The Spirit of the Law

The prophetic voices in the Old Testament are really what speak to me. Without them Israel’s religion becomes stale, condemnatory, and legalistic. The Prophets are the critical voice that sees not just the words that God uses to communicate to us but His Spirit propelling those words. They see that God is not in the storm, He’s in the whisper of the wind.

God chose to be present in history. God exists outside of human history but He chooses to work inside of it. God appears as a (God-)man in a specific space and at a specific point in time. Since Christ flaunts his society’s convention and is constantly upsetting the social order to the point of being executed for it, we know that He is not afraid of acting in accordance with Truth, which is timeless. He is never limited by His being a 1st century Palestinian Jew. But He also exists within a certain time and culture. God chooses to exist not above us but with us, and He revealed Himself slowly throughout time. This is why we see Jacob’s family keeping household idols despite being in communication with the Living God. This is why Israel had such a difficult time embracing monotheism despite constant nudges toward that truth. The same way you have to learn the basic rules of grammar before you can understand poetry, God had to reveal himself slowly and with care so that we could understand the complexity that is Him. Finally this process came to completion in the person of Jesus Christ.

But when God speaks to us through human vocabulary (as He must) we are tempted to dominate His words. If I can only memorize these words! If we can only interpret these commandments into practical laws! If we can only find all the answers we can forget about the questions! I know in my spiritual life I always seize upon an answer. It feels much surer, more secure than having to walk the path of spirituality, which as Richard Rohr says is about asking the right questions and not about finding the right answers.

This need to control God, to have the answers, to seize upon God’s words is the tendency found in the Old Testament. It’s legalism. The prophets speak against it. They’re always telling Israel to stop worrying about punching their spiritual timecard and start caring with the heart of God, to stop interpreting the Law and to live it, to stop rending their garments in penance and start rending their hearts.

The legalism of Israel’s faith, to me, seems to come to culmination with the 1st century Pharisees. Isn’t it funny that that’s when the incarnation occurs and Christ appears? The culmination of the Letter of the Law and the culmination of the Spirit of the Law appear in history at the same time.

Yet Christ has come and Christians – of every branch – are still legalistic. That’s exactly the type of Christian I tend to be, though at least now I’m fairly conscious of it. But it’s just so attractive! It’s nice to have all the answers, to know the rules. It makes existence and the spiritual life seem ordered and understandable and far less mysterious, at least to me. A black and white worldview is so seductive. Who has time to wrestle with the gray?

Photo by Rick Holliday –

I became Catholic and joined a tradition that understands that it’s not about legalism yet has spent its whole existence developing answers. But I realize even our rules and knowledge today aren’t the end-all. It’s not enough to observe Lenten fasting or abstinence. It’s not enough to do penance. It’s about how you are meeting God, how you are growing in consciousness of the Divine Reality, and how you are being transformed. It’s not about the Letter of the Law; it’s about the Spirit of it.

All Christians struggle with legalism but Catholics do especially. We have to hold only lightly our rules, our dogma, our standards for what constitutes right or wrong belief or action. And we have to do this not because the rules are wrong (Christ was clear about never rewriting the Law) but because they are tools. They are signposts pointing toward paradise and not paradise itself. There’s a natural attachment of the ego with the Law, and it’s something we have to break.

I always think of a wonderful story from the Buddhist tradition that my philosophy adviser once related to me:

Two Buddhist monks were walking alongside a road. As they reached a bend in the road they came upon a poor, crippled woman crawling on the ground and trying to reach the other side. Buddhist monks, of course, are strictly forbidden from having any physical contact with women. But upon seeing the woman, the first monk picked her up, gingerly carried her across the road, and set her down on the other side. The two monks continued on their way and it wasn’t long before the second monk said, with no small amount of exasperation, “What have you done?! Don’t you know we’re not allowed to have contact with women?” The first monk stopped, turned to the second with a curious look on his face, and said in reply, “I left that woman back there by the side of the road. Are you still carrying her?”

Hearing this story made me realize which monk I was at the time and which one we’re all called to be. The Letter of the Law is binding. The Spirit is always freeing.

I’d love a comment, especially offering your own perspective.



  1. Well said.

    I think there are some ways that we could expand our thinking on this subject. I don't think, for example, that we can exactly equate “dogma” with “law” as if it were legalistic to hold exactly to a particular dogma. A dogma, precisely, is knowledge about God given by God himself. A particular formulation of a dogma is, on the other hand, a tool to understand that knowledge and express it to others. To hold to a particular formulation simply out of habit when it is no longer helpful is perhaps legalistic.

    I think there are some important points made here about the tendency of some Catholics towards legalism. But you and I have experienced the other side of the coin as well. Many non-Catholics tend to be legalistic with whatever laws they have, believing them to be divinely inspired, while Catholics are occasionally legalistic about laws which every educated Catholic understands could be changed, modified, or removed as circumstances require. There is no telling how many times, after explaining a particular law in the Catholic Church to a non-Catholic that I have been confronted with the question, “And where is that written in the Bible?” I usually answer, “Well, it's a pretty good idea, and no one has come up with a better solution yet.”

    I also think there is an important distinction to be made between laws which are merely instruments of mutual charity and laws which are meant to encourage proper respect for God. On the one hand, both types of law are positive laws and should be judged by their utility. On the other hand, the latter type of law, what we might call “liturgical laws” because they relate most especially to divine worship, are useful in so far as they help us to encounter God, who is, himself, inexpressible and unknowable in his essence. In other words, we cannot always be entirely sure that we are or are not encountering God, which means that our judgments on the utility of liturgical laws need to be circumspect. It is one reason why I think that the liturgical reform of the past six decades has been largely ineffective, precisely because the reform has been an attempt to “tame” our encounter with God. True reform, I believe, should come from a re-interpretation of tradition, rather than a destruction or trimming of it.

    The same might be said about fasting or abstinence. The traditional way of understanding fasting or abstinence is as a means of reparation. Fine, but we could also interpret it as solidarity with the poor, as an imitation of Christ and the poverty of the Early Church, as a symbol of our communion with the angels, etc., etc., and that, it seems to me, has far more use to helping people encounter God than changing the practice itself. Above all, however, we should never judge other Christians simply because their practices, given by their legitimate superiors, differ from ours.


  2. Sam, this is great. You've hit the nail on the head—I find it so comforting that you also understand and appreciate the problem of legalism in the church. It is rampant—and I don't think it's the worst with Catholics. The principal difference is that unlike Protestant legalists who mostly cling to an ad hoc collection of laws they like best, Catholics have spent centuries codifying those laws in a plethora of unified texts. I don't think this is any more wrong—it represents the human tendency to succumb to the same temptation of the Pharisees—to try to understand God on concrete, human terms rather than with the heart.

    As for Christ abolishing/fulfilling the law, this is hard to reconcile, but I think you've also touched on a crucial point, which is that Christ is positioned at a certain historical moment in a certain culture. This doesn't limit HIM, but we must understand his message within that context. After his death and resurrection, the gospel became available to all times and all cultures, and that does mean that the way we understand and follow the Law changes (I LOVE when you remind that we must “stop interpreting the Law and to live it”). 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 helps describe this well, I think.

    I think living as a Christian and balancing observance of the Law with true freedom in Christ and communion with the Holy Spirit is absolutely the hardest thing for Christians. We so desperately want the temple back. We want God to exist in a room somewhere, and we want to know that our sins are covered by physical justice. But that's not the message of the Gospel. Indeed, the greatest mystery of the faith is the paradox of redemption.


  3. I've been negligent in responding this week due to my schedule. Forgive me!

    When it comes to liturgical reform I really am out of my element. I wish I could speak to that but I can't, and so I'll defer to your comments on it.
    Non-judgment is essential, as you said. Perhaps this was what I was moving toward in this post. Legalism lets us come up with an understanding, a system, by which we can not only judge ourselves (pretty harshly at times, by the way) but also to judge others. It's our attempt to know the mind of God – but not really His true mind but rather our boxed in version based on the combination of our own understanding, experiences, worldview, and consciousness. We're shaping God in OUR image, which is the great fault of legalism and leads to all of the things I was expressing in the post. It's not freedom or love when we do this.

    For the record, I don't deny revelation (though I know you're not saying that). I don't discount dogma as important or valid or true. But even such truth can't be elevated and held so tightly. If it's true it will be an ever present guide toward something more real and beautiful. It will propel you to something greater and worth holding. Dogma, though true, is never an end in itself.


  4. As I said with Clayton's comment, forgive my lack of response up until now!

    So glad you liked the post! After reading your comment, I think you're right: Catholics aren't more prone to legalism than Protestants. The form is just different. Whereas Catholics have so many “forms” to love in Catholicism – Canon Law, the Precepts of the Church, our traditions, our formulaic prayers, etc., Protestants have Scripture. The Catholic legalism tends to be more obvious if you're looking for it. These people often can't see or understand the gospel unless it first passes through the mouth of the bishop!
    Protestants have the Word, which is a type of legalism itself. As Clayton commented, Protestants always have to know, “Where does it say that in the Bible?” It's a kind of literalism and rule book on its own that can often limit the loving response Christians are meant to have, regardless if they have a precedent in their biblical rule book. I'm being sarcastic with this – Scripture isn't silly. But it's so often abused, as you said.
    I completely loved your last paragraph. Agreed. Maybe you should write a post about that on your own blog?


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