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Legalism, in Christian theology, is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God's grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.
The words 'legalism' or 'legalist' do not occur in the Old or New Testaments. Legalism's root word, "law" (Greek nomos), occurs frequently in the New Testament, and sometimes connotes legalism. In 1921, Ernest De Witt Burton stated that in Gal. 2:16, "nomou is here evidently used ... in its legalistic sense, denoting divine law viewed as a purely legalistic system made up of statutes, on the basis of obedience or disobedience to which individuals are approved or condemned as a matter of debt without grace. This is divine law as the legalist defined it." The Greek of Paul's day lacked any term corresponding to the distinct position of "legalism", "legalist", or "legalistic", leading C.E.B. Cranfield to commend "the possibility that Pauline statements which at first sight seem to disparage the law, were really directed not against the law itself but against that misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we now have a convenient terminology" (legalism). Messianic Jewish Bible translator David H. Stern cited these two scholars to support the translation framework that often "'nomos' means 'legalism' and not God's Torah", especially in Paul's constructs erga nomou (literally "works of law", rendered by Stern "legalistic observance of Torah commands") and upo nomon (literally "under law", rendered by Stern by 13 words, "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism").
One concept of legalism, the belief that salvation can be earned by obedience to laws, is referred to in various New Testament books, including Galatians. In this case, some Jews who had become Christians believed that in order to obtain salvation, both faith in Christ (as Messiah), and obedience to the Mosiac laws were required, such as the cases of the circumcision controversy and the Incident at Antioch. Generally, however, these cases are referred to as the Judaizer controversy, rather than a legalism controversy, but the two are related.
Legalism refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law. It can be thought of as a works-based religion. Groups in the New Testament said to be falling into this category include the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Judaizers, and Nicolaitans. They are legalists because they emphasized obeying the Law of Moses, in the case of the Pharisees and Scribes, to the letter without understanding the concept of grace. Jesus condemned their legalism in Matthew 23. The Pharisees love of the praises of men for their strict adherence is said to be a prime example of legalism.
Legalism is sometimes confused with obedience. New Testament books such as Romans, speak of grace and obedience together. An example is found in Romans 1:5 (New American Standard Version) speaking of Christ 'through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name's sake...' The goal of receiving the grace was to bring about obedience of faith. Here grace, faith and obedience are tied together. Other references are in Acts 5:29, 32; Romans 16:19; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Hebrews 5:9.
Legalism is also confused with discipline, which is often spoken of in a positive light. See 1 Corinthians 9:17; 1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 1:7 and Hebrews 12:5–11.
A third common misunderstanding of legalism is the word law. Law in many places in the Bible refers to the Law of Moses, see also Biblical law in Christianity. In Galatians the Judaizers were trying to insist that salvation required that a person be circumcised prior to obeying the Law of Christ. Galatians 2:16 says, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (King James Version). The faith here is the Law of Christ and the law here is the Law of Moses. The legalism of the Judaizers was that obedience to the law of Moses was necessary to be saved.
Legalism in the New Testament is believed by some as being revealed by the life of Saul prior to his conversion. Some believe that Saul sought to redeem himself by his works of persecution of the church and its ultimate destruction. Acts 26:9–11 reveals, "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities" (King James Version). Galatians 1:13–14 states, "For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (King James Version). These two texts emphasize the nature of Saul's religion, works.
However, in this passage the obedience is not tied to the obeying of specific Old Testament laws, such as keeping Sabbath or circumcision.
Though the Apostolic Decree is no longer observed by many Christian denominations today, it is still observed in full by the Greek Orthodox.and it was a very effective philosophie during that time.
In Roman Catholicism, good works are done in service to God and one's neighbour, by faith working through love. In contrast, an excess of severity in the imposition of, or overly scrupulous conformity to any rule of piety, may be charged with legalism. Faith and good works, giving the individual free will to choose.
In an attempt to resolve the dispute over legalism, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a document issued in 1999 by Lutheran-Catholic clerical representatives, declaring a common belief in Sola gratia, that grace alone can save the faithful, and that there is a progressive infusion of grace in the spirit of the believer.
The Eastern Orthodox, for another example, rejects the satisfaction theory of the atonement as legalistic. The satisfaction theory states that mankind's Original Sin violated God's law, resulting in all men being born guilty: an idea prevalent in the writings of Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo of the Western Church. Anselm formally developed the theory that the legal problem of guilt before the Law, required the legal solution of retribution, in order to achieve a just salvation. The solution was for God's son Jesus to willingly die on the Cross in place of humanity, thus allowing the legal penalty to be fully carried out, satisfying the justice of God, and thus clearing the way for mercy to be shown to sinners. The Eastern Orthodox charge that this theory is too dependent upon Roman legal concepts of retribution and justice.
In Protestant, Evangelical, Christian theology, especially in popular versions of the same, the charge of legalism is an accusation of overzealous adherence to the word of the Bible (as law) in all things said, established or accomplished in a believer's life (cf. bibliolatry). All is in accordance to the word.[clarification needed] In that context, to apply the criticism of legalism to a theological position or religious attitude implies that the accused has overturned the Gospel of salvation through faith and new life in Jesus Christ and has instead substituted some principle of personal works of strict adherence to the word, through action, thought, or speech for the unearned grace of God.
Several underlying dynamics appear in these controversies. The permitted scope of veneration of material objects versus claims that such veneration is idolatry, affects the perceived sanctity of ritual spaces and objects, and therefore of the rituals and customs themselves. Teachings about the authority of the church, the sources of legitimacy of that authority, and the role of clergy versus the priesthood of all believers, also affect these debates.