Rightly Dividing the Word of God

Theological categories and labels are helpful for students of Scripture as they study and learn more about the character, plans and purposes of God. Many serve as a short-hand for a list of doctrinal positions such as pre-millennialist, reformed, or Baptist. The problem is that these labels do not always perfectly describe one’s theological positions. One may align themselves with a particular denomination, for instance, but within one congregation different people will have different perspectives on different issues. Moreover, a number of my eschatological positions overlap between all three major models. Thus, although a number of categories, such as trinitarian, can be accurate, but when applied strictly and dogmatically, one can start to err in their study of the Word. Rather, one should do theology based on Biblical concepts, not man-made categories.

A place, I believe, theologians have erred when it comes to labelling concepts is with God’s Law. A common and popular way people describe the Law is with what is referred to as the tripartite division, namely that the commandments in the Law can be labelled as either moral, civil, or ceremonial. And these labels are certainly helpful when it comes to understanding what the general function and application of each of the commandments. The moral laws tell us how to live rightly and morally, which are essentially summed up in the Ten Commandments; civil laws describe how judges were to rule and execute justice by prescribing legal procedures etc…; and the ceremonial laws describe right worship in its prescription of sacrifices, purity laws, and ceremonies.

The division of the Law can be dated even as early as the second century when Barnabas divided between the ceremonial and the moral law, which was essentially the Ten Commandments. Later in the fifth century, Augustine divided between the moral and what he called the symbolic law, which contained essentially the ceremonial laws. But one of the earliest records of the tripartite division is in the works of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica in 1270. In 1536, John Calvin wrote in his Institutes (4.20.14), “We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law. These divisions are likewise detailed in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

A Biblical Precedent?

To support this division, some will point to passages such as Deuteronomy 6:1 which says, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the judgements—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it…” This triadic expression of the law, it is claimed, describes the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws respectively, thus claiming biblical grounds for the division. But does this actually work? Well, kind of.

The judgements, or mishpat, are about legal processes and decisions – ‘what are the judges to do when…?’. For example, when someone stole from someone, how much did they have to pay back? Or if someone was caught in adultery, what was the penalty? (e.g. Ex 22:1, Lev 20:10).

The statutes, or choq, is a more complex term. I serves the function of describing limits and boundaries, which sounds like holiness laws, but its applications are wider. Choq essentially means an action or task that is prescribed such as the making of bricks in Egypt (Ex 5:14), and the due of the Priests from the offerings (Lev 6:11 et al.) as well as instructing people what they are to do and not do, i.e. laws (E.g. Ex 18:20, Ps 94:20), which is a boundary between obedience and disobedience. For example, one could not light a fire on the sabbath, and not sleep with their neighbor’s wife.

And a commandment, or mitzvah, is an order that one needs to do or not do, and something that they need to be careful to follow. As it says in Leviticus, “If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments [mitzvah] about things not to be done, and does any one of them…” (Lev 4:2). And this sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments with their, Thou shalt not… introductions. But remember not all of the Ten Commandments were purely moral since they had ceremonial elements like idolatry and the Sabbath. Indeed, mitzvah applied to more than just ‘moral laws’. An example of this is when after Saul made the sacrifice before attacking the Philistines, which was a task forbidden to anyone except priests, Samuel said to Saul, “You have not kept the command [mitzvah] of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you” (1Sam 13:13).

Therefore, we can see that although one can loosely apply the tripartite division to these three terms in Scripture, their definition and usage goes beyond these categories. Rather, we should see these terms as descriptors of the purpose and function of the Law: to instruct behavior, to provide boundaries between righteousness and sin, and instruct and inform justice.

The main purpose of these categories, it appears, is that these categories are more about finding the boundaries and continuities of the Law into the modern day. This becomes clear when we consider the remainder of the quote from John Calvin above. He said: “…the well-known division… the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law… we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us” (Institutes 4.20.14). Thus, putting laws into categories is a way to justify saying ‘these laws don’t apply to me’, while wanting to affirm the goodness of the Law and not seem like an antinomian who contradicts Scripture by demonizing God’s Law. When one says, ‘We are free from the Law’, another may reply, ‘What about murder?’ They may come back with. “Oh, those moral laws still apply. It’s just the other laws that don’t apply because the church isn’t a nation and Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws.” And there are others who will say that only the ceremonial laws don’t apply because civil laws describe principles of God’s way to run governments and exercise judgement, even if they aren’t the nation of Israel.

Evaluating the Division

While these reasons to reject these two categories of the Law are worth exploring, it is beyond the goal of this article to respond to them. What I want to explore is whether it is valid to divide the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil and say these laws do and don’t apply? When we look at the laws themselves and consider what they say and how they pertain to the lives of God’s people, we see that strict categories just do not work.

Firstly, these categories are arbitrary as scripture does not use these terms or categories, nor does it  describe them in these ways. Although many theological terms are not used in scripture like Trinity or homoouisios, we can find their equivalents in scripture. But when it comes to the tripartite division, we don’t find ‘these are the laws pertaining only to sacrifices that are only for the Jews.’ As mentioned above, some people use the three terms of commandments, statutes and judgements to suggest there is a tripartite division, but as was demonstrated, these terms do not describe the popular division. Thus, the three categories and hermeneutical attempts to categorize different commandments in scripture when used strictly are being imposed on the text.

Secondly, all laws are moral as they describe the right behavior of God’s people. Even as God’s creatures, we have an obligation to obey God and thus disobedience becomes immoral. Moreover, since the Law is a revelation of God’s righteous and moral character, one’s obedience to them, regardless of whether that is from Exodus 20 or the opening chapters of Leviticus, reflects that character.

And thirdly, there are a number of laws that could fit into all three categories. Take idolatry for example. If one were to say, ‘the Ten Commandments are the moral law’ and idolatry is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, therefore it is a moral law. And indeed it is as idolatry is spiritual adultery, or unfaithfulness. It is also ceremonial because it pertains to worship. Indeed, one could even call worshiping the Lord with an image idolatry. And it is civil because it has national consequences, judges are to exercise judgement and order society around God’s Word and not the cult of Baal. Moreover, there are civil consequences and punishments for idolatry.

Trying to make them all of the commandments fit neatly into only one of three categories is, therefore, problematic.

A Better Approach?

I believe that if we are to divide the commandments into categories, we should use the two categories that the Bible actually uses: those that describe how we love God, and those that describe how one loves neighbor (Matt 22:37-39). We see this reflected in the two tables of the Ten Commandments; loving God in one to four, and loving neighbor in five to ten. Interestingly though, this division does not help us work out continuity or discontinuity as Jesus and the authors of the Apostolic Scripture affirms the continuity of both. Moreover, failing to obey the second table of the law and failing to love neighbor is also failing to love God (c.f. Matt 25:44-45, Acts 9:4). In fact, when it comes to questions of obedience, one cannot divide the law at all. As James explains, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Js 2:10).

The best way to work out one’s obligation to commandments in the Law is best resolved by looking at audience and application. While one may argue the law, or some laws, were given to the Jews only, the Law does not give those caveats. There is no, ‘for the Jews you are to… but as for the gentiles…’ In fact, often, the instruction is given that the law is to be applied to the stranger the same as it is the native born (e.g. Num 15:15-16), and we find Yahweh inviting Gentiles to observe what many categorize as ceremonial laws -His Sabbaths and sacrifice at His Temple – saying they should not see themselves as separate people (Isa 56:3-7). While some distinctions are made between Israelite and the nations, these are best understood as covenant boundaries, rather than ethnic ones since many Gentiles were called Israelites (see Forgotten Covenant p.284-287 for more detailed explanation).. But I believe universal application is most clear in the writings of Paul when we are told that the whole world will be judged by the Law (Rom 3:19).

Rather, we need to look at whether the commandment is given to priests, women, kings or husbands etc… Since I am not a priest, for example, I don’t need to worry about physical disabilities when I go to church. We also need to consider the commandment’s application. Many laws around sacrifices, for example, require a temple and a priesthood, and neither exist – therefore we cannot obey. Also, a number of purity laws are related to cleanliness as a requirement to enter the Tabernacle/Temple. And since there is no physical temple, I believe we need not worry about those laws, although some may believe they apply in principle.

Some laws need contextualizing. The instruction to build a guardrail around one’s roof (Deut 22:8) doesn’t really apply since the majority of people, at least in the West, don’t entertain on the roof. We should, however, build fences around our pools if we have one, and ensure people’s lives are safe on our property be that our house or place of business.


Although, as mentioned above, the three categories of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws help us to understand the general purpose of each commandment in the Law, they are not helpful as strict categories to work out what commandments apply to us or not. Instead, we should be exegeting Scripture with attention to its historical and grammatical context in order to rightly divide the Word of God if we are to know how we are to live as God’s covenant people.

Joshua Ensley
Joshua Ensley

Pronomian Author, Speaker, Teacher, Pastor