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.


Anonymous said...

I definitely see merit in the first and third of Hays' objections. I have yet to find any value in the tripartite (or even bipartite -- moral vs. ceremonial) division.

Yet I look forward to what sounds like a defense forthcoming from you for such a view.

Alan Knox said...


In answer to your questions, no, I don't think the 3 part (or 2 part) division of the law is valid.


I don't think Maël agrees with the 3 part division of the law. But, I don't know when he'll be able to respond to you. His grandfather passed away today.


Lew A said...


Sorry to hear about your grandfather. My grandfather passed last week.

The tripartite division is convenient for people who don't want to think about it. I believed it when I first became a believer, because it was easy. Then I started to question it and basically decided it had no merit, basically because of Hays' first objection, it is arbitrary and has no scripture justification.

God's Glory,

Maël said...

Thanks all ... I hope to have some time to post while gone.

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