What Legalism & Licentiousness have in common

An objection being made to Tullian Tchividjian’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post that we blogged about yesterday (and that came up in our discussion too) is that legalism just isn’t the problem in the church today.  Rather, churches are rife with licentiousness.   Too much preaching of grace and forgiveness can encourage people to keep sinning.  We need more preaching of the Law to encourage people to act morally.

Actually, though, both legalism and licentiousness are different forms of self-righteousness.  The legalist thinks to earn God’s favor by his rectitude.  The libertine does whatever he wants with no guilt to hold him back.  Both are antinomian, denying their condemnation under the Law.  Both reject the Gospel because they think they don’t need it.  Neither has faith.  (Since good works are the fruits of faith, if you don’t have good works, you need more faith, which means you need more Gospel.)

That’s the way I see it.  After the jump, read Rev. Tchividjian’s response. [Read more...]

Lacking any sense of proportion

Mark Steyn tells about a dad who asked his 15-year-old son to hold his beer for a second so he could take a picture.  Whereupon he got busted by the cops for giving alcohol to a minor.  Mr. Steyn puts his finger on a problem in law enforcement that, I would add, is also a problem in politics, public discourse, and the culture in general:  The lack of  any sense of proportion. [Read more...]

“Radical,” “missional” Christianity as the new legalism

The esteemed Anthony Bradley describes a “new legalism” stemming from the vogue of so-called “radical” and “missional” Christianity.  He decries the emphasis on spectacular works, emphasizing instead the role of  good works in the realm of the “ordinary.”  That is, the love of neighbor as carried out in [wait for it] VOCATION!  (See!  I told you, Anthony Sacramone!)  Dr. Bradley goes so far as to link to a talk I gave on that subject at the Evangelical Theological Society convention, which I didn’t even know was online. [Read more...]

Society has little defense

Not too long ago, both liberals and conservatives were oriented to some kind of common social good.  Liberals pushed for what they considered to be “social justice.”  Conservatives emphasized patriotism and worked for cultural stability.  Today, both sides frame their arguments in terms of personal liberty and individual rights (gay rights, abortion rights, reproductive freedom, etc., vs. parental rights, religious liberty, gun rights, free markets, etc.).

Is that an advance?  Perhaps it is.  But did you notice that when we recently discussed Iceland’s attempt to battle pornography, hardly any of us–social conservatives mostly, me included–were able to come up with any way to oppose it legally.  Even as we were decrying pornography and admitting how socially harmful it is, we could only conceive of the issue in terms of first amendment rights.  On another blog that discussed Iceland’s policies, someone defended pornography on the grounds that we must not interfere with free market economics, that the demand must call forth a supply.

Then I was part of a discussion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s graduation address at Harvard University in 1978.  In that talk, the exiled Russian author who spent nearly a decade in the Soviet gulag and whose dissident writings helped bring about the fall of Communism, said why he would not recommend that his country, once free, emulate the modern West.  One reason he gave is that western societies have become “legalistic”; that is, our societies have replaced morality with laws.  And societies cannot protect themselves with laws alone. [Read more...]

Legalism is worse than liberalism

More on how Christians from all traditions are discovering Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel.  This is evident in this post from Southern Baptist pastor Micah Fries at Project TGM, who goes on to make a further point that we conservative Lutherans might sometimes overlook:

When I grew up, the great enemy of the gospel was almost always known as “liberalism”, or possibly, “moderate theology”. Today, however, it seems that we must equally be on guard against a different enemy. This new enemy is just as old as the first, but it is often more difficult to spot. Of course, it would be the enemy of legalism.

These two polar opposites of liberalism and legalism both stand apart from each other, in a sense, but in a very real way, they both accomplish the same goal; that of undermining God’s word. Liberalism, of course, reduces God’s word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in the bible. Legalism, however, is also guilty of reducing the power and authority of God’s word, albeit in a much more insidious manner. While liberalism takes away from God’s word, legalism adds to it, and although it is different in practice from liberalism, it is essentially accomplishing the same goal, that of assuming authority over God’s word. While liberalism claims that scripture says too much, legalism claims that scripture does not say enough.

In all of this, however, I often find myself wondering if legalism might not be a greater danger to the Gospel, than the danger that liberalism itself poses. . . .

First, legalism is a difficult to diagnose cancer. All too often legalism is a subtle, creeping cancer that masquerades as holiness. In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that the Pharisees were guilty of adding “heavy loads” to the backs of their disciples. In Philippians 3 Paul points out that the Judaizers were “dogs” who “mutilated the flesh” in their pursuit of holiness. Both of these groups were guilty of affirming Scripture and yet adding to it in a further attempt to clarify their brand of “holiness”. When we take our personal convictions and apply them unilaterally, regardless of their clarity in Scripture, we may be guilty of this same creeping legalism. . . .

Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of sin. . . .A certain mark of legalism is a capacity to recognize others’ sins while failing to see our own. In his article on a topic similar to this, J.D. Greear cautions us concerning this danger. Good legalists get so busy playing watchdog for the sins of others, that they fail to see their own gross failure. As a result, personal sin is diminished, all in the name of “protecting holiness”. . . . [Read more...]

Casuistry and the NFL

You’ve probably heard by now about the practice in the National Football League of paying defensive players bonuses for hits that took out or injured opposing players.  Nick Lannon at the very fine website Mockingbird examines the “casuistry”–that is, the moral rationalization–that some players are indulging in to justify the practice:

The recent revelations about the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” program have rocked the talking-head world at ESPN. The Saints, apparently, had a program, administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who ran similar programs at previous teams), wherein players received cash bonuses for inflicting injuries on opposing players. For instance, knocking a quarterback out of the game might get you $10,000, and getting him carted off on a stretcher might earn you $20,000. No one seems to be particularly surprised that this kind of thing was going on; many have suggested that this occurs on every team, and that the Saints mistake was writing it all down and keeping track.

I don’t want to get into the morality of paying players to intentionally injure other players, although I will say that it seems an awful lot like criminal activity (aggravated assault) to me. When Tonya Harding paid her boyfriend to take out Nancy Kerrigan, people went to prison. It has been notoriously difficult to prove “intent” on the athletic field, but with documented records of who got what for hurting whom, intent seems a bit easier to prove. Alternatively, I want to use these revelations (and especially the response of several former players) as an opportunity to talk about a theological idea: casuistry.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard both Mike Golic and Marcellus Wiley (former players) say that everyone is overreacting to this story. They say that they “went after the quarterback” as hard as they could on every play, and couldn’t have done more if they’d been paid to. Their argument was, in effect, that the devastation of a hit would be the same, whatever the motivation of the player delivering it. Put another way, they said something like: “Football is a violent game, and people are going to get hurt playing it. We all know that going in. Paying people a little extra to put a little extra on some hits isn’t going to change anything.”

Casuistry might well be defined as “an attempt, via nit-picking, to appear to obey a rule whilst breaking it.” Our own DPotter took a crack at defining it HERE. It seems that it would be clear to the most uneducated observer that while a player might not be able to hit a quarterback harder to earn their little bonus, they might well be able to hit them in the knee or in the head. And since when is “I play a game that is inherently violent” an acceptable excuse for attempting to injure another person? The best example of casuistry of all time is this 2005 story in The Telegraph, the first line of which is, “Machines will perform euthanasia on terminally ill patients in Israel under legislation devised not to offend Jewish law, which forbids people taking human life.”

via Hit ‘Em For Money, Hurt ‘Em For a Little More | Mockingbird.

Legalists do this loophole hunting all the time as a way to justify their bad behavior, finding a technicality that allows them to transgress while still feeling self-righteous.  Can you think of other examples of this kind of casuistry?


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