Several weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in the Christian Focus Publishers blog tour, which featured Philip S. Ross’ masterful work on the tripartite division of the law, From the Finger of God: A Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. You can read my review of Ross’ work by clicking here.
For some, the issue of discussing the threefold division may initially seem quite arbitrary. However, its impact on one’s understanding of sin and the atonement is incredibly profound. Truly, the more we understand the law and its purpose, the more clearly we’ll be able to see the glorious nature of Christ’s work in the gospel.
Philip so kindly agreed to answer a few questions in relation to his book. I trust his answers will be of great benefit whether you’re a person well acquainted or newly acquainted with the topic of the threefold division of the law.
KF: For the person unfamiliar with the topic, what is the threefold division of the law and why is this distinction important?
PR: The threefold division of the law describes a framework for interpreting Old Testament Law. Those who accepted it throughout church history believed it was derived from a coherent reading of the Old and New Testaments. The three categories of the division are moral (ever-binding statutes recorded in the Ten Commandments), civil (judicial laws of the Israelite state that are now binding only in their underlying principles), and ceremonial (laws regulating the sacrificial system and ceremonial purity that are so fulfilled in Christ that they are no longer binding).
KF: Is this distinction relatively new, or one that’s been historically embraced by the people of God?
PR: Although the term ‘threefold division’ may be relatively recent, it has justifiably been described as ‘the orthodox position’. Most Reformation confessions incorporate the threefold division, Aquinas states it plainly, and a variety of early Christian theologians have been pinpointed as its source. The most exhaustive survey of the subject in a specific ancient Christian writer is probably Stylianopoulos’ work, Justin Martyr and the Mosaic Law, which argues that we find a tripartite division of the Law in Justin. The basic categories of the threefold division and the approach it describes can be traced back throughout church history, but like many Christian doctrines, it was refined and restated with increasing precision as the centuries passed.
KF: What caused you to be interested in this discussion, and address it at length in your doctoral dissertation?
PR: Two things: First, a general interest in diverse questions related to the continuity and discontinuity of the testaments, such as the New Testament use of the Old Testament, or how we should read the Old Testament today. For example, is Psalm 16 only about deliverance from a near death experience (Peter C. Craigie) or resurrection from the dead (Peter and Paul)? Second, my interest was sparked when I read in Calvin’s Institutes that the threefold division of the law came from the ‘ancients’, yet some twentieth century writers seemed content for Calvin and his ‘ancients’ to be taken outside and shot in the head. It was as if they operated with the underlying assumption that the opinions of theologians or churchmen who predated the dawn of evangelicalism need not even be weighed in the balances to be found wanting.
KF: What bearing does our understanding of the Law have on our understanding of the person and work of Christ and the gospel?
PR: One has a bearing on our understanding of the other; it goes in both directions. If sin is transgression of the law, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4), and the gospel message focuses on the Christ who came to save his people from their sins, then our understanding of the law has an impact on the most elementary matters of the gospel. From what sins did he come to save his people? Of what law is sin the transgression? By what standard will God judge the deeds of all men on the last day? Can the redefinition of sin as something other than transgression of the law coexist with an orthodox view of the atonement?
All Christians accept that Christ came to fulfill the law, but what did he mean when he said so in Matthew 5:17? Despite saying in the same breath that he did not come to abolish the law, some interpretations of ‘fulfill’ demand nothing less than the abolition of the law, leaving us with a Teacher who spoke in unfathomable riddles. In addition, when interpreters look at Matthew 5 in one of several self-imposed contextual microcosms it leads to stifled portrayals of Christ’s fulfillment of the law.
I believe that Christ’s fulfillment of the law had to be in harmony with what the law itself demands. He did not come to redefine or transform the expectations of the law, but to fulfill them. These expectations were grand and comprehensive—moral, soteriological, and eschatological—yet his fulfillment left no snagging list. When the Beloved Son comes into the world, he has the law within him and he delights to do it; not for a moment does he become one with whom the Father could not be well pleased. The law demanded retribution and restitution. Every penalty in the civil law went as far as it could to restore shālôm, yet it was never enough. Animals might compensate for animals (Exod. 22:4), but not even a life for a life (Exod. 21:12; 22:20) could raise the dead or restore God’s honour. Only the unblemished second Adam can meet the law’s demands so that it is enough. Guiltless, he suffers a penalty that no other could bear; the Prince of Peace becomes a crucified wreck to reconcile us to God. And his fulfillment of the law does not end there: He ensures that it will be written on the hearts of those he chooses and Emmanuel will be with his disciples as they teach others to obey.
KF: You state in your book, “Unbuckle the Sabbath, and you are well on your way to mastering theological escapology.” Could you explain what you mean by this and why it’s relevant to the discussion?
PR: I made that statement in the context of Tim Keller’s comment that all office-bearers in the PCA subscribe to The Westminster Confession of Faith ‘with only the most minor exceptions (the only common one being with regard to the Sabbath).’ While the fourth commandment is of no more importance to the threefold division of the law than any other commandment, many of those who object to the division do so in the context of anti-sabbatarian argument or because of a deep-seated sabbaphobia, sometimes triggered by encounters with legalistic sabbatarianism. It would not matter, however, to what commandment of the Decalogue one took exception, ‘minor’ is probably not the word that the Westminster Divines would have applied to it, and the concept of ever-binding moral law defined as the Ten Commandments is so foundational to the theology of the Westminster Confession that the whole structure depends on it. Foundational supports may be pulled out and everything sit in precarious suspense for a time, but as soon as someone moves or the structure faces stress—‘KerPlunk’—the church loses her marbles.
This structural risk does not apply exclusively to Westminster theology, but to Reformed theology in general—the historic catholic teaching that the Reformers sought to recover and reaffirm. Two pages following on from the statement you mention, I quoted Hugh Martin who wrote in The Atonement that ‘So long as philosophy and theology shall conserve the distinctive peculiarity of Moral Law…the Westminster doctrine, which is the Catholic doctrine, of Atonement is impregnable.’ He also asks the question, ‘What instrumentality or efficiency towards any thing like this [the believer’s freedom from the law’s condemnation] can possibly be ascribed to the Incarnation of God’s Son, if there be no strictly moral and authoritative juridical law?’ I am not persuaded that those who take exception to commandments of the Decalogue, or who reject the Reformed and catholic approach to ‘moral law’, while still maintaining their doctrine of atonement, have given satisfactory answers to such questions.
KF: Is the Christian still bound by the Mosaic Law? You note that parts of the law are “non-binding, another binding in its underlying principles, and another ever-binding.” Could you explain that distinction and how the law functions in the life of the believer in Christ?
PR: As your quotation implies, the threefold division of the law does not give a yes or no answer to this question, nor, contrary to the frequent assertion of critics, does it ‘neatly’ divide the Mosaic Law. The ceremonial laws are non-binding because they prefigured Christ, but they may still imply moral demands (1 Cor. 5). From the outset, the civil laws were binding ‘in the land’ (Deut. 4:5, 14; 5:31; 6:1; 12:1) and while the apostles called for obedience to commandments of the Decalogue, they recognised that the civil laws were of temporary jurisdiction when they declared the legitimacy of the ruling authorities, calling on Christians to submit to them (Rom. 13:1–4). This does not mean, however, that the civil laws were an irrelevance; the underlying principles, which are the principles enshrined in the Decalogue, still bind.
The only part of the law that the church has claimed should be ever-binding is the moral law, but this does not mean that everyone who has held to the threefold division agrees on the role of the law in the life of believers, or on the specific application of individual commandments in the Decalogue. For Reformed Christians, obedience to Ten Commandments has never been the means by which believers are justified before God, yet those who are justified will seek to live in obedience to those laws and to learn from the entire Scriptures how to apply them to their lives. They value them not as a ten keys to health, wealth, and happiness, but because they reveal their sinfulness to them, driving them to seek forgiveness, renewal, and life everlasting in Christ, to whose image they long to be conformed.
KF: What role has the civil law played in redemptive history? How are we to understand the apostles’ application of case laws in the NT? (i.e., 1 Cor. 5:13 is a direct quote from Deut. 17:7; 19:19; 22:21, 24; and 24:7… In its OT context it refers to putting an individual to death, whereas in the NT it refers to church discipline. Could you briefly discuss this issue?)
PR: Beyond the role of civil law common to all nations of preserving peace and security, Israel’s civil law was part of God’s revelation, which should have been a source of delight and wisdom to her (Ps. 1:2, 119:97–9) and a missionary witness to other nations (Deut. 4:6–8). On the apostolic application of case laws, I focused on some of the less transparent examples, such as the application of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:8–10. In that case the apostle’s citation reflects the Decalogue sub-structure of Deuteronomy, linking the themes of integrity and contentment found in the ninth and tenth commandments. Concerning 1 Corinthians 5:13, Sean McDonough has argued that the context of Deuteronomy 17:7 shapes that section of 1 Corinthians (JTS, 56.1), but I have yet to consider his arguments in detail, and while ‘you shall purge the evil’ may be a direct quote from one of those passages, it describes the application of Mosaic penology rather than being an actual case law.
Again, my sincere thanks to Philip for taking the time to answer these questions and to Christian Focus for connecting me with Philip. I wholeheartedly commend From the Finger of God to your reading. I trust it will be helpful in growing your understanding of God’s good, gracious, and righteous demands in the Law and the glory of Christ’s atoning work.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, OR TO PURCHASE FROM THE FINGER OF GOD, CLICK HERE. Philip S. Ross is a theological editor who studied in Wales. He worked extensively on the well-received Christian Heritage editions of The Marrow of Modern Divinity and subtitled four John Owen works – The Glory of Christ, The Holy Spirit, Communion with God and The Priesthood of Christ. Philip lives near Loch Lomond in Scotland with his wife and three children.