antinomian-serpent Perhaps the greatest heresy of all time, Antinomianism preaches that souls are saved only by God's grace... and so there's absolutely no reason to refrain from every imaginable vice and sin.

In other words, par-TAY!!!!!

Antinomianism was around for a long time before someone came up with the word. Many gnostic sects of early Christianity staked out positions on one or the other extreme pole of behavior. Either they believed in asceticism, the denial of all fleshly pleasures, or utter licentiousness, in which sex, gluttony and all manner of dissolute behavior were not only permitted but encouraged.

antinomians-marcion The most well-known of these early Antinomians were the Marcionists, who believed that the salvation came to humans in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent delivered the Knowledge of Good and Evil to an unsuspecting Adam and Eve. Although Marcionism taught that there was no such thing as sin, nevertheless its adherents were ascetics.

Since Christianity was considered a break from Judaism, many early Christian sects noted that Jesus had not bothered to reaffirm the hundreds and hundreds of laws and regulations outlined in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. For many early Christians, that amounted to a license to dispense with the lot of them. After all, the "New" Testament clearly superseded the "Old" one.

A prominent adherent of this point of view was an early heretic named Carpocrates, who believed that it was the sacred obligation of Christians to systematically break all the laws of the Old Testament, one of the first forms of extremist Christian anti-Semitism. According to the early heresy hunter Irenaeus:

So unbridled is their madness, that (the Carpocrats) declare they have in their power all things which are irreligious and impious, and are at liberty to practise them; for they maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular.
In plainer English, the Antinomian Gnostics were sort of "anti-Buddhists," who believed that souls were endlessly reincarnated until the owner of the soul had experienced every imaginable vice, at which point they ascend to a higher realm. Variants of this belief stubbornly refused to be exterminated right up through the 20th century, where it could be seen in cults like Russia's Khlysty sect, whose most famous adherent was the mad monk Rasputin.

Given that believers faced no special moral restrictions, you'd think that Antinomianism would have been more popular. Instead, it lingered around the fringes of the religious community like cockroaches: they scatter when you turn on the lights, but you can never really kill them off.

rasputin4 Obviously, the sort of morally bankrupt behavior favored by the Antinomianists made for stellar P.R. as far as Rome was concerned, and the Church frequently leveled charges of Antinomianism against its enemy du jour, whether or not the charge had any merit.

The Inquisition charged the Knights Templar and the Cathars with Antinomianistic tendencies, for instance, but the accused were far less licentious than the Roman clergy of the period. Indeed, in the case of the Cathars, a major reason for their extermination was that the Cathars were making the Catholic priests look bad by their own celibate and ascetic lifestyle.

The issue arose more forcefully during the Protestant Reformation. As ever-increasing numbers of believers broke from the Roman church, virtually every doctrine of Catholicism came under fire. One of the biggest bones of contention had to do with sin.

When Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 complaints about Catholic doctrine to the church door, all 95 of them concerned the issue of sin and the forgiveness thereof. At the time, the Catholic Church was hitting one of its low points in terms of credibility, thanks to the practice of selling "indulgences," which were the equivalent of "get out of jail free" cards, except that instead of "jail" it was "purgatory," and instead of being "free" they were in fact extremely expensive.

antinomian-agricola Many of Luther's students argued in favor of Antinomianism, but Luther himself vigorously refuted the notion. Still, it was a difficult row to hoe. Luther wanted to throw out the entire sin-penalty-forgiveness structure of the church, not just the indulgences but the sacrament of confession and the notion of earthly penance as well.

It was easy enough to toss the baby of sin out with the bathwater of penance. If you were dispensing with the earthly auspices of a religious-criminal justice system, why not simply call an end to the notion of sins and Hell altogether?

While Luther drew the line at Antinomianism, other Protestant sects did not. One of Luther's students was Johann Agricola, who believed that Christians were exempt from following the 10 Commandments.

Luther actually coined the word "Antinomianism" to describe Agricola's beliefs. Luther eventually pressured Agricola into recanting his heresy, but after Luther's death, he picked up right where he had left off ("lying" is in one of the 10 Commandments, after all).

Puritanism and Antinomianism went hand in hand, much like "repressed" and "pervert." As the staunchly Protestant Puritans staked out their ground in the New World, they brought their own subversive countermovement along for the ride.

antinomian-hutchison2 The last of history's great Antinomians was Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan woman who resembled many of her Antinomian predecessors in that she talked a good game, but led a remarkably chaste and seemingly wholesome life. At least, that's the verdict of history. The fact that she had fifteen children should tell you something about her proclivities.

Hutchinson taught that God couldn't care less whether his people sinned, that there was no rule of law for Christians, and that Christians were not obligated to pray. Known as the "American Jezebel," Hutchison's major claim to fame was her trial and conviction for Antinomian heresy, which led to her banishment from the Puritan settlement near modern-day Boston in 1638.

In the trial, she was charged with committing "thing(s) not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex," which mostly consisted of holding meetings in which she and other women discussed theology.

The charges were clearly motivated more by gender than creed, at least up until the point that Hutchinson told the court she was taking her orders directly from God, who came to her in visions. Hutchinson also claimed that God had given her special powers, including clairvoyance and precognition.

antinomian-hutchison In an nearly unprecedented move for a woman of the time, she led a splinter group of heretics to found a new settlement near Long Island, but was subsequently killed in an Indian attack. Her followers were known as Hutchinsonians. For all her trouble, Hutchinson was adopted as a martyr by the women's rights movement in more recent centuries.

Although the specter of Antinomianism has mostly passed out of the public eye these days, there are still surviving sects. Anabaptists and Universalists, for instance, still basically believe that there is no sin and that (more or less) everyone who wants to be saved will be saved.

After Hutchinson, the thrill went out of Antinomianism, although a handful of Protestant fundamentalists still cling to the theory, if not the practice. However most fundie sects follow the rule that anything in the Bible is God's Literal Truth (despite the inherent flaw in that premise). And in Romans 6:15, the ultimate answer to Antinomianism is pretty clearly stated:

"Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!"
Oh well. Can't blame a sect for trying. Still, you'd think they could have come up with some more outrageous behavior for posterity to look back on. The Satanists did a much better job of living up to the hype.

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