Originally, today’s post was going to cover the early history of antinomianism, but after going through my notes, I’ve decided to cover that next week, and to come at the problem of antinomianism from another angle for today’s post.
For the past four years, I’ve been researching both legalism and antinomianism, only to come to something of an odd realization: I’m pretty sure they’re actually two sides of the same coin, and you can actually fall into legalism and antinomianism simultaneously.
When most people thing of legalism, it’s the Pharisees that immediately come to mind. Nearly all of us have been taught to regard the Pharisees as the archetypical legalists; they are the most prominent examples of trusting in their own obedience over God’s grace to be found in Scripture.
In the last forty years or so, it’s become commonplace for scholars (such as E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright) to attempt to soften the legalistic elements found in Second Temple Judaism. According to this view (generally referred to as the New Perspectives on Paul), Paul was far less concerned with self-righteousness than he was with the problem of Jewish nationalism/ethnocentrism vis-a-vis cultural boundary markers like circumcision and dietary laws. What this second look at Paul has failed to see is that the boundary markers they’re almost obsessed with were in fact symptoms of the larger problem, i.e., legalism.
What’s interesting is that, at the same time, the problem was also antinomianism.
You can see the evidence for this in Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 and Mark 7:8. The Pharisees didn’t actually keep the Law; in fact, their emphasis on Talmudic legalism actually turned them into antinomians in practice rather than in dogma. They only kept the parts of the law they liked and neglected “the weightier matters of the law.”
The reality is that legalism and antinomianism are two sides of one coin, since they are both the product of carnal living. Contrary to popular belief, the goal for Christian living isn’t to find the middle path between legalism and license, because in trying to find this mythical middle path, you just wind up lurching between the two extremes.
You see, legalism and antinomianism both flow from hearts that are as yet either entirely uncaptured or only partially captured by Jesus Christ. This means that both of these heresies are, not unlike almost all other heresies, ultimately Christological, since they deny the grace of God found in the person and work of Jesus.