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Antinomianism (from the Greek: αντι, "against" + νομος, "law"), or lawlessness (Greek: ανομια), in theology, is the idea that members of a particular religious group are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality as presented by religious authorities. Antinomianism is the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary for salvation. Few groups or sects explicitly call themselves "antinomian," but the charge is often leveled as a derogatory label by some sects against competing sects.

The topic of antinomianism is quite complex because it involves the interrelated issues of power, authority, law, and freedom. On the one hand, religious rules/laws have been set in motion for the purpose of helping humanity to learn to live in harmony with each other and our planet. This underlying purpose is exemplified in the various legal codes found in the world's religions. On the other hand, religious codes have, in many cases, become archaic and oppressive to certain groups involved, thus acting as catalysts for social change. Indeed, it is often the case that antinomian movements have been at the forefront of social change and the betterment of humanity. Thus, the topic of antinomianism solicits different responses and reactions due to its ambivalent fruits.

The heart of antinomianism is belief in human perfection, the state of divine indwelling in which anything that one wills is good because it is prompted by the Holy Spirit within. In the Western traditions, this belief was associated with messianism and belief in the dawning of a new age when the law, formerly a "custodian" (Galatians 3:24) needed as long as humanity labored under the deficiencies of fallen nature, would no longer be required. In the new age, perfected believers would be "discharged from the law" (Romans 7:6). Yet in every age there have been good people who lived without the need of law, who in freedom would do by conscience what they were obliged to do by legal code. Confucius described this state when he wrote: "At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."[1].



Several issues are implied by the topic of antinomianism including power relationships, conformance, obligation, freedom, and ethics. To label a group "antinomian" suggests that its practices and/or doctrines are dangerously errant; and that they deviate from the dominant teachings of the mainstream group. The charge is typically brought against groups who are seen (from the perspective of the dominant paradigm) to be eroding the authority of religious governing bodies and established leadership. Consequently, the term antinomianism implies the issues of power and conformance to religious laws. Religious authorities often use the label "antinomian" to brand splinter groups who reject the dominant teachings of the mainstream group. It is implied that a group's antinomian behavior against the rule of law leads to all sorts of licentiousness, and thus is undesirable.

Antinomianism among Christians

In the case of Christianity, the issue of antinomianism arises out of the doctrine of grace, the forgiveness of sins and atonement by faith in Jesus Christ. The controversy can be formulated in a question: If God forgives sins, what exactly is the disadvantage in sinning, or the reward or purpose of obedience to the moral law?

The Tübingen school of historians founded by Ferdinand Christian Baur holds that in Early Christianity there was conflict between Pauline Christianity and the Jerusalem Church led by James the Just, Simon Peter, and John the Apostle, the so-called "Jewish Christians," although in many places Paul writes that he was an observant Jew, and that Christians should "uphold the Law" (Romans 3:31). In Galatians 2:14, part of the "Incident at Antioch,"[2] Paul publicly accused Peter of judaizing. Even so, he does go on to say that sins remain sins, and upholds by several examples the kind of behavior that the church should not tolerate. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 NIV he cites Jesus' teaching on divorce "(not I but the Lord)" and does not reject it, but goes on to proclaim his own teaching "(I, not the Lord)," an extended counsel regarding a specific situation which some interpret as not in conflict with what the Lord said. However, this may mean he received direct knowledge of what the Lord wanted him to teach through the Holy Ghost (Galatians 2:6-10 NIV), but in that case he would have attributed the teaching to the Lord, rather than saying: "I, not the Lord."

Paul, in his Epistles, claims several times that believers are saved by the unearned grace of God, not good works, "lest anyone should boast." He placed emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) rather than orthopraxy (right practice). However, his doctrine of justification by faith has been accused of leading to immoral license. Occasionally, this has been interpreted as a reference to salvation simply by believing that Christianity is valid.

The Epistle of James, in contrast, states that our good works justify before men our faith after salvation and we are to obey the Law of God, that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone," that "faith without works is dead" (2:14–26). Historically, the presence of this statement has been difficult for Protestants to rectify with their belief in salvation by faith alone. Martin Luther even suggested that the Epistle might be a forgery, and relegated it to an appendix in his Bible (although he later came to accept its canonicity).

In the New Testament, Paul used the term freedom in Christ (e.g., Galatians 2:4), and some understood this to mean lawlessness (i.e., not obeying Mosaic Law). For example, in Acts 18:12-16 Paul is accused of "persuading … people to worship God in ways contrary to the law," and in Acts 21:21 James the Just explained his situation to Paul: "They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs" (NRSV).

Colossians 2:13-14 is sometimes presented as proof of Paul's antinomistic views, for example the NIV translates: "… He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross." However the NRSV translates this same verse as: "… he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross." The latter makes it clear that it was the trespasses against the Law, not the Law itself that was "nailed to the cross."

The Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers notes: "Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1 Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (Acts 21:26 sqq.)."

What was Jesus' attitude towards following the law? In the context of Jesus' Jewish background, the law was understood as the teachings of the Torah (the Divine Law in Judaism). According to biblical accounts, Jesus said emphatically that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is sometimes portrayed as referring to people he sees as wicked with the term ergazomenoi ten anomian (εργαζομενοι την ανομιαν) (Matthew 7:21-23, Matthew 13:40-43). Due to this negative context the term has almost always been translated as evildoers, though it literally means workers of lawlessness.[3] In other words, Matthew appears to present Jesus as equating wickedness with encouraging antinomianism. Correspondingly, 1 John 3:4 NRSV states: "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness." Scholars view Matthew as having been written by or for a Jewish audience, the so-called Jewish Christians. Several scholars argue that Matthew artificially lessened a claimed rejection of Jewish law so as not to alienate Matthew's intended audience.

On the other hand, the Torah prescribes the death penalty for desecrating the Sabbath by working (Exodus 31:14-17). To avoid any possibility of breaking the Torah commands, the Pharisees formulated strict interpretations and numerous traditions which they treated as laws (Halakha). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus's disciples were picking grain for food on a sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). When the Pharisees challenged Jesus over this, he pointed to biblical precedent and declared that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Some claim Jesus rejected complete adherence to the Torah. Most scholars hold that Jesus did not reject the law, but directed that it should be obeyed in context. For example, E. P. Sanders notes: "… no substantial conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees with regard to Sabbath, food, and purity laws. … The church took some while to come to the position that the Sabbath need not be kept, and it is hard to think that Jesus explicitly said so."[4]

Charges by Catholics against Protestants

Roman Catholicism tends to charge Protestantism with antinomianism, based in part on the distinctively Protestant doctrine of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, and the typical Protestant rejection of the elaborate sacramental liturgy of the Roman church and its body of Canon law. Within Roman Catholicism itself, Blaise Pascal accused the Jesuits of antinomianism in his Lettres provinciales, charging that Jesuit casuistry undermined moral principles.

From the latter part of the seventeenth century, charges of antinomianism have frequently been directed against Calvinists, on the ground of their disparagement of "deadly doing" and of "legal preaching." The virulent controversy between Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists produced as its ablest outcome Fletcher's Checks to Antinomianism (1771–1775).

Other Protestant groups that have been so accused include the Anabaptists and Mennonites. In the history of American Puritanism, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were accused of antinomian teachings by the Puritan leadership of Massachusetts.

Antinomianism in Islam

In Islam, Sharia (شريعة) (law) applies not only to religion, but also to areas such as politics, banking, and sexuality. Actions, behaviors, or beliefs that violate any of the four sources of Sharia[5] can be termed "antinomian." Depending on the action, behavior, or belief in question, a number of different terms can be used to convey the sense of "antinomian": shirk ("association of another being with Allah"); bid'ah ("innovation"); Kafir ("disbelief"); Haraam ("forbidden"); etc.

As an example, the tenth-century Sufi mystic Mansūr al-Hallāj was executed for shirk for his statement ana al-Haqq (أنا الحق), meaning "I am the Truth" and, by implication—as al-Haqq ("the Truth") is one of the 99 names of God in Islamic tradition—"I am God."[6] Another individual who has often been termed antinomian is Ibn al-'Arabi, a twelfth–thirteenth century scholar and mystic whose doctrine of wahdat al-wujūd ("unity of being") has sometimes been interpreted as being pantheistic, and thus shirk.[7]

Apart from these and other individuals, entire groups of Muslims have also been called antinomian. One of these groups is the Ismā'īlī Shī'īs, who have always had strong millenarian tendencies arising partly from persecution directed at them by Sunnīs. Influenced to a certain extent by Gnosticism,[8] the Ismā'īlīs developed a number of beliefs and practices—such as their belief in the imāmah and an esoteric exegesis of the Qur'ān—that were different enough from Sunnī orthodoxy for them to be condemned as shirk and, hence, to be seen as antinomian.[9][10] Certain other groups that evolved out of Shī'ah belief, such as the Alawites [11] and the Bektashis,[12] have also been considered antinomian. The Bektashis, particularly, have many practices that are especially antinomian in the context of Islam, such as the consumption of forbidden products like alcohol and pork, the non-wearing of the Hijab ("veil") by women, and assembling in gathering places called cemevis rather than in mosques.[13]

Antinomianism in the Eastern Religions

The religions of India and Asia have their own examples of antinomianism, although such examples are relatively rare. Many Asian religions teach that this world is imbued with suffering and disappointment. Consequently, religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have often encouraged their followers to transcend worldly attachments (and, by extension, its moral rules) in order to reach enlightenment. Consequently, the degree of importance placed on governing authorities (and their laws) has not always been very high. Indeed, Hinduism has no centralized governing organization or commanding figure such as a Pope. Nevertheless, the concept of dharma is central to the life of Hindus and serves as the overarching moral principle that regulates the cosmos and governs Hindu law. This principle of dharma is all-pervasive in the thought of Hinduism. Eventually, Hindu sects arose who explicitly challenged the norms of dharma and sought to break social taboos in order to overcome perceived artificial moral dualisms. One such group was the left-hander followers of Tantra.

Correspondingly, the Tibetan Buddhists developed a religio-ethical concept called Upaya, which allowed so-called advanced practitioners such as bodhisattvas to break ordinary rules of social morality in order to enact higher teachings for the spiritually advanced.

Both of the above examples can be seen as episodes of antinomianism in the "Eastern religions," albeit from the nonenlightened perspective.


From above, we realize that there have always been both legalist and antinomian aspirations in most historical religions, but that there has also been a tension between them, although both sides have had right things to say. Perhaps this tension can be addressed by Confucius' attainment at the age of 70: "At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."[14] In this state, he was free to do anything he wanted to do without violating the moral code. He was free from sin, while he was also free to do anything. This can probably satisfy both legalists and antinomians.

Saint Augustine called this state of complete freedom libertas, by which he also meant one's inability to sin (non posse peccare) no matter what one may freely do. He distinguished it from liberum arbitrium (free will) by which one can still choose to sin. According to Augustine, the ideal state of libertas will be attained afterlife by those who continuously strive to be righteous here on earth. Until it is reached whether on earth or not, the tension between legal and antinomian aspirations seems to continue to exist.


  1. The Analects of Confucius. Lun Yu"Lunyu II.4.". Retrieved March 13, 2008.
  2. F. Bechtel Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers see section titled: "THE INCIDENT AT ANTIOCH." Retrieved March 13, 2008.
  3. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature Bauer, Gingrich, Danker; Young's Literal Translation: "ye who are working lawlessness"; NASB: "YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS"; NKJV: "you who practice lawlessness."
  4. E. P. Sanders. Jesus and Judaism. (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1985. ISBN 0800620615), 264-269 on the Sabbath, handwashing and food.
  5. The four sources of Sharia are:
    1. the Qur'ān, which is Islam's central religious text;
    2. the sunnah, which refers to actions practiced during the time of the prophet Muhammad, and is often thought to include the Hadith, or recorded words and deeds of Muhammad;
    3. ijmā, which is the consensus of the Ulema, or class of Islamic scholars, on points of practice; and
    4. qiyās, which—in Sunnī Islam—is a kind of analogical reasoning conducted by the ulamā upon specific laws that have arisen through appeal to the first three sources.
  • Douglas Pratt. The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue. (Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005.), 72.
  • William C. Chittick. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 79.
  • See, for example, Isma'ilism at Encyclopaedia of the Orient.
  • Farhad Daftary, ed. Mediaeval Ismaʿili History and Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 47
  • William G. Clarence-Smith Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2006), 56.
  • Me'ir Mikha'el Bar-Asher and Aryeh Kofsky. The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī Religion: An Enquiry into its Theology and Liturgy. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2002), 67 ff.
  • Annemarie Schimmel ((original 1978) UNC Press, 1995. ASIN: B000N73TK8), 338.
  • Anthony Weir, "Differences Between Bektashism and Islamic Orthodoxy." Retrieved March 13, 2008.
  • The Analects of Confucius Lun Yu "Lunyu II.4.". Retrieved March 13, 2008.


  • Badenas, Robert. "Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4" in Pauline Perspective. 1985. ISBN 0905774930 argues that telos is correctly translated as goal, not end, so that Christ is the goal of the Law, end of the law would be antinomianism
  • Bar-Asher, Me'ir Mikha'el and Aryeh Kofsky. The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī Religion: An Enquiry into its Theology and Liturgy. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2002. ISBN 9004125523.
  • Blunt, J. H. Dict. of Doct. and Hist. Theol. (1872)
  • Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. ISBN 0887068855.
  • Clarence-Smith, W.G. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, 2006. ISBN 185065708.
  • Daftary, Farhad, ed. Mediaeval Ismaʿili History and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 052145140X.
  • Dunn, James D.G. Jesus, Paul and the Law. 1990. ISBN 0664250955
  • Encyclopaedia of the Orient. Isma'ilism. Retrieved 10 October 2006.
  • Gieseler, J. C. L. Ch. Hist. (New York ed. 1868, vol. iv.)
  • Hall, Robert W. "Antinomianism" in David Noel Freedman (ed.) Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1. 1998. ISBN 978-0385193511
  • Kawerau, G. in A. Hauck's Realencyklopadie (1896)
  • Pratt, Douglas. The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005. ISBN 0754651223.
  • Riess, in I. Goschler's Dict. Encyclop. de la théol. cath. (1858)
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1985. ISBN 0800620615
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. (original 1978) UNC Press, 1995. ASIN: B000N73TK8 ISBN 0807812714.
  • Weir, Anthony. "Differences Between Bektashism and Islamic Orthodoxy" in The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. Retrieved 10 October 2006.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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