A Brief Note on the Three-Fold Division of the Law
Many theologians question the understanding of the Mosaic Law that says that there is a tripartite (three-fold) distinction in the Law: that the Law contains moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects, and that those moral aspects are everlasting, as reflective of God's character, while the civil and ceremonial aspects were specifically, directly applied only in the Old Covenant era.
Theologians who deny such a distinction as described above question where such a distinction is found in the biblical text.
It is acknowledged that there is no specific verse spelling out distinctions in the Mosaic Law in so many words; the three-fold distinction of the Law requires a systematic reading of Scripture. There is, however, no single verse or passage of contiguous verses granting a full doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union, yet these concepts are received as “biblical” due to a systematic reading of the text.
Let us suppose that God intended to set apart a certain part of the Law as specially reflecting an everlasting moral law. God could have fulfilled this intention through inspiring a verse or series of verses that would have reflected Moses teaching about distinctions in the Law. On the other hand, God could have chosen to set apart a certain portion of the Law in a more dramatic, historical way: He could have chosen to write certain laws with His finger upon stone tablets, He could have then commanded His chosen nation to carry around those stone tablets for decades within an ornate, gold-plated box, and then He could have made the golden box containing those laws the center of worship for His chosen nation. Theologians who believe that there is a three-fold distinction in the Law, with a special, enduring place given to the moral law, believe that God, in fact, established a distinction in the Law historically, in the way just described.
Let us consider as well the different ways in which the New Testament applies specific laws from the Mosaic Law. For example, consider the following three New Testament quotes from the Old Testament.
1. 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:9-12 ESV)
2. …without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22b ESV)
3. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1-2 ESV)
Notice the different way in which these various laws are treated. In the first case the law that is cited had regulated the civil actions of people within ancient Israel; a principle is gleaned from this law and is applied to the Church. In the second [the reader will have to look at the context of both Hebrews and Leviticus to see this], the law that is cited had regulated the ceremonial actions [especially] of the priestly class in regards to animal sacrifices; in the surrounding verses, this law is treated as a type, which is fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. In the third example, the Apostle cites the fifth of the Ten Commandments and directly applies it to individuals in the church who received his letter.
I will conclude this post with two assertions about the above consideration:
1. In these examples, we see the three-fold distinction of the Law. The above examples provide a model by which we are to understand how Old Covenant laws apply today. Principles should be gleaned from civil laws and applied, primarily to the Church, but also to society as a whole. The ceremonial laws should be seen (at least primarily) as typical of Christ, and we should worship and depend upon Him as the fulfillment of these laws. Moral laws should be embraced, and believers should seek to keep these laws by the power of the Holy Spirit, out of a heart of gratitude toward God; (just as Paul said to “obey” the fifth commandment, we should seek to “obey” the other commandments of the moral law).
2. In most cases it is not difficult to distinguish civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. Those who object to the three-fold distinction of the Law often act as if, because the laws are often not divided out in the biblical text, it is impossible to determine in which category a specific law should be placed. But notice that the attentive reader can make distinctions without much problem at all, though a series of basic questions, such as:
a. Is the law under consideration about sacrifices or forms of worship in the temple/tabernacle?
b. Is the law about family property rights or rules of ownership and reimbursement?
c. Is the law part of the Ten Commandments?