The Old Testament Ceremonial, Civil and Moral Law

I was recently asked a question about the Old Testament law and the distinction made between the ceremonial, civil and moral law made in Article VII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. The Article is entitled On the Old Testament. For our study of the Old Testament I am sure the 16th century Reformers were right to make these distinctions. Article VII says:

"Although the Law given from God by Moses as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral."

Natural Law

We need to begin with the idea of “natural” law. This comes from taking seriously what Paul said in Romans 2.14-15:

“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

Although human consciences may be seared, even among non-believers there is some awareness of God’s moral law. It is a matter of fact that when the Holocaust was discovered, there was a world-wide awareness of its actually being evil. This conviction was not just a matter of individual opinion.

The natural (or moral) law that comes by nature, or as the theologians say, through “general revelation”, is made clearer through "the Commandments which are called moral" (Article VII). These come through God’s “special revelation” in the Bible. And as believers also need this moral law as clear as possible, in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the Ten Commandments, that provide a summary of this moral law, are to be read at every service of Holy Communion.

But how are you to interpret all this Old Testament law – the ceremonial, civil and moral law? That is where you first need to take note of Article XX of the Thirty-nine Articles and its statement that

“… it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written; neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another.”

You have to interpret the Bible as a whole.

The Ceremonial and Civil law

Before much of the New Testament was written and certainly before it became a canonical authority, it was evident to the early believers that the redemptive work of Christ meant the old sacrificial system of

“the law … as touching ceremonies do not bind Christian men” (Article VII).

This is clear from the Acts of the Apostles. Some already were probably treating the Temple with reserve. But Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was decisive and final, fulfilling all that went before. This instinct was then confirmed by the letter to the Hebrews; and that soon became canonical.

It was also clear from the teaching of Christ that

“the Civil precepts thereof [of the Mosaic Law]” ought not “of necessity to be received in any commonwealth [or State]” (Article VII).

That is because the Old Testament has to be read in its historical context. It is, writes one biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce,

“… anachronistic to judge Joshua or David by the standards of the Sermon on the Mount, or to think of Israel in the wilderness as a sort of Keswick Convention on the march.”

This is relevant to small-scale problems like the prohibition of usury (lending at interest) to a fellow believer. It is also relevant to large-scale “moral problems” like the institution of the holy war or the “ban” (the hērem), seen, for example, in the total destruction of Jericho.

At one stage of the economy, when in a pastoral economy, that prohibition regarding usury was a protection to the borrower. However, in an urban economy when someone would be only too glad to borrow at reasonable interest to start a business, that prohibition would have been a hardship.

The “ban”, however, is more of a problem; and it is easy to be insensitive to the utter horror of what went on in attempting a theological justification. But equally the Old Testament warns, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker” (Is 45.9). The problem of the “ban” is the problem of all suffering (and needs a book to discuss it). But two things can be borne in mind.

One, the New Testament problem (at least it seems a problem to Paul) is “why is there not more suffering, since God is a just God?” The sin of Eden leading to such terrible crime and cruelty throughout history and the world has not resulted in the ending of the entire human project as it nearly did in the days of Noah. But why not? It is due, Paul argues, to the sovereign mercy of God and his judicial act at Calvary which was for present, future and past sins (Rom 3.25). And, two, biblical revelation is progressive and cumulative. The divine character is clearly expressed in Exodus 34.6-7:

the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.

Our God, therefore, is “abounding in love”. So the Old Testament moves away and on from the “ban”. Jesus, in the New Testament, forbids his disciples calling down fire from heaven on their enemies as Elijah did (Luke 9.54). In the Garden of Gethsemane he made it clear that he would never be taking up arms. He confidently asked the question, “Am I leading a rebellion?” knowing that all would answer was “No!” (Mat 26.55).

It is clear from Jesus’ teaching, therefore, that “the Civil precepts” of the Old Testament law should not “of necessity … be received in any commonwealth”. So there is no need in Jesus’ time, or now, for any “holy war”. The extreme seriousness of the sins of the Canaanites that included child sacrifice was a lesson that only needed to be taught over a relatively short period of Israel’s history (Deut 9.4-5). And as there was no need for the “ban” in Jesus’ time, neither was there a need in urban settings for a prohibition of usury; indeed, Jesus seems to encourage investing money to earn interest (Matt 25.27).

The Moral Law

But not all is relative to the social context. Article VII says:

“yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral."

“The Commandments which are called Moral” which a “Christian man [and woman]” still have to obey are the Ten Commandments along with their exposition elsewhere in the Law and by the Prophets and in the other writings.

But these commandments must be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ teaching which made the spirit of the law trump the letter of the law. Jesus was especially concerned for God’s intention behind the law. In some cases it meant being stricter than current practice, in others more lax. So as marriage and the Sabbath day were instituted for the benefit of men and women, they are both best observed when that original intention of God is promoted.

Jesus, therefore, saw that Moses’ concession on divorce and remarriage was for the “hardness of heart” of men and women. The Creator’s intention was the higher, but stricter, way of lifelong marriage (Gen.1.27; 2.24; Mk 10.2-9).

On the other hand, a very strict observance of the Sabbath, as some were insisting, should be modified in the light of urgent needs as happened to the law on “the Bread of the Presence” in David’s time when his men were hungry (Lev 24.9; 1 Sam 21.1-6; Mk 2.23-28).

But the principle of the moral law remained absolute. This is seen in the case in a Johannine recording of an incident where a woman had been caught in adultery. The Old Testament’s “commandment called moral” was upheld, but not the capital punishment of the Old Testament’s “Civil precept”. Jesus simply said, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8.11).


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