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!

Advertisements