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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For those who are familiar with and have enjoyed John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series this third volume, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, will be a welcome addition. This book deals with the Ten Commandments and their relationship with ethics. While one might not naturally think that the doctrine of the Christian life is summed up or founded in the Ten Commandments, Frame connects the two when he describes the core of the Christian life “as living under God’s law, in God’s world, in the presence of God himself (p. 3).” Thus, if the Christian life is lived “under God’s law” and the Ten Commandments are God’s law then the later provides the foundation for the former. Therefore, this book provides the foundation of the Christian life as seen through ethics and should not be seen as an exhaustive treatment of the biblical doctrine of the Christian life.

Part One: Introductory Considerations

At the outset Frame seeks to define ethics and explain what he sees as its interchangeable relationship to doctrine and theology. Avoiding, though not dismissing, theoretical or propositional definitions, Frame defines these terms in relation to their practical nature. In this light both doctrine and theology are defined as “the application of the Word of God to all areas of life (p. 9).” For Frame “ethics is theology as a means of determining which persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessing and which do not (p. 10).” In the second chapter Frame turns to defining and briefly discussing numerous related terms such as immoral, value, norm, virtue and duty, just to name a few.

Frame finishes out section one with the foundation from which he sees ethics in the Christian life – his famed Triperspectivalism. This uniquely honed hermeneutical grid provides the basis for all of Frame’s books in his Theology of Lordship Series. Since this work follows Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, he only briefly describes the triad of lordship attributes which forms his Triperspectivalism. (For those who are not familiar with Frame’s Triperspectivalism I suggest reading his DKG). First, control (situational perspective) focuses on the “situation or problems” the believer finds themselves in (p. 33). Second, authority (normative perspective) deals with what Scripture has to say about the ethical issue at hand. Third, presence (existential perspective) examines the person themselves who must make the decision. Frame ties all three perspectives together nicely as he states,

You can’t understand the situation fully until you know what Scripture says about it and until you understand your role in the situation. You can’t understand yourself fully, apart from Scripture or apart from the situation that is your environment. And you don’t understand Scripture unless you can apply it situations and to yourself (p. 34).

Part Two: Non-Christian Ethics

In part two Frame addresses non-Christian ethics in order to show two things: (1) that they are dependent upon the Bible for their morality (thus they can only operate on borrowed capital) and (2) that despite their attempt to do so, non-Christian ethics efforts at developing ethical/morality structures cannot make good on their promises or account for themselves apart from God and Scripture.

There are three major ethical principles from which non-Christian ethicists have attempted to build their ethical theories. First, is the existential principle which states that good actions come from good inner character (p. 50). This principle focuses on the person who must make the ethical decision. Set within Frame’s Triperspectivalism, this correlates with God’s lordship attribute of presence – we are personally responsible to make moral decisions. Second, is the teleological principle which states that a good action maximizes the happiness of living creatures (p. 49). This is to say that good actions bring about good results. This correlates with God’s lordship attribute of control – God has set nature and arranged history in such a way as to bring good results from good actions. Third, is the deontological principle which states that good actions are a response to duty even if they require self-sacrifice (p. 50). Our duties are what should and ought to determine our actions despite the personal loss we might incur. This principle correlates with God’s lordship attribute of authority – it is God who determines what one’s duties are which He has revealed through His Word.

Frame is clear that Christians can and must accept these three principles collectively and not separately. Together they form the very fabric of all ethical considerations because they each speak to one of the three aspects within the triperspectival model. Frame asserts, “The God of Scripture is the author of the situation, the Word, and the moral self, so that all three are fully consistent with one another (p. 51).” What Frame critiques about these models are their attempts to build an entire ethical system on just one or two of these principles. In chapters 6-8 Frame deals with each model separately tracing their history of development through their major proponents, laying out their basic arguments, pointing out their positive contributions and then finally showing how they each fail by themselves to provide a coherent and comprehensive ethical model.

Part Three: Christian Ethical Methodology

Turning from non-Christian attempts to shape an ethical model, Frame takes the three ethical principles and shows “how a Christian ethic provides the basis for ethical decisions that was lacking in non-Christian approaches (p. 131).” Part three Deals with the Triperspectival model as applied to ethics.

Section one deals with the Normative Perspective. As mentioned before this perspective deals with what God has said concerning how a person is to act in a certain situation. Naturally we are to begin with God’s means of revealing Himself and His will to us. While “nature and history” (p. 135) have their revelatory value, Frame rightly contends that believers are to look to Scripture (which contains and interprets His revelation in nature and history) for our ethical guidance. As special revelation it “has a unique role within the organism of revelation (p. 141).”  Frame lists a number of attributes that describe Scripture’s unique ability to aid the believer in making ethical decisions: it has power and is thus authoritative, it is clear though at times hard to understand, it is comprehensive in that it speaks to all of life, it is necessary in order to make ethical decisions that will please God and it is our sufficient source for finding the written form of God’s spoken revelation (p. 131-75). The final two chapters of this section deal with the laws relationship to grace and the gospel and how we are to apply the law to our ethical decisions.

Section two deals with the Situational Perspective. Here we deal with the ethical situation itself. The situational perspective requires a person to acquire as much information as possible in order to know where and how to apply what is gleaned from the normative perspective. “The situational perspective focuses on the use of that extra-biblical data, without forgetting that Scripture provides necessary directions for interpreting and using that data (p. 240).” So what is our ethical situation? Frame suggests that it is comprised of the presence of God, angels, human society, individual existence and nature. Beyond our own situation is the grand meta-narrative we find ourselves in – God’s redemptive history.  As the Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This sentence summarizes the situational perspective for Frame.

The final section deals with the Existential Perspective. This answers the question of how must I be changed in order to please God. For Frame the central concept here is to understand how man was originally created, what happened to man once he fell and how does redemption fix what was broken. To answer, man was created perfect in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28). At the Fall man fell and the God-bearing image he was created with became marred but was not completely destroyed (Gen. 9:6). Redemption is the process of renewing our broken God-bearing image as we are transformed into the image of Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). “Our ethical struggle, then, is not a struggle to put to death our unregenerate self, but rather to grow as regenerate people (p. 321).”  Once a person has been regenerated they now have a clear path to ethical knowledge that they did not have before. This is accomplished through the personal relationship a believer has with God (p. 350). This new ethical knowledge is rooted in ones relationship with God who in turn channels it through our renewed heart, conscience, experiences, reason, will, imagination and emotions. All of these are included because “the whole person is the one who makes ethical decisions, and that the ethical faculties are ways of describing the person as he makes those decisions (p. 361).”

Part Four: The Ten Commandments

Part Four deals with the Ten Commandments themselves. All but three of the commandments (3rd, 9th & 10th) are covered in two or more chapters. This shows the comprehensive nature of Frame’s work and the wealth of issues the Ten Commandments speak to (though there are more to be addressed than Frame deals with).

Before diving into the commandments, Frame briefly discusses some introductory issues. First, as Jesus states in Matt. 22:37-40 love is the virtue which summarizes the Law “which is the center of Biblical ethics (p. 386).” Second, by the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20) God establishes His covenantal relationship with Israel. The Law outlines for Israel how they are to live pleasing lives before God’s presence in the land He has promised them. Their success and presence in the land is determined by how they obey it (Josh. 1:8). Third, Frame lays out what he calls “Decalogical Hermeneutics” (pg. 390). In this Frame follows the eight rules of interpretation as set out by the Larger Catechism with a brief explanation of each. Fourth, Frame demonstrates the unity of the Law. With James 2:10-11 as his base, Frame posits that since breaking one commandment makes one guilty of the whole Law then all of the commandments are interconnected. This is more than just the idea that whether one commits one sin or many sins that makes them a sinner. For Frame this means that in breaking the first commandment you are in some way actually breaking all of the others in a real way. Essentially, each commandment can work its way into all of the others.

Each chapter follows the same pattern. First, the relevant questions from the Larger Catechism are stated with their corresponding answer. The questions ask what the duties are for each command (positive) and what sins are forbidden by each command (negative). Second, each command is discussed in its narrow meaning. The narrow meaning deals with the immediate context and foundational idea behind each command. The broad meaning reaches out from narrow meaning into every ethical issue that is related. Admittedly, there are some commands that overlap but this further supports their interconnectedness. Third, woven throughout the discussion of each broad application, Frame discusses relevant ANE practices or writings. Fourth, passages from testaments are brought in to support the Biblical understanding of each command. This speaks to canonical unity of the Ten Commandments. Fifth, most commands are covered in two or more chapters. For those that are covered in two or more chapters, the first chapter deals with what Scripture specifically says about that commandment. The succeeding chapters deal with contemporary applications of each command. This comprises the bulk of part four.

Frame’s book is big and very detailed so a chapter by chapter/command by command summary would require a separate review by itself. However, there are some interesting and noteworthy things that can be mentioned here in short and introductory form.

First, given the obvious aim of the first four commandments (loving God), Frame unifies them around the concept of worship towards God. “The first commandment deals with the object of worship, the second with the manner of worship, the third with the language of worship, and the fourth with the time of worship (p. 411, emphasis mine).” Whether this is Frame’s unique perspective or not, he makes a convincing case for it.

Second, in relation to the second commandment Frame deals a lot with the ethics of idols and images in worship. Clearly idols are prohibited as a means of representing God and as objects we bow down to. What has not always been so clear for some is how we can (if at all) use images, through the use of the arts (i.e. Catholics) that portray biblical concepts or persons within the life of worship of the church and believer.

Third, in relation to the fourth commandment, Frame discusses the differing Sabbath views of D.A. Carson (as espoused in his edited book, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day), John Calvin, the Synod of Dort (1618-19), Meredith Kline’s Later view, Meredith Kline’s Earlier view and the Westminster Standards. Frame discusses the creational nature of the Sabbath rest as a basis for its continuance. Frame spends an entire chapter on the relationship of the Sabbath in the New Covenant (chap. 30). Here he deals with Hebrews 3:7-4:13 and Jesus fulfilling the Sabbath rest. He also deals with the transfer from Saturday to Sunday observance.

Fourth, it is my personal opinion that Frame’s best contribution in this book is found in his discussion of the fifth commandment. Under the guidance of the Larger Catechism Frame addresses ones relationship to inferiors, superiors and equals (p. 576). Though the fifth commandment deals explicitly with ones relationship to their parents, this relationship no doubt provides the model for how we are to deal with others in all of our relationships. Chapter 33 deals with men and women. First, men and women are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). As such they both have the same human nature – they have the same humanness. They are both given the task of filling, forming/subduing and having dominion/authority over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Second, though they both image God and thus share the same basic nature, they also image God in their own way. “I do believe that our sexual qualities, like all other human qualities, image God (p. 627).” There is a communal nature to man’s imaging God. In order to have a community there must be more than one. The community of people that God created in His image consists foundationally of one man and one woman. Thus, each person images God individually and communally as they work together in the relationship that God made them for (p. 627). Frame goes on to discuss men’s and women’s roles in the home (p. 630-35) and the church (p. 635-44).

Fifth, in addressing the practical implications of the sixth commandment, Frame discusses how it relates to war and punishment. In reference to punishment Frame offers three alternative suggestions to prison for certain crimes. First, crimes like theft should not be punishable by prison but rather, “The primary penalty for theft should be that the thief work to repay the victim, if necessary in a kind of forced apprenticeship labor. Double restitution is strict justice: the thief looses what he sought to gain (p. 699). Second, he does not believe the possession of small amounts of drugs should result in imprisonment (p. 700). Third, Frame goes so far as to support public beatings as they “are of great deterrent value, and they are preferable to prison sentences in that they deal with the issue quickly and do not expose the offender to prison culture (p. 700).”

Part Five: Christ and Culture

Part five deals with the nature of culture as a biblical concept and how redemption through Christ affects culture. Frame defines culture as “anything that human beings work to achieve (p. 854).” The cultural mandate is God’s charge to man to fill and rule the earth (Gen. 1:27). Frame briefly discusses Niebuhr’s famed five cultural categories, sides with the “Christ the Transformer of Culture” position (p. 874) which no doubt reflects his postmillennial eschatology. The rest of the chapter summarizes various influential cultural thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, David Wells and Van Til.

I highly recommend The Doctrine of the Christian Life as a standard reference book for ethics due to its comprehensive nature and clear Biblical foundation. Frame is characteristically clear and practically minded even in his heady discussions of non-Christian ethical methods.