Should the law be divided into three parts—moral, ceremonial, and civil?

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TylerR's picture

Editor

What a can of worms . . . 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Jim's picture

I find the construct - moral, civil, and ceremonial - as valid. So do many others such as:

http://rcsprouljr.com/blog/ask-rc/rc-christians-obey-testament-law/

Of course the Old Testament doesn’t come color-coded, with ceremonial laws highlighted in red, civil laws in blue and moral in yellow.  As I said, it can be complicated

By the way ... any Christian who does or does not the following does too:

  • Enjoys shellfish or shrimp
  • Is not concerned about this: Deuteronomy 22:11
Larry's picture

Moderator

It's not really a matter of "should" it be, but rather can it be? And the answer to that is no; there is no biblical teaching by which to distinguish them and no biblical example of such a distinction. The law exists as a whole. The threefold division is unknown in Scripture or early Christianity. There is no way to defend it from Scripture. 

Jim's argument about shellfish and mixed clothes is inadequate for the simple reason that we are not under the Law of Moses. It matters not whether one eats shellfish or wears mixed clothes unless you are under a restriction. No one is under the Mosaic Law today, no matter how you configure it. 

To divide the law in such a way ultimately undermines the authority of Scripture and asserts the authority of man over the authority of God in his Word.

Jim's picture

Jim's argument about shellfish and mixed clothes is inadequate for the simple reason that we are not under the Law of Moses.

I said: The tripartite construct is valuable. I observe there are moral truths that transcend national boundaries and time. 9 of the 10 commandments are found in the New Testament (the Sabbath observance is excluded).

Larry's picture

Moderator

The tripartite construct is valuable. I observe there are moral truths that transcend national boundaries and time. 9 of the 10 commandments are found in the New Testament (the Sabbath observance is excluded).

The question is less about whether it is valuable (however that is construed; I find it not only not valuable, but misleading and undermining the Scripture) and more about whether it is biblical, isn't it? I don't see any biblical reference to a division of the Law. Wherever the Law is treated in Scripture, it is treated as a unified entity, not something from which one can pick and choose what is applicable. 

There are moral truths that transcend national boundaries and time. And because of that, some of our laws (whether as Americans in our case, or as Christians) are virtually identical to laws given to Israel. 

Consider this: If someone commits a murder in Detroit (not wholly unthinkable), they are not charged with breaking the laws of Ohio, even though both Michigan and Ohio have laws against murder. The person is charged with breaking the law in the jurisdiction in which the crime is committed. So as the church, we are not under the Law of Moses which is for a different jurisdiction. 

Or consider a law that has been repealed. One can no longer be charged with a law that is not in effect. So a person may commit murder in Detroit, but he can no more be charged with breaking the Law of Israel than he can with breaking the law of Ancient Rome. Neither jurisdiction exists to bring charges.

The fact that 9 of 10 commandments are repeated is significant, isn't it? Why isn't the Sabbath command repeated?

TylerR's picture

Editor

When I was in the military, I was under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One offense in the punitive articles is Desertion (Art. 85). There is not a civilian equivalent to this offense. 

  • While I was in the military, I could have been charged with this offense if I had committed it
  • I am not in the military anymore, so the offense has been nullified and abolished forever to me. 

There is another offense, Manslaughter (Art. 119). There is a civilian equivalent to this offense:

  • However, I'm not in the military anymore. I can be charged with manslaughter if I commit it, but it won't be an offense under the UCMJ. I'm not in the military anymore! I would be charged under the equivilent local or state statute. 

What does this mean?

  • Some offenses are just abolished and done with. They are not applicable to me anymore because I'm not under military jurisdiction any longer.
  • Others have direct parallels to civilian life, but the jurisdiction is quite different. I am subject to the laws of Illinois, not the UCMJ. 

This is a brief and simplistic explanation, but it a way forward toward understanding the relationship between the laws of the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. 

Here is an interesting question - which law is it that God wrote upon our hearts when He saved us?!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

SBashoor's picture

I used to believe and preach a trichotomized approach to Law. But over time and after sitting in on John Feinberg lectures, I came to see the Mosaic Code as the operating system of the Mosaic Covenant and not as a universal code of human conduct, not even the 10 commandments. That said, I think that many Mosaic laws can be categorized into one of the three. But there certainly are squishy ones that don't really fit so well, and the fact that no-one in the long train of biblical history makes these sort of distinctions should give us pause from making it part of the operating system.

I like Tyler's illustrations about UCMJ and his life as civilian.

I've illustrated it using references to the Articles of Confederation (1781) versus the US Constitution (1789). The Articles are part of our heritage and are informative and valuable, but they do not codify the system under which we live.

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's entirely possible to group portions of the Law into three types for some purpose yet not separate them at all for other purposes.

When speaking of the covenant relationship God established with Israel, the Law is one, a unit. When considering what sort of stipulations it included, it's pretty easy to see the difference between 'thou shalt not kill' and 'don't wear garments woven of differing fibers.'

The real question isn't "Are there 3 different kinds of rules in the Law?" but rather, "What basis do we have for handling the different kinds of rules differently today?" More precisely, is there any NT reason to suppose that stipulations of type A continue to be binding but stipulations of type B and/or C do not?

My view is that God's standard of righteousness is timeless and the Mosaic covenant is but one expression of it for a particular group of people for a particular space of time. The entire covenant, with all of its stipulations, regardless of type, has been superseded (Paul specifically includes the parts 'engraved in stone' as passing away). However, some of it's rules are identical to God's timeless standard of righteousness (His Law--in the higher, non-Mosaic sense).

To say it another way, "do no murder" as Mosaic covenant requirement is defunct, but "do no murder" as God's standard of righteousness endures. (Not coincidentally, the standards of righteous conduct that endure are all repeated and reapplied in the NT... but it is not accurate to say that a piece of the Mosaic Covenant is binding today on people who are not even parties to the covenant.)

...looks to me like Tyler's analogy of the UMCJ vs. civilian law is a good illustration of what I'm talking about.

 

Bill Roach's picture

Aaron,

You stated, "Not coincidentally, the standards of righteous conduct that endure are all repeated and reapplied in the NT."

Would you agree that bestiality is still wrong?  I don't think that is repeated in the NT.

I think the position that we only obey laws that are repeated in the NT is a slippery slope.

Bill

Bert Perry's picture

It's interesting to note that the author really misses the point about the division; it does not follow from rabbinic literature or the basic structure of the Torah at all, but rather from how Christ, Paul, and the other New Testament authors deal with the law.  The moral portion of the law is largely repeated in the New Testament, while the civil and ceremonial laws are largely rebuked in places like Galatians.  

We might also posit that the reason the moral law is kept and the others are not is that the ceremonial laws were intended for Temple worship--we now being the Temple and being cleaned by the blood of the lamb, it no longer applies--and that we are no longer Israel, as Tyler notes.

I would also agree that "only holding to the laws that are repeated in the New Testament" is a somewhat perilous position, but really....part of moral calculus is applying what we know (say Romans 1 regarding homosexuality as a penalty for sin) and considering what we don't know (say bestiality) in light of what we do.  That's what we do with abortion, tobacco, most of our hard drugs, and the like, no?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

John J Stewart's picture

The goal of using the trichotomies seems to be to identify the Moral and then use that classification as a justification of extending it to the Church age.  As Larry says, compartmentalizing isn't a valid scriptural method.

John J. Stewart

Larry's picture

Moderator

 how Christ, Paul, and the other New Testament authors deal with the law.

Bert, Can you point us to the NT examples of this?

Bert Perry's picture

Larry, good question.  For New Testament examples of where the moral law is referenced by Christ, of course you start with the Sermon on the Mount.  Go also to Romans 1.  

For passages which make clear that the ceremonial laws do not apply, look then to Jesus' teaching on inner and outer cleanliness, Peter's "Kill and eat" experience, and the book of Galatians.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Bert, that's not what I was looking for. I was looking for NT evidence that the Law is divided into three parts, one of which is still enforcible and the other two not. Your examples don't provide that. It seems like you are conflating the moral law of God with the moral provisions of the Mosaic Law. But I will await further clarification from you on this.

Bert Perry's picture

Larry, that's about what is there.  It's simply an inference from how the New Testament uses the portions of the law we now call moral, civil, and ceremonial.  Kinda like the Trinity is inferred from how the Scripture speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. KJVO activists aside, even the "Trinitarian" passages of the NT don't really establish the Trinity.  It's rather inferred from the context of Scripture as a whole.

And if you note that the boundaries between civil, ceremonial, and moral law seem fuzzy at times, I agree totally, and even suspect that sometimes, when Paul speaks of the "Law", he's talking about both the Torah Moses wrote and the Midrash, Talmud, and other Jewish commentary on the written Torah.

So it's not a line carved in granite, but it is a useful tool for understanding that when we approach the Torah, there are parts designed for Israel's civic life, parts dealing with offerings and ritual purity, and parts describing the moral life of man.  Or, what Jim says.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Greg Long's picture

I agree that there is no biblical basis for the tripartite division of the OT law.

Bert, let me ask you: Is "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" moral, ceremonial, or civil (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21)?

Recently I taught a class called "Exploring Other Faiths" at our church and we toured places of worship of the five major world religions as well as attended a religious service at each one. When we toured the local Conservative Jewish synagogue, the Lay Cantor--when explaining why they have two kitchens--said, "We separate dairy and meat. Why? Because three times in the Torah it says not to boil a kid in its mother's milk, and when something is stated three times it must be pretty important."

(Interestingly enough, he also told us they would prefer a same-sex wedding at the synagogue, but not the wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew.)

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bill Roach wrote:

Aaron,

You stated, "Not coincidentally, the standards of righteous conduct that endure are all repeated and reapplied in the NT."

Would you agree that bestiality is still wrong?  I don't think that is repeated in the NT.

I think the position that we only obey laws that are repeated in the NT is a slippery slope.

Bill 

Good question, Bill. Definitely had my wheels turning for a bit there. ... I think we have to recognize that neither the NT nor the Mosaic Law are a comprehensive list of everything that is wrong to do. In the case of bestiality, we don't really need a Mosaic prohibition to know it's wrong. It's pretty clear from the passages that teach us the place sex is supposed to have in the unique relationship of marriage. But, that said, I suspect the case can also be made that the NT's Greek term, porneia, would include bestiality... so it's probable that the NT does directly forbid it after all.

Important as results-arguments might be (slippery slope), it's a bit of a distraction from the root question: what is the believer's relationship to the Mosaic Covenant? The NT seems clear to me that we are simply not parties to it. What's in it is still for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16), but we don't relate to it as covenant parties.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

 

Bill Roach wrote:

 

Aaron,

You stated, "Not coincidentally, the standards of righteous conduct that endure are all repeated and reapplied in the NT."

Would you agree that bestiality is still wrong?  I don't think that is repeated in the NT.

I think the position that we only obey laws that are repeated in the NT is a slippery slope.

Bill 

 

Good question, Bill. Definitely had my wheels turning for a bit there. ... I think we have to recognize that neither the NT nor the Mosaic Law are a comprehensive list of everything that is wrong to do. In the case of bestiality, we don't really need a Mosaic prohibition to know it's wrong. It's pretty clear from the passages that teach us the place sex is supposed to have in the unique relationship of marriage. But, that said, I suspect the case can also be made that the NT's Greek term, porneia, would include bestiality... so it's probable that the NT does directly forbid it after all.

Important as results-arguments might be (slippery slope), it's a bit of a distraction from the root question: what is the believer's relationship to the Mosaic Covenant? The NT seems clear to me that we are simply not parties to it. What's in it is still for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16), but we don't relate to it as covenant parties.

Exactly. Bottom line is that NT believers are not under the Mosaic law - period. To extend Aaron's point, it is interesting that 9 of the 10 commandments are repeated in the NT for believers of this age. Only the command to keep the Sabbath is left out as worship moved to the first day of the week. This is a nut-shell example of the the whole system that was exchanged at the cross. 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Wayne Wilson's picture

Since Paul says "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Why shouldn't the New Covenant believer use it as a guide? That's really what we're talking about here.

Personally, I think the Reformers were correct about the Third Use of the Law, and the threefold division found in the Westminster Confession is very reasonable and not that hard to tease out. Clearly, the ceremonial laws are fulfilled in Christ. He personally changed the dietary laws.  The church is not a nation-state, so the criminal code, while not practiced by Christians in the church (which is not a state) continues to be a model for justice. 

All of it is holy, righteous and good. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

I see it this way, too.  House and Ice did a book on Reconstructionism that does a good job addressing the Law.  The way they put it, the Law reflects God's moral standards (which do not change) along with his special commands adapted for his dealings with Israel.  The New Testament contains God's unchanging moral standards plus his special commands for the church. The overlap is, therefore, a reflection of God's unchanging moral/spiritual standards.

 

 

Aaron Blumer wrote:

It's entirely possible to group portions of the Law into three types for some purpose yet not separate them at all for other purposes.

When speaking of the covenant relationship God established with Israel, the Law is one, a unit. When considering what sort of stipulations it included, it's pretty easy to see the difference between 'thou shalt not kill' and 'don't wear garments woven of differing fibers.'

The real question isn't "Are there 3 different kinds of rules in the Law?" but rather, "What basis do we have for handling the different kinds of rules differently today?" More precisely, is there any NT reason to suppose that stipulations of type A continue to be binding but stipulations of type B and/or C do not?

My view is that God's standard of righteousness is timeless and the Mosaic covenant is but one expression of it for a particular group of people for a particular space of time. The entire covenant, with all of its stipulations, regardless of type, has been superseded (Paul specifically includes the parts 'engraved in stone' as passing away). However, some of it's rules are identical to God's timeless standard of righteousness (His Law--in the higher, non-Mosaic sense).

To say it another way, "do no murder" as Mosaic covenant requirement is defunct, but "do no murder" as God's standard of righteousness endures. (Not coincidentally, the standards of righteous conduct that endure are all repeated and reapplied in the NT... but it is not accurate to say that a piece of the Mosaic Covenant is binding today on people who are not even parties to the covenant.)

...looks to me like Tyler's analogy of the UMCJ vs. civilian law is a good illustration of what I'm talking about.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Larry, that's about what is there.  It's simply an inference from how the New Testament uses the portions of the law we now call moral, civil, and ceremonial.  Kinda like the Trinity is inferred from how the Scripture speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. KJVO activists aside, even the "Trinitarian" passages of the NT don't really establish the Trinity.  It's rather inferred from the context of Scripture as a whole.

And if you note that the boundaries between civil, ceremonial, and moral law seem fuzzy at times, I agree totally, and even suspect that sometimes, when Paul speaks of the "Law", he's talking about both the Torah Moses wrote and the Midrash, Talmud, and other Jewish commentary on the written Torah.

So it's not a line carved in granite, but it is a useful tool for understanding that when we approach the Torah, there are parts designed for Israel's civic life, parts dealing with offerings and ritual purity, and parts describing the moral life of man.  Or, what Jim says.

I know I embrace different perspectives than most here, but much of the New Testament is a midrash on the Old, including the Law.  The question is this: do modern pastors have a right to develop new midrashim from the Law, or was that restricted to the foundation-laying apostles and authors the New Testament?  I think we do have a right to develop tentative midrashim (while broadcasting our fallibility) but only if in accord with revealed New Testament doctrine.

So some test cases would be:  (1) Should we forbid tattoos?  (2) Can a man sleep with his wife during her period?  (3) If a man married a woman, divorces her, and marries another whom he also divorces, can he re-marry his first wife?  And -- an even more difficult example based on Acts 15 -- is it okay for a believer to eat a blood sausage?  This last one to me is clear: no.  Acts 15 is not part of the Law.  Still, not everyone would agree with that, either.  Based on a tri-partite division, this would be ceremonial. But it was (and, IMO, still is) in force for gentile believers!

We have here a very complicated issue.  And, to make matters worse, I am preaching on this very subject Sunday in my series on I Timothy (1:6-11)!

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Larry's picture

Moderator

We have here a very complicated issue.

I am still not sure what's complicated. Those who keep part of the law must keep all of the law (Gal 5:3). So it's either all in force, or none of it is in force. There is no biblical means by which to pick and choose which laws to enforce or not, or which penalties to enforce or not. So even if you could by some means determine which laws fit into which category, it wouldn't matter since the stands or falls as a whole, including its penalties.

DavidO's picture

There is no biblical means by which to pick and choose which laws to enforce or not, or which penalties to enforce or not.

If there is a biblical warrant for dispensationalism (just one means of distinguishing the theocratic nation of Isreal from the church), then can't we use it as at least partial basis for selecting the national laws/tax code as unenforceable by the church?

And if Jesus and Paul expressly did away with some of the ceremonial laws, can't we be confident in selecting them for obsolescence?

And if Jesus and the NT writers reiterated a certain portion of the table, do we not have a basis for selecting those for some sort of practical use?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Wanted to comment on this one...

Since Paul says "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Why shouldn't the New Covenant believer use it as a guide? That's really what we're talking about here.

We know the Mosaic Law has continuing instructive value. It is preserved for our learning. The challenge is to get the boundaries right between learning from it/being guided by it vs. seeing it as commands to obey. The latter leads to lots of tricky sorting out which commands are binding and which aren't. But there is really no need for that.

In the case of the Romans quote, I'm not sure Paul is even talking specifically about Mosaic Law there, but rather God's standard of righteousness in general... which always condemns us, regardless of OT or NT expressions. But even if he is referring to Moses, his pt. is that as a standard of righteousness the law is good and holy and reveals that we are not. He isn't teaching there that some portion of the Mosaic Covenant stipulations is still binding.

DavidO wrote:

There is no biblical means by which to pick and choose which laws to enforce or not, or which penalties to enforce or not.

If there is a biblical warrant for dispensationalism (just one means of distinguishing the theocratic nation of Isreal from the church), then can't we use it as at least partial basis for selecting the national laws/tax code as unenforceable by the church?

And if Jesus and Paul expressly did away with some of the ceremonial laws, can't we be confident in selecting them for obsolescence?

And if Jesus and the NT writers reiterated a certain portion of the table, do we not have a basis for selecting those for some sort of practical use?

On the first question, I'm not sure what you mean. Dispensationalism would understand the covenant as being between God and Israel, so there would not be any direct use of covenant provisions for nations outside the covenant. There could be underlying principles that speak to ordering a society well, but these would have to be carefully derived... and held w/an appropriate level of uncertainty.  I've often pointed out, in the context of other arguments, that when God organized His people into a nation, He included this or that as part of the structure.... suggesting there is some wisdom in this as social policy. At the very least, we can look at these and conclude that in at least some circumstances doing things the OT Israel way is the best way. But that's not saying a whole lot given that so much was unique.

Laws Jesus and Paul set aside..  It is possible to filter down, using Jesus, Paul, Acts (I'm thinking of the Cornelius and Peter sequence as well as Jerusalem Council). But it's much simpler to take 2 Cor. 3:7 and context at face value (as well as the logic of who was included in the cov't to begin with) and understand that covenant stipulations are simply not binding on those outside the covenant.... all of us.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I presume that was to me, David.

To the first, yes, the biblical warrant for dispensationalism is the warrant to see the Law as not applicable to the church. The NT expressly says that the time of Law is over.

To the second, yes, we should be confident in seeing the Law as obsolete for the church.

To the third, the laws that the NT sets out for believers should be used. But we use them because they are set forth in the NT, not because they are part of the Law. That two different entities might have the same law should not be surprising or troubling. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

Larry wrote:

We have here a very complicated issue.

I am still not sure what's complicated. Those who keep part of the law must keep all of the law (Gal 5:3). So it's either all in force, or none of it is in force. There is no biblical means by which to pick and choose which laws to enforce or not, or which penalties to enforce or not. So even if you could by some means determine which laws fit into which category, it wouldn't matter since the stands or falls as a whole, including its penalties.

 

Larry, you are only dealing with whether the Law is to be enforced or not.  That's why you say it is easy.  Applying the Law to NT believers is what is hard.  All Scripture....including the Torah is inspired AND profitable (2 Tim. 3:16-17); it is meant for us to study and use --- and therein lies the complexity.  

"The Midrash Detective"

Wayne Wilson's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

 

In the case of the Romans quote, I'm not sure Paul is even talking specifically about Mosaic Law there, but rather God's standard of righteousness in general... which always condemns us, regardless of OT or NT expressions. But even if he is referring to Moses, his pt. is that as a standard of righteousness the law is good and holy and reveals that we are not. He isn't teaching there that some portion of the Mosaic Covenant stipulations is still binding.

Aaron, I'm not understanding how you could think Paul wasn't talking about the Law of Moses in Romans 7. Can you explain that view a bit more?  He references it directly several times and speaks of when the commandment came. How can that square with a "general" standard of righteousness? 

6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. 7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me."

 

Greg Long's picture

Wayne, doesn't that passage pretty clearly say that we are released from the Law and no longer bound by it?

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

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