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The Enduring Appeal of Antinomianism

Why a 17th-Century Theological Debate (Still) Matters Today
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The last few years have seen a resurgence of popular-level books dealing with antinomianism, that pernicious crop of tares that seem to spring up wherever Reformed Christianity blooms. In 2013 we saw the release of Mark Jones’s Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?. Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters appeared in 2016.

Whitney Gamble’s new book, Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly, isn’t intended for a popular audience, as it’s an abridgment of her doctoral thesis. But those interested in getting a better handle on the depth and breadth of antinomianism will find in this book a much-needed resource. According to the foreword by Carl Trueman, her new book makes a “signal contribution” to historical discussion of antinomianism and the Westminster Assembly (x). Gamble—associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California—fielded a few questions.


When Christians hear the word “antinomianism,” they usually think it has something to do with being “against the law.” But you claim that “English antinomianism . . . was more complex and multifaceted” (1). How so? What were the broader issues in this debate?

Yes, “antinomianism” broken down means “anti” (against) and “nomos” (law), so that’s a fair thought. And questions relating to the law, and more specifically the Ten Commandments, were definitely a part of the antinomian controversy in 1640s England. But those questions came in the context of a wider theological debate. At the time, the Church of England was entrenched in controversies between theologians who were Reformed and those who followed the teachings of Jacobus Arminius. If you think the theological debates we have in the States on these issues are passionate, well, in England the tension was so high that the nation erupted into civil war.

If you think the theological debates we have in the States on these issues are passionate, well, in England the tension was so high that the nation erupted into civil war.

King Charles I led a Royalist army sympathetic to Arminian theology against Parliament’s army, which was fighting for a reformation away from Arminianism. Within this context the antinomian controversy exploded in London. The theological issues at hand certainly were connected to the law, but they more broadly related to the doctrines of justification, sanctification, sin, the nature of Christ’s redemption, and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

You note that “antinomianism initially was an extreme anti-Arminian movement from within the Reformed camp” (2). Could you flesh out this triangle between Arminianism, Antinomianism, and Reformed theology?

Since the 1590s, English lecture halls and churches were filled with sharp debates over issues connected to Arminius’s teachings, specifically over the proper interpretation of predestination, God’s foreknowledge of sin, the place of faith in relation to justification, the nature of the grace given in salvation, and the role and use of the moral law. The majority of the Church of England leadership were either directly in line with Arminius on these matters or were at least sympathetic to his teachings.

A minority argued for a Reformed interpretation, however. And within that Reformed camp was a subgroup of theologians—later dubbed “antinomians” for their structuring of the Old Testament era—no held to a type of hyper-Calvinism in response to Arminianism.

In contrast to both the Arminians and the antinomians were the Westminster Assembly theologians, who fought for a mediating position between the two.

If God has forgiven us of all our sins, then should we continue to ask forgiveness for our daily sins? It seems that some antinomians said no. How does this debate help us answer that question?

Yes, we should! But some antinomians said no, due to their understanding of how God viewed his justified children. If he can’t “see” their sin, then there is no need to ask for forgiveness. Antinomians pushed for this view in an effort to stay away from the prevalent Arminian notion that a believer could lose his or her justified status to sinful acts. This notion came from the Arminian understanding of the biblical example of David and his sins. Arminians claimed that David couldn’t have been justified when he committed adultery and murder—he may have been justified previously, but he clearly had lost it at that point, because no justified person would commit such heinous acts.

Antinomians reacted strongly against the idea that David could’ve lost his justification, but they also didn’t think a justified person would commit murder or adultery. So in order to explain what happened with David, antinomians created a bifurcated system of biblical redemption. They argued that the entirety of the Old Testament belonged under the “inferior” time of the law. In that era, God judged his people harshly and condemned them if they didn’t keep the law perfectly—it was possible to lose one’s justification if the law was not kept. Since David belonged to that age, God “saw” his sin and punished him for it by taking the life of the child born to Bathsheba. Now, however, with the completed work of Christ, antinomians argued that believers have been ushered into a new, better era of “Free Grace” where God no longer sees believers’ sin or chastises them for it. The Old Testament law, and especially the Ten Commandments, can’t apply to the believer’s life or condemn the believer now in the time of grace.

Westminster Assembly theologians disagreed with the antinomian division of redemptive history. They argued that while the Old Testament was shadowy and temporary, God still saved his people the same way then as he does now. Old Testament believers were saved by looking expectantly toward the Messiah and his work, and New Testament believers are saved by looking back on the Messiah and his work. The Ten Commandments, given to God’s people as a guide for sanctified living, still apply to his people today. The Westminster divines cited Hebrews 12 and claimed that chastisement for sin, as in the case of David losing his baby, didn’t mean justification was lost. In fact, chastisement was a strong assurance that justification had been granted, because God chastises those whom he loves.

Intramural Reformed debates over the last few years have often involved the “third use of the law” (the idea that the moral law is meant to be a guide for the Christian life), with charges of “Lutheranism” from one side and “legalism” from the other. How does the 17th-century debate map onto current debates? Are we repeating history? How can this debate inform us in our current discussions?

I think most, if not all, theological debates repeat history in some way. While we need to be careful to interpret past controversies in their own complex context, the more we study church history, the better theologians we become as we learn to discern common patterns and study godly solutions of the past. That’s one reason I wrote my book—to try to draw out what happened in the past so we can learn and hopefully not make the same mistakes.

The more we study church history, the better theologians we become as we learn to discern common patterns and study godly solutions of the past.

The 17th-century antinomian debate is especially instructive, because the Westminster divines took pains to ensure their confession carefully outlined the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. And they did so directly in response to the issues raised by antinomians. The divines debated long and hard about how exactly to explain the role of faith in justification, the nature of the Old Testament law, and the implications of Christ’s work for the believer’s life now.

In my opinion, the Westminster documents are still unparalleled as far as accurate and helpful summaries of biblical teaching. So, for those having discussions today regarding these issues, especially for those in the Reformed community who subscribe to the Westminster Standards, I’d say take another look at Westminster, be humble, and learn from godly saints in the past.

You chronicle how the Westminster divines debated whether or not antinomianism was heresy, and concluded that it wasn’t. First, why not? And second, are there lessons we could learn here about how to deal with false teaching and where to draw the line between heresy and orthodoxy?

One of the main tasks of the Westminster Assembly, at least initially, was to inform Parliament of any “erroneous” teachings spreading through London. And yes, after sharp debate, the assembly as a whole agreed that while antinomian theology was misguided and needed correction in several points, it didn’t cross the line into heresy. For the assembly, antinomianism was more of a movement of ignorance and error rather than heresy.

Westminster Assembly members’ discussion over heresy is instructive for us today in a number of ways. First, the divines took a measured approach in dealing with antinomians. Before the assembly as a whole debated whether antinomianism was heretical, a smaller group of divines read every antinomian writing and called alleged antinomian ministers in for dialogue. This follows the pattern in Matthew 18 of first verifying information with a brother or sister directly.

A second lesson is the example the divines set of having a rich knowledge of the truth. In order to detect false teaching, one must really know true teaching. The divines were extremely well-trained in exegesis, theology, church history, and the church confessions. Because of that knowledge of and training in the truth, they were able to have a useful discussion on what constituted heresy. That presents a challenge for us today to grow in our knowledge of the truth. Since the battle against heresy will always be a part of life in the church, we have a duty to strive to attain full knowledge of Christ as Paul commends in Ephesians 4.

On the last page of your book, you state that antinomianism “continues to be seen and heard in sermons and commentaries today” (157). What do you think is the main appeal of antinomianism? Which aspects of 17th-century English antinomianism do you find most enduringly popular today, and which do you view as most dangerous for the church and the Christian life?

While I’m not an expert on American evangelicalism, I think aspects of 17th-century antinomianism have become mainstream in many of our churches. Many believers assume that some, if not all, of the moral law no longer applies, or that it only applies because the commands are re-affirmed in the New Testament; many have difficulty understanding the role of faith in justification; it’s not uncommon to misunderstand the relationship between justification and sanctification and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. And sadly, many don’t fully understand the implications of the fact that the gospel consists not only in Christ’s blood shed for us, but also in his keeping the law in our place.

I think the enduring appeal of antinomian theology is simply that it’s easy.

I think the enduring appeal of antinomian theology is simply that it’s easy. It’s just easier to remain at a baby or immature stage of theological knowledge than to struggle through understanding the complexities of the doctrine of justification or to work through comprehending the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. But the problem with remaining at a baby stage in our knowledge on these points is that we miss the richness and beauty of the gospel. These issues are at the heart of the gospel and are the foundation of the Christian life.

It takes a lot of effort and hard work to advance toward a mature understanding of the gospel. And it’s not necessarily a popular thing to be discipled and to work hard. That’s why Paul had to warn the Ephesian church—the most well-trained church in the New Testament—to not allow herself to remain immature and tempted by false teaching. It’s sometimes easier for us to be disciplined in our diets or workout plans or academic pursuits than it is to be disciplined in our quest for knowing Christ and delighting in all the facets of the jewel that is God’s beautiful plan of redemption.

But there’s good news: Jesus promises that learning how to not be tossed to and fro by waves of false teaching, learning how to lose our lives in faithful discipleship, and learning how to deny ourselves and take up our cross, means we gain Christ himself. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain as we pursue a fully mature knowledge of the one who gave everything for our sake.

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