Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Legalism by any other name is…

posted by xscot mcknight

Covenant path marking.

In his recent, technical, and not always well-written monograph, Jesus and Jewish Covenant Thinking (break the bank!), Finnish scholar Tom Holmen offers a new category through which we can process our “theories of Christian behavior.” In essence, Holmen contends that Jews sought for genuine covenant faithfulness and, attached to that seeking, each new group and movement developed a set of covenant path markers. Covenant path markers are specific behaviors — Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, tithing, fasting, divorce, oath-taking, companionship, the Temple.

Instead of using “legalism,” which has become a bogey word for bogey opponents for each of us, why not shift this term to “covenant path markers” so we can get a fresh start on a genuinely serious problem we all face?

Here’s what covenant path markers do (and now I begin to extrapolate from Holmen’s study): first, they quantify covenant faithfulness into behavior that can be measured and seen; second, they enable us to “judge ourselves” on whether or not we are faithful; and third, they enable us to judge others on whether or not the others are faithful.

Legalism, aka covenant path marking, is a vicious form of life: instead of living faithfully, we are judging faithfulness. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for covenant faithfulness.)

Two final comments: first, we need to admit that we are all involved in covenant parth marking. Sometimes more severely than other times; some more than others; but each of us uses various behaviors to judge ourselves and others.

Second, there are only two “theories” of the Christian life that simply cannot be “marked.” You won’t be surprised by this, but they are (1) Jesus’ use of the Jesus Creed: loving God and loving others. And, (2) Paul’s use of the category of “life in the Spirit.”

Here’s why each is “unmarkable.” Because Love is a response and a life that transcends the observable and life in the Spirit is as well. Who can say “I’ve got love down, give me a challenge” or “I’m always in the Spirit, anything else you want me to do?” These two are unmarkable in part because they are ongoing, responsive, and qualitative features of Christian existence. And they are both almost “unjudgeable”: how can we really know if someone is loving? how can we know if someone is really “living in the Spirit”? Only by converting love and Spirit into “objectified” covenant path markers, and when we do that we slip out of the embrace of love and the Spirit.

Tomorrow, a post on the six theories of the Christian life and their various covenant path markers.

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Bob Robinson

posted June 10, 2005 at 6:43 am

According to Paul, Abraham was justified by faith. “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'” (Romans 4:2-3)According to James, Abraham’s righteousness was measurable by the “marker” of his offering of Isaac. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-24)So, in my understanding, Abraham kept the covenant by having faith, but that faith was measurable by his actions. Am I misunderstanding this?

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john alan turner

posted June 10, 2005 at 6:44 am

Sounds like what James Dunn calls “boundary marker spirituality”. I wonder, though, it is okay to set up some “path markers” for myself — provided I don’t hold others to my self-imposed standards? After all, it can become easy to hide behind the Jesus Creed and “life in the Spirit” because they cannot be measured. Path markers do allow us some kind of tangible way of checking our progress toward those two real goals, right? Or it all this just my legalism seeking rationalization?

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Scot McKnight

posted June 10, 2005 at 6:47 am

You are right, Bob. The order you have is everything: Abraham is justified by faith and faith is embodied in actions/works. It is when the third term gets too much importance that it becomes “legalism”. But this is the issue of “soteriological” legalism — that is, salvation by works. My post had the focus of “Christian life” legalism. The two are definitely related, and I’m grateful you point this ouit.

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Scot McKnight

posted June 10, 2005 at 6:51 am

John,Fair enough, and esp good to appeal to my doctoral supervisor, Jimmy Dunn.This stuff is messy, but it is inherently dangerous to measure ourselves by the external. I’ll post on the various manifestations soon. For now… A classical form of this is to focus the Christian life on the “disciplines.” What happens then is this: we measure our spirituality by the degree to which we practice the disciplines, and we measure others the same way. John Ortberg gave the house away, intentionally, when he says at the end of his book that if we love God and love others, we don’t need the disciplines. If we don’t, we need the disciplines. And we do the disciplines to establish the direction of loving God and loving others.The issue, so far as I see it brother, is our aim: are we aiming at our “markers” or at love/Spirit?

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posted June 10, 2005 at 6:58 am

I have just started “dipping my toe” into the pool that is N.T. Wright. Am I wrong to say that he believes that faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “boundary markers” of the New Covenant? Or, have I misunderstood?

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Scot McKnight

posted June 10, 2005 at 7:05 am

Faith stands alone as the enduring and generative response to the gospel.But, both baptism and Lord’s Supper are “boundary markers” in the sense that they are the acts that lead a person from one community to another. They become “covenant path markers” when they are used to judge self and others.

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John Frye

posted June 10, 2005 at 10:21 am

I’ve been pondering the easy slide from a gospel of grace to moralism–establishing “covenant path” or “boundary” markers. How can the church distinquish who is “the church”? It’s such a fine line between “discerning the faithful” and moralistic, legalistic markers. Since Jesus (and Paul) clearly obliterated the Sabbath laws, etc. as boundary markers, has the “church” substituted “marriage, divorce, and remarriage” with all of our fine distinctions as the new Sabbath controversy, or pushing a little harder, is sexual orientation a new boundary marker? How inclusive is grace? Just wondering.

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posted June 10, 2005 at 10:50 am

Scot,I don’t meant to waste your time here, but I’ve been trying to sort some of this out…What exactly do you mean by “generative”? Does faith produce something, or is it limited to response?So, faith is the key to entry into the community, and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered signs that one is part of a new community?

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posted June 11, 2005 at 7:35 am

So, in my understanding, Abraham kept the covenant by having faith, but that faith was measurable by his actions.Am I misunderstanding this?Paul and James DID NOT agree on this. No matter how we try to spin it they just did not agree.Peace

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Scot McKnight

posted June 11, 2005 at 7:37 am

John,Maybe the next post on the Contemplative tradition will help here. No easy answers; but knowing there is no easy correlation between practice and the real self is perhaps the distinguishing feature of the good path.

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posted June 11, 2005 at 10:33 am

geo, if you think Paul and James did not agree, then you are misreading Paul and James. It’s not about spin. It’s about context and divorcing the neo-evangelical interpretation of Paul that claims Paul taugth a faith that did not produce works.–tooaugust

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