Friday, August 15, 2008

Heretical Friday: Antinomianism


From the Greek, anti, against, and nomos, law (lawlessness)

Taken in its general sense, Antinomianism is the heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of moral law, the idea that members of a particular religious group are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality as presented by religious authorities. Antinomianism is the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is absolutely necessary for salvation.

The doctrine of Antinomianism in general terms, although not using the specific word, can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sect — possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament — held antinomian or quasi-antinomian views. It is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools.

Certain heretical sects in the Middle Ages practiced sexual license as an expression of Christian freedom. In the Protestant Reformation, theoretical antinomian views were maintained by the Anabaptists and Johannes Agricola, and in the 17th century, Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for supposed Antinomianism. Romans 6 is the usual refutation for Antinomianism.

The specific sense of Antinomianism comes from its use by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. Luther used it to designate the teachings of Johannes Agricola, who, pushing a mistaken interpretation of the Reformer's doctrine of justification by faith alone to a far-reaching conclusion, asserted that, “as good works do not promote salvation, so neither do evil works hinder it; and, as all Christians are necessarily sanctified by their very vocation and profession, so as justified Christians, they are incapable of losing their spiritual holiness, justification, and final salvation by any act of disobedience to, or even by any direct violation of the law of God.” (New Advent)

The starting-point of the Antinomian dispute began with a disagreement between Agricola and Philipp Melanchthon in 1527 as to the relation between repentance and faith. Melanchthon urged that repentance must precede faith, and that knowledge of the moral law is needed to produce repentance. Agricola gave the initial place to faith, maintaining that repentance is the work, not of law, but of the gospel-given knowledge of the love of God. The resulting Antinomian controversy (the only one within the Lutheran body in Luther's lifetime) continued until Agricola was apparently satisfied in conference with Luther and Melanchthon at Torgau, December 1527, but his eighteen Positiones of 1537 revived the controversy. Agricola was consistent in two objects:
  • In the interest of the doctrine of sole fides (faith alone), to place the rejection of the Catholic doctrine of good works on a sure ground;

  • In the interest of the New Testament, to find all needful guidance for Christian duty in its principles, if not in its precepts.
From the latter part of the 17th century, charges of Antinomianism were frequently directed against Calvinists, on the ground of their disparagement of "deadly doing" and of "legal preaching." The controversy between Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists produced as its ablest outcome John Fletcher's Checks to Antinomianism (1771–75).

Theological charges of Antinomianism typically imply that the opponent's doctrine leads to various sorts of licentiousness and that the antinomian chooses his theology in order to further a career of dissipation. The conspicuous austerity of life among surviving groups of Anabaptists or Calvinists suggests that these accusations are often, or even mostly, made for rhetorical effect.

Impugned alike by the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church and by the disavowals and declarations of the greater Protestant leaders and confessions or fomularies, since Antinomianism verges on discrediting the teachings of Christ and the apostles and is inimical to common morality, the antinomian heresy is a comparatively rare one in ecclesiastical history, and, as a rule, where taught at all, one that is kept in the background or practically explained away.

New Advent

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