Acton Institute Powerblog

Ruling on the Decalogue

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I have to admit that I’ve never been able to get that fired up about the controversies surrounding the various public displays of the Decalogue. It no doubt has to do with my view that it is far more important for the law to be written on our hearts rather than on stone (see for example Jeremiah 31:27-40).

It’s all (on both sides) struck me as a little to much like public posturing, and for the Christian conservatives who support the displays (sometimes rabidly), the zeal seems misplaced. After all, the function of a public display of the Ten Commandments could only at best be as an expression of the “civil” use of the law, “as an external discipline, necessary to restrain those who are not saved (and in some cases those who are saved, because of their remaining temptation to sin).”

But the “external” matters of discipline have overwhelmingly been viewed as relating to the second table of the Decalogue, the laws for relations between neighbors. The relationship between God and the individual person stands outside the realm of the magistrate, as emphasized again and again by the reformers.

No doubt a firestorm will ensue following today’s Supreme Court decisions (No. 03-1500, van Orden v. Perry and No. 03-1693, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky), which seem only sure to spur more debate on the issues. But no doubt much of the controversy arises because of the explicitness of the first table commands with respect to the identity of God.

For example, Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting in the Texas case (No. 03-1500, Van Orden v. Perry), which upheld the public display, notes that in large letters the monument proclaims ‘I AM the LORD thy God,’ and argues, “The message transmitted by Texas’ chosen display is quite plain: This state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian God.”

The words of an editorial in this month’s Christianity Today are valuable here, regarding claims by some Christian leaders that we need to reclaim the nation’s Christian foundation:

The not-so-subtle equation of America’s founding with biblical Christianity has been shown time and again to be historically inaccurate. The founding was a unique combination of biblical teaching and Enlightenment rationalism, and most of the founding fathers, as historian Edwin Gaustad, among many others, has noted, were not orthodox Christians, but instead were primarily products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, we should recall, has never been much of a friend of biblical Christianity.

There may be much value in arguing for the implementation of law based on a Christian recognition of the civil use of the Decalogue. But that validity does not carry over into attempts to institute worship, reverence, or adoration for the Christian God into American law. That simply is not the role of the civil magistrate, and the church should jealously guard its role in proclaiming the Gospel. And the church should certainly not petition the government to take over any aspect of this task.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • During the day on Monday, I will be collecting links covering developments at the Court and publishing them in this post. The post will be updated throughout the day and moved to the top of the blog after each significant…

  • David L. Painter

    Thanks Mr. Ballor for your wise words.
    There seems to be a willing ignorance of history with the continued persecution of Christians. If we look at all the nations of the world prior to the founding of the US that professed to be “Christian nations” we find persecution of Christians to be astoundingly common. Whatever sect was in power it persecuted those who were not. Many Christians, for conscience sake, died for their faith.
    The colonies here in America tended to follow the same pattern of persecution. New York and Carolina had aristocratic leanings of the established Anglican Church of England, as in Virginia originally, and Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire had Congregationalism as the established church. Only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were established as religiously free colonies.
    Prior to, and even after, the founding of our nation many Christians were persecuted and many had to pay state/church taxes to support a sect of Christianity they did not agree with. It is almost ironic that the last state to cease having a state established church was, what is possibly the most liberal state in the Union, Massachusetts. It did not disestablish the Congregational Church until 1833.
    There is an important difference between tolerance and liberty. We need to continually learn it here in America and we need to advance that knowledge throughout the world.
    Our Declaration of independence opened with one of the most profound statements that mere man has ever uttered – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Government is to protect these God given rights to man as His created image bearer, government does not grant them.

  • The Ten Commandments are the very basis of Western Civilization; and no Courts, anywhere, can deny that basic fact.