Wrestling with God’s Law as Ceremonial, Civil, & Moral

In light of recent posts that have touched on the overarching structure of Scripture and how the OT and the NT properly interact, I’m curious…how do you all feel about the traditional division of the law (moral, ceremonial, civil), and how would you say it’s proper to determine that something from the OT does *not* carry over?

While there is significant preceding evidence that God entered into covenantal relationship with humans, at Sinai he specifically and exhaustively made clear—in a manner intended to be received by all who heard it, and to endure for all to come—that he intended to relate to mankind in a covenantal manner. He thus promised to be faithful to his chosen (elected) people, and they in turn were expected to obey his law or Torah. The law dictated the lifestyle of the people and reflected how a human was to relate to God, to others, to self and to material things (see McGonigle & Quigley, A History of the Christian Tradition from Its Jewish Origins to the Reformation, pg. 34).

To the degree that these laws directly reflected the nature of God in universal and timeless application these laws have never and will never be annulled. Laws of this nature have sometimes, helpfully, been called the moral law of God. Those laws appear in seemingly random places throughout Scripture and are variously summarized in multiple places and ways, including the 10 Commandments, the 2 Great Commandments, Micah 6:8, and elsewhere.

It is impossible to ignore the observable reality that within the Sinai legislation are laws peculiar to the situation of national Israel within the Land of Promise, ruled by judges and magistrates constrained by the Sinai legislation as their national law, and in the presence of a functioning Tabernacle/Temple system. Christian men have therefore sometimes quickly summarized those laws which endure with universal application as moral, those which apply specifically to the Temple system as ceremonial, and those which specifically direct the nation-state of Israel in the Land and governing themselves as civil. This shorthand description can function as a helpful categorization in aid to the complex process of deriving healthy, biblical application in diverse times and places.

To the degree that so-called ceremonial or civil laws reflect the character of God in a universally applicable manner, these laws remain binding in every age, though they do not, necessarily, direct all men in every place with specificity. So, all men everywhere are required to acknowledge God and no god before Him (Ex. 20:2-3), yet it is also true that all men everywhere are not mandated to redeem their firstborn son for the price of five shekels, to be given to the sons of Aaron (Num. 3:40-51).

There are several Reformation-era statements on these matters that are very helpful, especially when read as summary statements, reflecting extensive underlying exegetical work. Here are two that I especially like:

I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.

(Johannes Wollebius [1589-1629]), Compendium theologiae christianae)

VII. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

(39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

I’ve been giving this topic significant thought for several years now. In fact, I think I first mentioned it briefly in public at the 2013 New England Messianic Conference. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the topic recently because I think I’m finally making some progress in articulating something that will make sense to people. For a long time it was something I was intuiting, and I struggled to convey what I meant.

One thing I believe we should acknowledge is that the stereotypical response of pro-Torah people to this topic has not been well thought out, or sensitive to historical context. Among the Reformers and their early descendants (with some exceptions) references to the tripartite division of the Law were not meant to be rationale for how to escape the present applicability of God’s law, but used as a short-hand reference to figuring out how to apply God’s law. Unfortunately, being not well-informed on Reformation-era thought, too many have reacted against one sentence in the 19th chapter of the Westminster Confession (echoed in Chapter 19 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession), without being familiar with the broader context in which those statements were made.

I think we can all agree that figuring out how to apply God’s law to our contemporary situation is rarely easy. Just like “circumcision” had become shorthand for the proselyte conversion process in the 2nd Temple era, the division of the law into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories had become shorthand during the Reformation era and following for referring to the significant wrestling they had done to determine the manner in which God’s law should be applied in their time period.

But we read, “All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament,” and we freak out. Forgetting how precise these folks were in their working out of these concise statements. See, for example, the two quotes above.

There are at least four items of background we need to be aware of when considering this topic:

  1. For the Reformers, the reference to a tripartite categorization of God’s law was not a way to escape keeping God’s law, but a shorthand reference to textual exegesis focused on the manner in which his law should be kept.
  2. Over time, however, at least in practice if not in theology, this idea became a justification for why, essentially, nothing more than the 10 Commandments applied to contemporary Gentile believers.
  3. Dispensationalists seized on the complexity of the problem and the inevitable resulting inconsistency and said, “See, you can’t do this, it’s a unified whole and you must acknowledge that the entire thing has been done away with.”
  4. In reaction against the Dispensationalist’s view, which had increasingly influenced the practice, if not the theology, of Reformed people in the pews, Pro-Torah folks (ironically) insisted that the Dispensationalists were right and the law could not be categorized into parts, but must be accepted as a unified whole, but then in practice continued to inconsistently practice only those things which might be described as moral, while ignoring all those things which might apply to our congregational life (ceremonial) or political scene (civil).

It is time for us to stop reacting and to continue proactively articulating historically sensitive, theologically mature, biblically defensible, and eminently practical statements of our own. These will correct but not reject the overwhelmingly faithful line of reliable saints who have preceded us.

2 thoughts on “Wrestling with God’s Law as Ceremonial, Civil, & Moral

  1. Excellent post, Nate.

    To me it seems logical to consider that the ceremonial laws have been necessarily suspended… but certainly not abrogated.

    Michael J. Vlach wrote an interesting book titled, “Has the Church replaced Israel? A Theological Evaluation”… if you have not read it, you might want check it out. Amazon carries it.

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