Saturday, June 28, 2008

Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (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.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

When in France, ...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Introduction)

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?

In this series:
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Introduction)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Historical Overview)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Analyzing Aquinas' arguments)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Analyzing Calvins' arguments)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Wrapping up with two more historical views)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Entertain generic arguments for flaws in the tripartite assumption)
Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (Some final thoughts)

[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.

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