The Reformation of the Decalogue

Religious Identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c 1485-1625

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Jonathan Willis
Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     404 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Reformation of the Decalogue: Religious Identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c. 1485-1625, Jonathan Willis’ study of the Ten Commandments in early modern England, is a fascinating and enthusiastically written analysis of the way this short scriptural passage served as a catalyst for reform. Willis states that his work “is not a book of ten chapters, with each providing a comprehensive discussion of the themes associated with a particular commandment. That would require not ten chapters, but ten books, or ten times ten books, even to scratch the surface” (11). As an opening statement on the topic, he seeks to make two initial arguments. First, “that the reformation changed the Decalogue in profound ways; that it repurposed—indeed reinvented—the Ten Commandments as they had been commonly understood in the pre-reformation Catholic Church.” Second, that “the Ten Commandments not only reflected but also helped to shape the development of the reformation in England in a series of nuanced but significant ways” (5-6). Willis suggests that there is a reciprocal relationship between the elevation of the Ten Commandments over the Roman Catholic cardinal sins, which shaped the English Reformation and thus, influences interpretation of the commandments.

This book is structured around the threefold offices of the law: civil, evangelical, and practical. Individual chapters center on specific topics, and begin by providing some ideological context before handling one of the Ten Commandments as well as its attendant practical implications. The first chapter on law functions as an introduction to the themes and verbiage of the study, providing a framework for comprehension. It begins with a broad consideration of the Ten Commandments as law. This revolves around the question of the applicability of the Decalogue upon Christians, support for which is found simply in the claim of divine origins. Willis then finds something interesting in what is often depicted as a mundane argument about numbering the Commandments. The Reformed identification of the second commandment as a prohibition against idolatry “accelerated the Reformed drive against idolatrous forms of worship” and the broadening of the tenth to all forms of coveting “enshrined in (divine) law what would become known as the theological principle of the total depravity of mankind” (33-34). This is foreground for an examination of the second commandment which documents the conversation over the extent and expectations placed upon one by this commandment. Willis next moves to discuss interpretations of the blessings and curses that extend from obedience, or neglect, of the Decalogue. The chapter concludes by quickly canvassing opinions on the meaning of the third commandment prohibiting taking the Lord’s name in vain.

As Willis generally follows the same template in every chapter, the foregoing gives a sense of his methodology. There is more content here than can possibly be surveyed in a review, but some sense of the information is necessary. Chapter 2 covers the notion of order, connecting the idea of parental honor from the fifth commandment with respect due to—and responsibility of—the monarchs as national parental figures. Chapter 3 places the sixth commandment within the construct of the Reformed first use of the law to demonstrate the depth of human depravity through the redefinition of “kill” to include a vast array of activities. Chapter 4 nests the first commandment within a larger discussion of faith, and the relationship between the law and the gospel. Chapter 5 introduces the notorious problem of defining Puritanism, vis-à-vis the rest of the Church of England through the contemporary charge of legalism, by using the interpretation of the fourth commandment—to keep the Sabbath—as a case study for the puritan program of societal reform. The final chapter is arguably the most interesting as it examines the enculturation of the Ten Commandments into liturgy, and the incorporation of command boards into church architecture. Willis appears most authoritative in his account of the material culture that develops out of a preoccupation with the Decalogue. The chapter has a brief excursus on the eighth commandment, which seems oddly out of place as there is nothing to speak of in terms of a transition into the topic. Willis ultimately concludes that the “period of religious change between c. 1485 and c. 1625 therefore witnessed a reformation of the Decalogue in two senses: the reformation changed the Decalogue radically, almost to the point where it was unrecognisable; and the Decalogue helped to shape the reformation, in ways that were more subtle but no less significant over the longer term” (352).

There are some interesting nuggets in Willis’ work, but there are also some areas of critique. The subtitle promises a discussion of religious identity, but this does not materialize. Lutherans are invited into the dialogue, and points of continuity with Catholics are identified sporadically. Occasionally, distinctions are drawn between puritans and conformists, but the overarching thematic method obscures differences—a criticism he anticipates (13-14). Since the reader never gets a strong sense of how others interpreted the Decalogue, there is not enough here to distinguish how the English reinterpreted it. 

This is symptomatic of a tendency to shy away from theology. The secondary sources in the bibliography are largely drawn from social historians of religion. Willis lays the charge of invention at the feet of the pastors and theologians, a charge they would deny, but there is no formal study of hermeneutics to show why they might be guilty. Nor is there a consideration of theological genre. A lot of Willis’ primary sources are drawn from catechisms, not scriptural commentaries. That difference helps to explain some of the broadening of the commandments, as writers try to give practical advice about how to live. A more meaningful engagement with historical theologians would likely round out Willis’ work.

Reading The Reformation of the Decalogue feels as if most of the pieces to a puzzle have been provided— allowing the reader to ascertain part of the picture—but there are pieces missing. One can only hope that Willis will return to write one of those aforementioned “ten times ten books,” and provide us with a clearer picture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David M. Barbee is Assistant Professor of Christian Thought at Winebrunner Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Willis is a Reformation historian and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. He is author of Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England (2010); editor of Sin and Salvation in Reformation England (2015); and co-editor of Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (2015) and Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources (2016). He is also Director of the University of Birmingham's Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies.


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