Etymology and Exegetical Fallacies (Antinomianism, Part One)

Johannes Agricola

Those of you who have read my review posts on The Truth About New Calvinism, by Mr. Paul Dohse, Sr. know that I am sympathetic with his concerns about antinomianism, particularly in the Presbyterian and Reformed world.

But that sympathy actually raises a far more crucial question: What is antinomianism?

In other words, how exactly should we define antinomian or antinomianism? After all, if we want to offer a critique of a particular theological position, we ought to be able to at least define what the position is.

One possible answer is given in Mr. Dohse’s work, where, quoting another source, he writes,

Is antinomian a Bible Word?

Yes, it most certainly is (in the Greek Language [sic] that is). It can be found in the following for 25 times throughout the New Testament. This time it again comes from taking the Greek word nomos, but prefixing it with the negative particle a to give the Greek word anomos. The Greek word nomos was previously defined as: a law, rule, standard; a rule of life or moral conduct. When the negative article [sic] a is prefixed to it, the exact same meaning as our English word antinomianism is derived. The Greek translation [sic] for this New Testament word is: lawlessness; the condition of being without law; having contempt for law.

In a posthumous work published in 1873, the Scottish pastor John “Rabbi” Duncan made the argument that,

“there is only one heresy, and that is Antinomianism,”

because all sin (which includes heresy) is against God’s law. The apostle John made substantially the same point when he wrote that sin is lawlessness (ἀνομία).

The problem, however, is that the theological understanding of antinomianism is more complicated by far than simply being doctrinally (or practically) against God’s law.

The mistake made by the source quoted above is an exegetical error we’ll call “the root fallacy.” This fallacy is the mistaken idea that every word actually has a meaning that is tied up with its shape or its components. The fallacious nature is easily seen by examining the etymology of the English word nice. The English word is actually derived from the Latin term nescius, which means “ignorant” or “stupid.” Now if I were to say, “Joseph is a nice guy,” who in the world would think I was calling Joseph stupid?

This fallacy refuses to recognize two important factors: (1) semantic range, and (2) the fluidity of language over time. Where semantic range is concerned, any given word can have a wide number of meanings which are only determinable by context. For instance, the word run can either mean “to travel swiftly by foot,” or “a damaged area in a stocking.”

Then there is the problem of the fluidity of language over time. In Elizabethan English, the word “let” meant “to prevent” not “to allow.” In modern English, some four centuries later, the meaning has changed entirely—a reality that would be lost to you if you focused solely on the etymology of the word.

While etymology may be important, it can also actually mislead you at times, as well. So we can’t arrive at a sufficient definition of antinomianism by simply examining the components of the Greek term. The etymology of the word only gets us so far, and if that’s as far as we get, we’ll wind up with a simplistic understanding of what is actually a complex theological conundrum. Knowing that, how else could we arrive at a definition?

In the case of antinomianism, the best procedure will be to examine the term historically. And it’s to the history of antinomianism that we will turn…but not until next week.

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"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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