So it’s pretty commonplace now to draw a distinction between being a good person and following a particular set of rules. People who follow the rules just for the sake of following the rules are often depicted as legalistic, as bound by artificial systems that fail to speak to the organic, natural expression of our inner truth or identity. It’s the problem of Javert in Les Miserables: he’s rigid and legalistic in a way that ultimately destroys him. Christians draw a distinction between law and grace, often portraying Judaism as legalistic and bound by the laws of Moses in contrast to the grace provided by Christ. In turn, many secular people feel that Christianity is legalistic, that its adherents stick to pointless rules for no real reason. Examples of this binary between legalism and goodness can be multiplied forever throughout our wider cultural context – I mean, it’s even the premise of the D&D alignment system.
And within Christianity, different people find this idea expressed in different ways. For me, as a New Zealander in a very low Pentecostal church, I grew up with Jules Riding. Literally nobody is going to know this song except for me – it’s like a minute long, and it’s called ‘What Makes You a Christian’. It’s a riff on the old saying that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car – it’s that, in song form for kids, from a man who lists his musical influences as Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles. It’s from 1997 and it’s an extremely formative part of my childhood, along with songs like ‘Stinky Sox’, ‘I Just Wanna Be A Sheep’, and ‘I Am The Way’ – which is actually kind of a bop, damn. What was my point?
Attitudes towards so-called legalism in Christianity obviously move in and out of view depending on what else was happening at the time. When the Protestant Reformers moved against the Catholic Church, one of their claims was that the Catholics were caught up in meaningless legalism. Similarly, at the start of the twentieth century, when Adolf von Harnack was delivering his lectures in Berlin, the target was the concept of doctrine itself.
- The text: What Is Christianity?
- The author: Adolf von Harnack
- Notes: This is a series of lectures presented in Berlin over the summer of 1899-1900.
- Read it yourself: Lectures 11 and 12 over here.
Let me ask you a question. How important is it to your salvation that you correctly articulate the two natures of Christ as human and divine? If your Christology is a bit wobbly, because you’ve never had professional theological training, are you going to hell? Does your salvation depend on the redemptive work of Christ, or on your subscription to the correct list of doctrines and beliefs? Obviously it’s the former. That’s not to say that doctrine is irrelevant, but maybe it’s only relevant up to a point. There’s a reason most Christians don’t really bother with academic theology. Nobody goes around reading Augustine or Martin Luther. Nobody cares about high-concept debates over Trinitarian theology. It’s not that important to the practice of our faith in our day-to-day lives. Most of us just go to church, pray, worship, and read the Bible. We live Christ in our lives rather than worrying about doctrinal minutiae.
Drawing on the same basic reasoning, Harnack argues that the Christian focus on doctrine over religious experience is a problem – one that he thinks began with the Catholic battle against the Gnostics. In Lecture 11 of his series What Is Christianity?, he argues that the conflict with the Gnostics “meant definition, that is to say, drawing a sharp line of demarcation around what was Christian and declaring everything heathen that would not keep within it.” He continues:
“The struggle with Gnosticism compelled the Church to put its teaching, its worship, and its discipline into fixed forms and ordinances, and to exclude everyone who would not yield them obedience … it was now forced to say: You are no Christian, you cannot come into any relation with God at all, unless you have first of all acknowledged these doctrines, yielded obedience to these ordinances, and followed out definite forms of mediation. Nor was anyone to think a religious experience legitimate that had not been sanctioned by sound doctrine and approved by the priests.”
In order to preserve itself against the heresy of Gnosticism, he claims, the Catholic church hardened and calcified, becoming self-appointed gatekeepers enforcing certain doctrines as normative for Christian identity. He argues that this shift took us away from the core of religion – it reduced faith to a series of doctrinal statements rather than a living, personal relationship. It also enhanced the role of the church hierarchy as a controlling institution, as arbiters and gatekeepers of ‘true’ faith, of who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. Where the church historically (he argues) was almost more like a band of believers joining together to worship, the calcified church enforces control from one central location. Crucially, this calcified hierarchy hinged your faith not on whether you followed Jesus, but on whether you submitted to institutional control. They inserted themselves into the process of salvation, and reduced faith in Jesus to a series of rules and doctrines that they could control:
“The institution, together with all its forms and arrangements, became more and more identified with the ‘bride of Christ,’ ‘the true Jerusalem,’ and so on, and accordingly was even itself proclaimed as the inviolable creation of God, and the fixed and unalterable abode of the Holy Ghost. Consistently with this, it began to announce that all its ordinances were equally sacred. How greatly religious liberty was thus encumbered I need not show.”
Regardless of how you feel about his argument, Harnack touches on issues that are relevant today. How much trust should we be placing in religious hierarchies? When does genuine, living faith dissolve into rules and formulas and pointless rituals? In lecture 13, Harnack warns against “the delusion that, if only a man possesses the right formula, he has the thing itself.” I think we’ve all met the sort of person that he’s talking about – the sort of cruel, unpleasant Christian who thinks that their denomination makes them better than everyone else, as if God’s more interested in formulas than in genuine, personal faith. Which – you know, is not to say that I agree with all of Harnack’s arguments. I’m not trying to make a case one way or the other – this is just his perspective. But I do think it’s important to think about the church as an institution, as a body that exercises control over believers, maybe sometimes to the detriment of their faith. Faith isn’t just the individual and God, it’s the individual and God and this gaping powerful institution that can bar you from communal worship and communion if you don’t do things their way. And we all know about shitty religious leaders. We’ve seen them in our churches, in our different places of worship. We know about spiritual abuse, about how shitty priests will try and bully people into acting a certain way, using their position as spiritual leaders to present their demands as God’s will. I’m not claiming that church hierarchy is always necessarily a bad thing, but at the very least, it’s important to acknowledge that it exists, and that it does often insert itself as gatekeeper between the individual and the divine. Sometimes that ends badly. It’s worth asking, like Harnack, whether those structures are a necessary or intrinsic part of Christianity, or whether they might actually be detrimental to the faith.