Legalism: Definition & Beliefs

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the concept of legalism, and gain an understanding of the various contexts in which it is applied. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with a short quiz.

What Is Legalism?

If you've ever watched one of those court room dramas on television, you've no doubt heard one of the lawyers or judges citing specific cases or documents, like the U.S. Constitution, in order to make or dispute a case. In fact, if you've ever been a real courtroom, you may have heard the same thing in there. When a lawyer or judge cites something like this, they are suggesting that the situation doesn't need to be heavily considered because the answer already exists in a previously written document.

This type of argument or perspective is what is known as legalism, which is the belief that previously written legal documents, congressional acts, and case law are the only tools needed to solve a legal problem. For example, if someone were to steal food to feed their starving family, the judge wouldn't consider the social context or circumstances of the case but would instead rely on existing law which says that someone who steals something should be punished, regardless of the circumstances.

Quite simply, legalism is the belief that the law is not open to interpretation and should only be applied as it is written in existing documents. Beyond this straight-forward definition, however, the term 'legalism' is applied in several different areas of culture and society.

Christian Legalism

The description of legalism outlined above is generally related to Western justice or political systems and suggests a fairly strict interpretation of pre-written laws and documents. This idea of strict adherence to pre-existing documents, however, is often applied in other areas, though, the idea is generally the same.

In Christian theology, the term 'legalism' is used to describe a person who advocates for a strict adherence to the Bible without any consideration for the context or circumstances of the situation. For example, if one member of the church judges or harshly criticizes another member for working on Sundays, they might be considered a legalist because they are strictly adhering to what the Bible says rather than considering the person's circumstances or reasons for why they might have to work on Sundays. Many people within the religion dislike this perspective because it applies a reductive answer to an often complicated problem and ignores the larger teachings of the faith, such as mercy and forgiveness.

Liberal Legalism

Another application of the term is liberal legalism, which is sometimes referred to as constitutionalism. Liberal legalism is the term used to describe the belief that any power held by political or governmental groups doesn't come from within the group but is assigned by founding documents, which also limit its power. Unfortunately, unlike the other types outlined above, liberal legalism is a pretty complicated idea, and there isn't a simple way to explain it.

The best way to understand liberal legalism is to think about a political group, like the U.S. Congress or the House of Representatives, which have power because it is assigned to them through the Constitution, which also prescribes a system of checks and balances that limits their power to certain areas and authorities. Basically, members of Congress only have power because the Constitution says that they do, and that power has limits for the same reason.

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