Origin of the Threefold Division of the Old Testament Law

The threefold division of the Old Testament law is not a recent invention, but arguably rather dates back to the earliest times of Christians.
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Note: This post is a summary of a section of "The threefold division of the law," by Jonathan F. Bayes, which we highly recommend.

There are several views concerning when the threefold division of the law originates. It is reasonable to believe that the threefold division of the law, or at least a division within the law, existed from the times of the earliest Christians.

Hesselink points to Thomas Aquinas

I. J. Hesselink sugggests that this division of the law originates with Thomas Aquinas around 1270.[1]

Aquinas wrote:

We must therefore distinguish three kinds of precept in the Old Law; viz. ‘moral’ precepts, which are dictated by the natural law; ‘ceremonial’ precepts, which are determinations of the Divine worship; and ‘judicial’ precepts, which are determinations of the justice to be maintained among men.[2]

The threefold division probably originated earlier

Although we do not have any writings earlier than Aquinas regarding the threefold division of the law, we have some reasons to believe that this division originated earlier than Aquinas.

Calvin - "the ancients"

In "Chapter 20. Of Civil Government" of The Institues, Calvin references "the ancients," suggesting he is looking back further than the time of Aquinas:

For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals.[3]

Augustine - 5th century

Aquinas often referenced Augustine, who wrote about a twofold division within the law, rather than a threefold division. In AD 400, Augustine replied to a Manichaean attack upon the Old Testament. He wrote:

For example, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is a moral precept; ‘Thou shalt circumcise every male on the eighth day’ is a symbolical precept.[4]

Here, Augustine distinguishes between moral laws and "symbolical," or ceremonial, laws. It seems Augustine did not really deal with the concept of civil laws.

Tertullian - 3rd century

Although Tertullian had not developed specific terminology concerning the threefold division of the law, this concept is implicit in his writings. Tertullian distinguishes between:

  1. "the primordial law," or "the natural law," or in other words, moral law, and
  2. "the sacerdotal law," or "the Levitical law," or in other words, ceremonial law.[5]

Tertullian also perhaps distinguishes between the moral and civil law when he distinguishes between:

  1. the "prime counsels of innocence, chastity, and justice, and piety," or in other words, the moral law, and
  2. the "prescriptions of humanity," or in other words, the civil law.[6]

Gnostic heretic Ptolemaeus - Mid-second century

Although Ptolemaeus is a heretic, his division of the law into three sections is still significant because it demonstrates that the idea was not new even during this early time. Johannes Quasten describes Ptolemaeus's view of the subject:

The first section contains the pure law, untainted by evil, in other words the ten commandments. This is the section of the Mosaic law which Jesus came to fulfil rather than to suspend. The second section is the law adulterated with injustice, namely that of retaliation, which was suspended by the Saviour. The third section is the ceremonial law which the Saviour spiritualised.[7]

Justin Martyr - Mid-second century

Jean Daniélou explains that Justin Martyr also distinguished between three different kinds of laws:

Justin too distinguishes three types of material in the Law, ‘one which was ordained for piety and the practice of righteousness’, and another which was instituted ‘either to be a mystery of the Messiah or because of the hardness of heart of your people’.[8]

In Martyr's writings, therefore, we see the following distinction:

  1. "one which was ordained for piety and the practice of righteousness," or the moral law
  2. one which was "to be a mystery of the Messiah," or the ceremonial law
  3. one which was "because of the hardness of heart of your people," or the civil law

Barnabas - Early second century

Although Barnabas does not explicitly describe a threefold division in the law, he certainly recognized distinctions within the law. In his writings, Barnabas makes a distinction between:

  1. sacrifices, burnt offerings, oblations, and circumcision that have been abolished and replaced by "the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ," or in other words, the ceremonial law
  2. "utterly flee from all the works of lawlessness," "The Way of Light" (which he describes by quoting most of the ten commandments), "You shall not desert the commandments of the Lord"[9]

According to Bayes, concerning Barnabas:

Sometimes, as is common in patristic literature, he uses the word ‘law’ as functionally equivalent to ‘covenant’, and so distinguishes the old law, which is completely abrogated, with the new law revealed in Jesus Christ. However, at other times he uses the vocabulary of law more specifically of the sacrificial system or of the moral demands of the faith. In this more specific sense, the law is abolished only in certain parts: the sacrificial system has gone, but moral demand remains.[10]

References

  1. ^ Hesselink I. J., Calvin’s Concept of the Law, Pickwick, 1992, page 102
  2. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2a, Question 99, Article 4
  3. ^ Calvin, J, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, James Clark & Co., 1962, Volume 2, Book 4, Chapter 20, Section 14, page 663
  4. ^ Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, 6.2
  5. ^ Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, chapters 2 and 5
  6. ^ Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion, 2.17
  7. ^ Quasten, J, Patrology, Volume 1, Christian Classics, 1984, page 261
  8. ^ Daniélou, J, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973, page 223
  9. ^ The Epistle of Barnabas, chapters 2, 4, and 19, see The Apostolic Fathers, Volume 1:Translated by Kirsopp Lake, Harvard University Press, 1998, pages 341-409
  10. ^ Bayes, J, The threefold division of the law, The Christian Institute, 2017, page 8

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