Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Myth and the Hammer of a Second Kind of Legalism

Some might say we're just talking tomAto or tomAHto (who cares!), but if we were, I don't think an evangelical like Andy Naselli would have written this.  In the aforementioned linked article, Naselli refers a second time within a short period to a second kind of legalism, as defined by another continuationist, Sam Storm.   I've got to hand it to Naselli, and I mean this, that he admits that technically there really is only one definition to legalism.  That's got to be tough truth for an evangelical.

Naselli's admission was actually an answer to a friend, who argued that the Bible would not reveal that "second kind" to be legalism.  The friend called it in essence a doubtful disputation or a weaker brother issue.  Naselli pushed back with the idea that usage of legalism determines meaning, so now legalism does have a second meaning.  He qualified the difference by saying that the second kind is "legalistic" activity as opposed to a person who is a legalist, that is, the works salvation people are legalists and the second definition people are legalistic, not quite legalists.  Good to know.

What Naselli is saying is true in one sense, that is, the meaning of words can change with usage.  But someone can't suddenly be sinning with a change in usage, which is what Storm and Naselli are saying.  Just because people start calling something legalistic doesn't mean that the Bible is now calling those people legalistic.  According to my observation, I believe that's what Naselli's friend was trying to say.  It really is a nasty thing to call someone legalistic, when legalism is condemnatory and represents a false gospel.  On top of that, the second definition of legalism isn't even legalism.

A word that I would compare to the second kind of legalism is "homophobia."  You know you're not homophobic, but how can you argue, because anyone who hates homosexuality is now homophobic? Why?  Because that's the usage of the word.  It doesn't matter that God would then be homophobic based upon that definition.  Usage determines definition.  If you call something "good," that is actually "bad," is it now "good" because of usage?  That would be like, I don't know, calling something good evil and evil good.  That's how a society might get there.

How nice is it to change the meaning of a word by using it against people for so long that now that very ominous word refers to those people?   It never meant that before, but now it does!  Yes!  And it's you!  Not me!  When you are on the name-calling side, it can come in very handy.  "He's legalistic."  "He's not, but he is, because it's what I think about it."  "He's that legalistic guy, right?!"

The second kind of legalism, I think many reading this know, is used to intimidate anyone with a stronger standard than you have.  That's how its usage has exploded.  And now we include it as a second definition, because that's how it's being used to hammer those to the right.  Anyone to the right gets lambasted as a legalist...oops...legalistic.  Different.

Let's think for a moment if these targets of the word "legalistic," the so-called second kind of legalism, even fit their own definition.  Naselli includes two different definitions for this second kind of legalism, one by Don Kistler:

Legalism is behavior motivated by the false notion that sinners can earn favor with God, either before or after salvation, through legal means—obedience, ritual, self-denial, or whatever.

I ask, "How is that not the first kind of legalism?"  I often call Kistler's explanation, "racking up merit points with God."  My salvation is already set. I'm already justified.   If I preach against rock music, many evangelicals would call it "legalistic," but I'm not doing it to earn favor with God through legal means.  I'm not trying to rack up merit points with God.

Then Naselli included a long quote from Phil Johnson.  Both these quotes are from the same book, and Johnson's long quote is from a chapter on "two kinds of legalism" of which a lengthier portion can be read here [You would do well to look at the comment section of Naselli's first post on legalism, to get an evangelical (new-evangelical) mindset on the subject].

I'm not going to reproduce Naselli's quote of  Johnson, but notice the pejoratives of Johnson to refer to fundamentalists, who are to the right of him on certain cultural issues, that every Christian agreed upon 100 years ago and for a millennium before and no one called a legalist for it.  This Naselli and Johnson stuff is brand new in Christianity, so either Christians had totally apostatized in their practice of the truth or the brand new thing is wrong, the second choice the only possibility.  Johnson says there is a legalism despised by the "strict fundamentalist with his thick rule book."  Johnson defines the second kind of legalism as Pharisaical, as opposed to Judaizing and Galatian, that is achieved by legal means, and he quotes Colossians 2:20-22 to buttress the point -- "Do not handle.  Do not taste.  Do not touch."

Who were these people confronting the Colossians?  They were ascetics, like the monks of the medieval period, who burned the ends of the fingers off to stay away from lust.  Who are these fundamentalists teaching asceticism?  There are likely some out there, but this is not a major issue in any form of evangelical Christianity that I know of.  Fundamentalists generally oppose asceticism.  So if we say, "Don't watch filth on television," a command which isn't in the Bible, is this a thick rule book as a Pharisee adding to scripture?  Of course not.  Is that different?  It's an application of the Bible.  Part of Christian leadership is helping people with application to scripture.  When people do not apply the Bible, it's sin.

I've read enough of Phil Johnson to find that he says gambling is a sin.  Scripture doesn't say that.  He says that certain words are sinful to say, words the Bible doesn't tell us are wrong.  In other words, he makes applications.  I listened to a question and answer session with his pastor in which he said that reading fantasy, like that about werewolves and vampires, opens a door to demon activity in your life.  That's not in the Bible either.  If some were to use Johnson's own evaluation, those people would say he is "going beyond what is written" (1 Cor 4:6), a pet proof text for evangelical license, used like a sledgehammer to intimidate, to intimidate like the ascetics did to the Colossians.

What you will not read, and I've never read from one evangelical, is that the Pharisees practiced a form of left-wing legalism too and mainly.  They reduced scripture down to a limited amount of application of scripture that they could keep on their own.  Anything they couldn't keep, because it was too hard, or because they just didn't want to do it, they said wasn't important enough.   They ranked the teachings to the greatest and the least, because they were keeping them all on their own.  Legalism isn't just adding, but also taking away.

The teachings, for instance, that Phil Johnson would mock and misrepresent, as well as Naselli, that are to the right of them, are practices that they call legalistic.  There are ones that are easier for them and those they say are scriptural -- they are the greatest to them.  Anything that God teaches, we should obey.  Much of that takes application.

Johnson at the more expansive location, like revivalists I heard long ago, uses an incredible illustration of a conversation he said he had with a fundamentalist pastor about music.  Johnson writes:

I once had a protracted discussion with a fundamentalist pastor who insisted that it is a sin to listen to contemporary music because so much of it is loud and rhythmic.

Wow.  I've never heard such an inane argument about music like that in my life!  I don't even believe that's what anyone said.   It's such a joke really, I can't believe Johnson would even refer to it.  Who makes that argument?  I have to admit, I have heard other evangelicals reduce teaching against rock music as "people against using drums and guitars," as if anyone thinks that's the problem.  Johnson really should read MacArthur's commentary on Ephesians, which I would think he has.  He should act like he has.   MacArthur wrote:

Rock music, with its bombastic atonality and dissonance, is the musical mirror of the hopeless, standardless, purposeless philosophy that rejects both God and reason and floats without orientation in a sea of relativity and unrestrained self-expression.

He says a lot more against it.  So somebody Johnson says he talked with had a horrible argument, but MacArthur says he's against rock music too, and teaches that it is wrong for Christian music or worship.  People taking the right position can have a bad argument, but that doesn't make them legalistic or legalists.  Is there a retraction of this statement somewhere?  Or is MacArthur legalistic?

First, to these purveyors of dual definitions of legalism, everyone to the right of them is a legalist.  They have to be.  Second, they are legalists.  They are left wing legalists, who would rather reduce application of scripture to what they can do or want to do.  I don't know of anything in my thick rule book that is anything different than how Christians historically applied the Bible.  Every Christian did.  Professing Christianity began to change with the world as a means of church growth mainly.  Now they're addicted to the world and instead of giving it up, they've got the kind of arguments Naselli and Johnson use.

Don't believe them.

What they are offering with a cover of code-word legalism is cheap grace, grace that accepts or excuses unscriptural behavior.  Sure, they will say they're for costly grace.  They cheapen the grace of God. They cheapen what Jesus did.  Grace isn't about immodest dress, it's not about rock music, it's not about watching movies at the theater, it's not about bringing half or more of that into the church, turning worship into profanity.  First, they say we can't know what all the Words of God are, second, we don't know what they mean, and, last, we don't know how to apply them.  They leave us without authority to live by.


Bill Hardecker said...

The biggest "legalistic" person in the world is God! I mean, First He gave us a book of law that will outlast heaven and earth, which among other things is designed to be our norm. Then, He chastises, rebukes, yea even scourges every single one whom He receives! I did read Naselli's article and thought maybe he is into secondary antinomianism, sorta antinomianistic but I digress. Maybe he would edited a four view of the spectrum of Fundamentalism of five. He can even use Bauder's taxonomy chart. And you can represent "Hyper Fundamentalism" even though you really don't fit within that chart....but I digress even more.

The Preacher said...

This is an excellent synopsis concerning what most of the apostate church calls “legalism”. Legalism, as you well stated has in the past always made reference to those who believed in “works salvation”, but now it has gotten to the point that “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” are nothing more than doubtful disputations!

Anonymous said...

There are even more legalists among us now.
See "Spartans Cruise by Bruins" cover photo/article.
I guess it was too much to hope that our conservative Christian colleges would never endorse such an activity where there were secular cheerleaders and proudly display a picture of it. Too legalistic to hope that a conservative college's constituency would never enjoy an atmosphere with rock music blaring. Too legalistic to hope that a Christian college would never brag about being on ESPN.

What do you recommend to "legalists" for their children's college education these days?