The term antinomian is derived from the Greek a)ntinomi/a (antinomía), literally “against the law”, though the Greek word itself can actually have the technical sense of facing a difficulty or ambiguity in the law. While rarely, if ever, used in ordinary English today, “antinomianism” continues to serve as a technical (and polemic) term in religious and ethical studies. Christians have been especially sensitive to the term in relation to Paul’s teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) in Galatians and Romans. Many simply take for granted that Paul’s teaching is not, and could not be, “antinomian”. However, this attitude, I believe, very much reflects a confusion of terminology and definition. It is helpful to distinguish the primary ways the term may be understood, in relation to the Old Testament Law (Torah)—i.e., “against the Law”, in the sense of:
- Teaching that Christians are no longer obligated or required to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah
- Attitude and/or behavior which is hostile and/or opposed to the precepts of the Law (Torah)
- Immorality and licentiousness, i.e. behavior which contradicts the ethical demands and precepts of the Torah, esp. as represented in the second table of the Ten Commandments—i.e. the “moral law”
- A partisan term (“Antinomians”) for historical persons or groups who espoused or exemplified views similar to any or all of the previous three, whether “Gnostics” from the early centuries or the related to the so-called “Antinomian Controversies” among Protestants (Lutherans) in the mid-late 16th century
The last of these is especially unhelpful; it would be better if “Antinomian(s)” were eliminated as a historical label. Most Christians today probably would understand the term in sense #3 above, as more or less synonymous with licentiousness and immorality. This often is related to the general belief (or assumption) that, while the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Torah (sacrifical ritual, the holy/feast days, dietary regulations, et al) no longer apply to believers, most of the ethical-moral precepts and injunctions remain in force (on this, see below). Sense #2 generally corresponds with the term a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) in the New Testament, and is largely synonymous with the concepts of sin, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God. Sense #1 is a rather blunt way of characterizing Paul’s teaching regarding the Law in Galatians and Romans; some scholars and commentators are indeed willing to describe it as “antinomian”, though many others are unwilling or reluctant to do so. Some would dispute that #1 accurately characterizes Paul’s teaching, but it would be difficult to read his arguments in Galatians and Romans fairly and come up with a different conclusion. I am in the process of discussing Paul’s View of the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc) as part of a series on “The Law and the New Testament”.
The problem with understanding “antinomianism” in senses #2 and 3 above is that it confuses religious and ethical attitudes and behavior with the specific commands of the Torah. While it is true that the second (ethical) side of the Decalogue continues to be emphasized by Jesus (Mark 10:18-29 par) and in early Christian instruction (James 2:11; Rom 13:9; Didache 2:1-3, etc), it was very quickly disassociated from the Torah, and connected almost entirely with the teaching of Jesus (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount). In the New Testament itself, this can be divided into two stages of tradition:
- Jesus’ preserved teaching regarding the “Great Commandment” (esp. Lev 19:18) and the “Golden Rule”—Mark 12:28-34 par; Matt 7:12 par
- The resultant tendency to subsume the entire Law under a single command (or principle), related to Lev 19:18: the so-called “love command”—cf. James 2:8; Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10; Didache 1:2, and also Jn 13:34-35; 14:15-24; 15:10-17; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:23; 4:21; 5:1-3
As a practical result, virtually of the specific Torah commands are effectively eliminated. Indeed, apart from the two-fold “Great commandment” (Deut 6:4-5 / Lev 19:18) and the five (ethical) commands of the Decalogue, it is difficult to find much, if any, evidence that any other Torah command or regulation was considered still to be in force in the early Church. There were, of course, Jewish Christians who advocated (and/or demanded) observance of circumcision, the dietary laws, et al, even for Gentile believers, as indicated in Acts 15 and throughout Galatians; however, by the end of the New Testament period (c. 90-100 A.D.) this was an extreme minority view overall.
Clearly, Paul and all other (legitimate) early Christian teachers argued strenuously against immorality and wickedness (sense #2 and 3), but was the basis for this the continued need for believers (whether Jew or Gentile) to follow the Torah? In Galatians, Paul says exactly the opposite of this, arguing that believers are free from the Law and are no longer under obligation to observe it (i.e. no longer “under Law”). The only Law which continues to remain in force, as is clear from Gal 5:14 and 6:2, is the so-called “love-command (or principle)”. What then, is the basis of morality and proper religious behavior?—clearly, it is the work, guidance, and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 4:6; 5:5-6, 16-18, 22-23, 25). This, however, does require a willingness of the believer to be so guided by the Spirit, i.e. to “walk” according to the Spirit (5:16, 25; cf. also 6:8). This is the reason for Paul’s forceful exhortation (and warning) in 5:16-25 (also 6:7-9)—freedom in Christ certainly does not mean freedom to act wickedly, but Christian behavior is regulated by the Spirit, and not by the Law of the Old Testament. Paul’s line of argument in Romans is a bit more complex and nuanced than that in Galatians, but, I would not hesitate to say that his view of the Law in both letters can be fully described as “antinomian” in the best sense of definition #1 above.