The term "legalism" commonly denotes preoccupation with form at the expense of substance. While it is now used metaphorically in all areas of human life, it appears to have had a theological origin in the seventeenth century, when Edward Fisher used it to designate "one who bringeth the Law into the case of Justification" (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 1645). No equivalent term existed in the biblical languages. However, the idea is found in both Testaments.
The Old Testament. In Judaism the entire Old Testament could be called the Law a usage reflected in the New Testament ( John 10:34 ; 1 Cor 14:21 ; Gal 4:21-22 ). From this perspective the strictly legal parts of the Old Testament stand in a narrative setting whose design is to recount God's dealings with his people so as to give them Torah or instruction in the way of life he desires for them. The narrative setting of the law is essentially an account of God's choosing of Israel to be his people ( Gen 12:1-3 ; Deut 1:1-4:49 ), while the law itself is both a prescriptive statement of the life God expects his people to lead as well as a picture of the kind of life that leads to joy and fulfillment. In short, the law is part of the covenant, and constitutes both God's gracious gift to his people and the vehicle of their grateful response to him ( Exod 19:3-6 ; Deut 7:1-16 ; 26:1-19 ). This explains the positive picture of the law in the Old Testament. It is made equally clear that the law could be abused and subverted. Such subversion (which differs from blank rejection) consists in the observance of its literal dictates while overlooking or evading its underlying intent. The prophets in particular denounce preoccupation with the niceties of sacrificial ritual while inward obedience expressed in justice, compassion, and humility is lacking ( 1 Sam 15:22-23 ; Isa 1:10-20 ; Amos 2:6-8 ; 4:4-5 ; 5:21-24 ; Micah 6:6-8 ). In the postexilic era this danger becomes, if anything, greater. For with the disappearance of the kingdom, the law became the focal point of national life, and conformity to it the mark of belonging to the people of God. The grounding of the law in the covenant grace of God was never wholly forgotten ( Ezra 9:5-7 ), any more than was the sense of authentic piety ( Psalm 119 , passim) or the awareness that mere performance apart from genuine piety was worthless ( Prov 15:8-9 ; 21:3 ). However, it was easy for the law to assume independent significance and its observance to be viewed as the condition of God's grace rather than the response to it. Jeremiah had seen earlier that the corruption of the human heart apart from inward renewal made compliance with the law impossible in any case ( Jer 31:31-34 ). The increased focus on the law during the postexilic era intensified the danger confronted by the earlier prophets: concentration on the latter at the expense of the spirit. This persisted in the Judasim of the first Christian century even though it was recognized that mere conformity to the law was not enough (M. Ber. 2.1), and that repentance was a continual necessity.
The New Testament. No more than Hebrew does the Greek language have a word denoting legalism. Yet it seems clear that criticism of attitudes to the law describable as legalistic constitutes a significant element in New Testament teaching. Three representative areas may be examined.
Legalism and the Teaching of Jesus. The center of Jesus' message was that, in an important measure, the kingdom of God and its power had come in himself ( Matt 12:28 ; Mark 1:14-15 ). This posed a challenge to the most distinctive features of Jewish religion: the identity of the chosen people, the temple, and the life of piety, all of which found their focus in the law. Jesus both affirmed and critiqued the law. While attending the synagogue regularly ( Luke 4:16 ) he did not hesitate to break the purity laws ( Mark 3:13-17 ) or rigid interpretations of Sabbath law ( Mark 3:1-6 ). Refusal to do so he denounced as nullification of God's will in the interests of external conformity ( Mark 7:1-23 ). His interpretation of the law exhibited an incisiveness that pierced to the law's intent beyond its surface meaning ( Matt 5:21-48 ). Still more, he implied that this intent was both revealed and fulfilled in himself, so that legalistic conformity stood exposed and condemned.
Legalism and the Earliest Church. The problem of legalism arose in sharp form when the gospel crossed the boundaries of Judaism and penetrated the Gentile world. The forms were much the same as in Jesus' day: association with sinners, observance of the ceremonial law, and, above all, acceptance of the ritual mark of the people of God circumcision. However, the issue was more acute: Was salvation possible for Gentiles apart from law observance ( Acts 11:3 ; 15:1 )? The Jerusalem Council affirmed that it was ( Acts 15:11 Acts 15:13-14 ) and sought to resolve the practical difficulties arising from this decision ( Acts 15:28-29 ), though with what success is not clear.
Legalism and the Teaching of Paul. While Paul can speak positively of the law ( Romans 7:7 Romans 7:12 Romans 7:14 ), including circumcision ( Rom 3:1-2 ; 4:10-12 ), he also speaks of it negatively. It is powerless to deliver from sin ( Rom 8:3 ; Gal 3:21b-22 ) and was a temporary measure until the coming of Christ ( Gal 3:19 ). Moreover, continued attachment to it is not only fruitless, but dangerous since the law demands total obedience of which none is capable ( Gal 3:10-12 ). Law observance is thus both futile and fatal. As a substitute for or supplement to faith in Christ it ministers to legalism. Acceptance by God is possible only through faith in Christ crucified ( Rom 8:3 ; Gal 2:16 ; 3:13-14 ). This picture of the law as occasioning legalism has been hotly contested. However, there is evidence of a vein of Judaism in which "the works of the law" were seen as a pathway to righteousness (e.g., the Qumran text 4QMMT). There is likewise evidence in the literature of the Second Temple period that sin was defined in terms of the law, and divine intervention in the eschaton was seen as the only cure. While Paul's use of the term "works" exhibits a wide range of meaning from good to bad (see the double use in Eph 2:8-10 ), the significant phrase "the works of the law" often stands in explicit contrast with faith in Christ as the means of salvation ( Romans 3:20-22 Romans 3:28 ; Gal 2:16 ; Galatians 3:2 Galatians 3:5 Galatians 3:10 ). It is noteworthy that in several of these contexts the idea of boasting is also present ( Rom 3:27 ; Gal 2:20a ; 6:13 ). These examples seem best taken to mean legal works, that is, works done to commend the doer to God. As holding out the hope of salvation on the basis of human effort, such works are the antithesis of God's saving grace set forth in Christ crucified. Confidence in him alone, who, by his death fulfilled the law, is the sole means of deliverance from the law's demands, and so of avoiding legalism.
A. R. G. Deasley
Bibliography. D. J. Moo, WTJ45 (1983): 73-100; T. R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul's View of the Law in Romans and Galatians; idem, Paul and the Law, A Contextual Approach; J. A. Fitzmyer, According to Paul.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Legalism'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".