For centuries, millenia, really, Christendom has embraced an error that it calls the ‘Three-Fold Division of the Law.’ It is particularly prevalent in Reformed circles, sometimes even called a ‘cornerstone’ of reformed teaching. Most all other main streams of theology embrace the error to one degree or another, as a means of justifying their particular theological bent.
The general gist of the position is that the Law of Moses can be divided up into three categories; moral, civil, ceremonial; and that two of the three categories are no longer valid, or have been annulled/abrogated.
The thumbnail sketch of history will often assign the origins of this division to Thomas Aquinas in the 1200’s, where indeed he did articulate most clearly and popularize the system of thought, but the threads of this can be traced into the mid-200’s. (Those who desire a quick jaunt through history can read The Threefold Division of the Law by Jonathan F. Bayes. His conclusions are wrong as I will demonstrate, but his short article is a decent primer on the subject from The Christian Institute’s perspective.)
John Calvin, in his Institutes on the Christian Religion, refers to the threefold division and thereby errantly lays the accepted foundation for most of Protestantism. Later, the Westminster Confession of Faith codified the division in chapter 19, paragraph 3:
III. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.
Just to be clear, ‘abrogated,’ according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary means:
The threefold division is still much discussed and debated after 1700 years of ‘church history’ have passed under the bridge. Not long ago, Philip Ross wrote a book about this history and the divergent viewpoints within titled, From the Finger of God. While he is defending the position, he has to admit that after this great time, even the wisest of the dividers cannot agree on where some laws fit and therefore the laws’ applicability. Maybe that should be a hint that the whole idea has problems.
Instead of gathering opinion from man, let’s see what Scripture has to say…
The obvious first place, and the insurmountable barrier to those who hold this position are the words of the Lawgiver Himself;
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
But that is not all Yeshua (Jesus) had to say…
Given the golden opportunity to divide the Law and/or set the stage for the ‘dividing of the Law,’ or abolishing thereof, see what He says;
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40
Yeshua doesn’t divide the law. Rather, He affirms the WHOLE of it. The indivisibility of it!!
In fact, Scripture NEVER divides the Law/Torah, rather, it always speaks of it as a whole. Yes, Yeshua and others affirm that there are weightier matters of the Law, those that temporarily suspend others at certain points, but they do not nullify, annul, abolish or abrogate anything. (An example would be the ‘work’ of circumcising a boy on the eighth day if it fell on a Sabbath. The Sabbath ‘no work’ law is temporarily suspended for the weightier law of circumcision.)
Without belaboring the point, suffice it to say, Torah will be written on our heart in the ‘new’ covenant:
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law (Torah) within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Jeremiah 31:31-34 for larger context
So, how did theologians get to the place where they divided the Law? And why?
I will speculate a little here, so bear with me.
I think there are two major contributing factors to why the Law was divided.
First, increasing antisemetism by the Roman empire from the middle first century on, fostered a climate where the new Gentile believers sought, errantly, to separate themselves from anything that looked ‘Jewish.’ Thus, reasoning was needed to avoid the things Scripture says ‘set you apart,’ like feasts, diet, day of worship and dress. I wrote previously about these very things as what Scripture defines as marks of holiness, or set-apartness. [Lest I be misunderstood, let me be abundantly clear: Works do NOT save. We are saved by faith in the blood of Messiah Yeshua and the works evidence that entry, by His blood, into covenant with Him!]
So, those who sought to redefine believers in Yeshua into a new religion, did so by redefining some of the commandments of Yahweh as ‘Jewish,’ and then distancing themselves from them through warped theology. This was confirmed by an astute political move by Constantine that proves, even in 325 CE, many believers in Messiah were still celebrating the feasts, worshiping on the Sabbath, and eating clean. The Bishops of Rome, being his co-conspirators, affirmed his ruling through their theology, setting the course for even those who ‘protest their mother, the Roman Catholic Church.’
Secondly, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the diaspora of the Jews, became a major challenge to theological thought concerning those laws deemed ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civil.’ Instead of rightly understanding these to be ‘suspended,’ as the Jews did when they went into captivity to Babylon, they assumed them abolished or annulled at the cross of Yeshua.
To take this position, theologians have to ignore numerous verses that point to Rav Shaul (Paul) keeping the feasts and offering sacrifices. They have to ignore verses in Hebrews, written decades after the resurrection of Messiah, that state the offerings were being offered ‘according to the law’ at the time of writing. They have to countermand the very words of Messiah when He says, ‘until heaven and earth pass away… not one jot or tittle will pass from the Law…’ Ouch!
Without going into great detail, dividing the law creates more problems than it ‘solves.’
As previously demonstrated, dividing the Law is directly contrary to the testimony of Scripture about it being ‘holy,’ ‘just,’ good,’ etc. Further, it is opposed to the words of Messiah, the Lawgiver, particularly when He says,
If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
What I teach doesn’t come from me but from the one who sent me.
Perhaps the most glaring non-Scriptural evidence is the fact that once we accept the idea that the Law can be divided, it opens the door for anyone to divide it according to their own proclivities. Just reference the previously mentioned book by Ross. Then go read how some of the more liberal denominations are defining sins that the Torah calls ‘abominations.’
Another problem with dividing the Torah is that churchianity makes itself into a hypocrite by preaching that the ceremonial laws are ‘abrogated,’ then, they pass the offering plate requesting your ‘tithe.’ Hmmmm… Yeah, I hear tap-dance music starting up.
Still another glaring problem is the clear reference to ‘ceremonial laws’ in passages of Scripture that theologians almost universally call ‘millennial.’ Just read Isaiah 66:16-24 or Zechariah 14:16-21 for future prophecy on food (swine), Sabbaths, new moon festivals, Feast of Booths, sacrifice and a priesthood. Reformed Presbyterians (and many other denominational groups) dodge this bullet by declaring that there is no such thing as a ‘millennial reign,’ contrary to Revelation 20:1-7. The result is to spiritualize and warp, or altogether ignore, a HUGE pile of prophetic passages.
These problems alone should be enough to give cause for concern about dividing the Law.
Part of the defense for the Threefold Error, is expressed by Jonathan Bayes in his previously linked article. Scriptures expressing Yahweh’s displeasure with sacrifices are paraded out in classic ‘proof-texting‘ form. The context from which the passages come is ignored, as is the larger context of Scripture previously generalized. See Bayes’ cites and then read in context to find that the Father’s desire is not the terminaton of sacrifice and offering, but rather, Yahweh desires a contrite heart so that the sacrifice and offering is accepted!
Bayes’ use of these verses, evidencing the wicked hearts of those offering sacrifices, is to demonstrate that the sacrifices are useless and thus voidable. He ignores verses that say,
21 The Lord was pleased for His righteousness’ sake
To make the law (Torah) great and glorious.
22 But this is a people plundered and despoiled;
All of them are trapped in caves,
Or are hidden away in prisons;
They have become a prey with none to deliver them,
And a spoil, with none to say, “Give them back!”
The problem isn’t the Torah!! The problem is the people!!
This same false dichotomy is used by those who try to prove the Torah has been done away with. They cite Hebrews 8:8
For finding fault with them, He says,
“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will effect a new covenant
With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;
In their bias, theologians read this verse and ‘see’ ‘for finding fault with IT,’ but the text says, THEM! The problem is not and never has been the Torah. The problem is the heart of man.
Abolishing and rejecting two thirds of the Torah does not make man more righteous or give him an easier path to righteousness! A circumcised heart is what does!
God’s Word has not failed, nor does He need a ‘plan B.’
Of course, those who divide the Law, get to this point and decide to try using absurd twists on the Torah to make points. They say, ‘Oh, so you won’t mix threads? See how that flies at Walmart!’ Or, ‘I guess you are sacrificing in your backyard?’ Or, ‘Gonna stone your children? That’s what Torah says to do to your rebellious children!’
These sorts of obnoxious absurdities reveal two things.
First, and foremost, getting these types of comments, particularly from pastors and those trained in theology, is deeply troubling. Many, many of these types of comments reveal a profound lack of understanding/knowledge of the Torah and what it actually teaches. As a seminary trained former pastor, I can honestly tell you, the vast majority of those with seminary training/degrees, nevermind the pew warmers, have NO real understanding of Torah and have so many antisemitic presuppositional biases to deal with that it is hard to even have intelligent conversations. Most prefer ignorance, despite the fact that as an excuse it will be of no value before the Creator when they have to give account. (If you are a pastor reading this, instead of getting huffy, I would recommend prayerfully taking off your denominational filters/glasses, and prayerfully ask the King to reveal TRUTH to you! Dare to ask Him to reveal any antisemitism or falsehood in your thought process. Be a man and buck up! I walked in your shoes. I can say that!)
Secondly, these obnoxious absurdities reveal a heart condition… Basically, there are two types of believers: Those who look for ways to fulfill the commands as best they can according to the Torah, and those who look for ways around the commands, despite clear Scriptural evidence to the contrary. The first demonstrates a circumcised heart, while the second is evidence of a stiff-neck. Which are you? Do you prayerfully seek to do all that you can do, leaving the rest for the Father to take care of? Or, do you search the Scriptures for proof-text verses that support your desire to avoid obedience?
Instead of committing the error of dividing the Law and looking to justify ways around it like our fathers did, should we not be seeking to do all that He asked of those who love Him, while leaving the details, or ‘impossible’ ones up to Him?
I choose to obey and walk as closely as I can, trusting that He can work out the details where I may not understand it all, until He comes again to teach rightly His Torah.
Abba, I pray for myself and these, my readers. Open our eyes and give us hearts that simply desire to be obedient to your Word. Give us understanding and clarity as we seek truth. Show us how to love You in the ways You ask to be loved. Please do so for Your Name’s sake!! Amein!
Further reading: Has the Application of the Law Changed?