What is Antinomianism?

What is Antinomianism?

Antinomianism springs from the same conception, as to the relation between God’s will and man’s, which underlies determinism.

It causes, there fore, no fresh difficulty. But it is perhaps desirable to point out the element of truth which it contains. If morality is conceived as what St. Paul calls a “ law of works, ” an external and apparently unreasonable code of imperatives, then such a morality is certainly, as the antinomian believes, superseded and done away by religion.



The external, compulsive law has been replaced by an inner spring of life. If a man is perfectly religious it is true that it does not matter what he does ; not in the sense that he may commit crimes with impunity, but in the sense that he will not commit them, even if you forget to tell him not to. Thus religion appears as a release from the servitude of morality.

But this view depends on a false description of morality. The man to whose mind a moral law is a mere external command, grudgingly obeyed under compulsion, falls short not merely or religion but of morality. He is not really moral at all.

He is in a state of heteronomy ; it is not his own will, freely acting, that produces the result but the imposition upon his will of alien force. The very nature of the moral law is this, that it is not imposed upon us from without. We do not merely obey it ; we make it. The member of the “ kingdom of ends, ” the truly moral society, is not a mere subject ; he is a sovereign. Thus the moral law has already that character of spontaneity, that absence of compulsion, which is typical of religion. The transition from heteronomy to autonomy which for St. Paul is marked by the passage from Judaism to Christianity—from the law of works to the law of faith—is not a transition from morality to religion, but a transition into morality from some infra-moral state.

What, then, is this infra-moral state ? We might be tempted to describe it as the stage of positive law, of civil law. But this would be equally unsatisfactory. Just as the really moral consciousness makes its own laws, and does not merely obey them blindly, so the really social will finds in the law of its society its own self-expression, and is sovereign as well as subject in the state in which it lives.

This is an ideal, doubtless, to which few societies attain ; but it is the ideal, none the less, of civil life as such. And, therefore, we cannot distinguish civil from moral law as characterised by heteronomy and autonomy respectively.

The difference is not between two types of law but between differences of attitude to one and the same law. The law may be divine, moral, or civil ; in each case there are two ways of obeying it, either from within, when the law becomes the free self-expression of the acting will, or from without, the law appearing as a tyrannical force blindly and grudgingly obeyed. This is the distinction which the antinomian has in mind.

Antinomianism in the commonest sense, however, makes the mistake of supposing that the transition to autonomy cancels the duties which heteronomy enforced. Even this is in one sense true, for any “ law of works ” contains numbers of superfluous commands, presenting as duties actions which the autonomous will rightly sees to be valueless. But in so far as the external law enjoins real duties, the internal law comes not to destroy but to fulfil.

Thus whatever in morality is really moral is taken up into religion ; and the state of mind which marks it as religious, the free and joyful acceptance of it, is not peculiar to religion as distinct from morality. It is essential to morality as such.