The Ten Commandments, Part 1: 1–5


On Moral Formation

Maximus the Confessor, Two Hundred Chapters on Theology 2.71

Christ indwells his commandments

God the Word of God the Father mystically indwells each of his own commandments; and God the Father is whole and undivided in his own whole Word by nature. He, therefore, who receives a divine commandment and does it, receives the Word of God in it. And he who has received the Word through commandments, through him has simultaneously received the Father who is in him by nature, and has simultaneously received the Spirit who is by nature in him. For truly, it says, I tell you, he who receives him whom I will send, receives me; and he who receives me, receives him who has sent me (John 13:20). In consequence, he who has received a commandment and has done it, by having received, has mystically the Holy Trinity. (Trans. Salés, PPS 53:155).


The First Commandment: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.


Origen, Against Celsus 5.37

Natural Law and Civic Law — When worship of false gods prevents obeying civil laws 

There are, then, generally two laws presented to us—the law of nature, of which God is the legislator, and the the written law of cities. When the written law does not oppose God’s law, citizens should not abandon it under pretext of foreign customs. But when the law of nature, that is, the law of God, commands what is opposed to the written law, reason tell us to bid farewell to the written code and the desire of its legislators. Instead, we are to give ourselves up to the legislator God, and to choose a life agreeable to his word, even if in doing so it is necessary to encounter dangers, countless labors, and even death and dishonor. For when civic laws oppose the laws in harmony will of God, it becomes no longer possible in practice to please God (and those who administer his laws). In such cases, it would be absurd to disdain those acts that are pleasing to the Creator of all things and instead choose to live by those laws that displease God—even though we may satisfy those unholy laws and those who love them.

But since it is reasonable in other matters to prefer the law of nature, which is the law of God, before the written law, which has been enacted by men in a spirit of opposition to the law of God, why should we not do this still more in the case of those laws which relate to God? Neither shall we, like the Ethiopians who inhabit the parts about Meroe, worship, as is their pleasure, Jupiter and Bacchus only; nor shall we at all reverence Ethiopian gods in the Ethiopian manner; nor, like the Arabians, shall we regard Urania and Bacchus alone as divinities; nor in any degree at all deities in which the difference of sex has been a ground of distinction (as among the Arabians, who worship Urania as a female, and Bacchus as a male deity); nor shall we, like all the Egyptians, regard Osiris and Isis as gods; nor shall we enumerate Athena among these, as the Saïtes are pleased to do. And if to the ancient inhabitants of Naucratis it seemed good to worship other divinities, while their modern descendants have begun quite recently to pay reverence to Serapis, who never was a god at all, we shall not on that account assert that a new being who was not formerly a god, nor at all known to men, is a deity. For the Son of God, the first-born of all creation, although he seemed recently to have become incarnate, is not by any means on that account recent. For the holy Scriptures know him to be the most ancient of all the works of creation; for it was to him that God said regarding the creation of man, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness

Augustine, On Christian Teaching 1.3.3–5.5, 35.39

Use and Enjoyment

 3.3. Some things, then, are to be enjoyed, and others are to be used, and still others that are to be enjoyed and used. Things to be enjoyed are what makes us truly happy. Things that are to be used assist and support us, so to speak, in our efforts to attain happiness, so that we can attain those things that make us happy and rest in them. We ourselves both enjoy and use things, since we are placed among both kinds of objects. So if we try to enjoy those things that we are supposed to use, we will be hindered in our journey, and sometimes even led away from it. Becoming entangled in the love of lower gratifications, we lag behind in, or even altogether turn back from, the pursuit of the real and proper objects of enjoyment.

4.4. For to enjoy (frui) a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use something (uti), on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain one’s desires— if, in fact, it is a proper object of desire. (A wrong use ought to be called an abuse rather than a use.)

Suppose, then, we were sojourners in a foreign country, and could not live blessedly away from our fatherland. Feeling wretched in our wandering, and wishing to put an end to our misery, we would be determined to return home. We would need to make use of some mode of transport, either by land or water, in order to reach that fatherland where our enjoyment is to begin. But suppose the beauty of the country through which we passed and the pleasures we found along the way charmed our hearts. We would turn those things that we ought to be using into objects of enjoyment, and we would become unwilling to hasten the end of our journey. Becoming engrossed in an artificial delight, our thoughts would be diverted from that home whose delights would make us truly happy.

Such is a picture of our condition in this life of mortality. We have wandered far from God. And if we wish to return to our Father’s home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, so that the invisible things of God may be clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made (Rom. 1:20)—that is, so that by means of what is material and temporary we may attain to that which is spiritual and eternal. 5.5. Now the true objects of enjoyment are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are at the same time the Trinity, one Being, supreme above all, and common to all who enjoy Him, if He is an object, and not rather the cause of all objects, or indeed even if He is the cause of all.

35.39. The fulfillment and the end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is the love of an object that is to be enjoyed, and the love of an object that can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves. For there is no need of a command that each man should love himself. The whole temporal dispensation for our salvation, therefore, was framed by the providence of God that we might know this truth and be able to act upon it; and we ought to use that dispensation, not with such love and delight as if it were a good to rest in, but instead with a transient feeling, such as we have towards the road, or carriages, or other things that are merely means.



The Second Commandment: Against Idolatry

Athenagoras, Plea for Christians 15

Because the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them—are we to come and worship images? If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove from one another— as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art—why are we called to account?

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 4 

Idols are without senses, less than even animals

Senseless wood, stone, and rich gold care nothing for savory odors, or blood, or smoke. They turn black when they are honored and fumigated. They receive neither honor or insult. These images are more worthless than any animal. I am at a loss to conceive how objects devoid of sense were deified. I feel compelled to pity as miserable wretches those that wander in the mazes of this folly.

For some living creatures, such as worms and caterpillars, do not have all their senses. Other animals, such as moles and the shrew-mouse (which Nicander says is blind and uncouth), are born with an imperfect use of their senses. Yet these are still superior to those utterly senseless idols and images. For they that have at least one sense—say, for example, hearing, or touching, or something analogous to smell or taste. But images possess not even one sense. There are many creatures that have neither sight, nor hearing, nor speech—such as that kind of oyster that lives and grow, and are affected by the changes of the moon. But images—motionless, inert, and senseless—are bound, nailed, glued; they are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved.

The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it. The makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view, earth and art, which go to make up images. For, in truth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone—God, who alone is truly God.

Tertullian, On Idolatry 1, 4

The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. . .

God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshipped. In so far as the making what may be worshipped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition. For this cause—the eradicating, namely, of the material of idolatry—the divine law proclaims, Thou shall make no idol. . . . All things, therefore, does human error worship, except the Founder of all Himself. The images of those things are idols; the consecration of the images is idolatry.

Origen, Against Celsus 7.64

Christians and Jews have regard to this command, You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve Him alone; and this other, You shall have no other gods before Me: you shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them; and again, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve. It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God.

John of Damascus, Three Treatises on The Divine Images

On why it is permissible to depict Christ in icons

1.4. I venerate one God, one divinity, but also I worship a trinity of persons, God the Father and God the Son incarnate and God the Holy Spirit, one God. I do not venerate the creation instead of the creator, but I venerate the Creator, created for my sake, who came down to his creation without being lowered or weakened, that he might glorify my nature and bring about communion with the divine nature. I venerate together with the King and God the purple robe of his body, not as a garment, not as a fourth person (God forbid!), but as called to be and to have become unchangeably equal to God, and the source of anointing. For the nature of the flesh did not become divinity, but as the Word became flesh immutably, remaining what it was, so also the flesh became the Word without losing what it was, being rather made equal to the Word hypostatically. Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in our flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh. For if it is impossible to depict the soul, how much more God, who gives the soul its immateriality?

The reasons for Old Testament prohibitions against idolatry

1.6. The single of purpose of [the Old Testament prohibitions of idolatry, cf. Deut. 4:12–19] is that one should not worship, or offer veneration of worship, to creation instead of the Creator, but only to the one who fashioned all. Therefore everywhere it concerns worship by veneration. . . .

1.7. It was on account of idolatry that he prohibited the fashioning of images, and that it is impossible to depict God who is incommensurable and uncircumscribable and invisible. For, it says, you have not seen his form (John 5:37), just as also Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said, Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation of human art and imagination (Acts 17:29).

The Incarnational logic of Iconography

1.8. It was, therefore, for the Jews, on account of their sliding into idolatry, that these things were ordained by the law. To speak theologically, however, we, to whom it has been granted, fleeing superstitious error, to come to be purely with God, and having recognized the truth, to worship God alone and be greatly enriched with the perfection of the knowledge of God, and who, passing beyond childhood to reach maturity, are no longer under a custodian, have received the habit of discrimination from God and how what can be depicted and what cannot be delineated in an image. . . .

What wisdom the legislator [i.e., Moses, the law-giver] has! How could the invisible be depicted? How could the unimaginable be portrayed? . . . For it is clear that when you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen. When one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, then depict him on a board and set up to view the One who was accepted to be seen. Depict his ineffable descent, his birth from teh Virgin, his being baptized in the Jordan, his transfiguration on Tabor, what he endured to secure our freedom from passion, the miracles, symbols of divine nature, performed by the divine activity through the activity of the flesh, the saving cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the ascent into heaven. Depict all these in words and in colors. Do not be afraid; do not fear!

2.10. The holy Fathers destroyed the sacred places and temples of the demons and in their place raised up temples in the name of the saints, and we reverence them, so they destroyed the images of the demons and instead of them put up images of Christ and the Mother of God and the saints. And of old, Israel neither set up temples in the name of human beings nor celebrated the memorial of any human—for human nature was still under the curse and death was condemnation, therefore they were enjoined that even the body of someone dead was to be reckoned unclean, and also anyone who touched it—but now, since the divinity has been united to our nature, as a kind of lifegiving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and its very elements changed (metastoicheioō) into incorruption. Therefore the death of the saints is celebrated and temples raised for them and images engraved.

The Pedagogy of Icons

2.23. See that the law and everything done in accordance with it, as well as our worship, are holy things made by hand that lead us through matter to the immaterial God, and that the law and everything done in accordance with it was a kind of shadow of the image to come, that is, of our worship, and that our worship is an image of the good things to come, the realities themselves, that is Jerusalem above, immaterial and not made by hand, as the same divine apostle says (Heb. 13:14; Heb. 11:10). . . . Everything in accordance with the law, and everything in accordance with our worship, happened for its sake. (Trans. Louth, 21–24, 67, 77–8)


The Third Commandment: Do not take the Lord’s Name in Vain


The Fourth Commandment: Keep the Sabbath Holy

Augustine, Letter 55

The Sabbath is a figure of Sanctification and Eternal Rest

10.18. The seventh day was appointed to the Jewish nation as a day to be observed by rest of the body. In this way, it might serve as a figure of sanctification to which men attain through rest in the Holy Spirit. We do not read in Genesis of any other day being sanctified; only of the Sabbath was it said that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Gen. 2:3). . . .

10.19. Because, therefore, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us (Rom. 5:5), sanctification was associated with the seventh day, the day in which rest was enjoined. We are not able to do any good work, except as helped by the gift of God—as the apostle says, For it is God that works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). Even after engaging in all the good works that occupy us in this life are we able to rest unless we are sanctified and perfected by the same gift to eternity. For this reason it is said of God himself, that when he had made all things very good, he rested on the seventh day from all his works that he had made. In so doing, he presented a figure of that future rest that he planned to bestow upon us after our good works are done. For just as, when we do good works, he is said to work in us—because it is his gift by which we are enabled to do what is good—so also in our rest, he is said to rest by whose gift we rest.

The Fourth Commandment is the only commandment to be taken figurally

12.22. It is also for this reason that, of all the Ten Commandments, that which related to the Sabbath was the only one in which the thing commanded was figural. The bodily rest commanded was a type that we have received as a means of our instruction, not as a duty binding also upon us. In the Sabbath, a figure is presented of spiritual rest, about which it is said in the Psalms, Be still, and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10), and unto which men are invited by the Lord himself in the words, Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: so shall you find rest unto your souls (Matthew 11:28–29). Everything else that was commanded in the other commandments we are to yield to in obedience—these are not to be understood in a figural way. We have been taught literally not to worship idols, not to take God’s name in vain, to honor our father and mother, not to commit adultery, or kill, steal, bear false witness, or covet our neighbor’s wife anything else that is our neighbor’s (Ex. 20:1–17; Deut. 5:6–21). All of these are devoid of figural or mystical meaning and are to be observed literally. But we are not commanded to observe the day of the Sabbath literally by resting from bodily labor, as it is observed by the Jews. Even their observance of the rest as prescribed is to be deemed worthy of contempt, except as signifying another, namely, spiritual rest. From this we may reasonably conclude that all those things that are figuratively set forth in Scripture are powerful in stimulating that love by which we tend towards rest. For the only figurative or typical precept in the Decalogue is this one in which that rest is commended to us, which is desired everywhere, but is found sure and sacred in God alone.

13.23. We are not ordered to keep the sabbath day by a literal corporal abstinence from work, as the Jews observe it—and, indeed, that observance of theirs, because it is so commanded, is considered ludicrous unless it signifies some other spiritual rest. From this we understand that all the truths that are expressed figuratively in the Scriptures are appropriately designed to arouse love. By love we attain to rest. The only commandment that is given figuratively is the one by which rest is enjoined. Rest is universally loved but found pure and entire in God alone.

However, the Lord’s day was not made known to Jews but to Christians by the resurrection of the Lord, and from that event it began to acquire its solemnity. Doubtless the souls of all the saints prior to the resurrection of the body enjoy repose, but they do not possess that activity which gives power to risen bodies.

Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 100.4.33

The Sabbath signifies freedom and repose of the heart

“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.” In this . . . commandment is suggested a certain idea of freedom, a repose of the heart or tranquility of the mind which a good conscience effects. Indeed, sanctification is there because the Spirit of God dwells there. Now look at the freedom or repose; our Lord says, Upon whom shall I rest but upon the man who is humble and peaceable, and who trembles at my words? (Is. 66:2). Therefore, restless souls turn away from the Holy Ghost. Lovers of strife, authors of calumnies, devotees of quarrels rather than of charity, by their uneasiness they do not admit to themselves the repose of a spiritual sabbath. Men do not observe a spiritual sabbath unless they devote themselves to earthly occupations so moderately that they still engage in reading and prayer, at least frequently, if not always. As that apostle says, Be diligent in reading and in teaching (1 Tim. 4:13), and again, Pray without ceasing (1 Tim. 5:17). Men of this kind honor the sabbath in a spiritual manner.


The Fifth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Mother