There is Antinomianism and then there is Antinomianism

Protestants wouldn’t seem to have to worry too much about lacking moral fiber.

Here is how H. L. Mencken perceived moralism in the United States circa 1920:

The man of morals has a certain character, and the man of honour has a quite different character. No one not an idiot fails to differentiate between the two, or to order his intercourse with them upon an assumption of their disparity. What we know in the United States as a Presbyterian is pre-eminently the moral type. Perhaps more than any other man among us he regulates his life, and the lives of all who fall under his influence, upon a purely moral plan. In the main, he gets the principles underlying that plan from the Old Testament; if he is to be described succinctly, it is as one who carries over into modern life, with its superior complexity of sin, the simple and rigid ethical concepts of the ancient Jews. And in particular, he subscribes to their theory that it is virtuous to make things hot for the sinner, by which word he designates any person whose conduct violates the ordinances of God as he himself is aware of them and interprets them. Sin is to the Presbyterian the salient phenomenon of this wobbling and nefarious world, and the pursuit and chastisement of sinners the one avocation that is permanently worth while. . . . Every single human act, he holds, must be either right or wrong – and the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. He knows exactly what these wrong ones are; he recognizes them instantly and infallibly, by a sort of inspired intuitions; and he believes that they should all be punished automatically and with the utmost severity. No one ever heard of a Presbyterian overlooking a fault, or pleading for mercy for the erring. (The American Credo, 51, 52, 53)

Forty years later when a Protestant (Robert McAfee Brown) looked at Roman Catholicism and a Roman Catholic (Gustave Weigel) looked at Protestantism, Weigel’s impression was similar to Mencken’s:

The Reformer’s strong rhetoric against the value of works could be interpreted as a form of antinomianism. “Sin valiantly and believe more valiantly.” Yet all the Reformers were against sin in all its forms and shapes. Calvin’s Geneva was no place for sin or worldliness. Virtue was the strongly enforced law of the city. In the history of Protestantism we do not find antinomianism as a practice except perhaps in some exotic little groups not recognized as genuine by the mass of Protestants. In all Protestant communities it does make a difference whether you behave yourself or don’t. Works are important, very important indeed. Catholic cultures are rarely as strict as communities where a strong calvinism prevails. Strangely enough, Catholicism always is more concerned with the faith of its members than with their works. For the Catholic the loss of faith is the greatest loss. With faith alive, pardon is possible. Where faith is absent, there is no pardon. (An American Dialogue, 177)

Postscript: the observations of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Brown-Weigel exchange are striking for showing how different the Christian landscape is today in the U.S. On the theme of moralism, Weigel also had this to say:

When the Catholic hears a Protestant sermon he notes a number of things. In most cases the sermon is on a moral theme, and could be heard without much, if any, change in a Catholic church. (135)

Or this:

There is of course a Protestant prudery just as there is a Catholic prudery, but I am not referring to either. It seems to the Catholic that the Protestant is not too worried about birth-control, obscenity in the theatre or in print, and exhibitionism in public. Here the Protestant stands for liberty while the Catholic considers it license. These different attitudes produce friction in the national community. The Protestant thinks the Catholic immoral because he drinks and plays Bingo — and it gives the Protestant satisfaction. The Catholic thinks the Protestant immoral because he will not fight birth-control and it makes the Catholic feel morally superior.

These attitudes to drinking, gambling, and sex are very conspicuous but somehow they are not too significant. The real difference between the two communities is their distinctive conceptions of virtue. The Protestant esteems the natural virtues while the Catholic makes more of the supernatural virtues. The Protestant thinks highly of truthfulness, sobriety, simplicity, reliability, and industriousness. The Catholic most esteems humility, mortification, penance, chastity, poverty, and abnegation. Both admire charity, but Catholic charity is warmer and more personal, while Protestant charity is more efficient and better organized. . . . The result of the different tempers of moral conception will be Protestant reserve, stiffness and gravity in contrast to the Catholic’s tendency toward spontaneity, Baroque display and even Rabelaisian earthiness. (143-144)

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34 thoughts on “There is Antinomianism and then there is Antinomianism

  1. Btw, though there is a mix of adherents, Rome still tracks along money and vocations;

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/16/cardinal-rainer-maria-woelki_n_5587938.html

    “The German Catholic Church is one of the richest in the world and helps fund Vatican activities as well as missionary work in poor countries.

    Its financial strength and long history of theologians and leading Church personalities, including the now retired Pope Benedict, give it considerable influence in the Vatican.

    Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of Germany’s other powerful archdiocese, Munich, is a member of the pope’s group of cardinals working out proposed reforms for the worldwide Church.”

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  2. There is some accuracy and applicability in all the above observations. Bryan of course will revel in those that put the papists in a favorable southern European late summer light. It would seem that, apart from the theonomati, the “presbyterian” penchant for strictness is largely directed to family and church. The former is sometimes overdone and harmful (patriarchy & extreme homeschoolers). The latter mostly with Old Schoolers and confessionalists. Hopefully the emphasis on faith is there across the spectrum. We shouldn’t have to choose between the Toolian and Rick extremes.

    Just last night I was at an informal church families get-together. As it ought to be, the wimminfolk mostly stayed inside and the men sat outside poorly supervising the children, uttering mild swear words, and drinking and smoking with admirable moderation. Mencken would have felt reasonably welcome.

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  3. CW: “Just last night I was at an informal church families get-together. As it ought to be, the wimminfolk mostly stayed inside and the men sat outside poorly supervising the children, uttering mild swear words, and drinking and smoking with admirable moderation. Mencken would have felt reasonably welcome.”

    The eschaton has been immanetized!

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/isonimusxxiii/works/10667991-immanentizing-the-eschaton-please-wait?p=t-shirt

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  4. Well of course Romanism doesn’t worry too much about faults: they have Confession and they’re not, almost to a tee, regenerate. Why would an unregenerate man with an easy out worry about sin?

    Whereas the regenerated (Protestant) who has access to God through Christ is always going to be sorrowing over his sins because he is faced with the terror of an unholy one such as himself in the presence of the one, living, holy God. He knows that without Christ he is doomed. That is why he is aware of his sins.

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  5. I do not say that Mencken would feel “reasonably welcome ‘ on Sundays at our church. He would abhor the doctrine, but might be impressed with order and dignity of the proceedings at least.

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  6. Had to re-read that a few times. My mind wanted to read “Machen” not “Mencken.”

    A while back Dr. Horton interviewed lesbian-turned-RPCNA-pastor’s-wife Rosaria Butterfield, and one thing stuck out to me: While still a lesbian, Butterfield said she sat in a parking lot across from the RP church she would enter one day and just observed the congregants as they entered/left. Butterfield said she could tell that what was going on inside the building was serious business because of the way the congregants handled themselves approaching/leaving worship.

    Reverence and awe matters to (one-time) pagans,too!

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  7. Jase, I’ll bet Alexander would tell us that the more solemn approach is just what many Presbyterian churches in Scotland are fleeing at the moment. They’re unwisely aping the ever-changing US churches. Some will appreciate “reverence and awe.” Many will not.

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  8. Alexander, why would someone who calls God “abba father”, someone who is clothed in the righteousness of Christ, someone who faces no condemnation, feel terror in the presence of the one, living holy God? Trust Christ much?

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  9. Um, because He is the one true holy God who cannot even look upon sin. What arrogance to think even a regenerate man can just blithely “punt up” before the throne of grace and start gabbing to God. We have no right to be there except for Christ; we are as worms. If that doesn’t instil a terror I don’t know what does. Maybe terror isn’t quite the right word, fear is probably better. A reverent fear of course. As well as the easy presumption that one is truly saved as well.

    Chortles- I can’t tell if that’s one of your usual digs of if you’re making a serious point. Are you saying that churches over here are aping ever-changing churches, and that’s a bad/good thing? Or are you saying that’s what I’m saying? Are you saying “reverence and awe” are good things? If so we’re in agreement, no?

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  10. The last sentence in paragraph one in my last post was meant to read: and the arrogance of the easy presumption that one is truly saved as well.

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  11. A, I’m serious, changing worship is bad, we agree. The point is that “reverence and awe” attracts some and repels some. And that includes church leaders unfortunately.

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  12. Isaiah 6 seems to answer the standing-before-holy-God question, does it not? That part where Isaiah says “woe is me”, and then just a few verses later says “send me!”

    —- http://www.esvbible.org/Isaiah+6/

    In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
    the whole earth is full of his glory!”
    4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
    6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

    8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

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  13. A, you’ve chosen and extreme term which is normally applied in scripture to the unbelieving. Isn’t there a difference between terror-fear, and awe-fear or reverence-fear, or even just creature-creator fear? I know you don’t like hymns but…

    A debtor to mercy alone,
    Of covenant mercy I sing,
    Nor fear, with God’s righteousness on,
    My person and off’rings to bring.
    The terrors of law and of God
    With me can have nothing to do;
    My Savior’s obedience and blood
    Hide all my transgressions from view.

    There, I teed it up for you.

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  14. C, yeah I’d go along with that. Terror is not the best word. For it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God and I think that is a reality for believer and unbeliever alike. That is why we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. So there is fear, trembling but terror perhaps not.

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  15. [audio src="https://ia902507.us.archive.org/32/items/July132014EveningSermon/July%2013%2C%202014%20-%20Evening%20Sermon.mp3" /]

    By Works of the Law, or by Hearing with Faith?
    July 13, 2014 – Evening Sermon – Galatians 3:1-5

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  16. A,

    See verse 7.

    “Woe is me” becomes retrospective. ‘”Woe is me!” for without Christ I would perish’ is something a believer would say. “Woe is me for I am in Christ” is oxymoronic.

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  17. Alexander, you’re doing a good neonomian impersonation but you haven’t read Belgic lately on justification (Article 23):

    We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.

    And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.

    That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.

    In fact, if we had to appear before God relying– no matter how little– on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.

    Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”

    (emphasis mine).

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  18. It’s not a conversion narrative: Isaiah is speaking as a believer. But instead of saying “how happy am I” he says “woe is me” because if God were to deal with him according to justice, he would be destroyed. Even the holiest men are full of sin and it being before the holy God- hearing the song if the angels to God’s holiness- that Isaiah is brought to this view of himself.

    Of course he is then given reassurance (the burning coal) but that does not make him a man of perfect holiness.

    Matthew Henry on Isaiah 6

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  19. Mr. Hart- I’ve already conceded terror was the wrong term. I’m sure you spent a long time preparing that post and I’m sorry for it to have been wasted but there it is.

    Also, do you have any relevant portions from the Westminster Standards, you know the ones you and I actually hold to? Or is the OPC one of those churches that subscribes everything? Like the PCUSA.

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  20. A,

    1 Cor 6:9-11 would beg to differ.

    Also, is not Isaiah recounting the events as happened in Is. 6? He’s not writing while it was happening to him. Recording that he said “woe is me!” does not mean he still feels the same or is in the same state.

    That he still sins does not negate his right standing before God thanks to Christ’s obedience.

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  21. But he’s not recounting his conversion narrative. He was a believer before the vision as much as he was after it whether he is recounting it as a past experience or as it’s happening.

    Really can’t keep up with this site. First I’m told that we’re so sinful that any holiness is still filthy and the “obedience guys” have a too optimistic view of human nature; now I’m told we’re perfect, righteous, can do no wrong. We don’t even have unclean lips!

    My head is spinning. Which is it guys?

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  22. We’ve been down the well-worn revivalist, semi-revivalist, Edwardsian path many times here. No real assurance, all subjective, all subject to the moods and whims of the proponent on that particular day. No thanks.

    Richard Smith did it better than anyone else ever will so why bother trying?

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  23. My Old Adam is rightly terrified of a righteous God. My New Adam rests securely in Christ. Looking forward to that day when my old (already dead and buried) Adam will be forever gone.

    As for men, women and children naturally hanging out at a social, Christians don’t have a corner on that. I’d be Roman Catholic if I concluded the true churches have the best, most well-rounded and functioning families (at least in my town). I’d be Muslim or JW if I thought the longest, most somber faces meant true reverence (and Mormon if smiley ness and niceness meant true joy)

    So if reverent, serious faces are best, why not go all out and prostrate?

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  24. I suppose when your piety consists of nothing more than agreeing with some intellectual propositions, akin to “would you like fries with that?”, assurance comes pretty easy.

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  25. Alexander, but Belgic wasn’t talking about terror. Follow the balls.

    How’s this work for you?

    The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (CF 20.1)

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  26. A, didn’t you mean chips and mushy peas? Can you not agree that the quality of one’s piety or a particular type of piety, growth in holiness, relative holiness, the inward life of another, whether another grasps, trusts in, and rests upon the objective work of Christ.and where any one person is spiritually at any one time is subjective? And that really fallible humans err in their judgments of these things — a lot?

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  27. Alexander, I like this, a shot at the commenter and at American fast food. You’re fitting right in (except for the sanctimony).

    Still, good jab. Well done.

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  28. The man of morals has a certain character, and the man of honour has a quite different character.

    Which are you again, Darryl? Neither, I make it.

    Not quite following what the comments section has to do with the post. First comment, from the ex-Catholic

    sean
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
    Btw, though there is a mix of adherents, Rome still tracks along money and vocations;

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/16/cardinal-rainer-maria-woelki_n_5587938.html

    “The German Catholic Church is one of the richest in the world and helps fund Vatican activities as well as missionary work in poor countries.

    Its financial strength and long history of theologians and leading Church personalities, including the now retired Pope Benedict, give it considerable influence in the Vatican.

    Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of Germany’s other powerful archdiocese, Munich, is a member of the pope’s group of cardinals working out proposed reforms for the worldwide Church.”

    Darryl’s head seems to be a soapbox for others to stand upon. Theological society. Cool.

    D. G. Hart
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
    Alexander, I like this, a shot at the commenter and at American fast food. You’re fitting right in (except for the sanctimony).

    Still, good jab. Well done.

    Dial up the sanctimony a bit and you’ll be in the club, Alexander. The ridiculous and the sublimely ridiculous. You’re in the zone, babe.

    No one ever heard of a Presbyterian overlooking a fault, or pleading for mercy for the erring.

    Well, that was in the old days, Mr. Mencken. Now in Presbyterianism [present company excepted], your faults are “who you are.” How dare God not accept you as you are??

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  29. Thanks for the post, Dr Hart.

    As a Lutheran Protestant, I have much sympathy for and wholeheartedly agree with the analysis of Gustave Weigel. There is a need to emphasise the down-to-earth nature of so-called Christian spirituality in Protestantism (both of the older and newer types), much influenced as it is by Puritanism.

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