Heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of the moral law
Antinomianism (anti, against, and nomos, law), the heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of the moral law. The term first came into use at the Protestant Reformation, when it was employed by Martin Luther to designate the teaching of Johannes Agricola and his sectaries, who, pushing a mistaken and perverted interpretation of the Reformer’s doctrine of justification by faith alone to a far-reaching but logical 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. This theory—for it was not, and is not, necessarily, anything more than a purely theoretical doctrine, and many professors of Antinomianism, as a matter of fact, led, and lead, lives quite as moral as those of their opponents—was not only a more or less natural outgrowth from the distinctively Protestant principle of justification by faith, but probably also the result of an erroneous view taken with regard to the relation between the Jewish and Christian dispensations and the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Doubtless a confused understanding of the Mosaic ceremonial precepts and the fundamental moral law embodied in the Mosaic code was to no small extent operative in allowing the conception of true Christian liberty to grow beyond all reasonable bounds, and to take the form of a theoretical doctrine of unlimited licentiousness.
Although the term designating this error came into use only in the sixteenth century, the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sects—possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament, or the Carpocratians, in their doctrine of the indifference of good works and their contempt for all human laws—held Antinomian or quasi-Antinomian views. In any case, it is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools. Several passages of the New Testament writings are quoted in support of the contention that even as early as Apostolic times it was found necessary to single out and combat this heresy in its theoretical or dogmatic, as well as in its grosser and practical, form. The indignant words of St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Ephesians (Rom., iii, 8, 31, vi, 1; Eph., v. 6), as well as those of St. Peter in the Second Epistle (II Pet., ii, 18, 19), seem to lend direct evidence in favor of this view. Forced into a somewhat doubtful prominence by the “slanderers” against whom the Apostle found it necessary to warn the faithful, persisting spasmodically in several of the Gnostic bodies, and possibly also coloring some of the tenets of the Albigenses, Antinomianism reappeared definitely, as a variant of the Protestant doctrine of faith, early in the history of the German Reformation. At this point it is of interest to note the sharp controversy that it provoked between the leader of the reforming movement in Germany and his disciple and fellow townsman, Johannes Agricola. Schnitter, or Schneider, sometimes known as the Magister Islebius, was born at Eisleben in 1492, nine years after the birth of Luther. He studied, and afterwards taught, at Wittenberg, whence, in 1525, he went to Frankfort with the intention of teaching and establishing the Protestant religion there. But shortly afterwards he returned to his native town, where he remained until 1536, teaching in the school of St. Andrew, and drawing considerable attention to himself as a preacher of the new religion by the courses of sermons that he delivered in the Nicolai Church. In 1536 he was recalled to Wittenberg and given a chair in the University. Then the Antinomian controversy, which had really begun some ten years previously, broke out afresh, with renewed vigor and bitterness. Agricola, who was undoubtedly anxious to defend and justify the novel doctrine of his leader upon the subject of grace and justification, and who wished to separate the new Protestant view more clearly and distinctly from the old Catholic doctrine of faith and good works, taught that only the unregenerate were under the obligation of the law, whereas regenerate Christians were entirely absolved and altogether free from any such obligation. Though it is highly probable that he made Agricola responsible for opinions which the latter never really held, Luther attacked him vigorously in six dissertations, showing that “the law gives man the consciousness of sin, and that the fear of the law is both wholesome and necessary for the preservation of morality and of divine, as well as human, institutions”; and on several occasions Agricola found himself obliged to retract or to modify his Antinomian teaching. In 1540 Agricola, forced to this step by Luther, who had secured to this end the assistance of the Elector of Brandenburg, definitely recanted. But it was not long before the wearisome controversy was reopened by Poach of Erfurt (1556). This led ultimately to an authoritative and a complete statement, on the part of the Lutherans, of the teaching upon the subject by the German Protestant leaders, in the fifth and sixth articles of the “Formula Concordiae”. St. Alphonsus Liguori states that after Luther’s death Agricola went to Berlin, commenced teaching his blasphemies again, and died there, at the age of seventy-four, without any sign of repentance; also, that Florinundus calls the Antinomians “Atheists who believe in neither God nor the devil.” So much for the origin and growth of the Antinomian heresy in the Lutheran body. Among the high Calvinists also the doctrine was to be found in the teaching that the elect do not sin by the commission of actions that in themselves are contrary to the precepts of the moral law, while the Anabaptists of Munster had no scruple in putting these theories into actual practice.
From Germany Antinomianism soon travelled to England, where it was publicly taught, and in some cases even acted upon, by many of the sectaries during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The state of religion in England, as well as in the Colonies, immediately preceding and during this troublesome period of history, was an extraordinary one, and when the independents obtained the upper hand there was no limit to the vagaries of doctrines, imported or invented, that found so congenial a soil in which to take root and spread. Many of the religious controversies that then arose turned naturally upon the doctrines of faith, grace, and justification which occupied so prominent a place in contemporary thought, and in these controversies Antinomianism frequently figured. A large number of works, tracts, and sermons of this period are extant in which the fierce and intolerant doctrines of the sectaries are but thinly veiled under the copious quotations from the Scriptures that lend so peculiar an effect to their general style. In the earlier part of the seventeenth century, Dr. Tobias Crisp, Rector of Brinkwater (b. 1600), was accused, in company with others, of holding and teaching similar views. His most notable work is “Christ Alone Exalted” (1643). His opinions were controverted with some ability by Dr. Daniel Williams, the founder of the Dissenters’ Library. Indeed, to such an extent were extreme Antinomian doctrines held, and even practiced, as early as the reign of Charles I, that, after Cudworth’s sermon against the Antinomians (on I John, ii, 3, 4) was preached before the Commons of England (1647), the Parliament was obliged to pass severe enactments against them (1648). Anyone convicted on the oaths of two witnesses of maintaining that the moral law of the Ten Commandments was no rule for Christians, or that a believer need not repent or pray for pardon of sin, was bound publicly to retract, or, if he refused, be imprisoned until he found sureties that he would no more maintain the same. Shortly before this date, the heresy made its appearance in America, where, at Boston, the Antinomian opinions of Mrs. Ann Hutchinson were formally condemned by the Newtown Synod (1636).
Although from the seventeenth century onward Antinomianism does not appear to be an official doctrine of any of the more important Protestant sects, at least it has undoubtedly been held from time to time either by individual members or by sections, and taught, both by implication and actually, by the religious leaders of several of these bodies. Certain forms of Calvinism may seem capable of bearing an Antinomian construction. Indeed it has been said that the heresy is in reality nothing more than “Calvinism run to seed”. Mosheim regarded the Antinomians as a rigid kind of Calvinists who, distorting the doctrine of absolute decrees, drew from it conclusions dangerous to religion and morals. Count Zinzendorf (1700-60), the founder of the Herrnhuters, or Moravians, was accused of Antinomianism by Bengel, as was William Huntingdon, who, however, took pains to disclaim the imputation.
But possibly the most noteworthy instance is that of the Plymouth Brethren, of whom some are quite frankly Antinomian in their doctrine of justification and sanctification. It is their constant assertion that the law is not the rule or standard of the life of the Christian. Here again, as in the case of Agricola, it is a theoretical and not a practical Antinomianism that is inculcated. Much of the teaching of the members of this sect recalls “the wildest vagaries of the Antinomian heresy, while at the same time their earnest protests against such a construction being put upon their words, and the evident desire of their writers to enforce a high standard of practical holiness, forbid us to follow out some of their statements to what seems to be their logical conclusion.” Indeed, the doctrine generally is held theoretically, where held at all, and has seldom been advocated as a principle to be put in practice and acted upon. Except, as has already been noted, in the case of the Anabaptists of Munster and of some of the more fanatical sections of the Commonwealth, as well as in a small number of other isolated and sporadic cases, it is highly doubtful if it has ever been directly put forward as an excuse for licentiousness; although, as can easily be seen, it offers the gravest possible incentive to, and even justification of, both private and public immorality in its worst and most insidious form.
As the doctrine of Antinomianism, or legal irresponsibility, is an extreme type of the heretical doctrine of justification by faith alone as taught by the Reformers, it is only natural to find it condemned by the Catholic Church in company with this fundamentally Protestant tenet. The sixth session of the Ecumenical Council of Trent was occupied with this subject, and published its famous decree on Justification. The fifteenth chapter of this decree is directly concerned with the Antinomian heresy, and condemns it in the following terms: “In opposition also to the cunning wits of certain men who, by good words and fair speeches, deceive the hearts of the innocent, it is to be maintained that the received grace of justification is lost not only by infidelity, in which even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin soever, though faith be not lost; thereby defending the doctrine of the Divine law, which excludes from the Kingdom of God not only the unbelieving, but also the faithful who are fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, and all others who commit deadly sins; from which, with the help of Divine grace, they are able to refrain, and on account of which they are separate from the grace of Christ” (Cap. xv, cf. also Cap. xii). Also, among the canons anathematizing the various erroneous doctrines advanced by the Reformers as to the meaning and nature of justification are to be found the following: “Can. xix. If anyone shall say that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or that the Ten Commandments in no wise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema.—Can. xx. If anyone shall say that a man who is justified and how perfect altmarsh is not bound to the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe; as if, forsooth, the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of observation of the commandments; let him be anathema.—Can. xxi. If anyone shall say that Christ Jesus was given of God unto men as a Redeemer in whom they should trust, and not also as a legislator whom they should obey; let him be anathema.—Can. xxvii. If anyone shall say that there is no deadly sin but that of infidelity; or that grace once received is not lost by any other sin, however grievous and enormous, save only by that of infidelity; let him be anathema.”
The minute care with which the thirty-three canons of this sixth session of the Council were drawn up is evidence of the grave importance of the question of justification, as well as of the conflicting doctrine advanced by the Reformers themselves upon this subject. The four canons quoted above leave no doubt as to the distinctly Antinomian theory of justification that falls under the anathema of the Church. That the moral law persists in the Gospel dispensation, and that the justified Christian is still under the whole obligation of the laws of God and of the Church, is clearly asserted and defined under the solemn anathema of an Ecumenical Council. The character of Christ as a lawgiver to be obeyed is insisted upon, as well as His character as a Redeemer to be trusted; and the fact that there is grievous transgression, other than that of infidelity, is taught without the slightest ambiguity—thus far, the most authoritative possible utterance of the teaching Church. In connection with the Tridentine decrees and canons may be cited the controversial writings and direct teaching of Cardinal Bellarmin, the ablest upholder of orthodoxy against the various heretical tenets of the Protestant Reformation.
But so grossly and so palpably contrary to the whole spirit and teaching of the Christian revelation, so utterly discordant with the doctrines inculcated in the New Testament Scriptures, and so thoroughly opposed to the interpretation and tradition from which even the Reformers were unable to cut themselves entirely adrift, was the heresy of Antinomianism that, while we are able to find a few sectaries, as Agricola, Crisp, Richardson, Salt-marsh, and Hutchinson, defending the doctrine, the principal Reformers and their followers were instant in condemning and reprobating it. Luther himself. Rutherford, Schluffelburgh, Sedgwick, Gataker, Witsins, Bull, and Williams have written careful refutations of a doctrine that is quite as revolting in theory as it would ultimately have proved fatally dangerous in its practical consequences and inimical to the propagation of the other principles of the Reformers. In Nelson’s “Review and Analysis of Bishop Bull’s Exposition… of Justification” the advertisement of the Bishop of Salisbury has the following strong recommendation of works against the “Antinomian folly”: “…To the censure of tampering with the strictness of the Divine Law may be opposed Bishop Horsley’s recommendation of the Harmonia Apostolica as `a preservative from the contagion of Antinomian folly.’ As a powerful antidote to the Antinomian principles opposed by Bishop Bull, Cudworth’s incomparable sermon, preached before the House of Commons in 1647, cannot be too strongly recommended.” This was the general attitude of the Anglican, as well as of the Lutheran, body. And where, as was upon several occasions the case, the ascendency of religious leaders, at a time when religion played an extraordinarily strong part in the civil and political life of the individual, was not in itself sufficient to stamp out the heresy, or keep it within due bounds, the aid of the secular arm was promptly invoked, as in the case of the intervention of the Elector of Brandenburg and the enactments of the English Parliament of 1648. Indeed, at the time, and under the peculiar circumstances obtaining in New England in 1637, the synodical condemnation of Mrs. Hutchinson did not fall far short of a civil judgment.
Impugned alike by the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church and by the disavowals and solemn declarations of the greater Protestant leaders and confessions or formularies, verging, as it does, to the discredit of the teaching of Christ and of the Apostles, inimical to common morality and offering the grave possibility of becoming dangerous to the established social and political order, it is not surprising to find the Antinomian heresy a comparatively rare one in ecclesiastical history, and, as a rule, where taught at all, one that is carefully kept in the background or practically explained away. There are few who would care to assert the doctrine in so uncompromising a form as that which Robert Browning, in “Johannes Agricola in Meditation”, with undoubted accuracy, ascribes to the Lutheran originator of the heresy:
I have God‘s warrant, could I blend
All hideous sins, as in a cup,
to drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature would convert
The draught to blossoming gladness fast:
While sweet dews turn to the gourd’s hurt,
And bloat, and while they bloat it, blast,
As from the first its lot was cast.
For this reason it is not always an easy matter to determine with any degree of precision how far certain forms and offshoots of Calvinism, Socinianism, or even Lutheranism, may not be susceptible of Antinomian interpretations; while at the same time it must be remembered that many sects and individuals holding opinions dubiously, or even indubitably, of an Antinomian nature, would indignantly repudiate any direct charge of teaching that evil works and immoral actions are no sins in the case of justified Christians. The shades and gradations of heresy here merge insensibly the one into the other. To say that a man cannot sin because he is justified is very much the same thing as to state that no action, whether sinful in itself or not, can be imputed to the justified Christian as a sin. Nor is the doctrine that good works do not help in promoting the sanctification of an individual far removed from the teaching that evil deeds do not interfere with it. There is a certain logical nexus between these three forms of the Protestant doctrine of justification that would seem to have its natural outcome in the assertion of Antinomianism. The only doctrine that is conclusively and officially opposed to this heresy, as well as to those forms of the doctrine of justification by faith alone that are so closely connected with it, both doctrinally and historically, is to be found in the Catholic dogma of Faith, Justification, and Sanctification.