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.

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