Recently Phil Johnson has posted a number of interesting reflections on the law. He seems to be concerned about those who question some of the theological distinctions that have been made in the past as Christians have tried to understand the law and how it governs our lives as believers. Traditionally, many have found it helpful to divide the law into moral, civil and ceremonial components, arguing that the moral is perpetual and eternally binding because it reflects the character of God in a way that presumably the others do not.
While these distinctions are helpful and have some merit, great caution is in order. The Bible itself nowhere speaks in these terms. That, in itself does not mean that these categories are invalid, any more than the words "incarnation" or "trinity" are invalid as theological terms because they are not found in the Bible. But the absence of the tripartite distinction (moral, civil, ceremonial) when it comes to the Bible's own exposition of the law means that we need to be very careful lest we impose on the Scriptures and interpretive grid that distorts the structures that are already built into the Scriptures.
I do not have time to expand on these ideas in this post (what with Christmas and all, besides my wife is waiting for me to go shopping!) but I would like to mention a text that is pivotal in this discussion that I do not think covenant nor dispensational theological systems have adequately understood and properly integrated into their attempts to systematize the Bible.
The text is Matthew 5:17-20: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
It is very difficult to read these verses through "moral, civil, ceremonial" glasses. Although I am aware that various commentators have tried to make sense of these verses by resorting to those categories I believe they are bringing to the text something which will keep them from seeing what Jesus is saying. Jesus seems to be viewing the Law and the Prophets as a seamless whole. And the interpretive category that he applies to the Law as a whole is that of "fulfillment." He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them, all of them, down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of the pen. This means that there is an important sense in which the whole law, by which I think he means the whole Old Covenant revelation, is to be seen as something which points to him. This means, then, that there is a profound sense in which the whole law prophecies about Jesus in all sorts of different ways, and we are to see him as the ultimate fulfillment of the whole thing.
Once we understand how Jesus approaches the law and sees himself in relationship to the law, I think we find a key to help us understand the purpose of the law and how it applies to us today, living as we do in the New Covenant. The hermeneutical key to the law is Jesus himself. Although distinctions like moral, civil and ceremonial are helpful for purposes of analysis, they should not take the place of Jesus as the fulfiller and fulfillment of the law in our reading and exposition of it at this particular point in redemptive history. We need to reflect upon the whole Old Covenant in light of his person and work. This is what the writers of the New Testament Scriptures are doing over and over again. They are not working with essentially legal categories but with Christological categories. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:13 "For all the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John."
I really must go... but my two cents worth for now. This really is a vital topic. It brings us face to face with the very important question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It raises important questions about the place of the law, about covenants and dispensations. Although we must respect ancient confessions and men of God, at the same time we must strive to understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches today and do our best to make sure our theological formulations actually reflect the truth of the Scriptures.