"Spirit of the Law" vs "Letter of the Law"

Rick's picture

  “Letter of The Law” vs “Spirit of The Law”


    In my last Blog (Hypocrisy) I made a statement of how the Pharisees actively sought loopholes that allowed them to violate the spirit of the Law. In doing this I might have left the question unanswered on just what is meant by that statement, and it is not my intent to suggest that all of you might not know what this difference is, but it is a fascinating study to say the least! 

    The first recorded use of this phrase is by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians in 2 Cor 3:6;

    “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

     Paul being a former Pharisees himself well knew that they placed the letter of the law above the spirit.    

     It is interesting to find that “spirit of the law” only appears once in the UB from Christ himself, and that it is at the place where Paul, many years later sent his letter, Corinth;

    *133:4.7 To the Roman judge he said: “As you judge men, remember that you yourself will also some day come to judgment before the bar of the Rulers of a universe. Judge justly, even mercifully, even as you shall some day thus crave merciful consideration at the hands of the Supreme Arbiter. Judge as you would be judged under similar circumstances, thus being guided by the spirit of the law as well as by its letter.

    We find “letter of the law” only in two places in the UB;

    *121:7.1 By the times of Jesus the Jews had arrived at a settled concept of their origin, history, and destiny. They had built up a rigid wall of separation between themselves and the gentile world; they looked upon all gentile ways with utter contempt. They worshiped the letter of the law and indulged a form of self-righteousness based upon the false pride of descent. 

    *135:6.8 John conducted classes for his disciples, in the course of which he instructed them in the details of their new life and endeavored to answer their many questions. He counseled the teachers to instruct in the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

    It is here that Im going to paraphrase what is for me the greatest examples of the the “Spirit of the Law’, the parable of the Good Samaritan that we find in both the Bible (Luke 10:25-37) and in the Urantia book, Paper 164. The passage concerns a dialogue between Jesus and an "expert in the law" or "lawyer".

    A certain lawyer stood up and tested Him saying, Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?, the intent of the dialogue was to trap Jesus into making statements contrary to the law. 

    Jesus responds by posing the question back to the lawyer, as already having knowledge of the law, "What is written in the law?" 

    The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.",  The question "Who is my neighbor?", that follows is described as being asked with the goal of self-justification.

    It is then that Jesus responds with the story of a man beaten by robbers who is ignored by a Priest and a Levite, but then rescued and compassionately cared for by a Samaritan. He goes above and beyond simply tending to the injured man. He takes him to an inn and gives money for the man's care, promises and then actually does return to inquire about the man, and pay any overage incurred. Jesus concludes by asking the lawyer which of the men was a "neighbor" to the beaten traveller, to which the reply was "the one who showed compassion". Then Jesus says to him "go and do likewise".

    Here again we can see how Christ made this individual judge himself by just asking a few question, the mirror test!

    It is interesting that a famous writer that you may have heard of by the name of William Shakespeare wrote numerous plays dealing with the letter versus spirit antithesis.

    In one of the best known examples, The Merchant of Venice, he introduces the quibble as a plot device to save both the spirit and the letter of the law. 

    In the play Shylock is a Jew who lends money to his Christian rival Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio's flesh. 

    Shylock is the play's principal antagonist. His defeat and conversion to Christianity forms the climax of the story.

    "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." 

    William Shakespeare. (the first four lines of Portias famous speech from The Merchant of Venice)

    Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. His purpose was to encourage people to look beyond the "letter of the law" to the "spirit of the law”.


     Rickey H. Crosby (Petitor Veritatis)