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From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law Paperback – November 20, 2010
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"A book of great relevance with an immensely important message for the contemporary church, From the Finger of God is to be welcomed with open arms. It is a fine example of careful, readable biblical, theological, and historical scholarship that leads to deeply satisfying conclusions." (Sinclair B. Ferguson ~ Associate Preacher, St. Peter's Free Church, Dundee)
"Philip Ross has done the Christian church a marvelous service by on the one hand affirming the theological roots concerning the Reformation blessing concerning the three-fold use of the Law in the Covenant of Grace and at the same time, unfolding for the reader of this book implications and vistas for the effective use of God's Law in the Gospel ministry. Philip has, on the one hand, cleared away the underbrush and overgrowth which has grown up in today's efforts of Biblical scholarship which at times has sometimes superficial and other times speculative for the purpose of novelty. Yet simultaneously Philip has pressed forward with insightful highlights as to the New Testament role of the Law of God as it is fulfilled in Christ pressed upon the hearts of the lost thereby sending them to Christ and used in the Hands of the Holy Spirit to direct believers as they follow Christ in the pursuit of joyful holiness." (Harry L. Reeder ~ Pastor of Preaching & Leadership, Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama)
"Philip Ross has dealt with issues lying near the heart of the Christian life (and indeed, of the healthy functioning of any human society) in this careful, fair, and, at times, humorous (or at least, entertaining and attention-holding) study of the continuing validity of God's law... I will be frequently referring to his volume in my classes, and warmly commend it (Douglas F. Kelly ~ Richard Jordan Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina)
"The question dealt with in this book is the relationship between the laws and requirements of the Old Testament and those of the New. Are these still obligatory on the New Testament Church? In dealing with this question the author suggests a threefold classification, and provides a very full analysis of the arguments in favour of that classification from many authors down through the centuries, as well as of those who write against that classification. I commend it to all who wish to live by the Scriptures." (Lord Mackay of Clashfern ~ Retired Lord Chancellor & Patron of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship)
"This book is a valuable contribution to discussion about the question of the nature of the unity of biblical law in the context of the diversity of its threefold historical function. It demonstrates how the finality of the person and work of Christ is the crux of the matter and how the atonement has law as its background. A readable presentation of the biblical data relevant to the subject that leaves no stone unturned." (Paul Wells ~ Adjunct dean of the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France)
Like me, you may never have thought that the division of the Law into the categories of civil, ceremonial and moral needed prolonged enquiry. When you read this book you will be glad that Dr. Ross thought otherwise. The book would be worthwhile if only for the discussion of the Decalogue or of the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New , but there is something for the Bible lover on every page, as well as a demanding but readable opening up of a huge area of biblical enquiry, that takes us with profit from Genesis through to the Lord Jesus and his apostles. A real and rewarding mind-opener (Alec Motyer ~ (1924-2016) Well known Bible expositor and commentary writer)
"It is a given for scholars in a variety of allied disciplines (e.g., biblical studies, systematic theology, Christian ethics) that the ancient Christian distinction between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws is without foundation. Philip Ross dissents from the consensus and he does so thoughtfully, lucidly, and wittily. Those who are new to the question and those are willing to reconsider their views will find in Ross an able guide through the labyrinth." (R. Scott Clark ~ Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary, Escondido, California)
"A book of great relevance with an immensely important message for the contemporary church, From the Finger of God is to be welcomed with open arms. It is a fine example of careful, readable biblical, theological, and historical scholarship that leads to deeply satisfying conclusions." ~ Sinclair B. Ferguson (Associate Preacher, St Peter's Free Church, Dundee, Scotland)
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The strengths of the book are many. Incidental to the main issue of the book, the idea that Biblical law falls into three basic categories, moral, civil and ceremonial, the author explores a large number of related issues where I personally have learned much. I might have learned even more on these things if I had not been preoccupied with my one basic negative reaction to the book. Let me explain.
The author sees many Christian groups turning their backs on what he takes to be a consistent acceptance of the threefold division of the law through most of church history. His view is based on careful research that he has done. He brings a good deal of evidence from history to support it. For example, while this threefold division is often traced to Aquinas he sees evidence of its existence for a thousand years before him. In his view, then, one must accept it unless there is strong evidence to show it is false. And if you read the book you will be impressed with what he has turned up to support it. And in fact I myself think that Biblical law generally can be seen this way.
My problem is this: it seems to me that putting the Sabbath into the moral category is false. Rightly or wrongly, my most recent book, The Christian and the Sabbath, presents my case against that identification. Yet I also believe that almost all the opposition to his position arises from those who think this identification is a mistake. Had he written a book defending this identification with compelling arguments he might well have carried the day.
My first impression in picking up the book was that he had not given the bearing of Sabbath on the larger question much thought. I looked in his index and found only 5 references to Sabbath. The Table of Contents seems to contain not even one. Nevertheless the book itself shows that I was badly mistaken. I carefully counted at least 168 uses of the word ¡§Sabbath¡¨ in its pages. Even eliminating those that cited a book or an article with the word ¡§Sabbath¡¨ in its title, 98 instances remained. That dispelled my mistaken conclusion.
It also raised a question. Given the amount of time he has thought about Sabbath, why didn¡¦t he write a book defending the perpetuity of the Sabbath? If he had successfully shown that, it would have likely removed most objections to the 3-fold categories. And removing those objections seems to be exactly what this book aims to do.
I can¡¦t read any man¡¦s mind. But if the author thinks of his book basically as a defense of the Sabbath there is good reason to disagree. He does devote some of Chapter 7, pages 273-280 , to a discussion of Colossians 2:15-17. There he offers a suggestion that many others have offered about ¡§Sabbaths¡¨ in that passage. Here it is:
It is therefore most likely that just as the reference to food and drink designated an activity and served as shorthand for all the dietary laws, so feasts, new moons, and sabbaths serves as shorthand for the offerings and rituals common to those occasions. Taken together, all these things were the shadow of which Christ is the substance (s×ma).
Is this suggestion possible? Certainly. But it needs to be accompanied by some facts that show that the Sabbath law remains. And that is what is missing, not only in this book, but in all defenses of a continuing Sabbath. That does not mean that the author is unaware of that need. Not at all! But he repeatedly tries to fill the need with inconclusive assertions. Of course, you must not take my word for this! But let me give you a few of many examples:
First, he more than once argues from the idea that the Decalogue was ¡§self-understood.¡¨ He writes, for example, ¡§of a Scripture-wide presupposition that the content of the Ten Words was ¡¥self-understood¡¦ from the beginning¡¨ (p. 133). In the immediate context he offers no definition for this, but he has discussed it earlier:
In a lecture delivered before the Munich Faculty of Law, David Daube argued that some things in legal history are ¡§self-understood.¡¨ Something might be ¡§so much taken for granted that you do not bother to reflect on it or ever refer to it....actual rules of law which, because of their absolute familiarity are passed over in silence when others are set forth....rules which are not, when it might be expected, elevated, or demoted from custom to ius scriptum [written law]. This is a feature of law codes from Mishpatim to the German civil code, which declared certain things selbstverstaendlich (obvious). When an institution is embedded in society it is more likely ¡§to be accepted without ado and remain unformulated¡¨ (p. 52).
One obvious objection in seeing the Sabbath as self-understood is that it is spelled out repeatedly in the OT. But let¡¦s leave that objection aside. Ross says of Calum Carmichael who also discusses self-understood law that it is not clear whether he would include the Sabbath in that category or not. Then Ross adds, ¡§The confessionists leave no such uncertainties¡¨ (p. 53). Who are the ¡§confessionists?¡¨ Those men who wrote confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith. Does Ross agree with them? Indeed he does! ¡§The view that the Decalogue is ever-binding . . .is also written on the stony hearts of those in Romans who ¡¥by nature¡¦ do what the law requires.¡¨ How can Ross know this? ¡§. . . because he [Paul] too viewed the Ten Commandments as the ageless standard by which all will be judged.¡¨ He then states ¡§This includes the fourth commandment,¡¨ and adds:
These conclusions suggest a basic continuity with the categories and ideas identified in the Old Testament and Gospels, demonstrating that the categories of the threefold division along with the practical-ideological conclusions of The Westminster Confession cannot be dismissed as a convenient imposition on the New Testament texts (pp. 349-350).
This may be true or it may be false, but it tells us nothing about whether or not the Sabbath is a moral law. It may simply fall in the ceremonial category. I do not oppose his categories, but I think that he and many others put it in the ¡§moral¡¨ category without making it clear how scripture supports it.
Consider also the following quotations:
First, ¡§The Ten Words express morals that the Pentateuch indicates were ¡¥self-understood¡¦ from the beginning¡¨ (p. 105). Perhaps so, but there is no indication ¡§from the beginning¡¨ that such morals included the Sabbath. And the same truth applies to Romans 1-2. Again, nothing is said there of the Sabbath-keeping. The NT also contains other lists of sins that might be thought of as self-understood or obvious to all men. None of those include neglecting the Sabbath.
Second,¡§. . . these words came from the finger of God¡¨ (p. 105). Yes, but doesn¡¦t that include the 7th day? If coming from the finger of God is conclusive, how could anyone change the day at any time?
Third, ¡§They were the basis upon which he would dwell among his people and the basis upon which Israel would maintain their relationship with the LORD and the land. They also revealed why the other nations were expelled¡¨ (p. 105). But is that expulsion ever connected with failure of those nations to keep a Sabbath? No, it is not.
What conclusion must we draw? Certainly Ross is an excellent scholar. There cannot be any doubt about that. But all history has against it that Sabbath-keeping is planted in the heart of men in the same way as lying, stealing or murdering. So much is that the case that Reformed theology, with which I identify myself, has had constant friction over the subject as I have tried to show in my latest book. Ross himself must recognize this, though I do not remember him mentioning it. Let me illustrate it with two facts.
First, I cite my own experience. Many of my close friends over the years have accepted me as a believer in Christ though I oppose a mandatory Sabbath. Why do they do this? I hope some small part of the reason is that I act as a Christian acts. But I do not think that is the main thing. Conflict over Sabbath has been so much a part of Reformed history that long ago the two sides learned to live with one another as fellow Christians. And I am the beneficiary of that tradition.
Second, I cite the experience of a number of Presbyterian pastors who are allowed to claim an exception to the Sabbath when they are ordained. One close friend of mine is in that category. Do you think that if he had claimed an exception against any of the other nine commandments he would have been ordained? Thankfully, I think we all know the answer.
When the perpetuity of the Moral Law is challenged, it impacts a whole host of other areas of Christian doctrine. The anti-Sabbatarianism and antinomianian tendencies of today very often have their foundation in a mishandling of the Law's proper division. Ross's work is massively important in addressing this Christian issue for the church, and would be on my short list of books for any Christian to read, especially those who have been exposed mainly to the teachings of modern evangelicalism and the New Calvinism, versus a more robust, traditional, confessional, and I believe accurate view of God's Law.
To be sure, there are a plethora of questions that arise when we consider the place of the law within a New Covenant context. What is the place of the law in the life of the Christian? Is the Christian bound by the Mosaic law? Was the law believed to contain within itself any categories of distinction, and does Scripture verify those distinctions? If so, what about those laws that regulated matters of civil or ceremonial practice before the New Covenant; is the Christian to be concerned with them in any way? Hasn't Christ fulfilled the law so as to allow the believer to be unconcerned with matters of old covenant practice? These questions are profoundly important in the life of the Christian, and thus they must be responsibly researched and carefully considered.
Philip S. Ross, in his masterful work, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Christian Focus, 2010), aims to provide the Christian with comprehensive answers to the aforementioned questions. In terms of a sweeping overview, From the Finger of God is an investigatory monograph on the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial distinctions. Interacting with a tremendous amount of historic and contemporary biblical scholarship, Ross engages both critique and consensus as to classical division of the law. Additionally, Ross cites some of the most pertinent implications of this division on one's understanding of sin and Christ's atoning work, ultimately concluding that theologians have been correct to see the classical distinction as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as "ever-binding."
At the outset of the work, Ross examines and defends the catholicity of the classical distinction of the law noting, "Throughout history, the church's most prominent theologians expounded, maintained, and defended its teaching." This is important because out of this distinction arises the answer to the question, "Is the Christian still bound by the Mosaic Law?" In light of the distinction, the answer is both `Yes and No.' Ross explains that "One part of the law is non-binding, another binding in its underlying principles, and another ever-binding." Ross concludes the following:
These laws are those that pertained to the Israelite sacrificial system and ceremonial cleanliness. Though there are moral duties related to these laws, "they were typical of Christ's sacrifice and since he has fulfilled all that they typified, they are abrogated and non-binding upon all those who follow Christ."
These laws are those pertaining to everyday civil matters within the Israelite community. These laws then are "binding in their underlying principles." Thus, it is the heart of the civil laws that are to bind the Christian in their community life.
Ross notes, "The only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue. Those Ten Commandments reveal the demands of God upon all people, not just those in ancient Israel. From the beginning they were the basis upon which God judged all mankind." Christ's incarnation did not annul the binding nature of the Decalogue upon all people, everywhere.
Ross initiates his theological engagement by referring to The Westminster Confession of Faith as the exemplar for the division because "it represents one of the most recent and expansive confessional restatements of the threefold division," it is largely representative of the theology that molded early Reformed Protestantism, and because it remains the confessional standard for many Reformed denominations throughout the world. Ross goes on to provide the reader with an overall contextual background for the study of the division which addresses further the theological, methodological, and historical environment for the study.
In chapter 2, "What Would Moses Think?", Ross notes that "Theologians and churchmen in centuries past held that Scripture was the source of the threefold division." Engaging chiefly the critiques that the laws of Moses are "one indivisible whole," or Christopher Wright's more elaborate position of a fivefold distinction, Ross aptly demonstrates from Scripture that both of the aforesaid critiques are unsupported by the Penteteuch. Rather it is the Decalogue's "self-understood, divinely-uttered, lapidary [stone-engraved], apodictic [indisputable], and constitutional status [that] marks it out as a distinctive collection of laws that in the Pentateuch `for ever bind all.'"
After a brief chapter examining the place of the law within Israel's juridical process, Ross moves forward to Jesus' relationship to the law. Perhaps the most engaging section of the book (chapters 4 &5), Ross demonstrates that the Gospel set forth a Christ who lives in conformity to the Mosaic laws. He effectively engages anti-Sabbatarians concluding, "Sabbath-keeping is not a Puritan invention, but a catholic tradition." As well Ross makes mention, here and after, of Christ's subjected position to the law and his active obedience as the source of the righteousness imputed to the believer.
My favorite chapter, chapter 5, deals with the role of the law within the teaching and preaching ministry of Christ. This chapter, in particular, provides a great deal of helpful content and study for pastoral preaching. Straightforward teaching on how Christ fulfills the law and prophets in his person, fulfills the four major new covenant promises [law written on hearts, God's presence, knowledge of God, and forgiveness of sins], and how Christ preaches a consistent ethic with old covenant law in his Sermon on the Mount characterizes Ross' writing in this section.
Before concluding, Ross examines the place of the law in the book of Acts and in the Apostolic epistles. Immediately after, Ross includes an incredibly concise conclusion summarizing the whole of the book. Concluding ultimately that while no specific Scripture explicitly states a threefold division of the law, the whole of Scripture clearly testifies to its reality. Historically then, theologians and churchman alike were completely justified in putting the division forward as the orthodox position. All in all, "The threefold division of the law was a practical-theological framework that briefly expounded this whole duty of man in the Christian era and affirmed the standard by which God would judge every deed good or evil."
Overall, Ross' work could easily be heralded as the tour de force on the topic of the threefold division of the law and its place in the life of the believer in Christ. As a caution to the person looking for a treatment of the topic in layman's terms, From the Finger of God is packed full of [exemplary, thorough, and helpful] biblical scholarship. While not a negative criticism, it may be quite overwhelming to any person who is just beginning a study of the topic. However, for any pastor or scholar, it is a work that deserves a thorough reading and that reading will be undoubtedly a rewarding exercise.
From the Finger of God is a book I enthusiastically recommend! It will surely deepen one's appreciation for the revealed majesty of God in the law, the glorious active obedience of Christ in fulfilling it, and evoke a doxological response in the person who has helplessly received the imputed righteousness of Christ upon believing the good news of the gospel! May we, in light of Christ's finished work and the full acceptance the believer has found therein, joyfully submit to God and exclaim with the psalmist, "Your law is my delight" (Ps. 119:77).
*As a part of the Christian Focus Blog Tour, the publisher, at no charge, for the purpose of review, provided a copy of this book. I was under no obligation to write a favorable review.
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