of contents: Meilaender reads the Ten Commandments in terms of “bonds.” He doesn’t follow the biblical order of the commandments, but, after an introductory chapter, he moves from the “marriage bond” to bonds of family, life, possessions, and speech. Meilaender ends with the first commandment, not because it’s less important than the others but because it gathers up all the commandments into itself. He follows Luther here. Luther said the first commandment teaches us not to fear, love, or trust in anything more than God. The reformer then began his explanation of each subsequent commandment by alluding back to his explanation of the first: we’re to fear and love God so that we don’t kill, steal, bear false witness, and so on.

What convinces us that the law is useful isn’t a theological scheme but a wise, mature, and Christian reading of the law.

The notion of “bonds” informs the other recurring themes. Meilaender explores each bond in the biblical framework of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. For example, the family bond, articulated in “Honor your father and your mother,” shows that biological bonds make claims on us. But biological descent isn’t merely biological. It has moral weight, calling us to be grateful for the unchosen gifts of life and heritage. The family bond also binds parents, who are freed to accept children as God’s continuing “Yes” to creation and signs of what Gabriel Marcel described as the “fundamental generosity” of the world. If this is the nature of the family bond, then we need to be extremely cautious about genetic technologies that make it possible for us to design children. Instead of receiving children as a gift, technology tempts us to treat them as “existing to satisfy our desire for a child” (42). 

The family bond is broken by sin and in need of healing. Abortion, which Meilaender describes as “a great refusal,” is a fundamental threat to the family bond today (46). But other evils break the bond, too. Parents die or fail, and so the world is filled with vulnerable orphans. Yet the gospel addresses and heals the broken family bond. It teaches us to receive children as Jesus did and proclaims the good news of our adoption into the Father’s family. The family isn’t only an object of healing; the family can become a means of healing, a “school of virtue” in which we learn brotherly love and gratitude to our heavenly Father. At the same time, the gospel subordinates the family bond to the first commandment. God calls some, in Karl Barth’s words, to be “orphaned” for the sake of the kingdom (49). 

Until we enter the new Jerusalem in its fullness, the family will remain broken. But here, too, the commandment is relevant, as the imperative is transposed into promise. A day of final healing is coming, “when the hearts of the fathers will be turned to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers . . . and we will live long in the land God gives us” (51).

The gospel addresses and heals the broken family bond. It teaches us to receive children as Jesus did and proclaims the good news of our adoption into the Father’s family.

Each chapter of Thy Will Be Done flows between these banks. Bonds of marriage, possessions, or speech are created, broken, healed, fully restored. Each bond becomes a school of virtue preparing us for final glory. Each commandment contains a hidden promise:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You shall be a bride eager to greet her bridegroom, a child who lives the Father, a creature who honors the life of every fellow human being, a creature whose Lord is rich enough to meet every need. (125)

Meilaender’s Insight

I’ve made the book sound formulaic. It isn’t.

Meilaender has been about his business for a long time and possesses a rare variety of seasoned wisdom. He addresses controversial issues—same-sex marriage and contraception, pacifism, war, the use of force, valid uses of deception—with theological and biblical insight, clarity, and near-miraculous brevity. Let me highlight a few of his more arresting insights, to give you the flavor of Meilaender’s mind at work.

“The great gift marriage offers a husband and wife,” he writes, “is time” (23). Marriages need time to work out the meaning of life, time to take up the task of loving each other, time for God to train us in holiness. Time is what makes marriage vows so crucial. Shacking up puts a couple at the mercy of time’s surprises: “If it doesn’t work out, we can go our separate ways.” A vow lends permanence to love; it shows that true love must be faithful. Wedding vows take hold of time. No matter what surprises come, a young couple audaciously says, we will love and honor one another until death do us part. A vow “reaches out creatively—with God’s help—to shape the future” (23).

Meilaender questions the recent Catholic rejection of the death penalty, not because he’s a “cheerleader for capital punishment” but because Catholic arguments sometimes undermine the legitimacy of all punishment. When “we forget that punishment is an aspect of the government’s authority to judge,” we’re in danger of losing the fundamental Christian political insight, namely, that the civil ruler is God’s servant for wrath (73).

A vow lends permanence to love; it shows that true love must be faithful. Wedding vows take hold of time.

Meilaender’s treatment of the speech bond culminates in a treatment of martyrdom. Martyrdom inevitably allows evil to triumph. After all, the martyr could fight back or escape. The martyr doesn’t approve the evil his adversaries do, but trusts “that God himself has taken responsibility for the evils we have to permit.” Martyrdom is, among many things, an acknowledgement of “the limits of our own responsibility for achieving good outcomes” (106–7).

Making Human Life Livable

The weakest part of Meilaender’s book is his opening chapter on “the law of Christ.” He provides a deft summary of longstanding debates about faith, grace, works, gospel, and law. It’s boilerplate Reformation theology, but his summary would’ve benefitted from some attention to more recent work on Pauline theology, which offer other avenues for resolving the problems he addresses.

Meilaender wants to demonstrate that the Ten Commandments aren’t alien imperatives from on high, arbitrary restrictions on our freedom. They prescribe the bonds that make human life livable. To use a current buzzword, Thy Will Be Done proves that the The Commandments are given to enhance human flourishing.

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