Moral and Positive Law

I have suggested in some previous posts (Embodied Principles and Analogy in OT) that there are principles embedded within the laws of the OT. At its heart, the Law reflects the character of God who gave it. This fact alone provides ample reason that Christians should be concerned with the OT Law. To know it is to get a glimpse into God’s heart.

The concept of principle has an “up” side and a “down” side, as far as I can tell. Some positive aspects of finding principles include that it requires a greater level of engagement by the adherent, and it provides greater flexibility to span cultures and time periods. As a case in point, a Christian who grapples with the OT Law today can find great benefit despite living in a different century and culture.

The problem it presents is that it may be difficult to know the reason behind every law. It raises questions about whether there is a principle in every law. If a principle is not apparent, conclusions could be forced or stretched, and the law could be applied in areas where it was never intended. Were some laws given simply to be obeyed without the process of finding larger principles? For example, what about the dietary laws and the laws on leprosy? Were these merely civil laws for the health of the community? Should we glean a general concept of cleanness/uncleanness from them? Do they have theological implications?

The truth is that some laws are more easily related to principles than others. One way these concerns have been addressed in the past is to simply divide laws up into different categories called moral law and positive law. I’ll borrow the definition of these terms from Bennie Lee Fudge in his pamphlet, “Can a Christian Kill for His Government?” (p. 16).

Moral law is that which inheres in the nature of things and sets forth what is right between man and man. Positive law is that which depends upon the arbitrary authority of either God or man, which does not inhere in the nature of things.

Using this definition, there is no need to find a principle within laws in general because moral laws function as high level principles and positive laws come out of God’s arbitrary authority. They are to be done because God said so, and no principle undergirds it.  Many have used this distinction to say that moral laws have universal application. Moral laws like the prohibitions against murder and theft seem to be common to all cultures. Non-Israelite nations were held accountable to it (as discussed in Rom. 1), and the moral law persists in the new covenant. Positive laws in the OT are considered no longer binding, and they have been replaced by NT positive laws.

I’m still working through these concepts, but here’s my take right now. The moral/positive law distinction seems a little too cut and dry for me. There are many positive laws which have moral principles embedded within them. For the most part, I don’t see God’s laws as springing from his arbitrary authority. Yes, he has all authority to command, but I would not say that his authority is normally arbitrary. While we not have a satisfactory explanation for the reason behind every law, more times than not it is there.

So, any thoughts out there? Does one of these make more sense than the other?

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6 Responses to Moral and Positive Law

  1. Hi,
    Great post as always. It’s an intriguing idea, but I believe–as you point out so well–it will run into difficulties. The main reason one might object to it is that the Cross, and more specifically Jesus Christ–not the Law–reveals God the Father and His perfection. The Epistle to the Hebrews and the writings of Paul carefully point out the imperfections of the Law, the Tabernacle, etc. This squares well with what we know of the things the Mosaic Law shares in common with Hittite Laws and Egyptian Laws (see Hengstenberg, Beyerlin, etc.) The content was morally superior, but at the same time the parallels show God speaking to the Hebrews in a recognizable form-language. The Law thus reflects God’s divine economy in speaking to a particular people in a particular historical epoch. What we learn of God through the Law is not universal, nor is it theologically complete.

    At the end of the day, I shy away from speaking in terms of any laws in the Christian era, positive or otherwise. I am not anti-nomian nor a man of lawlessness–I just think it misses the point of the commands in the NT, which are not part of a legal system, but here invitations into the divine life and love of the Godhead. Unless we see the Law through Christ, we see nothing. Just an opinion and probably a flawed one, but I hope it helps you in navigating a difficult subject!!

    • Jeremy says:

      Thanks for the comments Stephen! I would agree about the limitations of the law. It is not binding in its particular form and it is certainly not theologically complete. Christ completes all things! However, I think many people have wanted to disregard the Law because of these reasons, and I feel like there is still value to be found it. Finding value in the Law is one of my objectives. The other is to think through interpretation in the OT before I reflect on interpretation in the NT.

      I also appreciate your stance on law in the Christian era. I don’t mind using the word Law but I think it has to be put into the context of covenant and relationship rather than a legal system. Thanks!

  2. Luke Douthitt says:


    A thought that seems to make sense to me is that occasionally God uses seemingly arbitrary laws (Positive laws) for purposes of giving individuals a way of demonstrating obedience. Often it seems like He uses very simple commands, but it gives people a way to show they truly trust in God. For example, when He gave the manna in the wilderness He said to not leave any until daybreak and don’t try to gather too much ahead of time. He could have made it so they could gather as much as they wanted but instead He attached simple commands so the people could show they were listening to His commands and willing to trust God no matter how foolish it seemed. By separating themselves from lepers, they demonstrated obedience and were rewarded by not contracting leprosy. That may seem like common sense but you have to remember there was no germ theory 3500 years ago. I tend to see baptism the same way. He could required that we just say a simple prayer to gain salvation, but instead He designated baptism, a simple yet real act that a person must do in order to show full faith in God. Naaman was confused because He was expecting to have to do some great thing but stumbled because it was too simple. So I guess even if the law is arbitrary, the purpose really isn’t.

    I’m not sure that makes any sense, but it’s at least an alternative explanation to some of those positive laws.

    • Jeremy says:

      Luke, great input. I think you have hit on an important point regarding commands, but it also introduces the difficulty of the subject. On one side, you have obedience despite understanding and on the other there is at least an engagement with the principles and applications in life. These seem to be two ends of the question, but I can’t deny some element of both.

      It does seem that God often saves in unconventional ways to enforce this concept of trust (bronze serpent, Naaman, cross). That idea likely spills over into commands in some way.

      I think baptism is best understood like the feasts in OT. It represents a participation in the historical element of God’s salvation history. Passover was a remembrance and participation in the events of the Exodus. Baptism and LS cause us to enter into and participate in the cross of Christ.

      • Goal-of-us says:

        Through reading Qs and As I became to understand a bit more about what you mean. Which laws are for us to draw the “principles” and which other laws are more specific? You are talking about what guidance the scripture gives us on this discernment? This discipline may be called the biblical theology?

  3. Goal-of-us says:

    I appreciate your comment in that any simplistic “system” like isolating “positive law” may be artificial and does not carefully reflect His will (even if we may not understand His will perfectly in our lifetime on earth).

    Christ was the end of the Law. Then was He the purpose or the conclusion of the law? I have been thinking what the Scripture means by it.
    When Christ came, what kinds of law did He abolish and what other kinds of law were left in effect?
    Sorry fo this elementary question.
    Lets see…. Rom 7:1-4 (husband died), Gal 3:24 (guardian), Gal 4:5 (adopted as sons), Rom 3:25-31 (with no work, but by faith), Rom 8:3-4 (requirement fulfilled according to the Spirit), etc.
    When Jesus said He would “fulfill the law” in Mat 3:15, 5:17-18, what law did He fulfill? The whole Law? I think so. But I must examine what is His “fulfillment” while we still have lots of sins on earth (1 John 1:8-2:2, etc.).
    And John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Does His truth apply to the entire Mosaic law? I think so, but what this truth works out today while we are still sinning badly on earth. I think that is the key to understanding what Jesus meant by the fulfillment of the law..

    Am I deviating from the traditional understanding of His “fulfillment of the law” under the new covenant (Rom 5:12-21)?

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