Whenever I end up discussing theology with one of my evangelical acquaintances my view of the law almost always seems to bother them. Most references to the law of the Old Testament are met with responses like “we’re not under law, but under grace”. Further any reference to the historical scholastic distinction of the threefold division of the law is dismissed with a response like “I don’t know of any place in scripture where the law is divided into parts like that.” As a whole the current generation of evangelicals seem uncomfortable taking our morals from the Old Testament at all.

This is not restricted to the standard lay church goer either. Many of the best evangelical scholars reject such distinctions as well. For example Dr. Thomas Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes the following in his book 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law:

 The distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and civil law is appealing and attractive. Even though it has some elements of truth, it does not sufficiently capture Paul’s stance toward the law. As stated earlier, Paul argues that the entirety of the law has been set aside now that Christ has come. To say that the ‘moral’ elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.

DA Carson concurs with Schreiner when he writes:

In short, the problem with the tripartite division of law, which as a device for explaining continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments, goes back to Thomas Aquinas, is that it attempts to construct an apriori grid to sort out what parts of the law Christians must keep or do, and holds that Paul must have adopted some such grid, even if he does not explicitly identify it.[1]

Although Carson admits that the tripartite distinction goes back as far as Aquinas[2] he feels that they forced such a grid upon the New Testament. However I have not yet read a discussion as to why so many theologians  have historically found such a construction appealing. Did all of the previous generations of Christians just not care that their doctrine was not found in the Word? Perhaps it was a hold over from Roman Catholicism that the reformers merely forgot to jettison?

Unfortunately part of the problem is that moden theology has taken the threefold division out of it’s historical context and can no longer see the biblical texts which led theologians to formulate the doctrine in the first place.

Both Schreiner and Carson seem to identify the tripartite structure as “the fundamental basis for establishing the lines of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments”[3]. The key issue at hand for them is the matter of continuity and discontinuity. They understand the proponents of such a division to be proposing it as a grid whereby a Christian can evaluate if a command is applicable to them today. If it was a part of the civil or ceremonial law, then it has been “fulfilled” in Christ, but if it a part of the “moral” law then it is still binding upon the Christian.

From this perspective both Schreiner and Carson’s analysis is well taken. The New Testament’s rhetoric in arguing for the abolition of things like the dietary laws and the feasts has no notion of a tripartite grid. Rather the apostles argue that those things are “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ”(Col. 2:17), and that the law “having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.”(Heb. 10:1). The rhetoric is one of shadow and substance, not ceremony and morals.

Yet historically the tripartite division has only secondarily been applied to issues of continuity between the old and new testaments. The primary origin of the division is found in understanding the different types of law contained within the Mosaic Covenant. Although this might seem like a nuanced sort of distinction it is imperative that we understand it if we desire to rightly understand how the division is applied.

What do I mean by this? Carson and Schreiner are condemning the use of the threefold division as an a priori hermeneutic for understanding the New Testament. However the framers of the division are offering it first as a classification of the types of laws found within the Old Covenant. They are interested in first understanding all of the different types of commands that God gives in their original context (irrespective of dispensation), and then using that classification to understand why God gave such commands in the first place.

For example before he gets to the topic of the ceremonial and judicial parts of the law Francis Turretin first takes up the topic of the law in general. He begins with the etymology of the word “law” in both Hebrew and Greek noting that it denotes both teaching, and ruling because it puts into people’s minds their duty, and prescribes how men’s lives ought to be governed.[4] Then in moving into discussing natural law, he makes a distinction between what has historically been called “natural law”, and “positive law”. He explains by writing:

Now this law of God is divided in general into natural and positive. As the right of God is twofold (one natural, founded in the perfectly just and holy nature of God; the other positive, depending on the will of God alone in which he also shows his own liberty), so there is a positive law of God built on the free and positive right of God (with respect to which things are then good because God commands them). Hence God was free either not to give such a law or to institute otherwise (such as the law relating to food and the symbolic law given to Adam [Gen. 2:16-17] and the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, in which there was no moral goodness or evil per se, but only from the command of God). There is another (natural) founded on the natural right of God, with regard to which things are not called just because they are commanded, but are commanded because they were just and good antecedently to the command of God (being founded on the very holiness and wisdom of God)[5]

The first sort of command that Turretin draws his readers attention to is what he calls “positive commandments”. That is the commandments that find their origin not in the attributes or holiness of God, but in His free choice alone. As Turretin puts it, “God was free either not to give such a law or to institute otherwise”. For example why did God designate that pork is unclean, whereas the sheep was clean? Was there something intrinsic about God’s nature that distinguished between pork and sheep? Turretin argues that there was nothing different between eating pork and sheep in its essence, but rather something which God freely chose to restrict for a period of time.

He further argues that since these commandments find their origin not in the nature of God, but his free choice He is free to institue otherwise. There is nothing binding that particular commandment perpetually. For example in the garden Adam and Eve seem to be vegetarians in that they are given only fruit to eat. This command to eat any fruit apart from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil remains binding until after the flood when God declares that “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant”(Gen. 9:3) The restrictions to eating only the green plant is lifted, and mankind is free to eat anything that is alive. However then in the Mosaic covenant God commands a different division (Lev. 11; Deut 14), marking things like Pigs unclean and sheep clean. What was once permissible is now forbidden. Then finally in the New Testament he abrogates the dietary laws in the vision given to Peter (Acts 10:13-15), again declaring all things clean to eat.

There was nothing about the food itself which defiled the body, after all Jesus said that it was “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Mat. 15:11). It would be a transgression of the Law for a Jew under the Mosaic covenant were to consume pork, but only because God had restricted for a time that consumption. If God then chose to remove that restriction (as he did) there would be no more transgression.

Then Turretin draws his readers attention to a second sort of command, which he calls “natural”. He says that these commands flow not from the free will of God, but from His “just and holy nature”. In contrast with the positive commandments, the natural commands are not “just because they are commanded, but are commanded because they were just and good antecedently to the command of God (being founded on the very holiness and wisdom of God)”. That is to say that in their essence, because they correspond to the nature of God, which is itself the definition of holiness and righteousness, they are righteous or just. As John Owen puts it, “The [moral or natural] law is the beam of the holiness of God Himself”[6].

To prove the existence of such a law exists Turretin turns to the text that is the locus classicus to prove the existence of the natural law, Romans 2:14-15[7]. Here Paul asserts that “the Gentiles which have not the law” (by which he means the Law of Moses) “do by nature the things contained in the law, and are a law unto themselves: cine they show the work of the law written in their hearts”. Although these Gentiles had never seen the 10 commandments, never the less they “show the work of the law written in their hearts”. As Anthony Burgess says, this means that they were “not without a Law ingrafted in their conscience, whereby they had common dictates about good and evil”[8]

And what law was it that they were showing forth? Did that law contain the positive commands of God? Did they by know by nature that they should not wear clothing made of two different fabrics? Did they know by nature about clean and unclean animals? Did they know by nature about what sort of clothes a High priest should wear? No, these commandments are of a different sort. They are of an ethical and moral nature. Mankind shows the work of the law written in their hearts in that they were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and as such have His attributes echoing in their conscience telling them that is how they are supposed to behave.

These natural commandments were righteous prior to God ever explicitly stating them. Cain knew that he should not kill His brother (Gen. 4). Noah’s fellow country men were “corrupt” (Gen. 6:11). Joseph knew that it would be “a sin against God” (Gen. 39:9) to lie with Potiphar’s wife. Although God had never explicitly given these moral commandments to anyone, people knew what was right or wrong. As such, when God subsequently commands these things they are not made good or just in the command, but were good and just antecedent to the command.

Lastly then Turretin asks why God would explicitly deliver these commands to His people over time if their conscience already bore witness to them. His answer is that although all men know the truth, they suppress it in their unrighteousness. When sin entered the world and God reckoned all men unrighteous, sin corrupted the law that was written on all mens hearts such that even though they know God, they refuse to honor him as God, or give him thanks (Rom. 1:18-22). And even though they know that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but give hearty approval to those who practice them (Rom. 1:31).

Although in their upright nature there would be no need for such a proclamation, being fallen there was a need for God’s people to know what sin was, and what they ought to do. As such God delivered the law to His people viva voce (with a living voice) and “proclaimed it in a solemn manner, committing it to writing and comprehending it in the decalogue.”[10] So that through the law would come the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), as sin is lawlessness (1Jn. 3:4).

It is from within this context then that the historical threefold division is discussed. By recognizing that in every dispensation some of God’s commandments are positive and some natural, scholastic theologians are forced to ask what parts of the Mosaic dispensation were positive, and which natural. Then in analyzing what God was meaning to accomplish in the giving of the Law the threefold division arises. As Turretin puts it, “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 who in the land of Canaan ought to have a republic suiting their genius and disposition.”[11] The parts of the law which regards the Israelite as men is that which is natural, written on every mans heart. However those sections which were given to the people as an ecclesiastical people waiting for the promised Messiah, and as a civil people living in the land of Canaan is positive, purposefully given by God out of his free will alone, and subject to change when his reason for giving it changes.

Turretin is again worth quoting at length here:

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).[12]

Then and only then do writers like Turretin go on to discuss the abrogation of the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law.  They do so initially not by showing that the rhetoric of the new testament necessitates it, but the language of the old. For example Turretin quotes Gen 49:10 where it is said, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come” showing that with the coming of the Messiah (who is expressed by Shiloh) there is an expected abrogation. The same could be said of Daniel 9:27 where the messiah brings an end to sacrifice, or Jeremiah 31:31-32 where the New Covenant expects the end of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.

Then they confirm that the New Testament speaks to this abrogation as taking place in the coming of Christ. The “middle wall” (Eph. 2:14) separating the Jews from the Gentiles is taken away by Christ, and the distinctives of the Jewish state are dismantled. These aspects of the law served only as a guard until the promised seed of Abraham would come (Gal. 3:19,23). The shadow of the good things to come are no longer necessary once those good things actually have come (Heb. 10:1). All those positive commandments given to Israel as it was Jewish are done away with, as they were purposefully instated by God until the Messiah would come.

However they also note that this abrogation is only of the positive commandments and not the natural one. As Turretin said, the natural commandments were, “immutable and eternal” whereas the positive commandments were “mutable and temporary”. The natural commandments which flow from man’s duty to reflect the attributes of God can never be abrogated. For the command always remains for all men to “Be Holy, because I am Holy”(1Pet. 1:16). As such, they argue that those natural, moral commandments which are written on the hearts of all men remain perpetually binding.

In this sense modern scholars such as doctors Schreiner and Carson do a poor job of interacting with the historical christian tradition. They do not interact with the threefold division as the distinction between the positive and natural commandments of God but rather see it as an apriori grid imposed upon the scriptures. Given that we’ve lost many of the scholastic distinctions I can understand how the it can appear like an apriori grid, but we should pause before we quickly dismiss what many before us have held to.

Overall I think that we American evangelicals would be much better served if we spent more time attempting to understand our theological heritage rather than trying to reinvent the wheel with each generation. Categories like the threefold division of the law, and the distinction between positive and natural commandments are helpful, biblical guides that our fathers in the faith have left for us. Let’s be careful before we throw them away unnecessarily.

[1] The Paradoxes of Paul, vol. 2 of Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. Carson, O’Brien, Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), p. 429

[2] in a footnote even Origen and Jerome

[3] ibid, footnote 108

[4]  Institutes XI.i.2

[5] Institutes XI.i.4

[6] The Works of John Owen, VI:389

[7] Institutes XI.i.11

[8] Spiritual Refining, “Of Grace and Assurance”, p. 334

[9] Institutes XI.ii.22-23

[10] Institutes XI.ii.23

[11] Institutes XI.xxiv.2

[12]  Institutes XI.xxiv.3