In current debates, two key yet confusing labels are legalist and antinomian. In Euro-American culture it is much more damaging to be labeled legalistic than to be labeled antinomian. I doubt there is any community anywhere where legalistic does not refer to a bad sort of excessive law-abidingness. Not so with antinomian. In Euro-American settings, at least, being labeled an outlaw, maverick, or rebel activates mostly positive associations. In liberal discourse, especially about religion, anyone who can successfully claim to be a rebel fighting against legalists has already won an important political victory. We have seen this dynamic working ironically in press reports of Church debates about same-sex relationships: Where conservatives can be seen as successfully obstructing change, we are given pretty unsympathetic coverage; where liberals, however, have gained enough control of local church institutions to begin terminating licenses and seizing parish assets, the press often takes a much friendlier tone toward the now rebel diehards.
The actual word, antinomianism (from Greek anti, “against” and nomos, “law” or “convention”), apparently entered English in the period of radical Christian experimentation and conflict following the Reformation. Back then, antinomians were Christians who allegedly denied the relevance of the moral law. In the Reformation, Protestants came to reject the un-biblical ceremonial laws of late medieval Roman Catholicism, while Catholics and Protestants alike rejected the perceived “ceremonial laws” of “Pharisaic,” Rabbinic Judaism. Some Christians inevitably went further and declared themselves altogether emancipated in the gospel from obedience to any and all law, whether moral law or ceremonial law. As Markus Bockmuehl wrote in Jewish Law in Gentile Churches,
There has long been a popular antinomian point of view in mainstream Protestant thought, which denies that New Testament faith could involve binding moral norms of any kind. On this view, aside from the general exhortation to "love," any "imposition" of substantive and non-negotiable moral warrants must be a legalistic distortion of the gospel of grace.
For many of us, indeed, the moral law of Scripture and Tradition is admirable to the extent that we judge it moral, rather than binding as we may be judged by its law. “Thou shall not kill” is commendable advice, for what it’s worth, despite its stodgy legalism.
It is against such antinomians as those Bockmuehl mentioned that, in Anglican tradition, Article VII of the Articles of Religion insists on the distinction between “the Commandments which are called Moral” and ceremonial law. The moral law of the Old Testament is distinguished from the ceremonies of Ancient Israelite Religion, in order to claim that the former is still obligatory for Christians. Ominously for Jewish-Christian relations and for Anglican identity, the ceremonial and civil law of the Old Testament is then rejected in principle. Instead, Christian ceremonial laws are largely devised and enforced on the Church’s local, temporary and quite human authoritybolstered, ideally, by the support or at least the active toleration of the state and its also divinely-sanctioned yet widely variable civil law.
The distinction between moral law and ceremonial law is essentially un-biblical, based sadly in anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic polemics. Christians have so often been taught to distinguish between moral and ceremonial law(s), that this kind of moralizing reading becomes second nature to us. The distinction, however, is not made in the Bible itself. Often, we look for the moral or spiritual “principle” underlying a practical, “ceremonial” provision, for example, the principle of devoted rest beneath the practice of avoiding ordinary work on Sabbath. The Bible itself, however, does not detach principle from practice. Marriage law, in fact, dramatizes the unhelpfulness of separating the “moral” and the “ceremonial”: marriage is both. Christian marriage norms are derived from Jesus’ unusually strict reception of biblical marriage law (Mark 10). By analogy, moreover, marriage law has important doctrinal implications (Eph. 5). Marriage law, and, indeed, most biblical law, is at the same time moral, ceremonial, doctrinal and civil.
The concept law is rarely made clear either. In English, law usually refers to conventions more or less agreed upon by representative groups (for example, synods) and enforced by proper authorities. We value the rule of law in civil and church society, but we also recognize that such law changes and is imperfect: Any particular legal provision may be here today, but gone tomorrow. Law in this sense is tremendously important, but is still, over time, subordinate to the wishes of the community which creates it. The law is an instrument by which we freely govern ourselves; therefore we must (almost always) obey it. For many moderns, law is essentially a human, social construct, though a noble and necessary one, the cumulative and constantly evolving product of debates, votes, and trials. In this sense late modern legal constructivists are not obviously antinomians: they believe passionately in socially-legitimated law, precisely because they can no longer appeal to much in the way of socially shared moral consensus. But the law in this sense is emphatically human legislation, not the Torah-law of God. Many Anglicans, indeed, most Christians in Europe or North America take this view at least some of the time, so that biblical laws can safely be dismissed as relics of past societies, merely “Jewish laws,” while the constructed laws of yesterday’s synod can be enforced as though delivered on Sinai. Similarly in post-Christian civil societies, as a biblical moral law is abandoned and with it any right to disapprove usefully of each other’s misconduct, more and more ethics must be codified in the civil law and enforced by the state.
I am unable to lay to rest an adolescent memory of an Anglican bishop explaining to me and my classmates what he called “creedal affirmation”: the ability to recite the creeds at the correct liturgical moments as an affirmation of moral commitment to the historic Christian community, without in any way taking upon oneself the propositional, ideological content of the creeds as texts. Here the lex credendi seems to have drowned in the lex orandi and doctrine has been reduced to a function of that ceremonial law which is wholly at the church’s discretion.
In the Bible, by contrast, law usually refers to God-given Torah norms, interpreted or misinterpreted by human tradition, but deriving its unique authority from God rather than from the consent of the community. It is basic to biblical Christianity, vehemently renewed in the Protestant Reformation, that our standing before God does not derive from any obedience we may achieve to Torah-law. No one’s relationship with God depends on Torah observance. Ideally, Israel and the Church observe Torah in sheer gratitude to God. Sometimes we are even saved from Torah, in the sense that we need to be delivered by trust in Christ from a false trust in our compliance (whether Anglican or Jewish) with Torah-law. I know some people who feel that as long as we do our best in life, God will treat us OK. This sentiment seems to me neither Christian nor Jewish. Certainly non-Jewish Christians do not need to convert to Judaism, lest we seem to be basing our relationship on God on a false appropriation of Torah given to Israel, rather than on our incorporation by faith into Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, Torah expresses God’s will for humanity; Torah frames the gospel freedom of the Spirit. If non-Jewish Christians are not required to keep kosher, to be circumcised, or to worship on the seventh day, it is because these duties distinguish Jews as such, rather than because Torah no longer matters. Non-Jewish Christians are free from those aspects of Torah which are designed for Jews only, but everyone is bound by those aspects of Torah which were designed for human beings universally. Although the Bible does not distinguish between moral and ceremonial Torah, it does distinguish between Torah-laws specific to Israel and laws which speak universally to human existence under God. I feel free to eat foods that are forbidden to Israel, because I am not a Jew. I feel constrained by Torah to respect marriage, because the Torah of marriage is given not only to Israel, but to all humanity.
Especially since the Holocaust, there has been a huge change among biblical scholars toward recognizing that Jesus remains forever a Jew. Jesus is a Jew not only in some accidental cultural-ethnic sense, but also programmatically and eschatologically. In Jesus “something greater than the Temple is here” (Matt. 12:6, Heb. 12:18-29), as Torah finds its heart in the Incarnate Word. Jesus of Nazareth was a Torah-observant Jew; he challenges other Jews with the extravagance of God’s grace, but he never repudiates Torah as such. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the gospel to be a religious system in opposition to Torah-Judaism as a religious system.
Yet, as Christians have begun to value Judaism more respectfully, we often remain committed to a view of Torah-observance as obviated by the work of Christ. Against such a view, the critical difference between (non-Christian) Judaism and Christianity is Christological, not moral. For Paul, as E. P. Sanders put it in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, “what is wrong with the law is that it is not Christ." Paul did not cease to be a Jew when he became an apostle of Jesus Christ, nor did Paul ever cease looking to biblical Torah for rules of Christian conduct. Too often, those who accuse others (whether Jews, Catholics, or Puritans) of legalismof claiming that strict Torah-observance validates the Covenant relationshipdo so because they themselves are reducing Christ’s role to that of moral example, teacher, and enabler. Overwhelmingly, both Jewish and Christian normative texts recognize that Torah-observance has meaning, but only and precisely inside the covenant relationship freely given by God. Both Judaism and Christianity intend to practice covenantal nomism. Moreover, New Testament moral instruction is unintelligible apart from a Christian aspiration to obey the universal aspects of biblical Torah.
Paul does say some shockingly critical things about Torah observance. Paul is concerned to make absolutely clear that even Torah, divinely-inspired religion at its very best, cannot give us a relationship with God. The only way to have a meaningful relationship with God is to place all our confidence in Jesus Christ. The enormity of the limits which Paul sets on the role of Torah can only be appreciated when we take with full seriousness that what he is talking about is not law in some vague sense, or the religious traditions of his ancestors extrapolating on Torah, still less “conventional morality,” but divinely-revealed Torah itself. When the New Testament speaks of Law it is almost never speaking of “Jewish Law” and almost always of God-given Torah.
It is God’s own Torah embedded in creation and given to Israel and to humanity by divine revelation and prophetic inspiration which for Paul loses its precedence compared with the wonders of a life entrusted to Christ (Phil. 3). Interesting things happen if, instead of translating the Hebrew Torah and the Greek nomos as law, we try the exercise of translating them as “divinely ordained religion.” It is divinely-ordained religion at its very best which Paul subordinates infinitely to the gospel-power of God in Jesus Christ.
The point is therefore not that Torah-law no longer matters. The point is that even the most wonderful thing in the universe (that is, God’s Torah itself) finds its proper meaning only under Christ. Torah and the gospel are not opposites in the Bible, so that the one may be abolished by the other. Instead God speaks both Torah and gospel in every paragraph of Scripture. Torah is everywhere subordinate to the free gift of God proclaimed in the gospels, but a grateful and trusting heart always receives God’s Torah as the means of responding to grace. There is a deep antinomianism wherever the moral law is thought of as a changeable set of human, social conventions, “ethics policy” for Jews and Christians. There is a deep antinomianism and implicit anti-Semitism wherever biblical Torah is dismissed as an alien, dispensable cultural left-over. There is an even deeper antinomianism wherever Torah-authority is attributed casually and sometimes ruthlessly to the political decisions of local Synods and the jurisdiction of Bishops.
Ian Henderson is Associate Professor of New Testament at the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal and a lay member of St. Stephen’s Church in Westmount.