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.

2 comments:

Sean Daily said...

Very well written indeed. I'll need to include your post here on my blog about the Christians relation to the Mosaic Law.

Thanks for the work you put into this.

Sean

Maël said...

Thank you Sean.

I still have 2 or 3 posts in this series. Please feel free to comment on any of them.

Mae:l

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