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Antinomianism in Christian theology is a pejorative term for a heresy that teaches that Christians are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality. Antinomianism is the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary for salvation. It comes from the Greek word nomos, which means law.
No Christian or pseudo-Christian group calls itself “antinomian,” though some Christian groups level this charge against others. Often those accused of being antinomian level the counter-charge of legalism against their accusers.
The controversy arises out of the Christian doctrine of grace, the forgiveness of sins, and atonement by faith in Jesus Christ. If God forgives sins, what exactly is the disadvantage in sinning, or the reward of obedience? St. Paul of Tarsus, in his Epistles, mentions several times that we are saved by the unearned grace of God, not by our own good works, “lest anyone should boast.” Paul also said that Christ set us free from the Law of Moses, the Torah. He invariably goes on to say that sins remain sins, and condemns by several examples the kind of behaviour that the church should not tolerate. St. James, by contrast, states that our good works are in fact necessary for salvation.
There are several issues that are addressed by the charge of antinomianism. The charge may represent the fear that a given theological position does not lead to the edification of the believer or assist him in leading a regenerate life. Doctrines that tend to erode the authority of the church and its right to prescribe religious practices for the faithful are often condemned as antinomian. The charge is also brought against those whose teachings are perceived as hostile to government and established authority.
The first people accused of antinomianism were found, apparently, in Gnosticism; various aberrant and licentious acts were ascribed to these by their orthodox enemies; we have few independent records of their actual teachings. In the Book of Revelation 2:6-15, the New Testament speaks of Nicolaitans, who are traditionally identified with a Gnostic sect, in terms that suggest the charge of antinomianism might be appropriate.
Roman Catholicism tends to charge Protestantism with antinomianism, based in part on the distinctively Protestant doctrine of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, and the typical Protestant rejection of the elaborate sacramental liturgy of the Roman church, and its body of canon law. Within Roman Catholicism itself, Blaise Pascal accused the Jesuits of antinomianism in his Lettres provinciales, charging that Jesuit casuistry undermined moral principles. Charges of antinomianism have also been bandied about within the Protestant camp as well; Martin Luther accused Johannes Agricola of antinomianism and rejecting the notion of a moral law; other Protestant groups that have been so accused include the Anabaptists and Mennonites. Calvinists have also drawn charges of antinomianism. In the history of American Puritanism, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were accused of antinomian teachings by the Puritan leadership of New England.
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. The conspicuous austerity of life among surviving groups of Anabaptists or Calvinists suggests that these accusations are mostly for rhetorical effect.
Antinomianism among certain Scottish sects is the subject of James Hogg’s 1824 novel, The Private Memoirs, and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
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This glossary post was last updated: 26th November, 2021 | 2 Views.