20 Apr 2019

I Was Called a “Liberal: Some Thoughts on Liberalism and Legalism

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Bible, Bobby's World, Church, Grace, Patternism, Precision Obedience, Unity

I respond by posting something I wrote back in the Land of Ice and Snow (Gunnison, CO). It was a Sunday when I wrote this

Lord’s Day Theology for June 25, 2017. Many people use words in a very slippery way. We will call a person a “liberal” as a way of dismissing what she has presented. No real discussion or examination need be taken because we can simply dismiss the individual. Many people also use the word “legalist” and there is not much content to the word.

Liberalism, the Real McCoy

In light of the extensive discussion on my K. C. Moser post, I want to visit the idea of “legalism.” I think there is something that is legitimately “Liberalism” and there is something called “Legalism.” Defining theological “liberalism” is far easier than “legalism.” Neither of these words or the ideas they represent can properly be used as a way to shut down conversation, nor thrown at some one simply because he or she disagrees with “me” or “you.”

Real Liberalism is a position that rejects core Christian beliefs. These include: the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the reality of miracles.

Liberalism is essentially Rationalism applied to Christianity. A person that accepts the deity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, the miracles as real can never be honestly and legitimately called a liberal. If you accept the inspiration of the Bible you are not a liberal. It is that simple and there are virtually zero genuine Liberals within the fellowship of Churches of Christ.

I, for one, actually believe in the historical reality of the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus, his death, his bodily resurrection in the flesh, and every line of the Apostles’ Creed. The real liberals would never call me a “Liberal.”

Legalism: The Appearance of Christianity without the Spirit

Legalism as noted is a little tougher animal. How do you define “beautiful?” or more appropriately how is “life” defined? We know beauty when we see it, we recognize life when we encounter it. But defining these basic and fundamental realities is exceedingly difficult. We know beauty by the response it elicits from us. We know life by its fruits. Perhaps “legalism” is like that … we know it by its fruit. Yet the difficulty in defining beauty or life in no way suggests these are imaginary concepts.

But I am not going to leave it there. Legalism is an orientation that views the human walk with God as something that is primarily generated, and rooted, in human action rather than divine. Ironically legalism is far closer to classical liberalism because it is humanistically centered. Legalism is a worldview.

Legalism is not about obedience vs disobedience to the King. Legalism is the framework in which such obedience is understood. Legalism conceives the central issue of Christianity as what I do, what I know, what I think. It is about humans attempting to reach the divine.

Let me unpack the previous paragraph with some concrete “identity” markers for “Legalism” flowing from the definition I have given.

1) Legalism conceives of Scripture as primarily a record of divine commands given to the human race. The heart of the Bible is a call to exacting, even precision, obedience to those commands. Scripture is about what humans – must do. What I must do not what God has done.

According to legalism, Scripture is not primarily the inspired Story of the Creator God’s love, of God’s gracious move to make space in the divine life for something as alien as matter, of God’s sacrificing God’s self so that matter can continue to dwell and indeed become partaker in the divine nature! No, Legalism says Scripture is, fundamentally, the commands of God directed to us so we by our own precision obedience can be right with God. The ground of acceptance is not God’s work but human response.

2) Legalism regards the New Testament (the Hebrew Bible is not even on the radar screen of legalism except as a caricature in most cases) as a large number of commands, examples, inferences … all of which are equally important. Exact obedience to each is necessary – essential – to our salvation.

Legalism will, btw, often recognize, and use the word ‘grace,’ that God in his grace revealed the legal code to us, or that Jesus died to give us the code. However we are bound to these commands for our own good. The code/plan/pattern provides the means by which WE can do something sufficiently well enough to be with God. GRACE IS THE REVELATION OF THE COMMAND SO THAT WE KNOW WHAT WE HAVE TO DO WITH PRECISION. Failure to perform each of these commands will result in our damnation.

There are no secondary matters, in fact the secondary matters are likely the most important matters. Here #2 simply puts a fine point on #1 above.

3) Legalism is known by its trinity: anxiety, fear, and arrogance. The slightest infraction of the “code” or “pattern” breaks the ground between God and humanity and legalism never knows if it has been good enough (thus the fear and anxiety). Ironically sin is so externalized and thus made “manageable” that we can affirm our precision obedience and look down our noses on anyone not quite as perfect as we imagine ourselves to be on those measurable items.

Legalism does not feel the need for grace. The words “have mercy on me, a sinner” are hard to utter in a legalistic framework. We don’t need mercy, I simply need propositions and get on with it.

Final Thoughts. Legalism is human centered religion, it is “me-ism” religion. Christianity, however, is a God centered faith. Legalism is more focused on positions on issues than relationships with God and his people.

Conservative is not a synonym for “legalism” but neither is Progressive a synonym for “liberalism.” There are liberal legalists. Conservative is not a synonym for faithful or truthful. Conservative is not a synonym for love of anything much less God and neighbor. Why people equate these is a mystery.

If I find that I have to qualify God’s grace when we hear it or say it, then our orientation may be human one rather than a God centered orientation.

In Scripture it is the divine indicative that is always the ground for response and obedience. It is the divine indicative that enables obedience. The essential and basic issue of legalism is God oriented or human oriented. The chasm between biblical faith, in both Testaments, and Legalism is as wide as the canyon between Abraham’s bosom and the place of torment. I will have nothing to do with legalism.

Legalism and Sectarianism go hand in hand. For previous thoughts on that see my blogs:

A Taxonomy of Sectarianism

Bobby, You Got to Have Balance! Whose Balance? Scripture or Sectarianism?

1835: Tares Among the Wheat: Roots of Sectarianism in Churches of Christ


One Response to “I Was Called a “Liberal: Some Thoughts on Liberalism and Legalism”

  1. Dwight Haas Says:

    I think you have liberalism confused with Apostacy, which is a denial of the core Christian beliefs. The saints were to be liberal in love, in giving, in hope, etc
    Thw tem Liberal/liberalism is used in order to stygmatize thor we think have gone beyond where we have “correvtly/rightly” settled, just like many call others “change agents”, even though preachers usually attempt to change those they talk to, just as Jesus changed the world.
    Legalism is what the Pharisee were in.that they had a relationship with the Law and not God.

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