A Westminster Divine on the Threefold Distinction in the Law

“First, concerning the law of God, you know there are some of them:

1. Ceremonial, which consisted in Rights, and Ordinances, and Shadows, typifying Jesus Christ in his sufferings, unto which there was a full period put by the death of Christ.
2. Judicial, which respecteth the Jews as a peculiar Nation and Commonwealth, being made and fitted for them, as in such a particular polity: And all those judicial Laws (especially these de jure particulari) are ceased by the cessation of that Nation and polity.
3. Moral, which are set down in the Decalogue, and are called the ten words (or Commandments) which God spake and delivered. Of the ten commandments (which we call the Moral Law) is the question to be understood, whether believers, or people in the New Covenant are bound by them.” Read more»

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  1. The distinction might be useful for systematic theology but I have trouble seeing it as exegetically justified. Where does Paul – or any other NT author – draw these fine distinctions? To the NT authors the Mosaic code could only be taken in toto (cf. Gal 5:3); they would not understand dividing it up and asserting the continuing necessity of obedience to certain portions and the abrogation of others.

    • David,

      I’m a little surprised by the naivete displayed in your response. Do you really want to juxtapose systematics and biblical theology thus? The Reformed haven’t historically done this and Sedgwick’s comments here reflect the synthesis between what we today call BT and ST that were common before the liberals drove a wedge between them. Surely you’re familiar with the story of Warfield and Vos walking arm and arm (literally) around the campus of old Princeton seminary. That is a wonderful picture of the natural relationship between the two disciplines.

      In this case, it is the Reformed reading of redemptive history (biblical theology) that caused them to take up this ancient distinction. All the Reformers adopted this distinction as a way of accounting for the continuity and discontinuity of redemptive history.

      Yes, we’re all aware that contemporary biblical scholarship doesn’t favor this distinction but that says less about the distinction than it says about the nature of contemporary biblical scholarship which tends to be a-historical and not infrequently ignorant about the history of exegesis. Fortunately, however much we profit from contemporary biblical scholarship we are not enslaved to the latest “breakthroughs.”

      Yes, all the laws were, in some sense, moral, civil, and ceremonial, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot distinguish between them for the purposes of placing them in their canonical perspective — something that some modern bib scholars refused to do.

      The value of this distinction is that it helps us understand the 1) the nature of the administration of redemption under the Israelite theocracy. There were laws that, as Sedwick noted, were particular to them and had a particular function that has expired. Some of those laws were aimed expressly at religious expressions and thus were primarily ceremonial in nature. Some of them were primarily aimed at regulating the civil life of Israel and are rightly regarded as specific to the Israelite theocracy.

      The decalogue was expressed in Israelite terms but it reflects the creational, moral law which is is universal and thus, mutatitis mutandis may be said to persist beyond the typological Israelite theocracy and cultus (worship). Our Lord himself indicated this when he summarized the entire Torah in two expressions: love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:37-40).

      The Reformed have valued this distinction because it articulates the permanence of the moral law, grounded in creation and re-articulated at Sinai and in the New Covenant. It also helps us understand the temporary, typological nature of the Israelite laws. This is why Calvin ridiculed the idea of the re-establishment of the Israelite civil law as foolish.

      This understanding of the ceremonial law also helped deliver us from the medieval and Roman re-establishment of the Mosaic/typological worship and priesthood.

      Looking about, it seems to be that this distinction continues to have value since we seem to afflicted with the same diseases that the Reformers faced in the 16th century.

    • It seems to me that Hebrews is just one example that shows that the law is not always used in the NT to refer to the whole law but can specifically refer to redemptive, sacrificial law. Here are some quotations from commentators:

      H. Windisch: “[Hebrews views the law] not as a prescription for the behavior of the individual, but as the sum of sacrificial regulations for the ancient cultic community.” Cited by Bruce, pg. 167.

      Lane: “The law here is perceived in terms of the ordinance regarding legal descent and certain standards of bodily qualification and ritual purity.”

      Lane: “Cockerill has made the point that law in Hebrews is seen in terms of priesthood and sacrifice, and consequently the expression kata ton nomon in vs. 5 denotes ‘according to the Levitical religious system.’”


      • Patrick,

        The question is not whether “nomos” can refer to specific aspects of the Mosaic code. Everyone would agree to that. In fact I would say it’s because the Mosaic law was a “package deal” that the part can stand for the whole.

        The question is rather whether analytic distinctions in the Mosaic code (e.g. as to what type of law x is) are ever important to the NT, so that the ongoing validity of some aspects of the law is asserted and the abrogation of other aspects.

        David DeJong

        • David,

          The author of Hebrews uses law in a narrow sense and then says that the law is abrogated. Since he is using law in a narrow sense he is not saying that the whole law is abrogated, but only a part of it. Unless of course, I suppose, you impose upon the author of Hebrews the view that the Mosaic Law must continue or discontinue as a whole so that if a part is abrogated then then whole is abrogated. But this fails to do justice to Hebrews itself, the rest of the Scriptures that make distinctions between laws, and the NT’s direct appeal to OT law.


          • Well, I am just interested in the “rest of the Scriptures that make distinctions between laws,” since you haven’t actually shown any scriptural author doing that.

            Hebrews does dwell on Sabbath, which is the 4th commandment (Hebr 4)–again, our distinctions between ceremonial/civil/moral may be nice but its not the way the NT authors actually thought about the law nor is it so neat and tidy in practice.

            It’s more likely that when reflecting on a general moral law the NT authors didn’t think of the 10 words but of the law as written on the hearts of mankind, so that all people are capable of knowing what is right (Rom 2).



    • The ceremonial law is easily show to be fulfilled by the one sacrifice of Christ over and over again in the NT. Hebrews, Colossians, and Ephesians are just several examples of this.

      The judicial law is a bit more ambiguous but obviously in the NT the nation of Israel is no longer an independent, self-governing theocracy.

      And the Lutheran and Reformed exegesis of law and Gospel clearly shows that the moral law has three uses. I find this distinction helpful.


  2. You misunderstand me. I’m not attempting to oppose ST and BT, but I am concerned that two distinct disciplines are not flattened out into one. As I said, I do believe there is value to the distinction from a systematic perspective. And your point about our Lord’s words is well taken – probably the best argument for the ongoing validity of the 10 words, though he does not actually cite them (it’s Deut 6 following by Lev 19). There’s an exegetical question there – whether he was referring to the 10 words by means of two other passages from Torah.

    Look, I love the picture of Vos and Warfield, and I’m certainly not trying to prioritize one discipline over another. But I am concerned to practice exegesis with integrity, which means that it may be anachronistic to assume that this fully-developed distinction is present in the NT itself. In fact, Paul lumps sabbath with what in terms of systematics we might define as “ceremonial” law. Things are not as neat and tidy on the exegetical ground as they end up in the systematic textbooks.

  3. “this ancient distinction…contemporary biblical scholarship which tends to be a-historical and not infrequently ignorant about the history of exegesis. Fortunately, however much we profit from contemporary biblical scholarship we are not enslaved to the latest “breakthroughs.”

    Dr. Clark, to the best of my knowledge, church history’s first record of the 3-fold distinction of the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil is by the Roman Catholic philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. (See his quote below.) As a church historian, can you confirm that?

    “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. Wherefore the Apostle (Romans 7:12) after saying that the “Law is holy,” adds that “the commandment is just, and holy, and good”: “just,” in respect of the judicial precepts; “holy,” with regard to the ceremonial precepts (since the word “sanctus”–“holy”–is applied to that which is consecrated to God); and “good,” i.e. conducive to virtue, as to the moral precepts.” http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2099.htm

  4. Greg,

    Yes, Thomas used this distinction. It’s quite anachronistic to describe Thomas as a “Roman Catholic” theologian. He was a medieval Western theologian and he was made “a Roman Catholic” theologian in the Romanist counter Reformation but our theologians quoted him frequently. Yes, we have significant disagreements with him but we also understand that he mediated to us a good deal of patristic and early medieval theology. The fact that Thomas taught something doesn’t make it false or else predestination, the Trinity, and a good number of other widely held (catholic) doctrines are false and that’s just silly.

    Thomas didn’t invent this distinction. It can be found materially in the Fathers (e.g., Justin and Irenaeus) who were sorting out the same problem of continuity and discontinuity between the typological period and the time of fulfillment.

  5. My point was to show that the 13th century distinction is not ancient history. Can you can quote Justin, Irenaeus, etc. documenting part or all of the distinction?

    • Greg,

      Do you imagine that Thomas’ distinction appeared out of thin air in the 13th century? Very little of what Thomas did was absolutely original with him. He was intentionally trying to show the harmony of the Christian tradition he inherited.

      I said that Justin and Ireneus make materially the same distinctions against the Marcionites to show the substantial continuity of the covenant of grace. The moral law persists but that which is specific to Moses (e.g., the civil and ceremonial law) don’t.

      They wrote entire treatises, in effect, on this basic problem. The difficulty is not where they said it but where they didn’t.

      In Justin see his Dialogue with Trypho chapters 10ff.

      In Irenaeus see Against Heresies 4.7ff

    • Greg,

      In his work, ‘Justin Martyr and the Mosaic Law’, (Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature, 1975), Theodore Stylianopoulos argues that Justin held to a threefold division and documents the same. I don’t know if this is still in print, but he is still professor of NT at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, so you could always ask him.

  6. Here are some of the sources I tracked down for the threefold division of the law for a ThM paper I wrote.

    So commonplace was this threefold division that John Calvin could call it a “common division” (Institutes, 4.20.14) and Melanchthon “the old and customary divisions” (Melanchthon, Loci Communes 1555, Baker, 1982, 83; cf. Bullinger, Decades, 2.2; Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, XVII.v.). Later in the seventeenth century, Francis Turretin would write in his Institutio theologiae elencticae (11.24.1) that the law was “usually distinguished into three species (Lex per Mosem lata in tres species solet distingui).

    Where did this division of the law come from? In speaking of Calvin’s doctrine of the law, I. John Hesselink traced the threefold division back to the medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (Calvin’s Concept of the Law, Pickwick, 1992, 102).
    “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.” (Summa Theologica I Ilae, xcix, 4)

    Aquinas located this distinction in Scripture in the words of Deuteronomy 6:1, which mentions the commandments (moral), statues (ceremonial), and judgments (judicial) of the LORD. As well, he looks to Paul’s words in Romans 7:12, which speaks of the law as holy (ceremonial), righteous (judicial), and good (moral).

    Just prior to Aquinas John of La Rochelle sought to reestablish the traditional Christian reading of the law against William of Auvergne in his Tractatus de praeceptis et legibus (ca. 1236–1245). John wrote that the law was divided into three: “moralia clarified the law of nature; iudicialia represed evil desire and served as a source for the wicked; ceremoniala signified the law of grace” (Cited in Stephen J. Casselli, “The Threefold Division Of The Law In The Thought Of Aquinas,” WTJ 61:2, 198).

    Aquinas, though, cited Augustine (354–430) for this distinction. Augustine said, for example, in his treatise against Faustus, “For example, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is a moral precept, ‘Thou shalt circumcise every male on the eighth day’ is a symbolical precept” (Contra Faustum, 6.2). When answering how he would answer a Jew as to why he did not follow all the law if he believed the Old Testament, he said, “The moral precepts of the law are observed by Christians; the symbolical precepts were properly observed during the time that the things now revealed were prefigured” (Contra Faustum, 10.2). Other evidence is how the Fathers made distinctions between different kinds of laws, although not using the terminology we are accustomed to. Tertullian (160–220) distinguished “the primordial law” or “the natural law” from “the sacerdotal law” or “the Levitical law” (Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, 2 and 5).

  7. Danny’s quotes are helpful, and Richard’s link is even more helpful. (Although I disagree with the interpretation that those quotes for distinction support partial abrogation, and partial continuity.)

    This has been a helpful thread to document some historical developments in doctrine. So here are 2 related questions…

    1. Who first called Sunday the “Sabbath,” and when?
    2. Who first appled the 4th command to Sunday, and when?

    (I suspect the answers are the 16-17th centuries?)

    • Greg,

      There’s a brief history of the Sabbath in RRC with footnotes to other resources. The Sunday sabbath (with the use of the 4th commandment) most assuredly did not begin in the 16th century!

  8. Dr. Clark, how do you interpret Packer’s famous quote…

    “The Puritans created the English Christian Sunday-that is, the conception and observance of the first day of the week as one on which both business and organised recreations should be in abeyance, and the whole time left free for worship, fellowship, and ‘good works’.” Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 235.

    • Well it’s a bit of hyperbole isn’t it? Did the Sabbath take on new significance, was practice refined, sure! It was a Reformation after all but the Sunday sabbath was not created in the 16th century.

    • Packer is almost always excellent, but on a few historical details he misses the mark. This is one example. Another is in A Quest for Godliness where he argues that John Owen and the Puritans invented the RPW while Calvin never held to such a notion. I think I graciously but conclusively showed in my ThM thesis that this is factually/historically incorrect.

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