When one looks at the definitions of legalism, one runs into a variety of issues. A word like legalism gets thrown around rather easily, and depending on the context one is using, a lot of different things can be meant. For example, in the context of Chinese history legalism refers to a cynical view of society that focuses on the control of the law in order to seek the interests of state, a mentality that has been important in many of China’s more tyrannical regimes up to the present day. Yet when the term is used to refer to religious beliefs, it often has a meaning that ranges from a subjective determination that someone emphasizes the law too much to a belief that someone believes that one can earn salvation through one’s meritorious deeds, something that can be found as a formal belief in Judaism and Buddhism, for example, but one that is rare among those who are both self-aware and deeply religious.
There are some terms whose meanings are so broad and even so contradictory that to use them is almost useless as a way of providing accurate description of someone or something. In common use, legalism is viewed as a negative term most of the time, and is most often used to describe those people who take the laws of God and man more seriously than we do. The general intent of such condemnation is to assume that anyone who takes God’s laws more seriously than we do is seeking to earn their salvation through works, and therefore their good and meritorious deeds are of no worth, thus allowing us to feel satisfied in our own disobedience to God’s commandments. Although, it could be noted that the desire to twist and manipulate the law for one’s own benefit also counts as a definition for legalism, meaning that legalism is one of many terms that can refer to people for contradictory reasons.
How are such terms useful? I do not tend to live my life seeking to find people and label them as legalists in order to assuage some sort of guilty conscience. Other people apparently do this sort of thing, as I have often had cause to see for myself. There is a high degree of motivation for people to strike back at those aspects of reality that make them feel uncomfortable or reflect negatively on them, and in such an attitude people are seldom if ever just. We should not expect a great deal of correspondence between the claims of people who are defensive and wish to make others feel defensive in turn and the reality of the situation. Like most subjects, legalism is most useful not when being hurled as an epithet, but rather when it is being viewed and studied as a historical and cultural phenomenon.
It is worthwhile to ponder how it is that people view the law. Is our concern with the law more about whether it will be enforced on us? Do we think ourselves to live basically in compliance with the laws of God or man without knowing much about them? Do we actively oppose certain laws and the ways that they are enforced, thus making ourselves open enemies of what we view as a corrupt legal order? Do we believe that obedience to the law makes us morally superior to those who are ignorant or hostile to the law? All of these are ways to enter into a conversation about our view of the law and how it can impact how we view and are viewed by those beings, human and divine, who are in authority over us. Too often the use of labels is an attempt to end a conversation by reversing the moral superiority of one party over another, instead of the beginning of a conversation about the relationship of people and the law, a conversation that needs to happen a lot more often.