Against Modern Legalism

For all of its godlessness, this modern age hungers more than any other for love, compassion, and mercy. It hungers too for God (though often without realizing it), perhaps all the more strongly since no other age has banished Him more thoroughly from all its affairs. Yet so many modern people think of the God of the Bible as a vengeful, wrathful, angry deity, a god of hellfire and brimstone, a god of legalism who demands rigid adherence to a moral code — a moral code which many now view as being itself morally intolerable.

Many Orthodox Christians rightly view this as a time of unprecedented opportunity for Orthodoxy in the West. Where other Christian confessions have often emphasized a predominantly juridical understanding of salvation, Orthodox theology has always emphasized a primarily therapeutic model. In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.”

Such theology is nothing short of a soothing balm for souls wounded by the heartless judgement and Pharisaical contempt which has all too often characterized Christian attitudes towards sinners in the modern world, from Jonathan Edwards to Westboro Baptist Church. And so — quite rightly — this theological principle of pastoral compassion has become the foundation of the Orthodox witness to the modern age.

Yet very soon, strange facts begin to present themselves. Despite the vast theological and soteriological differences separating Orthodoxy from Western Christianity, Orthodoxy nevertheless seems to have historically held its followers to a quite similar moral code — actually, in point of fact, the Orthodox moral standard is largely found to be even more demanding than that of most Western Christian confessions.

How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled? What are we to make of the seeming difference between a theology of divine love and compassion on the one hand, and a tradition of extremely austere moral conduct on the other? One recent response to this question is quite characteristic of a certain strain of thought in contemporary Orthodoxy:

In many ways, the discussion of sexuality in the church (and, even more, the lack or even refusal of discussion) is curiously familiar. The situation is much the same with the question of women’s ministry in the church, and if one casts one’s mind back, one can discern other issues in the past (or even in the present) that manifest the same kind of discussion/non-discussion, whether over the acceptance of manifestations of Christianity outside the bounds of Orthodoxy, critical scholarship on the Scriptures and the history of the church, the theory of evolution, and more widely the relationship between science and religion, bound up with changes in the understanding of the place of humankind in the universe, or changes dependent on the rapid shifts in the patterns of human living. In all these cases, we find what are essentially Orthodox reactions, and, what is more, all too often reactions inspired by fear… Orthodoxy manifests itself in being conservative, rather than truly radical.

In many of these cases, we find a similar pattern: the conservative reaction appeals to tradition, but too often this tradition turns out to be a reaction dictated by fear of change. If, however, tradition means what is handed down, and the process of handing down—as we are so often told—then the very notion of tradition is bound up with encountering change. There would be no need for the process of handing down the deposit of faith if everything remained the same, but things don’t remain the same and indeed it often seems as if we live in a period of more dramatic change than has ever been known (though I expect that many in past ages had much the same perception)—which only means that we need to rethink what is the heart of what we believe in changed circumstances.

To translate this response into rather more blunt language: some assert that to impose the moral standards of the past on modern man is simply reactionary conservatism, mere legalistic rigidity. They argue that the essence of the tradition, “the heart of what we believe,” consists in theological truths which are deeper than the moral standards by which they were once expressed, and that therefore new moral standards must be synthesized by rethinking those deeper theological truths in the context of the changed modern landscape in which we live.

They charge the “traditionalists” with “reactions dictated by fear,” and accuse them of a thoughtless legalism which is unwilling or unable to consider the true relevance of Orthodoxy for the modern world.

But the truth is precisely the opposite. It is the modernists who are reacting out of blind fear — fear that modern man will reject Christ if He demands too much of him. It is the modernists who are the real legalists: it is they, and not the traditionalists, who view the commandments as mere lifeless rules, mere arbitrary codes of conduct which are useful only insofar as they are relevant to modern conditions of life and to the dispositions of the modern soul. It is the modernists who deny the truly radical claim of Orthodoxy: that, in the very words of Christ, the commandments themselves are life everlasting (c.f. John 12:50).

When the Lord said: “If ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love,” He was not setting a condition. He was stating a fact. To abide in the love of God and to keep His commandments are precisely the same thing. We meet Christ in His commandments, and outside of them He does not and cannot exist. C.S. Lewis, with quintessentially British pith, put it this way:

Repentance is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen.

Moreover, as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us, “It is evident that the strength that the practice of Christ’s commandments wins for the soul can be won by no other means or method. Christ’s power acts in His commandments.” Thus by rejecting the commandments, the modernists abandon the very therapeutic soteriology of Orthodoxy which they so highly value. Indeed, they are themselves adopting the same Western juridical notions of salvation which they claim to reject: they are viewing salvation not as the healing of spiritual sickness, but rather as God juridically pardoning whomsoever He chooses to pardon in His mercy.

I will put it another way. If what was once considered a sin can now be considered pleasing to God, then the only soteriological metaphor that can possibly hold is the judicial one: a law has been stricken off the books. To apply a therapeutic understanding of salvation would simply result in nonsense: it would be to declare that what was once a disease is now an image of perfect health.

I will hasten to state my belief that the modernists are full of nothing but sincere compassion for modern man and love for the Holy Orthodox Church. But their good intentions are misguided. They have forgotten the words of Christ in the Gospel:

Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

Having forsaken the rock of Christ’s commandments, the modernists have sought rather to build the house of the Church on the shifting sands of abstract theological principles combined with their own human reasoning.

And as I said, in large part they have done so out of fear. They fear that Christ’s commandments are not truly loving. They fear that His commandments are too harsh. They fear that modern man does not have the strength to fulfill them, and that modern man will not see any love in them. They fear that the Church will be abandoned if She does not keep up with the times.

Yet the real-world results of such a mindset have been all too clear: the more the Western confessions have abandoned traditional morality, the more their churches have emptied. After all, why bother getting up on Sunday morning just to go and listen to a preacher tell me that I’m just fine the way I am? I might as well stay in bed. Meanwhile, Jordan Peterson has amassed millions of devoted followers simply because he is willing to tell people that he thinks they have the potential to be better human beings than they are right now.

People today truly are hungry for mercy, love, and compassion. But they are also hungry for the truth. They are also hungry for something better than what this vain life can offer. They are spiritually starving, even though they have filled themselves to overflowing with everything which this world holds up as good and beautiful and lovely. They still find themselves empty and unsatisfied.

It is far from legalism to offer these people the only medicine which can possibly heal their spiritual sicknesses: the life-giving words of Christ our True God, the only Lover of Mankind. And it is far from compassionate to tell these people that things are just fine the way they are, because we assume that they will reject us — or because we are afraid of what they will think of us — if we tell them the truth.

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