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Letter and spirit of the law

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The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis. When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not adhering to the literal wording.

"Law" originally referred to legislative statute, but in the idiom may refer to any kind of rule. Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit may be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language. Following the letter of the law but not the spirit is also a tactic used by oppressive governments.


William Shakespeare wrote numerous plays dealing with the letter v. spirit debate, almost always coming down on the side of "spirit", often forcing villains (who always sided with the letter) to make concessions and remedy.

U.S. Constitutional law

Interpretations of the U.S. Constitution have historically divided on the "Letter v. Spirit" debate. For example, at the founding, the Federalist Party argued for a looser interpretation of the Constitution, granting Congress broad powers in keeping with the spirit of the broader purpose of some founders (notably including the Federalist founders' purposes). The Federalists would have represented the "spirit" aspect. In contrast, the Democratic-Republicans, who favored a limited federal government, argued for the strict interpretation of the Constitution, arguing that the federal government was granted only those powers enumerated in the Constitution, and nothing not explicitly stated; they represented the "letter" interpretation.

Modern Constitutional interpretation also divides on these lines. Currently, Living Constitution scholars advocate a "spirit"-esque interpretative strategy, although one grounded in a spirit that reflects broad powers. Originalist or Textualists advocate a more "letter"-based approach, arguing that the Amendment process of the Constitution necessarily forecloses broader interpretations that can be accomplished simply by passing an amendment.

The Bible

The Bible references the letter and the spirit of the law in Romans 2:29 NASB. Though it is not quoted directly, the principle is applied using the words "spirit" and "letter" in context with the Mosaic Law. This may be the first recorded use of the phrase.

"But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God."

In the New Testament, Pharisees are seen as people who place the letter of the law above the spirit (Mark 2:3–28, 3:1–6). Thus, "Pharisee" has entered the language as a pejorative for one who does so; the Oxford English Dictionary defines Pharisee with one of the meanings as A person of the spirit or character commonly attributed to the Pharisees in the New Testament; a legalist or formalist. Pharisees are also depicted as being lawless or corrupt (Matthew 23:38); the Greek word used in the verse means lawlessness, and the corresponding Hebrew word means fraud or injustice.

Some[who?] might connect 2 Corinthians 3:6 with such an idea, but that passage talks about "the letter" versus "the Spirit", where "the letter" refers to the old covenant and its rules, while "the Spirit" refers to the Holy Spirit (and the New Covenant). The new covenant described in Jeremiah 31:31-33 is a common theme of the prophets, beginning with Hosea.[1] According to Jeremiah, "the qualities of the new covenant that make it different from the old are : a) It will not be broken, but will last forever; b) Its law will be written in the heart, not merely on tablets of stone; c) The knowledge of God will be so generally know forth in the life of the people that it will no longer be necessary to put it into words of instruction."[1] According to Luke (Lk 22, 20), and St. Paul, in the first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11, 25), this prophecy was fulfilled only through the work of Jesus Christ,[1] who said "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you."

Gaming the system

Gaming the system, also called "rules lawyering", is the following of the letter (sometimes referred to as RaW or Rules as Written) — over, or contrary to—the spirit (sometimes referred to as RaI or Rules as Intended) of the law. It is used negatively to describe the act of manipulating the rules to achieve a personal advantage. It may also mean acting in an antisocial, irritating manner while technically staying within the bounds of the rules.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "The New American Bible" Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Nashville, Tenesse, 37202, 1976 (1970) p.949 (Jeremiah 31: 31-34). Note: This bible has interpretations and references as footnotes.

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