Questions on the moral-civil-ceremonial distinction

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Mr. Bultitude

Puritan Board Freshman
Reading WCF chapter 19, it appears that:

  1. The "moral law" is the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments are the whole of the moral law. The moral law has been in effect since creation as man's obligation in the covenant of works, and is still in effect today.
  2. The first four of the Ten Commandments can be summed up as, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength," and the latter six can be summed up as, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
  3. The rest of the commands given through Moses constitute the "civil" and "ceremonial" law, as well as "diverse instructions of moral duties."

Given that, I have some questions:

  1. Is what I said above accurate?
  2. I know covenant theology is not explicit (though arguably present) in the 3FU, but are continental beliefs about the tripartite division (specifically regarding the Ten Commandments) similar to that of Westminster? (I don't want to get too far afield, and I know this isn't a Lutheran board, but if someone can also briefly answer this question replacing "continental" with "Lutheran" as a sidenote, I'd be grateful.)
  3. My understanding of the republication controversy is limited, and I don't want to get too deep into it in this thread (there are loads of other threads that already do, which is great), but my understanding is that it has to do with whether and to what extent the civil and ceremonial laws were a part of the covenant of works from the beginning. Is that correct?
  4. Would it be proper to say that New Testament regulations about church government and proper worship constitute a "new ceremonial law"?
  5. In Leviticus 19, "Love your neighbor as yourself" comes right after a section of what seems to be a mix of moral and civil laws (gleaning, stealing, wages, impartiality, and slander) and right before a section of a mix of what's perhaps a mix of all three types of law (cattle breeding, mixing fabrics, illicit sex and the offerings for it, use of fruit trees, diet, tattoos, sorcery, honoring elders and sojourners). If this verse is a distillation of half the moral law, why is it not contained in the Ten Commandments explicitly and instead placed in the context of a jumble of moral, civil, and ceremonial law?
  6. It would be useful to have some sort of a guide or reference book to say, "Verse X is an example of moral instruction. Verse Y is civil. Verse Z is ceremonial." I realize that a lot of the categorization is self-evident (for instance, laws about sacrifice are ceremonial, those about law courts are civil, etc.), but not all of it is. Why hasn't the church seen any need of such a reference?

I know these are a LOT of questions, and I'd be glad to split some into separate threads. They all seem really closely related to me, though, so if you think it's necessary, please help me figure out which ones need to be spun off. Thank you for reading.
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
Yikes. I'll try my best to be brief and clear:

Is what I said above accurate?


More of less. The Ten Commandments are said to summarily comprehend the whole of the moral law. By good and necessary consequence, all the God requires of man morally may be directly or indirectly inferred by each of the ten commandments.

I know covenant theology is not explicit (though arguably present) in the 3FU, but are continental beliefs about the tripartite division (specifically regarding the Ten Commandments) similar to that of Westminster? (I don't want to get too far afield, and I know this isn't a Lutheran board, but if someone can also briefly answer this question replacing "continental" with "Lutheran" as a sidenote, I'd be grateful.)

Yes.

My understanding of the republication controversy is limited, and I don't want to get too deep into it in this thread (there are loads of other threads that already do, which is great), but my understanding is that it has to do with whether and to what extent the civil and ceremonial laws were a part of the covenant of works from the beginning. Is that correct?

Incorrect. The issue of Republication is a bit more complicated and has to do with applying certain patterns found in ancient near East (ANE) treaties atop the Scriptures as the major types of Covenant structures found in the Scriptures. They don't disagree with the idea that there are enduring moral, civil, or ceremonial laws so if that's what this is limited to then that's your answer.

Would it be proper to say that New Testament regulations about church government and proper worship constitute a "new ceremonial law"?

No. Ceremonial laws were preparatory or typological. They dealt with how a believer maintains ceremonial cleanliness. This notion pointed beyond itself but there are a number of dietary, clothing, grooming, and physical statutes that an OC Jew had to honor. They were temporary until the fulfillment of the New Covenant when the substance, Christ, came to usher in a Kingdom where the wall of division (in large part made by the ceremonial laws) was torn down. Even the entire Temple or Sanctuary was typological as Moses was shown a copy of the heavenly sanctuary to which we now have access through Christ.

In Leviticus 19, "Love your neighbor as yourself" comes right after a section of what seems to be a mix of moral and civil laws (gleaning, stealing, wages, impartiality, and slander) and right before a section of a mix of what's perhaps a mix of all three types of law (cattle breeding, mixing fabrics, illicit sex and the offerings for it, use of fruit trees, diet, tattoos, sorcery, honoring elders and sojourners). If this verse is a distillation of half the moral law, why is it not contained in the Ten Commandments explicitly and instead placed in the context of a jumble of moral, civil, and ceremonial law?

The simple answer is that God inspired it that way. Even the Jews understood that the ten commandements were, themselves, summarily comprehended by loving God with your whole, heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself. We see this as the Scribe approves Jesus' answer. As to the question, then, why didn't God just write on two tablets with one tablet that read: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind" and on the other: "Love Your neighbor as yourself" - this answer is fairly clear when we understand that man is fallen and redeemed man is in a battle with indwelling sin. Again, the moral precepts give examples of what is summarily comprehended elsewhere - this is what it looks like. Why does a father teach his children how to cross a road safely? Because he loves them? Why do we put people through certain (seemingly useless) exercises? So that a principle might be taught.

It would be useful to have some sort of a guide or reference book to say, "Verse X is an example of moral instruction. Verse Y is civil. Verse Z is ceremonial." I realize that a lot of the categorization is self-evident (for instance, laws about sacrifice are ceremonial, those about law courts are civil, etc.), but not all of it is. Why hasn't the church seen any need of such a reference?

I suppose you could argue that the Catholic Church has done this through Canon Law to a certain extent (even though they don't really engage in real exegesis). The RCC is really a good place to go for those who want to know what they have to know in a certain circumstance. The Reformed approach, even in its casuistry, is to try to point out what the Law of God says and then leaves it to the work of the Spirit on the conscience of the believer to a large extent. Even when we know something of what the moral law teaches us, things are never quite as easy as finding a "prooftext" for a decision. Even when a magistrate wants to pass just laws based on the general equity of the law, it requires discernment as to how to make wise policy.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
***Semper Fidelis and I were both cross-posting to answer. Please understand mine is also directed at the OP, and challenges nothing in the first reply posted.***


  1. Is what I said above accurate?
  2. I know covenant theology is not explicit (though arguably present) in the 3FU, but are continental beliefs about the tripartite division (specifically regarding the Ten Commandments) similar to that of Westminster? (I don't want to get too far afield, and I know this isn't a Lutheran board, but if someone can also briefly answer this question replacing "continental" with "Lutheran" as a sidenote, I'd be grateful.)
  3. My understanding of the republication controversy is limited, and I don't want to get too deep into it in this thread (there are loads of other threads that already do, which is great), but my understanding is that it has to do with whether and to what extent the civil and ceremonial laws were a part of the covenant of works from the beginning. Is that correct?
  4. Would it be proper to say that New Testament regulations about church government and proper worship constitute a "new ceremonial law"?
  5. In Leviticus 19, "Love your neighbor as yourself" comes right after a section of what seems to be a mix of moral and civil laws (gleaning, stealing, wages, impartiality, and slander) and right before a section of a mix of what's perhaps a mix of all three types of law (cattle breeding, mixing fabrics, illicit sex and the offerings for it, use of fruit trees, diet, tattoos, sorcery, honoring elders and sojourners). If this verse is a distillation of half the moral law, why is it not contained in the Ten Commandments explicitly and instead placed in the context of a jumble of moral, civil, and ceremonial law?
  6. It would be useful to have some sort of a guide or reference book to say, "Verse X is an example of moral instruction. Verse Y is civil. Verse Z is ceremonial." I realize that a lot of the categorization is self-evident (for instance, laws about sacrifice are ceremonial, those about law courts are civil, etc.), but not all of it is. Why hasn't the church seen any need of such a reference?

1. Yes, accurate.

2. Here is A'Brakel's (1635-1711) language, who is continental Dutch from the era of the Westminster Assembly
The word ―law‖ is used in various ways. It means 1) the law of nature (Rom 2:14-15); 2) the corruption of human nature which dominates in the unconverted, and frequently overpowers the converted (Rom 7:23); 3) the entire Word of God (Ps 19:7-8); 4) the books of Moses (Luke 24:44); 5) the gospel (Rom 3:27; Isa 2:3); 6) the civil laws (John 19:7); 7) the ceremonial laws (Heb 10:1); and 8) the moral law, comprehended in the ten commandments (Matt 22:36-38). The law in this latter connotation is the subject of our discussion here.
From vol.3 of A Christian's Reasonable Service, available here: http://www.abrakel.com/p/christians-reasonable-service.html

Someone can probably quote more recent 3FU men like Bavinck & Berkhof to the same end.

3. 'Republication' is the question of whether, or to what degree, the original Edenic Covenant of Works is present under the aspect of the Siniatic covenant. A subsidiary question is: was Israel's instatement in the land, and continuance therein, conditioned on works, on obedience; and was it strict obedience, or a kind of congruent-obedience with a repair-factor (sacrifices) built in? Thus, residence would be seen a typological representation of man's original blessedness.

Whether this "reads back" civil and ceremonial law into the original CoW is not really of the essence of that question, as I understand it.

4. No.

5. Lev.19 and the "holiness code" first needs to be appreciated on its own terms. Referring to it as "jumble" only reinforces a false impression of the composition of Leviticus. The book should be viewed as a coherent compilation of smaller subsections, especially concerned with the conduct of the priesthood. The "holiness code" is first of all a repetition of many previously ordained laws pointedly addressed to the priests, who were the holiest of a holy people. A summary statement is not odd to find included in the lot.

One recognizes that these priestly directions are not exclusively unique to them; ergo, the summary statement is useful to all Israelites. As to why such a sum is not inserted closer to the 10C, a better question might be: "Why should there be?" What's wrong with it being where it is? Does its location make it any less a summary? How so? On its own merits, does the command not summarize one's duty-to-neighbor?

6. One could argue that commentaries perform the function of parsing the various laws of Israel. But, the main reason why we don't need a reference manual to the OT law is that we are no more under the law, in toto. We are bound by the Moral Law, the Ten Words, Ex.34:28, Dt.10:4; 4:13; the cornerstone of that socially comprehensive legislation that was appointed for a national church-state. The law in that form is not for the NT-era, not for the international church, not for one people or all people.

The contrary is the great 20th century theonomy proposition. In answer, I say we have more than enough difficulty living according to the Moral Law; why do we need a Christian version of the Talmud? Does not our Savior's formidable challenge in the Sermon on the Mount--where he raises the bar to "exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees"--stand as condemnation enough? "Now therefore why make ye trial of God, that ye should put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Act.15:10.

A commentary set, then, is sufficient.
 

Mr. Bultitude

Puritan Board Freshman
You guys are awesome. Way to respond quickly, concisely, and thoroughly. Both posts have brought a lot more clarity to my (if I may reuse a word that I previously misused) jumbled understanding.
 

Mr. Bultitude

Puritan Board Freshman
After rereading the posts, I do have one follow-up question.

They don't disagree with the idea that there are enduring moral, civil, or ceremonial laws

In what sense have the civil and ceremonial laws "endured"? Or did you just mean that some of them were in force before Moses?
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
After rereading the posts, I do have one follow-up question.

They don't disagree with the idea that there are enduring moral, civil, or ceremonial laws

In what sense have the civil and ceremonial laws "endured"? Or did you just mean that some of them were in force before Moses?

Here is an interview with Philip Ross on his book From the Finger of God, which is a defense of the tripartite division of the law.https://kevinfiske.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/christian-focus-author-interview-philip-s-ross/
KF: Is the Christian still bound by the Mosaic Law? You note that parts of the law are “non-binding, another binding in its underlying principles, and another ever-binding.” Could you explain that distinction and how the law functions in the life of the believer in Christ?

PR: As your quotation implies, the threefold division of the law does not give a yes or no answer to this question, nor, contrary to the frequent assertion of critics, does it ‘neatly’ divide the Mosaic Law. The ceremonial laws are non-binding because they prefigured Christ, but they may still imply moral demands (1 Cor. 5). From the outset, the civil laws were binding ‘in the land’ (Deut. 4:5, 14; 5:31; 6:1; 12:1) and while the apostles called for obedience to commandments of the Decalogue, they recognised that the civil laws were of temporary jurisdiction when they declared the legitimacy of the ruling authorities, calling on Christians to submit to them (Rom. 13:1–4). This does not mean, however, that the civil laws were an irrelevance; the underlying principles, which are the principles enshrined in the Decalogue, still bind.

The only part of the law that the church has claimed should be ever-binding is the moral law....
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
After rereading the posts, I do have one follow-up question.

They don't disagree with the idea that there are enduring moral, civil, or ceremonial laws

In what sense have the civil and ceremonial laws "endured"? Or did you just mean that some of them were in force before Moses?

I stated that poorly. They would not disagree with the division of the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. They would agree that the ceremonial has been abrogated and that the moral law endures. The civil laws is sometimes where the debate gets sticky because they agree with the classical Reformed view that their is discontinuity in the civil laws but they tend to have a different method for applying the "general equity" of the civil laws (and even some moral laws) to how nations ought to be governed.
 
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