Legalism, Doctrine, and Moody Theologians

Here’s another memorable, close-to-the-bone passage from Ted Peters’ excellent Sin Boldly!: Justifying Faith for Fragile […]

David Zahl / 9.15.15

Here’s another memorable, close-to-the-bone passage from Ted Peters’ excellent Sin Boldly!: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls, this time on the human propensity for making grace into law.

R-3299018-1369396826-2435.jpegThe Reformation victory took place in the sixteenth century. Five centuries later, how should we assess what is going on today? Beneath the ideology of works righteousness, or legalism, or whatever we might wish to call it, we find the fragile soul. Medieval Roman Catholic theology is but one doctrinal codification of a common structure at work in the human mind. The fragile soul belongs to the human race as such. It is universal. Though some individuals seem to get along without it, by and large, each of us exhibits traits of the fragile soul (though some more than others). And human beings in groups find no escape from the damage the fragile soul can inflict… The fragile soul is pre-religious, so to speak: it affect our disposition whether we belong to a formal religious institution or not.

So I ask: Will pure doctrine protect us from the vicissitudes of the fragile soul? No. A striving for purity in doctrine has its value, to be sure; but the fragile soul can effect damage within pure doctrine just as well as within any heterodox doctrine. In fact, a passionate and rigid adherence to pure doctrine can distort the soul as much as outright belief in the ideology of good works. Here is my point: what is at stake is not the content of pure doctrine but rather the purity in our attitude toward it. Such purity in attitude can be a form of spiritual duct tape, a “no trespassing” sign to keep the divine spirit and human compassion away.

This may at first seem confusing. Reformation theology is dedicated to stamping out legalism, works righteousness, and authoritarianism. Yet, who is calling the kettle black? Can the reformers exhibit the same fragility and legalism as those they are trying to reform? Perhaps we are talking less about the content of a healthy theology and more about the mood or tone or demeanor of the theologians…

The takeaway is this: our conscience can panic as it pursues religious teaching in its maximum purity… This panic is stirred up by an underlying anxiety, the same anxiety that drives the fragile soul to seek security in legalism. If we believe our eternal survival depends on getting the doctrine just right–on believing just the right thing–then we will stop at nothing to purify our central beliefs to the utmost degree. The net result is the same rigidity, absolutism and intolerance that accompanied the very legalism pure doctrine sought to combat. Such is the paradoxical yet ubiquitous influence of the fragile soul engaged in sheepish sinning.