Book Review: From the Finger of God by Ross
Philip S. Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010). $19.99. Paper.
Take a moment to type the phrase “3 fold division of the law” in your choice of search engine (e.g., Google, Yahoo, etc.) and see what appears. You will notice that many people blog about this topic to no end because there seems to be many areas of disagreement. Knowing this, Philip Ross seeks to clarify certain misunderstandings of the 3-fold division of the law among its advocates and opponents, while shedding light on the topic from a historical and exegetical perspective. However, be forewarned, this book is not light reading. In fact, his use of Hebrew and Greek, as well as his overall scholarly approach may cause some to stop reading the book, but hang in there, and read it two times over if you need to in order to understand Ross’ point of view on this topic.
He begins by noting that the doctrine on which he is about to embark (e.g., the 3-fold division of the law) is a catholic doctrine. It is a distinction that is found throughout the Scriptures and goes back as far as one can think. One way in which he examines this is by citing some of the earliest theologians to some more recent. And his use of theologians spans the gambit of theologian convictions from Jewish to Reformed, evangelical to Roman Catholic, all of which state that the three-fold division (moral, civil, and ceremonial) challenges the view that the Old Testament law has always been viewed an as indivisible whole.
With this understanding, the whole of the book (some 353 pages) is taken up with answering this question: “Am I still bound to obey the Mosaic Law?” He answers this question in saying, “Yes and no. The Mosaic Law does not apply without exception to the Christian, but nor can we dispense with it altogether. One part of the law is non-binding, another binding in its underlying principles, and another ever-binding” (2). As an example of this distinction, he starts by utilizing the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19. Ross notes, “…section III explains the non-binding ‘ceremonial laws’ and section IV deals with the ‘judicial laws’ of which only ‘the general equity’ still stands. The remaining five sections discuss the ever-binding ‘moral law’” (4).
As he goes about proving this, Ross answers several of the pertinent questions that usually arise when considering this topic: did the law exist prior to it being given at Sinai? If so, how do those relate to the Ten Commandments? Is the division of the law obvious in the Pentateuch? And how do these laws unfold in the New Testament? As he seeks to answer the latter, he expounds on the Sermon on the Mount (particularly tackling the difficult question of what Jesus meant by “abolish” and “fulfill”). Ross also examines the Gospels as a whole, the Pauline Epistles, and the book of Hebrews.
All in all, this is a well-written and thorough book. He demonstrates the consistency in understanding the law in both of the Old and New Testaments. But no sooner than I suggest that, I must admit that I am partial to Ross’ work because I concede to the 3-fold division of the law. But even if I were not a proponent of the distinction, it is clear that as Ross interacts with those with whom he disagrees, he does so in a fair and scholarly way.
This is a book that should be on your shelf. It may challenge the way in which you believe the law, in all its fullness, is used in the New Testament (e.g., was Jesus unclean when he touched the leper? Ross answers with an astounding, “Yes!”, but uncleanness, he goes on to say does not equal sinfulness). Nevertheless, being challenged is a good thing. Moreover, Ross clearly demonstrates that the way in which one answers the question, “Is there a 3-fold division in the law?”, has bearing on the lives of Christians today. Thus, he is not merely dealing with a doctrine in theory only, but he demonstrates its practical application for Christians today.
Reviewed by Leon Brown, Mdiv