Reverse Legalism

A few weeks back, I preached about legalism. I’ve heard many a preacher issue many a warning about this particular, “ism.” And I believe such warnings are merited. As a fallen, prideful human, I’m tempted to establish my identity through performance (that’s one manifestation of legalism). And in my meandering journey towards Christlikeness, I’m tempted to add requirements to Scripture (that’s the second manifestation).

These two forms of legalism often work in tandem to disrupt our relationship with God, and damage our relationships with others.

But as is often the case, this sin exists at one end of a pendulum. Another sin stands opposite legalism; licentiousness (or if you prefer fancy theological terminology) antinomianism. An antinomian doesn’t feel legal or moral constraints. As with legalism, this sin manifests in a variety of forms. One especially insidious form could be called reverse legalism; a sin I've witnessed in my own life.

What is reverse legalism?

It’s a resistance towards applying Scripture with any degree of specificity.

A reverse legalist doesn't think about the implications of a command. She doesn't reflect on the ways that Scripture’s general prescriptions should be obeyed. And thus, she doesn’t obey Scripture in any particular way. And perhaps she justifies this by saying, “Well, the text doesn’t tell me exactly what to do.”

A quote by the inimitable Oliver O'Donovan spurred my thinking on this:

Ethics reflects on the conditions of good moral thinking. Were it to posit an ideal relation of text to action which, in the name of obedience to scriptural authority, effectively abolished thinking, it would abolish morality, and thereby abolish itself. There is a necessary indeterminacy in the obedient action required by the faithful reading of the text. Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types Scripture has a great deal of normative force to tell us; but Scripture does not determine the concrete act itself , the act we must perform now . If Scripture totally determined our actions, there would be no obedience, for there would be no deliberation. Deliberation does not simply repeat what it has heard; it pursues the goal of faithful and obedient action by searching out actions, possible within the material conditions that prevail, which will accord with the content of the testimony of Scripture.

O’Donovan is commenting on the enterprise of Christian ethics. But his point has far-reaching implications. It appears that he's saying this: obeying Scripture will almost always require a good deal of moral reasoning and deliberation. On occasion, Scripture sets forth commands with great specificity (e.g. “don’t commit adultery”). But most of the time, Scriptural mandates are more general in character (e.g. “fear not!”, “love one another,” “abide in me”). Nevertheless, if Scripture is to have any functional authority in our lives, these mandates must make specific claims on us. We must conceive of them in such a way that they need to be obeyed in particular ways, in our particular contexts. This is where reasoning and deliberation enter the equation. When reading, it's good to ask, "is this passage commanding me to do something?" But it's also important to ask, "if so, how will I obey? What am I going to do?"

How will I be generous? How do I plan to love my neighbor as myself? How will I seek to love my brothers and sisters in the faith, and prioritize my relationships with them? How will I participate in God's mission? Whom will I bless? How will I serve as Christ's ambassador? Until we resolve to give our obedience a concrete shape, we haven't felt the weight Scriptural authority.