Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Theology is For Constipation: Antinomian Homesick Blues

In both Calvinist and Lutheran circles, as the church goes through its liturgical menstrual cycle, various charges of antinomianism flow forth. In some circles this flow continues for 12  years. I would like to suggest some ways that we can better communicate with one another and stop the hemorrhaging. I'm going to limit my comments to confessionally Lutheran and Calvinist groups. I'm not going to deal with liberals or any of the various Baptist groups. All advice is unsolicited. I am not a pastor and hold no authority over anyone reading this.

Lutheranism experienced two major antinomian controversies in the 16th Century. Do you recall the most famous antinomian of all? Johannes Agricola (I prefer to call him Farmer John) taught that the Law should be used in the courts but has no place in the church and that repentance only comes about through the hearing of the Gospel. Luther and Melanchthon attacked. Farmer John recanted. Farmer John then sued Luther but ran away before trial. After Luther's death, Melanchthon and the Philippists began to teach their own brand of antinomianism. They taught that the Gospel alone works repentance, said that the Gospel itself is a moral law, denied the third use of the law as a guide for the life of the Christian, and turned Jesus into a new Moses.

Antinomianism is bad but it's hard to pull off. Typically, whenever our sinful human nature makes up its own religion it's legalism about 99% of the time. You can turn on your local Christian radio station and I can almost guarantee you that you will find plenty of legalism but antinomianism is nowhere to be found. However, the devil is always convincing us that the big problem is antinomianism. The Apostle Paul was accused of antinomianism. If nobody ever accuses you of being an antinomian you're probably a legalist. Keep in mind that legalism does not hold to a higher view of the Law but a lower view of the Law. The Pharisees were legalists. They devised various ways to make the Law doable and kept people from feeling the full force of the Law. The Law always kills. The Legalist wants to distract you from the fact that you are not keeping the Law and give you 7 easy steps that you can follow to keep the Law.

In confessional Calvinist circles anyone who holds to something that remotely resembles the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel gets accused of being an antinomian by those who don't. Part of the problem in confessional Calvinist circles is that we are dealing with consensus documents that were written to embrace a whole host of views on different topics but usually get interpreted more narrowly by different people within Calvinism. The Lutheran Law/Gospel position is one of many possible positions within confessional Calvinism. John Frame is opposed to the Lutheran Law/Gospel distinction. He doesn't say that in and of itself it is antinomian but worries that those who hold to it aren't sensitive enough to the dangers of antinomianism. Strangely enough though, John Frame will tell you that the Law is the Gospel and that the Gospel is Law which is one of the characteristics of Melanchthon's antinomianism. Among some of the R2K folks (if you don't know what this means you don't need to worry abou it) I have noticed a certain antinomianism when it comes to civil law but it would seem better to reacquaint such people with historic two kingdoms theology rather than just throw out the overused and abused title of antinomian. Words lose their meaning if we just throw them around especially when the word gets thrown around in reference to characteristics that aren't actually antinomian.

The situation is even stranger in Lutheran circles. I find pastors both accusing and being accused that I have a great deal of respect for. In Lutheran circles the attacks seem less direct. People generally are not called out by name. I think those making the accusations may be hoping to teach without making an example of someone but instead it just leads to confusion. Some people think they are being attacked when they might not be. Some seem to look with suspicion at anyone who reads Forde or Capon. And I think often the charge of "antinomianism" is mislabeled. If an error is mislabeled it's easy for people to dismiss it even if there could be some legitimate issues that need to be worked out. It doesn't really do much good to just keep telling someone who holds to Keynesian economics that he is a communist. I love Gottesdienst and I think they have a good point that should be made but I think it's mislabeled. I love Jordan Cooper's blog and I think he identifies some real issues but you can't just throw everything under the title of "antinomianism."

Words mean things and if you are accusing people of something you need to call a thing what it is. To call it "soft antinomianism" or to say that it shows "antinomian tendencies" gives you the ability to throw almost anything under the title of "antinomianism." When I was a Calvinist I found it irritating to see the various lists that would circulate around the internet that would tell you what it means to be a "hyper-Calvinist." Many of the things that would get listed were positions that the Calvinist confessions allowed for.

There's quite a bit of debate in Lutheran circles about whether or not you should include exhortations to good works after you've given people the Gospel. One party says you should, the other party says that you shouldn't burden someone with the Law after giving them the Gospel and since the person has already been told that they have broken God's Law earlier they don't need to be told not to do it again. But the strange thing is that if you listen to the sermons of both parties they are often very similar. You can find a number of very favorable sermon reviews that Todd Wilken has done of Will Weedon sermons and then you can Google and find a number of places where they are arguing about this topic on the internet. I think the pro-exhortation after Gospel people have the Pauline letters on their side but I don't hear them practicing it very often. It would seem much better to me for them to simply write sermons that have this exhortation at the end and then present them to the anti-exhortation folks for review and then have some conversation about the way they structured the sermon. When people hear anyone arguing for a "Law-Gospel-Law" structure, hundreds of bad sermons instantly pop into their heads. I've heard some really bad sermons where the pastor basically said, "You broke God's Law and you are worthy of God's punishment. The Good News is that Jesus paid for your sin." Then the pastor proceeded to gum everyone to death by trying to preach the third use of the law because that's what he really wanted to do all along.

So, first of all, call the thing what it is. Secondly, lead by example. Thirdly, never, never, never describe the problem as a lack of balance. The problem is not a lack of balance. You cannot preach the Law or the Gospel in a way that is too radical. Neither needs to be toned down. I recently listened to a Reformed Forum podcast interview with Dr. Mark Jones who wrote a book called Antinomianism. Both in the interview and from what I've read in the book, Jones says the problem is balance. Strangely enough, his solution seems to be the mixture of Law and Gospel found among the Philippists that was itself a form of antinomianism. Glawspel is not the answer. Dr. Jones views Luther as inconsistent and says he made some statements that were to extreme. However, if you read the writings of the Apostle Paul, Paul made extreme statements and said some very paradoxical things. The problem is that people have found ways to resolve the paradoxes and squeeze Paul into their theologies. Paul says that Jesus became sin for us. Theologians find ways to interpret Paul so that he didn't really mean that but Luther milks it for all it's worth. Pastors should preach as Paul did. The Law should be preached as if there is no Gospel and the Gospel should be preached as if there is no Law. And Luther even had exhortations at the end of many of his sermons. I think Luther and the Epistles of Paul provide excellent examples of what preaching should be like. If there is an absence of an exhortation the problem is the absence of the exhortation not some lack of moderation.

I have spent most of the time in this post complaining about the accusers and gave links to specific examples of the accusers but you can read the responses of those who believe they are being accused on those blog posts. There are egos on both sides. There are insecurities involved. I hate to see some of the pastors that I have the most respect for eating one another and acting childish. I really each side can learn from the other but unless people change the way they communicate it's not going to happen.


Andrew said...

my name is Andrew Cottrill, and I approve this message.

Mark Surburg said...

Pastor Wiese,

Thanks for a thoughtful discussion. You are exactly correct that in Lutheran circles there is a desire to teach without making an example out of people. When challenged for specific examples of what I have described as "soft antinomianism," could I? Yes. Am I going to? - No, for the very reason you describe. I agree that it can lead to confusion.

I think you find the mark quite nicely at the end when you write: "Pastors should preach as Paul did. The Law should be preached as if there is no Gospel and the Gospel should be preached as if there is no Law. And Luther even had exhortations at the end of many of his sermons. I think Luther and the Epistles of Paul provide excellent examples of what preaching should be like. If there is an absence of an exhortation the problem is the absence of the exhortation not some lack of moderation." If we all strive to do that, we can hardly find a better goal in our preaching.

Once again, thanks for your thoughtful post.

In Christ,

Mark Surburg

Jonathan said...

Your reaction is exactly my reaction. It's kinda weird how you address almost every point I've had on this topic. Things like the reality of the sermons and the idea that balance is not the problem. I often see a bar chart in my mind, with one bar being Law, and the other Gospel. In most cases, the best course of action is simply to make that Law bar go as high as you can, and at the same time make the Gospel bar go as high as you can. I've not had homiletical training, nor much exegetical training beyond live church teaching and the internet, but I'm much more concerned that you give the Law the WEIGHT it needs and the Gospel the WEIGHT it needs, rather than the exact formula used to get there. You don't need to balance the equation, you need to divide both the Law and Gospel by zero.

Andrew said...

Suck a lemon, Wiese. Other than that it was a top-notch piece of commentary.

Eric said...

"The Law should be preached as if there is no Gospel and the Gospel should be preached as if there is no Law."

That's good stuff. Except... it doesn't seem to leave space for the Third Use of the Law, because what that is, is Law transformed by Gospel into an accusation I can agree with (without fear of death) and a standard I can not just strive for, but confidently look forward to meeting.