Michael Horton Defines Antinomianism(s)

I’ve been reading through Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, so when the Nov/Dec Issue of Modern Reformation arrived featuring two articles on antinomianism, I was quite interested. One article even includes a sidebar, recommending Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything and DeYoung’s The Hole in our Holiness as two complimentary perspectives on this topic.

In his article, “Holiness Wars: The Antinomian Debate,” Michael Horton calls on the carpet those who sling the word “antinomian” in a cavalier manner. He proceeds to define the term, then notes how the Reformed and Lutheran confessions all spoke out staunchly against an antinomian approach. In the end, he reminds readers of how easily we can rally around individual articulations of the relationship between justification and sanctification when we should be exercising better confessional wisdom. Horton explains:

As at the Jerusalem Council, representatives came to Nicaea, Chalcedon, Torgau, Dort, and Westminster with idiosyncrasies. Yet they had to make their case, participate in restrained debate, and talk to each other in a deliberative assembly, rather than about each other on blogs and in conversations with their circles of followers. Muting personal idiosyncrasies in favor of a consensus on the teaching of God’s Word, these assemblies give us an enduring testimony for our own time.

“Holiness Wars,” pg. 12.

The statements of the Reformed confessions themselves are so often overlooked in this discussion, yet they are eminently relevant and beneficial.

But what most interested me about Horton’s article was his excellent definition of antinomianism, followed by his assessment about how many true antinomians are actually out there:

Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as a characteristic of human rebellion against and external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the Fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture. Antinomianism may also be understood in relation to its opposite, neonomianism, which is the view that the gospel is basically just a new law presenting new requirements for the Christian life, even necessary to win God’s favor.

In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.

While there have been some true-blue antinomians in church history, the charge is often made by those tilting in a more neonomian direction against faithful, apostolic, evangelical preaching. For example, despite the fact that Lutheran and Reformed churches have gone on record against antinomianism in no uncertain terms, that has not kept them from being accused of holding at least implicitly to antinomian tenets. It is therefore important to appeal directly to the Reformation confessions of faith.

“Holiness Wars,” pgs. 8-9. (Bold Emphasis Added)

While this excellent article highlights one very important error to avoid (i.e., wrongly labeling people “antinomian”), it is a reminder that both terms, antinomian and legalist, should be used cautiously. We must also seek to avoid wrongly labeling people “legalist.”  We must strive to uphold both liberty and the law, but we must do so in ways that avoid caricature or slander.

What is more, we must continue to exercise caution when spelling out the details of our liberty and our piety lest we bind or loose beyond God’s word and cast aside the lucid brevity of the confessional positions.

Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

3 thoughts on “Michael Horton Defines Antinomianism(s)”

  1. Thank you very much for posting this. It is helpful, even though more could be said that would perhaps be more appropriate in another venue than a blog post or comment. My personal suggestion is for those who want to slap the scarlet “A” label on someone to first do the following: 1) Study church history (see above), 2) identify those who have been labeled as antinomian, 3) identify who labeled them as antinomian, 4) identify why they were labeled antinomian, 5) put them all together, 6) then ask yourself if anybody today really has a good grasp of what this label means or has meant in a variety of historical disputes (as is the case with so many others that are bandied about). Bottom line: false accusation is a sin, and if the truth be told the beam and the mote principle operates in this issue just as well as any other.


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