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.
I. J. Hesselink sugggests that this division of the law originates with Thomas Aquinas around 1270.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here, Augustine distinguishes between moral laws and "symbolical," or ceremonial, laws. It seems Augustine did not really deal with the concept of civil laws.
Although Tertullian had not developed specific terminology concerning the threefold division of the law, this concept is implicit in his writings. Tertullian distinguishes between:
Tertullian also perhaps distinguishes between the moral and civil law when he distinguishes between:
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.
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’.
In Martyr's writings, therefore, we see the following distinction:
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:
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.