Who Dares to Change God’s Commandments? (Part 1)

A Recent Inquiry

This two-part article is prompted by a question we recently received at The Fatima Center. The questioner accused the Catholic Church of changing God’s Ten Commandments. She stated that she corrects Catholics on this matter and gave the impression that Catholics were bewildered by her answer, in the manner of an uneducated person being stunned by the reception of new knowledge. Thus, this is a matter which all Catholics should be informed about. That way if you are ever questioned on this matter, you will be “ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason [apologia] of that hope which is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

Protestant Gaslighting

Interestingly, this is also an example of gaslighting (most likely unintentional). You see, it is Protestants who have altered the Ten Commandments, both in their numbering and in their meaning. Hence, when they look at Catholic teaching, they erroneously accuse the Catholic Church of this grave offense. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. A study of Christian History, of the Church Fathers, or of the Doctors of the Church, clearly shows the consistency and continuity in Catholic Tradition.

Father Albert addresses the issue of misinterpreting the Second Commandment in a recent Ask Father episode. [View Here]. In this article, I will first address the issue of changing the numbering of the Ten Commandments.

Know Your Tradition

Christian Tradition can be read in the Church Fathers, or easily verified in the Roman Catechism (edited by St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Charles Borromeo) or in a work by St. Thomas Aquinas titled, Collationes in Decem Praeceptis or “Explanation of the Ten Commandments.” St. Thomas wrote this in the 13th century, three hundred years before the Protestant revolution. A translation in English by Joseph Collins, 1939, can be found online. You will note St. Thomas arranges the Commandments in accordance with Sacred [Catholic] Tradition.

Exodus Chapter 20

The Ten Commandments can be found in Exodus Chapter 20.[1] The numbering of chapters and verses is of course not part of the original Scriptures.[2] The numbering of the Ten Commandments is also not indicated in Scripture. Therefore, this numbering is only found in Tradition. Catholic Tradition stretches back to time immemorial, whereas the Protestant innovations are quite novel by comparison.

In Catholic Tradition, verses 2-6 comprise the First Commandment. It centers on the truth that there is only one God and man is to have no false gods. It naturally connects to the great commandment of the Old Testament, known as the Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel). In Our Lord’s time, the Jews would put it on their doorposts and the tassels of their clothing (see Matthew 23:5).

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

Protestants, however, limit the First Commandment to verses 2 and 3. They then turn verses 4-6 into their Second Commandment in order to say there is an entire commandment dedicated to graven images. But as Fr. Albert explained, God’s commandment regarding graven images is connected to the truth that there is only one God, and we must worship Him.

The proper context for verses 4-6 is within that of the First Commandment. God does not permit that we worship false gods nor the graven images by which those false gods are represented. The intentional link between these two sections (vv. 2-3 and vv. 4-6) is found in the repetition of the phrase, “I am the Lord thy God…”, in verse 2 and verse 5. The obvious implication is that He is one God, the only God (recall the Shema Yisrael). And it His divine oneness which necessarily precludes false gods and their graven images. When Protestants split these verses into two commandments they actually lose much of the context, which opens the path to their misinterpretation.

Iconoclasm – A Condemned Heresy

What motivated the Protestants is an iconoclastic tendency.[3] They wanted to remove all images because they reject the true [Catholic] worship; that is, the perfect worship of the Eternal Son, which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In other words, it was their false worship (an erroneous lex orandi) which led to their false doctrine (an erroneous lex credendi).

The simplest argument against iconoclasm (the rejection of sacred images), is that the Divine Son, by taking on a human nature, made Himself an image of the Eternal Godhead. He is Jesus Christ, Our Savior and King, a living and enfleshed image of Our Heavenly Father. If we reject all images, then we actually weaken/limit/reject the true depth and meaning of the Mystery of the Incarnation[4] and of the Hypostatic Union.[5]

Renumbering the Rest

Since Protestants have created two separate commandments from the First, the rest of their numbering also differs from Tradition. This easily leads to confusion. Exodus 20:7 is the Second Commandment (not to take God’s Name in vain) but Protestants refer to it as the Third. The Third Commandment is to keep holy the Lord’s Day (for Protestants it is the Fourth). This commandment is also misinterpreted by some who claim God decreed Saturday (Sabbath) was to be the day of rest and that Catholics changed His commandment by making Sunday (the Lord’s Day) the day dedicated to divine worship and rest.[6] The Fourth Commandment is to honor one’s father and mother (for Protestants it is the Fifth), and so on with the rest.

In Catholic representations of the Ten Commandments, the first three are placed on one tablet and the latter seven are on a second tablet. This is because the first tablet deals with man’s relationship to God. The second tablet governs men’s relationships with one another.[7] This division also wondrously reflects the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity (three Persons) and the Seven Sacraments and Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, which is the divine grace that men, made in the image of God, need to become like God. Protestants lose this connection because they depict the first tablet with four Commandments and the second tablet with six Commandments.[8]

But then why don’t Protestants end up with eleven commandments? Well, they knew they could not claim the Tradition that God gave Moses Ten Commandments was wrong. It would have been too jarring. We have ten fingers and our entire counting system is based on a decimal system. So they simply combined the last two, the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, into their 10th.. This more subtle system – of dividing, recombining and renumbering so as to keep ten – could be accepted by Christians who are not very well catechized and do not have all Ten Commandments impeccably memorized.

Nevertheless, it is a great rupture. Men are not allowed to change Sacred Tradition. And this combining of the 9th and 10th Commandments is not an innocuous error. We will discuss its disastrous consequences in Part II of this article, “The Ninth and Tenth Commandments”.

Saint Moses and all the holy Patriarchs, pray for us!


[1] The Ten Commandments are also listed in Deuteronomy Chapter 5.

[2] The numbering of chapters and verses which we are familiar with originated in the 15th and 16th centuries.

[3] The great battle against iconoclasm had already been fought, won and settled in Christian tradition during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was largely an error from the East. It was highly influenced by Mohammedanism, which is also iconoclastic. The Second Council of Nicea (787 AD) – as well as great saints, martyrs, bishops and Popes – helped defeat the heresy, despite support and persecution from various Byzantine Emperors.

[4] The Mystery of the Incarnation is best summed up by St. John, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14), and in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed when we profess, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and He became flesh [incarnate] by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary: and was made man.”

[5] The Mystery of the Hypostatic Union was clearly defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD in what is called the Symbol (Creed) of Chalcedon. It can simply be stated as: Jesus Christ is One Divine Person with two natures, divine and human. The two natures are not confused, mixed, or changed. In Him, the two natures are indivisible and inseparable. Thus, Jesus has a divine will and a human will; He has a divine intellect and a human intellect.

[6] This topic is treated in the article, “Did the Catholic Church Change the Sabbath Day?” by Mr. Matthew Plese, posted at The Fatima Center’s website.

[7] This division is emphasized by Our Lord when He summarizes the whole of the law and the prophets in two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40).

[8] Another argument to illustrate that the Catholic numbering is the traditional view is through a consideration of linguistic development. In Latin, the number 6 is the word “sex.” The 6th Commandment is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; it forbids all improper sexual actions. The natural connection is obvious. Yet for Protestants this becomes the 7th Commandment (7 is “septem” in Latin) and we see that the lexical link is lost.