Antinomianism (19TH-20TH CENTURIES)

View of certain Christians that the duties of a Christian are not to be circumscribed by obedience to a moral law or set of laws.

More widely, the view that justification is by faith rather than by obedience to such laws. More widely still, any view that seeks to justify the actions of certain agents as superior to – and properly to be exempt from – the requirements of law, whether moral or legal. (Not connected in sense with ‘antinomy’, meaning ‘contradiction.’)

Also see: situationism


Antinomianism has been a point of doctrinal contention in the history of Christianity, especially in Protestantism, given the Protestant belief in justification through faith alone versus justification on the basis of merit or good works or works of mercy. Most Protestants consider themselves saved without having to keep the commandments of the Mosaic law as a whole; that is, their salvation does not depend upon keeping the Mosaic law. However, salvific faith is generally seen as one that produces obedience, consistent with the reformed formula, “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone,” in contrast to rejecting moral constraint.[10]

The term antinomianism was coined by Martin Luther during the Reformation to criticize extreme interpretations of the new Lutheran soteriology.[11] In the 18th century, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, severely attacked antinomianism.[12]

A general consensus has been historically reached as to which laws of the Old Testament Christians are still enjoined to keep. These moral laws, as opposed to civil or ceremonial laws, are derivative of what St. Paul indirectly refers to as natural law (Rom. 2.14–15). Mosaic law has authority only insofar as it reflects the commands of Christ and the natural law. Christian sects and theologians who believe that they are freed from more moral constraint than is customary are often called “antinomian” by their critics. Thus, classic Methodist commentator Adam Clarke held, “The Gospel proclaims liberty from the ceremonial law, but binds you still faster under the moral law. To be freed from the ceremonial law is the Gospel liberty; to pretend freedom from the moral law is Antinomianism.”[13]


The term antinomian came into use in the sixteenth century, however the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of earlier beliefs.[14] Early Gnostic sects were accused of failure to follow the Mosaic Law in a manner that suggests the modern term “antinomian”. Most Gnostic sects did not accept the Old Testament moral law. For example, the Manichaeans held that their spiritual being was unaffected by the action of matter and regarded carnal sins as being, at worst, forms of bodily disease.[15]

Marcion of Sinope was the founder of Marcionism which rejected the Hebrew Bible in its entirety. Marcion considered the God portrayed in the Bible to be a lesser deity, a demiurge, and he claimed that the law of Moses was contrived.[17] Such deviations from the moral law were criticized by proto-orthodox rivals of the Gnostics, who ascribed various aberrant and licentious acts to them. A biblical example of such criticism can be found in Revelation 2:6–15, which criticizes the Nicolaitans, possibly an early Gnostic sect.


The term “antinomianism” was coined by Martin Luther during the Reformation, to criticize extreme interpretations of the new Lutheran soteriology.[11] The Lutheran Church benefited from early antinomian controversies by becoming more precise in distinguishing between law and gospel and justification and sanctification. Martin Luther developed 258 theses during his six antinomian disputations, which continue to provide doctrinal guidance to Lutherans today.[11]

Upon hearing that he was being charged with rejection of the Old Testament moral law[failed verification], Luther responded: “And truly, I wonder exceedingly, how it came to be imputed to me, that I should reject the Law or ten Commandments, there being extant so many of my own expositions (and those of several sorts) upon the Commandments, which also are daily expounded, and used in our Churches, to say nothing of the Confession and Apology, and other books of ours.”[18] In his “Introduction to Romans,” Luther stated that saving faith is, “a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. 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!”[19]

First Antinomian controversy

As early as 1525, Johannes Agricola advanced his idea, in his commentary on Luke, that the law was a futile attempt of God to work the restoration of mankind. He maintained that non-Christians were still held to the Mosaic law, while Christians were entirely free from it, being under the Gospel alone. He viewed sin as a malady or impurity rather than an offense which rendered the sinner guilty and damnable before God. The sinner was the subject of God’s pity rather than of his wrath. To Agricola, the purpose of repentance was to abstain from evil rather than the contrition of a guilty conscience. The law had no role in repentance, which came about after one came to faith, and repentance was caused by the knowledge of the love of God alone.[11]

In contrast, Philipp Melanchthon urged that repentance must precede faith, and that knowledge of the moral law is needed to produce repentance.[15] He later wrote in the Augsburg Confession that repentance has two parts. “One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.”[20]

Shortly after Melanchthon drew up the 1527 Articles of Visitation in June, Agricola began to be verbally aggressive toward him, but Martin Luther succeeded in smoothing out the difficulty at Torgau in December 1527. However, Agricola did not change his ideas, and later depicted Luther as disagreeing with him. After Agricola moved to Wittenberg, he maintained that the law must be used in the courthouse but it must not be used in the church. He said that repentance comes from hearing the good news only and does not precede but rather follows faith. He continued to disseminate this doctrine in books, despite receiving various warnings from Luther.[11][need quotation to verify]

Luther, with reluctance, at last believed that he had to make public comment against antinomianism and its promoters in 1538 and 1539. Agricola apparently yielded, and Luther’s book Against the Antinomians (1539)[21][failed verification] was to serve as Agricola’s recantation. This was the first use of the term Antinomian.[14][22] But the conflict flared up again, and Agricola sued Luther. He said that Luther had slandered him in his disputations, Against the Antinomians, and in his On the Councils and Churches (1539). But before the case could be brought to trial, Agricola left the city, even though he had bound himself to remain at Wittenberg, and moved to Berlin where he had been offered a position as preacher to the court. After his arrival there, he made peace with the Saxons, acknowledged his “error”, and gradually conformed his doctrine to that which he had before opposed and assailed. He still used such terms as gospel and repentance in a different manner than Luther.[11]

Second Antinomian controversy

The antinomian doctrine, however, was not eliminated from Lutheranism. Melanchthon and those who agreed with him, called Philippists, were checked by the Gnesio-Lutherans in the Second Antinomian Controversy during the Augsburg Interim. The Philippists ascribed to the Gospel alone the ability to work repentance, to the exclusion of the law. They blurred the distinction between Law and Gospel by considering the Gospel itself to be a moral law. They did not identify Christ’s fulfillment of the law with the commandments which humans are expected to follow.[11]

As a result, the Book of Concord rejects antinomianism in the last confession of faith. The Formula of Concord rejects antinominism in the fifth article, On the Law and the Gospel[23] and in the sixth article, On the Third Use of the Law.[24]


Anne Hutchinson on Trial (1901) by Edwin Austin Abbey depicts the civil trial of Anne Hutchinson during the Antinomian Controversy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 7 November 1637

The Articles of the Church of England, Revised and altered by the Assembly of Divines, at Westminster, in the year 1643 condemns antinomianism, teaching that “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral. By the moral law, we understand all the Ten Commandments taken in their full extent.”[25] The Westminster Confession, held by Presbyterian Churches, holds that the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments “does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof”.[26] The Westminster Confession of Faith further states: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”[27]

However, a number of seventeenth-century English writers in the Reformed tradition held antinomian beliefs. None of these individuals argued that Christians would not obey the law. Instead, they believed that believers would spontaneously obey the law without external motivation.[4] Antinomianism during this period is likely a reaction against Arminianism, as it emphasized free grace in salvation to the detriment of any participation on the part of the believer.[28] John Eaton (fl. 1619) is often identified as the father of English antinomianism.[28] Tobias Crisp (1600–1643), a Church of England priest who had been Arminian and was later accused of being an antinomian.[29] He was a divisive figure for English Calvinists, with a serious controversy arising from the republication of his works in the 1690s.[30] Also lesser known was John Saltmarsh (priest).

From the latter part of the 18th century, critics of Calvinists accused them of antinomianism. Such charges were frequently raised by Arminian Methodists, who subscribed to a synergistic soteriology that contrasted with Calvinism’s monergistic doctrine of justification. The controversy between Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists produced the notable Arminian critique of Calvinism: Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism (1771–75).

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