Whatever My God Ordains is Right!

Whatever My God Ordains Is Right

from Hiding Place by Matthew Smith

Listen to this song here: http://matthewsmith.bandcamp.com/track/whatever-my-god-ordains-is-right


What e’re my God ordains is right,
holy His will abideth
I will be still what e’re He does
and follow where He guideth
He is my God,
though dark my road,
He holds me that I shall not fall
Wherefore to Him I leave it allWhat e’re my God ordains is right,

He never will deceive me

He leads me by the proper path,

I know He will not leave me
I take content,

what He hath sent,

His hand can turn my griefs away
And patiently I wait His day

What e’re my God ordains is right,

though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart,

I take it all unshrinking
My God is true,

each morn’ a new,

sweet comfort yet,

shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart

What e’re my God ordains is right,

here shall my stand be taken
Though sorrow,

need, or death be mine,

Yet I am not forsaken
My Father’s care is ’round me there,

He holds me that I shall not fall
And so to Him I leave it all

Help my unbelief
May my faith abound
Let me seek you and know that you may be found

When this life is done
In the clearer light
I may see you with full and with endless sight


from Hiding Place, released 11 March 2014
©2013 Detuned Radio Music. Written by Matthew S. Smith, based in part on texts by Samuel Rodigast and Henry Alford

Did the Lord’s Churches Baptize by Immersion Before the 17th Century?

Did the Lord’s Churches Baptize by Immersion Before the 17th Century?

By Thomas WilliamsonBaptism


All correspondence concerning this article should be directed to
Thomas Williamson, 3131 S. Archer Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60608.

The owner of the copyright on this article hereby waives all copyright protections for all English and Spanish articles posted on this site, and gives permission for them to be reprinted or reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, including print media and Internet, as long as the wording is not changed and credit is given for authorship.


In most Protestant and denominational Baptist colleges and seminaries today, it is commonly taught in the Church History departments that there were no churches on earth that baptized by immersion prior to the 17th Century.

This is just another way of saying that there were no Baptist churches and no true New Testament churches prior to the 17th Century. Supposedly, at some point in the Middle Ages, all true churches vanished from the face of the earth. and the institution of the local church had to be restored later.

As BMA Baptists, we have never accepted such teaching. Point 17 of the 1950 BMA Doctrinal Statement affirmed belief in the “Perpetuity of Missionary Baptist Churches from Christ’s day on earth until His second coming.” This means that there have always been true churches on earth, baptizing by immersion, for the last 20 centuries.

Section 10. C. of the 1988 BMA Doctrinal Statement reads: “The Perpetuity of the Church Instituted by Jesus during His personal ministry on earth (Matt. 16:18, Mark 3:13-19; John 1:35-51), true churches have continued to the present and will continue until Jesus returns (Matt. 16:18, 28:20).”

However, in the last century, some church history scholars have come to the conclusion that the Anabaptists and other evangelical groups prior to the 17th Century baptized exclusively by pouring rather than by immersion, which would mean that those “churches” were not true churches. (Section 10. D. of our Doctrinal Statement requires baptism by immersion).

Some scholars have even pointed to the year 1641 as the date when Baptists recovered the apostolic practice of immersion, stating that Baptists and all other evangelical groups baptized only by pouring prior to that date.

If these scholars are correct, then our BMA Doctrinal Statement is mistaken, and our traditional belief in the perpetuity of the church is also mistaken.

So which is it?

To prove that no one, through the Middle Ages up to 1641, baptized by immersion, would be extremely difficult, requiring a degree of omniscience possessed only by God Himself. But if we can show that there were at least some evangelical groups that were immersing prior to 1641, then we will have successfully defended our conviction that there have always been true churches on earth, and that the gates of hell have not prevailed against the institution of the Lord’s Church.

The notion that there was no baptism by immersion before 1641 can be quickly disposed of. In 1614 (27 years earlier), Leonard Busher, a Baptist of London. in a petition to King James I, stated that Christ “commanded” those who “willingly and gladly” received “the word of salvation to be baptized in the water, that is, dipped for dead in the water.” (Armitage, History of the Baptists, p. 440).

In 1644. Dr. Featley, an opponent of the Baptists, complained that “They flock in great multitudes to their Jordans, and both sexes enter the river, and are dipt after their manner…. This venomous serpent … is the Anabaptist, who, in these latter times, first showed his shining head, and speckled skin, and thrust out his sting near the place of my residence, for more than 20 years.” (Armitage. p. 441), In other words. Baptists were immersing near Dr. Featley’s home prior to 1624. There is no hint that this was a totally new practice among Baptists, only that they started using a stream near Featley’s home around 1624.

In 1656, Henry Denne, a Baptist, defended the practice of immersion by reminding Anglicans that immersion was the ancient practice of their church: “Dipping of infants was not only commanded by the Church of England. but also generally practiced in the Church of England till the year 1606; yea, in some places it was practiced until the year 1641, until the fashion altered…” (Armitage, p. 443).

In the Roman Catholic Church, most baptisms were by immersion until the 14th Century: “Thomas Aquinas, the chief of the schoolmen, who flourished about the year 1250, says, in his theology, that while immersion is not essential to the validity of baptism, still, as the old and common usage, it is more commendable and safer than pouring.” (Everts, The Church in the Wilderness, p. 37).

The 19th Century German Catholic scholar Doellinger stated that “Baptism by immersion continued to be the prevailing practice of the Church as late as the 14th Century.” (Graves, John’s Baptism, p. 207). Baptism by pouring, while occasionally practiced, was not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Ravenna in 1311. “Synods, as late as the synod of Tarragona, 1391, spoke of the submersion of children in baptism.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, v. 5, p. 712).

“It is equally clear that the form of baptism was immersion. This was at the time, the practice of the whole Christian world. The great Roman Catholic writers affirm that immersion was the proper form of baptism. Peter the Lombard, who died A.D. 1164, declared without qualification for it as the proper act of baptism.” (Christian, History of the Baptists, vol. 1, p. 81).

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on “Baptism,” says, “The most ancient form usually employed was unquestionably immersion. This is. . . evident from the writings of the Fathers and the early rituals of both the Latin and Oriental churches…. In the Latin Church, immersion seems to have prevailed until the 12th Century. After that time it is found in some places even as late as the 16th Century.”

St. Jerome, early 5th Century, taught that “we are thrice dipped in the water” and Pope Leo the Great. in the 5th Century. wrote: “The trine immersion is an imitation of the 3 days’ burial” while Pope Gregory the Great in the following century stated that “The reason why we use 3 immersions at Rome is to signify the mystery of Christ’s 3 days’ burial.” (Cramp, Baptist History, p. 35).

Tertullian, in the 3rd Century. described the rite of baptism in detail, showing that it was done by immersion at that time. Martin Luther, 13 centuries later, taught that “baptism, in which the minister dips the child in the water, is a symbol of death and resurrection, and Luther therefore preferred total immersion.” (Latourette, History of Christianity, p. 713).

While Catholics, Episcopalians and other Protestants have, for the most part, abandoned the practice of immersion, the Eastern Orthodox Church has always baptized by immersion throughout its history, and still does so today.

St. John Chrysostom, Orthodox Bishop of Constantinople, baptized 3,000 new members by immersion on Easter Sunday, 404 AD. Chrysostom taught that “Baptism is an immersion, and then an emersion. When our heads enter the water as a tomb, the old man is buried, and plunging down is wholly concealed all at once.” (Graves. pp. 201. 203).

The 18th Century church historian Robert Robinson wrote about Baptists in the 5th Century. “At the beginning of the 5th Century, when infant baptism first came up, there were in Africa at least 400 hundred congregations of Anabaptists, called from Donatus, the name of 2 of their most eminent teachers, Donatists. . . . The Romans baptized by dipping on a profession of faith. The Donatists baptized by dipping on a proof of virtue accompanied with a general profession of Christianity; and as they thought the Romans had ceased to be Christian churches on account of their immorality, they did not hold their baptism valid, and they rebaptized every one that quitted the Roman communion to join theirs.” (Robinson, Ecclesiastical Researches, pp. 7-8). Note that according to Robinson, both the Donatists and the Roman Catholics were immersing at that time.

Through the Middle Ages, the Catholics and Orthodox were baptizing by immersion, yet we are expected to believe that there were no Baptists or evangelicals who baptized by immersion during this period! Where is the proof of this?

In 1590 the Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal and nephew of the Pope, Robert Bellarminc, wrote: “Ordinarily, baptism is performed by immersion, and that to represent the burial of Christ.” (Graves. p. 207). During the 16th Century, many Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican baptisms, and all Orthodox baptisms, were performed by immersion. It is very hard to believe that no Baptists or evangelicals were baptizing by immersion at that same time.

The Waldenses. who spread from their mountain strongholds of France and Italy into most regions of Europe, were Baptists who practiced immersion. “‘The Waldenses were Baptists in that they practiced only immersion. . . .,’ Mezeray says, ‘In the 12th Century they [Waldenses] plunged the candidate in the sacred font..'” (Jarrel, Baptist Perpetuity, pp. 162-163).

“The contemporary writers, Eberhard and Ermengard, in their work, ‘contra Waldenses’ written toward the close of the 12th Century, repeatedly refer to immersion as the form of baptism among the Waldenses.” (Christian, pp 81-82).

Concerning the 15th Century Bohemian Waldenses, Broadbent says. “One of the first things they (the Czech Brethren) did was to baptize those present, for the baptism of believers by immersion was common to the Waldenses and to most of the brethren in different parts, though it had been interrupted by pressure of persecution.” (Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, p. 130).

“No historian has ever charged the ancient Waldenses with the practice of sprinkling and pouring for baptism. We may consider it a point generally admitted that the ancient Waldenses possessed the Baptist peculiarity of holding the burial in baptism of those who are dead to sin.” (Ray, The Baptist Succession, p.331).

Prior to the 17th Century, the Baptist practice of immersion was not brought up against them by their persecutors, because the Catholics and other denominations were also immersing at that time, so the mode of baptism was not a point of controversy.

An unbiased look at the historical evidence shows that our BMA confession of faith is correct in teaching Baptist perpetuity. The practice of baptism by immersion is certainly an essential element of Baptist perpetuity.

The purpose of citing the practices of other denominations is not to hint that they were the mother churches of the Baptists – they were not. Rather, it is to show how absurd it is to believe that there were no immersionist Baptists prior to the 17th Century, at a time when most other religious societies were baptizing by immersion.



Redemptive Historical Perspective

From Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow by Grover Gunn Scripture_cross

In Reformed interpretation, the unifying theme that is the key to understanding the development of redemptive history is the saving work of Jesus Christ. God created Adam and gave him the earth to rule and to subdue. Because of Adam’s fall into sin, the earth was cursed and man became a servant of sin and Satan. God immediately promised a coming Seed of woman who would overcome Satan and reverse the effects of the fall. The rest of redemptive history is the developing story of the restoration of fallen man’s earthly inheritance and authority through the work of the Seed Redeemer on behalf of His people. The theocracy of Old Testament Israel fits into this redemptive drama as a localized pledge and prefiguration of the coming perfect kingdom rule and everlasting earthly inheritance that the Christ will establish for His people and as the national means through which the Christ was brought into the world. Through the historical work of Jesus Christ, Satan was defeated and Jesus of Nazareth, who is fully man as well as fully God, was exalted to the place of all authority in heaven and on earth. In this age, Christ is exercising His authority, the nations are being discipled, and Christ’s universal rule over men is being extended to the uttermost parts of the earth. The drama of redemption will find its ultimate and final fulfillment in the glorified new earth of Revelation 21 after Christ returns.

Blasphemy in Song

For those who know the background or meaning of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the following is a public service announcement.

Blasphemy in Song

by Laurence M. Vance
by Laurence M. Vance

This past weekend, since it was the closest weekend to the Fourth of July holiday that we observe today, churches all across America resounded with patriotic songs. Although the wisdom of singing patriotic songs in church is itself a debatable proposition, there should be no debate in any church about uttering words of blasphemy, whether spoken or sung. Yet, the patriotic song that is perhaps the one most frequently sung in the churches of America — for the Fourth of July or otherwise — is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But this so-called hymn is no Christian hymn at all — it is blasphemy in song.

Most Americans are familiar with the words of this “hymn”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

The chorus is, of course, as follows:

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

Although most Americans who are familiar with this “patriotic anthem” rightly connect it with the so-called Civil War, many probably don’t know who wrote it, and even fewer know anything about how it came about.

The author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the abolitionist and social activist, Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910). The song first appeared, minus the last verse, on the front cover of The Atlantic Monthly for February 1862. That it originally had six verses can be seen by looking at her first draft, which was written on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper. Christian hymnbooks that contain this song only include verses one, two, four, and five. The words as it was first published are slightly different than her original draft, which is transcribed here.

The tune is from a camp-meeting song with a “Glory Hallelujah” refrain by William Steffe, written about 1856. This tune was in turn used for what became the Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” the first verse of which begins by repeating three times: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” and ends with: “His soul goes marching on!” Other lines read: “They will hang Jeff. Davis to a sour apple tree!” and “Now, three rousing cheers for the Union.”

Read the remainder of this article here.

Is the Mosaic law tripartite?

Is the Mosaic law tripartite?

By Maël


During my last semester at SEBTS, I took a Christian Ethics class. It seems customary, when studying Christian ethics, to assume that the Mosaic law is tripartite, which means that the Old Testament law is assumed to be divided into three parts: moral, ceremonial, and civil/judicial. Following that assumption, the New Testament believer is to assume that the moral law is still valid in the believer’s life, while the last two parts have passed away with the coming of Christ.

The problem is that while ethicists often hold to this view, it seems that New Testament and Old Testament scholars do not agree with them. For example, R. T. France, in his commentary on Matthew, states:

It is sometimes suggested that Matt 5:17-20 is concerned only with the moral law, not with ceremonial and civil laws of the OT. But this convenient distinction of the law in three categories has no biblical basis, cannot be traced back earlier than the Middle Ages. Moreover, such a selective approach is difficult to square with Jesus’ insistence on the importance of the smallest details of the law (v. 18) and the ‘smallest commandments’ (v. 19).[1]

Hays states that the tripartite division of the law “suffers from three major weaknesses: It is arbitrary and without any textual support, it ignores the narrative context, and it fails to reflect the significant implications of the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant. This approach, therefore, is inadequate as a hermeneutic method for interpreting and applying the Law.”[2] Barrick bluntly states that “no one can justly separate the moral, civil, and ceremonial parts of the Law from each other: it is a unit.”[3] These are only a few of the objectors and of the objections to the tripartite division of the law.

In the next sets of posts, I will try to look at the validity of such a division of the law through a historical and theological approach. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is a tripartite division of the law valid?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 180n. Unfortunately, France does not document this statement.

[2] J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Jan-Mar 2001): 30.

[3] William D. Barrick, “The Mosaic Covenant,” TMSJ 10/2 (Fall 1999): 213.


Historical Overview

As was mentioned in the previous post, according to R. T. France, evidence for such a tripartite division of the law “cannot be traced back earlier than the Middle Ages.”[1] However, there might be some evidence that at least a dichotomy between ceremonial works and the works of the law existed at the time of Jerome. According to Luther, Jerome had introduced “notable error and ignorance” in the understanding of Rom 3:19-20 when he suggested that Paul was here calling ceremonial works, works of the law.[2] A possible bipartite understanding of the law also could have existed at the time of Augustine, for Luther claimed that Augustine resisted Jerome,[3] and Aquinas stated that in Contra Faust, Augustine held “that in the Old Law there are ‘precepts concerning the life we have to lead, and precepts regarding the life that is foreshadowed.'” Aquinas then related these precepts to moral, ceremonial, and judicial principles by arguing that both moral and judicial principles fall under the “life we have to lead” category. [4]

Fast forwarding to the Middle Ages, in Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas himself discussed the law (which he referred to as precepts) and its three parts (moral, ceremonial, and judicial) in his section entitled “Treatise on the Law” and more specifically in questions 99-105. Of interest is the fact that in his writings, Aquinas did not just assume this partition of the law, he actually developed an argument for the existence of these three parts. A future post will deal with Aquinas’ position in detail, but now let us continue our historical overview.

Jumping to the time of the reformers, Luther seemed to accept at least a dualism of the law when, in The Bondage of the Will, he referred to “the civil or moral law.”[5] Calvin, in book two of Institutes of the Christian Religion, presented a bipartite view when he discussed the law, emphasizing the moral and ceremonial aspects of it,[6] but later, in book four of the Institutes, when he discussed civil government, he presented a clearly tripartite view of the law when he stated: “the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.”[7] While Calvin did not present a logical defense of the tripartite division of the law as Aquinas did, his use of this tripartite division to justify the abrogation of only part of the law and his interactions with and citations of a variety of Scriptures are also of interest to the question at hand.

After the reformation, the tripartite division of the law seemed to slowly solidify as an accepted concept. Some still held, as John Owen stated in his Two Short Catechisms, that “the whole law [was] moral and ceremonial,” pointing to a bipartite view of the law,[8] but ultimately, the tripartite view was propagated and popularized by the Westminster Confession (1646), which was the basis for a variety of other confessions of faith, including the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. In the 1689 Baptist Confession, the tripartite division of the law is clearly seen in the chapter on the law of God (Ch. 19), where it reads: “besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship” and that “to them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people.”[9] While the 1689 Baptist Confession did not provide an argument for its views, but simply stated the belief of its signatories, as is customary for confessions, it did however substantiate its articles with a variety of Scripture references which are also of interest to the quest at hand.

Looking at contemporary times, it is interesting to note that the Baptist tradition found in the 1689 confession has not survived in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, where no mention of the tripartite law is made. Some current thoughts and discussions on the issue of the law and the gospel are summarized in Five Views on Law and Gospel, first published by Zondervan in 1993. In this book, the reader is presented with the following five views: the reformed perspective, the theonomic reformed approach, the evangelical (holiness code) approach, the dispensational view, and the modified Lutheran view.[10] The first three have to maintain that the law is at least bipartite, if not tripartite for their approach. The last two do not have to hold to any division of the law.

As we continue this discussion, we will next tackle Aquina’s arguments for a tripartite division of the law. In the meantime, do you know of any other historical figures that might have convincingly argued this position?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 180n. Unfortunately, France does not document this statement. Based on the research done, it is assumed that France’s reference to the Middle Ages is a reference to the work of Thomas Aquinas.

[2] Martin Luther The Bondage of the Will CXLIII. References to classical, medieval, and renaissance works will be cited as per section 17.5.1 of the 7th edition of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica FS.Q99.A4.

[5] Luther Bondage CXLVI.

[6] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.7, 2.8.31.

[7] Ibid., 4.20.14.

[8] John Owen Two Short Catechisms XIV.Q2.

[9] Samuel E.Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Webster: Evangelical Press, 1999), 232-33.

[10]Greg L.Bahnsen et al., Five Views on Law and Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 5.


Analyzing Aquinas’ Arguments.

The question that now begs to be answered is: are the arguments given in favor of a tripartite law acceptable, after all, the mere fact that many have accepted this division as a fact since the Middle Ages does not justify its acceptance. Therefore, to understand if it is appropriate to divide the law into three parts, I will analyze the arguments offered by the proponents of such a perspective, starting with Aquinas.

In his six article approach to “Of the Precept of the Old Law” (Q99), Aquinas started by defending that the law is made up of many precepts and not of only one precept. He did so by pointing to the plural “ordinances” used by Paul in Eph 2:15 when he wrote about the law of commandments.[1] This point is well presented and defended. The only comment that can be made about this point is that he could be accused of using Eph 2:15 selectively to prove his point of multiple precepts while ignoring the implications of Eph 2:15 when it comes to the wholeness of the law. While the author would agree with Aquinas, that Scripture here refers to “ordinances” plural, the author would also agree with Hoehner, in his commentary on the book of Ephesians, when he points out that the “term o nomo” must refer to the whole Mosaic law and not just the ceremonial law as some suggest,” and as such, he argues that “it is a false dichotomy to distinguish between the moral and ceremonial laws, making only the ceremonial laws inoperative.”[2]

Aquinas then proceeded to point to the Decalogue to support his claim that the Old Law contains some moral precepts because moral precepts are necessary to make man become good, so that he can be in friendship with God who is supremely good. He thus argued that “it was necessary for the Old Law to include precepts about acts of virtue: and these are the moral precepts of the Law.” [3] As we saw in the previous post, some disagree with Aquinas about the statement that the Old Law contains only “some” moral precepts, but with that exception, one cannot fault his position just yet. Some discomfort is felt by the modern evangelical when Aquinas augmented his argument with a philosophical argument for the need of moral principles in the Old Law. To do so, he used the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus[4] to maintain that God cannot have a friendship with man “unless man become good.”[5] This latter argument can be seen as unnecessary, and its use of apocryphal literature makes it more suspicious to the modern evangelical. But, if one ignores this part of the argument, the claim that the Old Law contains moral precepts is a valid one.

Aquinas continued by seeking to prove that there are precepts which are not moral, but ceremonial. He did so by looking at Deut 4:13, 14, where Moses stated that God declared to Israel His covenant, that is the Ten Commandments, and that the LORD commanded Moses to teach the Israelites statutes and judgments, that they were to observe. Aquinas is translated here as using the phraseology “ceremonies and judgments,” instead of the NKJV’s terminology, “statutes and judgments,” and this is where he seems to get the term ceremonial law.[6] The Hebrew term used here is qx, which BDAG defines as “something prescribed, a statute or due,” or as an “enactment, decree, ordinance,” or a “law in general.”[7] This same term is used in the next chapter of Deuteronomy when the Decalogue is introduced with: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn them and be careful to observe them. … You shall have no other gods before Me ….” (Deut 5:1-7, NKJV, emphasis mine). Therefore Aquinas’ insistence on the use of qx as meaning ceremonies[8] is deemed not to be well founded since the Decalogue (the commands associated with the moral law according to Aquinas) are introduced with the same term that Aquinas wants to use to identify ceremonial laws. Frame, a proponent of the tripartite law, further furnishes a critique of Aquinas’ use of the ceremonial term when he writes,

It is misleading to define “ceremonial” etymologically as “laws pertaining to ceremonies.” Many of the laws commonly grouped under the “ceremonial” category, such as dietary laws [and] clothing laws, have nothing to do with “ceremonies.” And some laws having to do with ceremonies, such as the “regulative principle” and other doctrines concerning public worship, are commonly described as moral rather than ceremonial laws.[9]

It would therefore seem that Aquinas’ argument for the presence of ceremonial decrees is invalid on many fronts. In addition to this, when Aquinas replied to the objection[10] that “human actions are called moral, … therefore it seems that the Old Law given to men should not comprise other than moral precepts,” he simply answered that “human acts extend also to the Divine worship: and therefore the Old Law given to man contains precepts about these matters also.”[11] This is circular reasoning; instead of defending his statement that Divine worship is not a moral concept, he arbitrarily put it in a different category and then used its being in that category to justify the existence of that category. In this same section, Aquinas admitted in the reply to another objection that “to worship God, since it is an act of virtue, belongs to a moral precept,” but he then differentiated the worship of God from the precepts prescribing the worship of God, which are in themselves not moral, but ceremonial.[12] Here again, Aquinas seemed to change categories without substantial justification. He conveniently created a new category, but did not justify its existence.

Aquinas next proceeded to argue for judicial precepts by looking at Deut 6:1. Here he interpreted the words commandment, statutes, and judgments as referring to moral, ceremonial, and judicial law.[13] This is the same terminology used in Deut 4 and Deut 5 (as seen above) and Aquinas here used a similar weak reasoning with judicial precepts as he used above with moral precepts: he again conveniently created a new category, but did not justify its existence. In addition, he augmented his argument by pointing to Rom 7:12, “therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good,” as additional substantiation of his tri-partition. Here he related “just” with the judicial precepts, “holy” with the ceremonial precepts, and “good” with the moral precepts.[14] Moo, in his commentary on Romans, does not allow for such an interpretation, for he says that “Paul brings together as essentially parallel terms ‘law’ and ‘commandment’; both referring to the Mosaic law, the former as a body, the latter in terms of specific commandments that Paul has cited in v. 7 as representative of the whole.”[15] If Moo is correct, then the term “holy,” associated with the entire law in the first part of the verse, cannot in the next breath refer only to ceremonial laws, as Aquinas purported it does. Here again, Aquinas admitted that the “act of justice, in general, belongs to the moral precepts,” but then, in a similar manner as with ceremonial precepts, he differentiated between the determination of the acts and the acts themselves, concluding that the determination of the acts belongs to the category of judicial precepts.[16] Just as with ceremonial acts, it must be stated that this change of category is not substantiated. Ultimately, it is very interesting that Aquinas himself agreed that the ceremonial and judicial precepts have their basis in the moral law, and yet he worked very hard to separate them into different categories from the moral law.

Aquinas finished his defense of the tripartite law with his fifth article, in which he investigated the possibility of the presence of a fourth division of the law. His arguments against a fourth division are similar to the ones made above and do not add much to the discussion of this blog series. Some more discussion is found in questions 100-108 of the Summa. In these questions, Aquinas continued to develop his ideas about the tripartite law and specifically postulates arguments on the duration of each kind of precept. Aquinas believed that “the precepts of the Decalogue cannot be changed by dispensation,”[17] and yet he also believed that when Christ came, a change had to have happened in the law for, according to Aquinas: the New Testament law is different from the Old Testament law;[18] “the judicial precepts are no longer in force”;[19] and that “the Old Law is said to be ‘for ever’ simply and absolutely, as regards its moral precepts; but as regards the ceremonial precepts it lasts for ever in respect of the reality which those ceremonies foreshadowed.”[20]

In the next post, I will look at Calvin and his defense of a tripartite law. In the meantime, what do y’all think. Are Aquinas’ arguments valid? Am I being too severe with him? Did I miss something?

[1] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A1.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians – An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 375-6.

[3] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A2.

[4] Aquinas referred to Ecclesiasticus almost 250 times in his Summa, often using the introduction “it is written.”

[5] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A2.

[6] Ibid., FS.Q99.A3.

[7] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brow-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 349. The author takes this occasion to point out that he is not a Hebrew scholar, and therefore some of the nuances of the language might have escaped him as he makes arguments based on the Hebrew text.

[8] It should be noted that the insistence on the word ceremonial which transpires in the English translation, might, or might not be as strong in the original Latin, but no matter what term was used in the original, it is hoped that the translators represented Aquinas’ ideas correctly, as it is with these ideas that the author is interacting.

[9] John M. Frame, “Toward a Theology of the State,” Westminster Theological Journal 51 no 2 (Fall 1989): 204n.

[10] The format of the Summa starts with a series of objections to his article, followed by the defense of his article and answers to the objections aforementioned.

[11] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., FS.Q99.A4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 440.

[16] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A4.

[17] Ibid., FS.Q100.A8.

[18] Ibid., FS.Q107.A1.

[19] Ibid., FS.Q104.A3.

[20] Ibid., FS.Q103.A3.


Analyzing Calvin’s Arguments.

As for Calvin, he stated that he gathered his tripartite view of the law from the “ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes [judicial and ceremonial laws] had to do with morals.”[1] Therefore, like Aquinas, Calvin admitted that the laws which he called ceremonial and judicial had to do with morals, even so he, like Aquinas, adopted, defined, and used different categories for them. Unlike Aquinas, who tried to justify his reasoning through logic and some Scriptural exegesis, Calvin seemed to have relied on the wisdom of the ancients. It is of interest to note that Calvin did not say that the ancients justified this tripartite division of the law with solid Biblical arguments, but only that they “did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals.”[2] It is almost as if he assumed that the motivation of the ancients was derived by a need to fit their purpose, instead of being derived by the clear teaching of Scripture. Since this abrogation pattern is clear in Aquinas, could it be that Calvin suggested that this tension between the Decalogue’s not being changed and the changing work of Christ was the motivation for Aquinas’ arguments trying to justify a tripartite law? Possibly, but we have no proof of it.

In Calvin’s theology, the law ultimately was divided as follows:

The moral law, … is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. … The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fullness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures (Gal. 3:24; 4:4). The judicial law, given them as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly. And as that exercise in ceremonies properly pertained to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as it kept the Jewish Church in the worship and religion of God, yet was still distinguishable from piety itself, so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself. Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so, also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual.”[3]

Therefore the moral law found in the Decalogue is timeless, but the ceremonial law and the judicial law are not. In this description, Calvin quotes Gal 3:24 as a supporting Scripture for his treatment of the ceremonial law. This passage, which in the letter to the Galatians comes at the end of a section on the purpose of the law, states: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24 NKJV). It is hard to envision that this passage, written to a predominantly gentile church, was referring only to the Jewish nation, as Calvin would have it seem.[4] Also, the context of the passage does not seem to allow for a purely ceremonial understanding of “the law,” but to a more holistic understanding of the law. Therefore it is hard to agree with Calvin’s definition of the ceremonial law based on this passage. As a matter of fact, if this passage is read in light of verse 25, where Paul writes: “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:25 NKJV), one could understand this section of Scripture as arguing for a view where we are no longer under a tutor for the “whole” law, and therefore one does not need to hold to a tripartite division of the law.

In the next post, I will look at some more modern uses of the tripartite law, and their justification, or lack there of, for using it. In the meantime, if you are better acquainted with Calvin and his writings, do you know of anywhere else where Calvin does a better job of defending the tripartite division of the law?

[1] Calvin Institutes 4.20.14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 4.20.15 (emphasis mine).

[4] In all fairness, one must at least consider the possibility that Paul here could have been using the term “we” to refer to his Jewish heritage rather than to him and his audience. While this interpretation would be more in line with Calvin’s thought, it does not seem to square with the general sense of the passage and the specific use of “all” in verse 22.


Two More Historical Views.

To finish the historical analysis, I would like to look at two more instances: the 1689 Baptist Confession and a recent book on the topic.

Looking at the 1689 Baptist Confession, we see again that like Calvin and Aquinas, the authors of the confession related ceremonial laws with moral duties when they stated: “ceremonial laws [which] … also gave instructions about various moral duties.”[1] But, basing themselves most probably on the thoughts of Calvin, they also used these created categories. Since this is a confession of faith, as stated above, we should not expect to have a defense of the tripartite division of the law; instead we have Scripture references listed in support of their statement. In support of the ceremonial law, the following Scriptures are cited: Heb 10:1, Col 2:16-7, Eph 2:14-6. Yet again, the understanding of these Scripture hinges on the use of the terms for the law. As mentioned before by Moo and Hoehner, there is little to no indication that these are referring only to ceremonial laws, and therefore are deemed not to be sustentative proof for a tripartite division of such laws.

When reading modern theologians of the reform variety, the tripartite division of the law is also often assumed and rarely explained. In his presentation of the reformed perspective in the Five Views on Law and Gospel book, VanGemeren assumes the traditional tripartite division of the law when he states: “The laws of the Old Testament have also been commonly categorized as moral, ceremonial, and civil. Each one of the Ten Commandments expresses the moral law of God, whereas most laws in the Pentateuch regulate the rituals and ceremonies (ceremonial laws) and the civil life of Israel as a nation (civil laws).”[2] What VanGemeren fails to do, is to defend his view Biblically. Instead, he points to Calvin and the Westminster Confession, who themselves had accepted the tripartite view from earlier sources. This deserved Moo’s criticism that VanGemeren assumed his tripartite position “without arguing the case. [Even though] this distinction, vital to his whole argument, is nowhere clearly stated in the Bible.”[3]

In the next post I will start looking at generic arguments for flaws in the tripartite assumption. In the meantime, do you know of anybody else who tries to defend the tripartite division of the law?

[1] Samuel E.Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Webster: Evangelical Press, 1999), 232-3.

[2] Greg L.Bahnsen et al., Five Views on Law and Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 30.

[3] Ibid., 85. To be fair to VanGemeren, it seems very common for modern reformed theologians to rely on the formulations of Calvin and the Westminster Confession.


Generic Arguments for Flaws in the Tripartite Assumption.

Having interacted with some of the main proponents of the tripartite division of the law throughout history, and having interacted with some of their thoughts, we shall now entertain generic arguments for flaws in the tripartite assumption. As seen already, the tripartite approach is often accused of being arbitrary in its identification of the various categories of laws. This is because, by their own admission, the different precepts/law categories are not neatly divided, but intertwined. For example, reformed theologian Willem A. VanGemeren states,

The book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:22-23:33) – with its regulations for worship (20:22-26; 23:14-19) and its civil laws (21:1-23:13) – extends the Decalogue in three directions. First, there is the complex development of case law. … Second, the criminal laws specify the penalty for breaking the commandments. … Third, the book of the covenant reveals the complexity of Israelite law. The moral laws (i.e., those reflected in the Decalogue) are intertwined with the civil laws, penal code, and ceremonial laws.[1]

To demonstrate this, he then proceeds to use Ex 22:19-29 as an example. In this passage, he shows that the topics covered vary from moral precepts, to penal precepts, to casuistic/civil precepts, back to moral precepts, and finally to ceremonial precepts, all intertwined in one passage. Reformed Professor John M. Frame is even more candid in his admission that the division between the supposed three parts of the law is not cut and dry. He tells us,

The law does not, of course, come to us with the labels “moral,” “ceremonial” and “civil” attached to its provisions. What we call “moral” laws are mixed together in the texts (almost randomly, it seems) with “civil” and “ceremonial” laws, and we must sort them out by determining their meaning and current applicability. Those that apply most literally today we call “moral,” those which apply least literally we call “ceremonial.” “Civil” is a different kind of category, based not on applicability but upon function, and these would be divided between “ceremonial” and “moral” depending on their applicability. Remember too, that literal and non-literal applicability is a matter of degree, so we may expect some “gray areas,” some laws that do not fit neatly into either “ceremonial” or “moral” categories.[2]

His sorting process is quite different from the traditional assumption that only the Decalogue is the depository of moral laws, and after reading his decision making process, one is left to wonder if “applicability” is really a Biblical identification of morality. As can be seen, the lack of clear distinction between the three parts of the law does point to a lack of credibility for the tripartite division of the law.

Barrick picks up on this and stipulates that the,

Division into three categories of law is unmasked as a fallacy by the testimony of the Book of Deuteronomy alone. Moses’s second exposition (4:44—26:19) presented the Decalogue and then illustrated each of the Ten Commandments by means of various legal stipulations. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the so-called civil and ceremonial stipulations are inextricably interwoven with what are considered to be the moral laws. Violation of any of the stipulations is a breach of the Decalogue.[3]

Another Old Testament text that does not square with the tripartite division of the law is Jer 31:31-2. Here God states that “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah– not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD” (Jer 31:31-2 NKJV). If God has made a New Covenant which is not like the covenant at Sinai, is it acceptable for us to say that only parts of the Old Covenant have changed? There is nothing in this passage that allows the reader to accept that this is a renewal of the Old Covenant. After all, the term used here has a primary definition of “new,” not “renew,” and the text speaks of a New Covenant, not like the Old Covenant. It is hard to imagine that this would imply any kind of continuity with the Old Covenant. There is also nothing which substantiates the Calvinistic position that this is a reformatting of the Old Covenant, or even that it is a hyperbolic statement, for again, the promise is of a New Covenant, not just a new medium.[4] Adeyemi also points out that “since the Old Covenant will be abolished, so will its Torah which cannot be divorced from it. … This view accords with several statements in Isaiah about a Torah other than the Mosaic Law being given by Yahweh when Israel is in her land and Messiah is reigning.”[5]

Both Moo and Strickland also offer the Sabbath commandment as an exemplary test case of the abrogation of the Decalogue, and therefore as proof that if the Decalogue is the depository of God’s immutable moral law, then even the moral law has changed. The argument goes like this: reformed theologians claim that the Decalogue is the eternal moral law. If that is the case, then all of the Ten Commandments should still be valid for New Testament believers. But the fifth commandment states that rest should be pursued on the seventh day, and since it is in the Decalogue, the lack of observance of the Sabbath in this way is a moral matter. Believers, including ones in the reformed tradition, have been meeting on the first day of the week since New Testament times, because it is sanctioned in the New Testament. Does that then mean that the eternal moral precepts are subject to revision and that God’s nature has changed?[6] Aquinas would not agree that God’s nature has changed,[7] neither would Calvin,[8] and most probably, neither would modern reformed theologians.

Finally, looking at the use of the law in the New Testament, Moo argues that “Jesus and the New Testament authors treated the Mosaic law as a whole,” and that “Jewish theology refused to allow a ‘picking and choosing’ among the commandments of the law.” He also argues, by looking at Matt 23:23, that even though Jesus possibly followed a Jewish tradition of categorizing the law, he insisted that “even the ‘light’ commandments still must be done.” He further points to Gal 5:3 and James 2:8-1, and their message of keeping or breaking the whole law, to suggest that the same perspective was adopted by the New Testament community. [9] Barrick picks up this same theme when he states that “to be disobedient to any one of the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant is to be guilty of disobedience to all of the stipulations of the covenant (Jas 2:10).”[10] Ultimately, Moo also analyzes Paul’s use of the terms for the law and the reformed tradition’s varied, and apparently arbitrary, interpretation of which laws Paul is referring to (moral or ceremonial law) and does not find any substantiation for their interpretations.[11]

If the historical arguments for the tripartite law are flawed and if Scripture does not seem to support this idea, why is it so popular?

[1] Ibid., 30-1.

[2] Frame, 203-4.

[3] Barrick, 229.

[4] Femi Adeyemi, “What is the New Covenant ‘Law’ in Jeremiah 31:33?” Biblioteca Sacra 163 (July-September 2006): 315-9.

[5] Ibid., 320-1.

[6] Bahnsen et al., 81-2, 88.

[7] Aquinas Summa FS.Q100. A8.

[8] Calvin Institutes 4.20.15.

[9] Bahnsen et al., 85.

[10] Barrick, 231.

[11] Bahnsen et al., 85-6.


HT: http://maelandcindy.blogspot.com/2008/06/is-mosaic-law-tripartite.html