Last week I had the opportunity to do a book review of From the Finger of God: A Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip S. Ross. This week I have the opportunity to ask Philip some questions.
1.There are clearly some ‘heavy hitters’ like D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo who do not hold to the 3 fold division of the Law. You point out in the first chapter that “the threefold division comes under censure from recent writers (p. 11).” Is there anything that has happened recently to cause a rejection of the 3 fold division of the Law by well-respected theologians?
I suspect that Carson and Moo are ‘heavy hitters’ within a relatively narrow context. If we could see the church stretched out geographically, from East to West, and chronologically, from beginning to end, then they may not register so high on the ‘heavy-hitter’ scale. There will be parts of the Christian church where their names are unknown, and just like the rest of us, this place that knows them now will know them no more. Indeed, I doubt that either of these men expect to tower over Christian history like Athanasius, Anselm, or Luther.
I think, therefore, that the first question is, what is the context of those who have rejected the threefold division and its recognition of the Decalogue as ever-binding? Largely, though not exclusively, their context has been North American evangelicalism, with which I am not sufficiently familiar to say that something specific happened, but I expect that ecclesiastical environment has an influence. While the division’s critics may not all be Dispensationalists, it could be that in a context where a hermeneutic of discontinuity prevails, it does not sound immediately wrong to say that the Decalogue is not binding. If it is also true that there are trends away from Dispensationalism and Arminianism towards Reformed theology in American Evangelicalism, then perhaps issues relating to the law or the fourth commandment emerge as final sticking points for some people.
I do not want to imply that simply because Dispensationalist thinking may be part of a writer’s context that their arguments are therefore Dispensationalist or automatically invalid. This is simply to restate what I have outlined in chapter one of the book, that none of us operates in a dogmatically sterile environment. What I was taught from childhood, the Scottish Reformed church culture in which I was brought up, and the context in which I work or study, has a bearing, for good or ill, on my approach to any theological subject. The same is true for North American evangelicals.
2. You state that the defense for the 3 fold division of the Law runs along biblical, theological, historical and methodological lines. You also state that no where in Scripture does it explicitly say that there are 3 divisions of the Law. How is that not a case against the 3 fold division of the Law as some would make it?
Ultimately, the defence of the threefold division runs exclusively along biblical and theological lines. History and tradition are important insofar as biblical interpretation must not take place in a self-inflated interpretative bubble. Unless one wishes to start a cult, it is not just ‘me and my Bible’, it is not even ‘my favourite commentators and my Bible’, or ‘my particular context and my Bible’. Rather, we seek to interpret Scripture in communion with all true saints, past and present, recognising that if our reading of Scripture overturns established orthodox and genuinely catholic doctrines, then we risk placing ourselves outside their company. Method also matters because anyone embracing an approach to Scripture that rejects the church’s common and enduring assumptions about Scripture may find themselves at best semi-detached from the holy catholic church.
Conservatives may be happy enough to accept this if flawed methodology is categorized as historical criticism, queer hermeneutics, or other approaches which they judge ruinous to the Christian faith. Flawed methodology, however, also includes the demand for specific and explicit proof-texts for every doctrine or theological expression. This is why the Westminster Assembly of Divines was so reluctant to meet Parliament’s demand for proof texts to be added to the Confession of Faith. It is only when, with the whole church, we read Scripture as a coherent, consenting, and consistent whole that we may establish the biblical and theological basis for a doctrine such as the threefold division of the law. Many Christians will instinctively recognise this when they think of the doctrine of the Trinity, but perhaps a closer example would be the threefold office of Christ. No text of Scripture explicitly proclaims that our Redeemer is prophet, priest, and king both in his state of humiliation and exaltation, yet this is the confession of the Christian church. Those whose approach to Scripture leads them to reject that teaching about Christ are called Socinians, or other unpleasantries.
3. You point out, I think rightly so, that the Decalogue has a distinctive nature in relation to the rest of the Mosaic Law. You argue that it has pre-Sinaitic origins going as far back as Gen. 1-2 before sin entered the world and that “they could be the charter of a sin-free world (p. 79-80).” Fast forward to Rev. 20-22 where sin and Satan are finally removed and defeated, heaven and earth are brought back together and we have the New Heavens and Earth and the New Jerusalem. Mankind is once again enjoying pre-Fall fellowship with God as it was intended. If the Decalogue can be the charter of a sin-free world pre-Fall then will it also be in eternity and if so how?
In those pages I argued that ‘stated positively’ the Decalogue could have been the charter of a sin-free creation. The idea that it encapsulates eternal law has been commonplace. For example, the recent debut in English of Luther’s ‘Antinomian Theses and Disputations’ even receives the title Only the Decalogue Is Eternal (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008). On page 54 of From the Finger of God, I quote Thomas Boston’s comment in The Marrow of Modern Divinity that Boston’s thought is representative when he states that the law which is ‘the matter’ of the Decalogue ‘is obligatory in all possible states of the creature, in earth, heaven or hell’.
Considering the ‘if’ part of your question first, the answer may be clearer if we begin with hell, which in the final chapters of Revelation is the place where transgressors of the law will find themselves (Rev. 21:8; 22:15). This will be a conscious and ongoing experience of the penalty of the law where idolaters, murderers, and the sexually immoral continue to be what they were, as if in hopeless fulfilment of the angelic proclamation: ‘Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy…’ (Rev 22:11). Contradicting Blocher, Carson asks in The Gagging of God (p. 534), ‘Are we to imagine that the lost in Hell love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and their neigbors as themselves? If not, they are breaking the first and second commandments. … at the end hell’s inmates are full of sin.’ I agree, and my conviction that the double love commandment summarizes the Decalogue, coupled with references in Revelation 21 and 22 to sins that are transgressions of the Decalogue, means that I do not find it difficult to concur with Thomas Boston’s statement about ‘the matter’ of the Decalogue.
The ‘how’ part of your question is more difficult, but perhaps we can begin to answer the question by thinking about how people might experience each of the Ten Commandments in hell or in heaven. Having awoken to everlasting shame and contempt, those who ‘live’ the second death will forever pursue useless alternatives to the God who is not there, experiencing the absolute dissatisfaction of idolatrous self-worship, still accumulating guilt as they curse God, yearning for meaningful employment, yet never finding rest. In this place of torment, nothing resembles family relationships or neighbourly kindness. Mutual contempt, murderous hate, extreme physical perversion, dispossession, the complete absence of truth, and all-pervading anxiety, will characterize this ‘lawless’ abyss. How different it will be for those who awake to everlasting life. They longed for hearts fixed on God, for the destruction of every cherished idol, for lip service that is always heart service, for the complete fulfilment of serving the Lamb for ever, while resting completely in him. And now they have it. In his renewed creation everyone is an honoured aristocrat. This ‘world of love’ knows no hatred. Relationships are what God intended them to be. No one feels insecure or fears deceit. The meek have inherited the earth and they are satisfied.
What more can I say? We will only have a truly satisfactory answer to the ‘how’ question when we hear the voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.’
4. At the end of the day, what can believers take away practically from viewing the Law through the 3 fold lens?
The threefold division is meant to be a practical-theological framework, so the list of what believers could take from it is extensive, but I will loosely paraphrase four things expounded in the division. First, in thinking of the Ten Commandments as ever-binding moral law, believers should remember that however useful it may be to them, it is not a means by which they may be justified or condemned. Second, in its summary statements and its exposition throughout the Scriptures, the moral law provides a perfect rule of righteousness that shows us how we should live according to God’s will. As we examine ourselves in the light of it, we should be brought to humble ourselves before God and to see our need of Christ with his perfect fulfilment of the law. Third, when God disciplines us as a Father the son whom he loves, we will sometimes see why he has done so as we meditate on his law. Then turning from our sin and embracing afresh his covenant promises, we may walk again in his ways. Fourth, familiarity with the framework will help Christians to think clearly about laws outside the Decalogue. For example, during a debate at the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 2011 an elder declared: ‘The bible clearly says that adulterers, and adulteresses are to be put to death. This is not the word of God. Death for eating black pudding – there are screeds of dietary commands. We don’t give a fig for any of them … we have to reject the stuff in the Bible about homosexuality because now we know better.’ Familiarity with what the confession of his church teaches on the threefold division might at least have tempered this man’s desire to share his insight.
Philip, thank you so much for taking time to answer some questions about your4 new book, From the Finger of God!
For centuries Christians from various theological and denominational traditions have debated about the role of the Old Testament Law in the life of the believer today. While there are many secondary sources of contention, the root of the division among well meaning Christians is the significance of the 10 Commandments.
There are basically two sides to the issue: those who believe that Christ, as the fulfillment of the Law, has done away with the Law and that we are now under the Law of Christ, and those who believe that the Law is broken into a threefold structure (civil, ceremonial and moral) and that while Christ has fulfilled the civil and ceremonial laws, He has upheld the moral laws (10 Commandments) such that they are still binding and applicable for us today.
As the title indicates, Ross defends the later view in his new book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. Another way of looking at the threefold division is to see “one part of the Law as non-binding, another binding it its underlying principles, and another ever-bindng (p. 2).”
At the front Ross is clear that he is taking the lead for his discussion on the threefold division of the Law from The Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, throughout the book Ross continually looks to history, namely the Reformed tradition, to marshall support for his defense of the threefold division of the Law.
There are a number of things that stand out in Ross’ work that summarize his defense of the threefold division of the Law.
First, Ross is quick to point out that this position is undeniably a catholic doctrine. That is, this is a doctrine that cuts across denominational and theological lines and unites men from many places. “Throughout history, the churches most prominent theologians expounded maintained, and defended its teaching (p. 1).” While Ross does devote time to fairly let the voice of his opponents speak (p. 12-17), the bulk of chapter one is given to a sweeping history of ardent defenders of the threefold division of the Law (p. 19-32). Ross shows how this position on the Law can be said to be the ‘orthodox position’ (p. 33) and defends the history of supporters for the position by stating:
Those who first adopted the division as a hermeneutical framework and those who enshrined it in confessions, along with church officers and scholars who sought to uphold it, did so because they believed it was biblical teaching (p. 35).
Second, and perhaps most convincing, is that Ross argues for an antecedent to the Decalogue as early as Genesis 1-2. It is this point that really makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the Law and thus that the Decalogue stands apart from the rest of the laws given in the OT. If the Ten Commandments preceded the formal giving of the Law at Sinai then this shows two possible subsequent realities: (1) that the possibly Decalogue existed as early as Genesis and therefore (2) that Christ was not abrogating its use and contemporary relevance for post resurrection believers. The question is then asked, “What would Moses think?”
So what is the antecedent source of the Decalogue?
It lies in its distinctive nature. Ross argues for a distinctive nature to the Decalogue such that is is separate from the rest of the Law when it comes to place and fulfillment. Ross walks through all Ten Commandments to show their antecedents before Sinai (p. 61-74). Ross points out that Adam & Eve transgressed again several of the Ten Commandments when they sinned and he also shows how the Decalogue would look in the pre-Fall world (p. 79). This pre-Fall existence of the Decalogue draws a contrast between it and the other laws.
It is very likely that the Decalogue was known by people prior to its formal giving at Sinai. Further, “it is impossible to think of the Mosaic Laws outside the Decalogue in the same terms. The law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy only make sense in a postlapsarian creation (p. 80).” Ross’ point is that the reality of the Decalogue before Sinai makes sense where as the rest of the laws would not. Ross concludes his argument for the distinctive nature of the Decalogue by pointing to the observation that it has no “distinct historical development (p. 80).” So what would Moses think? Ross believes that “if the Pentateuch represents what Moses thought, then the basic categories of the threefold division would not have left him in severe shock (p. 119).”
Third, much of the book deals with the Biblical material in the NT in which Jesus, Paul and the other NT writers interact with the Law. Ross essentially believes that though there is never a stated threefold division of the Law anywhere in Scripture, all of the NT writers, including Jesus, treated the Law as if it existed and was understood. This understanding is the only way Ross believes one can properly understand how to interpret the NT discussion and treatment of the Law. Jesus and the NT writers treated the civil and ceremonial laws as if they were no longer in effect. In turn, they treated and even upheld the continuation of the Decalogue leaving no doubt that it was not done away with.
Ross concludes his study with these well crafted words:
No single passage of Scripture clearly states the threefold division of the law. It cannot be demonstrated by simplistic appeal to a particular Scripture, only by a progressive reading of the Old and New Testaments as the coherent source of Christian theology. Theologians, churchmen, and believers who read Scripture in that way were justified in receiving the threefold division of the law as the ‘orthodox’ position. They did not yield blind allegiance to an untested ecclesiastical dogma, but gave thoughtful acceptance to the threefold division of the law with its practical-theological implications. They embraced it as catholic doctrine because it is biblically and theologically valid. They were right to do so. And we are not ashamed to follow (p. 353).
Ross interacts throughout the book a lot with recent critics of the threefold position. Namely, Douglas Moo and D.A. Carson and his edited book From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. A common thread throughout some of the disagreement is that the threefold division is ‘too neat’ (Meyer – 9, M00 – 12, Wenham – 15, Poythress – 16, and Carson – 17). I personally do not find this counter argument very persuasive. Are our contemporary formulations and expressions of the trinity and hypostatic union of Christ too neat to then say that they are unbiblical? Of course not.
Readers will find From the Finger of God to be intellectually stretching. At times it is hard to wade through especially in the longer chapters. Much appeal is made to historical figures who similarly held the threefold position which may unnecessarily weaken the position in the minds of some. More exegesis of certain passages could be beneficial but that was not the single aim of the book thought it was in part. In this vein Ross does provide a helpful appendix of a more detailed exegesis of the verb “to fulfill” in Matt. 5:17-19 (p. 357-70).
This is not a book on the subject for a beginner and may fly over the heads of too many laypeople. Overall, Ross makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the law and I welcome this contribution.
A few months ago I stumbled on a great web site called Mere-Orthodoxy by Matthew Lee Anderson. Matthew is a young thinker and writer with a sharp mind.
He has recently written a very timely and necessary book called Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.
Here is the publishers description:
You are flesh and blood. It’s easy to forget this, living as if your mind and soul were all that mattered. But ignoring your body leads to an incomplete, ineffective life. God created us from the dust, and being physical beings in a physical world affects everything from our use of technology to our sexuality and our worship.
In this provocative book, Matthew Lee Anderson explores how our bodies interact with our faith. How have recent generations of Christians been shaped by the culture around us in this regard? What can we do to push back? Through a deeper understanding of our physical lives, God can bring the dry bones of our faith back to life.
Matthew is giving away 25 copies of his book which you can enter to win here. You can also read two chapters here.
I have to confess that I am musically illiterate compared to most. I don’t know much about Gospel music. I have a family friend who specializes in singing old Negro Spirituals which might be similar to contemporary Gospel singing. Regardless, I need more education on this music genre. To that end there is a new documentary on Gospel music in America that looks good.
Here is a brief description from Magnolia Pictures:
Perhaps the most intense and emotional music one can ever hear is the best of African-American Gospel music.
Packed with evocative photos, rare audio recordings, stirring film appearances and TV performances, REJOICE AND SHOUT covers the 200 year musical history of African-American Christianity. Culled from hundreds of hours of music, REJOICE AND SHOUT features the crème de la crème of Gospel music.
REJOICE AND SHOUT traces the evolution of Gospel through its many musical styles – spirituals and early hymns, four-part harmony-based quartets, the integration of blues and swing into Gospel, the emergence of Soul, and the blending of Rap and Hip Hop elements.
Gospel music also walked in step with the story of African-American culture – from slavery, hardscrabble rural existence and plantation work, the exodus to major cities, the Depression, World War II, to the civil rights movement and empowerment. REJOICE AND SHOUT connects the history of African-American culture with Gospel as it first impacted popular culture at large – and continues to do.
Years in the making, REJOICE AND SHOUT captures so much of what is special about this music and African-American Christianity – the sermonizing, the heartfelt testimonials, getting “slain in the spirit,” the hard hollerin’, and of course the inspiring music.
HT: Justin Taylor
This past Sunday on June 5th, 2011 John MacArthur preached his last message in his verse by verse exposition through the New Testament. This is an accomplishment that only a few preachers can claim.
In celebration of a life on ministry and faithfully preaching the Word, Ian Murray has written an biography of MacArthur called John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock. If there is anyone to have written this book it is Murray.
MacArthur will be talking a 6 week sabbatical and people are already speculating about what he will begin to preach on now – I hope its the Old Testament!
You can listen to all of MacArthur’s sermons here and listen to the Q&A with MacArthur after this weeks message.
I hope to read this biography by Murray and review it sometime this year. Until then I encourage you to pick up a copy at Amazon, WTSBooks or at Grace To You.