Book Review: Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandants: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty

Leithart, Peter J. The Ten Commandants: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. 146 pp.; Hb.  $15.99  Link to Lexham Press

Peter J. Leithart’s The Ten Commandments is the latest contribution to Lexham’s Christian Essentials series. It joins Ben Meyer’s The Apostles’ Creed and Wesley Hill’s The Lord’s Prayer as a readable series of meditations on well-known portions of Scripture.

Peter Leithart, Ten CommandmentsLeithart currently serves as president of Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. Leithart is a prolific author on a wide range of topics including a theological commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentaries on the Bible (Baker 2006), Solomon Among the Postmoderns (Baker, 2008), Athanasius (Baker Academic, 2011) and introductions to Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the Christian Encounters Series (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Leithart is a regular contributor at First Things and his blog is on Patheos, although it has not been updated recently.

The book begins with two introductory chapters. First, in “Father to Son” Leithart wonders if there is good reason to read the Ten Commandments as God’s word for Christians. He points out the New Testament quote the Decalogue, church fathers use it, Thomas Aquinas wrote a commentary on it, the Reformers included it in their catechisms, and Christian prayer books include it as part of Christian worship. Churches even carve these words on their walls. For Leithart, reading the Bible canonically demonstrates the Decalogue is in fact Christian scripture. As he concludes “Is the Decalogue for us? We might as well ask, is Jesus for us?” (6).

In “Two Tables” Leithart briefly introduce is the Ten Commandments as an introduction to the Jewish law. He observes that the Ten Commandments address every area of human life. This includes “worship, time keeping, family, violence, sex, property, speech, and desire” (17). He considers the division of the Decalogue into two columns of five commands each is significant. After surveying a number of places in Scripture where the number five is used, he observes the Temple itself architecturally symbolizes the movement of God’s word from you always throne, through his house, and into the world. The Commandments reflect this pattern.

The following ten chapters of the book treat each of the Ten Commandments. Each chapter is a brief six or seven pages, not counting two pages illustrating the commandment (the same stained-glass Moses appears opposite the text of the commandment followed by a third page with another illustration repeated from the book cover; three pages in each chapter are non-text!) Despite their brevity, Leithart unpacks the canonical ethical implications of each of the Ten Commandments.

A major goal of this book is to connect the commands in the Decalogue to Christian practice. It is therefore not surprising many of Leithart’s observations concern Christian practice. For example, in discussing the Sabbath rules Leithart sees a continuing practical relevance for the practice of Sabbath. All traditions seem to recognize the necessity of schedule time for worship, and the wisdom of the rhythm of rest and labor. He does not want to spiritualize the Sabbath into some bland analogy for worship, there is something spiritual refreshing about practicing a ral Sabbath.

Leithart relates the sixth commandment, do not murder, to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus warns against hatred and anger based on this commandment. Discussing the seventh commandment, do not commit adultery, Leithart draws the obvious application to emphasis on “sexual autonomy” in modern ethical discussions. He says, “every perverse form of sexuality distorts the creative designs of marriage” (90). Here again Jesus has expanded this commandment in the Sermon on the Mount to include lusting in one’s heart. Leithart draws an appropriate analogy to the use of pornography and points out God has always treated in sexual activity as a matter of public concern. Some sexual sins were crimes, and very serious crimes because they affected the entire community.

Like the other books in the series, the physical book is an attractive 5×7 format, ideal for personal devotional reading or use in a small group Bible study. The text in this volume is more substantial than the others in the series and Leithart includes copious endnotes directing interested readers to resources for further study and reflection.



NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.