Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[19] II


"Woe unto you, ye lawyers!" S. LUKE xi 46.

LAST Sunday I spoke of the most glaring vice of English religion, Sentimentalism. Today we will deal with its polar opposite, Legalism.

Our Lord taught us to see in God the wise Father: sentimentalism pictures Him as a grandmother. Legalism does the opposite. Its God is an irate governess. Sentimentalism lands us in the denial of all principle. Legalism reduces Eternal Love to a pettifogging attorney. Sentimentalism reduces the religious life to easy good nature. Legalism makes it a punishment drill. To the one worship is all emotion; to the other it is a piece of school repetition.

Yet in discussing sentimentalism we had to guard against the error of denying the due place of sentiment. So to-day we may deplore legalism but we must not abolish law. Society is an essential fact of human life, and therefore of [19/20] religion. In all society law is inherent. You must have general rules of action. No religion which is corporate can do without law. Anarchy may be the ideal of some; but only on a purely individualistic view of religion can anarchy be justified. In politics we have long ago given up this. It is more than absurd to preach sheer individualism in regard to religion. More and more is the social nature of religion seen to be its earliest and most salient characteristic. Still more is that true of our religion. Love to God and love to our neighbours are its governing maxims. These principles are essentially social.

Law, then, of some sort there must be in the Church. Otherwise it would not be a church, but a fortuitous concourse of pietistic atoms.

Legalism does not mean regard for law. Legalism means treating law as the aim and object of religion. It makes of rules the end not the means. Our Lord Jesus condemned it once for all when He said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Legalism will ever extend the system of rule; it will choke the spirit with technicalities. It has these two evils. First it introduces a mechanical hardness which goes entirely by rule and pays no regard to personal character or to circumstances; secondly, having put down rules, legalism produces the habit which is satisfied with a minimum. If the law be [20/21] complied with, that is all, and no Christian need look further.

The first of these errors was predominantly mediƦval. The lawlessness of the Middle Ages was universal. In reaction against the facts of rebellion men loved a system of law theoretically perfect. Alike in spiritual and secular affairs they atoned for the raggedness of social practice by an elaborate and all-embracing theory. Some rules even were laid down in order that the Pope might make money by dispensing from them. The system known as the Corpus Juris Canonici had reference only to the Western Church, and we must never forget that the Western Church is not the whole. Its aim was to produce a system of scientific law comparable to the Corpus of Justinian. We have not yet escaped from the harm it did.

From the twelfth century onward the canonist conception of the Catholic religion dominated men's minds, and the study of it largely displaced theology.

To many people then, and since then, Christianity is above all things a system of rules. Legal notions of God, forensic ideas of the Atonement, ethics considered from a juristic standpoint, became prevalent. Against this arose the sentimentalist reaction. Now we see reaction against that reaction.

[22] Too many now talk of the vast and magnificent grandeur of the Catholic life as if it were no more than a body of legal formula. They seem to think that its interpretation and propaganda require not the enthusiasm of the saint or the profundity of the thinker, but rather the blustering of an Old Bailey barrister or the subtlety of an appeal judge.

Too many, moreover, mean by regard for law not their willingness to obey law, but your duty to do what they tell you. They say: I tell you. This always comes from the legalist habit. It is, in common parlance, laying down the law. Our Lord saw it: Ye bind on men's shoulders burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves will not touch them with a finger.

Belief in authority, as I have said in this church before, is tested by our own readiness to bow before it, not by our love of bullying other people; just as belief in freedom is shown by allowing personality to others, not by our own desire to do what we like.

The National Mission is to try to bring back men to the love of God, to proclaim His law as paramount. This is right. Too many have forgotten God and law. But there is no use in proclaiming merely legal grounds to people who do not yet even try to love God. Practices such as confession are sometimes recommended in a [22/23] legalist spirit. This only irritates people. Once let them realize something of the beauty of God, and they will see the need of penitence. Then they may easily be brought to seek it in the way which experience commends. But they will never do so if you merely tell them that they must.

Law, again, can do more than give a rough formula for ordinary cases. There must be difficult cases on the border-line. Hence arose casuistry, the science of dealing with cases on the edge. When it is difficult to know which class is right, casuistry is necessary. It becomes dangerous only if you try to make a general rule out of exceptional cases. Without it you get an unfair rigidity. Some defenders of tradition forget this. Love to God and our neighbour are the two eternal principles of God's law. All application of rules must be judged by them. You can have no system of law which has not a loophole for dispensations. This is known to the Romans, but it is not always realized among ourselves. Some people are all for applying the whole canonical system apart from those relaxations which alone rendered it tolerable in practice. The best practical rule is to lean to the lenient view when we are judging other people and to the severe one when we are planning for ourselves. But even that is only a rough [23/24] guide. A scrupulous person wants to be told the contrary.

One further effect of legalism is yet more evil. It lowers the standard. The contrary is the common opinion. It is thought that legalism is dangerous because its sets up an impossibly high standard and is unfair to the hard cases. That, as I have said, it sometimes is, but only incidentally.

The real evil in the long run is the reverse. If all acts are to be laid down by law you must take a low standard. That was the way in which in the Middle Ages the standard of one communion per annum become general. You may be anxious to keep up a high ideal, but if it is to be for everybody you cannot. Human nature is too strong for you; and, you must remember, law is always interpreted by custom. If you put your laws too high they will simply be ignored. You must legislate for the average, l'homme moyen sensuel. No harm is done if it is known to be a minimum, and if people are encouraged to go much beyond it. That is what is meant by counsels of perfection. If all England were to be converted to God to-night you could not impose by Church law a very high standard of daily or even weekly devotion. It is impossible. You have got to legislate for the stableman.

[25] Now, as I said, there is no harm in this if people know it is only a minimum and ask themselves how much more they can do. But where legalism is predominant, that is, where people think of religion entirely on legal lines, then such a low standard becomes universal. People often say that God is love and not mere law, and suppose that that means that the standard is easier. It is not: it is the reverse. Love exacts more, not less, than law. The more our love is real the more it will give. The enthusiasm of love is anxious to give, wants occasions of giving. Love is always exacting. For forlorn hopes you want volunteers. Your best friends take most out of you.

The more we realize that religion is love the less will anybody be satisfied with the legal minimum. For the same reason we ought to be ready to judge other people whose circumstances we do not know by that legal minimum.

It is legalism that protests against all high and heroic service such as special vocations. They are abnormal, peculiar, and won't fit into any pigeon-hole. This was at the bottom of Luther's and Melanchthon's hatred of the religious life, though they thought that they were anti-legalists.

Legalism, again, is opposed to new experiments. It would tie the Church down to the [25/26] methods of the day before yesterday. It is trying to do that at this moment. A legalist Church is a petrified Church, whatever the rock may be made of. Mr. Legality has ever been the bugbear of Protestants, yet they are often his victims. Legalism makes of religion a moral code, no more and no less. It takes from it its colour, its joy, its wonder, and its power to make people do the impossible. Is not the notion of religion that most Englishmen hold just this the notion of a set of moral prohibitions, something unpleasant, like a signboard to keep you, out of the shade of a wood on a hot day. That is what they think of it, when they dislike it. But if, in the common phrase, they hold with it, they look upon religion as a friendly policeman who keeps all vagrants and hawkers out of a respectable neighbourhood fit for nice people.

Now religion is the most wonderful, the most inexhaustible and varied, the most absorbingly strange of all human phenomena, even to look upon it from that standpoint alone, and it can never be reduced merely to a system of technical rule. As I say, it must have a law. That is inherent in religion, unless you are going to have it purely subjective, purely individualistic; and that would be false to human nature.

But we must not be tied down to law. Let us be careful not to judge others by a standard [26/27] which to them may be impossible. Let us be satisfied in the case of those whom we do not know with what is a bare legal minimum, but let us never sink to that legal minimum ourselves, or be content to teach it. And let us as far as possible avoid treating the experience of the Church, the lives of the saints, and the glory of the Sacraments in a narrow, lawyer-like way.

When our Lord said: Woe unto you, lawyers, He was not thinking of barristers in a secular court; He was thinking definitely of people who made of religion a law, and nothing else. We are all tempted to do that because it saves us trouble.

We are looking just now for the great wind of God's Holy Spirit to come breathing upon the dry bones of the Church; we must be prepared for it. Or else we shall make the same mistake as the Pharisees. They were expecting, they were awaiting, a great regeneration, but when the Messiah came they could not see Him, they could not believe Him. Why? Because He did not satisfy the canons and rules they had laid down as to what He must be like. So they brought Him to the Cross.

We pride ourselves every day that we are not like the Pharisees, and yet we are much tempted to their sins.

Let us pray God that while He may keep [27/28] within us a common-sense regard for the necessity of law and the spiritual self-denial involved in submission, He may also keep us from the terrible evil of reducing all the wonders of His redemptive power to a mere system of rule and prohibitions, laying stress rather on the negative, repressive side of religion, than on its positive, creative life.

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