As Melanchthon says, “Since these laws are the eternal rule of the mind of God, they always sounded forth in the church, even before the time of Moses, and they shall remain in force forever and apply also to the Gentiles.” These same principles are found to be reflected in other parts of the Mosaic code as well: “There are also many natural laws in the civil and ceremonial laws which also are perpetual, such as the law which prohibits incestuous practices, Leviticus 18, because the reverence for blood relationships pertains to these virtues.”
Of the Ten Commandments, it was the Fifth that was of chief importance for political reflection. One gets a glimpse of the reason for this in the Curate’s words in the scene below taken from Whit Stillman’s film Love and Friendship (along with a subtle correction of those traditions that follow the division of the commandments in the LXX rather than the Hebrew division)1:
The affable young CURATE stands before her.
CURATE (CONT’D) Might I help you?
FREDERICA Yes… A friend was asking how, in accord with Christian teaching, the Fourth Commandment should be honored…
CURATE The Fourth Commandment? Yes — “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
FREDERICA No, I meant the Commandment, “Honor thy Father and Mother…”
CURATE Oh, the Fifth Commandment — my favorite! It’s the Church of Rome that has it as the Fourth– yes, the Fifth Commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Beautiful, profound — I believe one should apply this sentiment of Gratitude and Loyalty to every aspect of our lives. We are not born into a savage wilderness but in a beautiful mansion of the Lord that the Lord and those who have gone before us have constructed. We must avoid neglecting this mansion but rather glorify and preserve it — as we should all of the Lord’s Creation. The superb Baumgarten has outlined this aesthetic trinity as “Beauty,” “Truth,” and “Good.” “Truth” is the perfect perceived by reason; “Beauty,” by the senses; and the “Good” by moral will.
“‘Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.’ Beautiful, profound — I believe one should apply this sentiment of Gratitude and Loyalty to every aspect of our lives.” The Reformers agreed–which is to say, they took the commandments as synecdoches, in which a part stands in for the whole. Thus more duties are required (and more vices forbidden) than are explicit in the wording of the commandment.
John Calvin notes the principle in Institutes 2.8.82:
“The next observation we would make is, that there is always more in the requirements and prohibitions of the Law than is expressed in words….We must, therefore, if possible, discover some path which may conduct us with direct and firm step to the will of God….It is true that, in almost all the commandments, there are elliptical expressions, and that, therefore, any man would make himself ridiculous by attempting to restrict the spirit of the Law to the strict letter of the words. It is plain that a sober interpretation of the Law must go beyond these, but how far is doubtful, unless some rule be adopted. The best rule, in my opinion, would be, to be guided by the principle of the commandment—viz. to consider in the case of each what the purpose is for which it was given. For example, every commandment either requires or prohibits; and the nature of each is instantly discerned when we look to the principle of the commandment as its end.”
What does this mean for the Fifth Commandment? It means that it speaks not only to the authority/obedience relationship of parents and children, but to all situations of hierarchy in human life and society. Calvin again: “Thus, the end of the Fifth Commandment is to render honour to those on whom God bestows it. The sum of the commandment, therefore, is, that it is right in itself, and pleasing to God, to honour those on whom he has conferred some distinction; that to despise and rebel against such persons is offensive to Him.” Or, to revert to the Anglican curate once more: “I believe one should apply this sentiment of Gratitude and Loyalty to every aspect of our lives.” For the remainder of the post, I shall give some examples from two sixteenth-century writers, Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, to illustrate.
First, Melanchthon, who (alas!), uses the LXX numbering and therefore takes this commandment as the Fourth, says in the 1559 Chief Theological Topics3: “Thus our human reason first recognizes that in this society of ours there is need for order and direction. The first source of this direction is the authority of our parents. To this authority figure later on is added the power of the rulers who govern and defend the entire society.” He says this in his discussion of natural law, but in his previous discussion of the Decalogue proper he is more expansive.
“The Fourth Commandment [sic] is established at the first level of authority, namely, our parents, and thus ought to be the rule for other forms of governance, as in Romans 13. Likewise the highest degree of obedience is commanded, namely honor. Honor has three aspects: The first is the recognition of God, who is the author of the laws for human society both in marriage and in the state. In these ordinances we see the wisdom of God, His goodness toward us, His righteousness, His anger against wrongdoers, and His defense of the innocent. Therefore honoring our parents is recognizing that this human state is a divine work, a testimony to God’s providence, beneficial for the human race, good and honorable; loving this ordinance for the sake of God and the common good; and seeking with godly prayers that He would preserve this state.
“The second involves external obedience, so that we may observe our common duties in society and not destroy them.
“The third involves equity by which in the great weakness of mankind we pardon certain wrongs in our government and restore or repair them with our sense of fairness, gentleness, and concern, and yet in such a way that we do not act contrary to the commandments of God.”4
Melanchthon is of course well aware that there is a distinction that must be observed between office and person: the office of governance, both in the home and in civil society, even of the inhabitants of that office are wicked men who as such deserve no honor. He uses Paul and two of the Roman emperors to illustrate:
“…[The patriarch, the prophets, Christ, and the apostles] made a distinction between the things themselves from the persons and from the works of the devil who furiously tries to ruin, overturn and disrupt the greater works of God. Thus Paul loved and obeyed the government, that is, the laws of the Roman empire, but he did not love Caligula and Nero. Indeed, he execrated them as instruments of the devil, cursed by God, by whose crimes the entire nature of things appeared to be contaminated. This distinction between the subjects themselves and the personalities involved must be kept in mind, so that the works of God can be kept separate from the works of the devil.”5
But government as such remains good, and ought to be honored as a divinely instituted authority.
When we turn to Calvin, we find something very similar. I have already referred above to a comment of his on the Fifth Commandment. But that was from his general introduction to the Decalogue. In his exposition of the individual commandments he is, like Melanchthon, more diffuse.
It is true that he focuses most of his attention on the parent/child relationship that is explicit in the commandment. Nevertheless, he says programmatically at the beginning of his discussion (Institutes 2.8.35):
The end of this commandment is, that since the Lord takes pleasure in the preservation of his own ordinance, the degrees of dignity appointed by him must be held inviolable. The sum of the commandment, therefore, will be, that we are to look up to those whom the Lord has set over us, yielding them honour, gratitude, and obedience. Hence it follows, that every thing in the way of contempt, ingratitude, or disobedience, is forbidden.
Indeed, it is because of the importance of submission in all spheres of life (ecclesiastical, domestic, and civic) that the commandment uses parents as the chief example: for this is, in Calvin’s view, a pastoral feature of the precept intended to lead us from the easier kind of submission to the more difficult. Thus Calvin says:
But as this command to submit is very repugnant to the perversity of the human mind (which, puffed up with ambitious longings will scarcely allow itself to be subject), that superiority which is most attractive and least invidious is set forth as an example calculated to soften and bend our minds to habits of submission. From that subjection which is most easily endured, the Lord gradually accustoms us to every kind of legitimate subjection, the same principle regulating all.
Calvin is firm on the necessity of subjection, and makes implicit use of the office/person distinction we saw above, though less clearly than Melanchthon does, it seems to me. The point Calvin wishes to stress is once again practical and pastoral, viz., that a person, by virtue of inhabiting an office, must receive honor from his subjects whether he is worthy of it or not: the Christian has no right to substitute his preferences for God’s commandments. Calvin knows this is a bitter pill for the flesh to accept, and so he says it emphatically:
And it makes no difference whether those on whom the honour is conferred are deserving or not. Be they what they may, the Almighty, by conferring their station upon them, shows that he would have them honoured.
Nevertheless, there are limits. Calvin’s view of submission is theocentric, which is to say, earthly submission is designed to raise our minds to God. To express this idea, Calvin makes use of the Platonic idea of ascent. If, therefore, earthly authorities attempt to compel Christians to stray from that path, at that point they must be disregarded:
Therefore the submission yielded to them should be a step in our ascent to the Supreme Parent, and hence, if they instigate us to transgress the law, they deserve not to be regarded as parents, but as strangers attempting to seduce us from obedience to our true Father. The same holds in the case of rulers, masters, and superiors of every description. For it were unbecoming and absurd that the honour of God should be impaired by their exaltation—an exaltation which, being derived from him, ought to lead us up to him.
Here we can see that the fifth commandment, whose principle Protestants in the sixteenth century generally took as the basis for social order, must ultimately be interpreted through the lens of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The natural ethic of authority and obedience cannot, in sum, be severed from its divine grounding in the Godhead and the relation of man to his divine governor.
E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.