Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Short Lesson on the Mosaic Law


In my mind there are three big theological debates.

  1. The Great Theological Debate is over the doctrine of Justification. For the first millennium the Catholic Church pretty much got it right. Then they started down the path of a complicated penitential system which ultimately, in the view of the reformers, became the tail wagging the dog, and so a half a millennium later we split over the issue.
  2. The Great “way too much energy has been spent here” debate is over the end times. I’m not saying eschatology is not important—I’m saying that it is not and should not be the line-in-the-sand issue many people take it to be.
  3. The third debate is over the law. What Old Testament laws are still in effect? The answer varies from none, not even the 10 Commandments to all of them. This is the greatest debate over the practical application of our salvation. This is tough.
There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ, as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ. –Jonathan Edwards

Today we’ll try to put the tiniest scratch on the surface of the debate over the Law.

Is God’s Law Absolute?

 3 “‘If the anointed priest sins… he must bring to the LORD a young bull … as a sin offering for the sin he has committed. 4 He is to present the bull at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the LORD. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it there before the LORD. (Lev 4:3-4).

So here (and elsewhere) in the OT God commanded: If the people/priests sin, there must be an animal sacrificed.

Today sacrificing an animal to deal with sin would be an abomination.
  • What was moral has become immoral.
  • What was right is now wrong.

In this one case, at least, the law has surely changed—setting the precedent that laws do change. The question of law-changing will not be of the trivial yes/no end-of-the-story variety but: which laws change?

God’s Law is evidently not absolute in the sense that it never changes. Because it certainly does change. It is absolute in the sense that there is no moral relativism: If at this time and in these circumstances it is a sin for me to do X, then it is a sin for anyone in the same time and circumstances to do X.

More from Leviticus

13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death;  (Lev 20:13)

What can we say about this law?

       It is a commandment. It appears intended to stand for some duration (how long?).  God is not making an exception--it is not situational ethics. God is not saying: Do not summarily execute practicing homosexuals unless they are flamboyant or corner the market on all the nice city apartments.

       Furthermore the commandment appears to be, arguably, moral in nature as opposed to civil or ceremonial. A plain reading of Lev 20:13 is: Homosexual activity is immoral to the point of being an abomination. Kill them

What do suppose the most difficult criticism addressed to us from atheists is, concerning Lev. 20:13? I would say it is this, from a comment on an atheist blog:

If you really want to see the most honest adaptation of what the bible and Christianity really stands for, go to [Fred] Phelps

The criticism here is not the common criticism that we are homophobic. It is more subtle.  The criticism is that we don’t call for their execution. The criticism is that we are all “cafeteria Christians,” picking à la carte the verses we like while ignoring the ones that are inconvenient. We are being told: if you actually followed your bible, you'd be even more hideous than you are now.

How do we answer such a critics? If we believe the bible is the word of god why don’t we follow Lev. 20:13? 

To understand the different views on the law it is necessary to set in place a framework. That framework depends on your systematic theology.

Three Systematic Theologies

We quickly introduce three systematic theologies—the first two (Dispensationalism and Covenant) are well known and prosperous. The third, (New Covenant), is a fledging movement gaining a head of steam, mostly among Reformed Baptists.

Now you may say: “not me, I’m none of those, and I detest labels.” To which I say “phooey.” Unless you are totally self-taught in a vacuum you have been influenced by teachers who were schooled either in either dispensational or covenant theology.


The essence of Dispensationalism, is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalists' consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well. -- Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today

Three points unique to Dispensationalism
  1. A clear and utter distinction between Israel and the Church
  2. A commitment to an as-literal-as-possible hermeneutic
  3. A complex end-times view including the Rapture and an earthly millennial kingdom where Christ rules and God’s attention returns to the Jews.

Covenant Theology

From the Westminster Confession:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam… upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ…

…There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (WCF Chapter 7)

Paraphrased: There is one (and only one) overarching covenant of grace in place from the time of the fall. This same covenant is manifested differently at different periods in redemptive history.

New Covenant Theology

NCT Views the OT and NT periods as “type v. realized” or “old v. new and better.” That is, old laws (Mosaic) v. new and better (Sermon on the Mount); old priesthood (Aaronic) v. new and better priesthood (Jesus’) and the old covenant v. the new and better covenant. In some sense it is intermediate between Dispensational and Covenant theology.


All views should be regarded as Christian. All views arrive at the same place: resurrected saints of all ages living in a new heavens and a new earth.

Continuity in the three frameworks

The three theologies differ on how much continuity they ascribe to redemptive history.  This turns out to be important.

Classic Dispensationalism emphasizes change (discontinuity) with its (typically) seven distinct dispensations:
1.  Innocence—Pre-fallen Man
2.  Conscience—From the fall to the flood
3.  Government—From the flood until the Abrahamic Covenant
4.  Promise—From Abraham until Moses
5.  Law—From the institution of Mosaic Law until Calvary
6.  Grace—From the cross until the Millennial Kingdom (we are here!)
7. Millennial Kingdom1000 year reign of Christ

Covenant Theology is the most continuous in that it views the old and new covenants merely as different administrations of a single covenant of grace. Continuity is stressed by Covenant Theologians.

Thus the spectrum is bounded by the highly discontinuous Dispensationalism and the highly continuous Covenant Theology.

New Covenant Theology takes an intermediate position, viewing Christ’s ministry, culminating with the resurrection, as a single large discontinuity between the old and new.

Roughly (crudely) speaking we can view this graphically:

What Laws are still in effect?

Verse wars are inconclusive. For every

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  (Math 5:17)

There is a

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, (Eph. 2:14-15).

or a

12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Heb. 7:12)

Hmm. If Matt 5:17 does not mean that the laws are not void, what does it mean?

The Law and/or the Prophets is what Jesus would have called the Old Testament. Notice that including “prophets” and using “fulfill”, the same Greek word used throughout the NT to indicate fulfilled prophecy, and not the word used to indicate obeying laws or commandments) does not quite fit with the viewpoint that this passage means:

Do not think I have come to abolish the laws. I have come to perfectly obey them.

But it does fit with the interpretation:

Do think I have come to set aside the Old Testament. I have come to fulfill its prophecies.

So this viewpoint is that Jesus is emphasizing that he is not some unforeseen God, but exactly the Messiah predicted by the OT. He has come to fulfill the prophecy.

But I say unto you

The heart of the debate comes in The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus teaches of tension between his teaching and either a) an improper understanding of the Mosaic law or b) the actual Mosaic law. Here we read:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you..

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery..

We need to look at how the three theologies deal with this tension.

Dispensational View
Consistent with its approach, Dispensationalism views the Mosaic Law as applying to biblical Israel, while the Sermon on the Mount is the new rule of life for the millennial kingdom, and Paul’s teaching is the rule of life for the church. (They do not deny that the Sermon on the Mount is profitable for the church).

There are then differences of opinion as to whether Paul teaches that the Ten Commandments are still binding, or whether they have be abrogated. But that is a question and debate regarding what is Paul teaching; there is agreement that his teaching (whatever it might be) and not Jesus’ is what is binding for the church.

Covenant View
Here Covenant Theology struggles a bit to maintain its commitment to continuity. Its solution is to break the law into three types:
  1. ceremonial (what the priests did)
  2. civil (crimes and punishment in a theocracy) and
  3. moral (the Ten Commandments)
All Covenant Theologians assert that the ceremonial laws were nullified. All Covenant theologians agree that the moral laws are still in effect. However there is disagreement on the issue of the civil laws. Mainstream Covenant Theologians contend that these laws are also nullified. But another group argues that they are not—that only the ceremonial laws are out. This group, known as theonomists (or reconstructionists) advocates the establishment of a Christian theocracy that institutes the civil laws including the death penalty.

Because the moral law continues, Covenant Theology views the Sermon on the Mount as a clarification of the Ten Commandments and/or a correction of pharisaical distortions.

There are two major problems with the Covenant view:
  1. The bible does not speak of three types of laws.
  2. It doesn’t appear that Jesus is correcting the Pharisees. For one thing, he quotes the 10 Commandments exactly: You have heard it said you shall not comment adultery. This is exactly what is written on the stones. Where is the bad teaching that he is correcting? In Matt. 23 Jesus uses the construct “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees” seven times.  He is not shy about calling them out. If he is correcting the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount, where is the “woe to you..” that we might expect?

Recognizing the lack of evidence that Jesus is correcting pharisaical distortions, some Covenant theologians argue that v21, You have heard that it was said to those of old,  should actually be translated You have heard that it was said by those of old. The common translation (to) seems to refer to Moses’ teaching the ancient Israelites—which seems to pit Jesus’ teaching against Moses’, while the latter, less accepted translation (by) allows for the interpretation that men of old (but not Moses) had already been distorting the commandments. It is hard not to imagine this as a clumsy way to prop up a viewpoint.

New Covenant View
In stark contrast to both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, NC views all Old Testament law, including the Ten Commandments, to be nullified. The replacement is the law given by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount with details provided in the Pauline corpus. This is consistent with the New Covenant prescription of Old, the New and Better:

There is an old covenant,
There is a new and better covenant,
administered by an older priesthood (Aaronic),
administered by a new and better priesthood (Jesus),
In an old temple,
In a new an better temple (Jesus),
with old laws (Mosaic)
with new and better laws (The Sermon on the Mount)

The New Covenant View has the feature that it is consistent with the view that the OT uses types (foreshadowings) to point to the reality more fully revealed in the NT. It also has the advantage that is language, in every case, is in the text, where things “three types of law” and “one overarching covenant” must be inferred.

Here is the same story graphically:


Covenant Theology:

New Covenant:

Back to Leviticus

13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death;  (Lev 20:13)

So, how do you answer our critics?

Dispensational answer:  It varies. The typical response is that it that the law is for a bygone dispensation. The Sermon on the Mount is the new Jewish law for the millennium. Paul gives the law for the church, and that law does not call for the death penalty. So no, we should not  execute homosexuals.

Covenant Answer: This is a civil law. So either a) it is still in effect and should be enforced (theonomic viewpoint) or b) the civil laws along with the ceremonial laws are nullified. But in any case the 10 commandments are still binding.

New Covenant Answer: The Old Testament Law, it its entirety, has been replaced by a new and better law, from Christ, the perfect law giver. This is not an insult to Moses any more than Christ’s priesthood is an insult to Aaron or the New Covenant is an insult to the Old. The Sermon on the Mount does not reinstitute the death penalty for various sins—so no, we should not execute homosexuals. Jesus himself encountered people whose crimes were capital offenses under the Mosaic law—including those in adultery and blasphemers—and he never called for a death penalty.

In my opinion, the New Covenant view on the law is the most consistent with scripture.


  1. I think I hold a de-facto New Covenant position, but I'd want to go a bit further than what your post does.

    While the legal obligations of the Law are completed in Christ (at least to the Gentiles), the Law educates us on what pleases God. In Acts 15 the apostles refrain from making Gentile converts keep the Mosaic Law, but promptly give them moral instruction. The NT writers freely take OT Law and using it to exhort behaviour from NT Christians. So it's not as if the OT is *morally* defunct, even if it is legally completed.

    I think there are two clear and critical transitions that take place from OT to NT:

    (1) earthly kingdom to heavenly kingdom (theocracy -> alien in your diagram above), which immediately reshapes the entire nature of the Law.

    (2) works leading to justification, vs justification leading to works.

    Thus, the relation to Law goes from "what does this require me to do?" to "how does this guide me in holy living?". Or from direct to indirect. The 10 commandments are still an excellent summary of holiness, which is reason enough to follow them.

    Now, it may well be that, if we find ourselves as civil authorities, some of the OT laws would make very appropriate civil laws, even for non-Christians. But their mere presence in the Law doesn't necessarily imply a matching civil implementation.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for your comment. It was the first on my new blog. And, more importantly, it was thought provoking.