29 April 2011

On the Threefold Division of the Law

by Phil Johnson



    rarely post book reviews here. (Challies does them so well, why should I?) But from time to time I get the urge to feature a book I totally love—or more rarely, to critique a book I really hate.

Today, uncharacteristically, I'm going to take a middle position and recommend a book, but add a few caveats.

The book is From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law, by Philip S. Ross, published last year by the Mentor imprint of Christian Publications.

A book on this subject, showing "the biblical and theological basis for the threefold division" is long overdue. Those who deny any and every distinction between the law's moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects make mincemeat of the New Testament's teaching on the law and its proper uses.

This subject comes up in our comment-threads from time to time, and invariably, someone insists that there is absolutely no valid categorical distinction to be made between one kind of law and another—as if the OT restriction against shellfish were morally equivalent to the restrictions against bestiality.

Of course, I've argued otherwise. Invariably—usually early in the debate—someone will demand a proof-text that explicitly differentiates between moral and ceremonial law in precisely those terms. The biblical rationale for different categories of commandments is not quite that simple, but (I'm convinced), it is nevertheless a necessary deduction that the Hebrew dietary laws don't have the same universal and eternally-binding significance as the laws against blasphemy and idolatry.

Anyway, here's why I need to add a caveat to my recommendation of this book: Despite the promise of the subtitle, Ross begins his argument with an appeal to tradition rather than explicit Scripture or the good and necessary consequence of sound theological logic. His first chapter is titled "A Catholic Doctrine," and his opening words are an appeal to the majority opinion of "the church's most prominent theologians" from East and West, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal, patristic and Puritan—who (Ross says) "throughout history," have either explicitly affirmed the threefold division or "work[ed] within its framework."

To be clear, I don't think that argument is entirely without merit, but it's not a very good starting point for a book promising to deliver "the biblical and theological basis" for what has become (in evangelical circles) a hotly debated point.

By page three, Ross is appealing to the presuppositions of covenant theology—quoting the Westminster Confession on how "God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works." And by page 6 he has identified Sabbatarianism as the lynchpin of the threefold division: "Strike out the Sabbath and you also shatter the entire category of moral law and all that depends on it."

Many (perhaps most) who deny the threefold division will actually be put off by those lines of argument after the subtitle's promise that the book will set forth a biblical case.

Besides, the real truth is that the Fourth Commandment presents some interesting and troubling difficulties to the neat bifurcation maintained by those who say (as Ross does on page 2) that "the only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue." (In other words, he believes the Ten Commandments and "moral law" are precisely identical.) As a matter of fact, many of the detailed Sabbath restrictions in Moses' law have a ceremonial flavor, and Colossians 2:16 classifies "the Sabbath days" with the law's ceremonial features. I realize Sabbatarians typically dismiss that verse as a reference to special feast-days. But given the fact that lots of non-Sabbatarians (including yours truly) do affirm the threefold division of the law, Ross's emphatic denial that such a position is possible rings somewhat hollow.

Get past the opening chapter, however, and you'll find (for the most part) a thorough, thoughtful discussion of the differences between the law's moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects from a biblical perspective. Overall, the book (weighing in at 370 pages plus back matter) is quite helpful, and I'm happy to recommend it.

I just wish Ross had saved his doctrinaire covenantalism to be used as a kind of punctuation at the end rather than making it the book's opening argument. If you're interested in this subject—especially if you doubt the legitimacy of categorizing the law's precepts—please persevere past the opening ten pages or more.


Phil's signature

34 comments:

timothymatters said...

Thanks for the review. I might pick it up someday when I'm in the GA's book store and have a healthy book allowance. Otherwise...

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Thank you for your recommendation!

I have a relatively minor comment, for what it's worth:

To be clear, I don't think that argument is entirely without merit, but it's not a very good starting point for a book promising to deliver "the biblical and theological basis" for what has become (in evangelical circles) a hotly debated point.

I thought it was fairly customary to discuss historical precedent before engaging analysis of the primary texts. I appreciate when scholars do this, as it helps me weigh the gravity of the position at stake. If the majority of the Church has held a particular perspective on an important matter, arguments against that stance should give us a certain sense of pause. (And arguments in line with the majority should be given a limited level of deference.)

However, I can understand how Evangelicals (and this is not a veiled reference to you!), who have largely emulated America's anti-historical disposition, would find any discussion of precedent both boring and irrelevant. Given this climate, works with a popular, Evangelical audience should probably take the time to explain the importance of historical precedence and why it matters to an evaluation of Scripture.

Tom said...

Relatedly, have you written/preached (or would you recommend someone else has written/preached) anything expounding on your thesis, "Those who deny any and every distinction between the law's moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects make mincemeat of the New Testament's teaching on the law and its proper uses," and, "The biblical rationale for different categories of commandments is not quite that simple, but (I'm convinced), it is nevertheless a necessary deduction that the Hebrew dietary laws don't have the same universal and eternally-binding significance as the laws against blasphemy and idolatry"? I would definitely like to read more on this subject.

Thanks
Tom

Sir Aaron said...

I'd add that many Christians seem to be reverting to the notion that there is no division of the law and that we should still be abiding by the dietary restrictions. It's almost as if we see a new set of Judiazers.

Paul E said...

Thank you very much for the review Phil. It is indeed an important topic. Admittedly, I would have probably ventured no further after reading the first chapter. So, thanks again.

Jeremy Kidder said...

D. A. Carson rejects the threefold Division of the Law and he seems to escape "Making mince-meat of the NT."

But here is an even bolder question that needs to be asked: What is the basis of assuming that the moral "aspect" is the center of the Mosaic Law? Carson rightly points out that Hebrews 7:11 actually declares that the basis of the Law was the priesthood (not the Decalogue). Clearly the priesthood, page for page, gets far more coverage in the Law than any other "category."

BrettR said...

Challies is better because he doesn't spend 87.6% of the review on just the first 10+ pages ;)

John Dunn said...

In considering the Law, we should turn for consideration to Galatians, Matthew 17, 2 Corinthians 3, Ephesians 2, Colossians 2, and Hebrews 12 for help in understanding the new covenant relationship that the church has to God's moral standards. It is a relationship of Spirit written on tablets of the heart, not code engraved on stone tablets. If someone insists to me that the Law must direct my steps . . . as a New Covenant believer, I may well ask, "Must I go back from Zion to Sinai? Must I build a booth to Moses and Christ? Must I not hear the Son and Him alone? Wasn't this Law nailed to His Cross? Hasn't my Savior abolished the Law as a Covenant, and taken it out of the way? Why am I being turned aside to that to which I have died? Why am I being directed to look again to the tablets of stone as if I were yet a child of the bondwoman?" Christ is the new covenant incarnate who indwells his people by his living Spirit and enables them to live out all righteousness.
Isaiah 42:6, 49:6-8, 55:3-4, John 1:14

Steve Scott said...

John Dunn asks:

"Wasn't this Law nailed to His Cross?"

No, actually it was the "certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us" that was nailed to the cross, not the Law itself. Important distinction.

Here's an analogy that makes this question easier. If you have a speeding ticket that you don't have the money to pay, and somebody else pays the judge for you (think Christ's payment for sins here) the judge declares "paid in full." Now, does the judge tear up your ticket or does he tear up the entire vehicle code?

John Dunn said...

Not only was the record of debt that stood against us cancelled, but also the very legal demands themselves (old covenant code). Col 2:14

Consider Israel's deliverance from bondage, from Passover/Exodus to Sinai. There is no coincidence that Christ fulfills all the patterns and types through his own Paschal death with glorious precision. He accomplished a New Exodus salvation for his people. A thorough side by side study shows that Pentecost is the new covenant fulfillment of the Sinai event. The internaly ministry of the Spirit is the replacement of external code (2 Cor 3).

In this way, Christ the WORD is our new covenant 'code' written upon the tables of our hearts by his Spirit. We are no longer under the old covenant legislation.

http://www.christmycovenant.com/content/jd1/jd1_lib1/new_exodus_in_christ.html

Art said...

Phil, forgive my ignorance here, but what do you mean when you say that you are not a sabbatarian? Does that mean you do not treat the sabbath as a holy day in any sense? Or does this mean that you don't keep Saturday as a holy day? Etc.

John Thomson said...

'The biblical rationale for different categories of commandments is not quite that simple, but (I'm convinced), it is nevertheless a necessary deduction that the Hebrew dietary laws don't have the same universal and eternally-binding significance as the laws against blasphemy and idolatry.'

The reality is thnat none of the Mosaic law has binding authority for Christian people today. For two reasons

1. As a covenant it was made only with Israel as a nation redeemed from Egypt and obligated to their deliverer. The Law is crystal clear on this.

Exod 20:1-2 (ESV)
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The NT is equally clear that only Jews were under law. Gentiles are 'without law' Roms 2.

2. Christians (really Christian Jews)are not obligated to law because they have died to the world in which Law had authority. Roms 7:1-6. One cannot be obligated to Christ (as a husband) and obligated to the Law (as a husband).

When Paul speaks of the Law he does speak of it as one (though of course distinctions exist within it). It is a covenant and is unitary in nature. To offend in any one area is to be a covenant-breaker.

Morality flows from relationship. Christians are in relationship with Christ (he is our husband) and all our obligations flow our obligations to him.

Thus, while we can learn from the Law if we pass it intelligentlyth rough the prism of redemptive-history in Christ there is certainly no one-to-one correlation of obligation.

Failure to recognize the temporal and specific nature of the Law is a cause for a legalistic mentality in the church today. If we think we are obligated to the Law of Moses we are by definition thinking legalistically.

Tom Chantry said...

It should have been evident that this thread would turn into a series of dissertations on why Phil is wrong. It is a sad commentary on the church today that one thing certain to bring quick opposition is the declaration that God expects Christians to keep some/any/even-one of His commandments. Doesn't matter how many times Jesus said exactly that, either. Everyone is ready with a complex doctrinal argument for why Jesus didn't mean what he said.

It's sad how much energy Christians waste on this project. They're writing a how-to manual an not looking at all like disciples. (John 15:8,10)

John Dunn said...

There is absolutely no argument that Christians are to be under obedience to Christ as their new husband and covenant-head. The distinction is whether we render obedience "under Law", that is, under the framework of the typological and transitory old covenant code, which is now abolished. Or, whether we render loving obedience from the heart "under grace" by the Spirit, the promised internal righteousnss of the new covenant, now written upon our hearts. (Jer 31)

I will gladly accept the charge of being a theological "antinomian". But woe to me if I am found to be an "antipneumian" - without the internal operation of the Spirit of grace.

If Paul abominated the addition of external circumcision to the Gospel . . . insisting that one who attempts this is obligated to keep the entire old covenant legislation . . . how much more then the addition of the external stone tablets which were the summation of this legislation, and which Paul now calls the ministry of condemnation and death? (2 Cor 3)

But if we are led by the Spirit who lives in us, we are not under the impossible demands and condemnation of the external Law for covenant obedience (Gal 5:18). The Spirit, who is the very promise of the new covenant, inscribes the realized righteousness of the Law's shadow upon our hearts, Jesus Christ himself . . . so that by gazing upon him as all our righteousness, we are transformed into his heavenly image from glory to glory. O let us then walk, live, and abundantly be filled with the Spirit of Christ, being filled with the heavenly fruit of his Love, which is the eschatological new covenant fulfilment of the entire Law. So that, being in Christ, we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Rom 7,) which code was but a passing shadow of the glory we now possess. In this way, we assuredly are Christ's true disciples and commandment keepers indeed!

John Thomson said...

John Dunn

Appreciate your comments. I couldn't agree more.

DJP said...

It would be a mistake to imply only two options — i.e. Christians yoked to Moses' law in some sense, or Christians yoked to no law in any sense.

gymbrall said...

John Dunn,
Who are you arguing with?

There is absolutely no argument that Christians are to be under obedience to Christ as their new husband and covenant-head. The distinction is whether we render obedience "under Law", that is, under the framework of the typological and transitory old covenant code, which is now abolished. Or, whether we render loving obedience from the heart "under grace" by the Spirit, the promised internal righteousnss of the new covenant, now written upon our hearts. (Jer 31)

Who here is arguing that it is not by the Spirit of our Lord and betrothed Husband, Jesus the Christ that we keep His laws and commandments?

The questions that I have for you are as follows:
Why do you believe that Christ's view of righteousness has changed since he gave the law to Moses? Why do you believe that a servant who is now made a son, must no longer keep the commands of the household. Why do you believe that the Lord of the household would declare His law to be the very definition of righteousness (Gal 3:21) and then not require his children to keep it?

John Dunn said...

The believing household of faith is no longer "after the flesh", receiving an external circumcision of the flesh and keeping outward codes engraved on stone tablets, according to the old way of the flesh.

The new eschatalogical covenant community that Christ created through his death, resurrection, ascention and outpouring of his Spirit lives "after the Spirit". True new covenant children are circucised in their hearts by the Spirit through regeneration. They have a new high priest. They have a perfect sacrifice. They are the eschatological temple of God. They are to be filled with the resurrection power of the Spirit, and thus fulfill all the righteousness that was shadowed by the external Law (Rom 8:4). God's righteousness, as shadowed in the external tables of the Law, has received glorious fulfilment in Christ - in us, by faith. We are now children of the Jerusalem which is above and now come to Mt.Zion, not Sinai, where the Lord of the covenant seals to us his blessed new covenant which is now written upon tables of human hearts, sprinkling them with his own blood, as Moses forshadowed when he sprinkled the legislation of the old covenant with the ineffectual blood of bulls and goats.

This being said, we are to recieve instruction from the entire Scriptures, including the Law. However, in our understanding of the Law (and the Passover, Temple, Priesthood, etc) we should understand that the weak and beggarly elements, the types and shadows, have given way to the glorious eschatological realities to which they pointed.

Is the Law good and holy? Yes, insofar as it points away from itself to Christ, the grand fulfillment, and causes us to see that, Christ in us by the Spirit, is the means whereby the righteousness living Word of the covenant is engrafted and written upon our hearts. It is the Spirit who mortifies sin and makes us holy, not fleshly adherence to external code.

Jesus, the Word incarnate, is our living covenant (Isa 42:6) who writes himself upon the very hearts of his own people. Thus those who live and walk by the Spirit, producing his heavenly fruit, do not at all live contrary to the Law (Gal 5:23), but rather fulfill its typological eschatological import.

Solameanie said...

Looking forward to reading this book, and thanks for the review. It will be nice to focus on something like this, and avoid the rekindling of the King James Only debate sure to gin up with the 400th anniversary.

donsands said...

"Jesus, the Word incarnate, is our living covenant (Isa 42:6) who writes himself upon the very hearts of his own people. Thus those who live and walk by the Spirit, producing his heavenly fruit, do not at all live contrary to the Law (Gal 5:23), but rather fulfill its typological eschatological import." John

Amen. I am dead to the law, and yet I love the law.

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

http://tinyurl.com/3j4ck5r


I highly recommend if you want to read a good Reformed understanding of the Law pick-up Patrick Fairbairn's "The Revelation of Law in Scripture".

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Fixed the link.

http://tinyurl.com/673nwpq

John Thomson said...

There are a few reasons why the fixation (or so it sometimes appears) of some of my good Reformed fellow believers can be damaging.

1. It tends towards a legalistic mindset that sees Christian obedience in looking at laws rather than looking at Christ; an ethic rather than a person is the object.

2. When we see God as a law-giver we easily lose sight of the fact he is our Father. The Law, good though it was, kept men at a distance. Paul says it treated them (Israel) like children (Gals 3/4). Their relationship was to the Law rather than to their Father and it was a relationship that was harsh and disciplinarian. There was no sense of intimacy and nearness. There was no explanation for what they should do. They were given commands as we command children. It was a state of immaturity (what Paul elsewhere describes as 'weak and beggarly'). Slave obedience rather than son obedience must inevitably slip in when we insist that believers are still in some sense 'under law'/obligated to the law/have the law as their rule of life.

Christian liberty to live in Christ and like Christ in the full conscious knowledge of sonship and acceptance requires liberty from the law (Gals 5:1).

3. Seeing the law as the standard of Christian obedience places the standard far too low. The Law did not demand that a man lay down his life for another - the grace of God revealed in Christ does.

In fact the law (as Paul says in 1 Tim) was not given for the righteous but for sinners. It was for murderers, adulterers etc. The law took account of men in the flesh and to some extent accommodated this. It permitted divorce but Christ says from the beginning it was not so. It did not forbid polygamy and so on. The Law, as I say, in its letter, is hardly a standard for a believer. The standard for the believer is Christ,and - when we carefully read the NT, never his obedience to the law (rarely mentioned) but his obedience to his Father. We ought to walk as he walked. We are to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. Christian obedience is walking in love and in so doing lives in a way that fulfils the heart of the law and then some.

In reality, if when we think of obedience, we think in terms of law-keeping we inevitably fall back into a performance mode. If on the other hand we think in terms of listening to the voice of the Spirit/asking daily for the Spirit's guidance then we will walk with a greater sense of dependence. Furthermore, we will be asking for guidance in a myriad of deatils where in point of fact the Law has nothing to say.

I find it surprising that while Paul, a Jew, goes to great lengths to enable his fellow Jewish believers to recognize that the Law is not the great thing they believed (Gals 3: it was an interim covenant that did not replace a previous covenant; it was given indirectly by mediation (through Moses and angels) and not directly and immediately as was the Abrahamic; etc)we gentile believers seem to wish to champion it.

4. A law-keeping hermeneutic leads to sabbatarianism. Sabbatarianism expresses the logical impossibility of accepting the law as a rule of life. The Sabbath was a Saturday (the 7th) and the covenant gave no permission to make any other day the sabbath. Yet the church celebrates a Sunday and not a sabbath and try as it may no hermeneutic can legitimately make a sabbath a Sunday; to do so is to break the law at a basic level for the sabbath was the covenant sign itself.

Obligation to Christ is not the same as obligation to the Law. Christ never sends us back to the Law for our morality instead he promises the leading of the Spirit; shadow gives way to substance, the inferior to the superior, and the beggarly to the gospel.

Steve Scott said...

I find the threefold division helpful in seeing that there are different reasons for the Law and different applications. As Phil shows in the post, and as Dan says in the comments, there is a danger in viewing the Law as one cohesive whole as we see it today. One of two extremes are common. Either apply the whole Mosaic Law to all pepole at all times, or toss the whole thing altogether. But just as problematic, I believe, is doing the same thing with each of the three divisions. Keep one and toss the other two. I agree with Phil about the Sabbath question (moral) and suggest that dividing all the Law up is not so easy or tidy.

Tom Chantry said...

John,

Have you ever actually met any of these Reformed brethren of whom you speak? Because guess what? They actually aren't fundamentalists. If you had ever fellowshiped with some, and I mean off the internet, you couldn't speak so ignorantly of them.

You have your theology of the law, fine. That you cannot see Phil's point is scary - he's not even one of the doctrinaire covenantal-reformed guys you're railing against, but you are so upset by his assertion that some Old Testament moral principles haven't changed that you can't even stop to consider its validity.

But brother, stop talking about things you just don't understand. Every one of your points above betrays a thorough ignorance of what Reformed folk actually say about the law and how they practice it.

Jacob said...

Just wanted to say I really appreciated the many thoughtful comments in this thread from all perspectives on the matter of the Law.

How interesting that the ferocity of seemingly-opposing views arises from a desire to combat one of two devastating ills, both of which we'd all likely agree are serious matters for concern in the church -- antinomianism on one hand and legalism on the other -- and thus the merit of both views displayed in the comments here.

solameanie: the hardcore KVJ-Onlyists have been pumping up the 400th anniversary for weeks already. It's amazing, and sad. :)

Ron Henzel said...

I think we have to admit that pervasive Dispensationalist assumptions account for the widespread rejection of the classic threefold division of the law. When Earl Radmacher wrote, "Although the Mosaic Law is often divided into three parts—ceremonial, civil, and moral—the writers of Scripture did not recognize such a division. The Mosaic Law was always viewed as a unit," (Salvation, [Nashville: Word, 2000], 64), he was simply summarizing what Ryrie had written in The Grace of God, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), 57-59, and what other Dispensationalists had written in many other places.

DJP said...

So... dispensationalists just up and assume that, for no reason, and then go around repeating each other like little robots? Wow, they sound like really evil, stupid people.

John Thomson said...

Tom

I have already expressed that I think there is some validity in the threefold division of the law. My point is simple.

1. Even permitting diversity within the law the law itself is unitary and one is either under the covenant and responsible to all of its laws just as they stand or not under it and answerable to none of its laws.

This doesn't mean I am free to commit adultery but it does mean the the reason I do not commit adultery has nothing to do with being answerable to the Mosaic Covenant - a covenant that was never made with me in the first place.

Ron

Does it matter who someone gets taught by if what they believe and teach is biblical.
I am not a dispensationist in the sense you mean but we are all dispensationalists in another sense - that is we are if we are biblical. The OC necessarily gives way to the new, the old administration/epoch/dispensation to the new.

DJP

Your last comment is unacceptable and is of the sort the blog should censor (and censure).

DJP said...

Really? Then maybe I should just add it as number twenty-six.

John Thomson said...

DJP

Sorry DJP. I didn't appreciate the irony. Though it remains inflammatory don't you think?

DJP said...

I'm aiming for mirror-atory.

The view from the back of the bus becomes wearying after a time.

Jmv7000 said...

tms.edu September 28, 2006 William Barrick Message, "The Role of the Law of Moses in the Church."

Warning, he makes "mince-meat" out of the NT . . .

Ex N1hilo said...

If we say, "As New Covenant believers, we are to be lead by the Holy Spirit; we are not to conform ourselves to a written code," we set up a false dichotomy.

Does God the Holy Spirit communicate with us mystically, through subjective experiences, feelings and impressions? Is it not rather through language, through the conveying of propositional truths; through spoken messages and commands which were later preserved in written form in the Scriptures?

We ought to use the Law of Moses to inform us how we should conduct ourselves; because, as His redeemed people, we are to emulate Christ: The only man who ever kept the Torah.

The law of the covenant given at Sinai is a picture of the Messiah. The ancient Israelites could know what He would be like and could identify Him when He came by meditating on that Law. We can and ought to do the same.