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A Q&A summary with David Dorsey’s essay, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34 (1991): 321-34:

What was the purpose or design of the law of Moses?

  1. The corpus was designed to regulate the lives of a people living in the distinctive geographical and climatic conditions found in the southern Levant, and many of the regulations are inapplicable, unintelligible, or even nonsensical outside that regime.
  2. The corpus was designed by God to regulate the lives of a people whose cultural milieu was that of the ancient Near East.
  3. The Mosaic corpus was intended to regulate the lives of people whose religious milieu was that of the ancient Near Eastern world (particularly Canaan) and would be more or less inapplicable outside that world.
  4. The code of laws was issued by God to lay the detailed groundwork for and regulate the various affairs of an actual politically- and geographically-defined nation.
  5. The corpus was formulated to establish and maintain a cultic regime that has been discontinued with the Church (cf. Heb 8:18; etc.).

Should the law be divided into three parts—moral, ceremonial, and civil—such that the ceremonial and civil have been fulfilled by Christ, but the moral continues on into today?

  1. The scheme of a tripartite division is unknown both in the Bible and in early rabbinic literature.
  2. The categorizing of certain selected laws as “moral” is methodologically questionable.
  3. The attempt to formulate this special category in order to “save” for NT Christians a handful of apparently universally-applicable laws—particularly the ones quoted in the NT—is an unnecessary effort. There is a more logical, Biblically supported approach to the law that retains for Christians not only the very heart of the so-called “moral” laws but also the underlying moral truths and principles, indeed the very spirit, of every one of the 613 laws.

What role does the Mosaic law play in the lives of Christians today?

“Having suggested that the Mosaic law in its entirety be removed from the backs of Christians in one sense, I would propose that the corpus be placed back into their hands in another sense: the entire corpus—not just the ‘moral’ laws but all 613—moral, ceremonial, civil. If on the one hand the evidence strongly suggests that the corpus is no longer legally binding upon Christians, there is equally strong evidence in the NT that all 613 laws are profoundly binding upon Christians in a revelatory and pedagogical sense.”

How then do we apply the OT laws to our own lives today?

“I would suggest the following theocentric hermeneutical procedure for applying any of the OT laws, whether the law be deemed ceremonial, judicial, or moral:

  1. Remind yourself that this law is not my law, that I am not legally bound by it, that it is one of the laws God issued to ancient Israel as part of his covenant with them.
  2. Determine the original meaning, significance, and purpose of the law.
  3. Determine the theological significance of the law.
  4. Determine the practical implications of the theological insights gained from this law for your own NT circumstances.”

For similar (though not identical) perspectives, see:


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14 thoughts on “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise”

  1. Curt Day says:

    This is an extremely complicated issue that requires far more nuance than can be displayed in a short blogpost

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Your response made me smile—it can be said about virtually everything. And it’s why his whole article was linked to along with several other books and articles for further elaboration :)

  2. John W says:

    “the scheme of a tripartite didvision is unknown to the Bible.

    It is true that the scriptures do not stipulate this as a sytem of interpretation. The problem is that they do not provide us with any alternative system of interpretation either! If we accept that the Bible’s whole revelation in this area is capable of being harmonized then we must accept a system that is not clearly provided by the text. This is no different to accepting the doctrine of the Trinity despite it never being defined for us: the overall revelation demands that we join the dots in a particular way without ever telling us to.

    1. Kenton says:

      The problem is that every law is both civic and moral, and given the God-centricness of every law, they are also ceremonial. But, it’s problemmatic as a criteria for applicability. No NT passages distinguishes between laws. In fact, in Matthew and James, every command is important. When Paul speaks of the Law, he speaks of it as a whole. The Law is indivisible.

      1. Your comment reflects a more biblical view. The categories of separation were not part of the thinking of the NT world. Paul was a Jewish theologian, not a Greek one. When we use anachronisms to attempt to understand the text, we read an entire new worldview into it. There is a good site for research into a Hebraic worldview that is the worldview held by ALL biblical writers. Your comment about those writers reflects the way they thought.

  3. Brian Rosner’s book Paul and the Law in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series would also be a good addition to the list of resources on this topic.

  4. Steve R says:

    I agree with Brian Collins, Paul and the Law by Brian Rosner would also be a good addition. I found this article very informative, thanks.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Thanks. Thought about including Rosner but haven’t had a chance to get the book yet.

  5. Chad C says:

    There is a distinction between the Decalogue and other laws in the OT Testament in at least three senses. First, the Decalogue was placed inside the Ark of the Covenant, whereas the other Mosaic laws were placed beside the Ark (Deut. 31:26). This signifies a distinction of importance between the Decalogue and the other Mosaic laws. Second, the Decalogue contained the only commandments that were engraved by the finger of God Himself (Deut. 10:2). Third, the Decalogue was engraved in stone, signifying its permanence. When God promises in the New Covenant to write His Law in the hearts of His people, this is a clear reference to the Decalogue that He penned on Mt. Sinai.

  6. Thanks for posting this Justin and summarizing the article in the way you did. I had a chance to read the full article and I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

    First, I found Dorsey’s critique to be symptomatic of NCT as a whole: a lack of sufficient understanding of the position they are critiquing.

    For example, Dorsey argues

    2. The categorizing of certain selected laws as “moral” is methodologically questionable. Which of the 613 laws is not “moral”? The Sabbath, the parapet law, the prohibition against muzzling of the treading ox—all the so-called “ceremonial” and “civic” laws embody or flesh out eternal moral and ethical principles.

    Yet nearly 500 years ago, Calvin, commenting on men writing 1,000 years before him, said

    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. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. 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. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.

    Dorsey also argues

    1. The scheme of a tripartite division is unknown both in the Bible and in early rabbinic literature

    I’ll leave the issue of rabbinic sources to others (see Philip Ross’ “The Finger of God” – btw, Justin, can you point me to an NCT critique of Ross’ book?). But as to the biblical basis, it’s necessary to understand that the threefold division of the law rests first upon a more primary twofold division of the law into moral and positive. John Owen explains

    Positive laws are taken to be such as have no reason for them in themselves – nothing of the matter of them is taken from the things themselves commanded – but do depend merely and solely on the sovereign will and pleasure of God. Such were the laws and institutions of the sacrifices of old and such are those which concern the sacraments and other things of the like nature under the new testament. Moral laws are such as have the reasons of them taken from the nature of the things themselves required in them for they are good from their respect to the nature of God himself and from that nature and order of all things which he hath placed in the creation. So that this sort of laws is but declarative of the absolute goodness of what they do require the other is constitutive of it as unto some certain ends. Laws positive, as they are occasionally given, so they are esteemed alterable at pleasure. Being fixed by mere will and prerogative without respect to any thing that should make them necessary antecedent to their giving, they may by the same authority at any time be taken away and abolished. Such I say are they in their own nature and as to any firmitude that they have from their own subject matter. But with respect unto God’s determination, positive divine laws may become eventually unalterable. And this difference is there between legal and evangelical institutions. The laws of both are positive only, equally proceeding from sovereign will and pleasure and in their own natures equally alterable; but to the former God had in his purpose fixed a determinate time and season wherein they should expire or be altered by his authority; the latter he hath fixed a perpetuity and unchangeableness unto during the state and condition of his church in this world. The other sort of laws are perpetual and unalterable in themselves so far as they are of that sort, – that is moral. For although a law of that kind may have an especial injunction with such circumstances as may be changed and varied (as had the whole decalogue in the commonwealth of Israel), yet so far as it is moral – that is, as its commands or prohibitions are necessary emergencies or expressions of the good or evil of the things it commands or forbids – it is invariable. And in these things there is an agreement unless sometimes through mutual oppositions men are chafed into some exceptions or distinctions.

    Unto these two sorts do all divine laws belong and unto these heads they may be all reduced. And it is pleaded by some that these kinds of laws are contradistinct, so that a law of one kind can in no sense be a law of the other. And this doubtless is true reduplicatively because they have a special formal reasons. As far and wherein any laws are positive they are not moral; and as far as they are purely moral they are not formally positive, though given after the manner of positive commands. Howbeit this hinders not but that some do judge that there may be and are divine laws of a mixed nature; for there may be in a divine law a foundation in and respect unto somewhat that is moral, which yet may stand in need of the superaddition of a positive command for its due observation unto its proper end.

    A Treatise on the Sabbath

    When we look to the Mosaic law, this twofold division was abundantly clear from the very first giving of the law where we see a very clear distinction in the text between the law written in stone by the finger of God (Ex 24:12; 32:16; 34:1, 28) and spoken by God (Ex 20:1), and the rest of the laws written by (Ex 24:4; 34:27) and spoken by (Ex 21:1; 24:3) Moses. Only the 10 Commandments/tablets of stone were placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; 40:20; Deut 10:1-6; 1 Kings 8:9; Heb 9:4).

    This establishes the differences between the moral law (decalogue) and the positive laws of the Mosaic Covenant.

    From there you simply distinguish between ceremonial positive laws (separating Jews from Gentiles and foreshadowing Christ’s work) and judicial positive laws (applications of the moral law to Israel’s unique theocratic context).

    Samuel Renihan addresses this in his JIRBS review of Kingdom Through Covenant

    Moving on, Dorsey states

    There is a more logical, Biblically supported approach to the law that retains for Christians not only the very heart of the so-called “moral” laws but also the underlying moral truths and principles, indeed the very spirit, of every one of the 613 laws… Moreover the theological insights we gain from a particular OT law will not only enhance our knowledge and understanding of God but will also have important practical implications for our own lives if we are patterning them after our heavenly Father and modifying our behavior and thinking in response to our knowledge of him and his ways (Paul argues along these very lines in i Cor 9:9–10). It is in this sense that every one of the 613 laws of Moses is binding upon the NT Christian… [the banker] might very well be working out the practical implications of the theological insights rising from this law while at the same time treating the regulation as legally nonbinding.

    Again, Dorsey demonstrates an insufficient familiarity with the position he is critiquing. What he just articulated is the hermeneutic of general equity found in the WCF and LBCF

    19.4._____ To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.
    ( 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 )

    (Note the Scripture reference given is the same given by Dorsey). For a further elaboration of general equity, see here

    That being said, I do agree with one of Dorsey’s critiques of covenant theology. He says

    according to the NT writers God has consequently abrogated the treaty and has established a new (not a “renewed”) treaty with a reconstituted covenant people (1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:6–13; 9:15–18; etc.; cf. Jer 31:31–34)…

    That Christ’s covenant was understood by the NT writers to be both new and different from the Sinaitic treaty is shown by the fact that it is called a “better covenant” (Heb 7:22) and a “superior covenant” (8:6), that it is made with a reconstituted covenant people (Matt 21:33–43; Romans 9–11; etc.), that it involves a “new order” (diorthōsis, Heb 9:10) and a new body of governing laws and principles (e.g. regulations concerning the Lord’s supper and baptism; selection of elders; living under pagan magistrates and laws; regulations governing the use of spiritual gifts within the Church), and that the establishment of the new covenant has made the “old covenant” or “first covenant” with its constituent stipulations (dikaiōmata) “obsolete” (pepalaiōken; palaioumenon; cf. 2 Cor 3:14; Heb 8:13; 9:1; etc.).

    I completely agree with Dorsey here and I consider it a vital critique of covenant theology. However, it is actually only a critique of one version of covenant theology. The 17th century congregationalists (including baptists) made important advancements on reformed covenant theology. In his massive exposition of the book of Hebrews, John Owen notes

    The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…
    …Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.
    Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

    His exposition of Hebrews 8:6-13 can be found online. It is also included in these volumes:

    In light of this, Owen argued, contra reformed/Presbyterian covenant theology, that the entire Mosaic law was abrogated:

    Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent…
    Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place [Heb 7:18], but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…
    “the whole system of Mosaical ordinances, as it was the covenant which God made with the people of Horeb. For the apostle takes ‘the commandment,’ and ‘the law’ for the same in this chapter; and ‘the covenant,’ in the next, for the same in them both.”

    Richard Barcellos, in an Appendix to his dissertation on Owen’s biblical theology, unpacks how this relates to Owen’s view of the continuity of the moral law. He adapted that appendix with special reference to NCT, which can be found here:

    In this regard, the 17th century particular baptists agreed with Owen in their formulation of covenant theology, known today as 1689 Federalism

    (Side note: theonomy actually rejects the threefold division of the law as unbiblical)

  7. Ted Bigelow says:

    Great posting, Brandon Adams.

    Opponents to the division of the Mosaic system of law often include the statement that there is no division made of it in Scripture, but that is not precisely accurate.

    In the following texts by Israel’s inspired prophets, the moral law is much higher than ceremonial:

    More could be added, but pressing on:

    In the following texts, moral law is much higher than the judicial law:

    The Lord teaches that the moral law is from the beginning while the judicial law, including it’s mercy for fallen man, is from the time of Moses.

    1. Kenton says:

      The problem is that there is no distinction made between laws within the Law of Moses. One could say that there is a moral law that precedes and transcends the Law of Moses (the divorce example demonstrates this), but you cannot say that the Law of Moses is itself divisible. No New Testament author argues that some Laws of Moses are to be kept and others discarded. Rather, they argue that the whole body of Moses’ Law is to be removed, in place of the godly conduct of Christ, which is that moral law which precedes and transcends, and yet conforms to the spirit of, the Law of Moses. It is a subtle and yet profound difference. Why else does the New Testament have so many instructions regarding Christian behavior and conduct? We have a new rule, which is Christ.

  8. “…all 613 laws are profoundly binding upon Christians in a revelatory and pedagogical sense.”

    I would argue that this comprises #6 and #7 in the first list of purposes for the Mosaic law. If it is true for us today, it was true for the Hebrews then:

    6. The corpus was designed to reveal God’s nature to us.
    7. The corpus was designed to reveal how we fall short of bearing God’s image.


    Here is Dr. Packer’s classic covenantal understanding of our Lord’s view of the Law. You might consider posting some covenantal readings.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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