Blog Articles

NOTE: The content below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.
The Ten Commandments: Given by God?

The Ten Commandments: Given by God?

From Editor: This article by Professor Pierre Berthoud (France) is a chapter in the upcoming WRF/WEA book on The Decalogue and is posted here in its entirety. In the chapter, Prof. Berthoud offers a very important reflection about the nature and origin of the Commandments. He masterfully shows how they are "an amazing and challenging invitation to reconsider and practice, within a dismantled and broken world that has lost its bearings, the “law of Christ” as fully manifested and accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth!"

    How do we know that the Ten Commandments as we have them in the Pentateuch were actually given to us by God? This is an important question not only for the Ten Commandments but also for the Bible as a whole considered as the Word of God. To express it differently, how do we know that we do not live in a silent universe, that we are not alone, and that we are not left to fend for ourselves as many of our contemporaries, at least in the West, are convinced?[1] Within such a mindset, at best God is considered to be a psychological crutch or a figment of one’s imagination, which may help some to cope with the tribulations of life, but in fact, He is irrelevant to the tragic condition of human existence. As to the expression “Thus says the Lord,” used to communicate purported divine revelation, many understand it as a mere stylistic device to enhance a literary piece and to give authority to a human discourse.

     As for those who acknowledge the existence of God, can one know His character, and does divine communication as expressed in the categories of human language exist? Or must the believer be content with a mystical union that is beyond the scope of reason since it belongs to the realm of faith? Such a viewpoint, implying a divided field of knowledge, leaves the believer with a subjective and immanent experience of God which at best sheds light on his private life and conduct.

     If we take the Ten Commandments seriously, they are meant to speak to the individual disciple as he seeks to walk with the Lord and to honor Him in this life, but they are also guidelines for the church, for the body of Christ, and even for civil society! A study of church history would show the extent of the influence of the Ten Commandments on the ethical private and public conduct of Christians over the centuries.

     For example, in a Protestant Reformed Church in Lourmarin just 30 km from Aix-en-Provence, where we live in the south of France, on the inner front wall of the church on both sides of the pulpit, the two tables of the law are represented, inviting the Christian congregation to consider carefully the Ten Words of God as they relate to both the believer’s and the church’s lives.

     Another example is a monument in Aix-en-Provence. Joseph Sec, a local inhabitant, had a most intriguing monument built that he dedicated to the municipality of the city, observer of the law. This happened in 1792, just a few years after the French Revolution; but in the midst of the growing impact of humanism, the Christian mindset still had a major influence on society. The transcendent Word of God had not yet been relegated to the private sphere of human experience!  As one considers the façade of the monument, the reference is clearly to the Ten Commandments. The statue of Moses holding the tablets of the law in his hands is in the center of the frontage, and in the midst of different figures and symbols reflecting the cultural influence of both the biblical and Greco-Roman worlds, one can read the following inscriptions:


Come inhabitants of the earth/nations, listen to the law.

You will love the Lord your God and your neighbor.

Having escaped from cruel slavery

I have no other master but myself,

But of my freedom I want to make use,

To only obey the law.

Faithful observer of these admirable laws,

that a God himself deigned to dictate to us,

every day in my eyes they are more amiable,

and I would rather die than deviate from them.


These are amazing statements, for they imply a biblical worldview: the existence of a personal God who communicates His word of truth; an autonomous creature who is nevertheless accountable to the Lord, entailing both form and freedom; the love of God and His word of life calling for commitment and self-sacrifice. It is as if Sec were saying to the governing body of Aix-en-Provence, “If you want loyalty, justice, well-being, and peace to flourish in the city, you must draw from the wisdom of these Ten Words!” 

     More than 200 years later in our ultramodern, secular, and pagan cultural environment, the Christian influence on civil society has largely disappeared. Nevertheless, our generation still holds to some of the core values inherited from its Christian heritage, ideals such as truth, justice, freedom, beauty, and love. But being severed from their supernatural worldview and unrelated to one another, these values are reinterpreted within a purely horizontal perspective and thus significantly distorted. What the Catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton said at the beginning of the twentieth century is even truer within our present cultural climate: “The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad.”[2]  The new generations do not even have the memory of the past Christian consensus!  We thus need to win back lost ground and to reverse the course of history in order to allow the The Magna Carta of Humanity[3] to contribute to the restoration of civil society, conducive to more peaceful living together. To allow this to happen, we need to know that the Ten Commandments are indeed a divine communication that continues to shed light on the tragic condition and plight of our contemporaries and to offer them a way to happiness and genuine freedom within the covenant relationship.

     In the following sections of this paper, we will address the questions of being, revelation, and knowledge as we seek to argue that the Bible and specifically the Ten Words were indeed given by the Lord.


A. The question of being

     In contemporary thought one usually postulates the existence of being rather than of non-being. Thus, for example, the display of stained-glass windows, devoted to the theme of Genesis, which took place some years ago in Aix-en-Provence. On the poster for the exhibition, inspired by one of the works of Dominique Masset entitled “Preamble to Genesis,” one could read this most significant question: “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” Such a query invites us to consider the “why” of this something or the origins of this reality and its significance. This question brings to mind Paul Gauguin’s famous (last) painting entitled “What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”[4] The artist’s questions relate to the origin, the meaning, and the finality of human destiny and existence.


If something exists, what is its nature?

     We will begin by exploring some aspects of the present discussion, both theological and scientific. Historically, the different stages of this debate are connected to the advent of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and to its impact on natural sciences, thus leading science to become, in due course, an end in itself. Such an influence gradually gave birth to a science cloaked in a modernist dress. Having become captive to different rationalistic philosophies, the sciences were then used to undermine the biblical and classical Christian view of creation. As a matter of fact, from Copernicus until the advent of Marxist materialist ideology, through Darwin and Freud, those two worldviews, “scientific” and “religious” (Christian), developed side by side without much contact with one another. In the Christian community, without denying the existence of a Creator and the doctrine of creation, the tendency has been, to various degrees, to recognize and to accept the “scientific” explanation of the origin of the universe and of man. As a consequence, the church and Christians have placed the emphasis progressively on redemption to the detriment of creation.

As time went by, it became evident that it was inappropriate to speak about redemption without bringing creation into the picture. But renewed interest in this doctrine carefully avoided the questions related to origins. It was thus argued that the biblical narratives of creation purposed to shed light on the fragile human existence. Human life unfolds in a dangerous and hostile environment. In light of this dramatic threat, the stories of creation appease, comfort, and reassure, but they only have existential value. They fulfill a threefold purpose, doxological, polemical, and soteriological; creation texts invite the believer to praise the unique God, to reject idols, and to welcome salvation offered by the Lord, but without specific truth claims about God or the universe.[5]

However, to confess the Creator God is only significant if the biblical perspective is intellectually true, tenable, and trustworthy. The answer that we bring to the question of being necessarily bears upon that of meaning and purpose. Is belief in the Creator and in creation only the product of my imagination, of my philosophical-religious perspective, or is such a belief based on the fact that God has really taken the initiative to create the universe and that this work is of an objective nature? To be sure, the first chapters of Genesis are not to be compared to a scientific treatise as defined today, but when the biblical narrative bears witness to the intervention of God in the realm of reality and history, we can expect it to speak in truth. God is also the Lord of science. If questions with regard to origins still fascinate our contemporaries, it is no doubt because they make up the DNA of our identity as men and women who live in the midst of this world. The question of origins is indeed linked to that of the finality of the human being!

 The astrophysicists’ pertinence

     While much of contemporary theology of creation eludes the question of the origin of being, curiously, astrophysicists have made a significant contribution to the debate. Their discoveries have led them to reconsider the question of being and of the origin of the universe. They have had to face the challenge of the zero moment of the universe with all its implications. Thus, to postulate that the universe has a beginning introduces the Creator God at the center of the debate from which scientists thought He had been definitely excluded!

     Anglo-Saxons call the zero moment of our universe the Big Bang in the hypothesis that this universe would be in constant expansion.[6]  Trinh Xuan Thuan argues:

Recent discoveries of cosmology have shed a new light on the most fundamental and oldest of questions. And it matters that any serious reflection on the existence of God take this new evidence into account. After all, the questions asked by the cosmologist are strikingly close to those that concern the theologian: how was the universe created? Is there a beginning to time and space? Will the universe have an end? Where does it come from and where is it going? The sphere of God is that of mystery and of the invisible, that of the infinitely small and of the infinitely large. This sphere no longer belongs exclusively to the theologian; it also belongs to the scientists; science is there; it adds up discoveries and disrupts preconceptions. The theologian has no right to remain indifferent.[7]

      But neither should astrophysicists sidestep the question of God, as many do. Indeed, the ultimate issue is not the encounter between God and modern cosmology but the Davidic acknowledgment that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). In fact, this is what Robert Jastrow does in his own way when he states, not without humor:

The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation. . . .It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement or another theory; at the moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[8]

      While many modern theologians have sought to avoid the obstacle embodied by the question of origins, astrophysicists, confronted by scientific evidence witnessing to the beginning of the universe, have been led to reconsider the question of the existence of God and have gone as far as to challenge theologians to take part in the examination and study of the fundamentals of reality and its bearings on creation. It is important to recognize, though, that these scientists remain somewhat vague as to the nature of this being.[9] But to meet such a challenge is to consider as possible the correspondence between this ultimate being and reality as it stands before us and to seek to understand it. It also suggests a potential link between the issue of the finality and meaning of life and the existence of this infinite Being. Could it be that divine revelation is one link and that its various complementary components shed light on the world that we behold?


Two options

     There are two main options open to a number of variations in answer to the question of being. On the one hand, the materialistic and humanistic worldview of many of our contemporaries leads them to postulate that ultimate reality is infinite and impersonal and is primarily defined in terms of matter and energy. This conception is also inherent to Hinduism, which is in many ways akin to pantheism. But how can such a perspective account for the complexity of the universe overflowing with intelligence and for the unique character of man qualitatively distinct from other living creatures, the unique character of the human creature within the realm of creation? The despair expressed by Gauguin's masterful painting hints at the gap between such a philosophical outlook and reality. On such a humanist basis, he could not find the universal that would have given him the key to the finality of human existence and opened the door of genuine meaning and serenity.

     On the other hand, the biblical perspective postulates that the ultimate reality is the infinite and personal Being. This is the starting point of all philosophy and of the system of moral values based on the divine character and thought as revealed in Scripture. Such a global outlook offers an answer to the question of origins which takes into account the unity and diversity of reality and highlights the dignity of human beings since they are created in the image of God. No doubt there is an infinite distance between the Creator and the creature; however, like God, man is a personal being. Gifted with intelligence and creativity, he is a free and responsible being with a moral conscience. He thinks and communicates, loves faithfully and is loyal, and possesses an entrepreneurial drive and a creative spirit. This daring comparison allows biblical writers to use anthropomorphisms as metaphors to speak of God and to conceive of Him in terms of the image of man. It is precisely the mystery of the Trinity that makes it possible to emphasize the personal character of God and to conceive of an intimate relationship with Him in which communication, communion, and love are the essential components. It takes into account the unity and the diversity within the Godhead, of reality as well as of cultures, and highlights a unique anthropological concept in its psychological, social, and cultural aspects. By rejecting this doctrine, Islam, Judaism, and deism accentuate the oneness of God and thus His transcendence and majesty to the detriment of His personal character, with, as a consequence, the weakening of the personal character of human beings.

     Blaise Pascal provides a good summary of the point we are making when he says in his Pensées:

     God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the 

     learned. Certitude, certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God

     and your God. Your God will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of

     everything, except God.[10]


     Since the universe is not an extension of divinity and divinity is not to be confused with the energy of the universe, God, the infinite, living, and personal Being, took the initiative to create all things ex nihilo by the sole power of His word![11] This key notion is expressed in the first chapter of Genesis. The verb “to create” (bārā), used only with God as subject, describes a unique creative activity.[12] The Hebrew root is used three times: in relation to the creation of the universe, of aquatic and flying beings, and of the human being: man and woman (Genesis 1:1-2, 20-21, 27-28). God’s specific intervention is apparent in the realms of physics, biology, and anthropology. Consequently, the answer given to the question of being bears on the way the universe and the destiny of man on earth are understood.


B. A silent God?

     Thus far we have argued that the infinite and personal God is the most appropriate and relevant answer to the question of being insofar as it accounts for the complexity of the universe overflowing with intelligence, as well as for the uniqueness of the human being and his mandate in the midst of the created environment. Thus, our basic presupposition is that God has not remained silent! He has chosen to communicate. Such a communication is of crucial importance, for it indicates that the infinite and personal God is truly capable of conveying His thoughts and design according to the categories and words of human language so that His image bearers can truly understand Him. This is what we call divine revelation; it is personal and varied and reflects the character of God while shedding light on all of reality. Indeed, this notion is but a shallow formula, and even meaningless, if it does not convey a message which finds its origin in an existing Being, the infinite and personal God. We will now consider the nature of such a revelation as given to mankind in both creation and the Scriptures, which are complementary.


The living God reveals Himself in creation.

     This living God took the initiative to create all things, including human beings, by the power of His word alone. Creation therefore has its own existence, while depending on God, and is subject to His providence. Such an outlook makes it possible to distinguish between the first cause and secondary causes. Though nothing escapes the sovereign will of God, everything "proceeds according to the rules which govern causalities within the created domain."[13] From its very beginning, the Bible affirms the non-autonomy of the whole of creation. Human beings live in the world of God, and the whole of reality invites the creature to turn his gaze toward his ultimate Vis-à-vis (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:19-20). The analogy between a work of art and creation is age-old. We find it, for example, in a beautiful passage from the book The Wisdom of   Solomon, in which the author engages in a controversy with idolatry and the deification of the elements of nature: “Foolish by nature were all who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing the one who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan;” (Wisdom 13:1).[14] The same thought is expressed by the apostle Paul when he writes: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). Thus God, who is totally other and yet so close, in disclosing Himself in creation, invites His creatures to seek Him (Acts 17:25-28). This implies that without an infinite reference point, man cannot give lasting meaning to his existence. When the human creature stops believing in God, he does not believe in nothing, but he believes in something else. Saint Augustine makes a similar point in a prayer he addresses to God: "You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”.[15] By revealing Himself in this way, the Lord of the universe and of history reminds man that he is a responsible party vis-à-vis God. He is therefore inexcusable, since he cannot appeal to his being ignorant (Romans 1:20b-21).  


The saving God reveals Himself in the Word.

     However, due to the creature’s state of sin, this revelation is insufficient to overcome the rupture in his relationship with the Creator. The human creature is in need of a special divine revelation in order to clearly position himself in the universe, to understand his dilemma, and to give meaning to his existence. The passages just mentioned above, with their emphasis on the folly, anxiety, and wickedness of man, testify to the plight inherent in the human condition ever since the first couple’s rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden. In this regard, the diagnosis of Ecclesiastes is relevant: ". . .God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Another translation reads, “. . .but man invents endless inventions of his own” (New English Bible). In other words, human created beings have pursued their own thoughts and plans and have thus emancipated themselves from the wisdom of God. Sin consists in choosing to be one’s own finality, the measure of all things, whereas the chief end of mankind is to take on his destiny before the Creator. The dilemma of man is therefore not metaphysical, and evil is not intrinsic to his being. If that were the case, he would be excusable, since there is no way to overcome such a fate! According to the Genesis narrative of the Fall, the dilemma of man is moral and thus “proceeds from the subsequent historical use of human freedom” (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-21).[16]  As a consequence, the responsibility of human creatures is involved, implying that true guilt is at the very heart of his existence. But it also means that the human being is not the prisoner of his fate, and there is thus hope for a solution. Since sin is incompatible with the holiness of God (Isaiah 6:5) and its destructive influence touches all aspects of human life, both private and public, man can in no way offer an answer to this dilemma. As a consequence, without a specific divine intervention in the realms of knowledge and existence, there is no true, decisive, and lasting outcome:

      – In the sphere of knowledge, in order to reverse the harmful impact of sin, God uses the word of truth. The darkened intelligence of man is in need of divine communication in order to establish a diagnosis, induce a change of mentality, and identify a cure.

     – In the sphere of existence, in order to remedy the disastrous consequences of a lifestyle that is in opposition to His Wisdom-Law, the Lord favors the transforming word of redemption. His grace and compassion procure a cure to a wounded and bleeding heart.  

     More than a collection of testimonies, the Scriptures are the disclosure, in word and in deed, of divine wisdom and salvation destined to ailing men and women. This revelation, which God chose to unveil progressively, was fully manifested in Jesus Christ, "the Lamb of God, who takes away sin of the world” (John 1:29). Indeed, Jesus Himself said during His ministry on earth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). It is thus by the grace of the Lord and the illumination of the Holy Spirit that we can know and be reconciled to our heavenly Father. The church, the community of the covenant, continues to receive the joyful mandate to proclaim both the written and incarnate word at the crossroads and in the heart of cities. This is vitally important for our contemporaries who live under the shadow of death.


A united field of knowledge

     The object of knowledge[17] which leads to redemption is thus the revelation God has given us in creation and history as well as in Scripture. Both spheres give us information that our minds can grasp and understand. It follows that in order to come to a true understanding of such a divine communication, we must hold to a united field of knowledge.[18] But because the effects and marks of sin are so deep, the human person is also in vital need of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It follows that God is the foundation of man’s cognitive process, not only because of His work of creation, but also because of His solicitude manifested in His work of redemption in favor of the broken and lost human creature.

     When God knows man, this means that He seeks him, remembers him, chooses him, calls him, and blesses him. This divine initiative establishes the unique value and the raison d’être of the human person. The Lord graciously offers to his human vis-à-vis the knowledge that leads him to the fountain of wisdom and life. The Spirit of wisdom and power quickens the cognitive faculties of man and restores the full scope of the covenant relationship.

     As we conclude this section, we can say with Gerhardus Vos that the context of divine revelation and human understanding “is not a school but a ‘covenant’.” All that God reveals of Himself is in response to the concrete and religious needs of His creatures and people such as they appear in the course of their lives and history. This view of epistemology, which emphasizes both its personal and rational aspects, in denying philosophical autonomy, dissociates itself from the purely horizontal view of the theory of knowledge that arose with the rationalism of the Enlightenment.[19]


C. The guarantee offered by the Lord

The Bible as a unit

     We will begin by quoting a few passages of the New Testament, because for the early church, the Old Testament bore the status of Holy Scripture and was therefore the reference and norm in matters of doctrine and faith. In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul argues that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The word theopneustos literally means that the Scriptures[20] are the work of the breath of God, who has acted through the biblical authors. In the second epistle of Peter, we read: “For no prophecy was ever produced [carried] by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). It is for that reason that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation”[21] (v. 20). In His debate with His opponents, Jesus called upon the authority of Scripture, which cannot be abolished or annulled, to support His argumentation (John 10:34-35).

     However, this notion of revelation, divine communication, is also found in the Old Testament. The following examples will illustrate my point. In Exodus 4, we are told that “Aaron is the mouthpiece of the god-Moses.” The text is very clear: “. . .you shall be as God to him” (v. 16b), and “You shall. . .put the words in his mouth” (v. 15a). Aaron is literally the mouthpiece for Moses, who acts toward him as “God.” The objective character of the communication and the infallibility of the result are safeguarded since God added, “I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do” (v. 15b); God watches over His word so that it reaches its beneficiary and is understood and is effective (Exodus 4:15-16). In a neighboring passage of Exodus, Aaron is called “prophet.” He is a “prophet” because a “god” has spoken to him, that is to say, Moses. The latter is, through Aaron, “like God to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1-2). The impact of their speech on Pharaoh is related to the fact that God has communicated with both Moses and Aaron (v. 2). Such is the Lord’s answer to Moses, who is “of uncircumcised lips” (6:30) and “not eloquent” (4:10).[22] A third example is related to Jeremiah’s call to practice a tragic ministry in the midst of the people of Judah. Having heard the reluctance voiced by the young man who did not consider himself fit for such a task, the Lord “touched [the prophet’s] mouth”[23] and said: “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:5-9). The power and authority of the prophet and his message are related to the divine intervention. Without minimizing the literary dimension of these texts, they convey the idea of a divine communication that man can grasp and understand. The infinite and personal Being, whose action far surpasses our understanding, has truly, but not exhaustively, chosen to unveil and communicate His thought to us. As we stand before Him and are confronted by such a divine revelation, no one can remain indifferent. As creatures of the Creator, we are indeed all personally concerned and involved (Romans 1:18-23).[24] This fundamental starting point being clarified, we will now consider the three principles that will further help us to understand that the Bible’s message, and specifically the Ten Commandments, were actually given to us by the Lord: the objectivity, inspiration, and infallibility-reliability of the divine word.[25]  

  1. The objectivity of revelation

     What we have already suggested and just stated enables us to recognize the objective character of revelation. The Bible shows us an authentic communication of God to man (ab extra). The word which the human creature receives has an external origin. God chooses to share His thoughts and designs with His vis-à-vis, who, being in His image, can really understand what He seeks to convey to him. This act of divine communication can go as far as including the idea of dictation.[26] Thus it is feasible to imagine that a man of God was able to put in writing, under divine dictation, the message which he was expected to impart to the people or to an individual. Jeremiah dictated “. . .all the words of the Lord. . .” Baruch wrote them “. . .in a book. . .” (Jeremiah 36:4; 45:1).

     This approach, needless to say, in no way excludes a subjective and personal means of revelation. What we are referring to here is the inward activity of the Holy Spirit acting upon the depths of human consciousness and creating thoughts that, in fact, proceed from God Himself (ab intra). It is, in fact, the usual pattern of divine revelation. The Psalms offer a good example of such communication. This conception of revelation, far from weakening its objective character and divine authority, emphasizes the incarnate character of the Word and the significance of human agents in such a process. The prophet Jeremiah, as God’s spokesman, illustrates both the passive and active aspects of his prophetic ministry. A careful reading of his writings enables us to discover the profound humanity of revelation, including the literary dimension of the oracles the prophet has imparted to his contemporaries. We are also touched by all that we learn about the man, Jeremiah: his sensitivity and suffering, his faithfulness and audacity, his vulnerability and anguish, his inward battles and doubts, his amazing talent and creativity! On the basis of what we read in his writings, it is, in fact, possible to have a personal and moving appreciation of the man Jeremiah. One can think of the marvelous portrait drawn by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn or of the beautiful book written by the Jewish French author André Neher.[27] If the objective nature and the authority of revelation were mitigated, we would then have less than a divine communication. In fact, such an approach is confirmed in some trends of modern theology that limit revelation to the acts of God or consider the headings introducing the divine oracles as literary fictions and therefore devised by their authors. For instance, Old Testament scholar D. J. A. Clines suggests that we see in the expression “The Lord. . .proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6) only the words of the narrator! But R. W. L. Moberly has rightly remarked that beyond the literary aspect of the formula, the question of the reality and of the truth of the divine proclamation remains.[28] In fact, the two aspects (literary form and divine communication) need to be kept together. If the two are separated, we are then left with a narrative or a discourse that derives from human reflection upon acts of God or from an account of one’s own spiritual experience and encounter with Him. In other words, the biblical texts offer us at best a creative formulation of the theology and spirituality of their authors. This approach favors the relativizing and the questioning of the idea of divine conceptual communication. What actually remains is a discourse that finds its origin in the human being and is therefore entirely submitted to him. How are we then going to verify the divine origin of an act that purports to be revelation, or the authenticity of a mystical encounter of a believer or a prophet with the Lord? Why favor one theological tradition rather than another? It is precisely for this reason that this objective-subjective concept of divine personal communication gives the most adequate interpretation of the biblical data and enables us to receive the full value of its words, contents, and meaning, without neglecting its human and spiritual flavor as well as its formal and literary aspects.

  1. The inspiration of revelation

     In an article written in 1914, H. Gunkel, questioning the validity of Old Testament studies, attacked the doctrine of inspiration. Here is what he said: “When the Christian Church came into existence, it accepted not only the Old Testament writings, but also the doctrine that that book was a work of God, given and inspired by the Holy Spirit . . . .But biblical research which came into existence about the middle of the eighteenth century and gradually gathered strength and confidence, first challenged that view, then attacked it, and finally shook it to its foundations. . .  if it has not completely destroyed it.”[29] The author’s concern is to emphasize the literary and human riches and beauty of the biblical texts, but he begins by a radical attack on the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. At best he criticizes a doctrine that undervalues the humanity of Scripture. He even speaks of “revelation in history,” but the presuppositions that underscore his approach to the texts are hardly compatible with a high view of Scripture. In light of Gunkel’s comments, we better understand the importance of the doctrine of inspiration and the issues that are at stake,[30] in particular the question of the authority and authenticity of the Word of God.

     This approach, emphasizing the doctrine of inspiration, implies that the subject to be studied is the revelation of God Himself. We are not primarily concerned in recounting the history of beliefs and customs practiced by individuals or communities who lived in the past. Neither is it our concern to account for the theological reflections of individuals or communities on the revelatory acts of God. If that were the case, we would be pursuing a study either in the history of religions, in anthropology and in sociology, or in “historical theology” and in the religious thought of a people, Israel. Since we are dealing with the communication of the Lord’s thought and design that has been transmitted according to the categories of human language, the idea of inspiration becomes essential.  Thus God, by His authority, guarantees and confirms the truth of the object of what we read and study. This does not exclude, however, the key idea of a rational verification and of an intelligent appropriation of truth, but it enables us to stress that God’s own authority, by the means of inspiration, establishes the truth of the object of our study, the Scriptures. Let us remember that revelation encompasses both the contents expressed in the categories of human language and historical facts. Without the confirmation of inspiration, without the mark of the Lord’s authority and competency, a full conviction with regard to the truth of the divine word cannot emerge and blossom. Rather, doubt and uncertainty linger on relentlessly.


  1. The infallibility of revelation

     The recognition of the infallible and sure character of divine communication springs from the two principles we have just considered. If God is an infinite and personal Being, a conscious Being, it follows logically that, as the guarantor of the authenticity of His objective revelation, He is able to disclose to human beings a perfect expression of His character and purposes. The communication of His thought bears the marks of His divinity. If it were not so, we would have to find the reason in the fact that God is bound by the finitude of the world. This is, in fact, what H. Gunkel argued when he wrote: “The Old Testament is not the perfect revelation of the Christian view: it is only revelation taking place in history.”[31] We agree with him when he emphasizes the progressive character of revelation, but what he really implies is the imperfect and therefore fallible character of revelation linked to its historical contingencies. R. E. Murphy heads in the same direction when he upholds that “the Bible contains divine words in a garment of human words and that there are, consequently, limitations concerning the way the divine mystery can be perceived in the humanity of biblical expression.”[32] Once again, the emphasis is placed upon the fallible character of God’s revelation, since it is conditioned by its human limitations. It therefore follows that the means of expression impedes the divine communication with the world. God’s sovereignty over creation and history being limited, it follows that His revelation can only be fallible. But according to the biblical perspective, in both the Old and the New Testaments, God is in no way bound by worldly contingencies. He is supremely free in regard to His own creation and in His interaction with it, and especially with the human creature (Amos 3:7-8; Habakkuk 3:1-19). This implies, though, that we keep in mind both the idea of adaptability when we mention God’s communication with man and the analogical character of our knowledge of divine mysteries. The Lord condescends to speak to His creatures so that they can truly understand Him. His word is embodied, according to the periods of history, in different linguistic expressions, in a variety of literary forms, and in a multiplicity of cultural settings, but in so doing, God does not alter the truth and the infallibility of His own statements. God watches over and accompanies the transmission of His thought in such a way that His recipients can enjoy a just and true understanding of what He intends to communicate to them.

The Ten Commandments

What we have just said with regard to the Bible as a whole applies also to the Ten Words: the divine communication, inspiration, and perfect disclosure are the guarantee that they are indeed given by the Lord of the Covenant.  But there is a major difference in the fact that it is God Himself who addresses the people (Exodus 20:22), without the mediation of Moses,[33] though the latter is completely involved in an intensive dialogue with his divine partner and in communicating His instructions.[34] Not only does the Lord address His people, but we are told repeatedly that He has “written [the law] for their instruction” on tablets (Exodus 24:12); “he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten commandments” (Exodus 34:28);[35] “And he gave to Moses. . .the two tablets of the testimony [charter], tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).[36]  We are also told that “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16), thus underscoring “the sublime worth of the gift that Moses was to bring to the people.”[37] While recognizing the use of metaphors, the emphasis is on the Lord’s specific and direct action as He “talks from heaven” and “writes His instructions.” Umberto Cassuto summarizes this unique divine intervention very well: “Just as they [the Ten Words] were proclaimed by God, so their writing must necessarily be the writing of God, graven upon the tables (Exodus 32:16).”[38]

     This is indeed a major moment in the history of Israel and in the history of the covenant community, for it is within the setting of a theophany, the glorious and spectacular manifestation and presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai, that the Lord reveals Himself (Exodus 19-24). The fact that “the people heard his words and his voice”[39] and that His declaration was engraved on the tablets of stone prepared by Moses represented the fullest divine guarantee of the authenticity and truth of the Sinai Magna Carta (Exodus 20:1-17)!

     It is important to add that these Ten Words are designated as a ”testimony” or “witness” and thus testify to the covenant that was made between the Lord and the community of Israel. The Hebrew word ‘edouth has also been translated as “charter,”[40] suggesting that the Lord graciously initiated a constitution guaranteeing both duties and rights. But in fact, it is the word covenant that designates the personal and formal relationship the Lord chose to establish with Israel. Such a bond implies a mutual commitment between the two partners.

     Thus, the Ten Commandments, placed in the ark with the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod, testify and bear witness[41] to the ratification of this covenant (Exodus 24:1-8; 34:27), a major landmark in the history of revelation. In fact, the Ten Words are often considered to be a condensed version or the basic stipulations of the Mosaic covenant[42] that were to be of utmost significance for the history of Israel, for the Christian church, for Western civilization, and beyond. Already on the occasion of the renewal of the covenant, the Lord declared the amazing impact and extent they would have in Israel and among the nations:

“Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10).



As we come to the end of this study on the Ten Words, so masterfully encapsulated by the Lord Jesus Christ in the greatest of commandments, the love of God and of one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40), I would like to mention the beautiful work of art entitled Invitation/Decalogue created by Liviu Mocan, a Romanian artist, on the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. It was first exhibited in Geneva in 2009.

     According to Jonathan Tame, the monumental sculpture “consists of ten pillars, resembling human fingers. Set in a circle, the pillars have two sides: a smooth, well-rounded side facing inwards, creating a sense of peace and well-being within the circle.  On the other side, facing outwards, each pillar narrows to a sharp, vertical blade, expressing a somber warning.” Tame then indicates that the sculpture’s aim is to generate “encounter with God and others.” In order to do so, the statue presents “four metaphors in the form of invitations” to the visitors: “the ten fingers represent an invitation” to relationship with God and one’s neighbor; the “contrasted sides of each pillar are an invitation to ethical reflection;” as to “the space created by the circle of pillars, it is an invitation to freedom” within form; lastly, the height of the “columns is an invitation to hope.[43] What an amazing and challenging invitation to reconsider and practice, within a dismantled and broken world that has lost its bearings, the “law of Christ” as fully manifested and accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth! 



[1] Actually, this is true to a lesser and greater degree in other parts of the world. While in South Korea some years ago, I had the opportunity of entering a major bookstore in Seoul. I headed for the English section, and to my amazement, all the major works of Western authors were on display. I noted the same thing in Brazil. Secular humanism and ultramodern thought are very much alive on all the continents! 

[2] G. K Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1959/1908), 30. Chesterton remains until this day a thought-provoking and stimulating author. His insights are still helpful to understand the modern mind, though he was very critical of the Reformation, considering it one of the major roots of modernity!  

[3] Title of Os Guinness’s recently published book: The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021).

[4] Gauguin’s painting is in the Boston Art Museum (USA).

[5] We clearly see in these two paragraphs a dichotomy between the realms of the sciences and of existential experience. Cf. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (London: SPCK Press, 1984), 11; Samuel Amsler, Le secret de nos origines (Poliez-le-Grand: Editions du Moulin, 1997), 8-9. 

[6] This explanation of the origins of the universe represents an interesting, stimulating, and helpful point of contact in the present discussion and does not imply my agreement with this theory. 

[7] Trinh Xuan Thuan, La mélodie secrète (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 296-297. The author advocates the Big Bang theory and does not believe in chance and necessity, but he is careful to confine God to the realm of mystery and of the invisible. He is somewhat reluctant to draw the consequences of what he has discovered: the existence of a personal Creator. In fact, Thuan opts for the impersonal “principle of creation” and says his view corresponds largely to the pantheism of Spinoza: “Table ronde avec Trinh Xuan Thuan, Anne Dambricourt et Alexandre Jollien, ” Paris, Collège des Bernardins. Et Dieu dans tout ça? June 29, 2015. Podcast. Cf. John J. Davis, The Frontiers of Science and Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 11-36. For interesting input on the contribution of physics and mathematics to the debate, cf. I. and G. Bogdanov, La pensée de Dieu (Paris: Grasset, 2012), 9-39, 337-351. But what does the “pensée de Dieu” (the divine thought) apparent in reality refer to: The ultimate principles or absolutes, a distant divinity (deism), the infinite personal Creator?  The question remains open!

[8] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York, London: W. W. Norton, 1992 [1978]), 115-116. 

[9] Cf. Footnote 7.

[10]  Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Œuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, (Paris : Galimard, 1954), 554.

[11] For a detailed argument of this theme, cf. P. Berthoud, En quête des origines: les premières étapes de l’histoire de la révélation: Genèse 1-11 (Cléon d’Andran: Excelsis; Aix-en-Provence: Kerygma, 2008), ch 7, p. 177 ff.

[12] It is important to indicate that bārā does not usually express the idea of a creation ex nihilo. The emphasis is on the unique divine creation, whether God creates starting from nothing or from pre-existing matter.

[13] L. Jaeger, Pour une philosophie chrétienne des sciences (Cléon d’Andran: Excelsis, 2000), 59.

[14] The quotation is drawn from the New American Translation (revised edition). This verse is set within a section (verses 1 to 9) in which the author argues that the beauty and power of the created world should have directed, by analogy, the gaze and mind of the creature toward the Creator. Instead, the natural elements became the object of his attention and worship. This is the essence of folly from a biblical perspective and is the antithesis of wisdom.

[15] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Book I.i (1), 4.

[16] For a more detailed presentation of the problem of evil, cf. Berthoud, En quête, Ch. 8, Le mal, la mort et la vie, 229-276; Henri Blocher, Révélation des origines (Lausanne: PBU, 1988 [1977]), Ch. VII, La Rupture, 130-167.

[17] In the light of a careful study of the biblical evidence, it is possible to draw, in summary form, the following characteristics of the biblical concept of knowledge: 1. The doctrine of creation, specifically the Covenant of creation, forms the setting for a biblical understanding of knowledge; 2. The human process of knowledge within the realm of reality (the realm of creation) implies both integration and differentiation for the human creature; 3. This notion of knowledge is personal and implies the unity of the human nature; 4. The knowledge of the human creature is limited by both his finiteness and his rebellion. These characteristics imply a united field of knowledge including both the visible and invisible worlds and reality. This means that reason and faith, having different functions, are not opposed but complementary and work hand in hand. This is true for the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament Greek as well as the common usage as found in Classical Greek. The differences between the Greek and Hebrew concepts of knowledge have too often been overstated. The divergences are attested essentially in the philosophical writings. I have further developed these different aspects of epistemology in an article, “L’autorité et l’interprétation de l’Ancien Testament,” La Revue Réformée N° 135 (1983): 1-10. 

[18] With regard to Greek epistemology, one of the most able French Hellenists, Jacqueline de Romilly, who died in 2010, argued convincingly that the Greek understanding of reason was very different from “the systematic rationalism of the Enlightenment.” Less arrogant, the Greek mindset was aware of its limits and its need of other resources. She also recognized that Greeks functioned within the context of a united field of knowledge since both the “rational and the irrational were closely united and intertwined.” Jacqueline de Romilly, Ce que je crois (Paris: De Fallois, 2012), 29-33. Though not a Christian, she realized the need of a form of transcendence in order to truly understand the humanity of the human being.

[19] G. Vos, Biblical Theology, Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 17. Cf also P. Berthoud, En quêtes, 60, 61.

[20] The Scriptures designate primarily the Old Testament. Some have thought that this term could also refer to collections of texts pertaining to Jesus, including His words which spread in the early Christian communities. Some of Paul’s letters have also been included/mentioned [1 Timothy 5:18 (Deuteronomy 25:4) and 1 Corinthians 9:9; 2 Peter 3:15-16]. These passages indicate that Paul’s letters have the same authority as the writings of the Old Testament, but also, that the canon of the New Testament was still in the process of being recognized and thus, far from closed.

[21] It has also been translated “is not the fruit of a personal initiative” (Bible du Semeur: BS), but the Greek word èpilusis is better translated by explanation, interpretation.

[22] In Exodus 4:10b Moses adds, “I am slow (heavy) of speech and of tongue.”

[23] Jeremiah probably also experiences his own impurity before the Lord, because the act of God touching his lips is also a gesture of purification (Isaiah 6:5-8).

[24] In this passage Paul is speaking of general revelation, which leaves all human beings “without excuse” (v. 20b).

[25] For this section, cf. P. Berthoud, En quête, 61-66; G. Vos, Biblical Theology, 20-23.

[26] When a manager writes a letter in which each sentence and word must be weighed, he doesn’t hesitate to dictate it to his secretary. We find that normal, and the secretary’s dignity and significance are in no way questioned or negated.

[27] The painting Jeremiah lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland. Rembrandt captures with great sensitivity the plight of the prophet as he witnesses the fulfilment of the divine oracles. A. Neher, Jérémie, (Paris: Plon, 1960). The author presents a very vivid, warm, and dramatic portrait of the prophet.

[28] R.W.L. Moberly, “Theology of the Old Testament” in D. W. Baker and B. T. Arnold eds., The Face of Old Testament Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 465.

[29] H. Gunkel, “Why Engage the Old Testament?” in H. Gunkel, Water for a Thirsty Land, translated from German by A.K. Dallas and J. Schaaf, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001 [1914]),1ff.

[30] R. de Vaux understood this very well when he argues that the Bible is the Holy Scripture “because it is written under the inspiration of God to express, to preserve and to transmit God’s revelation to men.” But by allowing major concessions to the historical-critical method, he weakens the foundation upon which this doctrine rests. Once again, it is essential to tackle the historical and literary issues while respecting the biblical perspective and remain focused on the witness of the texts as they have been transmitted to us. R. de Vaux, « Peut-on écrire une ‘théologie de l’Ancien Testament’? » in Bible et Orient (Paris: Le Cerf, 1967), 68.

[31] H. Gunkel, loc. cit., p. 26.

[32] R.E. Murphy, “Reflections on a Critical Biblical Theology” in Problems in Biblical Theology, eds. H. T. C. Sun; K. L. Eades (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1997), 273.

[33] While “the Lord spoke face-to-face with the people at the mountain,” Moses remained the mediator between God and His people (Exodus 19; 24:1-8; Deuteronomy 5:4-5).

[34] Independently of the Ten Words, Moses is told to write that which the Lord has communicated to him (Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; 39:30).

[35] Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22. In Exodus 34:28, the subject is clearly the Lord (34:1), while the subject in 34:27 is Moses.

[36] The expression refers to a specific intervention of God (Exodus 8:19; Deuteronomy 9:10).

[37] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. I. Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1974), 418.

[38] Ibid., 315.

[39] J.A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 212.

[40] La Bible Bayard, (Montrouge, FR: Bayard Editions, 2015).

[41] Witness, in reference to stone tablets (Exodus 25:16, 21; 34:28); to the ark as containing the tablets (16:34; 27:21); to the tabernacle as containing the ark (30:6, 26, 36; 40:21; Numbers 17: 4, 7, 8-10); to the veil as screening the ark (Leviticus 24:3), The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Volume 6, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 279

[42] M. Kline, “The Two Tables of the Covenant” in The Structure of Biblical Authority (S. Hamilton, MA: Meredith Kline, 1989), 113-130; K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 242, 283 ff.

[43] Liviu Mocan, The Ten Commandments; Jonathan Tame, “Laws of Life and Love,” ArtWay Visual Meditation, July 25, 2010,,  (emphasis added).


Pierre Berthoud served as professor of Old Testament at the Free Reformed Seminary of Aix-en-Provence (now the Faculté Jean Calvin), where he also taught apologetics, from 1975 to 2012. He also served as Doyen (Dean) of the seminary for 19 years, and in 2012 he was appointed President of the Board of the seminary. He has been chairman of Scripture Union Europe, a trustee of the Parvis des Arts, and since 2008 is president of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians.

Print   Email