22 December 2005
Is Moses' law a simple, seamless garment?
Is there any sound biblical basis for differentiating between the moral aspect of Moses' law and its ceremonial features?
I believe there is. In fact, I would argue that some sort of distinction like that is necessary before you can make good, thoughtful sense of some pretty basic biblical texts, including Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 2:14-15; 1 John 3:4; 1 Timothy 1:8; Leviticus 18:24; and scores of other key passages.
I'm not going to try to prove the whole argument in one post, because too many of my posts are overlong already. But I'm going to start with a very narrow focus and try to build my case one small point or two at a time.
I would simply ask commenters who are itching to argue against my position to stay with the point under discussion and not try to anticipate arguments I haven't even made yet. No fair jumping the gun and trying to turn the discussion to some larger question that's not even on the table yet. And it's especially not fair to for anyone to pretend I'm claiming that a couple of very simple posts dealing with a narrow issue are all that's needed to make the whole case for my position. That is not what I think; I make no such claim; and those whose reflexive counter-argument always begins with the accusation that I haven't been thorough enough are welcome to give that old workhorse a rest this timeat least until we get ten or fifteen posts into the topic.
(By the way, the itch to jump the gun seems to be a peculiar tendency of some commenters at my blog. It's is how the modern-prophecy discussion got derailed before it really even got started. I haven't forgotten my promise to come back to that topic. I'm just going to wait for my charismatic friends who are spoiling for a fight about the larger and more academic issue of cessationism to calm down first, so that we can get back to the fairly simple, more practical question that I initially raisedregarding whether anyone is actually receiving reliable messages directly from God on an ongoing basis today. But that's not the subject of today's post; the law is.)
Anyway, I fully realize there are some terms vital to this discussion that are just crying for technical definitions, and I haven't even tried to define them yet (including the crucial but often ambiguous expression "moral law"). Please stay with me and try to be patient. We can get through this.
But let me start with a very simple question for those who insist that the Mosaic law must be seen as one seamless garment with no legitimate categorical distinctions between its various precepts. (I've noticed that people these days especially seem to be passionate in their opposition to the famous threefold taxonomy of the law's moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX:3-5. Perhaps we can take up the issue of the threefold division before we are done, but here my focus is even narrower than that. I just want to challenge those who insist that the law is all one indivisible unit whose precepts are therefore all basically of equal import.)
Here's the question:
Are there not clear biblical distinctions made repeatedly between the "weightier matters" and the external features of the law (Matthew 23:23); between "mercy" and "sacrifice" (Matthew 12:7); between "the knowledge of God" and "burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6); between "obedience" and "the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22); between "justice" and legal ritual (Proverbs 21:3); between the putting away of evil and "vain oblations . . . incense . . . sabbaths . . . feasts" (Isaiah 1:11-17); between true righteousness and the "noise of . . . songs" (Amos 5:23-24)?
As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself said, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not sacrifice'" (Matthew 9:13). Doesn't that suggest that one aspect of the law takes moral precedence over another?
To put the same question another way: Why would Jesus criticize the Pharisees and other teachers of the law for straining out the gnats of ceremonial defilement while swallowing the camels of injustice and cruelty (Matthew 23:23-24) if there really is no legitimate distinction between any different aspects of the law?
Those very contrasts are some of the key distinctions I see between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the law. So before anyone tries to sweep this whole issue aside by putting his fingers in his ears and reciting the mantra about there being "no exegetical proof for any divisions in the law," please note that the distinctions I'm speaking of here are spelled out in Scripture, not in the Confession of Faith.
Furthermore, all the texts I have cited assume that we ought to be able to see and understand certain distinctions between various aspects of the law, even though (as far as I can see) there is no single proof-text that spells out a list of those distinctions for us, whether in fine detail or in convenient shorthand.
The weight of so many admonitions and condemnations aimed at people who seemed oblivious to the differences between gnats and camels only increases my certainty that God holds us accountable not merely for the explicit statements of Scripture, but more importantly for the true sense of those statementsas well as for any sound inferences that can be deduced from them by good and necessary consequence.
And incidentally, that's why I'm not easily persuaded by the bare assertion of one commenter who declared ("for the record"!) that "there is NO exegetical basis for dividing the Mosaic code into these nifty little component parts. NONE!"
For future reference, that sort of histrionic dismissal of centuries of mainstream Protestant opinion isn't the kind of "argument" I find particularly persuasive. I realize it's becoming more and more the norm, but it still doesn't get much traction around here.