David R. Como. Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England. Stanford University Press, 2004.
I came across this book while I was doing a search on a library’s catalog. I had just read one of David Hall’s books about Puritanism (see my post about that here), and I wanted to read more about Puritanism in England. I did a search, and I found Como’s book, which is about the conflict between the Antinomians and the Puritans in seventeenth century England. But Como’s book stood out to me for an additional reason: it talked about antinomianism. The antinomians interest me because they challenged what they believed was the legalism of the Puritans. The issue of grace and works is on my mind a lot, for I hunger for a God who accepts me, even though I fall short of perfection.
Well, I was in for some surprises when I read Como’s book! I had my stereotypes about what the antinomians believed. I assumed that antinomians were people who believed that all one had to do to be saved was to trust Christ’s sacrifice, meaning good works were optional. The Puritans often stressed out about their spirituality, as they frantically wondered whether or not they were part of God’s elect, looking at the moral or spiritual quality of their lives to make that determination. I thought that the antinomians offered a way that was softer and easier on the human conscience: don’t fret about yourself and whether you’re good enough, but just trust Christ. I was expecting to identify with the antinomians, and maybe even to root for them, even if I did not agree with them on everything.
It turned out that the antinomians were a bit different from what I expected. Yes, they offered an alternative to the Puritan practice of stressing out about salvation, an alternative that many would find refreshing. Yes, they emphasized trusting Christ, while criticizing the Puritans for looking to rituals and means of grace for spiritual growth. Some antinomians went so far as to question whether faith was even instrumental for salvation: if God picked a person to be saved, then that person was saved, and that person’s faith was of secondary importance. That sounds like a downplay of all good works, including faith!
But my impression was that antinomians did not treat good works and desisting from sin as optional, but rather as necessary. Actually, they believed that those things should come easier for a Christian on account of Christ’s grace—-that the Puritan assumption that humans were just sinful and would remain sinful until their dying day was misguided. Some antinomians were perfectionists—-they believed that Christ made them perfect. Of course, they had to redefine perfection against the realities of their own imperfections—-their mistakes were not technically sins, or whatever sins they did commit did not flow from a morally corrupt nature. But they believed that human beings in this life could be transformed and arrive at a state of genuine spirituality, maybe even union with God. The Puritans, by contrast, expected the Christian life to be more of an uphill battle, one that required discipline, struggle, self-doubt, reliance on ritual, and agony. Antinomians sometimes struggled, too, but they were more optimistic about arriving at a place where struggle would be unnecessary.
Antinomianism means being against law. In what sense were the antinomians against law? Well, they believed that the Mosaic law had been abolished. Puritans, by contrast, thought that parts of the Mosaic law were still applicable to Christians. Antinomians dismissed Puritan observance of the Sunday Sabbath as legalistic and unnecessary. Antinomians held that the law of Christ was superior to the law of Moses, for the law of Moses commanded people to love their neighbors as themselves, whereas the law of Christ depicts and encourages self-sacrifice for others. Moreover, antinomians questioned whether they even needed an external authority or law-code to tell them what to do, for they maintained that they had the mind of God and could do right automatically. Although Puritans contended that antinomians were promoting libertinism, that was not exactly the case.
There was some overlap between the antinomians of seventeenth century England and today’s hyper-grace movement. For example, some antinomians claimed that believers did not have to confess their sins regularly to God. There are hyper-grace teachers today who have the same belief.
There was more to Como’s book. One figure who became more of an antinomian initially observed the Saturday Sabbath, like the Jews. That stood out to me, as one who was raised in a seventh-day Sabbatarian tradition. One antinomian interpreted the Bible symbolically, as if it concerned the spiritual or interior life of a believer. The Antichrist, for instance, referred to the Antichrist inside each of us, as far as he was concerned. That reminded me of one rather unorthodox Christian I know, who interpreted the Book of Revelation in light of his own personal suffering! Still another antinomian view was that God was inside of each person, but that only believers were awakened to that. That reminded me somewhat of Gnosticism, but also of a universalist view that all are saved, even if they don’t know it (not that these particular antinomians were Gnostics, or universalists).
There were also interesting debates about whether God saw the sins of believers, and whether God punished believers. Antinomians said no on both. One antinomian commented that God does not punish believers but puts them in situations to help them to grow. On the debate about whether God saw the sins of believers, a Puritan said that God indeed saw them, since God saw everything.
I was expecting to identify with the antinomians in reading this book, but I ended up identifying more with the Puritans—-those who saw the Christian life as an uphill struggle, and who looked to rituals to help them on their journey.