Book Review: A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments

A late entry to my 2017 reading challenge – when I decided I’d had enough IVP/SPCK books, and wanted one on the Ten Commandments – is John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments. This little book, published by Zondervan and apparently the sibling of a similar book on the Bible, is a biblically based and culturally engaged examination of the Ten Commandments, why they matter, and considers their effect on our culture. Less involved that A Wilderness of Mirrors, but still with some helpful cultural thought going on.

John Dickson, for those who haven’t come across him before, is a man of multiple hats. With a PhD in Ancient History, he’s a church minister in Australia and the Founding Director of an Apologetics/Culture thinktank. This gives him multiple ‘ways in’ to topics, which as the book goes on becomes very helpful. This is a book rooted in the Ten Commandments, but is also a book that goes beyond the Ten Commandments in scope and potential application. I think it is a helpful and very readable piece of theology that might even make sense to a secular person. The opening chapters deal with the fundamental questions of why and how humans should be good. Dickson makes it clear, pretty early on, where he thinks ethics comes from: “You’re loved. Now obey. This is the logic of biblical ethics“. Both parts of that, both ends of the logical javelin here, are deeply offensive in our culture. It has always been so – there are always people who have not felt loved, and there have always been people who are disobedient. These days, I would argue, we have a plethora of people, image-bearers for whom Christ died (more on this later), who are capable of saying that they do not feel loved, and neither do they feel the need to be obedient. This book, however, challenges both sets, in a powerful and sustained exploration of the Ten Commandments.

I read this book in two sittings – one over a long, delayed commute, and the latter in a warm evening in the lounge whilst my wife did something on her laptop. This book is divided, as are the commandments, into two kinds at first glance, but is ultimately well integrated. Jesus once said, when asked what the greatest commandment of the Old Testament Law is (with the Ten Commandments’ being perhaps the best known!), the following; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments“. Jesus summarises it so well – and Dickson keeps Jesus very clearly in view throughout his exploration.

Three chapters in, Dickson gets to the first of the commandments. He’s already given us a helpful three-part framework for interpreting the commandments, and as this author takes us through them one by one, it is a treat to see cultural relevance and biblical faithfulness go hand in hand. With some very minor caveats, I think Dickson’s exploration and exposition of each commandment is superb. I was heartened throughout to see a real engagement with the Image of God theology that undergirds God’s Law for God’s people. A highlight, however, which emphasised this, was his treatment of the 8th commandment. As he notes, ““You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19) comes to refer to much more than theft“. Dickson makes his point about the eight commandment in the next paragraph, which is kind of him to the lazy reader, though his unpacking of it throughout the chapter is well worth reading. I digress, but I loved this:

The fundamental rationale of the eight commandment is not so much the utilitarian aim of stable society, valuable as that is, but the inherent value of the neighbour made in God’s image and loved by him. The more you value someone the less likely you are to take what is theirs against their will or without their knowledge

This is bold opening up of a seemingly simple command. And this is one of dozens (Well,10, arguably!) great examples of Dickson doing this in this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author writes well, the subject matter is timeless, and some serious thought and scholarship is worn lightly enough that it doesn’t get in the way of reading enjoyment, but wrapped around key points to emphasise what is going on. This book is well worth reading – I’d recommend it to anyone pondering how the Ten Commandments have influenced culture, anyone wondering about where they fit into the Christian life, or to anyone preparing a teaching series about the Ten Commandments. As well as some specific contexts, though, I think that this book is well enough written and well enough argued that it is a solid ‘Christian living’ recommendation that will go on my internal list of books to recommend to people who don’t know what to read.

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