Tripartite Division of the Law of God: A Patristic and Reformed Orthodox View



It would seem that the Reformed view of the Tripartite division of the law of God is always getting slammed attacked. Whether by Reconstructionist or by those who do not hold to the Historic Covenant Theology such as those who hold to New Covenant Theology. There also seems to be much misunderstanding both in terms of the history of the Tripartite division of the Law as well as how it is derived from the Scriptures.

§History of the Tripartite Division of the Law – A Cloud of Witnesses

Many believe that Thomas Aquinas was the first to invent the term of Moral, Ceremonial and Judicial categories and thus it is a very late invention within church history. But this is not true.


The early second-century Barnabas, recognised that there is a distinction within God’s law. He notes that sacrifices, burnt offerings and oblations have been abolished and replaced by ‘the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ’, as has circumcision. However, he is clear that believers must ‘utterly flee from all the works of lawlessness’, and in spelling out ‘The Way of Light’ which Christians must walk in contrast with ‘The Way of the Black One’, he quotes most of the ten commandments and insists, ‘You shall not desert the commandments of the Lord.’ Barnabas, at this early stage of Christian theological development, was already seeing the distinctions within the law of God.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 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’

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus

Tertullian distinguishes what he terms ‘the primordial law’ or ‘the natural law’ from ‘the sacerdotal law’ or ‘the Levitical law’.

Tertullian also recognises the difference between what would later come to be known as the moral and civil parts of the law when he distinguishes the ‘prime counsels of innocence, chastity, and justice, and piety’ from the ‘prescriptions of humanity’


In the mid-second century Ptolemaeus found three sections to God’s law. Ptolemaeus distinguishes between the Pure Law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law which Jesus came to fulfill and the third being the ceremonial law which Christ spiritualized but also did not abrogate.

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis

Augustine held “that in the Old Law there are ‘precepts concerning the life we have to lead, and precepts regarding the life that is foreshadowed.’

In AD 400 Augustine wrote a reply to a Manichaean attack on the Old Testament. In the course of this

work Augustine introduces a distinction between the moral and the symbolical precepts of the law:

For example, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is a moral precept; ‘Thou shalt circumcise every male on the eighth day’ is a symbolical precept.6

By ‘symbolical’ precepts Augustine means what would later become known as the ceremonial law.

John Calvin refers to ‘the ancients who adopted this division’ and it is clear that he was referring to these Patristic theologians and not later in the game Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas

We finally get to Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas who related these precepts to moral, ceremonial, and judicial principles by arguing that both moral and judicial principles fall under the “life we have to lead” category. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica FS.Q99.A4. It was around 1270 that 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.”

John Calvin refers to it as a “well-known division” (Institutes 4.20.14):

“We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. “

Herman Witsius in The Economy of the Covenants, Vol. 2, p. 167:
“And this very learned author himself [Theodore Beza] has elsewhere observed, that the words, {Heb.}, law, statutes, and judgments, are often synonymous; but whenever they are thus joined together, they are distinguished from each other by a peculiar signification; and that by {Heb.} is understood the moral law; by {Heb.}, the ceremonial, and by {Heb.} the forensic law.”
Witsius goes on (pp. 168-169) to commend and quote John Lightfoot’s summary of the tripartite division of the law,

John Lightfoot, Erubhin, or, Miscellanies, Chap. 59, in Works, Vol. 4, p. 79:

“The ceremonial law, that concerned only the Jews, was given to Moses in private, in the tabernacle; and fell with the tabernacle, when the veil rent in twain. The moral law concerns the whole world; and it was given in sight of the whole world, on the top of a mountain; and must endure as long, as any mountain standeth. The judicial law (which is more indifferent, and may stand or fall, as seems best for the good of a commonwealth) was given, neither so public as the one, nor so private as the other; but in a mean between both.”

Dutch Annotations:

“Gen. 26.5 – my Commandments…my precepts, my institutions, (or statutes) and my laws [These four several terms are held to be thus distinguished; the first of all to be the general term, signifying whatsoever God commanded and ordained; and the latter three to respect things particular; as the precepts of the moral law; the institutions or statutes on the Ceremonial law, the laws on the doctrine of what we are obliged to believe, &c. Elsewhere there are added unto these, the rights, whereby are understood the Civil or Political Laws, Deut. 11.1.]”

“Deut. 5.31 – all the Commandements, and the Statutes, and the Judgments; [Concerning these three words immediately following each other; (according to the opinion of most Interpreters) the first of them signifieth the Moral Law, the second, the Ceremonial Laws, and the third the Judicial or Civil Laws]”

Henry Ainsworth, Annotations on the Pentateuch and the Psalms, Vol. 1, p. 136 (Gen. 26.5):

“[Charge] Heb. keeping, or observation: that is, ‘ordinances to be kept.’ So in Lev. viii. 35 xxii. 9 Deut. xi. 1. Laws,] For this word, elsewhere the scriptures saith, ‘judgments,’ Deut. xi. 1 v. 1, 31. vi. 1, 20. vii. 11. viii. 11, &c. and under these three particulars, the whole ‘charge’ or ‘custody’ forespoken of, is comprehended; as afterward by Moses God gave the ten ‘commandments,’ or moral precepts, Exod. xx. ‘Judgments,’ or judicial laws for punishing transgressors, Exod. xxi, &c. ‘and statutes,’ or ‘rules, ordinances,’ and ‘decrees,’ for the service of God, Lev. iii. 17. vi. 18, 22. Exod. xii. 24. xxvii. 31. xxix. 9. xxx. 31. All which Abraham observed, and is commended of God therefore.”

Matthew Poole, Synopsis Criticorum, Vol. 3, pp. 78-79 (Gen. 26.5):

“[And he kept my precepts, etc….] My observances…This is the name of a genus, of which three species follow (Ainsworth, Malvenda). [Heb.]/precepts are appointed to have respect to the moral law (Ainsworth, Dutch): {Heb.}/statutes, either the ceremonial law (Dutch, Malvenda), or natural law; for example, thou shalt worship one God (Ibn Ezra in Munster): {Heb.}/laws, either they look toward the doctrine which we are held to believe (Dutch), or unto ceremonies (Ibn Ezra in Munster). To these elsewhere are added {Heb.}/judgments, that is, political laws (Dutch).”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 145-146:

“Twenty-Fourth Question: The Ceremonial Law What was the end and the use of the ceremonial law under the Old Testament?

The Mosaic law threefold: moral, ceremonial, forensic.

I. The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species: moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbor); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil, constituting the civil government of the Israelite people. The first is the foundation upon which rests the obligation of the others and these are its appendices and determinations. Ceremonial has respect to the first table determining its circumstances, especially as to external worship. Civil has respect to the second table in judicial things, although it lays down punishments for crimes committed against the firs table.

Foundation of the distinction.

II. The truth of this distinction appears from the diversity of the names by which it is designated in the Scriptures. The moral law is for the most part expressed by mtsvth (“precepts”), the ceremonial by chqym (“statutes”) and the judicial by mshptym (“judgments”), which the Septuagint renders by entolas, dikaiomata and krimata. “I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them” (Dt. 5:31); so also in 6:1, 20; 7:11; and Lev. 26:46. Sometimes however these words are synonymous and used promiscuously (Ezk. 5:6; 20:11, 16, 18). But the distinction appears principally from the nature of the thing and the office of the law (whose it is to settle the order according to which man is joined to God and his neighbor). Now man is joined to God first by a certain internal and external likeness — in love and justice, holiness and truth, whose rule the moral law delivers. Again by the external signification and testification of those acts of divine worship (marks and symbols being employed) whose use the ceremonial law prescribes. Finally, what duty man owes to man, the civil law (applied more distinctly to the Israelites) explains. The moral law regards the Israelite people as men; the ceremonial as the church of the Old Testament expecting the promised Messiah; the civil regards them as a peculiar people who in the land of Canaan ought to have a republic suiting their genius and disposition.

Difference between the moral law and others.

III. Hence arises a manifold difference between the moral law and others both in origin (because the moral is founded upon natural right and on this account is known by nature; but the others upon positive right and on this account are from free revelation) and in duration. The former is immutable and eternal; the latter mutable and temporary. In regard to object, the one is universal embracing all; the others particular applying only to the Jews (the civil, indeed, inasmuch as it regarded them as a distinct state dedicated to God; the ceremonial, however, referring to their ecclesiastical state and state of minority and infancy). In regard to use, the moral is the end of the others, while the others are subservient to the moral. Thus far we have spoken of the moral; now we must discuss the ceremonial.”

§The Scriptural Case

“Now this is the commandment [mitsvâh], and these are the statutes [chôq] and judgments [mishpât] which the Lord your God has commanded [tsâvâh] to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you . . . all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. ” (Deuteronomy 6:1-3)

The Older Testament uses various names to refer to different parts of God’s law.

Leviticus 26:46 These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.

Numbers 36:13 These are the commandments and the ordinances which the LORD commanded to the sons of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho.

Deuteronomy 4:45 these are the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which Moses spoke to the sons of Israel, when they came out from Egypt,

Deuteronomy 5:31 ‘But as for you, stand here by Me, that I may speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I give them to possess.’

Deuteronomy 6:1 “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it,

Deuteronomy 6:20 “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’

Deuteronomy 12:1 “These are the statutes and the judgments which you shall carefully observe in the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess as long as you live on the earth.

2 Chronicles 33:8 and I will not again remove the foot of Israel from the land which I have appointed for your fathers, if only they will observe to do all that I have commanded them according to all the law, the statutes and the ordinances given through Moses.”

A Triadic Expression was very common in Hebrew culture and is compared to our exclamation mark.

But there are two kinds of Triadic Expressions.. One that defines the emphasizes in exact detail such as the holiness of God, “Holy, Holy, Holy” but there is also a Triadic Expression that is an emphasis with slight different nuisances.. In this kind the three-fold expression is more than emphasis. The Bible contains many examples of these triadic expression. For example: Exodus 34:7—“iniquity and transgression and sin”; Deuteronomy 5:31 and 6:1—“commandments and statutes and judgments”; Matthew 22:37—“with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (cf. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27); Acts 2:22—“miracles and wonders and signs”..

“Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” is Triadic Expression of the second form. All three refer to the same thing, the book of Psalms but there are slight nuisances within each category that are found in the Psalter, different Psalms are called by the slight different category, One a Psalm, One a Song, One a Hymn, one a Hymn and a Song”…

The same applies the Commandments, Statues and Judgments.. They are all part of the one law but they give slight nuisances within the One law of God with different emphasis. These categories are the direct reason why the Reformers divided the law into the three categories.

The commandments, statues, and judgments are similar, but they do add a unique content to the overall concept of the emphasis showing forth their categorical distinctions.

And this is the exact reason why the Reformed Faith has always upheld the Threefold Division of the Laws of God. They understood that even in the Old Testament that the Law of God was divided into three parts mitsvâh, chôq and mishpât which all correspond to Commandments, Statues and Judgements.

And this is so clearly seen in their quotes on the subject such as Witsius who quotes himself Beza,

“And this very learned author himself [Theodore Beza] has elsewhere observed, that the words, {Heb.}, law, statutes, and judgments, are often synonymous; but whenever they are thus joined together, they are distinguished from each other by a peculiar signification; and that by {Heb.} is understood the moral law; by {Heb.}, the ceremonial, and by {Heb.} the forensic law.”

So Yes it is Scriptural and YES there is prima facie evidence (even if not the precise terminology) has a longer pedigree to the very first century of the Church. So there is both Scriptural and Historical Testimony to back up this extremely important Reformed Doctrine, otherwise you will be getting into all sorts of trouble.

So remember the number:

number three white.jpg


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