What Does Your Bible Say about the Law: “Ceremonial, Civil, and Moral” or “Commandments, Judgments, and Testimonies”?

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Four Questions

1) Did you ever wonder where the term ceremonial came from?

2) And what did Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas mean when he called some laws ceremonial?

3) How did Aquinas decide which laws were ceremonial and which laws were civil or moral?

4) And finally, can we know how God describes his own law?

Four Replies

1) The idea of a ceremonial law is a foreign concept to your Bible. God does not call any of his laws ceremonial. It’s a Latin term connected with Pagan celebrations, but it was borrowed as a handy term to describe some laws in the Bible. The idea that some laws are “ceremonial” is an important doctrine of the Catholic Church.

2) Though it’s hard to trace the history of which Catholic Church Father first described some laws as ceremonial, no one disputes that St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica made the most comprehensive explanation of the Catholic doctrine of ceremonial laws in the thirteenth century A.D. To Aquinas, a ceremonial law was a law that symbolized something in the New Testament, and it was a law that could be ignored or changed.

(Here you might be saying you agree with him. And so did I, until I found out the answer to the question 3: How did Aquinas decide–since the Bible doesn’t specify–which laws were ceremonial and which were moral, or civil?

3) Aquinas decided a law was ceremonial by testing the law against his own human reason. If the reason behind the law was obvious, the law was moral or civil. If he saw no reason to obey a law, it was ceremonial.

In other words, the ceremonial laws in the Bible are the unreasonable ones. Aquinas says they are not part of Natural Law, which is the law determined by Human Reason. Thus, he explained they could be dropped altogether or exchanged for practices of the Catholic Church.

Friend, when I found that out, it changed things for me. I respect the Reason Uber Alles crowd–I love philosophy and even teach a little Plato–but I’m a Divine Revelation Uber Alles girl, and Aquinas lost my allegiance when he placed Reason above God’s Word. I’m a Christian, not a Humanist.

4) The good news in all this is that there is another way to describe God’s laws, and you can find it in your Bible. God often refers to his law as commandments (mitzvahs), statutes (chukkim), judgments (mishpatim), and testimonies (eidah). There are a number of other terms as well.  You’ll see these all over the place if you haven’t noticed them already. Deut. 4:45 gets three of those four in one verse; Gen 26:5 has a couple. They’re everywhere, and they each mean something slightly different, so if you have a Bible and you don’t consider yourself Catholic, don’t take Aquinas’ word for it and don’t take my word for it: study the Scriptures to see if these things be so, to see what God has to say about his own Word. And be blessed!

LORD, I have hoped for thy salvation, and done thy commandments.  My soul hath kept thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly.  I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways [are] before thee. ~ Ps. 119:165-168


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