Friday, June 21, 2013

Why We Shouldn't Use the Word "Legalism"

Regarding my previous post, I'd like to make a qualification to my statement that Galatians 3 is not "about legalism".  The qualification would be that it really depends on what we mean by "legalism".  As it is normally used, "legalism" does not really have a strict definition - it is more a term of abuse - everyone says something different when asked to define what they mean by it.  In actuality, it is used of anything involving rules and which we do not like.  For instance: X says we should follow rule Y, but I don't like Y - legalism!  X applies Y in a way I do not like - legalism!  X applies Y in a way I do in fact like - ...NOT legalism....

The word therefore is not useful except to register one's disagreement and maybe to vilify what one disagrees with.  It does not tell us why you disagree with it - it's simply an easy way to condemn and scorn something by sticking it with a bad name, yet without actually giving any substantive reasons why we should think it is wrong.  This is argument through persuasive labeling, not actual reasoning.

But not only is using the word pretty useless, it can actually also be harmful (and, yes, I have in fact seen versions of what I'm about to describe - this isn't purely just made up).  Our preacher in a sermon we listen to might define the term as carefully as he can - say, in way W - and show that something A is legalistic in that sense and then go on to say some bad stuff P about A (or those who do A) because of W applying.  Now suppose we run across some new behavior B involving rules and we do not like it - we will not remember and use our "legalism" terms in way W like the preacher did but rather in the normal way as a term of abuse and will apply it to B even though, say, it doesn't fit with W.  So we will apply "legalism" to B and, because of the sermon, will associate P with B even though W doesn't apply as it did with A. 

Example: Suppose W has to do with trying to earn salvation apart from Christ through following certain pagan rules.  And suppose P is something like lacking true salvation in Christ.  We will remember, after the sermon, that "legalism" is associated with lack of salvation and, seeing someone, say, tell someone else that Christians shouldn't dance (a stance we don't like), we will be tempted to doubt that person's salvation since they are engaged in "legalism".  And then, of course, someone might disagree with us and think we are legalistic and in danger of not being saved.  And then someone else might disagree with them about that, and so on.  So we might have a mess.

In other words, let's stop using "legalism" and actually give reasons for what we disagree with instead of vilifying people and positions with that label.  (As an aside, in theology, I think "supersessionism" is another term like this - a term of vilification used for any view we don't like involving how Christians view Christian stuff in relation Jewish stuff and which puts Christian stuff in a good light)

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