Many denominations believe in the tripartite division of the Old Testament Law into moral, ceremonial and civil (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4). However, it is not clear to me how each denomination classifies each one of the Law's 613 commandments, and in particular, the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).

By asking this question, I'm looking for an answer that:

  1. provides an overview of how different denominations that adhere to the tripartite division of the Law classify the Sabbath.
  2. provides the biblical basis generally used to support each classification, and
  3. explains the implications of each classification, i.e., does it matter whether the Sabbath is classified as a moral, ceremonial or civil law in terms of how Christians should live their lives today?
  • 1
    Honestly I don't think this subject matter is a good one for an overview question. Because many, perhaps most, denominations don't recognise the division, and even the ones which do haven't categorised all the laws. But most which do use the tripartite system probably say the Sabbath is moral, but their arguments don't go from the tripartite system to sabbatarianism, they go from sabbatarianism to the tripartite system. People have strong arguments about the Sabbath, but I've never seen anyone give a rigorous defence of the tripartite system.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 13:42
  • @curiousdannii actually what you just commented, if developed a little bit more, can become a great overview answer. However, if you still think the question needs further editing, I'm open to suggestions.
    – user50422
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 13:45
  • 1
    I wouldn't be able to prove my contentious claim that sabbatarianism leads to the tripartite division rather than the reverse ;) I just find the whole idea to be misguided. All the law was moral. All the law was civil. And some was ceremonial. That's the nature of a theocratic law!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 13:48
  • Your "source 1" explicitly gives the 10 commandments as an example of moral law. It's obviously not prescribing any ceremony, nor does it provide ways of running a civil society. Does your question of how various denominations classify this imply that you already know of a denomination that believes it is not a moral law? Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 15:04
  • @RayButterworth I don't know about many specific denominations, but at least I know there exist people who believe that it is a ceremonial law. See this and this for examples.
    – user50422
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 15:10

3 Answers 3


I note the following examples of this type of tripartite division of the Torah:

  • Thomas Aquinas discussed the tripartite law, moral, ceremonial, and judicial, in his “Summa Theologica”, section entitled "Treatise on the Law" and more specifically in questions 99-105.
  • Luther appears to believe in a bipartite Law, when in The Bondage of the Will, he referred to "the civil or moral law”. (Luther Bondage CXLVI)
  • Calvin, in book 2 of Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.7, 2.8.31), presented a bipartite view when he discussed the law, its moral and ceremonial aspects. However, later, in book 4 of the Institutes (4.20.14), when he discussed civil government, he presented a tripartite law when he stated: "the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.”
  • The Westminster Confession (1646) set out a tripartite law
  • The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) almost copies the Westminster Confession in assuming a tripartite law (see Chapter 19).
  • The Church of England 1662 liturgy for Holy Communion required the minister to read each of the 10 commandments (including the Sabbath commandment) and the congregation would respond, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”
  • However, according to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, no such division exists.

The problem with all of these is that no such distinction is made in the Torah itself. The closest we come is the difference we have between:

  • Israelite Covenant: Exodus 19-24, and expanded in parts of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – often called, “The Old Covenant”, or, “Moral Covenant”, or, sometimes incorrectly called, “The Mosaic Covenant”.
  • Levitical Covenant: – Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8. This is an eternal covenant (Num 25:12, 13, Ps 106:30) of salt, Num 18:19. This is almost the same as what people call the "ceremonial law" (not quite) but goverened all the rules of priests and sanctuary regulations.
  • Davidic (or Regal, or Royal) Covenant: 2 Sam 7, 23:5, 1 Kings 6:11, 12, 8:25, 1 Chron 17:11-14, 2 Chron 6:14-16, 7:17, 18, 13:5, Ps 89:4, 29, 34, 39, 132:11, 12, Jer 33:21, Eze 37:15-28. This is an eternal covenant. This was essentially the civil authority to govern Israel.

None of these have been retracted and Jesus even says so in Matt 5:17-19. But how the covenants work and which should now be kept is another matter for another question.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law (Matt 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31) He responded with two commandments about love (Deut 6:5 & Lev 19:18) that are not part of the 10 commandments. Therefore, even for those who believe that we can separate moral laws from ceremonial laws, the moral laws clearly more than just the 10 commandments.

I know of some groups who say some of the following things:

  • There is NO law any more - all law has been abandoned, including the 10 commandments - some Baptists and evangelicals say this.
  • We should keep all the Torah including the annual feasts - this included the United Church of God and some fringe elements of other denominations

None of these are even internally consistent.

  1. Both the Baptist Confession of Faith (Section 19) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (Section 19) affirm that all TEN of the TEN Commandments remain in effect and that they have not been "downsized to nine".

So this question cannot be reduced to just opposing "What SDAs say" about all TEN remaining.

  1. It could be debated as to whether the remaining TEN are to be "edited" or not - to re-point the Sabbath from "The seventh day" Ex 20:10 to some other day - such as week-day-1.

  2. Paul also affirms this idea (that the unit of TEN remains) as we see in Eph 6:1-2 where "the first commandment with a promise" is the 5th commandment. That is a direct appeal to the "unit of Ten" and would not have been needed if all Paul was saying is "I agree with the command to honor parents".

  • 1
    Thanks @BobRyan for posting an answer. However, notice that the question is asking for an overview of Christian viewpoints, i.e. a summary of the different positions across Christianity on the matter of how the 4th commandment is classified in terms of the tripartite-law-division model: whether they classify it as a moral, civil or ceremonial law, and what is the biblical basis used to support the classification in each case.
    – user50422
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:19

Article 7 of the Church of England's 39 Articles presupposes the threefold division of the law into Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral:

...Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

I'm not familiar enough with classical Anglican homiletics to know where the 4th commandment would have been placed in this classification. My hunch is that they would have called it ceremonial as applied to Saturday but moral as applied to Sunday.

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