Does Ritual Law Exist? – Part 1
by Paul Blake
Origins of Ritual Law
When discussing Scriptural ethics – law, sin, obedience, etc. – the conversation usually includes the categorization of laws. The most frequently used categories are ritual law, moral law, ceremonial law, judicial law, and civil law. These categories have been widespread for centuries, but they may not have existed during the first century. It seems that “the ritual-moral distinction became prominent in Christian works from the middle of the second century.”(1) Origen (184-253) followed this paradigm: “Origen also made a distinction between two parts of the law — the ceremonial and the moral. The first part came to an end in Christ, but the second was retained and amplified by Christ.”(2)
Due to the popularity of these categories, they should be addressed here from a historical perspective:
The Westminster Confession of Faith and classic Reformed thought have always distinguished between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws of the Old Testament. The moral law, it is believed, is embodied in the Ten Commandments. These are believed to be binding on all people today. The laws given to Israel that concerned worship, service, and moral duties are called the ceremonial laws. With the coming of Christ these were abrogated, according to traditional mainstream Reformed thinking.(3)
If our own discussions have followed these categories, then we should consider whether our studies should have followed these categories.
The famous Swiss theologian Markus Barth questioned these categories in 1974 when he wrote, “The distinction between moral and ceremonial laws cannot be upheld. Neither the Bible, nor the history of religions, nor sound theological reasons support it.”(4) This is a bold assertion. Approximately 20 years after Barth’s declaration, it seems many scholars had come into agreement. By 1992, leading Christian ethicist Christopher Wright elaborated:
This ancient scheme (the classic division of the law into moral, civil, judicial, or ceremonial categories), partly perceived by Origen, given clear shape by Calvin, enshrined for Anglicans in Article 7 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and influential until comparatively recent years, has fallen into disfavour. The main attack upon it is first that it serves no exegetical purpose, in that it is impossible to make clear divisions into such categories when actually studying Old Testament legal texts, and second that it is foreign to the thought of either Old or New Testament.(5)
In addition to a lack of Scriptural foundation, Wright specified that it would also have been foreign to the thought processes of the ancient world in which the Scriptures were written. So at least since the 1990s, this categorization has fallen into disfavor amongst scholars who specialize in ethics studies.
In Part 2, brief word studies from the Bible on the terms ritual, moral, ceremonial, and civil will be presented to consider alongside these scholars’ views. Will the Scriptures affirm or reject this idea of ritual law?
1. Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 377.
2. Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 388-389.
3. Robert P. Lightner, “Nondispensational Responses to Theonomy,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Theological Perspectives on Theonomy Part 2 143 (1986): 138.
4. Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 34 of The Anchor Bible (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 288.
5. Christopher Wright, “The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament: A Survey of Approaches – Part II,” Tyndale Bulletin 43 (1992): 105.