The relationship between the Old Testament and Christian doctrine can be puzzling at times, especially when it comes to the Old Testament legislation known as the Law.
Why is it that some parts of the Law of Moses are still binding, while other parts are not? Have you ever wondered why we follow the Ten Commandments, yet are not still required to circumcise? Why the prohibition of homosexual acts is still in force, but sacrificing animals is not?
Adding to the confusion, the New Testament even seems to contradict itself in some places regarding the Law. For example, Jesus tells a man, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17), yet Paul says that Jesus abolished “… the law with its legal claims” (Ephesians 2:15). What gives? Is the Church arbitrarily picking and choosing which parts of the Law of Moses to keep and ignoring the rest?
Yet there’s a simple answer to this conundrum: not all of the laws given by Moses are the same. In fact, the Law of Moses is comprised of three different types of laws, which St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the “ceremonial” law, the “moral” law, and the “juridical” law. Each of these types were meant to regulate different areas of life. As such, some types of law can change, while others cannot. Let’s look at each type:
The ceremonial law was meant to regulate Old Covenant worship. It included things such as cleanliness laws, kosher diet, circumcision, animal sacrifices and feast days. Paul calls the ceremonial law “shadows of things to come” (Colossians 2:17); they were figures that pointed toward or foreshadowed Christ. But once Christ had come and established the New Covenant, the ceremonial law became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). This is why Christians no longer are required to abstain from pork, be circumcised, offer animal sacrifices, and so on.
The moral law regulated how one ought to live. The moral law came into existence long before Moses received the Ten Commandments on Sinai, as it is inscribed, Paul tells us, in nature itself. By observing how things in nature are ordered toward certain ends, one can know in a general way what is and what is not moral. This is why Paul says that “… the gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law” (Roman 2:14).
The gentiles didn’t know the Ten Commandments, but they knew certain general moral tenants, albeit imperfectly. The Ten Commandments made explicit what could be known imperfectly through nature. The rest of the moral laws in the Old Testament simply unpack what had been given in the Decalogue. Because the moral law is rooted in nature and made explicit through the Ten Commandments, its substance can never change and is always binding.
The juridical law was meant to “shape the state of that people according to justice and equity.” Probably the easiest way to understand the juridical law is that it applied the principles of the moral law to concrete situations. For example, Deuteronomy 22:8 says that anyone building a new house must put a barrier (parapet) around the roof. People used to walk across flat-roofed houses, and this law was meant to prevent injuries due to the owners’ negligence. Because lifestyles change (i.e., people don’t normally use roofs as walkways), the law is no longer in effect, although its underlying principles (i.e., that it’s wrong to cause injuries through negligence) is still in force.
As you can see, not everything in the Law of Moses is the same. The moral law can never be substantially changed, while the ceremonial law, which pointed toward Christ, can become obsolete. The juridical law no longer applies, but its underlying principles, which are rooted in the moral law, are still binding. So the next time someone accuses Christians of cherry-picking commandments, it might prove helpful to explain the three types of the Law of Moses.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.