Where Did the Antinomianism in Today’s Christianity Come From?

Where Did the Antinomianism in Today’s Christianity Come From? May 31, 2017
Pastor Jordan Cooper’s new book, just patiently chipping away at a small part of the larger problem.

 

Post by Nathan Rinne

What is an “antinomian,” a term which appears to have been invented by the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther? According to Merriam-Webster, an antinomian is someone “who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.”

Modern Christianity is full of such antinomians. These days, for example, it is not difficult to find people who identify as evangelical or non-denominational Christians but also think that:

  • Differences between men and woman are basically insignificant — perhaps not universal and stable at all — and there are no significant issues, for example, with woman being pastors.
  • Divorce can and perhaps should take place when one of the participants in a marriage does not feel happy or fulfilled.
  • Christians should not tell members of other religions that, when it comes to the significance of Jesus Christ, “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
  • Homosexual behavior is acceptable so long as it takes place within “committed” relationships (even as “committed” is getting re-defined…)
  • All nations that want to identify with Christianity in some way must allow within their own borders all who claim refugee status because “Jesus was a refugee.”
  • Being sexually involved with another prior to marriage, previously derided as “living in sin,” and “shacking up,” is to be expected.
  • “’You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,’… a fancy way of saying ‘I follow Christ except for where He goes.’” – Hans Fiene

Yeah, yeah, I know. Some of you think I am a total jerk (to say the least – that is being nice!). Being as civil as you can be, you want to respond with something like the following, which was said in a tweet by a couple pastors considered by many to be quite conservative:

“You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior.”*

Huh. I guess some pastors need continuing education credits, but to whom shall they go?

Let’s be clear: by rejecting God’s law, today’s antinomians do not want to embrace the God, who, through the work of Christ, would once again recreate man in His image. And how did we get to this point? In one sense, the answer is quite simple: we have flat-out rejected God and his Word given to us, the Bible. In short, we really do not find Him—at least as we find Him in that book!—all that impressive or attractive anymore.

Evidently much more attractive to evangelicals of the “thoughtful” variety!

If that answer seems overly simplistic to you—or, yes, just something that an asshat like me would say–I urge you to read the paper on the issue that my pastor, Paul Strawn, recently presented at a theological conference.

According to him, it is completely understandable that antinomianism is running wild today. After all, among our elites, not only is the Christian faith unreasonable, but the notion that history itself can be known is unreasonable! He writes that because of “the best of reason accepted today, history cannot truly be known, and the texts of history can only be a record of what was understood to have happened within history…” As such “God working in history through Jesus Christ, and the record of that working, i.e. the Bible, cease to be sources for our knowledge of God”. This means that modern Christian antinomians:

  • Have a god whose “existence certainly can be deduced from the human experience in one form or another, but he simply can never be known.”
  • Must exclude “the God who takes on definitive shape and form in nature, in history, in Jesus Christ.”
  • Ultimately reject the “law understood to be given by God within any context, and thus, of God defining human life and existence.”
  • Must reject “Christ fulfilling the law, and the crucifixion of Christ satisfying the demands of the law for mankind.”

So, unbelief in the Word of God—taking along with it the possibility of knowing human history!—is to blame, with figures like Caspar Schwenkfeld (16th c.), Immanuel Kant (18th c.), Friedrich Schleiermacher (19th c.) and Karl Barth (20th c.) all helping things along.

“…you don’t necessarily have the Word of God itself, but the fallible “witness” of man to God’s word” – Paul Strawn, on Karl Barth’s (pictured) view of the Bible

Some of you who know your church history might be thinking: “This is pure Gnosticism!” Indeed. As the Apostle John warned us years ago:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. – I John 4:1-3

Today’s Gnostic Antinomians do not need to insist that Jesus has “not come in the flesh” – they simply say it doesn’t really matter whether he did or not. As I pointed out in a recent post on my own blog, even contemporary figures who speak well of the Bible and are largely embraced by “conservatives” in the West are clearly flirting with such Gnosticism.

But again, the roots of this monster, born from a Christian cradle, are ultimately to be found in a lack of faith in God’s word, pure and simple.  

“The law and gospel cannot coexist. They are mutually exclusive.” — Paul Strawn (pictured with a Nigerian theology student) on the view of contemporary Lutheran gnostic antimomianism

A few more quick words about my pastor and this paper of his. As a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, his paper (here is the link again) gives a very short historical account of how this modern antinomian spirit, present in less overt forms since the days of the Reformation (no Roman Catholics – Luther himself is not to blame here!), has been embraced by many today who claim the Lutheran mantel. You will learn more about:

  • Martin Luther’s and the early Lutherans’ battles vs. their antinomian opponents.
  • How Werner Elert’s work was strategically used in the LC-MS by men like Ed Schroeder, Richard Baepler, and Robert Schultz to counter the doctrine of the Bible’s verbal inspiration (Jaroslav Pelikan recommended it be used for this reason!) and the third use of the law.
  • How C.F.W. Walther’s brilliant book on Law and Gospel was also hijacked and used as a relatively Barth-friendly wedge to counter Francis Peiper’s Christian Dogmatics and Walther’s own work on pastoral theology!
  • David Yeago’s 1993 paper in the journal Pro Ecclesia: Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal,” where he, among other things, says some teach that “The law oppresses because of the kind of word it is, not because of the situation in which we encounter it.”
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s (ELCA) rejection of Yeago’s warning and full embrace of antinomianism at their 2009 convention via Timothy Wengert’s completely novel “bound conscience” doctrine (echoing the conscience quote from the Lutheran pastors quoted above).
  • interesting facts about the battle in the LC-MS from the last 15 or so years (including the burying of Kurt Marquart’s paper on the 3rd use of the law by Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne).

In short, Strawn speaks of a “gradual, almost imperceptible, adaptation of the usage of the law/gospel distinction” as a “foundational dialectic epistemology” in the LC-MS where there is a “rejection of the law — of God working through creation, even shaping and molding creation[,… this being] a fundamental epistemological assumption”. He even notes that more conservative ELCA folks located the origins of some of their own problems as coming from the LC-MS (i.e. Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis and “Seminex” in the 1970s)! Don’t let terminology like “foundational dialectic epistemology” frighten you away. My pastor takes the time to unpack it more in the paper.

Thankfully, a lot of LC-MS Lutherans have not embraced this “hard antinomianism.” At the same time, I have heard another relatively conservative Lutheran pastor tell me that he taught his young children to cover their ears and scream whenever they heard a pastor try to tell them what they should be doing after hearing the message that Jesus had put away their sins.

In that case folks, I guess you might as well close your Bibles as well. Do you think that kind of thinking might just possibly be related to the problems described above?

A popularized summation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, from Lutheran Press

FIN

 

*For a more nuanced critique of that quote, see here.

Images:

Karl Barth: Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-1283-23A / Lachmann, Hans / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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