The Decalogue

The Decaloguedecalogue_tablets_rembrandt_wiki_PD

Reformers see the Mosaic Law revealed in Scripture in three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. We see the moral law as eternal and universal, as shown in Romans 2: For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. The challenge for us is to rightly determine what within the Mosaic Law is moral and what is ceremonial or civil. We can see how diligent one must be in this regard by considering the book of Leviticus – the first half is a varied mixture of the two, often within the same verse.

While most reformers simply take the Decalogue as God’s moral law as a unit, there is a mixture of moral and ceremonial or civil law in the tablets. It appears to shine forth God’s moral law in addition to codifying Israel’s national identity. For example, nearly everyone agrees with the change in the day of the week wherein God’s people gather; not by command of Scripture, but by example therein based on the day in which Christ was raised from the dead. The command to meet on the 7th day must not be a moral command, having been changed without command; it must be ceremonial or civil. What else in the Decalogue is ceremonial or civil? Also, which version of the Decalogue is eternal and unchanging? The two versions recorded in Scripture have some variance (the substance of which is not easily dismissed as textual variants), further revealing the mixture of eternal moral commands and temporal ceremonial or civil commands. The problem for us is that God did not see fit to reveal to us or preserve for us the exact Ten Words written on the stone tablets. What Moses wrote in the Scripture has more words in some of the commandments than we think God specified on the tablets. Let us take a look at the Decalogue to see more truly what is moral and eternal. May the Lord God of Heaven and Earth be our wisdom in this and all matters, that He would be glorified and His people edified.


Exodus 20

Deuteronomy 5

[2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.


[6] “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

[3] “You shall have no other gods before me.


[7] “‘You shall have no other gods before me.

[4] “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.


[8] “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [9] You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, [10] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[7] “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.


[11] “‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

[8] “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. [9] Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, [10] but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. [11] For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.


[12] “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. [13] Six days you shall labor and do all your work, [14] but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. [15] You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

[12] “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.


[16] “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

[13] “You shall not murder.


[17] “‘You shall not murder.

[14] “You shall not commit adultery.


[18] “‘And you shall not commit adultery.

[15] “You shall not steal.


[19] “‘And you shall not steal.

[16] “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.


[20] “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

[17] “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”


[21] “‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’

Overview: A basic guide to proper hermeneutics is to recognize the context and audience of a given passage of Scripture. We cringe when folks take Jeremiah 29:11 out of context and claim it as a personal promise, even though we see biblical principles therein which can be rightly applied. I wonder why Sabbatarians fail to do this with the Decalogue. The biblical context for each mention of the Decalogue or the ark of the covenant shows the Decalogue to be an integral part of the Mosaic Covenant and the testimony or witness of that covenant (Ex 31:18, 32:15, 34:27 – 29). This key aspect of the Decalogue being a testimony of God’s covenant with Israel is further developed in Ex 25 and 26, with the ark being the “ark of the testimony” (see Ex 25:22 for emphasis). This is reminiscent of Ex 16:33 – 34 when Moses was commanded to put manna in a jar as a testimony God’s promise of provisions, seen in Ex 16:4 – 5. These are the most (only?) explicit statements in the Bible regarding the reason and purpose for the tablets and the ark – as a testimony of God’s covenant with Israel made on Mt. Sinai. Paedobaptists claim infant baptism as the sign and the seal of the New Covenant, equal to the sign and seal of the Old Covenant, circumcision. They also are the originators of making the testimony of the Old Covenant equal to God’s eternal moral law that binds all men. But where do we see the warrant in the text for appropriating the testimony of the Sinai Covenant as binding on those in the New Covenant? Romans 7:1 tells us Christians are not bound by the law because we have died to it.

As an aside, Exodus 34 does not provide a third version of the law, as some insist. This passage provides a narrative summary without the detailed, specific listing of all of the commandments. The focus of chapters 34 and following are the worship of God, as He instructed and required of the Hebrew people how they were to observe the Sabbath and build the tabernacle.

Let’s now take a look at a few examples of how ceremonial/civil law is mixed with moral law within the Decalogue.

2nd commandment: Does the Lord eternally visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Him? Or is this curse actually a reflection of the Hebrew federal headship of fathers and the penalty for idolatry? We see in Deuteronomy 24 and Ezekiel 18 that sons will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. Therefore, mustn’t we see that part of this commandment is not eternal and moral, and therefore, temporal and ceremonial or civil?

4th commandment: Many people argue for the perpetual and universal application of the 4th commandment by pointing out the word, “Remember”, in the version from Exodus 20; claiming this shows that the the Hebrews knew of this law from ancient times, despite no record of observance by man prior to being taught about the Sabbath in Exodus 16. Indeed, God’s Holy Scriptures (Neh 9:13-14) tell us the Sabbath was given by God to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, not from the garden. How is it a creation ordinance if not given to man until Sinai? The word, “remember” can also mean to “keep in mind”; thus this word does not prove the case of those who hold to alleged long-time practice of keeping the Sabbath. YHWH reminds the Hebrews of His resting on the first 7th day as the reason for this commandment. The same commandment in Deuteronomy begins with, “Observe”, reinforcing the idea that “remember” (in Exodus) means “to keep in mind”; and goes on to provide reasons why the Hebrews should keep His Sabbath: remember how the Lord brought them out of Egypt; that their exodus from Egypt, reminding them of God’s protection, etc., is the reason they, the people of Israel, are to keep the Sabbath. These are not directly applicable to New Covenant Christians, unless one flattens out the distinctives between the old and new covenants, as paedobaptists do. Again, does not this show us that some of what is recorded in the Decalogue is temporal and ceremonial or civil? Ezekiel 20:12 tells us the Sabbath is a sign between God and the Hebrews – marking their exodus from Egypt. It is not listed as a sign for the church, any more than water baptism is a sign and seal of that New Covenant.

We read in Colossians 2 not to let anyone judge us on questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath because these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. This pattern of days refers to all of the holy days of the Jews, from yearly feasts to the weekly Sabbath, and comes from repeated descriptions of the Mosaic ritual, found in 1 Chron 23:30-31; 2 Chron 2:4, 8:12-13, 31:3; Neh 10:33; Isaiah 1:13-14; Ezek 45:17; and Hosea 2:11. This is another indication that the Mosaic code, of which the Decalogue is part, does not apply to Christian as a law – but as a type or shadow of the Christ to come. Our exodus is not from Egypt; that country is a type for sin and wickedness. The moral law, though it is revealed within the Mosaic code, is eternal and no more uniquely part of that Sinai covenant than the New Covenant is – though the covenant of grace was progressively revealed over time, even within the era of the Mosaic Covenant.

There is no record in Scripture of any mention or observance of a “Christian Sabbath.” History shows a creeping incrementalism towards that idea, being codified by the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas, who opined that the Decalogue was God’s moral law, binding for all people. Early reformers, including John Calvin, did not hold to a Christian Sabbath, although Sunday worship was normal since Apostolic times and embraced by these men. The moral law was clearly seen, the ceremonial or civil brought into the visible church by man. The New Testament shows Christians gathering for worship, teaching, fellowship, and much more on the first day of the week (“the day after the Sabbath” in the Greek; does this not make the use of the term “Christian Sabbath” all the more strange?) – but this does not reflect the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath on the next day as some claim. This argument is akin to the paedobaptists’ argument for infant baptism based on the several “household baptisms” found in Scripture – claiming a practice so common place that nobody mentioned it. The sabbath rest promised in Hebrews 4:8 – 11 refers to our resting in Christ, ceasing from our works as God ceased from His work of creation on His Sabbath; not keeping a pale imitation of the Jewish Sabbath on the day after the Sabbath.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of testimony, is to be forgotten (Jr 3:15-16): “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again.” Might these testimonies of the Mosaic Covenant be types and shadows that point us to something greater, as so much of what God gave Israel in that covenant is properly recognized as?

5th commandment: Most of us do not teach our children that they will live longer and inherit land promised to them if they obey us. We ought to teach our children to obey us parents because such is honorable in the eyes of God, because He has commanded them to do so. Does not this commandment also reveal a mixture of eternal and moral law with temporal and ceremonial or civil law? We know Paul quotes this command with the promise in Ephesians 6, yet in the new covenant this “promised land” is eternal life – that children might receive blessings from God; encouraging parents to faithful instruction and exhorting children to faithful learning. Again, language in the Decalogue that is shown in the New Testament to be a type – the temporal used to foreshadow the spiritual.

Written in Stone: There are those who claim that since God wrote the Decalogue on stone tablets with His own finger, the Ten Words are eternal and morally binding. Yet the first set of tablets was destroyed and the second set of tablets (which may or may not have been written on by God, see Exodus 34:27 – 28) has been lost (intentionally – recall Jer 3:15-16) to antiquity. We do not have a record in Scripture of what was written on these tablets; we have what Moses told Israel as part of the Sinai Covenant. Are the stone tablets sacred? We see in Scripture that temporal objects made of stone are not eternal – the hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); the message of Christ is written on the hearts of His people, not on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3); the fine Jewish temple of noble stones would be torn down (never to be useful again) and replaced by a temple of Christ’s body (John 2:19 – 20). Why would the stone tablets of testimony of the covenant God made with national Israel be morally binding on all men, or on members of the New Covenant? Or are they merely the testimony of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, reflecting God’s moral law as part of that covenant?

In the mid 17th century, English Baptist John Grantham was defending the doctrine of the credibility of then-modern Bibles as the Word of God. He saw the wisdom of God in allowing the autographs to be lost, as men would revere them as relics and be led astray as in the Roman Catholic Church. With numerous credible copies, he argued, all men would be more peaceable since God had given to all equal access to His word. Does the reverence some men give to the Decalogue approach relic worship? All things considered, it does not appear that the stone tablets of testimony are sacred to God. We remind ourselves that what He has revealed to us in Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, so pointing to stone tablets He has not given us is not a proper argument for interpreting the written Word He has given us.

New Testament: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17ff) is often described as exposition of the Decalogue, yet this address to Jews by the Lord Jesus does not cover all Ten Words. In fact, there is no clear New Testament teaching that encompasses the entire Decalogue as a unit or all Ten Words individually; no teaching that assigns them as binding on Christians, much less all men. Would not the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 been the perfect place for this topic to be addressed? Circumcision is often used as shorthand for the Law of Moses; this was the issue at this council. Sent to Gentile Christians were specific instructions on Christian love (not putting a stumbling block in the path of a brother), but nothing about law keeping, which is what Sabbath keeping is. Hebrews 9:1-5 calls the Decalogue, “tablets of the covenant”, the Mosaic Covenant.

Matthew 22:34 – 40 is said to be summation of the Decalogue. But that text says “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus tells us that the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets (the balance of the Old Testament) hang on the two greatest commandments – not that they hang on the Decalogue. By claiming that these commandments (taken from Deut 6 and Lev 19 – not from Ex 20) only sum-up the Decalogue puts them in too low of a position. All of the then-known Scriptures depend upon them, in the same way that they point to Christ, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The proper love of God and love of the brotherhood cannot be reduced to Ten Words on stone tablets. It must be written by God on tablets of flesh in the hearts of His people – it is a far, far greater thing than the type and the testimony given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. The Law of Moses serves its purpose – keeping sinners until faith in Christ comes (Gal 3:24 – 25) and it continues (Matt 5:17) for all born into the covenant of works that binds non-elect until Judgment Day. Short and to the point, 2 Cor 3 contrasts these two concepts better than I am able.

In Closing, it does make perfect sense for the Presbyterians to appropriate the covenants given specifically to the nation of Israel, because they see equivalence between the church and ancient Israel, both members of the same covenant with wheat and chaff therein. Baptist ought to see the nation of Israel mainly as a type, fulfilled in Christ in the New Covenant in His blood, wherein only the redeemed enjoy the far greater benefits of that covenant. The Decalogue reflects God’s moral law given to Adam and deployed it with terms that were types and shadows of Who was to come, marking His temporal people as distinctly His, as His Spirit marks His eternal people as His. The 1689 LB Confession, in chapter 1 paragraph 1, declares something not found in the Westminster document: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” May we rightly see this as a call for us Baptists to be faithful to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and not be misled by what men have built up as tradition.

If we are to walk humbly before men and God, we must not stand on what men have taught us, but seek wisdom from the Lord, as revealed in Scriptures. Sola Scriptura must be our foundation of knowing, serving and loving our God and His people; Sempre Reformanda to keep us from clinging wrongly to our beloved traditions.

An unworthy servant of the triumphant Lamb,

Stuart Brogden

Is the Mosaic law tripartite?

Is the Mosaic law tripartite?

By Maël


During my last semester at SEBTS, I took a Christian Ethics class. It seems customary, when studying Christian ethics, to assume that the Mosaic law is tripartite, which means that the Old Testament law is assumed to be divided into three parts: moral, ceremonial, and civil/judicial. Following that assumption, the New Testament believer is to assume that the moral law is still valid in the believer’s life, while the last two parts have passed away with the coming of Christ.

The problem is that while ethicists often hold to this view, it seems that New Testament and Old Testament scholars do not agree with them. For example, R. T. France, in his commentary on Matthew, states:

It is sometimes suggested that Matt 5:17-20 is concerned only with the moral law, not with ceremonial and civil laws of the OT. But this convenient distinction of the law in three categories has no biblical basis, cannot be traced back earlier than the Middle Ages. Moreover, such a selective approach is difficult to square with Jesus’ insistence on the importance of the smallest details of the law (v. 18) and the ‘smallest commandments’ (v. 19).[1]

Hays states that the tripartite division of the law “suffers from three major weaknesses: It is arbitrary and without any textual support, it ignores the narrative context, and it fails to reflect the significant implications of the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant. This approach, therefore, is inadequate as a hermeneutic method for interpreting and applying the Law.”[2] Barrick bluntly states that “no one can justly separate the moral, civil, and ceremonial parts of the Law from each other: it is a unit.”[3] These are only a few of the objectors and of the objections to the tripartite division of the law.

In the next sets of posts, I will try to look at the validity of such a division of the law through a historical and theological approach. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is a tripartite division of the law valid?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 180n. Unfortunately, France does not document this statement.

[2] J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Jan-Mar 2001): 30.

[3] William D. Barrick, “The Mosaic Covenant,” TMSJ 10/2 (Fall 1999): 213.


Historical Overview

As was mentioned in the previous post, according to R. T. France, evidence for such a tripartite division of the law “cannot be traced back earlier than the Middle Ages.”[1] However, there might be some evidence that at least a dichotomy between ceremonial works and the works of the law existed at the time of Jerome. According to Luther, Jerome had introduced “notable error and ignorance” in the understanding of Rom 3:19-20 when he suggested that Paul was here calling ceremonial works, works of the law.[2] A possible bipartite understanding of the law also could have existed at the time of Augustine, for Luther claimed that Augustine resisted Jerome,[3] and Aquinas stated that in Contra Faust, 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.'” Aquinas then 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. [4]

Fast forwarding to the Middle Ages, in Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas himself discussed the law (which he referred to as precepts) and its three parts (moral, ceremonial, and judicial) in his section entitled “Treatise on the Law” and more specifically in questions 99-105. Of interest is the fact that in his writings, Aquinas did not just assume this partition of the law, he actually developed an argument for the existence of these three parts. A future post will deal with Aquinas’ position in detail, but now let us continue our historical overview.

Jumping to the time of the reformers, Luther seemed to accept at least a dualism of the law when, in The Bondage of the Will, he referred to “the civil or moral law.”[5] Calvin, in book two of Institutes of the Christian Religion, presented a bipartite view when he discussed the law, emphasizing the moral and ceremonial aspects of it,[6] but later, in book four of the Institutes, when he discussed civil government, he presented a clearly tripartite view of the law when he stated: “the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.”[7] While Calvin did not present a logical defense of the tripartite division of the law as Aquinas did, his use of this tripartite division to justify the abrogation of only part of the law and his interactions with and citations of a variety of Scriptures are also of interest to the question at hand.

After the reformation, the tripartite division of the law seemed to slowly solidify as an accepted concept. Some still held, as John Owen stated in his Two Short Catechisms, that “the whole law [was] moral and ceremonial,” pointing to a bipartite view of the law,[8] but ultimately, the tripartite view was propagated and popularized by the Westminster Confession (1646), which was the basis for a variety of other confessions of faith, including the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. In the 1689 Baptist Confession, the tripartite division of the law is clearly seen in the chapter on the law of God (Ch. 19), where it reads: “besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship” and that “to them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people.”[9] While the 1689 Baptist Confession did not provide an argument for its views, but simply stated the belief of its signatories, as is customary for confessions, it did however substantiate its articles with a variety of Scripture references which are also of interest to the quest at hand.

Looking at contemporary times, it is interesting to note that the Baptist tradition found in the 1689 confession has not survived in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, where no mention of the tripartite law is made. Some current thoughts and discussions on the issue of the law and the gospel are summarized in Five Views on Law and Gospel, first published by Zondervan in 1993. In this book, the reader is presented with the following five views: the reformed perspective, the theonomic reformed approach, the evangelical (holiness code) approach, the dispensational view, and the modified Lutheran view.[10] The first three have to maintain that the law is at least bipartite, if not tripartite for their approach. The last two do not have to hold to any division of the law.

As we continue this discussion, we will next tackle Aquina’s arguments for a tripartite division of the law. In the meantime, do you know of any other historical figures that might have convincingly argued this position?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 180n. Unfortunately, France does not document this statement. Based on the research done, it is assumed that France’s reference to the Middle Ages is a reference to the work of Thomas Aquinas.

[2] Martin Luther The Bondage of the Will CXLIII. References to classical, medieval, and renaissance works will be cited as per section 17.5.1 of the 7th edition of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica FS.Q99.A4.

[5] Luther Bondage CXLVI.

[6] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.7, 2.8.31.

[7] Ibid., 4.20.14.

[8] John Owen Two Short Catechisms XIV.Q2.

[9] Samuel E.Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Webster: Evangelical Press, 1999), 232-33.

[10]Greg L.Bahnsen et al., Five Views on Law and Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 5.


Analyzing Aquinas’ Arguments.

The question that now begs to be answered is: are the arguments given in favor of a tripartite law acceptable, after all, the mere fact that many have accepted this division as a fact since the Middle Ages does not justify its acceptance. Therefore, to understand if it is appropriate to divide the law into three parts, I will analyze the arguments offered by the proponents of such a perspective, starting with Aquinas.

In his six article approach to “Of the Precept of the Old Law” (Q99), Aquinas started by defending that the law is made up of many precepts and not of only one precept. He did so by pointing to the plural “ordinances” used by Paul in Eph 2:15 when he wrote about the law of commandments.[1] This point is well presented and defended. The only comment that can be made about this point is that he could be accused of using Eph 2:15 selectively to prove his point of multiple precepts while ignoring the implications of Eph 2:15 when it comes to the wholeness of the law. While the author would agree with Aquinas, that Scripture here refers to “ordinances” plural, the author would also agree with Hoehner, in his commentary on the book of Ephesians, when he points out that the “term o nomo” must refer to the whole Mosaic law and not just the ceremonial law as some suggest,” and as such, he argues that “it is a false dichotomy to distinguish between the moral and ceremonial laws, making only the ceremonial laws inoperative.”[2]

Aquinas then proceeded to point to the Decalogue to support his claim that the Old Law contains some moral precepts because moral precepts are necessary to make man become good, so that he can be in friendship with God who is supremely good. He thus argued that “it was necessary for the Old Law to include precepts about acts of virtue: and these are the moral precepts of the Law.” [3] As we saw in the previous post, some disagree with Aquinas about the statement that the Old Law contains only “some” moral precepts, but with that exception, one cannot fault his position just yet. Some discomfort is felt by the modern evangelical when Aquinas augmented his argument with a philosophical argument for the need of moral principles in the Old Law. To do so, he used the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus[4] to maintain that God cannot have a friendship with man “unless man become good.”[5] This latter argument can be seen as unnecessary, and its use of apocryphal literature makes it more suspicious to the modern evangelical. But, if one ignores this part of the argument, the claim that the Old Law contains moral precepts is a valid one.

Aquinas continued by seeking to prove that there are precepts which are not moral, but ceremonial. He did so by looking at Deut 4:13, 14, where Moses stated that God declared to Israel His covenant, that is the Ten Commandments, and that the LORD commanded Moses to teach the Israelites statutes and judgments, that they were to observe. Aquinas is translated here as using the phraseology “ceremonies and judgments,” instead of the NKJV’s terminology, “statutes and judgments,” and this is where he seems to get the term ceremonial law.[6] The Hebrew term used here is qx, which BDAG defines as “something prescribed, a statute or due,” or as an “enactment, decree, ordinance,” or a “law in general.”[7] This same term is used in the next chapter of Deuteronomy when the Decalogue is introduced with: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn them and be careful to observe them. … You shall have no other gods before Me ….” (Deut 5:1-7, NKJV, emphasis mine). Therefore Aquinas’ insistence on the use of qx as meaning ceremonies[8] is deemed not to be well founded since the Decalogue (the commands associated with the moral law according to Aquinas) are introduced with the same term that Aquinas wants to use to identify ceremonial laws. Frame, a proponent of the tripartite law, further furnishes a critique of Aquinas’ use of the ceremonial term when he writes,

It is misleading to define “ceremonial” etymologically as “laws pertaining to ceremonies.” Many of the laws commonly grouped under the “ceremonial” category, such as dietary laws [and] clothing laws, have nothing to do with “ceremonies.” And some laws having to do with ceremonies, such as the “regulative principle” and other doctrines concerning public worship, are commonly described as moral rather than ceremonial laws.[9]

It would therefore seem that Aquinas’ argument for the presence of ceremonial decrees is invalid on many fronts. In addition to this, when Aquinas replied to the objection[10] that “human actions are called moral, … therefore it seems that the Old Law given to men should not comprise other than moral precepts,” he simply answered that “human acts extend also to the Divine worship: and therefore the Old Law given to man contains precepts about these matters also.”[11] This is circular reasoning; instead of defending his statement that Divine worship is not a moral concept, he arbitrarily put it in a different category and then used its being in that category to justify the existence of that category. In this same section, Aquinas admitted in the reply to another objection that “to worship God, since it is an act of virtue, belongs to a moral precept,” but he then differentiated the worship of God from the precepts prescribing the worship of God, which are in themselves not moral, but ceremonial.[12] Here again, Aquinas seemed to change categories without substantial justification. He conveniently created a new category, but did not justify its existence.

Aquinas next proceeded to argue for judicial precepts by looking at Deut 6:1. Here he interpreted the words commandment, statutes, and judgments as referring to moral, ceremonial, and judicial law.[13] This is the same terminology used in Deut 4 and Deut 5 (as seen above) and Aquinas here used a similar weak reasoning with judicial precepts as he used above with moral precepts: he again conveniently created a new category, but did not justify its existence. In addition, he augmented his argument by pointing to Rom 7:12, “therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good,” as additional substantiation of his tri-partition. Here he related “just” with the judicial precepts, “holy” with the ceremonial precepts, and “good” with the moral precepts.[14] Moo, in his commentary on Romans, does not allow for such an interpretation, for he says that “Paul brings together as essentially parallel terms ‘law’ and ‘commandment’; both referring to the Mosaic law, the former as a body, the latter in terms of specific commandments that Paul has cited in v. 7 as representative of the whole.”[15] If Moo is correct, then the term “holy,” associated with the entire law in the first part of the verse, cannot in the next breath refer only to ceremonial laws, as Aquinas purported it does. Here again, Aquinas admitted that the “act of justice, in general, belongs to the moral precepts,” but then, in a similar manner as with ceremonial precepts, he differentiated between the determination of the acts and the acts themselves, concluding that the determination of the acts belongs to the category of judicial precepts.[16] Just as with ceremonial acts, it must be stated that this change of category is not substantiated. Ultimately, it is very interesting that Aquinas himself agreed that the ceremonial and judicial precepts have their basis in the moral law, and yet he worked very hard to separate them into different categories from the moral law.

Aquinas finished his defense of the tripartite law with his fifth article, in which he investigated the possibility of the presence of a fourth division of the law. His arguments against a fourth division are similar to the ones made above and do not add much to the discussion of this blog series. Some more discussion is found in questions 100-108 of the Summa. In these questions, Aquinas continued to develop his ideas about the tripartite law and specifically postulates arguments on the duration of each kind of precept. Aquinas believed that “the precepts of the Decalogue cannot be changed by dispensation,”[17] and yet he also believed that when Christ came, a change had to have happened in the law for, according to Aquinas: the New Testament law is different from the Old Testament law;[18] “the judicial precepts are no longer in force”;[19] and that “the Old Law is said to be ‘for ever’ simply and absolutely, as regards its moral precepts; but as regards the ceremonial precepts it lasts for ever in respect of the reality which those ceremonies foreshadowed.”[20]

In the next post, I will look at Calvin and his defense of a tripartite law. In the meantime, what do y’all think. Are Aquinas’ arguments valid? Am I being too severe with him? Did I miss something?

[1] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A1.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians – An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 375-6.

[3] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A2.

[4] Aquinas referred to Ecclesiasticus almost 250 times in his Summa, often using the introduction “it is written.”

[5] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A2.

[6] Ibid., FS.Q99.A3.

[7] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brow-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 349. The author takes this occasion to point out that he is not a Hebrew scholar, and therefore some of the nuances of the language might have escaped him as he makes arguments based on the Hebrew text.

[8] It should be noted that the insistence on the word ceremonial which transpires in the English translation, might, or might not be as strong in the original Latin, but no matter what term was used in the original, it is hoped that the translators represented Aquinas’ ideas correctly, as it is with these ideas that the author is interacting.

[9] John M. Frame, “Toward a Theology of the State,” Westminster Theological Journal 51 no 2 (Fall 1989): 204n.

[10] The format of the Summa starts with a series of objections to his article, followed by the defense of his article and answers to the objections aforementioned.

[11] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., FS.Q99.A4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 440.

[16] Aquinas Summa FS.Q99.A4.

[17] Ibid., FS.Q100.A8.

[18] Ibid., FS.Q107.A1.

[19] Ibid., FS.Q104.A3.

[20] Ibid., FS.Q103.A3.


Analyzing Calvin’s Arguments.

As for Calvin, he stated that he gathered his tripartite view of the law from the “ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes [judicial and ceremonial laws] had to do with morals.”[1] Therefore, like Aquinas, Calvin admitted that the laws which he called ceremonial and judicial had to do with morals, even so he, like Aquinas, adopted, defined, and used different categories for them. Unlike Aquinas, who tried to justify his reasoning through logic and some Scriptural exegesis, Calvin seemed to have relied on the wisdom of the ancients. It is of interest to note that Calvin did not say that the ancients justified this tripartite division of the law with solid Biblical arguments, but only that they “did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals.”[2] It is almost as if he assumed that the motivation of the ancients was derived by a need to fit their purpose, instead of being derived by the clear teaching of Scripture. Since this abrogation pattern is clear in Aquinas, could it be that Calvin suggested that this tension between the Decalogue’s not being changed and the changing work of Christ was the motivation for Aquinas’ arguments trying to justify a tripartite law? Possibly, but we have no proof of it.

In Calvin’s theology, the law ultimately was divided as follows:

The moral law, … is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. … The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fullness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures (Gal. 3:24; 4:4). The judicial law, given them as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly. And as that exercise in ceremonies properly pertained to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as it kept the Jewish Church in the worship and religion of God, yet was still distinguishable from piety itself, so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself. Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so, also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual.”[3]

Therefore the moral law found in the Decalogue is timeless, but the ceremonial law and the judicial law are not. In this description, Calvin quotes Gal 3:24 as a supporting Scripture for his treatment of the ceremonial law. This passage, which in the letter to the Galatians comes at the end of a section on the purpose of the law, states: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24 NKJV). It is hard to envision that this passage, written to a predominantly gentile church, was referring only to the Jewish nation, as Calvin would have it seem.[4] Also, the context of the passage does not seem to allow for a purely ceremonial understanding of “the law,” but to a more holistic understanding of the law. Therefore it is hard to agree with Calvin’s definition of the ceremonial law based on this passage. As a matter of fact, if this passage is read in light of verse 25, where Paul writes: “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:25 NKJV), one could understand this section of Scripture as arguing for a view where we are no longer under a tutor for the “whole” law, and therefore one does not need to hold to a tripartite division of the law.

In the next post, I will look at some more modern uses of the tripartite law, and their justification, or lack there of, for using it. In the meantime, if you are better acquainted with Calvin and his writings, do you know of anywhere else where Calvin does a better job of defending the tripartite division of the law?

[1] Calvin Institutes 4.20.14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 4.20.15 (emphasis mine).

[4] In all fairness, one must at least consider the possibility that Paul here could have been using the term “we” to refer to his Jewish heritage rather than to him and his audience. While this interpretation would be more in line with Calvin’s thought, it does not seem to square with the general sense of the passage and the specific use of “all” in verse 22.


Two More Historical Views.

To finish the historical analysis, I would like to look at two more instances: the 1689 Baptist Confession and a recent book on the topic.

Looking at the 1689 Baptist Confession, we see again that like Calvin and Aquinas, the authors of the confession related ceremonial laws with moral duties when they stated: “ceremonial laws [which] … also gave instructions about various moral duties.”[1] But, basing themselves most probably on the thoughts of Calvin, they also used these created categories. Since this is a confession of faith, as stated above, we should not expect to have a defense of the tripartite division of the law; instead we have Scripture references listed in support of their statement. In support of the ceremonial law, the following Scriptures are cited: Heb 10:1, Col 2:16-7, Eph 2:14-6. Yet again, the understanding of these Scripture hinges on the use of the terms for the law. As mentioned before by Moo and Hoehner, there is little to no indication that these are referring only to ceremonial laws, and therefore are deemed not to be sustentative proof for a tripartite division of such laws.

When reading modern theologians of the reform variety, the tripartite division of the law is also often assumed and rarely explained. In his presentation of the reformed perspective in the Five Views on Law and Gospel book, VanGemeren assumes the traditional tripartite division of the law when he states: “The laws of the Old Testament have also been commonly categorized as moral, ceremonial, and civil. Each one of the Ten Commandments expresses the moral law of God, whereas most laws in the Pentateuch regulate the rituals and ceremonies (ceremonial laws) and the civil life of Israel as a nation (civil laws).”[2] What VanGemeren fails to do, is to defend his view Biblically. Instead, he points to Calvin and the Westminster Confession, who themselves had accepted the tripartite view from earlier sources. This deserved Moo’s criticism that VanGemeren assumed his tripartite position “without arguing the case. [Even though] this distinction, vital to his whole argument, is nowhere clearly stated in the Bible.”[3]

In the next post I will start looking at generic arguments for flaws in the tripartite assumption. In the meantime, do you know of anybody else who tries to defend the tripartite division of the law?

[1] Samuel E.Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Webster: Evangelical Press, 1999), 232-3.

[2] Greg L.Bahnsen et al., Five Views on Law and Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 30.

[3] Ibid., 85. To be fair to VanGemeren, it seems very common for modern reformed theologians to rely on the formulations of Calvin and the Westminster Confession.


Generic Arguments for Flaws in the Tripartite Assumption.

Having interacted with some of the main proponents of the tripartite division of the law throughout history, and having interacted with some of their thoughts, we shall now entertain generic arguments for flaws in the tripartite assumption. As seen already, the tripartite approach is often accused of being arbitrary in its identification of the various categories of laws. This is because, by their own admission, the different precepts/law categories are not neatly divided, but intertwined. For example, reformed theologian Willem A. VanGemeren states,

The book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:22-23:33) – with its regulations for worship (20:22-26; 23:14-19) and its civil laws (21:1-23:13) – extends the Decalogue in three directions. First, there is the complex development of case law. … Second, the criminal laws specify the penalty for breaking the commandments. … Third, the book of the covenant reveals the complexity of Israelite law. The moral laws (i.e., those reflected in the Decalogue) are intertwined with the civil laws, penal code, and ceremonial laws.[1]

To demonstrate this, he then proceeds to use Ex 22:19-29 as an example. In this passage, he shows that the topics covered vary from moral precepts, to penal precepts, to casuistic/civil precepts, back to moral precepts, and finally to ceremonial precepts, all intertwined in one passage. Reformed Professor John M. Frame is even more candid in his admission that the division between the supposed three parts of the law is not cut and dry. He tells us,

The law does not, of course, come to us with the labels “moral,” “ceremonial” and “civil” attached to its provisions. What we call “moral” laws are mixed together in the texts (almost randomly, it seems) with “civil” and “ceremonial” laws, and we must sort them out by determining their meaning and current applicability. Those that apply most literally today we call “moral,” those which apply least literally we call “ceremonial.” “Civil” is a different kind of category, based not on applicability but upon function, and these would be divided between “ceremonial” and “moral” depending on their applicability. Remember too, that literal and non-literal applicability is a matter of degree, so we may expect some “gray areas,” some laws that do not fit neatly into either “ceremonial” or “moral” categories.[2]

His sorting process is quite different from the traditional assumption that only the Decalogue is the depository of moral laws, and after reading his decision making process, one is left to wonder if “applicability” is really a Biblical identification of morality. As can be seen, the lack of clear distinction between the three parts of the law does point to a lack of credibility for the tripartite division of the law.

Barrick picks up on this and stipulates that the,

Division into three categories of law is unmasked as a fallacy by the testimony of the Book of Deuteronomy alone. Moses’s second exposition (4:44—26:19) presented the Decalogue and then illustrated each of the Ten Commandments by means of various legal stipulations. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the so-called civil and ceremonial stipulations are inextricably interwoven with what are considered to be the moral laws. Violation of any of the stipulations is a breach of the Decalogue.[3]

Another Old Testament text that does not square with the tripartite division of the law is Jer 31:31-2. Here God states that “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah– not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD” (Jer 31:31-2 NKJV). If God has made a New Covenant which is not like the covenant at Sinai, is it acceptable for us to say that only parts of the Old Covenant have changed? There is nothing in this passage that allows the reader to accept that this is a renewal of the Old Covenant. After all, the term used here has a primary definition of “new,” not “renew,” and the text speaks of a New Covenant, not like the Old Covenant. It is hard to imagine that this would imply any kind of continuity with the Old Covenant. There is also nothing which substantiates the Calvinistic position that this is a reformatting of the Old Covenant, or even that it is a hyperbolic statement, for again, the promise is of a New Covenant, not just a new medium.[4] Adeyemi also points out that “since the Old Covenant will be abolished, so will its Torah which cannot be divorced from it. … This view accords with several statements in Isaiah about a Torah other than the Mosaic Law being given by Yahweh when Israel is in her land and Messiah is reigning.”[5]

Both Moo and Strickland also offer the Sabbath commandment as an exemplary test case of the abrogation of the Decalogue, and therefore as proof that if the Decalogue is the depository of God’s immutable moral law, then even the moral law has changed. The argument goes like this: reformed theologians claim that the Decalogue is the eternal moral law. If that is the case, then all of the Ten Commandments should still be valid for New Testament believers. But the fifth commandment states that rest should be pursued on the seventh day, and since it is in the Decalogue, the lack of observance of the Sabbath in this way is a moral matter. Believers, including ones in the reformed tradition, have been meeting on the first day of the week since New Testament times, because it is sanctioned in the New Testament. Does that then mean that the eternal moral precepts are subject to revision and that God’s nature has changed?[6] Aquinas would not agree that God’s nature has changed,[7] neither would Calvin,[8] and most probably, neither would modern reformed theologians.

Finally, looking at the use of the law in the New Testament, Moo argues that “Jesus and the New Testament authors treated the Mosaic law as a whole,” and that “Jewish theology refused to allow a ‘picking and choosing’ among the commandments of the law.” He also argues, by looking at Matt 23:23, that even though Jesus possibly followed a Jewish tradition of categorizing the law, he insisted that “even the ‘light’ commandments still must be done.” He further points to Gal 5:3 and James 2:8-1, and their message of keeping or breaking the whole law, to suggest that the same perspective was adopted by the New Testament community. [9] Barrick picks up this same theme when he states that “to be disobedient to any one of the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant is to be guilty of disobedience to all of the stipulations of the covenant (Jas 2:10).”[10] Ultimately, Moo also analyzes Paul’s use of the terms for the law and the reformed tradition’s varied, and apparently arbitrary, interpretation of which laws Paul is referring to (moral or ceremonial law) and does not find any substantiation for their interpretations.[11]

If the historical arguments for the tripartite law are flawed and if Scripture does not seem to support this idea, why is it so popular?

[1] Ibid., 30-1.

[2] Frame, 203-4.

[3] Barrick, 229.

[4] Femi Adeyemi, “What is the New Covenant ‘Law’ in Jeremiah 31:33?” Biblioteca Sacra 163 (July-September 2006): 315-9.

[5] Ibid., 320-1.

[6] Bahnsen et al., 81-2, 88.

[7] Aquinas Summa FS.Q100. A8.

[8] Calvin Institutes 4.20.15.

[9] Bahnsen et al., 85.

[10] Barrick, 231.

[11] Bahnsen et al., 85-6.



Pictures of Christ–right or wrong?

In the comment thread of a recent post (which has since been removed), some comments were posted concerning the varied exegeses of Exodus 20:4-6 that have been offered over the years. One such interpretation says that the passage should be read (to paraphrase),

Do not make images. Do not bow down to them or serve them.

The other position says the passage should be read (again, to paraphrase),

Do not make images in order to bow down and serve them.

Having just completed a survey of the book of Exodus (which I may be posting here in a short while), here is the conclusion I have come to. I believe the second interpretation (Do not make images of God in order to worship the images.) to be the proper one. I hope to show, by way of Scripture, why I feel this to be so.

I will say, however, at the outset (and will expound on this in due time) that one must be careful with said pictures. One can fall into one of many errors:

  • They can wind up worshipping the image (as the Romanists do).
  • They can wind up thinking that having a picture of Christ on their wall makes them a Christian, even though their hearts are far from Him (as many Americans do today).
  • They can wind up thinking that said depiction of Christ is what He actually looked like (as the Mormons believe that He had milky white skin, rather than being [more likely] a darker-skinned Semite, He being a Jew of that time. We will also leave aside the brown-haired, blue-eyed Jew of the Jesus of Nazareth TV-movie).
  • Or they may simply see Him as being a man, and not God in the flesh (as the Emergents and liberals do).

While we cannot depict the glory of God (for it was always hidden, either within a cloud, or a pillar of fire, or within the bush that burned), we can depict the humanity of Christ. Treated carefully enough, and used in the proper context, I believe that pictures of Christ in the flesh are not necessarily sinful.

First, let’s begin with the idolatry committed by the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, in Exodus 32:1-61 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 5 So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.” 6 Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

The people wanted gods to worship–“gods” that they could see with their eyes and touch with their hands; “gods” who would let them unleash the sin that burned within them. And rather than serve the true YHVH, they created a false “yhvh” that was more to their liking. So, when Moses returned to the foot of the mountain, God commanded that the calf be ground to powder and the people drink down their iniquity. Then, God commanded that the sons of Levi take their swords, go through the camp, and slay all those who did not repent of their idolatry (Exodus 32:25-28). (The many blatant inaccuracies in Cecil B. DeMille’s landmark film may be addressed in another post). Paul uses this event to call the Corinthians away from their own idolatry (1st Corinthians 10:5-7).

Now, here’s the question: if the people had simply fashioned a calf out of gold, would God have commanded them to be killed? No. What was their sin? They made this calf in order to worship it. “Come, make us gods that shall go before us…This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” They had fashioned a figure of an animal, yes–but the real sin was ascribing to that statue the name of YHVH and dancing around and calling it “our god.” This was the force of the Second Commandment–making a graven image in order to worship it.

We see another example in Judges 17:1-6. The mother of Micah (not to be confused with the prophet Micah, which book bears his name) had statues made for him to put in his house to reside with the other idols. Again, is the sin the making of the statue–or the ascription of deity to that statue?

I say all this by way of introduction, since it seems that the crux of the debate resides in whether or not the picturing of Jesus by painter or sculptor is sinful. On this, the prophet Moses said, from the LORD–

Deuteronomy 4:15-1915 Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. 19 And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.”

In Deuteronomy we find, as it were, sermons (expositions and applications) of the various commands found in that first covenant. This passage is an exposition and application on the Second Commandment in the Decalogue. Now, in this passage, is this–

  1. A command from God to not carve images of animals or bugs or birds or or fish or humans? Or…
  2. A command about carving images of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans in order to worship them?

There is a difference. If this is a command to not carve images of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans–and if you feel that making pictures of Christ is idolatry–then, to be consistent, you must remove any figures and pictures of any animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans from your house, because you are guilty of idolatry. If you wear a shirt or a hat or any article of clothing that contains any picture of any “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth” then you must get rid of it to be consistent in your beliefs. Take down any paintings of any animals you have on your walls, for it is idolatry. Don’t watch sports–ANY sports–for every sport has teams that are depicted by some kind of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans. If you are in the Army, don’t become a colonel, since they wear an eagle as their insignia.

If your children have dolls, or action figures, you must get rid of them. We must also condemn any statues or pictures of any human being. If you live in St. Louis, and your kids have posters of Albert Pujols on their wall, take them down. Go to Philadelphia, PA, and petition the city to get rid of the statues of George Washington and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Go to your local city council and beseech them to take down any statues of any significant figure of that city’s history, for it is idolatry.

  • That scrapbook filled with pictures from your wedding? Get rid of it.
  • The paintings of your grandparents or great-grandparents? Gone.
  • Got pictures of your children in your wallet? Goodbye.
  • Get rid of any books or magazines or any other publication that has any picture of any human being.
  • Lose the camera.
  • Don’t buy your children pens, pencils, markers, paint, or any other thing by which they may make a picture of any living creature lest they commit the sin of idolatry.

These are the things one must do to be consistent. For all of these–images of animals or bugs or birds or or fish or humans–are grouped together with images of “things in heaven”.

So then, the sin is not in depicting the “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth”. The sin is in in depicting the “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth” in order to worship it. Ascribing some power to it that belongs to God and God alone.

Just as the mere act of looking up at the stars in the sky is not idolatry. For God also commanded Moses to tell the people, “And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them…” If looking up at the stars is a sin, then God commanded Abram to sin, since He told him to “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them” (Genesis 15:5). To be consistent, never look at the stars or you are guilty of idolatry.

In both of these, the sin is not carving images of animals or birds or bugs or even humans; nor is the sin in simply looking up into the starry skies. The sin is ascribing to animals, bugs, birds, stars, moon, etc the attributes and power that belongs to God and God alone.

Now, I know the counter-argument. “OK, fourpointer, you’re saying it’s OK to have pictures of Christ, are you then saying it’s OK to make images of God the Father or God the Holy Spirit?” No, I’m not saying that at all. Did God the Father take on human flesh? Did God the Holy Spirit take on human flesh? Obviously, the answer to both questions is “No” (leaving the arguments of the Sabellians and Modalists for another day). Christ, however, did take on human flesh. He did take on the nature of man and was, in fact, a man. He did not simply look like a man; He did not simply appear as though He was a man. He was–A MAN. Philippians 2:8And being found in appearance as a man… 1st timothy 2:5For there is…one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. And it is that humanity that is is captured in pictures.

But is simply having a picture of Christ idolatry? Is having a picture of any human being idolatry? In order to be consistent, one must answer each of those questions in the same manner as the other. And if having pictures of human beings is not a sin, then to be consistent, having pictures of Christ–who was Himself of two natures, one of those natures being a man, being  human (albeit without sin)–should not be considered idolatry. Unless one ascribes to the picture itself some power or attribute that belongs to Christ alone. Such as the Romanist who believes that bowing before a statue of Christ (or, even worse, Mary His mother) can bring them some benefit–as though the statue itself possessed the power to grant forgiveness or heal infirmities.

In conclusion, allow me to summarize these many words with an illustration. If I pull a piece of paper out of my wallet–a piece of paper with ink of varying colors and hues and shades–and I tell you “This is my wife.” Am I trying to say that I am married to that piece of paper and those inks and hues? Or am I saying “This is a depiction of my wife”? If I mean to say that I am married to a piece of paper, then something’s wrong with my thinker. But if I mean to say “This is a depiction of the woman I am married to” then I have a proper sense of things and I am speaking correctly. Much the same thing is involved with depicting scenes from the ministry of Christ while He walked the earth. Is one in sin if they do so? Only if they carry the depiction too far and ascribe power and deity to the depiction. (If, when they say, “this is Christ”, they are actually saying that the picture or statue is, indeed and in fact, Christ). Or if they value the humanity of Christ at the expense of giving Him the worship he deserves. Or if they declare “this is what Christ looked like.” We do not know what He looked like.

But we can say “This is a depiction of The Sermon on the Mount” or “This is a depiction of what it might have looked like when Christ called Zacchaeus” without crossing the line into full-fledged idolatry. (I will say this: The vast, overwhelming majority of pictures/paintings/sculptures depicting the crucifixion deserve to be thrown in the fire for the fact that they do not come close to giving an accurate description of what it looked like. But that’s for another day).

Thus Moses said in Deuteronomy 4:23-28“23 Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you…25 When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil in the sight of the LORD your God to provoke Him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess; you will not prolong your days in it, but will be utterly destroyed…28 And there you will serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.” If a person makes for themselves “a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden”–that is, an image of something made for the purpose of worshipping the image–then God will indeed give that person over to that idolatry (see Romans 1:22-32). And in fact, by depicting the humanity of Christ, we rebuke the heresies of the Docetists, the Gnostics, and the Valentinians who all denied the humanity of Christ, refusing to believe that He actually had flesh and bone.

Sermon of the week: “Closet Calvinists – Why Arminians Pre-Suppose the Doctrines of Grace” by Phil Johnson.

Are Arminians really closet Calvinists? Find out in your sermon of the week is Closet Calvinists – Why Arminians Pre-Suppose the Doctrines of Grace by Phil Johnson.

HT: Desert Pastor

Sermon of the week: “Thou Shalt Not Covet” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Thou Shalt Not Covet by Phil Johnson. This is the next installment of Johnson’s series on the Ten Commandments that is being featured on DefCon every other week as your Sermon of the Week (on Thursdays).

Sermon of the week: “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness by Phil Johnson. This is the next installment of Johnson’s series on the Ten Commandments that is being featured on DefCon every other week as your Sermon of the Week (on Thursdays).

Sermon of the week: “Thou Shalt Not Steal” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Thou Shalt Not Steal by Phil Johnson. This is the next installment of Johnson’s series on the Ten Commandments that is being featured on DefCon every other week as your Sermon of the Week (on Thursdays).

Sermon of the week: “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery by Phil Johnson. This is the next installment of Johnson’s series on the Ten Commandments that is being featured on DefCon every other week as your Sermon of the Week (on Thursdays).

Sermon of the week: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Thou Shalt Not Kill by Phil Johnson. This is the next installment of Johnson’s series on the Ten Commandments that is being featured on DefCon every other week as your Sermon of the Week (on Thursdays).

Sermon of the week: “Honoring Authority” by Phil Johnson.

Your sermon of the week is Honoring Authority. This is part six of a fantastic series on The Ten Commandments by Phil Johnson. Look for the next installment in two weeks.

Movie Review: “The Search for the Real Mt. Sinai.”

mt-sinai-two-3d.jpg In this documentary two explorers take you to the real location of Mt. Sinai and they have photographic and video proof that this is where the Israelites camped, where Moses ascended the mountain, and where God gave him the Ten Commandments.

This is an amazing documentary that challenges the traditional theory of Mt. Sinai’s location. I highly recommend this video (I’ve watched it more than once). It is a must-see, and it will increase your faith in the authenticity of the Biblical account of Moses’ encounter with God.

Here’s the trailer:

Below is a video excerpt:

See also, the related video: The Mystery of the Ark of the Covenant.