Romans 2:29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
#Sorrynotsorry for starting off with a verse that references circumcision. The rest of the verse makes up for it.
Gal 5:14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Matt 22:36-40 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
|Lady Justice: probably a fan of the Letter and so much the Spirit.|
Anyway, looks like what matters is Love. The Beatles knew what was up. Yet, how does that really influence the idea of the Letter vs the Spirit of the Law? Some argue that there is no difference and that if you truly obey the Letter than you also obey the Spirit or vice versa. However, I’m not quite so sure.
Let’s take a look at some fairly uncontroversial moral laws- don’t kill, lie or steal.
Are there exceptions to each of these? I would say so and if you think for a few seconds you can probably think of some yourself, but I’ll give you some, just to put us all on the same page.
Don’t Kill– self-defense, war, The Book of Mormon. Present day, let’s say some dude comes up to you and pulls out a gun, shoots the two people with you and then points it in your direction, threatening to shoot you. If you had the means, would it be morally justifiable and in keeping with the Law to kill him? Yeah, probably. Yet, you definitely took the letter of the Law and snapped off a few pieces, breaking it fair and square.
Be Honest– First, there’s some ambiguity as to what the letter of the law actually entails- do you have to share any and every thought and opinion that you have? If someone asks if they look good, do you need to answer honestly? If you intentionally mislead someone about your intentions to go to their shindig, not outright lying, but never intending to go are you being dishonest? (Let’s hope not, since I may or may not do this frequently, doing my best to never commit to things I have no intention of going to because if I do commit then I’ll feel obligated to go and that’s just the worst.)
Most of those are relatively benign, but a pretty serious moral dilemma could be if you were hiding someone that was in danger and you were asked point blank if you knew where they were, would you lie to save this person’s life or would you be honest and likely cause them suffering and pain and potentially death?
Again, seems like a pretty obvious choice. Lie and save a life. Some would throw this under the lesser of two evils category, but I find that dichotomy frustrating and think that the idea of the letter and spirit of the law allows for necessary ambiguity that God knew would be around us. Anyway, lying breaks the letter of the law, but I think preserves the spirit of the law in this instance.
Don’t Steal– We’ll use Jean Val Jean as an example. His family was starving, so he stole a loaf of bread, since he had no other recourse. Should he have let his family starve or was it the right choice to steal bread? Or maybe even Robin Hood (admittedly, Robin Hood is a bit of a controversial pick, but brings up an arguable point). The point is that there may be some circumstances where it is morally justifiable to steal.
Hopefully those examples provide some clarity to the idea of the Letter vs the Spirit of the Law.
As I alluded to above, I think that the idea of the Letter of the Law vs the Spirit of the Law allows for the ambiguities of life. Whereas some people argue for the idea of choosing lesser evils, I think that semantically and philosophically, the letter and spirit of the law is more appealing. The idea of choosing the lesser of two evils inherently suggests that you are forced into situations where you have to make an evil choice. I don’t think that that’s the case and I think that we would find ourselves in that situation much more frequently than we should.
To account for this complexity I think God understands and purposefully gives us the Letter of the Law, with the understanding and expectation that we will learn the Spirit of the Law, which is what really transforms us and allows us to live morally responsible lives within the ambiguous complexity that we find ourselves in.
There can be a danger here of overstepping and refuting the entirety of the Letter of the Law in the name of the Law’s Spirit, but that’s a post for another day.