Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Neonomianism, Huntington and the Church today
We have just finished reading George Ella's excellent biography of William Huntington (Evangelical Press, 1994, still in print). Huntington was a remarkable man, a one-time coalheaver and day labourer who became one of the best known ministers of his day. Born illegitimately as the result of his mother's adultery, Huntington had perhaps the worst start in life possible. He fell into terrible sin before his conversion, and for years afterwards his whole life was a struggle to keep alive.
William Huntington would have been the first man to say that he was a sinner and imperfect. Unlike John Wesley (who interestingly never claimed perfection himself), Huntington was no perfectionist. Nor was he, as has often been claimed, an antinomian, although he was often called that.
The word 'antinomian' is a difficult one. With the exception of doctrinal legalists and Judaizers, all Christians must be in some sense 'antinomian', since the word simply means 'against law'. The true Christian is opposed to the law as a method of Justification, and in that sense might be called an antinomian. John Wesley treated 'antinomian' as synonymous with 'Calvinist' in his writings. Generally, however, the word has been used to describe a teaching that makes light of sin and declares that a man may live in sin and still be a real Christian (so we hold the 'non-lordship' teaching to be antinomian). William Huntington did no such thing. He insisted that someoned who claims to be a Christian ought to live a godly life. Indeed, when accused of saying that a Christian could live as he pleased he replied that he wished he could - because then he would not sin!
So why was Huntington accused of antinomianism? Part of the answer Ella gives is that many of his accusers held, consciously or unconsciously, to a form of Neonomianism. This is the teaching popularised by Richard Baxter (he was a great pastor, but some of his theology is rather odd) that Christ died partly to secure a new law (hence neonomian, fron the Greek) under which the Christian was. This new law was less strict than the law of Moses, and could therefore be kept. Huntington could not find this teaching in the Bible, and therefore taught that the law convicted of sin, could not be kept by sinful man, and that salvation was only in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Neonomianism, on the other hand, tended to preach a universal atonement to sinners and a truncated law to Christians. While Huntington preached the law as condemning sinners, the neonomians preached it to Christians.
Is this not a danger today? When services are full of lifestyle advice, how to live a better life, and the Gospel is treated as something for unbelievers. Is not this 'neonomianism lite'? We have evangelicals today who think that the death of Christ is only to be preached to those outside the Church. Inside the Church preaching is on morality. Worse, this neonomianism encourages Christians to believe that they have overcome their problems with sin. And then they are off guard and fall into it. William Huntington understood that the warfare with indwelling sin continues as long as there is life.
Huntington did not just preach the law to condemn sinners. He understood that the natural man hates God's law. He liked to use the example of David and Judas. Conviction of sin led David to repent, it led Judas to kill himself. Only the Gospel, presented to the heart by the Holy Spirit, saves. Those who come to Christ come because the Father draws them.
We need that sort of preaching today. Let the neonomians preach their watered-down law, 'But we preach Christ crucified.'