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Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History

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This is part two of four in a short series on Antinomianism. Read part one "What Is Antinomianism?".

Like Moses (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18), Jesus taught that the whole law was summarized by the command to love God and neighbor (Mat 22:37). He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Mat 5:17-20). Nevertheless, Jesus was famously accused by the religious leaders as an "antinomian" for refusing to accord the same weight to the extrabiblical rules of the elders. Evidently, Paul, too, was accused of "antinomianism" by his critics. "And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying" (Rom 3:8; cf. 6:1). Encouraging believers in God's grace, nevertheless warned them against "using your freedom as a cover-up for evil" (1 Pet 2:16). Peter adds that "lawless people" were using the gospel as an excuse for license; "ignorant and unstable," they were twisting the Scriptures "to their own destruction" (2 Pet 3:16-18). It should be noted that the charge of antinomianism and the reality of a lawlessness based on Scripture-twisting could only arise perpetually throughout the church's history because the gospel of free justification in Christ apart from works is so clearly taught in Scripture.

As Packer's first type indicates, the first form of explicit antinomianism was a stripe of Gnosticism. Gnostics identified the body with evil, the prison-house of the soul, longing to be reunited with the cosmic Christ (distinguished from the human Jesus). For some, this meant extreme asceticism and mistreatment of the body; for others, licentiousness, since it didn't matter what the body did, as long as the spirit was pure. The church father Augustine was famously converted from a life of debauchery in Manichaean Gnosticism.

Martin Luther and his colleagues faced a more "Christ-centered antinomianism" in their day. Luther compared reason to a drunk man who fell off one side of his horse and got back on only to fall off on the other side. No sooner had the reformers proclaimed the liberating power of God's free grace than "certain fanatical spirits" announced that the law was no longer necessary for believers. Coining the term "antinomian" (against law) for the first time, Luther denounced Johannes Agricola and others who defended this view. (In fact, Agricola even sued the reformer for slander, though he eventually dropped the suit.) While believers are free of its condemnation, the law remains God's standard of living and plays its distinctive role together with the gospel in our lifelong repentance. Luther wrote, "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!" Antinomianism is a "blasphemy and sacrilege," Luther thundered in his "First Disputation Against the Antinomians" (1537). The debate reached its climax in 1539 with Luther's book, Against the Antinomians.

A second antinomian controversy erupted in Lutheran circles when the "Philippists" (those who claimed Philip Melanchthon, though with dubious warrant) denied the imputation of Christ's active obedience and turned the gospel into a form of law while dispensing with the law itself. The fifth and sixth articles of the Formula of Concord affirmed the law-gospel distinction, rejected antinomianism and affirmed the third use of the law (to guide believers), which Melanchthon had in fact systematized before Calvin.

Actually, Packer's second type ("Spirit-centered") is close to the first type (Gnostic dualism). In both, antinomianism is virtually indistinguishable from extreme mysticism. In varying degrees of intensity, this impulse runs through various medieval sects to some Anabaptist groups and radical Pietists, who mediated it to a host of "enthusiasts" in Germany, England (especially in the Protectorate), and America.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly (convened by Parliament in 1643), there were a few hyper-Calvinists suspected of this "enthusiastic" taint. This version exhibits characteristics both of Spirit-centered and Christ-centered antinomianism. They were usually called antinomians because at least some of them held that the elect are justified from all eternity (even apart from faith), emphasized inner experience of the Spirit over all external ministry, and the freedom from the moral law's direction. This identification of extreme mysticism with antinomianism was especially evident in New England's "Antinomian controversy," provoked especially by the teachings and trial of Anne Hutchison in 1637.

There certainly were some bona fide antinomians afoot during this era. However, they were not in the mainstream. In other cases, the charge was brought by those with a more legalistic bent—typically identified as "neonomians" for turning the gospel into a "new law." For example, Richard Baxter accused John Owen of antinomianism and Owen returned the favor by warning about Baxter's neonomianism. On the basis of the Reformed confession, there is no basis of any charge against Owen, though his appraisal of Baxter seems justified. Similarly, the New England elders may have been justified in their concerns about Anne Hutchison's alleged visions, but even if John Cotton—a distinguished English Puritan recently transplanted—sounded antinomian at points, it was mainly because the New England elders were in fact neonomians.

In many cases, the antinomian charge was leveled by neonomians against classic Reformed pastors. A classic and tragic example is the so-called "Marrow Controversy." Edward Fisher's The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645) had enjoyed a wide readership among Puritans, including commendations from the likes of Jeremiah Burroughs. Aside from a brief polemic against the sabbatarian position, the book reflected typical Reformed conclusions. By the early 18th century, the Church of Scotland was influenced by neonomianism and the "moderate" party, influenced by the Enlightenment. Coming upon Fisher's volume, Scottish minister Thomas Boston reprinted it in 1718, with a preface from the great James Hog. However, the 1720 General Assembly declared it "antinomian" and in spite of the arguments of Hog, Boston, and ten other leaders, including Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, this decision was reaffirmed in 1722. This led to a schism in the 1730s, forming the Associate Presbytery. A position that was considered standard Reformed orthodoxy in 1645, even by members of the Westminster Assembly, had become "antinomian" by the Church of Scotland only a half-century later.

Arminians had long vilified Reformed theology as either explicitly or implicitly antinomian. Arminius himself had first provoked criticism by denying that Romans 7 could possibly describe the experience of a genuine believer. His followers have maintained that Reformed soteriology inevitably leads to carelessness and vitiates the seriousness of the call to holiness. William Law argued the same in 1729 in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) and A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726). Indebted to the radical mysticism of writers like Jacob Bohme, Law denied justification and at times verges on Pelagianism. Though no Pelagian, John Wesley expressed his debt to these works and he sought Law's personal counsel on various occasions. In John Wesley's view, Calvinism leads inexorably to antinomianism—a view he maintained especially in sharp polemics with Augustus Toplady (Anglican minister and author of the hymn "Rock of Ages"). His protege, John Fletcher, carried forward the charge with his book, Five Checks to Antinomianism (1770). The antinomian charge was renewed by Charles Finney and has been a staple of Arminian polemics to this day.

Yet Wesleyanism has generated its own form of antinomianism. Drawing from Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification, the Higher Life or "Victorious Life" movement emphasizes the mystical rather than activistic side of Wesley's thought. "Let go and let God" is not a maxim that Wesley would have countenanced, but it reflects the emphasis of medieval and pietistic quietism. The key Wesleyan ingredient is the idea of sanctification as a "second blessing," a separate experience subsequent to conversion, that makes it possible for believers to live above all known sin. Associated with the Keswick conferences in England and America, this movement emphasizes that this blessing comes in "full surrender," as the self of the believer is replaced with the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.

In more recent years, a few writers from the dispensationalist camp have argued that these two blessings are not only separate events, but that one may make a decision for Christ ("making Jesus one's personal Savior") without bearing the fruit of faith in good works ("making Jesus Lord of one's life"). The latter, a "carnal Christian," may even no longer believe in Christ, yet be eternally secure. The call is to become a "victorious Christian," by "letting Jesus have his way," but sanctification is not necessarily given with justification in our union with Christ. It should be added that in this construal, "eternal security" is based not on God's unconditional grace of election, redemption, and effectual calling, but on the believer's having fulfilled the terms of God's offer of salvation by making a decision for Christ.

In my next post, I'll explore the rich summary of sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions, especially in the light of current controversies. Read part three, "Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions"


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  • The fellows of the old Australian Forum said the proper way to approach antinomianism was with the gospel. They said you approach legalism with the law. Why? Because each is taking their perspective to an extreme and need to be corrected by the proper perspective. Antinomianism runs away from the law and in the process violates and destroys the gospel.

    Only by really understanding what Christ as done in his doing and dying out of love for our sakes can someone really be shocked out of the idea that their behavior doesn't matter. And only through truly understanding the full horrific burden of the law which we have no hope of keeping can someone be shocked out of the idea of legalism.

    I think there's great wisdom in that approach.

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  • Guest - Chris

    we have a lot to learn from history. Thanks Dr. Horton. Just a short summary of antinomian history explains a lot. It seems there is a delicate balance and call to discernment between the relationship of law to gospel. It is from that discernment, or lack thereof, that one may develope a certain relationship between the two aspects of scripture, and depending upon the outcome of that distinction, may either erroneously apply, or soberly relegate action and method to how he might conduct the countless affairs of his everyday life. (Leaving himself open for critisism no matter which distinction he might make, extending to both his doctrine and its application.)

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  • [...] more: Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History – White Horse Inn … Posted in Church Tags: based-on-scripture, because-the-gospel, charge, christ, church, gospel, [...]

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  • Guest - John T. Jeffery

    @Christopher Taylor: Many years ago at one of the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology I asked Sinclair Ferguson whether he thought that legalism should be brought back to the the Gospel center with a dose of antinomianism, and whether antinomianism should likewise be countered with a dose of legalism. His usual profound answer was in the negative. He explained that both extreme views shared a common root error which was, in his words, "a failure to comprehend the grace of God."

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  • Guest - Javier

    I can understand why there is confusion with respect to the law in the Christian's life. My eyes would start to glaze over when I read Paul's doctrine concerning law in Romans. I'm not blaming scripture, blaming my torpid mind. Paul seems to use the word law in different ways, ceremonial, moral, or law defined as a principle. Having been raised in the SDA church I'll admit confusion concerning Sabbatarianism. For now Calvin's take seems to make the most sense to me, which is that binding any day to one's conscience now is superstition. Any opinions on this appreciated and welcome. Good stuff Dr. Horton thx.

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  • Absolutely, every essential error and heresy in Christianity eventually boils down to the gospel, the heart of Christian theology and truth. The gospel is what makes Christianity distinct and true, so to the extent you deviate from that is where you get into error.

    However, that error can have different flavors, if you will; you can err more on the side of failing to understand the burden and condemnation of the law or the true salvation of the gospel to a greater degree than another. And I think the best way to approach each is to the degree they find error.

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  • [...] 1: Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism? Part 2: Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History Part 3: Antinomianism and Reformed Confessions Part 4: Sanctified by [...]

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  • [...] Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church HistoryMichael Horton Antinomianism & Reformation ConfessionsMichael Horton Sanctified by Grace?Michael Horton WHI Discussion Group QuestionsPDF Document [...]

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  • Guest - Jack

    The Etymological root of Antinomian

    Consider this Hebraic term used by Jesus Christ in the Epistles as a condemnation. (Matthew. 7:23) "I never knew you; depart from me you that work‚ (Greek Strong # 458) ANTINOMIAN."

    Let us peel off the theological bark and shine the spot light on this dogma to learn the bare truth of what ANTINOMISM in the Greek Epistles really means. In Greek one can use a singular “A” letter to abbreviate for “ANTI.” The two things exhibit in the meaning this word: [1] Those who accept antinomian are Against IE Opposing God’s Law in (Greek Strong's # 3551 NOMOS.)

    (Lev. 4:2) to express “Against the Commandments of Yahweh.” or Anti-commandments. Along with the (Hebrew Strong's # 8451) Torah IE Law, is the equable of the (Greek Strong's # 3551 NOMOS.) As the Hebraic term used in (Hosea. 8:1) “They transgressed My covenant and transgressed against My law.” Against the Yahweh Covenant and Torah,” or AntiTorah IE Antinnomian. The word coin for against the scripture Lawgiver and His Law is “Antinomian” from the Hebraic term in the Epistles {Greek Strong # 458 Antanomia i.e. Anomia.} (Heb. 1:9) “Love righteousness and HATE (G Strong # 458) ANTINOMIAN.”

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  • [&] Originally from here. [&]

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