Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is the Mosaic law tripartite? (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.

3 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Maël,

First, I want to commend you on your proper use of the term "y'all". Very nicely done!

Second, thank you for stepping through Aquinas' argument. I think you have shown the weaknesses of his arguments. Do you know if anyone has answered these kinds of challenges?

-Alan

Maël said...

I do not know of any answers to these challenges. I was hoping to have more interactions with people who might be able to provide such answers. As you will see in the next posts, the historical trend after Aquinas is to refer to and accept the tripartite division of the law, but not to try to provide a logical / scriptural argument for it.

Sean Daily said...

Maël,

I did not think you too harsh in your critique, but since I am not personally acquainted with Aquinas' writings, I must assume you presented the pertinent texts accurately and, assuming this, you did a adequate job in your critique.

I did have one question or maybe rather an observation. In dealing with Ephesians 2:15, I am somewhat perplexed why so many commentators assume this is speaking of all, or any, of the Mosaic Law, since in context, there is no law of division within the Mosaic Law that divides Gentile from Jew. Only the "man made rules" and dogma taught this division. In that light, I believe that Eph 2:15 is speaking against man made dogma (to use the actual Greek word in this text). I support this conclusion from the above historical/cultural evidence, and reinforce it by finding the many times Paul speaks against the dogma of man (when it differs from God's Law). Colossians 2 in particular.

Thank you for the research and work you are and have done to aide in this discussion.

Sean Daily.

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