Richard D. Phillips • Question Box
Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia • August 6, 2000
Copyright reserved • Internet access via www.tenth.org
We have looked at a number of practical questions in our
question box this summer. Tonight I
want to deal with a theological question, which is also a very practical matter,
as theology always is. To be more
specific, tonight’s question has to do with hermeneutics, that is, principles
of interpreting the Bible. The
particular question has to do with applying the commands of the Old Testament.
“As a Christian, how do we know
what Old Testament laws we should abide by and which ones we shouldn’t?
For instance, I believe I should honor my mother and father, yet I
don’t believe I should wear clothes only made of one textile (Lev. 19:3 &
Lev. 19:19). I believe in observing the Sabbath, but don’t’ believe I should
go see my pastor if I get a boil (Dt. 5:12 & Lev. 13:18).”
This is a subject that has loomed large in the history of
interpretation. Whenever Christians become serious about applying the Word of
God, the question always arises as to the principles for doing so.
During the Protestant Reformation this was a particularly vital matter,
since whole nations were reorganizing themselves according to their views of the
A prime example of this took place in 1643, when the
English Parliament called for “an assembly of learned and godly divines… for
the settlement of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and for
the indicating and clearing of the doctrine of the said Church from false
aspersions and interpretations.”
The context for this was the
English Civil War, the issue of which was the freedom of the people to be
governed according to the Bible and not according to the king.
So this issue before us was of singular importance to them.
The Westminster Confession, which is that body of learned
divines produced, and which is our own doctrinal standard, deals with the Law of
God in its 19th chapter. It
specifies three categories of the Old Testament Law: the moral law, the
ceremonial law, and the civil law. The
moral law, that which represents God’s own moral character, is summarized in
the Ten Commandments. These are
forever binding, in both old and new covenants.
The Confession puts it this way: “The
moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the
obedience thereof” (WCF XIX. 5). In
other words, the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments, but also
emphasized in many other places of the Bible, is binding upon us today.
Therefore, it is our duty to not worship no idols, to honor our mother
and father, to bear no false testimony, etc.
The second category is the ceremonial law.
These are, according to the Confession, “typical
ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ” (WIW. 3).
What this mainly refers to is the sacrificial system of the old covenant,
although it also includes the whole cleanliness code including restrictions on
food and the like. I have been
preaching through the Book of Hebrews in the early service, and next week I will
be preaching from one of the main passages that tells us how to think about such
ceremonial laws. Heb. 10:1 tells
us, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the
realities themselves.” The
context of Hebrews 9 and 10 makes very clear that it is the sacrifices he has in
mind; it is the ceremonial law that is a shadow set aside when the reality
comes, not the unchanging moral law of God.
This gets to the question about coming to see a minister
when you have a boil. That
regulation was wrapped up in the ceremonial law.
It served to make a statement about sin, which corrupts the flesh, and
the sacrifices the priest offered in that case very blatantly represented the
saving work of Jesus Christ. The
point here, however, is that the ceremonial law pointed forward to the work of
Christ, which now has come so that they are set aside.
The third category is the civil law.
These are the laws that represented the criminal code, with its
procedures and punishments, as well as a myriad of regulations and restrictions.
These would include the various capital crimes, like murder, adultery,
and many other sins. The Westminster Confession describes them as “sundry
judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not
obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require”
(XIX. 4). In other words, these laws were for regulating the nation of
Israel, which was then but no longer is the particular people of God.
While there is an undisputed wisdom contained in this civil law it can
not be made applicable to any nation today, since there are no biblically
sanctioned theocracies now.
The view expressed in our Confession is the broadly
accepted view of Reformed churches, our own certainly included.
There are two main objections to it.
The first objection says that the three-fold distinction of moral,
ceremonial, and civil law is not biblical.
That it, it is not a distinction that is made in the Scripture.
Although there are categorical groupings in Scripture, like the Ten
Commandments, we also find various laws from different categories listed without
distinction as if they all belonged together. You may have in Deuteronomy or Leviticus an expression of the
moral law followed by something we put in the ceremonial law, followed by a part
of the civil law. The objection
therefore says that this three-fold distinction is imposed upon the Scripture
Our answer is that we are doing what the New Testament
does, namely reflecting back on the Old Testament from the perspective of
Christ’s finished work. Furthermore,
we are forced to reflect on the New Testament examples in which certain laws are
set aside – such as the dietary laws and the sacrificial system – while
others are rigorously enforced – such as the moral laws of the Ten
Commandment. There is a logic at work that is not seen in the Old
Testament because it is the work of Christ that produces this logic.
Indeed, the Westminster Confession’s view is not that
laws have been set aside, but that a transformation has taken place in light of
Christ’s saving work. Israel has
become the church. The ceremonial
law has been fulfilled in Christ and is transformed into the sacraments that
look back upon what those laws once looked forward to.
The civil codes have lost their context now that salvation is in Christ,
in a spiritual kingdom, and not in Israel, a temporal nation.
They are transformed into the judicious application of church discipline.
The moral law, however, reflecting God’s changeless character, remains
unaltered, although in Christ we are no longer condemned by our sins against it.
Another objection comes from the theonomists, a word that
means “law of God.” Theonomists
agree that the ceremonial law is exhausted, but insist on the direct application
of the civil law. They say that God
obliges all nations to live according to the laws established for Old Testament
Israel. Such people sincerely
advocate, therefore, the stoning of sexual sinners and the taking of an eye for
an eye. The problem with this is
that Old Testament Israel corresponds not to the United States, or to France or
Uganda, for that matter, but the church. We,
the church, are “the Israel of God,”
as Paul says in Gal. 6:16. The
church exerts a spiritual rule over its members, not a temporal one.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Atlanta, GA: The Committee for
Christian Education & Publication, Presbyterian Church in America, 1990.