Glossary 25 Antinomianism
Antinomianism. Simply stated, antinomianism means “against [the] law.” One would think that this term applies to law breakers—depraved people who act as if they are above any law or standard that would compel them to conform to its demands—but it has come to define various theological perspectives about the “law,” some of which may actually lead to a deterioration of Christian virtues or an incomplete grasp of Christian doctrine. Like the term “legalism,” antinomianism has surfaced during the history of the church as a charge against those whose view of “law” differs from the accepted norm. While some variances in opinion about the law are minor—and unsuitable to be called antinomian—other viewpoints lurk at the door of churches poised to undermine sound doctrine and conduct. It is one thing to be free from the law in terms of guilt and punishment, and quite another to be against the law as a moral guide or source of sound doctrine. According to one theological dictionary, antinomianism is the doctrine “that it is not necessary for Christians to preach or obey the moral law of the OT,”[i] suggesting that it is possible for someone to be a Christian without the moral instruction of the OT. Others have described antinomianism as “an old heresy which technically means opposition to the law [and] embodies the view that since men can be set free from sin by grace alone, obedience to the law is irrelevant to salvation.”[ii] There is a subtle difference between these two definitions. As we shall see below, the term came to encompass a wide range of theological issues besides the relationship of the Testaments, such as justification, sin in the life of the believer, repentance, the effects of grace, sanctification, and of course, what Christ accomplished in His life and through his death. The topic is broad and still relevant to the church.[iii]
The first use of the term “antinomian” is attributed to Luther, elicited by his disdain for the aberrant theology of one of his students, Johann Agricola (1494-1566), who denied that the Mosaic law was needed or useful in Christian sanctification or ongoing repentance because the gospel was enough (Rom 2:4; cf. Rom 11:22). “He condemned the Ten Commandments as an unnecessary carryover from the Old Testament and too similar to the Catholic doctrine of good works,” and he believed the Decalogue should not be a part of Reformed theology.[iv] “Agricola denied even [that the moral law convicted one of sin], believing that repentance should be induced only through the preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.”[v] Both Luther and Melanchthon responded in a series of debates with Agricola during the 1520s and 1530s,[vi] leading to a refinement of their own understanding of the relationship of the law and gospel. This culminated in the paradigmatic “three uses of the law” presented in the Formula of Concord, published in 1576.[vii] The Formula alludes to the controversy: “For some have contended that the law ought not to be taught at all among Christians, but that men should be invited to good works by the doctrine of the gospel alone.”[viii] As should be obvious, this type of antinomianism is intellectual or theoretical, and does not necessarily lead to licentiousness. Ironically, Luther was also accused of teaching against the law. “Martin Luther responded with such a fierceness against the law that some people have thought he meant to teach that it has no ongoing role in the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth.”[ix] “Luther, on the other hand, had been accused—like the Apostle Paul before him (Rom. 3 31)—that the zealous performance of good works had abated, that the bonds of discipline had slackened and that, as a necessary consequence, lawlessness and shameless immorality were being promoted by his doctrine of justification by faith alone. Before 1517 the rumor had already spread that Luther intended to do away with good works.”[x]
Linder cites the 1637 Puritan trial of Anne Hutchinson as the second most famous antinomian controversy. Due to her favor of the covenant of grace as taught by John Cotton and her outspoken reaction to what she thought was an overemphasis on law, she was condemned as an antinomian and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “The New England clergy probably misunderstood her main concerns and overreacted to what they perceived to be a threat to the unity and internal security of the Puritan community.”[xi] Authors Withington and Schwartz describe her antinomianism as a belief “that a man’s behavior on earth offered no clue to his fate after death” and further insisting that “good conduct was no sign of salvation and bad conduct no sign of damnation.”[xii] However, it is not clear from the trial records that these particular views were the subject of controversy, as much as the freedom to hold a religious opinion at variance with those in power.
Turretin (1623-1687) proceeds to teach against the antinomians who “maintain that there is no use of the law any longer under the New Testament” and that believers “are now freed from the direction and observance of the [moral] law.”[xiii] As Turretin explains, it is one thing to be under the [whole] law as a covenant as were the Jews, but another to be under the [moral] law as a rule of life, to regulate our morals piously and holily,” as Christians should be, guided by the gospel. The sense is that these antinomians were not looking for a loophole to live libidinous lives, but rather they believed they could live piously and holily with new testament teachings alone. On a certain level, they were naïvely dismissive of the OT. Turretin quotes a 1600(?) Mennonite confession as stating, “all Christians, in matters of faith, ought to have recourse necessarily only to the gospel of Christ.”[xiv] Granting that the Mosaic economy is and was abrogated, that Christ reformed our understanding of the law, and that there exists differences between the Old and New Testaments, Turretin concludes that these do not affect the importance, pertinence, and utility of the OT in guiding both doctrine and practice. Yet, the 1632 Mennonist Confession at Dordrecht is not as explicit in disfavoring the OT; it mentions only the law of Christ, but it does include OT references for doctrinal assertions.[xv] Current Mennonite Statements of Faith adopt the historical Protestant view of Scripture, for example: “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.”[xvi]
Concurrently, the term “neonomianism” arose when Isaac Chauncy (1632-1712), a Congregationalist, criticized the views of Daniel Williams (1643-1716), a Presbyterian, who apparently considered the gospel to be a new law, which was milder in its demands, allowing Christians to attain a righteousness of their own. As Ramsey reflects on the history of this controversy, he believes that Williams’ doctrine of justification was “easily misunderstood and confused with Arminianism/Neonomianism.” Less than a century later, controversy arose again regarding the relationship between the law and gospel in salvation. With neonomians in authority in Scotland, evangelicals who taught that “only union to Christ can give us power to be holy” and that sinners could immediately call upon God for salvation and be assured of eternal life, were considered dangerously antinomian.[xvii]
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) minimizes the impact of antinomianism within Reformed churches in the sense of promoting “loose views of moral obligation” due to its teachings on justification. Instead, he says the rationale for such a lifestyle is due to lowering the demands of the law in one’s life, or thinking that one’s imperfect obedience is enough or that rituals can pardon sin—the definition of neonomianism.[xviii] His son, A. A. Hodge (1823-1886) describes two types of antinomianism. The first is the practical antinomianism mentioned above: “that Christ has so satisfied the law for us that it is abolished… and we may do as we please.” The second is “a substitution of a new and lower law for the infinite law of God” which he labels neo-nomianism.[xix] The viewpoint of Agricola resurfaced in the mid-nineteenth century; however it was motivated by an increasing skepticism about the veracity of OT literature, to which Moody exclaimed, “May God deliver us from the one-sided Christian who reads only the New Testament and talks against the Old!”[xx]
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) explains that neonomianism “generally characterizes that sentiment that posits the ground for the believer’s justification, not in the imputed righteousness of Christ, but in the believer’s own, sincere, though imperfect, righteousness.”[xxi] As with similar heresies, Christ merely made it possible to justify yourself by your works. Rushdoony (1916-2001) criticized and labeled as an antinomian fundamentalist Cornelius Stam (1908-2003) whose dispensationalist ideas led him to conclude that baptism was unnecessary for Christians.[xxii] Horton (1964-) equates neonomianism with legalism (as noted above) and with the idea that the gospel is a new law rather than a free announcement of forgiveness and justification in Christ alone. Antinomians, he asserts, seem to contrast New Testament commandments (which they consider spiritual and loving) with Old Testament commandments (which they consider rigorous and condemning).[xxiii] Finally, Jones demonstrates that antinomianism may be a response to legalism and that even legalists may be antinomian in practice. Furthermore, he believes that not only does antinomianism expose a misunderstanding of Christ, but it also reveals issues of heart and mind.[xxiv] Yet, simply teaching the gospel still incurs the accusation of antinomian heresy. DeHaan reminisced, “If the believer is delivered from the law… does this mean he can do as he pleases… and still go to Heaven unpunished? This is a perennial question which is repeatedly raised by those who do not understand either the nature, purpose or the ministry of the law. We receive hundreds of letters from listeners who accuse us of preaching license to sin, and being antinomian.”[xxv]
The fulcrum point of antinomianism is God’s law [moral law, law of Christ, universal morality]. The idea of substituting God’s law with an inferior, achievable law of one’s own making is displayed by the number of unmarried professing Christians who casually have sexual relations or decide to live together for years prior to marriage, asserting that the Bible’s antiquated code no longer works for them. God’s word is depersonalized to them. The idea of a universal moral code is no longer the declaration of righteousness from the creator and final judge of humankind. Instead, the Bible is merely a collection of religious sayings compiled thousands of years ago that may or may not have value today. People who once professed Christ find a new way to live life as they please, yet they claim that it is morally reprehensible or unloving to “judge” them, i.e., point out that they are disobeying God. They begin with a perversion of biblical doctrine and digress to a rejection of Christianity, as demonstrated in the lives of Frank Schaeffer or Joshua Harris.[xxvi] This kind of antinomianism is unfortunately a pathway to apostasy (2 Tim 4:4; Heb 3:12).
Paul’s doctrine of redemption is that by God’s grace [in sending His only-begotten Son to die in our place on the cross] we exercise faith [believing in the veracity of God’s work and word] and become children of God [a supernatural experience through the legal declaration of freedom from the guilt of sin] (Rom 5:1). Believing is contrasted with doing, as the “instrument” of redemption (Eph 2:15). As a former Pharisee who advocated law-keeping as the basis for establishing righteousness, Paul explains that the assurance of righteousness by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a new teaching (Rom 4:9-25). Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith, prior to the giving of the [Mosaic] law. Paul asserts that a person is saved by faith apart from the works of the law. This begs the questions that Paul answers in his letter to the Romans. Should one continue to sin and receive more grace? Should one continue to sin because he/she is no longer under the law? (Rom 6:11, 15). The thrust of the questions arises because of the new covenant perspective on the value and use of the [Mosaic] law.
The apostles were often accused of teaching against the law of Moses (Acts 6:13; 18:11-16; 21:27-28; 25:7; Rom 3:8), an accusation that Paul denied even though he largely forbade Gentiles from getting circumcised as an act against the gospel (Act 15; 25:8). In his letter to the Romans, Paul anticipates possible arguments that could be brought against his teaching on justification,[xxvii] that if a person is no longer “under the law” then he/she may live their life without regard to the law. In this hypothetical situation a believer in Jesus Christ could live in sin while concurrently claiming to be righteous. This could be described as a practical antinomianism, a “freedom from the law in the form of licentiousness.”[xxviii] Like Paul, Berkoff shrugs off the allegation that the doctrine of justification is “ethically subversive, because it leads to licentiousness.”[xxix] Paul questions the plausibility of such a belief, “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Rom 6:21). However, we might note that the dissolution within the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5), while not attributable to an antinomian doctrine, per se, would certainly give the onlooking world the impression that Christians tolerated sexual immorality because of the doctrine that they were no longer “under the law.” Rushdoony asserts unequivocally, “The problem in Corinth was antinomianism, a disobedience to God’s law, in particular, sexual and marital law.”[xxx] He goes on to explain that antinomians are professors of Christ, but they maintain a moral indifference to sinful actions and that they fail to see sin as sin. This type of antinomianism he describes as “easy believism.” At the same time, “antinomian” should not be synonymous with “sinner.” That is, all humans are sinners through disbelief and disobedience to God’s law, but not all are “antinomians.” The charge of antinomianism should hinge on a doctrinal viewpoint respecting either the Mosaic law-covenant or a universal moral law and the extrapolation of that viewpoint that leads to immoral conduct or questionable doctrinal propositions.
“Legalist” and “antinomian” are terms easily put upon those with whom one disagrees about the place of law in the Christian’s theology and practice. But there are historical circumstances surrounding the use of these terms that should be considered—that these terms are meant to describe heretical doctrines and their resultant effects on a Christian’s spiritual apprehensions and behavior. Gamble introduces her sweeping research with this definition: “Antinomians can be described as those who deny in some way the ongoing relevance of some part or even the whole of the moral law. English antinomianism, however, was more complex and multifaceted than the simple denial of the continued use of and obligation to follow the moral law.”[xxxi] Her definition, and those above, emphasize the antinomian’s rejection of “moral law” which may not be the most accurate definition. In the case of Agricola, in his shortsightedness, he thought that the gospel was enough to convict sinners and lead them to repentance (maybe it is[xxxii]), but Luther called him an antinomian. It wasn’t that Agricola was against the law of Moses only; he apparently dismissed the entire OT which contains the history, law, prophets and poetical writings. Perhaps he was better called an anti-vetus-testamentarian. It is not known whether Agricola was against the Mosaic law, natural law, moral law, or ceremonial law in terms of holy living, or whether these views developed to the point of defending the practice of immorality—the connotation of being “against the law.” But as a theologian, by his rejection of the OT, he irrationally denied the very basis for his understanding of the NT.
Jones affirms that Luther was no “antinomian”; that is, “he was not against God’s law—specifically, the Ten Commandments,” because he taught the ten commandments.[xxxiii] Here is the syllogism.
- Antinomians are against God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments
- Luther taught the Ten Commandments.
- Therefore, Luther was not an antinomian.
But Luther did not teach that the Lord’s Day was to be modeled after the Sabbath. Luther did not observe the Sabbath. He did teach from the Ten Commandments, as this was the customary method to inculcate good morals and sound doctrine. However, he was clear that the Sabbath commandment was a ceremonial law, and that if any morality was to be found in it, it was that some time should be given to God. So, this is the real issue: that if the Ten Commandments are perceived as the moral law of God, then any view that challenges that assertion is branded as antinomian. In the eyes of those who keep the Sabbath, anyone who does not observe the Sabbath commandment is an antinomian, someone who dismisses a portion of the “moral law” of God.
McMahon, on A Puritan’s Mind website, recognizes antinomianism in churches today. “Walk into any 21st Century church this Sunday and inquire about what it means to keep the Sabbath holy? How does a person follow the 4th commandment? The people would look at you perplexed. They would see you as a Legalist. And if you had not raised the question, it would have never entered their mind at all. Even as they sit through the Sunday School lesson, the singing of a psalm or two, and the hearing of the sermon, they await the final benediction during Sunday Church and never realize what the Sabbath is even about. That is a travesty; it is sin.”[xxxiv] In the mind of this Sabbatarian, a church-going Christian is sinning if they don’t appreciate the supposed connection between the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath. He shares the opinion of Murray that a conception of the Lord’s Day without a Sabbath rest is piosity, as opposed to piety.[xxxv] McMahon also applies the antinomian label to those who seem to emphasize a discontinuity of the Mosaic law with the new covenant. For example, McMahon cites some catchphrases, such as, “we are a new testament church” or “we are not under law but under grace,” as indicators of antinomian beliefs that lead to disobedience of God’s law, specifically the Sabbath.[xxxvi] These antinomians, he tells us, have actually said “that a person can be saved and never have to worry about living a life of obedience because we are under the grace of Christ.” That appears to be textbook antinomianism, but this may be an exaggeration of their viewpoint, since he admits these same people do go to church on Sunday—they just don’t know about the Sabbath.
Ultimately, resting 24 hours on Sunday and calling the day of worship the “Christian Sabbath” has become a litmus test of the Reformed to charge Evangelicals of antinomianism. Interestingly, Saturday Sabbath worship is a litmus test of Seventh-day Adventists to classify Sunday-worshippers as apostates. Reformed Sabbatarians deride the non-Sabbatarian defense that the NT does not reiterate the obligation to observe the Sabbath, as if this argument were grounded alone on the premise that moral commandments should be repeated in the NT. It is not that this rule delivers a coup de grâce to Sabbatarianism, but the absence of any obligation to observe the Sabbath in post-resurrection Scriptures is a surprising and telltale lacuna in new testament imperatives. That is, if the Sabbath were half as important as Sabbatarians exclaim, then we would expect to see clear teaching on the repositioned and remodeled Sabbath in apostolic texts. The objection to calling the Lord’s Day the “Christian Sabbath” is not because of an antinomian view of the law, but because it has been fulfilled by Christ. This maintains a high view of the law that coincides with the Lord’s, who sees the law as an instrument of fulfillment (Matt 5:18) and the benefits of His great redemption as the fulfillment of the anticipated rest (Matt 11:28). No less than Paul, who was wrongly accused of being against the people and the law (Act 21:28), non-Sabbatarians see no inconsistency in both affirming the [nature and purpose of Mosaic] law and urging non-compliance to ritual laws [of the Mosaic law-covenant].
[i] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p.70-72 [ii] Withington, Ann Fairfax, and Jack Schwartz. “The Political Trial of Anne Hutchinson.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, 1978, pp. 226–240. ;JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/364308. Accessed 11 Oct. 2020. [iii] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013); Fergusen, Sinclair. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); Gamble, Whitney. Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) [iv] Traver, Andrew G. “Agricola, Johann” in Renaissance and Reformation, 1500- 1620: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Jo Eldridge Carney, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001) p. 4-5. It should be noted that none of Agricola’s writings are extant, and that what we know of his teachings are delineated in the criticisms of his detractors. [v] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p.70-72. [vi] Bente F. “Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions” https://bookofconcord.org/historical-17.php (accessed 4/30/2020) [vii] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology, 1890 (Repr., Southhampton, Great Britain: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), p. 282. [viii] Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3, p. 122, 134. [ix] Parson, Burk, ed., “The Antinomian Error” in Tabletalk Vol. 41 No. 7 (July 2017): 39. Commenting on Rom 6:15-23. [x] Reu, M. Introduction to Luther’s Treatise on Good Works. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/418/418-h/418-h.htm. Accessed March 22, 2020. [xi] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p. 70-72. [xii] Withington, Ann Fairfax, and Jack Schwartz. “The Political Trial of Anne Hutchinson.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, 1978, pp. 226–240. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/364308. Accessed 11 Oct. 2020. [xiii] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, James T. Dennison, Jr. ed., (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), p. 141-143. [xiv] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 1, James T. Dennison, Jr. ed., (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), p. 98-99. [xv] https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dordrecht_Confession_of_Faith_(Mennonite,_1632) Accessed August 28, 2020. [xvi] https://usmb.org/confession-of-faith-4/. Accessed August 30, 2020. [xvii] Kelly, D. F. “Marrow Controversy” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p. 745. [xviii] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 6th Repr. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013) p. 241. [xix] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology, 1890 (Repr., Southhampton, Great Britain: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), p.308. [xx] Moody, Dwight L. Pleasure and Profit in Bible Study, 1895, (repr., Bibliotech Press, 2020), p. 23. [xxi] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3 “Sin and Salvation in Christ” 4th printing; (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2009), p. 532. [xxii] Rushdoony, Rousas John. P. “God’s Son, Israel: The Typology” in Law and Society, (vol. 2 of Institutes of Biblical Law; repr. 1986; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982) p. 597-600. [xxiii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 664-677. [xxiv] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), p. 1-2. [xxv] DeHaan, M. R. Law or Grace (Zondervan, 1965), p. 69. [xxvi] Of Frank Schaeffer: https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2008/marapr/1.32.html (accessed 11/14/20) and https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=132#note2 (accessed 11/14/20). Of Josh Harris: https://albertmohler.com/2019/08/01/joshua-harris (accessed 11/14/20) and https://albertmohler.com/2019/08/01/joshua-harris (accessed 11/14/20). [xxvii] Longnecker, Richard N. The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), p. 609. [xxviii] Parson, Burk, ed., “The Antinomian Error” in Tabletalk Vol. 41 No. 7 (July 2017): 39. Commenting on Rom 6:15-23. [xxix] Berkoff, L. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941) 8th printing, 1962. p. 524 [xxx] Rushdoony, Rousas J. Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. II “Law and Society” repr. 1986 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982), p. 579ff. [xxxi] Gamble, Whitney. Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018). [xxxii] Regardless, a gentile convert may know only that Christ should save him from his sinful self and establish a spiritual communion with God by faith, but eventually he will learn from the OT. [xxxiii] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), p. 5. [xxxiv] C. Matthew McMahon. https://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-tract-series/what-is-the-difference-between-legalism-and-obedience-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon/ (accessed August 8, 2020). [xxxv] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, p. 219. [xxxvi] C. Matthew McMahon. https://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-tract-series/what-is-the-difference-between-legalism-and-obedience-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon/. Accessed August 30, 2020.