Walk into one of the old Episcopal churches on the East Coast, and once your eye has adjusted to the light slanting in through the clear glass windowpanes onto plain white walls, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the writing on the eastern wall behind the pulpit. Step closer and you’ll see it’s a placard with the Ten Commandments in flowing script. In 1604, this placarding of the Decalogue became a canonical requirement for Anglican parishes. A posting of the Commandments was to be “set up on the East end of every Church and Chapel, where the people may best see and read the same.” Right above the communion table, in view of all sermon-hearers, the Commandments were to issue their silent implication: These ancient words remain the word of God for the people of God.
Nor was this Anglican practice unusual by wider Christian standards. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “In fidelity to Scripture and in conformity with Jesus’ example, the tradition of the Church has always acknowledged the primordial importance and significance of the Decalogue.” Luther wrote in his Large Catechism that “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” Luther was merely summarizing what was by his time a catechetical commonplace. The Decalogue was, as he wrote elsewhere, “eternal.” The Ten Commandments were not a time-bound, culturally-limited expression of a superseded ancient society but were instead the abiding word of the God who had eventually been revealed as the God and Father of Jesus Christ.