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.



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