Wednesday, July 28, 2010


That especially clear light that Luther shed upon the Scriptures, Law and Gospel, is a proverbially tough nut to crack. One of the first inter-Lutheran dust ups was on this topic under the name of Antinomianism. Ever since, “antinomian” has been a favorite epithet among Lutherans debating one another. As an epithet, it is widely and imprecisely used. So let's aim at some more precision.

Hard Core Antinomianism: The moral law simply does not apply to Christians. You may do whatever you find desirous – indeed, to indulge in acts that are contrary to the moral law may be encouraged because it helps get it out of your flesh's system. This is Münzer and almost nobody else.

Agricolan Antinomianism: The classic brand. Christians do not need to hear the preaching of the Law because the Gospel alone will bring about good works. This is refuted in FC VI.

Once Saved, Always Saved Antinomianism: A Christian does not lose his faith even if he engages in open, willful, persistent sin. Luther seems to have imputed this idea to the Agricolans, but maybe that wasn't quite fair. At any rate, he vociferously attacks this version of Antinomianism in SA III.3.42-45.

Liturgical Antinomianism: Binding, enforced regulations regarding the worship life of the Church are incompatible with the Gospel. The COP's theses on worship released some months ago tread awfully close to this error – it is refuted in AC XXVIII.

Moral Law Antinomianism. Someone who denies part of the moral law is rightly called an Antinomian. However, the title is usually tossed about in a way that casts all heat and no light due to the fact that it is almost always used as a form of begging the question. For example, let us imagine two men and name them...oh, I don't know.... “Luther” and “Rehwinkel.” Luther says contraception is a sin, Rehwinkel says it isn't. Luther calls Rehwinkel an Antinomian; Rehwinkel calls Luther a Binder of Consciences. Both of those statements are begging the question. The debate is whether or not contraception is a sin. If it is, then Luther's no Binder of Consciences. If it is isn't, then Rehwinkel is no Antinomian. So just calling someone with whom you disagree over a particular point of moral law an Antinomian is really just a fancy way of restating your position without arguing for it: that is, question begging, petitio principii. Now, it is certainly true that Lutherans who accept homosexual acts as A-OK are rightly called Antinomians – it's just that saying so in the midst of an argument with them is not an argument, but just a statement of one's position.

Are there any that I missed?



  1. Actually, I think this is most accurate. I would also submit my 3rd Law of Heresy... for every heresy there is an equal and opposite heresy, the opposite of these antinomian errors being legalistic errors of the opposite stripe.

    There is a Moral Law Legalism. If X is not actually a sin, and one says it is, that would then be legalism. There is a Liturgical Legalism, where certain forms are promoted as vital when they in fact are not. There are the damnation heavy legalists (I see these lots in Oklahoma), where people are getting damned for every venial sin in the book. There are the typical works heavy baptist, where they Gospel isn't preached because, "You know that Jesus stuff already" (again, another bible belt favorite). Then you would have your hardcore Legalists who demand asceticism and the like - not nearly as popular now in the US.

    The only other wrinkel, and it maybe just be a wrinkle on the Moral Law side of things would be the Social Exception stripe. The SE Antinomian says, "Yes, that was Law then, but society has changed, so we can't say it is wrong now". Women's ordination is a favorite here. You also can have SE Legalists who would say, "Okay, you used to be able to do this, but now, you can't because society has just gotten so bad - let's ban booze, smoking, etc." I don't even know if you want to make that an exception to the Moral Law category or not, or coin a different title. It's a nuance - it's not that they deny the Law, it's just that for social improvement they wish to add or subtract.

  2. Then there is the Knee Jerk Antinomian. The KJ Antinomian will always raise the specter of legalism the minute the antinomian problem is raised. ;•)

  3. And again - there is the knee jerk legalist as well. The KJ legalist will assume that as soon as something new is introduced that it must be a dire violation of something. ;o)

    Of course, if my antinomian tendencies are merely only Knee Jerk, I'm having a good day. I do come from an old Ohio Synod family after all... a drastic fear that the LCMS is suddenly become Calvinists rests within my blood.

    I'll go duck out and not dominate comments on yet another one of Fr. Curtis' posts. . . but this is complimentary, as it just means I find them interesting.

  4. Fr. Brown,

    You write: "There is a Liturgical Legalism, where certain forms are promoted as vital when they in fact are not."

    Certainly there is - and it is roundly condemned in our Confessions. One may not insist on certain ceremonies and forms as "vital," if by vital you mean "necessary for justification."

    But the Confessions are very clear, and the history of 16th-19th century Lutheranism makes even clearer, that for the sake of good order bishops and pastors have the right and the duty to make ordinances regarding the worship of the Church in their jurisdictions.

    What, then, are we to think of the Sunday and like rites in the house of God? To this we answer that it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church, not that thereby we should merit grace or make satisfaction for sins, or that consciences be bound to judge them necessary services, and to think that it is a sin to break them 54] without offense to others. . . . 57] Of this kind is the observance of the Lord's Day, Easter, Pentecost, and like holy-days and 58] rites. AC XXVIII.

    Our Lutheran fathers lived in church bodies where a certain Order of Divine Service was enforced as the only Order of Divine Service in that jurisdiction.

    That's not legalism. That's what the AC regards as good, right, and salutary. What the AC condemns is saying: "Observe this rite, or go to hell." It approves saying, "For the sake of tranquility and order, I, the pastor/bishop of this jurisdiction, ordain that the following shall be the Order for Divine Service in this jurisdiction. . . "

    We can argue about which system is better for the Church today (yesterday's ordaining of a given rite from a chief pastor over a large territory, or today's ritual anarchy); but we cannot have an intelligent conversation about it until all parties understand what the AC condemns as legalist and what it does not.


  5. Dear Heath:

    I think this is a helpful primer. I think antinomianism is something we Lutherans need to be especially careful of, since we (rightly) lean towards, and emphasize, the Gospel.

    Works righteousness (the opposite error) is more of a danger to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and various Holiness Protestant groups. We're not exempt from it, of course, but it is less of a risk to us by virtue of our justification-centric theology.

    Similarly, while these other church jurisdictions that do not emphasize justification as much as we do are likewise not exempt from antinomianism, they are simply (by virtue of their theology) less at risk of it.

    I believe Lutheran pastors need to teach about antinomianism and explain its historical latching on to Lutheranism. It is a pretty distictively Lutheran cross to bear, and it has dogged us almost from day one as a distinct communion within the Church. There is nothing the Old Adam likes more than false security and license.

    Luther railed against it, and he wailed for the sake of Lutherans who were beguiled by it. He was scandalized by the way Evangelicals reacted to being set free from Roman legalism.

    Our Lord has truly set us free - free from sin, death, the devil, the world, hell, and our own flesh. He freed us from trying to save ourselves through our own righteousness. But our Lord also called His followers "disciples." He bade is to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. He gave us the Law to continue to use as an exhortation to live out that salvation by grace alone. And I think the Lord in His providence put the Epistle of James in the canon especially for us.

  6. Pr. Curtis,

    Very helpful post. I definitely concur that when no one is actually articulating a systematic denial of the Law in every case, the use of the term "antinomian" or "legalist" usually indicates nothing more than a disagreement on what is and is not Law.

    One thought:

    Sin is sin against the Law, and the Law defines what sin is. So, to declare a certain sphere "off limits" to claims of Law is to declare that sin is impossible there.

    In the example of the Liturgy, is it really impossible that either pastor or parishoner could sin against God or against neighbor between Invocation and Benediction?

    Certainly the Law exists for the sake of the Gospel, but sometimes people seem to claim that the Liturgy is "governed" or "regulated" by the Gospel in such a way that they seem to be trying to make the Gospel behave as a non-Law Law...

    Simul justus et peccator still holds for that 60-90 minute period on Sunday morning. Can the advocates of shape-shifting liturgy really claim that their actions are "without offense to others"?

  7. Fr. Curtis,

    As you had directed the above comment at me I will simply say - spot on. By that is precisely what I had intended with "vital".

  8. So what do we call the kind of antinomianism that says: "I believe in Jesus so I'm saved. Therefore it doesn't make any difference whether I go to church or not, or even join one, or make any attempt to live at all differently from the world around me."

    Get-out-of-jail-free-card antinomianism?


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