The Ten Commandments and Presuppositions

From the unpublished manuscript dated 1933 entitled “The Ten Commandments” by Cornelius Van Til, the following consists of  the full unedited introduction.


1. The main presupposition of the moral law is Christian theism. The one supreme question that appears momentarily when law is the subject of discussion is whether law is self-sufficient or whether it rests on absolute personality. The question put in this manner requires us to be either Biblical theists or Pragmatists. Law that does not rest in absolute personality must have originated from the space-time continuum of a self-sufficient universe and be for that reason sufficient unto itself. The issue between Christian theism and other thinking is not that of personality because that may mean no more than law is based on human personality or at least finite personality. The Scriptures contemplate the law as issuing from God as absolute personality.

As a corollary from this presupposition it follows that the whole of the temporal-spatial universe is created by God. The laws that are in this created universe are manifestations of the plan of God. The uniformity of nature about which science speaks so much exists not in independence of God but exists as an expression of a God of order. God is immanent in his creation. If one breaks a law of nature one breaks a law of God. Indifference to any law, whether that law be physical or normal, is an offense against God. To set law in opposition to God is like setting up a child in opposition to his father. That was the sin of Deism. On the other hand an absolute God cannot be identified with law in the temporal universe. John Fiske attempts to interpret the theology of Athanasius in this fashion in order to show the “Cosmic Theism” is really biblical theism. 1 If Fiske’s interpretation were true absolute personality would have to be, though it cannot be, denied by theism. To identify law with God is to identify a child with its father. That was the sin of pantheism.

Again it follows from the theistic presupposition of an absolute God that law in history is expressive of a purpose of God. A deistic view of history once more involves an arbitrary separation of God and laws in history to the destruction of both. On the other hand a pantheistic view of history involves an arbitrary identification of God and the laws of history to the destruction of both. On the other hand a pantheistic view of history involves an arbitrary identification of God and the laws of history to the destruction of both. Both Deism and Pantheism seek to elevate law but both destroy law in their attempt at elevation. Theism by elevating God has also elevated law. Neither Deism nor Pantheism can say that the breaking of law is an insult to God since both have identified law with God. They must therefore say that the breaking of law is the breaking of God, i.e. the denial that God exists. When this is done the authority of law is gone and respectful law cannot long endure.

Absolute authority is therefore characteristic of and implied in the conception of law in the theistic sense. “The day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” is not an arbitrary command. Any creature sinning against the law sinned against an absolute God and absolute separation from God naturally followed.

Thus also the condition of man’s existence and of his realizing his destination is a complete fulfillment of the law of God on the part of man. Deism and Pantheism may say that it is advisable for man to be obedient to law since by so doing he will make more rapid progress than he would otherwise but only Theism can say that man destroys himself if he is disobedient to law. By thus tampering with law Deism and Pantheism are playing with fire. More than that, in order to hold their relativistic views of law they must first hold to a relativistic view of God; they play with fire and are themselves afire. 2. This leads us to the second presupposition of the moral law, namely the restorative and supplementative character of Christianity. Christianity wants to be restorative and supplementative of an original theism. Only in Christianity does man meet with an absolute God. With respect to the question of law this means that only Christian theism can speak of absolute law or law with absolute authority.

Christianity implies that man has by sin broken the law. He has therewith ipso facto destroyed the very condition of his existence and brought eternal punishment upon himself. Man became a Deist or a Pantheist. If man was to live at all he had to be restored to respect for and obedience to law. Christ accomplished this restoration. Through his suffering he satisfies the penalty of the law. More than that, through his active and complete fulfillment of the law he supplemented the original perfection of man so that those in Christ are heirs of eternal life without fail. Through his Word and Spirit Christ has made “his own” partakers of his correct relationship to the law.

The knowledge of the law man must now receive from the Scriptures. Originally man found in experience the manifestation of and the spontaneous response to the law of God, but since the entrance of sin there had to be given an objective manifestation of, and a renewed response to, the law. Scripture as a concomitant to Christ gives the objective manifestation of absolute law and the Spirit of Christ gives to man the renewed subjective response when the law is seen. Only true Christians are true theists. Only true Christians know and obey the law.

To illustrate the point of the preceding paragraph we may contrast the Christian and Kantian conception of law. The reason for choosing Kant is that he is quite generally thought to have a greater respect for the absoluteness of the law than even a Christian could have. If Kant is found to be antitheistic most other philosophies will surely be such. First then as to the source of man’s knowledge of the law Kant looks “within” while the Christian looks to the Scripture. Kant thinks that it is possible to come immediately into contact with absolute law while the Christian maintains that man, because now a sinner, must seek immediately to come into contact with absolute law. In other words Kant denies that sin has cut man loose from God and therefore also from a true knowledge of and respect for law. Accordingly Kant denies that Christianity is objectively and subjectively restorative of a true theism. The “radical evil” of Kant is not at all radical in comparison with the conception of sin as entertained by the Christian. Kant’s radical evil is only a relative evil. That this is so is still more plain if in the second place we observe that Kant’s refusal of a Biblical Epistemology as spoken of above involves and is based upon relativism in metaphysics. To seek for the solution of evil in experience because one regards it as an ineradicable and inherent ingredient in all possible experience, is to deny any Experience that is absolute. Evil is destructive of coherence and any absolute Experience must be completely coherent. Hence to say that evil is inherent in all possible experience is to deny the absoluteness of God and therefore the absoluteness of law. Thus the “du sollst” of Kant is reduced to the level of pragmatic advice. Only Christianity knows aught of an absolute law.

The preceding remarks may aid us to understand the inclusive sweep of the law as promulgated in the Scriptures. God addresses himself to man generically, though directly to “his people” only. All men have disobeyed the law, yet all men must obey the law. The fact that the command comes directly to “God’s people” only is due to the economy of redemption rather than to any difference of obligation between one nation and another. God deals with man generically and federally. Again, if it is true that as far as the essential demand of the law is concerned there is no difference between the believer and non-believer, it is, if possible, more true that the demand of God is the same for the people of God in all ages. The several stages in the economy of redemption do not in the least affect the requirements of God’s law. The various stages of the economy of redemption in so far as they affect the law have to do only with the form of the law. During the old dispensation there was an emphasis on the external and national. During the new dispensation the emphasis is upon the internal and the universal. During the Old Testament the law was given in great externally. Many ceremonial laws were elevated as far as the necessity of obedience is concerned, to an equality with the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, this great externalistic detail has disappeared since Christ’s appearance because with him there is given to his people a clearer and more central objective revelation of God’s law and a deeper and more richly spiritual and therefore a more central subjective response to God’s law. Thus in the new dispensation it may become necessary, in order to live up to the truly spiritual requirement of a perfect obedience, to do away with many of the external details of the Old Testament form of law. Paul says it is a denial of the work of Christ to cling to the Old Testament requirements after Christ has come. The case is similar with respect to the Old Testament nationalism. This nationalism is not an essential denial of the universal sweep of the law. Hence the universalism of the New Testament is not opposed to the nationalism of the Old Testament but is only a flowering forth of it.

And if it is true that as far as the objective manifestation of the law is concerned there is no essential difference between the Old and the New dispensation this is equally true with the subjective response in each case. It is no more true of the Old Testament than of the New that a mere external observance of the law was sufficient. The law of God is always spiritual and always requires love to God as the motive for its fulfillment. Hence also it is not true that obedience to the law was an Old Testament requirement, while in the New Testament love has been substituted for obedience. Obedience is love and love is obedience and they alone can adequately respond to a spiritual law.

The same point that there is no real difference between the people of Old and present day Christians in respect to the law of God can be further illustration by pointing to the essential unity of the law and the gospel. There is a vast difference between them as far as the economy of redemption is concerned. Of this John speaks when he says that the law came by Moses but grace and truth by Jesus Christ. But the very content of the Gospel is that Christ has fulfilled the law. Thus the joy of the gospel is that man can in Christ know and obey the law and therefore live in the presence of God forever. There is no Gospel but that of the law. On the other hand the Gospel is law because all must obey it. In answer to the question of the Jews as to what they must do in order to work the works of God Jesus replies that they must believe on the name of the Son of God.

Still further, if there is no essential but only an economical difference between the promulgation of and response to the law in the Old and in the New dispensations, it follows that the form in which the law may come cannot be used as an argument for or against the validity of the law. The form of the Old Testament propagation of the law was necessarily externalist and temporalist. The promises and the threats, for instance, pertained to things in this life. A long life inCanaanunder the vine and fig tree constituted the substance of the promise while bodily death was the substance of the punishment under the Old dispensation.

But this fact did not make the law less spiritual.Canaanhere below was, as Abraham saw, prophetic of theCanaanhereafter, and physical death is for a sinner not reconciled the gateway to external death. It will not due to deny universal and permanent significance to the commandment that promises to children a long and earthly life if they are obedient to parents on the ground that that is manifestly an Old and not a New Testament promise. The fulfillment of that promise may not come in a same manner now as it once did, but the fulfillment is no less real or certain.

One further point must be mentioned as to the form of the law as given in the Old Testament, and that is that the law constantly says, “thou shalt not,” instead of, “thou shalt.” Why this negative form? To answer this question we should recall the general character of Christianity as restorative of an original theism. Originally there was no reason for this negative emphasis. Man spontaneously obeyed the law and in so far as there was occasion for God to add commandments by direct communication to that which was given to man by nature, the positive and the negative forms of giving such commandments could be evenly balanced. But with the entrance of sin man constantly evaded and broke God’s law. Moreover, his ignorance of the true law increased. Hence if God was to bring his law into the knowledge and obedience of man he had to say more often what man should not do than what he should do. The child, because a sinful child, will attempt to be a law unto himself. It is impossible then, that parents should not more often say “do not” that “do.”

Yet this fact should not blind us to the truth that it is positive obedience, positive accomplishment of good, and not only a negative refraining from evil that God desires. It is accordingly necessary that we make this positive demand of God’s law our starting point. We shall ask in the case of each commandment what it is that God wants of man in order to use that as a standard by which to judge how far man has fallen short of fulfilling this demand.

As to method that is the opposite of that of the modern philosophy and psychology of religion schools. They work on the assumption that evil is as basic as the good in man and the universe. Hence they would simply trace the road by which man has with the aid of law enabled himself to escape somewhat from the complete control of evil. From their point of view it is the height of dogmatism to presuppose the evil in this universe is due to a human deflection from an absolute God. We on the other hand maintain that unless this is true there is no law at all and all morality lacks foundation. Hence we cannot do other otherwise than follow the path demanded by the central presupposition of theism.

The Moral Law

Before beginning the discussion of the First Commandment we must clearly have in mind not only what is meant by law in general but what is meant by the moral law. We have purposely made no distinction between kinds of law up to this point in order to call attention to the fact that a theist regards all law differently than a non-theist. Even physical or natural law means something quite different for a Christian theist than it does for an anti-theist. According to theism man lives and moves and has his being in an atmosphere of the law of God both for his body and for his soul. To live in this atmosphere meant his freedom as it means freedom to a fish to live in its native element. But when man broke the law at one point he broke it at every point. The moral and the physical are inextricably interwoven. As prophet, priest and king, man was to know, to dedicate to God and rule over for God the whole of the physical universe. When through sin he became a prophet without a mantle, a priest without a sacrifice and a king without a crown, he brought his body along with his soul and the universe around him along with his body into ruin. On the other hand with Christ the physical world, as well as the body of man, and the body of man as well as his soul are restored to their normal relationships to the law of God.

By this way of conceiving the relationship of the physical and the moral we stand again in opposition to antitheistic thought which assumes that there is no connection between the physical and the moral. In all discussions on responsibility by non-theistic writers, man is as far as physical law is concerned either a child of fortune or of misfortune, and no more. It is considered to be obviously ludicrous to think of mankind as in any way responsible for famine or pestilence. But again we cannot do otherwise than hold to our view since it is part of Christian theism and Christian theism seems to us the most reasonable philosophy of life to hold.

1) Physical And Moral Law

Holding then to the close connection between and the common origin and authority of both physical and moral law we may nevertheless distinguish between them. Physical law is the ordinance of God for non-responsible creation. Moral law is the ordinance of God for his reasonable creatures. In the case of physical law God does not expect, while in the case of moral law he does expect, a self-conscious response. To the extent then that man is capable by virtue of his creation in the image of God to react self-consciously in any direction to the law of God, man acts morally. By acting morally, we only signify in this instance that he acts self-consciously upon the law of God. We cannot even say that he acts morally only when concerned with matters of obligation while in intellectual matters morality does not enter. Man ought to think right, that is, be a true prophet; man ought to do right; that is, be a true king; and man ought to feel right, that is, be a true priest. In the broadest sense of the term then all self-conscious response to the law of God, wherever revealed, is moral action. When the term moral is used it’s opposite is non-moral.

2) The Moral And The Religious

For man as a self-conscious and so morally acting being there were two main spheres of self-conscious response in which he might obey the law of God. There was an aspect of the general law of God for man that pertained more directly to man’s relation to God. There was a second aspect of the general law of God for man that pertained more directly to man’s relation to his fellow man. These aspects overlap to be sure since in the ultimate sense all law is the law of God, but there is a relative distinction between them. When man obeyed the first aspect of the law he was truly religious and when he broke this first aspect of the law he was irreligious or falsely religious. When man obeyed the second aspect of the law he was moral in the narrower sense of the term and when man disobeyed the second aspect of the law he was immoral, 2 in the narrower sense of the term. When, in common parlance, we speak of an irreligious man, that is one who does not attend to devotions, we do not say that he is also an immoral man, that is, that he cannot be a good father and neighbor. On the other hand Scripture and experience afford numerous illustrations of those that said a gift by which father or mother might have profited was corban, dedicated to the Lord. The truly moral man must also be the truly religious man and the truly religious man must also be the truly moral man. An immoral man, however much he seems to be religious, is really irreligious, only he sins less directly against God than he who openly breaks God’s law in so far as it pertains directly to man’s relation to God.

When now with these distinctions in mind we look at the Decalogue or “moral” law we see that the first three commandments deal chiefly with religion. For this reason they are not strictly commandments with respect to morality. Yet they are parts of the moral law in the wider sense of the term since in the Law God comes to man as a self-conscious being. Secondly we notice that the sixth to ninth commandments deal quite definitely with the norms of man’s relation to his fellow man. But again this does not imply that the breaking of any one or all of these laws does not affect your religious standing. The unity of the law, in its religious and more definitely moral aspects must ever be kept in view. The fourth and fifth commandments are of a mixed character, indicating the close unity between the religious and the moral while the tenth clearly shows that one and the same motive produces true religion and true morality.

How contrary this way of connecting the religious and the moral is to the modern temper may be seen from an article by W. E. Pitkin in the Century Magazine of Oct. 1926, on, “Our Moral Anarchy.” Out of five hundred educated people who replied to a questionnaire about the relative value of the various commandments of the decalogue no less than one hundred and two reported that “they could not deal with the first four commandments because in their opinion these have no moral value whatsoever.” 3 Then there was a large group who would in some sense deal with both tables of the law but would at least make the second table of the law come first. As an example of these he speaks of the Modernists. Of them he says: “What Jesus placed first the modernist places second; and what Jesus placed second the modernist places first.” 4 Add to these the moral communists who profess not to care about the first table of the law at all and Pitkin’s statement that there are five moral modernists and two socialists for every moral fundamentalist and it becomes apparent that as Christian ministers we should stress the irreligiousness of religion without morality and stress still more the immorality of morality without religion.

It will not be possible to attempt to trace the various manifestations of the general autonomic morality about us today. 5 Still less will it be feasible to seek for the reasons that bring about morality that as theists we cannot but be sorry to see. The task of the minister of the gospel it is to do this first of all. But that is not the end of his task. He must preach the full demand of the law to love God above all and one’s neighbor as one’s self. How sadly the pulpit has neglected its task in this respect. There are many who make a dash into the law to defend the eighteenth amendment or something else that draws their attention. But what good will that do if the congregation has not been nurtured upon the preaching of the law in the sense of placing before men their whole duty with respect to God and man. “To the law and to the testimony if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them” (Is8:20).

1 The Idea Of God.

2 Even so we do not use immoral in the still narrower sense when it signifies an addiction to a special kind of sin.

3 p. 643.

4 p. 645.

5 Cf. W. Lippmann, Preface to Morals.

2 Responses to “The Ten Commandments and Presuppositions”

  1. Randy Frank January 15, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    Paragraph 2 of this article says, “…whether that law be physical or normal, is an offense against God.” Taken within the framework of the entire article, it appears that “normal” may be a typo for “moral.” Is this the case, or am I completely missing the difference between physical and “normal” laws?

    Any clarity you can provide will be most appreciated.

    Randy Frank

    • calvinist4life January 18, 2014 at 1:41 am #

      Randy, I think you might be correct, it could be a typo in the original document, missed by the editor(s). If it is not a typo, I would venture to guess that by it he means the uniformity of nature, the ‘normal’ order of the universe. In the same paragraph he also say’s ” If one breaks a law of nature one breaks a law of God.” Laws of nature are normal in the sense they are predictable or regular. They are personal in the sense they were set in place (to borrow from Dr. Van Til) by the plan of God, which is to say they originate from God, they are sustained by God, such that God is both immanent in Creation and transcendent or beyond Creation including the laws of nature. Deism entails a denial of the immanence of God while pantheism entails a denial of the transcendence of God. In relation to the moral law, since the god of deism is impersonal, it diminishes (point of contact with) the absolute personality of God, while the god(s) of pantheism are personal (relative), in conjunction with a denial of transcendence is the lose of the absolute…And the train of thought vanished, I hope something here might be helpful. God bless.

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