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Was the ceremonial law abrogated under the New Testament?


By Francis Turretin in Institutes of Elenctic Theology

Statement of the question.

I. The ceremonial law can be viewed in two ways: either with regard to doctrine and signification; or with regard to obligation and observance. The question is not whether it was abrogated as to doctrine. We confess that it still remains and is useful in many ways among Christians; and that the mystical truth, hidden under this shell, is always the same and of perpetual necessity. Hence on account of that analogy, the names are always retained (the ancient state being changed) and circumcision, sacrifices, altars, incense are attributed to Christians, not because these rites ought to prevail under the gospel, but because the truth of these figures always remains (in which we have the things adumbrated by these signs). Rather the question is whether it was abrogated as to obligation and obedience and whether believers are still in subjection to the ceremonial law (as the Jews of old) and are bound to keep it (as the Jews maintain). This was the opinion not only of the Jews of old (and is of those in our time), but also of the Judaizing false apostles in the time of the apostles. They urged the observance of ceremonies as necessary, rashly confounding the law with the gospel, Moses with Christ. However we, with the apostles and the whole church, deny it.

The abrogation of the ceremonial law proved: (1) from Gen. 49:10.

II. The reasons are: (1) because the Mosaic economy (of which the ceremonial law was the principal part) ought to be changed, therefore the ceremonial law ought also to be abrogated. Now that the former was to be changed is demonstrably gathered against the Jews from the oracles of the Old Testament. (a) From Gen. 49:10, where it is said, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come.” In some measure, here is asserted the necessity of the legal economy, designated by the scepter and lawgiver, until the advent of the Messiah, who is expressed by shylh (as if it were ’shr lh—“whose is” the kingdom). Thus, he being manifested, its abrogation is necessarily supposed. For if it was to remain until Christ, there ought to be no place for it after him. The objections of the Jews will be refuted when we treat of the advent of the Messiah.

(b) From Jer. 31:31, 32*.

III. (b) From Jer. 31:31, 32*, where a new covenant and a new law is promised in those last days (i.e., under the New Testament): “Behold, the days come, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made.” Not only is the truth and certainty of the change marked because where a new covenant is said to be made by that very fact the former is made old (Heb. 8:13), but also the cause of the change is indicated, the violation (namely, of the former covenant), and the manner, by an internal writing of the law. And that no one might object with the Jews that it is called new by reason of the confirmation and coalition of the old (not as to the institution of a new), it is expressly asserted that “it will not be according to that which he had made with their fathers.” This necessarily implies a diversity of covenants, if not as to substance, certainly as to economy.

(c) From Dan. 9:27.

IV. (c) From Dan. 9:27, where it is said, “The Messiah shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and seal up prophecy.” This cannot be understood without the abrogation of the legal economy. And from Jer. 3:16, 17: “In those days, they shall say no more, the ark of the Lord, neither shall they visit it.” If mention was no more to be made of the old ark, which was (as it were) the center of the old economy, then the whole of that economy was to become old. Nor does what is added in v. 17 concerning the glory of Jerusalem and the return to Canaan stand in the way of this opinion. This is to be understood spiritually and mystically concerning the church, not literally concerning the earthly Jerusalem (which was to be destroyed).

(d) From Ps. 110:4.

V. (d) From Ps. 110:4, where a new priest is promised according to the order of Melchizedek, who was not only to spring from a different tribe, but also to perform his office in a different manner, without successor and substitute; not for a time, but forever. Hence the apostle infers, “The priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Heb. 7:12, 13). “For if,” says he, “perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?” (Heb. 7:11). The same thing is gathered from all those passages in which it is said that the worship of God will be spread through the whole world (Mal. 1:11; Is. 54:5* and elsewhere), which could not take place under the old economy.

(e) From the end of the legal economy.

VI. (e) From the end of that economy and of ceremonies. For the causes and reasons of the introduction of the law being changed, the laws also are changed. [1] That law was like a “schoolmaster” to lead unto Christ and keep believers in expectation of good things to come, until the time of the restoration (diorthōseōs) or the time appointed (prothesmias) of the Father (Gal. 4:2), in which the church should be adult and emancipated. Now when Christ, who is the father and head of the church, appeared and the church itself had been brought by him to adult age, there was no need of a schoolmaster, as the apostle proves in Gal. 4:1–3. [2] The law was a “middle wall” (mesotoichon) separating the Jews from the Gentiles, but the distinction of nations having been taken away by Christ, there is no more any use for that party wall and Paul expressly testifies that Christ broke it down (Eph. 2:14). [3] The law was a handwriting (cheirographon) against us, not only by unveiling sin, but by sealing both the guilt and condemnation of the sinner. But our debt having been paid and sins expiated by Christ, the handwriting is destroyed and taken away; yea, affixed also to the cross, as the apostle elegantly expresses it (Col. 2:14). [4] That law had a shadow of future things (Heb. 10:1) because all its rites (as has been seen) had this special end, to adumbrate Christ and his offices and benefits. But shadows vanish before the rising sun; there is no room for figures when the truth is set forth; and there is no need of candles in the light of day. These are so incompatible (asystata) with each other that to wish to retain the shadows under the New Testament would be to deny that advent of Christ because they were employed as signs of his coming (which indeed could truly be done before his advent, but afterwards only falsely and uselessly). [5] The law was a guard (phroura) under which the people were detained that they might not turn aside to the profane worship of the Gentiles and be mixed with them (Gal. 3:23), by the spirit of bondage which obtained among them. But now believers, called to gospel liberty and gifted with the Spirit of adoption, as a willing people (Ps. 110:3) could no longer be held under that guard.

(f) From the change of things, persons and places.

VII. (f) Because the persons, things and places required for a strict observance of the ceremonial law should be changed and were actually changed. Therefore the law itself also should be abrogated, as it is abrogated. As to persons, the law was introduced only for the Israelites and had no reference to other nations. But now all peoples and nations are called to the economy of saving grace and that people is rejected. Here belong those various passages of the prophets which speak of the rejection of the Jewish nation and the calling of the Gentiles (Dt. 32; Lev. 26; Hos. 2; Is. 2; 49; 54; 60; 66). Formerly only one of the tribes (to wit, the Levitical) was admitted to the sacred ministry; but now another priesthood has arisen after the order of Melchizedek from the tribe of Judah. Priests are taken not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles themselves (Is. 66:21; 1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6). Formerly sacrifices were external and carnal, but now spiritual sacrifices are demanded (Rom. 12:1; Mal. 1) and God declares that he sometimes rejects and is opposed to the old sacrifices (Is. 1:12; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:7; Pss. 50 and 51; Is. 58 and 66). Yea, Ezk. 20:25 calls them “statutes that were not good,” whereby man cannot live, undoubtedly both in themselves as to the impossibility of justification and sanctification and relatively to the abuse of the Jews, who separated ceremonies from moral worship. Formerly the sacred worship was confined to a certain part of the world and to one place, outside of which it was not lawful to perform sacred rites; but now the temple of God is everywhere. In the catholic church, it is lawful everywhere to lift up holy hands to God (1 Tim. 2:8) and true worshippers are no longer bound to appear in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim to worship because they can adore God everywhere in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:21, 23). Hence it is said that an altar shall be erected in the midst of the land of Egypt (Is. 19:19), which would have been wrong under the Old Testament, under which religious worship is symbolized. It is predicted that incense shall be offered in every place unto God (Mal. 1:11), which could not be done under the law. Hence Eusebius proves conclusively that the observance of the ceremonial law has become impossible after the calling of the Gentiles (Proof of the Gospel 1.3.6 [trans. W.J. Ferrar, 1920], 1:20); nor can God, the most wise legislator, be conceived to have wished to impose such a law upon nations remote from the place chosen by the Lord (as if God wished the Indians, the Europeans, and the Britons, divided through the whole world, even now to go up to Jerusalem three times in each year). For what city (I will not say what temple); nay, what region could be capable of containing all these? What altars could be sufficient for receiving the victims? What region could furnish victims for so many worshippers?

(g) From the destruction of the temple.

VIII. (g) Nor only of right ought that law with the whole Mosaic economy to be abolished; but it has also actually been abolished. For indeed the temple being destroyed and Jerusalem levelled to the ground (which was the seat of worship), the whole nation miserably dispersed and scattered through the whole world, it is impossible for that law to be observed according to God’s prescription. Neither an altar nor a temple occurs where worship is performed; nor is there a priest and sacrifices; nor any reason of the old polity and the distinction of the tribes and families; and indeed for so many ages, which divine providence would never have suffered if indeed those ceremonies ought to have continued. Nor can the Jews reply that these are indeed signs of an angry God which they experienced at other times (as in the Babylonian and Egyptian captivity) and as they were delivered from these, so they can also be recalled from this, the last exile. The present dispersion of the Jews is vastly different from their other captivities. The time of them was fixed; but by no means is this fixed. So much has already flowed by as has surpassed the time appointed for the others not twofold or fourfold, but tenfold; not of 70 years or of one or two centuries, but of sixteen centuries already passed. In the others, the temple and Jerusalem (although corrupt) were still standing; but now they are totally destroyed. In the others, the distinction of tribes remained, but here no true distinction can be granted, whatever the circumcised may babble. In the others, there were prophets and priests; but now they are wholly wanting.

(h) From the synodical decree, Acts 15.

IX. (h) The synodical decree (Acts 15) openly confirms this abrogation when it maintains that nothing further should be imposed upon Christians beyond abstinence from things strangled and from blood and from meats offered to idols (vv. 28, 29). From this it is clearly gathered that with the exception of these three, all other ceremonies and the observance of the ceremonial law are abrogated (as the use of circumcision which the false apostles urged and gave occasion for the Council at Jerusalem). For what reason, however, that decision was made and how it is to be understood, will be spoken of hereafter.

The mode of abrogation is noted: de jure and de facto.

X. The manner and time of the abrogation must be inquired into. The manner is considered first when the force of the law and the foundation of obligation is taken away (which was done by the death of Christ, in which he destroyed—not only destroyed, but took wholly out of the way—the handwriting that was against us, a full payment of debts having been made, Col. 2:14). Second, de facto, when really and actually the law ceases to bind and is abrogated with respect to man. The former was done at the same time and once; the latter however successively and by degrees. In the former, the abrogation was made meritoriously and causally; in the latter, formally and effectively.

XI. Hence three times (tempora) of the ceremonies must be accurately distinguished: first, in which they are alive; second, in which they are dead; third, in which they are deadly. The first, with regard to the divine institution, in which way they were not only lawful, but useful and necessary under the Old Testament. In this sense, circumcision is spoken of as a seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11), and a great value is ascribed to it (Rom. 3:2), which can be applied to the other ceremonies from parity of reasoning. The second, with regard to accommodation (synkatabaseōs) and human tolerance, in which manner (now abrogated according to right by the death of Christ), they have become dead and indifferent. Nevertheless they could still sometimes be observed for the benefit of weak Jews, provided it was done from love only and not from necessity. The third, with respect to the abuses of the Jews and false apostles by whom they were pressed under the gospel as necessary to salvation (with the idea of merit), in which manner they were made pernicious and destructive. As to the first, they are observed as necessary according to the command of God. As to the second, they are suppressed as nothing and indifferent (1 Cor. 7:19; Rom. 14:3, 4). As to the third, they are condemned as deadly and noxious (Gal. 5:4). The first extends from the sanction of the law even to the time of correction (diorthōseōs) and the death of Christ; the second from the death of Christ even to the full manifestation of the gospel and of Christian liberty; the third from the promulgation of the gospel and the destruction of the temple unto the end of the world.

XII. However this abrogation was not a simple abolition by which something so ceases to be that nothing succeeds it. Rather it was a consummation of perfection (Heb. 8:6) by which something more perfect succeeds that which is imperfect (as the light of the sun, the daybreak, and the adult, the infantile age). Thus, undoubtedly, to circumcision in the letter (en grammati) succeeded circumcision in the spirit; to brute victims of bulls and of goats, the heavenly and rational victim (namely, the Lamb of God); to immolation made by mere man (and he a sinner) immolation by Christ, the God-man (theanthrōpō) (and most holy); to earthly things, things heavenly; to a mortal priest, an immortal and celestial; to a sanctuary worldly and made with hands, a sanctuary heavenly and not made with hands (acheiropoiēton); to purity of the flesh, purity of conscience; to a carnal and external worship, a reasonable (latreia logikē) and spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1; 1 Pet. 2:5).

Sources of explanation.

XIII. That which is of natural divine right is immutable, being founded upon the unchangeable holiness of God; but not equally that which is of positive divine right founded on the will of the legislator (who as he gave the law for his own reasons, can also change it, if he pleases). The ceremonial law is not of natural right, but only of positive; it is not commanded because just, but is just because commanded.

XIV. The abrogation of the ceremonial law is not repugnant to the constancy and immutability of God because he did not give it to remain forever, but only for a time. Thus the law was changed according to the immutable will of God, who neither began to will what he willed, nor left off willing what he willed, but fulfilled the counsel which he had taken of governing his minor church for a certain time by such a law, until Christ having appeared, the gospel economy should succeed to govern its adult age.

XV. Not more repugnant to it are the facts that circumcision is called an “eternal covenant” (Gen. 17:7) and that the law was to continue forever. A perpetuity, not absolute, but limited and periodic is meant; so designated because it ought to continue, not for some years only, but during the whole time of the Mosaic economy until the rectification (diorthōsin, Heb. 9*:10). The word ‘lm is often elsewhere used for a long duration, but still limited (as mention is made of the ministry of the Levites as perpetual [1 S. 1:22] which was only for 50 years; and the servant who bound himself to his master until the Jubilee was said to be about to serve him l‘lm “forever,” Ex. 21:6). It can also be said that ceremonies are spoken of as perpetual, not with respect to the signs in themselves, but with respect to the things signified and the spiritual truth adumbrated by them, which remains ever the same. Hence circumcision is said to be made in Christ (Col. 2:11) and the true passover is given to us in him (1 Cor. 5:7).

XVI. The prophetic oracles which seem to promise a restoration of the legal economy under the Messiah with a return to their native country and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and of the temple are not repugnant to it (Dt. 30:1–5; Ezk. 37:24, 25; 40; 41). Many of these can be referred to the return from the Babylonian captivity. Hence it is not surprising that the restoration of the temple, altar and other things pertaining to it should be spoken of. If they are understood of the state of the church under the Messiah (as they certainly ought to be so far extended in order that their full meaning may be gained), the expressions are not to be pressed literally because they are symbolical, not proper; typical, not literal; to be explained spiritually and not carnally. Israel is to be restored, not according to the flesh and letter, but according to the promise and spirit (Rom. 9); the holy city, not Jerusalem, but the church; the worship to be renewed, not carnal, but spiritual—designated, however, according to the state of the times and the comprehension of the nation by carnal, to which the Jews were specially attached. Just as the prophets call prayers incense, the conversion of the Gentiles the going up to Jerusalem, adoration the offering of incense, the knowledge of God visions and dreams. Therefore, as often as the prophets speak of the return of the people to their native country and of its restitution, this can be understood in part literally (for the return from captivity); in part mystically and symbolically (concerning the constitution of the church of the New Testament, described by legal terms). That they cannot be understood simply literally is sufficiently evident from this—that they have not been fulfilled thus far and cannot be fulfilled, the temple having once been destroyed, Jerusalem devastated and the nation scattered.

XVII. If the apostles observed ceremonies after the death and resurrection of Christ, they did not do so from necessity, but from charity, to accommodate themselves to the weakness of the Jews; partly that they might show that they were not opposed to the law of Moses (as the evilly-disposed wickedly calumniated Paul); partly that they might gain the Jews over to Christ (1 Cor. 9:20); partly to give the synagogue a decent burial. This is clearly evident even from the fact that although in dealing with weak brethren they wished to use ceremonies for a time, still when they were dealing with the obstinate false apostles and adversaries, they constantly repudiated them. Paul, who wished Timothy to be circumcised (Acts 16:3), still (disputing against the false brethren who plotted against his liberty) was unwilling to circumcise Titus (Gal. 2:3, 4), that he might not give them an opportunity of cavilling. On this account, he severely reprimanded Peter because he had Judaized (cf. Augustine, Letter 82, “To Jerome” [FC 12:399]).

XVIII. Paul’s vow about shaving his head (Acts 18:18) was not an act of religion (as if he had promised something to God according to the law as a part of necessary worship), but of charity, in order to accommodate himself to the weak showing that he was not a despiser of the law, but “was made all things to all men,” 1 Cor. 9:22). “Not by deceitfully doing all the evil deeds of men, but diligently applying the medicine of mercy to all the evils of all others, as if they were his own,” as Augustine says (Letter 82, “To Jerome” [FC 12:414; PL 33.288]).

XIX. It is one thing for some external rites to be granted in the church; another, however, to retain the ceremonial law. External rites are necessary in the church for the sake of good order because all things ought to be done in it “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Yet they differ widely from the ceremonial law because that signified Christ as about to come, these not at all. This was a necessary part of the divine worship; those are only the supports and adjuncts of worship. In reference to them, these cautions should always be observed: (1) that no rites be prescribed with an opinion of their necessity and merit; (2) that they do not have an equal obligation upon the conscience with the divine laws, as if damnable guilt were incurred from any violation of them whatsoever (although that may happen without a contempt of the enjoiner and the scandal of others); (3) that these rites be not so multiplied as to press Christians by a servile yoke and bring them back as it were into Jewish bondage.

XX. The apostolic sentence concerning abstinence from things strangled and from blood (Acts 15:20) was not of perpetual, but of temporary right. This is proved: (1) from the end and aim which was the cause of the institution (which was temporary, viz., the peace of the church, by a tolerance of the weak among the Jews who, accustomed to ceremonies, should by degrees be weaned from them); (2) from the manner of decision by which they both gratified the Gentiles (absolving them from the ceremonies of the law) and desired to satisfy the Jews (enjoining certain ceremonies upon the Gentiles that for the sake of concord they might indulge them a little, until Christian liberty became better known, especially because the Jews professed to be opposed to the Gentiles particularly on this account); (3) because all distinction of food was wholly abrogated under the New Testament (as appears from Rom. 14:14; 1 Cor. 8:8; 10:27; Col. 2:21; 1 Tim. 4:3). And so much the stronger does the argument bind that Paul himself, who was present at the synod and knew and explained its intention best, wrote these things after the synod. Now how could the apostle so clearly and expressly have taken away such distinction without any exception, if the apostolic sanction had been considered by him to be of perpetual right? Yea, since the latter law restricted the former, we ought not to doubt that that law was considered by him as already abrogated or as about to be abrogated. If this sanction is renewed after the epistle to the Corinthians was written (Acts 21:25), it is to be understood in no other way than from the apostolic institution and ordination for a certain time, not in perpetuity; (4) by the judgment and authority of the church which, under a fuller knowledge of Christian liberty, gradually changed and abrogated that law (concerning which see Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 32.13 [NPNF1, 4:336]).

XXI. The following do not prove the perpetuity of that sentence: (1) that it was made by apostolic authority—because the things pertaining to good order (eutaxian) were also sanctioned by them (1 Cor. 14:33). (2) That it is sanctioned under the title of necessity because it is not a necessity absolute and simple, but relative and hypothetical (with reference to the time and for the sake of avoiding scandal). (3) That it is joined with the prohibition of fornication, which is altogether of perpetual right—because not fornication itself can be understood, but meretricious food; or the price of lust, so that the word pollution (alisgēmatos) should be repeated (apo koinou), denoting the pollution of meat and drink (from Dan. 1:8). And if it be referred to fornication itself, it does not follow that it belongs to the same class because often dissimilars are joined together and morals with ceremonials (as in Ezk. 18:6; Lk. 1:6; 1 Tim. 3:2). Here he speaks of “sacrifices to idols,” abstinence from which is not of the same necessity with fornication because it is sometimes lawful to partake of things offered to idols, but to commit fornication is never lawful. Therefore, morals can be joined with positives, especially when such are considered to be of the same kind in the estimation of men (as fornication was considered by the pagans as almost an indifferent thing or at least as a very slight fault, especially among the Greeks; among whom to commit fornication, as Comicus says, was not a disgrace). (4) That this law was enacted before Moses (Gen. 9:4)—because many ceremonial things prevailed before Moses, as sacrifices and circumcision. (5) That the reason of the law is moral and perpetual, that men, accustoming themselves to human blood, might not grow too cruel—because a moral reason does not always argue a moral law, as the observance of the seventh day has a moral reason from the rest of God, still it is not moral. Besides that reason had something forensic about it, accommodated to the hardness and sternness of the Jewish nation and in relation to that time, when before the flood they were wholly given up to violence and crime (Gen. 6:5).

XXII. (6) Nor finally that it was confirmed by the Synod of Gangra (Canon 2, NPNF2, 14:92) and the Council of Trullo* (Canon 67 [NPNF2, 14:395]) and by the emperor Leo in the fifth century and was for a long time observed in the Christian church. Hence Tertullian related among the trials of the Christians “the offering to them blood sausages” (Apology 9 [FC 10:33; PL 1.376]); as at this day the Armenians observe this law and there are some Protestants who think it should be retained. Human authority ought not to outweigh the divine, of which the ancients were destitute. The long continued observance of this law arises from the perverse explanation of the passage and its being agreeable to the ignorance and false zeal (kakozēlia) of those who know not how (or are unwilling) to distinguish between things (kata ti) instituted on account of another thing (and in a certain sense) and those which are to be observed simply and on their own account.

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