Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly, by Whitney G. Gamble. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018. Pp. xvi + 187. $40.00 (hardcover). ISBN-13: 978-1601786142. [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]
This outstanding study of antinomianism, or antinomism, examines the struggle against the heresy at the Westminster Assembly. It demonstrates how important this struggle was for the orthodox confession especially of justification in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Chapter 11. Also Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” expresses Presbyterian orthodoxy in deliberate condemnation of antinomianism: “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof…”; “although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them…as a rule of life,” etc.
“Concern over antinomianism…[was] the assembly’s ‘hot debate,’ ‘great question,’ and ‘great scruple’” (87). “If not for the antinomian controversy and subsequent weeks of sophisticated theological debates in 1643, it is doubtful whether the confession would have been so full and clear” (133). The book brings to “light for the first time the significance of antinomianism for the assembly’s debates, doctrine, and documents” (155).
The study of the controversy at Westminster over antinomianism is possible because of the recent discovery of “volumes of the assembly’s minutes that had been lost for centuries” (xiii).
Although the subject of the book is the controversy of Reformed orthodoxy with antinomianism in Great Britain in the early seventeenth century, the book sheds light on the struggle of Christian orthodoxy with antinomianism everywhere at all times. Augustus M. Toplady has written that “Christ is always crucified between two thieves: Arminianism and Antinomianism.” This light begins with enlightenment as to what the heresy is. Like the charge of hyper-Calvinism regarding the call of the gospel, today the charge of antinomianism has become a handy epithet with which to blacken any rejection of the law in the work of salvation, including a teaching of the law that corrupts the gospel of salvation by grace. “Antinomianism” is not a theological wax-nose. Whitney begins with a general description of the false doctrine: “Antinomians can be described as those who deny in some way the ongoing relevance of some part or even the whole of the moral law” (1).
Quoting the orthodox theologians of the time and the reports of the various committees, Whitney establishes that, more precisely, antinomianism is the denial that the law of God is the authoritative rule, or guide, of the holy, thankful life of the justified child of God. A vigorous opponent of the antinomians wrote, in 1631, that they rejected “the morall law, as a rule of our actions” (34; original spelling). A prominent antinomian had written that “faith needed no guidance from the moral law” (34). Another leading antinomian of the day wrote that “the law as delivered in Sinai by the hand of Moses is not a rule by which a believing Christian doth walk” (49). Yet another antinomian was even more vehement: “Christians have no more to do with the moral law ‘then a man hath with a divorced wife and the morall law is but a dead letter’” (59; spelling, that of the original). The report to the assembly by the “antinomian committee” listed as the “first antinomian point…that the moral law is of no use at all to believers, no rule to walk by, nor to examine their lives by and… that believers are free from the mandatory power of it” (67).
The name of the false doctrine, therefore, accurately describes it: “Antinomianism,” which literally is “against the law.”
Over against this fundamental error concerning the use of the moral law of God by Christians in the new covenant, Westminster confessed that “[the moral law is] a rule of life” for true believers (WCF 19.6).
Because the antinomians insisted on representing the Presbyterian doctrine of the law as a rule of the Christian life as an attack on the gospel-truth of justification by faith alone, apart from the works of the law, the Westminster divines made plain in the controversy that Christ’s “fulfilling of the law for justification did not erase its role as a guide and rule for the believer’s sanctification” (105). It is inexcusable error, indeed deliberate, misleading tactic, on the part of the theologians of antinomism to represent Presbyterian doctrine of the law as the guide of the Christian life as a departure from the gospel of gracious justification. The issue is sanctification, not justification, and even with regard to sanctification, not whether sanctification is the gracious work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, but whether the Spirit uses the law as the guide of the holy life of the Christian.
Although the issue of the role of the law as the guide of the Christian life was, as it is still today, fundamental in the controversy of Reformed orthodoxy with antinomianism, it was not, and still today is not, the only issue. Clustered about it were, and still are today, a number of other important issues. Gamble lists them, describes something of the (instructive) debate over them in the history leading up to and including the Westminster Assembly, and demonstrates the relation of them all to each other. The other, related errors of antinomians include the following: the radical difference, as two different covenants, of the old and new covenants; the rejection of infant baptism (denying that circumcision and baptism are essentially the same sign of the one covenant of grace, antinomians are necessarily Baptists); the denial of justification by the faith of the elect believer; the doctrine of eternal justification, instead of the doctrine of justification in time by the instrumentality of the believer’s faith; denial of the continuing sinfulness of the justified believer and, with this, denial of the necessity of the believer’s repenting of sin and of daily forgiveness; conflation of justification and sanctification; and more.
The conflict with antinomianism raised two significant disputes among the orthodox themselves. One was the relation of faith and repentance. Does faith precede repentance, or does repentance precede faith, or are they simultaneous? The other was whether the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to the believer by means of his faith is both His active and His passive obedience, or only His passive obedience. The former was never settled. After long and heated debate, the assembly voted “almost unanimously that both Christ’s active and passive obedience were necessary for justification” (108). In the debates leading up to the formulation of the WCF, Christ’s active and passive obedience were referred to as His “whole obedience.”
This issue is raised again in our day by the men of the Federal Vision. They deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, again in connection with the place of the law in the work of salvation.
The Dutch Reformed reader will be amused by the response to a proposal at a doctrinal conference leading up to the Westminster Assembly that the Church of England settle its theological disputes over the doctrines of grace by establishing the Canons of Dordt as authoritative in the Church of England. Supporters of one who was denying unconditional election and the other doctrines of grace recently confessed at Dordt vehemently opposed the proposal to make Dordt binding in the Church of England with these, shall we say haughty, con descending words: “[We must not] borrow a new faith from any village in the Netherlands” (30). Magnificent London would not be beholden to Stadt Dordt.
The book gives a glimpse into the tense meetings and airs the heated debates of one of the truly great ecclesiastical assemblies in the history of the church over fundamental truths of the gospel. It surveys antinomianism in the full scope of that heresy (which word, strangely, Westminster hesitated to apply to the false doctrine). It is a salutary warning against the threat of the false doctrine in every age. And it is fascinating reading.