Moral, Civil, Ceremonial: An Artificial Construct?

Status
Not open for further replies.

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
I have a close family member, of a somewhat Dispensational bent, who likes to say that the distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial law is an "artificial construct," and thus invalid. "All the Law was given to the Jews," he says. Judging by my discussions with him, by "artificial construct" he means that the construct is one not found within the Bible or used its authors, but is rather imposed upon Scripture as a hermeneutical tool. Ironically, he will still assert that the Ten Commandments, as well as various laws like those regarding homosexuality and bestiality, still apply. Of course, without this very distinction that he rejects, these conclusions seem rather arbitrary.

What would you say to this? I often retort, "The Trinity is also an artificial construct." I haven't received an answer that satisfies me.
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
A book on my reading list, which has been widely praised by Reformed scholars, is "From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law" by Philip S. Ross
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
Can ceremonial laws come and go, or never have existed, without changing the character of God? Yes. God is God whether there was ever sacrifice or circumcision.

For moral law, if even the least of moral law changes, it means a change in God since they reflect his character. In which God is not who He says He is.

That's a big distinction.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The actual words "the Ten Commandments" are found in three passages, Ex.34:28, Dt.4:13 & 10:4 (cf. 5:22). It is obvious that for Israel herself, the "Ten Words" were the unique moral cornerstone of the whole edifice.

It is also just as obvious that the essence of all these commands predates the "giving of the law" to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Murder didn't become sin on the day God delivered these viva voce, in the presence of the gathered thousands at the foot of the mountain. Nor did the Sabbath duty, a thing given in the end of the Creation Week.

The Ten Commandments are nothing but a summary transcript of the law that is written on the heart of every human being, even if that writing is defaced and scarred (Rom.2:15). It cannot be "rid of" without eradicating our humanity.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
It's not artificial but not every law is immediately obvious in one of the three categories. Like the law about picking up birds' nests.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
The objection seems to rest on a biblicist assumption that God would have to give us a cut and dried list of which laws fall into which categories in order for the distinction to be valid. Such an idea is blatantly absurd, as the New Testament tells us that the ceremonies are abrogated without providing us with an explicit list telling us each specific law that falls into the ceremonial category. Modern evangelicals are evidently under the illusion that God is as intellectually lazy as they are and does not expect us to do the hard work of drawing conclusions from scripture.
 

Adam Olive

Puritan Board Freshman
There is a clear division between the moral law of the 10 commandments (Exo 20) and the law that follows (20:22-23:19).

The civil law of 21:1 - 23:9 is bookended by ceremonial law about altars and festivals (20:22-26 and 23:10-19) presumably to put loving-others-law within the context of loving-God-law.

So even in these chapters distinctions are evident. And the same could be demonstrated in Leviticus.

Moral, civil and ceremonial might not be the best descriptions but they convey the basic idea and the distinction is apparent as in above.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Graduate
I have a close family member, of a somewhat Dispensational bent, who likes to say that the distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial law is an "artificial construct," and thus invalid.
Adherents to New Covenant Theology espouse the same idea. If it can be successfully argued that there is no threefold distinction of OT laws, then, they will argue, it follows that if we are obliged to keep the "Ten Commandments" then we must likewise keep all of the ceremonial, dietary, and civil laws as well. And since no one believes this is required of God's New Covenant people, it is further argued that any adherence to the Law for a believer is inconsistent with the New Testament. All the NT believer is called to do is obey the "law of Christ" which they argue is substantially nothing more than what Christ says in John 13:34, "That ye love one another; as I have loved you." It is Antinomianism.
 

PuritanCovenanter

Moderator
Staff member
It's not artificial but not every law is immediately obvious in one of the three categories. Like the law about picking up birds' nests.
That must might be an unclean thing to do since they crap all over them. LOL I have a sparrows nest on top of my big wind chimes on my porch I need to clean out every year. It is full of the stuff. People get sick from the diseases and bugs those thing things carry.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
Those who deny the categories of moral, civil and ceremonial law are forced to reinvent them under some other name. After all, everyone agrees some laws of the OT are for all times and places ("You shall not commit adultery"), some point forward to Christ and find their complete fulfilment in him (unless you are still sacrificing your annual Passover lamb), and some are for the state of Israel while they are living in the land as a specific expression of God's wisdom; these laws don't bind us directly, but rather through their general equity (e.g. putting a parapet around your roof).
Certainly, there are laws that have aspects of more than one category and others that aren't always easy to decide where they fit. But if you don't have these categories, how do you argue that the OT laws against bestiality are still valid, while those on polyester/cotton shirts don't apply?
I find that often people misunderstand the meaning of the categories, thinking that they distinguish between meaningful OT laws (moral) and ones we have grown out of and abandoned (civil/ceremonial). They rightly push back against that, sensing that all OT law is important. I find the confessional concept of "general equity" often helps people understand how from a Reformed perspective we can affirm the value of all OT laws without insisting that they all govern us in the same way.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
Those who deny the categories of moral, civil and ceremonial law are forced to reinvent them under some other name. After all, everyone agrees some laws of the OT are for all times and places ("You shall not commit adultery"), some point forward to Christ and find their complete fulfilment in him (unless you are still sacrificing your annual Passover lamb), and some are for the state of Israel while they are living in the land as a specific expression of God's wisdom; these laws don't bind us directly, but rather through their general equity (e.g. putting a parapet around your roof).
Certainly, there are laws that have aspects of more than one category and others that aren't always easy to decide where they fit. But if you don't have these categories, how do you argue that the OT laws against bestiality are still valid, while those on polyester/cotton shirts don't apply?
I find that often people misunderstand the meaning of the categories, thinking that they distinguish between meaningful OT laws (moral) and ones we have grown out of and abandoned (civil/ceremonial). They rightly push back against that, sensing that all OT law is important. I find the confessional concept of "general equity" often helps people understand how from a Reformed perspective we can affirm the value of all OT laws without insisting that they all govern us in the same way.

Yes, this is what I have tried to explain to this family member. It is not that the Reformed sat down one day and asked, "Now, what system can we impose upon the Law of God in order to twist it to suit our purposes?" Rather, in good systematic fashion, theologians over the years have seen that the New Testament deals consistently with one certain type of Old Testament law in one way, while dealing with others of a similar nature in another way. The labels "moral, civil, and ceremonial" are the best way theologians have come up with to categorize. It isn't an imposition, but rather a fruit of study.

That's why I always bring up the Trinity with him. While the Trinity is all over Scripture (I would argue even in the Old Testament), the doctrine of the Trinity and all its language is very much "artificial" to the New Testament. Nowhere in the New Testament are we given a direct teaching of the hypostatic union, one substance and three Persons, perichoresis, etc. Yet all of these things are clearly biblical and essential to the faith. This family member of mine would not argue against these Trinitarian doctrines, yet for some reason cannot see the inconsistency in not having the same "good and necessary consequence" view of the threefold division of the Law.
 

JTB.SDG

Puritan Board Junior
The concept is wholly biblical. It's not invented by man. The Puritan Francis Roberts (in his Mystery and Marrow, pp661-662) points out that the foundational text for understanding the three-fold division of the Law is Deuteronomy 4:13-14: "So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it." Verse 13 deals with the moral law, the ten commandments. Verse 14 describes the appendages to the ten commandments, which Moses calls statutes and judgments. Here in these verses, Moses clearly distinguishes between the ten commandments (in verse 13), and the other commandments mentioned in verse 14.

On these two verses, John Colquhoun, in his A Treaty on the Law and Gospel, says: “He gave the moral law to them, as the primary rule of the obedience, which he required in this covenant (Deut. 4:13). He gave them also, the ceremonial and judicial laws, as appendages to it. . .The ceremonial institutions, which, in the sacred history, are frequently called Statutes, were, for the most part, reducible to precepts of the first table; and the judicial laws, which, in the same history, are often styled Judgments, were mostly reducible to precepts of the second table.” (p73). The Ceremonial laws were appendages to the first table of the Law, fleshing out what love for God looks like in Israel's time and place. Colquhoun notes these are often called "statutes" (Deut.4:14). The Judicial Laws fleshed out the second table of the Law, what love for neighbor looked like in Israel's time and place, and they are often called "judgments". Again, Francis Roberts had the same observation about these two words in His Mystery and Marrow, pp661-62, adding that the Moral Law had its own terminology as well, and was often called “commandments”, “laws” or “testimonies”.

Aside from Deuteronomy 4:13-14, you see this also in Exodus, in the chapters dealing with what is called The Book of the Covenant. Immediately following the giving of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20, Moses writes down the following words of the Lord (Exodus 20:22-23:19) in a book (see Exodus 24:4). If you study these chapters, you learn that they are not a series of random commands, but actually a fleshing out of the 10 Commandments of Exodus 20. So, Exodus 20:22-26 deals with fleshing out the 1st and 2nd commandments (ceremonial law). Exodus 21:1-23:9 deal with fleshing out the 5th to 10th commandments (judicial law). And Exodus 23:10-19 deal with fleshing out the 3rd and 4th commandments (again ceremonial law). Again, what's going on here? Moses is fleshing out for Israel what these ten commandments, which he just gave in Exodus 20, will look like for Israel in their time and place.

There's much more that could be said in terms of bringing in Scripture from the NT that is very clear about certain OT laws being either fulfilled in Christ or else transformed in the new covenant (IE, the death penalty in Deuteronomy 22:21 being transformed to excommunication in 1 Corinthians 5:13; the command about an ox in Deuteronomy 25:4 taking on new meaning in 1 Corinthians 9:9). But this is a start.
 
Last edited:

User20004000

Puritan Board Sophomore
I have a close family member, of a somewhat Dispensational bent, who likes to say that the distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial law is an "artificial construct," and thus invalid. "All the Law was given to the Jews," he says. Judging by my discussions with him, by "artificial construct" he means that the construct is one not found within the Bible or used its authors, but is rather imposed upon Scripture as a hermeneutical tool. Ironically, he will still assert that the Ten Commandments, as well as various laws like those regarding homosexuality and bestiality, still apply. Of course, without this very distinction that he rejects, these conclusions seem rather arbitrary.

What would you say to this? I often retort, "The Trinity is also an artificial construct." I haven't received an answer that satisfies me.

Taylor,

Maybe ask your family member whether all sins were crimes under Moses. If not, how might we distinguish between categories of sins? Are there relevant categorical distinctions for (i) obeying one’s mother and father (ii) wearing a single garment made from wool and linen and (c) laws that contemplated restitution?
 

Andrew35

Puritan Board Sophomore
I've had this conversation before.

ME: A + B = C, right?
BOB JONES GRADUATE: Yes
ME: So C - B = A?
BJ GRAD: No, because Darby + Schofield + Ryrie ["literal hermeneutic"/Left Behind fiction] = the Red Heifer sacrifice.
ME: :banghead:
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
That must might be an unclean thing to do since they crap all over them. LOL I have a sparrows nest on top of my big wind chimes on my porch I need to clean out every year. It is full of the stuff. People get sick from the diseases and bugs those thing things carry.

I guess that's true but in verse 7 it says you may take the young. I don't think it is a disease thing.
 

Poimen

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
This distinction is upheld: 1) wherever scripture speaks of the greater weight given to obedience over sacrifice: Psalm 40:6-8 etc. & 2) wherever scripture speaks of the law primarily being a matter of the inward man: Jeremiah 31:33 (cf. Hebrews 8:10).

N.B. In Jeremiah 31:33 it is "laws" not law. But since, as we know from the NT, sacrifices (etc.), have passed away & the civil laws have expired with the end of the nation of Israel, what remains except the moral law?
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
Thinking more about this, CH Spurgeon's statement on the covenants summarises nicely why Dispensationalism gets the concept of the law tragically wrong. Spurgeon said:

"He who understands the two covenants has found the marrow of all theology, but he who does not know the covenants knows next to nothing of the gospel of Christ”
Blood of the Covenants
Sermon No. 1186
(Hebrews 13:20-21)
Delivered on Lord's-Day Morning, August 2nd, 1874
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
Perhaps your friend would like to explain his belief in the Trinity or much of what is described by Christology?

If one rejects the use of descriptive language for the law (terms that have withstood multiple generations of clergy and scholars) than it seems consistent to reject all.

Your friend is trying to draw an unbiblical wedge between law and grace by trying to attack the use of theological language. This in not a particularly compelling argument.
 

User20004000

Puritan Board Sophomore
Perhaps your friend would like to explain his belief in the Trinity or much of what is described by Christology?

If one rejects the use of descriptive language for the law (terms that have withstood multiple generations of clergy and scholars) than it seems consistent to reject all.

Your friend is trying to draw an unbiblical wedge between law and grace by trying to attack the use of theological language. This in not a particularly compelling argument.

How do you surmise that Taylor’s family member is placing a wedge between law and grace?
 

Grits

Puritan Board Freshman
For most of my life I attended non-reformed Protestant churches, primarily Southern Baptist. It was always a curiosity that the same pastors who object to any application of the Old Testament law to the New Testament church make an exception for the tithe.

It is true, as previously posted, that the rejection of the moral law of the Old Testament law merely necessitates its reinvention in a different form. Without the moral law, life would be chaos and our God is a God of order.

Further, Jesus said that if we love him we are to obey his commandments. If there is a distinction between a law and a commandment, it is lost on me.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
For most of my life I attended non-reformed Protestant churches, primarily Southern Baptist. It was always a curiosity that the same pastors who object to any application of the Old Testament law to the New Testament church make an exception for the tithe.

It is true, as previously posted, that the rejection of the moral law of the Old Testament law merely necessitates its reinvention in a different form. Without the moral law, life would be chaos and our God is a God of order.

Further, Jesus said that if we love him we are to obey his commandments. If there is a distinction between a law and a commandment, it is lost on me.
Hi Grits, please fix a signature per the board rules so folks know how to address you. :judge:
 

Poimen

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I was reminded of this thread when I was reviewing some of my old notes from scripture. In Mark 12:33 a scribe states that obeying the two great commandments "is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." Jesus "saw that he answered discreetly (*wisely* vs. 34)."

There are a number of inferences we can draw from this encounter: 1) this was an unbeliever and yet he was able to discern a difference between primary & secondary (subordinate) laws 2) this was before Jesus died whose death, arguably, gives more clarity to this distinction (having brought an end to such sacrifices because they were not meant to be eternal) & 3) Jesus approves his distinction when he said that he was not far from the kingdom of God (vs. 34).
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top