Saturday, February 23, 2013

Legalism is Antinomianism, just as Antinomianism is a kind of Legalism.

Reading WELS and LCMS blogs, there generally seems to be a paranoia regarding antinomianism in American Lutheranism.  I think that this is generally not unreasonable within certain limits.  The Seminex crew certainly interpreted Scripture, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions in an antinomian fashion and this has carried over into the theology present throughout most of the ELCA.  Therefore, I don't have any trouble with people pointing out the rejection of the law present throughout American Christian culture.  What I think is problematic though is when the cause and the solution for this antinomianism are misunderstood.  Namely, these bloggers seem to think that the problem with antinomianism is that it really is what it claims to be (lawlessness!) and that the solution is the harder and harder application of the law to whip people into shape.

The problem is of course that antinomianism is in fact (as Gerhard Forde rightly says!) the "impossible heresy."  This is the case because our existence is never something disembodied.  Rather, whether we like it or not, we live and breathe in structures created by God.  The law of God is really just a clarification of these structures, as the book of Proverbs tirelessly points out.  The original antinomians, the Gnostics, understood this and therefore rejected the body and all physical things when they rejected the law of God.  God has set up the universe so that bad activities (for the most part) have bad results.  God has set human nature up so that men and women naturally interact with one another according to set drives and when one works against these drives stuff goes haywire and much evil results.  Hence, even secular people when they want to get along in the world must obey God to a certain degree.  Similarly, those who want to reject God's order entirely have to protect themselves against that order through artificial means (such as the reliance on others to clean up the messes created by their behavior!).

It should also not go unnoticed that those who reject the law must create new laws in order to prevent people from obeying the real law of God and thereby simply establish a new legalism.  Case-in-point: mainline Protestant endlessly complain about the legalism and intolerance of conservative Protestants, but will turn into junior Torquemadas the moment anyone says anything negative about homosexuality, abortion, women's ordination, or the historical-critical method.  As my old teacher Steve Paulson used to say, the problem with the ELCA is not that they don't have a third use of the law, but that they only have a third use of the law (that is, their own perverse version of it)!  Likewise, as antinomianism as current college campuses are, try to break the speech-codes established since the 1970s and see what kind of reaction you get. 

Likewise, legalism is a kind of antinomianism.  This is the case because a proper understanding of the second use of the law makes legalism impossible.  The law simply doesn't work as a source of righteousness coram Deo, since law cannot be kept by fallen human beings.  And so the solution is devised that the works of the law need to be cut down to size so that we are capable of obeying them.  Hence, the law's claim of the total annihilation of human righteousness coram Deo, is abrogated and thereby the law is itself denied.  Hence legalism itself becomes a kind of denial of the law.

What is even more annoying about legalists, is that not finding God's actual law hard enough to obey, they set about making up new laws for themselves (as if God's law was so easy in the first place!).  There are of course well known examples of this in NT and in the medieval Church.  This is also true of conservative Lutheran types (and other conservative Protestants) who I have noticed have had an unfortunate tendency to make up rules for themselves and others based on the assumption that American cultural standards of the 1950s=the law of God.

Legalists also tend to go a step further in their antinomianism.  Having established new rules not present in God's Word (but rather made up by them to feel self-righteous) they ignore the Word of God itself in favor of their made up rules.  Case-in-point: I am familiar with an LCMS blogger (who will not be named) who has been banned from a number of websites for being something of a troll and nevertheless has violated his agreement with those websites to stay off, having returned under an assumed name to cause trouble all over again.  Meanwhile, this individual has accused friends of mine of being antinomian because they use language or tell jokes that he objects to, though none of this language is ever made off limits in the Word of God.  Conversely, it goes without saying that breaking one's agreements and lying about one's identity certainly is a violation of God's law.  Similarly,  whenever a certain ex-WELS pastor blogger (again, who will go unnamed) posts about me or my theology, he never really writes any meaningful critiques, but instead engages in character assassination (the logical fallacy of poisoning the well).  As any google search will demonstrate, most of what he says about me is actually a lie or, taken out of context so as to sound bad, when it isn't in the first place.  This particular blogger must know what he's saying is a lie, since, as I observed, a person can google search the information and find out that it's a lie pretty quickly.  His goal is all this is of course to attack my belief in objective justification (which is certainly taught in the Word of God).  This blogger's major objection to OJ is that it leads to antinomianism (which is false) since it presupposes that grace is too free.  And so he abandons the Word of God itself to enforce his self-created legalism. 

Whereas liberals think that antinomianism is the way to overcome legalism, and conservatives think that legalism is the way to overcome antinomianism, the fact of the matter is is that both end up in the same place: self-justification and therefore ultimately a rejection of God's law itself.  Indeed, this is how any use of the law without the gospel ends!  The only way of overcoming both extremes is through a true articulation of the full force of the law and the gospel.  As Luther shows in the third part of the Smalcald Articles, when understood properly, the law and the gospel are the two great absolute truths about our relationship with God.  The law without qualification makes us guilty before God.  This put an end to all self-affirmation of the liberal Protestant variety.  Not one of our inner desires are pure.   This ends all antinomian pretension, since no one can escape this annihilating judgment.  Likewise, the gospel tells us that we are absolutely and unilaterally forgiven, without qualification.  And this also puts an end to all claims that we need to really, really work ourselves into a repentant state or that we need true religious affections to be forgiven.  There is nothing on our part that qualifies this Word of God and therefore this ends all legalistic posturing as well.


  1. Jack, I think you are failing to understand what some "bloggers" are saying.

    There has been a definite trend toward avoiding parenesis in Christian teaching and preaching, and unfortunately, Forde has done us no favors.

    I've seen LCMS Lutherans pastors behaving like 14 year old boys in their mom's basements defending vulgarity, obscenity and cheering on overindulgence in food, name it.

    Why? Oh, well, because they are free in the Gospel.

    It's a very real and present danger among us and I do not think your article really takes into account this very serious situation.

  2. By the way, it is ironic that in this post in which you are engaged in sweeping condemnations, you choose actually to believe false accusations made against certain people. Oh, well, must be that whole log and speck thing.

  3. Pr. McCain, Thanks for your comments and I appreciate your concerns.

    Since I don't really mention any names, I guess I don't think you have any way of claiming that I believe in any particular false accusations- since of course you don't know who I'm talking about. There's a reason that I don't mention any particular names. The point was not to indict anyone, but merely give specific examples of the fact that legalism tends to lead to antinomianism. Even though I believe that I have fairly good evidence that what I think is happening has taken place, I don't really want to make a mockery of anyone.

    Regarding your second point: If anything, I think legalism tends to be more of a problem in general than antinomianism. The default mode of fallen human nature is pretty much legalism. As I of course point out in this article, legalism is merely the flip side of a kind of antinomianism. I can't say that in terms of preaching, I find many churches in the LCMS or outside of it where antinomianism is much of a problem. Pretty much everyone's default mode is a form of legalism- this was true when I was in the ELCA. Everyone thinks they can improve the world through the law- the issue is just which law!

    Regarding Forde: There is quite a bit that Forde says that is right on. Where I disagree with him I have made abundantly clear in my multiple articles in the Concordia Theological Quarterly and my presentations in Brookings, SD and Ft. Wayne last year.

    There are many things I could say about what I consider to be your wrong assessment of him as a theologian, but I guess all I would ultimately say is that I think you might find him more of a helpful voice if you studied him more than you have up to this point. By your own admission to me, you really haven't read him in-depth and I believe that one of your major sources for understanding him was a particular essay that didn't understand him, his context, and imputed false ideas to him.

    In any case, I appreciate your remarks and encourage you to read what I have written over again. I wish you all the best.

  4. Dr. Kilcrease, no need to be coy. I'm the person you were talking about. Let's have enough with the passive aggression, shall we?

    [It would be flattering to imagine I'm the only person on planet earth capable of figuring out how to post anonymously on a blog site though.]

    Ultimately, your comments simply are little better than ad hominem posturing.

    I find your article to be a mixtum compositum of over-simplification and facile dismissal of a very real problem among confessional Lutherans.

    We have strained so hard to provide adequate relief to those burdened by legalism, we have managed nearly to give the impression that in some of our Bibles Romans ends around chapter six or so.

    I've read more than enough of Gerhard Forde to know that I do not want to read more of Gerhard Forde. I find him a very poor substitute for any number of other genuinely confessional Lutheran theologians in comparison to whom Forde simply pales into insignificance.

    I will always remain baffled by your fascination with the man when he is truly so deficient on so many key points of Lutheran theology.

    I'd encourage you to reconsider your high view of Forde and your evident lack of understanding for, and appreciation of, the real problem among us in regard to a lack of parenesis in our preaching and teaching.

    Beware assuming the academician's pretentious dismissal of criticism, Dr. Kilcrease.

  5. Besides, you are supposed to be my disciple! Our favorite internet college professor has so declared it.



  6. Pr. McCain, I never said that you were the person I was referring to and so I find it curious that you would make the accusation that I am referring to you. What in my post makes you believe that I am referring to you?

    I would not say that I have a "high" view of Forde, or that I possess a "fascination" with him. I would say that he gives insights into many areas of theology- namely, the hidden and revealed God and the dynamics of the accusing effects of the law. And I do not think he properly understands atonement and justification correctly. And I wrote a 400 page dissertation and two journal articles about it.

    Conversely, I do not think Johann Gerhard is very insightful on the hidden God (whom he mentions on one page)or predestination (to the extent that I have read his comments- bear in mind that volume isn't out yet).

    Regarding your last comment: I of course welcome your comments and any other criticism of my position that you have to offer. I guess I'm not understanding specifically what you find objectionable about my arguments in your comments. I say that we should preach law and gospel. And I believe that there are three uses of the law and that they are all important, though the most important one is the second use.

    So, I don't understand what's wrong with that or why you are upset with me about. I never said (for example) that I don't believe that there is a third use of the law or that people should not try to live according to God's law. Having defended this doctrine publicly and in print, I think I have proved myself in this regard.

    Again, I wish you all the best. I am always opened to your criticisms and anyone elses who wishes to debate me theologically.

  7. This post is under discussion at Luther Quest:

    "Is Legalism Antinomianism?"

  8. "Hence, the law's claim of the total annihilation of human righteousness coram Deo, is abrogated..."

    There's one obvious flaw in this statement, and its a big one. The Law itself NEVER makes this claim -- this is Paul's claim ABOUT the Law, not the Law's claim about ITSELF.

  9. The moral law is forever binding. If you cannot deduce this from Scripture, maybe you're a liberal? Does God breathe out meaningless contradictions?

  10. Did Luther do a Small Catechism on the Ten Suggestions?

  11. James Jordan is a fine one to appeal to a logical proposition in Scripture since he believes in contradictions himself.