What is Legalism? Engelhardt and Grisez on the Misuse of Law in Christian Ethics

The Thomist, Vol. 72, pp. 443-85, 2008

Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 10-13

Posted: 8 Apr 2010

Date Written: 2008


IT SEEMS INCONCEIVABLE that any contemporary Christian moralist in his or her right mind, or at least in his or her enlightened heart, would admit to being a "legalist" or uncomplainingly accede to a description of his or her moral theological framework as "legalistic." Those terms are often used as rhetorical weapons, in order simultaneously to express disdain for a moral theory or argument and to justify a decision to refrain from engaging that theory or argument further. Just as the term "fundamentalism" is freely used in some secular academic discussions to gesture to an object of polemic and scorn, so too is the term "legalism" used in Christian theological discussions.

But what, exactly, does it mean to call a Christian moral theory "legalistic"? The general consensus that legalism is unhelpful in a Christian moral framework a is not matched by a corresponding consensus about either the exact definition of legalism or the precise impediments it poses to sound moral analysis. Perhaps this is to be expected. From its very beginnings, Christianity expressed a complicated and ambivalent attitude toward the law, as its early leaders struggled to define its relationship with both Judaism and Greek philosophy. Chapter 3 of St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians furnishes us with a compact example. On the one hand, St. Paul tells us that "all who depend on works of the law are under a curse."

On the other hand, after raising the rhetorical question "Is the law then opposed to the promises [of God]?" he emphatically responds "Of course not!" Distinguishing proper respect for the law, especially the moral law, from improper use of it or reliance upon it, especially with regard to salvation, has occupied the attention of many a Christian theologian from apostolic times until the present day.

My aims in this article are modest. I do not hope to resolve here the great questions about the role of law in Christian life, the relationship of the eternal law to the natural law, the influence of natural law on positive law, or the relationship of law and grace. I do hope to shed some light on the meaning and use of the charge of "legalism." In order to do so, I will use St. Thomas Aquinas's definition of law to structure a close comparison of the thought of H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., an Eastern Orthodox thinker, and Germain Grisez, a Roman Catholic, on the role of law in the moral life.

Keywords: legalism, Catholic moral thought, Eastern Orthodox moral thought,abortion, contraception

Suggested Citation

Kaveny, M. Cathleen, What is Legalism? Engelhardt and Grisez on the Misuse of Law in Christian Ethics (2008). The Thomist, Vol. 72, pp. 443-85, 2008, Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 10-13, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1586427

M. Cathleen Kaveny (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States
617-552-4661 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.bc.edu/schools/law/fac-staff/deans-faculty/kavenyc.html

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