Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tripartite Division of God's Law

The threefold division of God's law -- expressed as the moral, ceremonial and judicial law -- receives confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 19.

John Calvin refers to it as a "well-known division" (Institutes 4.20.14):

We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.

Herman Witsius cites Calvin's successor likewise, The Economy of the Covenants, Vol. 2, p. 167:

And this very learned author himself [Theodore Beza] has elsewhere observed, that the words, {Heb.}, law, statutes, and judgments, are often synonymous; but whenever they are thus joined together, they are distinguished from each other by a peculiar signification; and that by {Heb.} is understood the moral law; by {Heb.}, the ceremonial, and by {Heb.} the forensic law.

Witsius goes on (pp. 168-169) to commend and quote John Lightfoot's summary of the tripartite division of the law.

John Lightfoot, Erubhin, or, Miscellanies, Chap. 59, in Works, Vol. 4, p. 79:

The ceremonial law, that concerned only the Jews, was given to Moses in private, in the tabernacle; and fell with the tabernacle, when the veil rent in twain. The moral law concerns the whole world; and it was given in sight of the whole world, on the top of a mountain; and must endure as long, as any mountain standeth. The judicial law (which is more indifferent, and may stand or fall, as seems best for the good of a commonwealth) was given, neither so public as the one, nor so private as the other; but in a mean between both.

Historically, this division of the Mosaic law can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia IIa q. 99, a. 4:

Article 4. Whether, besides the moral and ceremonial precepts, there are also judicial precepts?
It is written (Deuteronomy 6:1): "These are the precepts and ceremonies, and judgments": where "precepts" stands for "moral precepts" antonomastically. Therefore there are judicial precepts besides moral and ceremonial precepts.
I answer that, As stated above (2,3), it belongs to the Divine law to direct men to one another and to God. Now each of these belongs in the abstract to the dictates of the natural law, to which dictates the moral precepts are to be referred: yet each of them has to be determined by Divine or human law, because naturally known principles are universal, both in speculative and in practical matters. Accordingly just as the determination of the universal principle about Divine worship is effected by the ceremonial precepts, so the determination of the general precepts of that justice which is to be observed among men is effected by the judicial precepts.
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 Apostle 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.

Jonathan F. Bayes, in an article entitled The Threefold Division of the Law, traces the history of this construct of God's law back further to Justin Martyr and Barnabas. His essay is well worth reading.

Exegetically, the Reformed and others have looked to such scriptures which speak of "commandments, statutes and judgments" as Gen. 26.5; Deut. 5.31, 6.1, 11.1; and elsewhere, to rightly divide the law of God.

Matthew Poole, Synopsis Criticorum (Dr. Steven Dilday, trans., 2008 ed.), Vol. 3, pp. 78-79 (Gen. 26.5):

[And he kept my precepts, etc....] My observances...This is the name of a genus, of which three species follow (Ainsworth, Malvenda). [Heb.]/precepts are appointed to have respect to the moral law (Ainsworth, Dutch): {Heb.}/statutes, either the ceremonial law (Dutch, Malvenda), or natural law; for example, thou shalt worship one God (Ibn Ezra in Munster): {Heb.}/laws, either they look toward the doctrine which we are held to believe (Dutch), or unto ceremonies (Ibn Ezra in Munster). To these elsewhere are added {Heb.}/judgments, that is, political laws (Dutch).

Dutch Annotations:

Gen. 26.5 - my Commandments...my precepts, my institutions, (or statutes) and my laws [These four several terms are held to be thus distinguished; the first of all to be the general term, signifying whatsoever God commanded and ordained; and the latter three to respect things particular; as the precepts of the moral law; the institutions or statutes on the Ceremonial law, the laws on the doctrine of what we are obliged to believe, &c. Elsewhere there are added unto these, the rights, whereby are understood the Civil or Political Laws, Deut. 11.1.]

Deut. 5.31 - all the Commandements, and the Statutes, and the Judgments; [Concerning these three words immediately following each other; (according to the opinion of most Interpreters) the first of them signifieth the Moral Law, the second, the Ceremonial Laws, and the third the Judicial or Civil Laws]

Henry Ainsworth, Annotations on the Pentateuch and the Psalms, Vol. 1, p. 136 (Gen. 26.5):

Charge] Heb. keeping, or observation: that is, 'ordinances to be kept.' So in Lev. viii. 35 xxii. 9 Deut. xi. 1. Laws,] For this word, elsewhere the scriptures saith, 'judgments,' Deut. xi. 1 v. 1, 31. vi. 1, 20. vii. 11. viii. 11, &c. and under these three particulars, the whole 'charge' or 'custody' forespoken of, is comprehended; as afterward by Moses God gave the ten 'commandments,' or moral precepts, Exod. xx. 'Judgments,' or judicial laws for punishing transgressors, Exod. xxi, &c. 'and statutes,' or 'rules, ordinances,' and 'decrees,' for the service of God, Lev. iii. 17. vi. 18, 22. Exod. xii. 24. xxvii. 31. xxix. 9. xxx. 31. All which Abraham observed, and is commended of God therefore.

Francis Turretin, finally, provides a cogent explanation for the threefold division of God's law, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 145-146:

Twenty-Fourth Question: The Ceremonial Law
What was the end and the use of the ceremonial law under the Old Testament?

The Mosaic law threefold: moral, ceremonial, forensic.

I. The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species: moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbor); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil, constituting the civil government of the Israelite people. The first is the foundation upon which rests the obligation of the others and these are its appendices and determinations. Ceremonial has respect to the first table determining its circumstances, especially as to external worship. Civil has respect to the second table in judicial things, although it lays down punishments for crimes committed against the firs table.

Foundation of the distinction.

II. The truth of this distinction appears from the diversity of the names by which it is designated in the Scriptures. The moral law is for the most part expressed by mtsvth ("precepts"), the ceremonial by chqym ("statutes") and the judicial by mshptym ("judgments"), which the Septuagint renders by entolas, dikaiomata and krimata. "I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them" (Dt. 5:31); so also in 6:1, 20; 7:11; and Lev. 26:46. Sometimes however these words are synonymous and used promiscuously (Ezk. 5:6; 20:11, 16, 18). But the distinction appears principally from the nature of the thing and the office of the law (whose it is to settle the order according to which man is joined to God and his neighbor). Now man is joined to God first by a certain internal and external likeness -- in love and justice, holiness and truth, whose rule the moral law delivers. Again by the external signification and testification of those acts of divine worship (marks and symbols being employed) whose use the ceremonial law prescribes. Finally, what duty man owes to man, the civil law (applied more distinctly to the Israelites) explains. The moral law regards the Israelite people as men; the ceremonial as the church of the Old Testament expecting the promised Messiah; the civil regards them as a peculiar people who in the land of Canaan ought to have a republic suiting their genius and disposition.

Difference between the moral law and others.

III. Hence arises a manifold difference between the moral law and others both in origin (because the moral is founded upon natural right and on this account is known by nature; but the others upon positive right and on this account are from free revelation) and in duration. The former is immutable and eternal; the latter mutable and temporary. In regard to object, the one is universal embracing all; the others particular applying only to the Jews (the civil, indeed, inasmuch as it regarded them as a distinct state dedicated to God; the ceremonial, however, referring to their ecclesiastical state and state of minority and infancy). In regard to use, the moral is the end of the others, while the others are subservient to the moral. Thus far we have spoken of the moral; now we must discuss the ceremonial.

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