IT IS INEVITABLE THAT IN A CHURCH COMPOSED OF SAINTS AND SINNERS ANTINOMIANISM IS BOUND TO APPEAR FROM TIME TO TIME

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Saint Augustine

The term antinomianism derives from the Greek ἀντί (anti “against”) + νόμος (nomos “law”).[2]

Antinomianism in Christianity is the belief that under the gospel dispensation of grace, moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.[1] Antinomianism and the Protestant doctrine of sola fide (justification through faith alone) are historically related. Commonly seen as the theological opposite to antinomianism is the notion that obedience to a code of religious law earns salvation, such as Legalism or Works righteousness or Judaizing.

The term “antinomianism” emerged soon after the Protestant Reformation (c.1517) and has historically been used mainly as a pejorative against Christian thinkers or sects who carried their belief in justification by faith further than was customary.[2] Examples are Martin Luther’s critique of antinomianism and the Antinomian Controversy of the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although the term is 16th century, the topic has its roots in Christian views on the old covenant extending back to the 1st century. It can also be extended to any individual who rejects a socially established morality.[1] However, few groups, outside of anarchism such as Christian anarchism or Jewish anarchism, explicitly call themselves “antinomian”.

Antinomianism has been a point of doctrinal contention in the history of Christianity, especially in Protestantism. Given the Protestant belief in justification through faith alone, versus on the basis of merit or good works or works of mercy, most Protestants consider themselves saved without having to keep the commandments of the Mosaic Law as a whole. However, consistent with the Reformed formula, “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone”,[3] salvific faith has overall been seen as one that effected obedience, with those teachings (known somewhat imprecisely) as the moral law, in contrast to ceremonial law, being retained in almost all Christian denominations. Upon hearing that he was being charged with rejection of the Old Testament moral law, Luther responded:

“And truly, I wonder exceedingly, how it came to be imputed to me, that I should reject the Law or ten Commandments, there being extant so many of my own expositions (and those of several sorts) upon the Commandments, which also are daily expounded, and used in our Churches, to say nothing of the Confession and Apology, and other books of ours.”[4]

In his “Introduction to Romans,” Luther stated that saving faith is,

“a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”[5]

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”[6]

The classic Methodist commentator Adam Clarke held,

“The Gospel proclaims liberty from the ceremonial law: but binds you still faster under the moral law. To be freed from the ceremonial law is the Gospel liberty; to pretend freedom from the moral law is Antinomianism.”[7]

Likewise on Titus 1:16 (“They profess that they know God; but in works they deny, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” KJV):

“Full of a pretended faith, while utterly destitute of those works by which a genuine faith is accredited and proved.”[8]

To which the Presbyterian commentator Mathew Henry concurs:

“There are many who in word and tongue profess to know God, and yet in their lives and conversations deny and reject him; their practice is a contradiction to their profession.”[9]

Though historically a general consensus has been reached as to which laws of the Old Testament pertain to the category of moral law, which Christians are enjoined to keep, certain laws can be somewhat difficult to classify, and may be vulnerable to subjective judgment. A broad definition of antinomianism can be exercised. Christian sects and theologians who believe that they are freed from more laws than is customary are often called “antinomian” by their critics, while those who feel that more than the customary laws apply are in turn called “Judaizers” or “legalists” by their critics. Theological charges of antinomianism typically imply that the opponent’s doctrine leads to various sorts of licentiousness, and imply that the antinomian chooses his theology in order to further a career of dissipation. However, the conspicuous austerity of life among many sects accused of antinomianism (such as Anabaptists or Calvinists) suggests that these accusations are often, or even mostly, made for rhetorical effect. Accusations of antinomianism have also been used more loosely to criticize doctrines that erode the authority of the church, or to criticize teachings perceived as hostile to government and civic law.

The contemporary Evangelical theologian J. I. Packer defines five strains of antinomianism:

  • Dualistic Antinomianism (Gnostic): This view sees salvation as for the soul only, and bodily behavior as irrelevant both to God’s interest and the soul’s health…
  • Spirit-centered Antinomianism: …puts such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct.
  • Christ-centered Antinomianism: …argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing.
  • Dispensational Antinomianism: …denies that biblical law is God’s direct command and affirms that the Bible’s imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written.
  • Situationist Antinomianism: …says that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Decalogue and other ethical parts of scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at times disregard.[10]

Gnosticism

Early Gnostic sects were accused of failure to follow the Mosaic Law in terms that suggest the modern term “antinomian”. Some Gnostic sects did not accept parts of the Old Testament moral law. For example, the Manichaeans held that their spiritual being was unaffected by the action of matter and regarded carnal sins as being, at worst, forms of bodily disease. Marcionism, though technically not gnostic, rejected the Hebrew Bible in its entirety. Such deviations from the moral law were criticized by proto-orthodox rivals of the Gnostics, who ascribed various aberrant and licentious acts to them. A biblical example of such criticism can be found in Revelation 2:6–15, which criticizes the Nicolaitanes, an early Gnostic sect.

Lutheranism

The term “antinomianism” was coined by Martin Luther during the Reformation, to criticize extreme interpretations of the new Lutheran soteriology.[11] The Lutheran Church benefited from early antinomian controversies by becoming more precise in distinguishing between Law and Gospel and justification and sanctification. Martin Luther developed 258 theses during his six antinomian disputations, which continue to provide doctrinal guidance to Lutherans today.[11]

First Antinomian controversy

As early as 1525, Johannes Agricola, in his commentary on Luke, advanced his idea that the law was a futile attempt of God to work the restoration of mankind. He maintained that while non-Christians were still held to the Mosaic law, Christians were entirely free from it, being under the Gospel alone. He viewed sin as a malady or impurity rather than an offense rendering the sinner guilty and damnable before God. The sinner was the subject of God’s pity rather than of his wrath. To Agricola, the purpose of repentance was to abstain from evil rather than the contrition of a guilty conscience. The law had no role in repentance, which came about after one came to faith and was caused by the knowledge of the love of God alone.[11]

In contrast, Philipp Melanchthon urged that repentance must precede faith, and that knowledge of the moral law is needed to produce repentance. He later wrote in the Augsburg Confession, that repentance had two parts. “One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.”[12]

Shortly after Melanchthon drew up the 1527 Articles of Visitation in June, Agricola began to be verbally aggressive toward him, but Martin Luther succeeded in smoothing out the difficulty at Torgau in December 1527. However, Agricola did not change his ideas, and later depicted Luther as disagreeing with him. After Agricola moved to Wittenberg, he still maintained that while the law must be used in the courthouse, it must not be used in the church. He said that repentance comes from hearing the good news only and does not precede but rather follows faith. He continued to disseminate this doctrine in books, despite receiving various warnings from Luther.[11]

Luther, with reluctance, at last believed he had to make public comment against antinomianism and its promoters in 1538 and 1539.[13] Agricola apparently yielded, and Luther’s book Against the Antinomians (1539)[14] was to serve as Agricola’s recantation. This was the first use of the term Antinomian.[15][16] But the conflict flared up again, and Agricola sued Luther. He said that Luther had slandered him in his disputations, Against the Antinomians, and in his On the Councils and Churches (1539). But before the case could be brought to trial, Agricola, though he had bound himself to remain at Wittenberg, left the city and moved to Berlin, where he had been offered a position as preacher to the court. After his arrival there, he made peace with the Saxons, acknowledged his “error”, and gradually conformed his doctrine to that which he had before opposed and assailed. He still used such terms as gospel and repentance in a different manner than Luther.[11]

Second Antinomian Controversy

The antinomian doctrine, however, was not eliminated from Lutheranism. Melanchthon and those who agreed with him, called Philippists, were checked by the Gnesio-Lutherans in the Second Antinomian Controversy during the Augsburg Interim. The Philippists ascribed to the Gospel alone the ability to work repentance, to the exclusion of the law. They blurred the distinction between Law and Gospel by considering the Gospel itself to be a moral law. They did not identify Christ’s fulfillment of the law with the commandments which humans are expected to follow.[11]

As a result, the Book of Concord rejects antinomianism in the last confession of faith. The Formula of Concord rejects antinominism in the fifth article, On the Law and the Gospel[17] and in the sixth article, On the Third Use of the Law.[18]

Calvinism

From the latter part of the 18th century, critics of Calvinists accused them of antinomianism. Such charges were frequently raised by Arminian Methodists, who subscribed to a synergistic soteriology that contrasted with Calvinism’s monergistic doctrine of justification. The controversy between Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists produced the notable Arminian critique of Calvinism: Fletcher‘s Five Checks to Antinomianism (1771–75).

Quakers

Quakers were charged with antinomianism due to their rejection of a graduate clergy and a clerical administrative structure, as well as their reliance on the Spirit (as revealed by the Inner Light of God within each person) rather than the Scriptures. They also rejected civil legal authorities and their laws (such as the paying of tithes to the State church and the swearing of oaths) when they were seen as inconsistent with the promptings of the Inner Light of God.

Jesuits

Blaise Pascal accused the Jesuits of antinomianism in his Lettres provinciales, charging that Jesuit casuistry undermined moral principles.

– WIKIPEDIA

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…the enthusiast has abrogated moral responsibility.

On the opposite slope lies the peril of pure antinomianism; a single false step, and your evangelical enthusiast is over the precipice.  St. Paul, with his Omnia mihi licent; St. Augustine, with his Ama, et fac quod vis; Luther, with his Pecca fortiter – is it certain that any natural law of morals is binding on a soul which has emancipated itself from the natural, and lives now by a law of grace?  Indulgence of the passions is culpable in the unregenerate soul, helps it on its road to perdition; but the children of predestination are emancipated from the bondage of law; not their actions, but the merits of their Redeemer, avail to justify them.  May it not be that actions which the world counts sinful are, for them, like all their other actions, sanctified?  Alternatively, may they not sin precisely in order that ‘grace may abound’, obligingly offer to Divine grace a broader target (if we may so put it) for redemption?  There have been enthusiasts who, on this principle, were ready to ‘outsin Manasses’.

So much for one mischievous germ which is endemic to all forms of enthusiasm.  …  It is the mystic who is more likely to go wrong at this point – Maximilla the Montanist, Anabaptists like David Joris, Quakers like Nayler and Jemima Wilkinson.

The mystic, from the very nature of his religious approach, is tone-deaf, as a rule, to theology.  He is likely enough, therefore, to be a Nestorian without knowing it; he thinks of our Lord not as God-Man but as man somehow made deiform.  A second incarnation on the same lines is not unthinkable.  At this point some echo of Abbot Joachim’s speculations will come in to disturb the balance of his thought.  If the Church is so corrupt, surely the second, Christ-mediate dispensation has come to an end; a third dispensation has already dawned, or is on the way, mediated – by whom?  By St. Francis, was the inevitable reply of the Fraticelli, but a solution does not always lie so ready to hand.  …

…the enthusiast has abrogated moral responsibility.

On the opposite slope lies the peril of pure antinomianism; a single false step, and your evangelical enthusiast is over the precipice.  St. Paul, with his Omnia mihi licent; St. Augustine, with his Ama, et fac quod vis; Luther, with his Pecca fortiter – is it certain that any natural law of morals is binding on a soul which has emancipated itself from the natural, and lives now by a law of grace?  Indulgence of the passions is culpable in the unregenerate soul, helps it on its road to perdition; but the children of predestination are emancipated from the bondage of law; not their actions, but the merits of their Redeemer, avail to justify them.  May it not be that actions which the world counts sinful are, for them, like all their other actions, sanctified?  Alternatively, may they not sin precisely in order that ‘grace may abound’, obligingly offer to Divine grace a broader target (if we may so put it) for redemption?  There have been enthusiasts who, on this principle, were ready to ‘outsin Manasses’.

So much for one mischievous germ which is endemic to all forms of enthusiasm.  …  It is the mystic who is more likely to go wrong at this point – Maximilla the Montanist, Anabaptists like David Joris, Quakers like Nayler and Jemima Wilkinson.

The mystic, from the very nature of his religious approach, is tone-deaf, as a rule, to theology.  He is likely enough, therefore, to be a Nestorian without knowing it; he thinks of our Lord not as God-Man but as man somehow made deiform.  A second incarnation on the same lines is not unthinkable.  At this point some echo of Abbot Joachim’s speculations will come in to disturb the balance of his thought.  If the Church is so corrupt, surely the second, Christ-mediate dispensation has come to an end; a third dispensation has already dawned, or is on the way, mediated – by whom?  By St. Francis, was the inevitable reply of the Fraticelli, but a solution does not always lie so ready to hand.  …

Enthusiasm, A Chapter in the History of Religion by Ronald A. Knox, page 583

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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