From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law  -     By: Philip Ross
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From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law

Christian Focus Publications / 2010 / Paperback

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This book investigates the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. It highlights some of the implications of this division for the doctrines of sin and atonement, concluding that theologians were right to see it as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as ever-binding.

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Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 288
Vendor: Christian Focus Publications
Publication Date: 2010
ISBN: 1845506014
ISBN-13: 9781845506018
Availability: Usually ships in 24-48 hours.

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Publisher's Description

This book investigates the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. It highlights some of the implications of this division for the doctrines of sin and atonement, concluding that theologians were right to see it as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as ever-binding.

Author Bio

Philip S. Ross is a theological editor who studied in Wales. He worked extensively on the well-received Christian Heritage editions of The Marrow of Modern Divinity and subtitled five John Owen works – The Glory of Christ, The Holy Spirit, Communion with God, Assurance and The Priesthood of Christ. Philip lives near Loch Lomond in Scotland with his wife and three children.

Editorial Reviews

"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."
"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
"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."
"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."
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
"In recent times, little has weakened biblical theology more than the tendency to collapse all the rules and statutes of the Old Testament into one uniform corpus of law material. In this timely and extremely helpful study, Dr Philip Ross demonstrates not only that the division of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial categories arises out of a natural reading of the biblical text, but that its adoption in Patristic, Reformed and Puritan literature shows it to have been the orthodox position of the church. To lose this confessional distinctive is to drive an unbiblical wedge between the Testaments, and to eviscerate the gospel itself. Unless the moral law is still in force, how can we define sin? And unless we can define sin, what gospel can we preach? Dr Ross's work is an important corrective to much misunderstanding on the nature and place of God's law in the Bible, and a reliable guide both to the primary and secondary literature on the subject."
"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."
"This is one of the most important theological books to be published for several years. And it is a book which is desperately needed and which should be read by pastors and church leaders worldwide as a matter of urgency."
Elegantly written, this work is an impressive achievement in biblical studies combining systematic clarity with exegetical analysis.
In this remarkable work Dr. Philip Ross studies the threefold Division of the Law as traditionally held by the Reformed, Orthodox and Catholic Churches and establishes this framework to be scripturally based. Ross's study is a welcome contribution to this topic especially in the context of challenges to this formulation from several modern authors who reject it as non-biblical, challenges which this study effectively refutes. This study is to be commended not only for its scholarly rigor but also for its ecumenical relevance.

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  1. Kevin M. Fiske
    Joliet, IL
    Age: 25-34
    Gender: male
    5 Stars Out Of 5
    A Masterful Work on the Law's Classical Division
    June 23, 2011
    Kevin M. Fiske
    Joliet, IL
    Age: 25-34
    Gender: male
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    As with any person serving in a pastoral/teaching capacity within the local church, I am frequently asked questions by saints who long to gain a clearer understanding of God's Word, the gospel, and varied aspects of living the Christian life. Several months ago I was forwarded an email from a woman who recently had a discussion with a person regarding the nature of obedience to God's commands in the life of a follower of Christ. When discussing the question of the Christian's relationship to and obedience of the law, this person informed the woman that the law had no place in a believer's life. The law was something that only concerned the people of God under the old covenant, but now the Christian was completely free from the law in every respect. Is this really the case?

    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:

    CEREMONIAL LAW

    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."

    CIVIL LAW

    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.

    MORAL LAW

    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."

    BRIEF COMMENTS

    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.
  2. Life Long Reader
    Howard City, MI
    Age: 25-34
    Gender: male
    4 Stars Out Of 5
    Threefold Divison of the Law defended
    June 21, 2011
    Life Long Reader
    Howard City, MI
    Age: 25-34
    Gender: male
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 4
    For centuries Christians from various theological and denominational traditions have debated about the role of the Old Testament Law in the life of the believer today. While there are many secondary sources of contention, the root of the division among well meaning Christians is the significance of the 10 Commandments.

    There are basically two sides to the issue: those who believe that Christ, as the fulfillment of the Law, has done away with the Law and that we are now under the Law of Christ, and those who believe that the Law is broken into a threefold structure (civil, ceremonial and moral) and that while Christ has fulfilled the civil and ceremonial laws, He has upheld the moral laws (10 Commandments) such that they are still binding and applicable for us today.

    As the title indicates, Ross defends the later view in his new book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. Another way of looking at the threefold division is to see "one part of the Law as non-binding, another binding it its underlying principles, and another ever-bindng (p. 2)."

    At the front Ross is clear that he is taking the lead for his discussion on the threefold division of the Law from The Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, throughout the book Ross continually looks to history, namely the Reformed tradition, to marshall support for his defense of the threefold division of the Law.

    There are a number of things that stand out in Ross' work that summarize his defense of the threefold division of the Law.

    First, Ross is quick to point out that this position is undeniably a catholic doctrine. That is, this is a doctrine that cuts across denominational and theological lines and unites men from many places. "Throughout history, the churches most prominent theologians expounded maintained, and defended its teaching (p. 1)." While Ross does devote time to fairly let the voice of his opponents speak (p. 12-17), the bulk of chapter one is given to a sweeping history of ardent defenders of the threefold division of the Law (p. 19-32). Ross shows how this position on the Law can be said to be the ‘orthodox position' (p. 33) and defends the history of supporters for the position by stating:

    "Those who first adopted the division as a hermeneutical framework and those who enshrined it in confessions, along with church officers and scholars who sought to uphold it, did so because they believed it was biblical teaching (p. 35)."

    Second, and perhaps most convincing, is that Ross argues for an antecedent to the Decalogue as early as Genesis 1-2. It is this point that really makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the Law and thus that the Decalogue stands apart from the rest of the laws given in the OT. If the Ten Commandments preceded the formal giving of the Law at Sinai then this shows two possible subsequent realities: (1) that the possibly Decalogue existed as early as Genesis and therefore (2) that Christ was not abrogating its use and contemporary relevance for post resurrection believers. The question is then asked, "What would Moses think?"

    So what is the antecedent source of the Decalogue?

    It lies in its distinctive nature. Ross argues for a distinctive nature to the Decalogue such that is is separate from the rest of the Law when it comes to place and fulfillment. Ross walks through all Ten Commandments to show their antecedents before Sinai (p. 61-74). Ross points out that Adam & Eve transgressed again several of the Ten Commandments when they sinned and he also shows how the Decalogue would look in the pre-Fall world (p. 79). This pre-Fall existence of the Decalogue draws a contrast between it and the other laws.

    It is very likely that the Decalogue was known by people prior to its formal giving at Sinai. Further, "it is impossible to think of the Mosaic Laws outside the Decalogue in the same terms. The law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy only make sense in a postlapsarian creation (p. 80)." Ross' point is that the reality of the Decalogue before Sinai makes sense where as the rest of the laws would not. Ross concludes his argument for the distinctive nature of the Decalogue by pointing to the observation that it has no "distinct historical development (p. 80)." So what would Moses think? Ross believes that "if the Pentateuch represents what Moses thought, then the basic categories of the threefold division would not have left him in severe shock (p. 119)."

    Third, much of the book deals with the Biblical material in the NT in which Jesus, Paul and the other NT writers interact with the Law. Ross essentially believes that though there is never a stated threefold division of the Law anywhere in Scripture, all of the NT writers, including Jesus, treated the Law as if it existed and was understood. This understanding is the only way Ross believes one can properly understand how to interpret the NT discussion and treatment of the Law. Jesus and the NT writers treated the civil and ceremonial laws as if they were no longer in effect. In turn, they treated and even upheld the continuation of the Decalogue leaving no doubt that it was not done away with.

    Ross concludes his study with these well crafted words:

    "No single passage of Scripture clearly states the threefold division of the law. It cannot be demonstrated by simplistic appeal to a particular Scripture, only by a progressive reading of the Old and New Testaments as the coherent source of Christian theology. Theologians, churchmen, and believers who read Scripture in that way were justified in receiving the threefold division of the law as the ‘orthodox' position. They did not yield blind allegiance to an untested ecclesiastical dogma, but gave thoughtful acceptance to the threefold division of the law with its practical-theological implications. They embraced it as catholic doctrine because it is biblically and theologically valid. They were right to do so. And we are not ashamed to follow (p. 353)."

    Ross interacts throughout the book a lot with recent critics of the threefold position. Namely, Douglas Moo and D.A. Carson and his edited book From Sabbath to the Lord's Day. A common thread throughout some of the disagreement is that the threefold division is ‘too neat' (Meyer - 9, M00 - 12, Wenham - 15, Poythress - 16, and Carson - 17). I personally do not find this counter argument very persuasive. Are our contemporary formulations and expressions of the trinity and hypostatic union of Christ too neat to then say that they are unbiblical? Of course not.

    Readers will find From the Finger of God to be intellectually stretching. At times it is hard to wade through especially in the longer chapters. Much appeal is made to historical figures who similarly held the threefold position which may unnecessarily weaken the position in the minds of some. More exegesis of certain passages could be beneficial but that was not the single aim of the book thought it was in part. In this vein Ross does provide a helpful appendix of a more detailed exegesis of the verb "to fulfill" in Matt. 5:17-19 (p. 357-70).

    This is not a book on the subject for a beginner and may fly over the heads of too many laypeople. Overall, Ross makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the law and I welcome this contribution.
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