The Ten Commandments: A Book Review

by Sam Parkison March 9, 2020

Although C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” in the mid-twentieth century, it somehow seems like it was made for our own age. The idea that the passage of time amounts to positive progress is axiomatic today. In such a context, a look back to any artifact of antiquity seems to be a counter-productive endeavor, let alone a stodgy, oppressive artifact like the ten commandments. If “forward” is “better,” why on earth would anyone want to look “backward?”

Such a sentiment doesn’t seem to intimidate Peter J. Leithart. His recent publication with Lexham Press, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty may well be taken as an attack on chronological snobbery. Particular, it is an assault on the kind of chronological snobbery that offers theological justification for its snobbishness. Within my Baptist circles, for example, we have been spending a lot of time and energy over the past decade or so with figuring out how to understand the relationships between the covenants (and specifically, the relationship between the New Covenant Christian and the Ten Commandments). This is because many of us find ourselves, on the whole, persuaded by the general project of Reformed Covenant Theology, but remain thoroughly unconvinced with how our Presbyterian brothers and sisters articulate the covenantal relationship between Sinai and Pentecost. It’s hard for us to get from Jeremiah 31 to a “mixed community.” The net result of this kind of intense focus on the interrelationship of covenants are creative and compelling articulations of “repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation,” and “progressive covenantalism.”

Yet, for all our cogent covenantal arguments against baptizing babies, and our insistence on “reappropriating” the ten commandments, we Baptists may justly be accused of rendering the “Ten Words” Scripture Emeritus. We will let them talk every now and then, give them lip-service as a very valued and venerated contribution to our organization, but we see them to the door before getting onto the real business of Christian discipleship. “They still apply,” we insist, “just not in the same way they applied to those who were under the Mosaic Covenant.” And our audience is left blinking, waiting for a response. “And? How do they apply?”

“…”

We wait a beat.

Then we reply in resolute confidence, “They apply Christologically.”

“Okay…” returns our patient audience, “what does that mean?”

My credobaptist brethren need not fear what I’m about to say: Peter J. Leithart shows us what it means to apply the Ten Words Christologically (notwithstanding his unseemly habit of calling unregenerate babies “Christians”). He has written a “guide” to the Ten Commandments, and though his “paedobaptist” hat is stuck to his head, the bigger hat he wears over it while writing this book is his “broadly evangelical” hat, and he fills it out splendidly. The following three reasons are why I heartily recommend this book to any and all.

The Ten Commandments” is Well-Written in Every Way

Leithart can turn a phrase. This makes reading him a delight. This is true even for some of his bizarre and exasperating works (like Deep Exegesis, and The End of Protestantism), but especially in a devotional, pop-level guide like this book. Take the following excerpts as examples:

- “A community dominated by disrespect for parents, workaholism, violence, envy, theft, and lies isn’t free. Besides, absolute freedom is impossible. In the world God made, the world that actually exists, things aren’t free to do or be anything they please. They’re free when they become what they are. An acorn is free to become an oak, not an elephant” (pg. 5).

- “Idols like company. Idolatry is inherently polytheistic. Idols feed off one another, cluster together, transmogrify to keep hold of your heart” (pg. 26).

- “Every man is an Adam who has molded himself from the dust, embarrassed by the belly button that bespeaks dependence” (pg. 66)

There is gold like this on every page of The Ten Commandments. The casual and delicious use of words like “bespeaks” and “transmogrify,” without feeling contrived or forced, bespeaks an author who arrests his readers. Leithart’s command of language adorns the solid content of the book and demonstrates that the Ten Commandments are not only good and true, but also beautiful.

The Ten Commandments” is Perceptive of the Human Condition

Leithart knows what makes us tick. More accurately, Leithart knows how the Ten Commandments uncover what makes us tick. One might think that a guide to ten ancient words, carved on stone thousands of years ago would having nothing whatever to say to a digital age like ours. But one would be deadly wrong. This is because the people God addressed at Sinai were human, and strangely enough, people today are no less human. They have the same sinful impulses. The same self-obsession. The same narcissism. “We believe in the self-made man,” observes Leithart, “the buffered self, the isolated individual… Choice is the foundation of all moral action. Nearly any act is sanctified by ‘consent,’ the magic word of liberal order. The Fifth Word explodes satanic myths of self-creation by teaching that unchosen relationships have moral weight” (pg. 66). Leithart has our number. There is no area of our lives upon which the Ten Commandments bear no weight. God’s Word extends its authority to every nook and cranny, even to our fingertips and our glossy smartphone screens:

- “People are tried and condemned by online lynch mobs. We like or share Tweets and Facebook posts even though we can’t possibly confirm their accuracy… We exaggerate the stupidity or malevolence of ideological adversaries to score points and win honor in Twitter combat. Officially committed to the Ten Words, the church does no better. Christians fire up the digital kindling to burn supposed heretics without due process, humility, or care” (pg. 107).

The Ten Commandments” is Christological to the Core

There is no chapter in this book that does not look to Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of the Ten Commandments. He is the Word of God, so it shouldn’t be a stretch for us to assume that the Ten Words speak of him. “Already at the foot of Sinai,” Leithart reminds us, “we know we need God’s Word written on our hearts by the finger of the Spirit. We need a mediator better than Moses, one who can demolish the idols of our hearts” (pg. 28). This principle applies not merely in some broad way to the Ten Commandments as a whole, but even to each individual commandment. For example, reflecting on the seventh commandment, Leithart writes: “Sexual faithfulness in marriage and sexual purity outside of marriage aren’t mere demands of law. Sexual faithfulness preaches the gospel. When a husband and wife are faithful to one another, sexually and otherwise, they become a created symbol of the covenant God who keeps his vows to Israel and the new Israel. By keeping the Seventh Word, we dramatize the good news of Jesus, the Bridegroom of the church, who gives himself in utter fidelity to and for his Bride” (pg. 90-91).

This is no rhetorical flourish for Leithart—adept as he is at rhetorical flourishes; he really believes it when he says, “Is the Decalogue for us? We might ask, Is Jesus for us?”

Amen.

Editor's Note: The Ten Commandments is available via Amazon or wherever books are sold.