The early Christian theologians implicitly distinguished within the 613 Mosaic Commandments (as the rabbis numbered them) between the judicial, ceremonial, and moral law. The moral law refers to the natural law, the law issued in creation and symbolized by the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2;17). The substance of the moral law has always been to love God with all of one’s faculties and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt 22:37–40). The ceremonial laws refer to those specifically Jewish religious laws, e.g., ceremonial washings etc. (see the book of Leviticus). The judicial laws are those laws that pertained to the civil government (thus, sometimes called the civil laws) of the nation of Israel. The historic Christian consensus is reflected in the language of Westminster Confession of Faith:
21.4. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
This distinction was formalized by the Medieval theologians and passed down to the Protestant Reformers. In recent decades, however, this distinction has come under sustained criticism, for different reasons, by biblical scholars, theonomists, and broad evangelicals. The biblical scholarship guild tends to be either disinterested in the tradition distinction or hostile to it. One labors to find among them a careful discussion of the history or issues, however. The broad evangelical world does not seem to see the point in the distinction since all three categories belong to the Old Testament or because they tend toward biblicism, i.e., the reading of Scripture without reference to the history of interpretation or creeds. The theonomists oppose the distinction because it is fatal to their program to reimpose the Mosaic judicial laws in civil government. The traditional view, however, remain the best explanation of what Scripture says. Most Christians, historically, have recognized that, though there are ceremonial elements to the Ten Commandments as published at Sinai (see Ex 20; Deut 5), the substance of the Decalogue is identical to the moral law, which is the natural law, published in creation and re-stated repeatedly in the New Testament. The moral law is grounded in the nature of God, and therefore permanent, in a way that the Mosaic judicial and religious laws were not.
Because the judicial and ceremonial laws were published under the Old Covenant, i.e., Mosaic theocratic state, the line between them can sometimes be blurry. E.g., to violate a religious laws (e.g., the Sabbath regulations) was a civil crime and subject to civil punishment. The existence of difficulties, however, does not destroy the distinction. It can be difficult to distinguish immediately between one car and another but that does not mean that no distinction exists. Should we lose the distinction we risk either a program to reimpose them all or to eliminate them all. There is a reason why pre-modern students of Scripture and the Christian tradition articulated this distinction. It was not arbitrary.
- Philip S. Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (2010)
- The Law Of Christ Is The Moral Law
- Heidelberg 92: What Is The Law Of God?
- Evangelicalism And The Reformed View Of The Law
- A Westminster Divine on the Threefold Distinction in the Law
- Beza On The Threefold Division Of The Law
- Calvin On The Threefold Distinction In The Law And The Abrogation Of The Mosaic Civil Laws
- The Threefold Distinction In the Law Is Basic Reformed Theology
- The Westminster Divines on the Threefold Distinction
- Turretin On The Threefold Distinction In The Mosaic Law
- Casselli, Stephen J. “The Threefold Division of the Law in the Thought of Aquinas.” The Westminster Theological Journal 61, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 175–207
- Resources On Natural Law
- Resources On Theonomy And Reconstructionism
- Resources On the Doctrine of Sanctification And The Third Use Of The Law
- Resources on the Law/Gospel Distinction (Updated)
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