Antinomians and “Crazy Piety”

I mentioned an acquaintance of mine, a sectary, who was a very religious man, who not only attended regularly on publick worship with those of his communion, but made a particular study of the Scriptures… yet was known to be very licentious in indulging himself with women; maintaining that men are to be saved by faith alone, and that the Christian religion had not prescribed any fixed rule for the intercourse between the sexes. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there is no trusting to that crazy piety.’—Boswell, Life of Johnson

Antinomianism is the doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of the moral law. It is a problem that St. Paul grappled with at the very beginning of the Church: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Rom. 6:1-2). For the practitioners of this heterodox spirituality, a sense of immediate salvation renders God’s Commandments unnecessary. Not surprisingly, many people find this amenable, and take it to the next stage by treating this world as of no concern to them.

Also manifesting itself as “religious enthusiasm,” antinomianism can provide a false emotional outlet for the believer who is tired of feeling guilty about his sins and is unwilling to overcome them through patient self-denial. This quest to simplify the supernatural as much as possible renders the spiritual life devoid of genuine accountability. As such, salvation becomes an “interior experience” which is remarkably rooted to the senses.

One of the newer forms of enthusiasm is “abandonment theology,” prominent in certain born-again Protestant sects, which can be traced back to the “crazy piety” that Johnson criticized in the eighteenth century. Yet the tendency is universal. Catholics faced the same problem in the Jansenist heresy, and new forms arise with every generation. Behind all such movements is the appealing idea that we can assure our elect status by membership in a visibly identifiable “saved” group. This, in turn, “relieves” us from temptation, sin and the consequences of sin. By contrast, the orthodox view holds that virtue is a life-long struggle and saints and sinners will not be weeded out until the end.

While religion is indeed a personal experience, this does not obviate personal responsibility. In his valuable history of antinomianism, Msgr. Ronald Knox states

Let us note that traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines, and not merely of doctrines but of emphases. You must not exaggerate in either direction, or the balance is disturbed. An excellent thing to abandon yourself, without reserve, into God’s hands; . . . but, teach on principle that it is an infidelity to wonder whether you are saved or lost, and you have overweighted your whole devotional structure. . . . Conversely, it is a holy thing to trust in the redeeming merits of Christ. But, put it about that such confidence is the indispensable sign of being in God’s favor, that, unless and until he is experimentally aware of it, a man is lost, and the balance has been disturbed at the opposite end (Enthusiasm).

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