Philip S. Ross’s ten reasons to affirm the historic, three-fold distinction of law in the Old Covenant.
The law in the Old Testament is a unified whole, not a patchwork of random rules and stories, but that doesn’t mean we can treat it all the same because within the laws of the Old Covenant there are discernible classes of laws. If you’ve ever wondered why Christians are prohibited from coveting but are now allowed to eat pork then you’ve already encountered these important distinctions.
Distinctions: Moral, Civil, CeremonialTraditionally, theologians across the theological spectrum have recognized that some of the laws of the Old Covenant were universal laws that bind all-men without exception (called moral), some werelaws that applied to the everyday activities of Israel as a nation (called civil) , and some were laws that were binding before Christ though not tied specifically to the land (called ceremonial). And though some modern movements (e.g. New Covenant Theology, Theonomy) deny it, there are good reasons for affirming this historic, three-fold distinction of moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.
Reasons to AffirmToday I want to give you the top ten reasons to affirm this three-fold distinction of the Old Covenant law. These and other reasons are found in Philip S. Ross’s excellent book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law.
- A special name — Only the moral law, as found in The Ten Commandments, was set apart by a special name: Ten Words. (Exod 34:28; Deut 4;13; 10:4).
- Written in stone — Only the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets (Deut 4:13).
- By the finger of God —Only the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exod 31:18.)
- Location, location, location — The Ten Commandments were placed in the ark (Exod 25:16, 21-22). The other laws were set next to the ark (Deut 31:26).
- The end — After the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:7-21) Scripture says that God “added no more” (Deut 5:22). Since there were still other laws to come, it means he added nothing else to the Ten Commandments. In other words, though there are other commandments there is no such thing as the Eleven Commandments.
- Laws from the pattern — Though both the civil and ceremonial laws are typological, only the tabernacle and all the ceremonial laws connected with it (Exod 25-Lev 7) are derived from the “pattern” Moses was shown in heaven (Exod 25:9, 40; Heb 8:5).
- Laws for the land — Unlike the moral and ceremonial law, the “statutes and ordinances” of the civil laws were to be only observed “in the land” (Deut 4:5, 14; 5:31; 6:1; 12:1).
- Fulfill or abolish — Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:17 and Paul’s statement in Eph 2:14-15 can only make sense if you recognize the three-fold distinction in the law.
- Apostolic teaching — The Apostles work within these categories. The moral laws are still binding (Eph 6:1), the civil laws have passed and we are now be subject to the non-Israelite laws (Rom 13:1), the ceremonial laws have passed away because they were types and shadows fulfilled in Christ (Col 2:16-17; Acts 11:9-12)
- It’s the catholic view— The three-fold distinction of the law is a doctrine that has united Christians from different times and in theological traditions. Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, and many others affirmed it.
Want to learn more about the law? Read these:
- “Of the Law of God,” Westminster Confession of Faith, 19
- Charles Hodge’s very insightful comments on other important distinctions in the law.
- Philip S. Ross’s book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law.