Legalism, both ethical and doctrinal, distorts spirituality. So, the first four pages of chp 4 of Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace is all we’ll look at today.
On this blog, I have sometimes called legalism “zealotry” and at other times “grace grinding.”
Overall, Webber’s claim is that 20th century spirituality among evangelicals has become “situated in the narrative of the self” (79). And there are four phases of evangelicalism in the 20th century: fundamentalism, traditional evangelicalism of the 50s, pragmatic evangelicalism, and the “younger evangelicals.” (This is sketched in Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals; Webber’s inclination to single-word categories and summarizations nothwithstanding, there are excellent insights in his schematic understanding.)
Ethical legalism: derives from passionate commitment. It is a way of “seeing reality.” “A legalistic mentality defines spirituality in terms of what a Christian does not do.” Those who question the dos and donts are considered rebels. The concerns — like drinking or whatever — derive from genuine historical issues that, more often than not, are no longer with us.
Doctrinal legalism: again, derives from both passionate commitment and intellectual commitment, but the feature here is the addition of doctrines that are not at the core. Thus, the Bible is authoritative must mean plenary, verbal inspiration; God as creator means 7 days of creation; the Church becomes my church; Second Coming becomes a view of the tribulation and rapture; ethical life of faith, hope and love becomes specific practices; spiritual life becomes specific things, like reading the Bible daily, etc..
“The fundamentalist movement sought to protect historic Christianity through inerrancy, propositional theology, evidential apologetics, and the concept of a pure church. This resulted in an us/them mentality. [and here’s a critical factor …] “What had been added [intellectually and ethically] to the faith as a way of protecting it now became the faith” (82)
That last line is the whole issue.
So what are the problems? Webber points to at least three:
1. It adds to the gospel.
2. It denigrates the gospel by adding.
3. It centralizes the self in the faith.