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«The threefold division of the law Jonathan F. Bayes Salt&Light series The threefold division of the law Jonathan F. Bayes This article is reprinted ...»

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Salt&Light series

The threefold

division of the law

Jonathan F. Bayes

Salt&Light series

The threefold

division of the law

Jonathan F. Bayes

This article is reprinted from one which first appeared in

Reformation Today Issue 177

Copyright © The Christian Institute 2012

The author has asserted his right under Section 77 of the Copyright,

Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

First printed in August 2005

Reprinted in March 2012

ISBN 978-1-901086-49-2 Published by The Christian Institute Wilberforce House, 4 Park Road, Gosforth Business Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE12 8DG All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of The Christian Institute.

The Christian Institute is a Company Limited by Guarantee, registered in England as a charity.

Company No. 263 4440, Charity No. 100 4774. A charity registered in Scotland. Charity No. SC039220.

T raditional Reformed theology has distinguished God’s law revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures into three parts, moral, ceremonial and civil (or judicial). It teaches that the moral element in the law, focused in the ten commandments, is of permanent application, while the ceremonial and civil elements were for the duration of the Old Testament economy only. The ceremonial was a shadow of Christ which became obsolete with his coming, and the civil a model of legal arrangements for any society, though not of such a status as to demand exact replication. My present purpose is to establish whether or not the threefold division is valid. Detailed discussion of the implications in terms of the continuation and abrogation of the respective parts of the law is beyond the scope of this article, though it will be necessary to make occasional reference to the issue.

In the final chapter of The Institutes Calvin writes:

We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.1 Similarly, Francis Turretin, one of Calvin’s successors at Geneva

in the middle years of the seventeenth century, has written:

The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species:

moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbour); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil (constituting the civil government of the Israelite people).2 3 The threefold division of the law Two years after Turretin’s death the 1689 Baptist Confession incorporated reference to this threefold division of the law. Chapter 19 of the Confession was entitled Of the Law of God. It was taken over with only minor modifications from the Westminster Confession of 1646, which represents the distilled essence of Puritan theology. While recognising the primacy of the moral law, the Puritan confessions speak also of the ceremonial laws governing the worship of the people of Israel and prefiguring Christ, and the judicial laws governing the political life of Israel.

Although the threefold division of the law is associated with Reformed theology, and has even been described as ‘the cornerstone of Reformed orthodoxy’, it would be a mistake to assume that these distinctions were novelties at the time of the Reformation. Turretin notes that the threefold division is ‘usual’. Calvin speaks of ‘the well known division’. I J Hesselink traces this division back to the medieval scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.3 It was around 1270

that Aquinas wrote:

We must therefore distinguish three kinds of precept in the Old Law;

viz. ‘moral’ precepts, which are dictated by the natural law; ‘ceremonial’ precepts, which are determinations of the Divine worship; and ‘judicial’ precepts, which are determinations of the justice to be maintained among men.4 Despite Hesselink’s claim that this threefold division originated with Aquinas, it seems prima facie probable that the idea (even if not the precise terminology) has a longer pedigree. Calvin refers to ‘the ancients who adopted this division’. Such a turn of phrase suggests that he was looking back further than the thirteenth century.5 In his Summa Theologica Aquinas refers frequently to Augustine.

Distinctions within the law were already familiar by the time of this fifth-century theologian, although he operates with a twofold rather than a threefold division. In AD 400 Augustine wrote a reply to a Manichaean attack on the Old Testament. In the course of this

4 The threefold division of the law

work Augustine introduces a distinction between the moral and the

symbolical precepts of the law:

For example, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is a moral precept; ‘Thou shalt circumcise every male on the eighth day’ is a symbolical precept.6 By ‘symbolical’ precepts Augustine clearly means what would later become known as the ceremonial law; he seems to have given little consideration to the civil law.

However, we can trace these distinctions even further back than the fifth century. At this early stage in the development of Christian theology the distinctions within the law are not fully worked out, but they are clearly implicit. Writing about two hundred years before Augustine, Tertullian distinguishes what he terms ‘the primordial law’ or ‘the natural law’ from ‘the sacerdotal law’ or ‘the Levitical law’.7 At one point Tertullian seems to recognise the difference between what would later come to be known as the moral and civil parts of the law when he distinguishes the ‘prime counsels of innocence, chastity, and justice, and piety’ from the ‘prescriptions of humanity’.8 However, the threefold division can be found already in the period earlier than Tertullian. In the mid-second century Ptolemaeus, a gnostic heretic, found three sections to God’s law. Johannes Quasten


The first section contains the pure law, untainted by evil, in other words the ten commandments. This is the section of the Mosaic law which Jesus came to fulfil rather than to suspend. The second section is the law adulterated with injustice, namely that of retaliation, which was suspended by the Saviour. The third section is the ceremonial law which the Saviour spiritualised.9 According to Jean Daniélou, the reason why Ptolemaeus regarded the second part of the law as a mixture of good and bad was that it was ‘the result of adaptation to circumstances’.10 However, it would be a mistake to treat the idea of the threefold division of the law as suspect on the assumption that it originated with

5The threefold division of the law

a heretic. Daniélou points out that the orthodox Justin Martyr, who wrote around the same time as Ptolemaeus, also suggested a threefold

division in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew:

Justin too distinguishes three types of material in the Law, ‘one which was ordained for piety and the practice of righteousness’, and another which was instituted ‘either to be a mystery of the Messiah or because of the hardness of heart of your people’.11 One of the most primitive post-apostolic writers whose work is still extant, the early second-century Barnabas, also recognised the need for distinctions within God’s law. He notes that sacrifices, burnt offerings and oblations have been abolished and replaced by ‘the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ’, as has circumcision. However, he is clear that believers must ‘utterly flee from all the works of lawlessness’, and in spelling out ‘The Way of Light’ which Christians must walk in contrast with ‘The Way of the Black One’, he quotes most of the ten commandments and insists, ‘You shall not desert the commandments of the Lord.’12 Clearly, Barnabas, at this early stage of Christian theological development, was already feeling the need for distinctions within the law of God.

Sometimes, as is common in patristic literature, he uses the word ‘law’ as functionally equivalent to ‘covenant’, and so distinguishes the old law, which is completely abrogated, with the new law revealed in Jesus Christ. However, at other times he uses the vocabulary of law more specifically of the sacrificial system or of the moral demands of the faith. In this more specific sense, the law is abolished only in certain parts: the sacrificial system has gone, but moral demand remains.

Moreover, the threefold division of the law is not only a Christian construct. Judaism also recognises that there are distinctions to be made.

The mid-twentieth century Jewish writer, Boaz Cohen, notes that the divine law consists ‘of ceremonialism, jurisprudence and ethics’, and finds this threefold division indicated in the words ‘commandment’ (mizvah), ‘statutes’ (hoqim) and ‘judgements’ (mispatim) in

6 The threefold division of the law

Deuteronomy 6:1, and in verse 20, where ‘commandment’ is replaced by ‘testimonies’ (edah). Cohen’s terms are recognisably equivalent to the traditional Christian vocabulary. Moreover, Cohen, like the Christian Reformed tradition, describes the Decalogue as moral principles.13 Samuel Holdheim was a nineteenth-century German rabbi. He too distinguished at least between the moral and the ritual parts of the law. Ralph Bisschops notes that Holdheim saw the destruction of the temple in AD 70 as God’s declaration that ‘sacrificing animals could

no longer be held as true worship’. Bisschops explains:

The observation of the moral laws laid down in Mosaic Revelation is an unconditional obligation for every Jew. Holdheim defines the moral laws as those laws which are eternally true and not bound to the particular mentality of the Jews at the time of Moses. As to the ritual laws, their purpose is to stimulate devotion... According to Holdheim, the ritual laws are to be regarded as mere “crutches”, helping man to develop deep inner devotion. They are the form of Jewish religion, whereas ethics are its substance. They make up the outer appearance, whereas ethics constitutes the core.14 Amongst contemporary Jews, there are those who recognise that it is simply impracticable to observe all the laws in the circumstances

of the modern world:

A large portion of the laws relate to sacrifices and offerings, which can only he made in the Temple, and the Temple does not exist today. Some of the laws relate to the theocratic state of Israel, its king, its supreme court, and its system of justice, and cannot be observed because the theocratic state of Israel does not exist today.15 This categorisation of those laws which cannot still be practised tallies very closely with the two parts of the law which have become known in Christian parlance as the ceremonial and the civil law respectively, and which traditional Christian theology has seen as superseded.

In spite of this impressive pedigree of the threefold division of the

7The threefold division of the law

law, there have been those who have questioned its validity. One such

is John Metcalfe, who, in his typical colourful style, writes:

What! rend asunder the one law of God into three mutilated parts, inventing the names moral, judicial, and ceremonial, just so that you can discard two and retain one? But what God has joined together, let not man put asunder. The law, one law, as such, was given by Moses. Then either we are under it, or we are not under it. It is impossible for anyone to be under only a part of it.... God called the whole, the law. Israel calls it the law. And so did Paul, agreeing with Israel, the Jews, and the Lord Jesus, none of whom allowed of this dismemberment. It is the law, integrally, the whole of it, all that Moses commanded, and none of it can be separated from any other part of it.16 Another representative of this school of thought, at least to some extent, is Edgar Andrews, whose recent commentary on Galatians proceeds on the assumption that, There is no indication in Galatians that Paul ever thinks of the law as being divided into different parts (moral, civil, ceremonial).

Rather, Paul sees the law as indivisible. … There is no evidence that Paul ever thought of the law as being divided into separate parts; he speaks explicitly about ‘the whole law’.17 Nevertheless, it is necessary to add some qualifications when considering Andrews’ position. Despite this insistence on the essential unity of the law, he does suggest that a two-part analysis can be


In the first part (or aspect), we see what a holy God required of his people, and what penalties were applied to those in Israel who broke his commandments. In the second aspect we see the provision God made for the forgiveness and reconciliation of those who sinned. This second aspect prefigured the work of Christ.18 Andrews works with a twofold division by conflating the moral law and the civil law, arguing that the ‘civil law’ is really an amplification of

the ten commandments. This point is not altogether without substance:

8 The threefold division of the law

the civil law was indeed the application to Israelite society of the moral principles enshrined in the Decalogue. Nevertheless, it is as well to retain the distinction between the absolute principles and their application in the context of specific social arrangements, In any case, it is evident that Andrews acknowledges that this aspect of the law is distinguishable from what is usually termed the ‘ceremonial law’.

As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to carry through a rigorous rejection of the threefold (or at least a twofold) division.

Andrews says:

Those who are Spirit-led will fulfil the righteous requirements of the law.

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