It’s not about semantics, per se, but clear thinking.
Legalism is not simply a matter of hide-bound about rules. It’s not being a stickler for pointless details, not wrangling over endless permutations of application. Those are symptoms. Legalism is making the laws your god, and presuming overconfidence in understanding and executing them.
It’s a fine shade of difference which arises from intellectual culture and epistemology.
The only thing you can know of God is His requirements for you. That’s what Scripture means when it refers to “knowing God.” You are expected to extrapolate the unknown from the known, but you never presume to really understand. So it’s okay to talk about God’s character and personality, as long as you keep in mind you really can’t explain it. You can only indicate it.
In the Ancient Near Eastern world, they were aware of inductive reasoning, and deductive reasoning, and how to combine them on things which can be known. But no one had ever challenged the notion these only applied to lesser things. No one had ever challenged the necessity of divine revelation to understand things that really mattered. No one ever presumed to figure it out without the inclusion of mystical inputs arising from the subconscious portion of the mind. At the same time, the ancients had an awful lot more of that territory mapped out than we do today. For them, it was an necessary part of operating in this world to include symbolic logic and parabolic expression.
When the string of philosophers in Greece, reaching their zenith with Aristotle, discarded the mystical input to knowledge, it was almost too shocking. Eastern philosophers found such a crippled approach incomprehensible, but their immature and weak-minded students were enthralled by it. Little by little, the whole Eastern legacy of intellect was eroded by each successive generation of students becoming trapped in the emotional thrill of claiming to become masters of their emotions, all by discarding what was most difficult and most essential to understanding the universe. Today, if you try to explain to any Christian scholar the Fall was pushing aside the spirit in favor of the intellect, you’d be met with incomprehension in most cases, and with ridicule too often. If you exchange the word “spirit” with “mystical” in that statement, you’d probably get hostility. If not, chances are you are dealing with someone who is hiding a lust for rejecting God’s limits on human behavior. What passes for mysticism in the West is just fuzzy logic, in a attempt to claim a better brand of logic on the same level.
Without the genuine mystical approach, you can’t get law and justice in the right place. You either dismiss law, or you make it god. Then you can pretend to mix and match the various points of detailed analysis, but you are still working from a false dichotomy. Under mysticism, law is simply the necessary method, a flexible outline of where to start.
Moses warned his congregation the Law was not out of reach, that it was not incomprehensible, that it did not require impossible demands. Jesus said outright the Law of Moses had been intended as a pretty light-weight standard compared to the higher Laws of God. It was eminently reasonable on the human level, and the history of Israel is loaded with examples of how it could be done. There were periods when the obedience was pretty good, and the results were miraculous. It never was about hide-bound stickling over minute details. The very existence of the ritual system is loaded with examples of recognizing you can’t ever really be compliant by performance. Thus, you live by the system presuming you most certainly will make mistakes, including many you just don’t recognize.
The Talmud was a vast pile of manure compared to the soaring moral expectations of the Law of Moses. It arose from a long trend away from the moral sensitivity of early Hebrew history. Leading up the Exile, the national leadership had decided they were the Chosen, and it really didn’t matter how sincere they were. Simply go through the motions and God was trapped by His own promises, required to take care of things and not fuss. A generation or two in Exile exposed them to the gross religious materialism of Zoroastrianism, and the Jews came to believe material wealth was the primary mark of God’s favor. If you were rich, you must be holy. So when the Greeks came along evangelizing their Hellenistic rationalism, it was an easy sale. In just a few more generations, the Jewish intellectual elite became hostile to mysticism. By the time Jesus came along, His ancient mystical approach was rejected out of hand, and it was no longer the Law which was god, but the perversion we now call the Talmud was god. They simply called it “the Law.”
As for the word “religion,” it has become unfashionable with modern Christian Pharisees. Religion is merely the system by which you comply with demands of grace. You can’t pretend faith is ideas; orthodoxy is not “true religion” as the New Testament terms it. True religion is moral conduct drawn from something beyond explanation. Faith defies reason. Religion is law, in the sense that law was intended to provide a frame of reference, and this is what we are required to build and maintain.
You as an individual under grace, fully alive spiritually, are required to craft a religion which reflects the justice of God in an unjust world. Yes, there are a range of issues already settled so long ago in ancient times, you would be hard pressed to justify departing from them. Human sexuality is an obvious area which remains unchanged from Genesis to Revelation, covering tens of thousands of years of history. There are other issues which haven’t changed much, and we do well to discern them. But there is a whole range of things which simply cannot be codified except in the broadest generalizations. It’s not hard to understand the difference between an act of violence which is questionable, and a violent soul which is always wrong. It’s neither a matter of being nor doing, but of commitment.
When we build a faith community, law is all we have. I am not in a position to discern much more than whether we can get along well enough to do religion together. All the fancy language about being, as if I could pretend to know what I am, much less what you are in God’s eyes, is a violation of Christ’s teaching and intent. We join fellowship based on common assumptions about how we shall conduct our rituals and our lives in general. We formulate some laws in an attempt to give a usable structure to things on which we can agree. We recognize most of it merely symbolizes a desire to please God, and we don’t become cranky about minor variations. If a woman can explain why we teach she should wear a physical veil on her head in worship, we aren’t going to pick over her choice of fashion colors, and she can wear a baseball cap if she likes, even backwards. If the baseball cap advertises a filthy movie, she doesn’t get it. The symbol is far less important than the ineffable truth to which it points.
Such was the proper understanding of the Law of Moses among ancient Hebrews. If you simply don’t have enough intellectual energy to pursue the flexibility of it, ask and someone in leadership will make simplified rules for you. That’s what we do for children. When you absorb the underlying concepts as best you can, and demonstrate some desire to internalize them, you are set free to innovate on the precise application. We aim more for effects and results, and offer a wide tolerance for those who can convince us they meant well. Yes, this permits shysters to get away with much, and it makes it really hard for those who aren’t good at communication, but those are limits which can’t be fixed. We accept there is much which lies beyond our human reach, and emphasize what lies within it.
Do not equate orthodoxy with faith. If you can understand it intellectually, it’s not divine. The inherent nature of the Fall was the presumption the mind could handle the divine. It’s the same evil which presumes to master the law. Don’t bend law to your fear and lust for control. Religion is law and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Religion is simply a commonly agreed pattern of behavior and talk which facilitates serving God together. Never presume your religion and orthodoxy are anything more than your own expression of a desire for something you can’t possibly explain. If other people like it, share it. If not, press ahead with the best you can understand.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.