15 February 2008

Practical antinomianism

Amoral Man – Post Script II

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. -- Psalm 1.1-2
Teach me, O LORD, the way of Your statutes; and I shall observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to dishonest gain. Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways. Establish Your word to Your servant as that which produces reverence for You. Turn away my reproach which I dread, for Your ordinances are good. Behold, I long for Your precepts. Revive me through Your righteousness. -- Psalm 119.33-40
My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge. -- Isaiah 5.13
Pursuant to a discussion in the comments under this posting, with an (aforementioned) anonymous reader, I made the statement that many Christians have adopted various forms of antinomianism. He responds with a quote from wikipedia to the effect that antinomianism is little more than name calling (because, since few groups "explicitly" call themselves antinomian, the charge of "antinomian" is leveled by some sects against "competing" sects) and the accusation that I believe that "those [who] don't follow the Christian moral code aren't TRUE Christians or don't belong to a true Christian sub-sub-sub-sect."

I will agree that few groups explicitly identify themselves as antinomian and that the charge is usually made by one group of Christians involved in dog-fights with other groups. I wasn't in a dog-fight with another Christian; I was talking to a non-Christian. I also didn't specify any sect or sub-sect as being explicitly antinomian. And the record in the comments will reflect that I was light-years from even hinting that Christians who don't follow the Christian code are not true Christians. (Furthermore, when I wish to discuss differences with Christians of other persuasions, I generally do so by name – whether name of individual, theological school of thought, or denomination. I also generally have these conversations with members of those groups and not third parties.)

First, I said that many Christians have adopted various forms of antinomianism. What I should really have said, perhaps, is that many individual Christians (as opposed to entire sects) have adopted, whether consciously or not, interpretive and hermeneutical frame-works which nullify various, and selective, provisions of the moral law. They may not explicitly be antinomian; I’ll grant that. But I do believe they can properly be said to be practically antinomian, that is – to greater or lesser extents – antinomian in practice.

Take, for example, the case of a Christian woman reported by a Christian counselor, who gave the following justification for her decision to leave her husband for another man with whom she was already romantically involved. In Ephesians 4.24, St. Paul says, “Put on the new man.” Well, there you have it! God says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “I hate divorce.” But she doesn’t have to obey the commandment because St. Paul is giving her permission to “put on the new man”. (Sorry men, but since St. Paul did not say anything about putting on the new woman, no divorce and remarriage for you.)

This woman isn’t alone. Several years ago a well-known contemporary Christian music artist divorced her husband to marry another man (who, as I recall, divorced his wife in order to marry her!). When interviewed by a Christian magazine, the woman I have in mind agreed that divorce is prohibited by the Christian moral code (with some exceptions), but she had the Holy Spirit’s special permission to divorce her husband to marry another.

Some Christians, having imbibed Western individualism, have come to believe that no one – and I do mean no one – can judge their behavior except for God. And this despite the fact that Jesus Christ authorizes church leadership to exercise discipline. (See, e.g., Matt. 18.15-17.) Besides, anyone whose church disciplines him can, and usually will, simply move his church membership. Here again, in the refusal to be disciplined, the moral law is nullified. And anyone who talks meaningfully of church discipline is called a legalist, as if the assertion that, yes, we may not be saved by law-keeping, but we are still obligated to the moral law (and to the “general equity” of the judicial laws) is an assertion that we are saved by law-keeping. Tell someone that you’ve just excommunicated a man (after tens of attempts at other means) for adultery and abandonment of his wife and children and you’ll get called a legalistic, unloving, unchristian, Pharisee. What can be said except that these people, who have adopted interpretive frame-works which effectively nullify portions of the moral law, have thereby adopted some form of antinomianism? The antinomianism may be unintended, but that makes it no less antinomian.

Then there are those who run rough-shod over the point in John 8.1-11 and decide that since no one is without sin, no one can judge. And when they do this, they set this passage against those portions of Scripture (yes, even in the New Testament) which teach how to exercise proper judgment. (See, e.g., Matt. 7.1-5) There was a real, good, legal reason why the woman taken in adultery could not be stoned in punishment for her sin. It wasn’t that her accusers were not morally perfect. It’s that the process they were following was illegal. That’s right: stoning her to death in that circumstance would have been illegal. But you wouldn’t know that from the way John 8.1-11 gets thrown around as a covering for sins. “Hey,” they say, “unless you are without sin, you can’t throw stones at me; you can’t pass any judgment on my behavior. And you’re not without sins, so shut up.” Little do they realize that if this had been Jesus’ teaching in John 8.1-11 then he could not possibly have meant what is recorded in Matthew 18.15-17. Why bother with the testimony of two or three witnesses if none of the witnesses are sinless? Only those without sin could treat anyone like a publican and a sinner.

There is no provision in the moral law which cannot be nullified in the foregoing manners. This is a form of antinomianism. It is not explicit; and it is selective. But it is there nonetheless. And my saying so is not just a charge against a competing sect. I didn’t identify any sect, for one thing. For another thing, I happen to think that this is something which affects, to greater and lesser extents, all Christian sects. I did not even exclude my own sect from the “charge”. Finally, the adoption of this selective and practical antinomianism need not be intentional. I frankly think a great many Christians have been confused by the aforementioned dog-fights, have heard many propositions bandied about and have personal theologies which really are hodge-podges of various schools of thought. The lady who wanted to “put on the new man”; the Christian music artist to whom the Holy Spirit gave permission to divorce her husband – these were probably doing precisely what someone else taught them to do. The simple fact of the matter is that while I believe many Christians have adopted (by something like osmosis, maybe) interpretive frame-works which nullify various portions of the moral law, I don’t know of any who have thoroughly denied the moral law. I believe most people are doing the best they can do, in accordance with what they have been taught. The problem is with what they have been taught, as well as what they have observed of Christian leaders over the years.

Second, I make what I believe to be a proper distinction between what a Christian is required to believe and how a Christian is required to act. I may sometimes make decisions about who is a true Christian on the basis of the former, but I don't do so on the basis of the latter. In other words, those Christians who are practical and selective antinomians do not for that reason fail to be true Christians. They do, however, fail to be obedient Christians; and church discipline always assumes that the people being disciplined are true Christians. No exercise of discipline is for not being a true Christian. Discipline is for specific violations of the requirements of faith and practice. No finding of guilt is a finding that the accused is not a true Christian. Finding of guilt can only be guilt either of teaching heresy (matters of faith) or of being contumacious in the commission of sins (matters of practice). It cannot be otherwise.

The quote in the wikipedia article notwithstanding, many Christians are practical and selective antinomians.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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