-by Jon Cotton, Boston tour guide
In 1638 Anne Hutchinson was kicked out of Boston for “antinomianism.” Most tour guides are bewildered by “antinomianism.” bostontourguide.org is here to help.
“anti-” means “against.” “-ian” makes the word descriptive. “nom” is from Greek “nomos,” meaning “law.” “nomos” appears in “astroNOMy” — the “laws of the stars.” “To govern oneself,” to be “one’s own law,” is to have “autoNOMy.” So to be “anti – nom – ian” means to be “against law.” But this “law” is not civil law or criminal law. When 1656 Captain Kemble got caught kissing his wife in public on Sunday after being at sea for three years, he was put in stocks on the Common to be punished and humiliated in public for this flagrant infraction of the civil code. But this is not what is meant by “antinomian.” Thieves, murderers, breakers of the sabbath, and those who play dice may be vicious law breakers, for the Puritans. But none of these evil practices imply antinomianism.
Antinomianism, roughly speaking, is the idea that conformity to law is not required for salvation. Suppose some greedy sonovobitch is a total jerk his whole life, follows no moral code, and then repents on his deathbed and goes to heaven all happy and loved by God. It doesn’t seem fair. Because he didn’t conform to moral law during his life. So the antinomian position looks unfair. It puts people in heaven who should burn horribly.
The Puritans thought antinomianism was very dangerous because it told people you don’t have to be good to be saved. They thought if you gave people a moral inch they would take an evil mile. So Anne Hutchinson was dangerous and promoted evil. That’s the basic idea. For them, law played more of a role for salvation than it did for Anne, so her followers would have less chance of going to heaven because they were being fed the wrong doctrine. The Puritans wanted to safeguard the citizenry against any doctrine that might make their salvation less likely. That was a duty of government for them.
So Anne Hutchinson’s view says good character is not necessary for salvation. This is to be “anti-nomian” — “against law.” The opposite is to make law central — “legalism.” Legalism goes the opposite way and says good character is what is necessary for salvation. But then how good do you have to be? Is anyone really good enough? Can anyone conform to law enough? Perhaps not. No one is perfect. People have weaknesses, secret needs and habits. So we may need some “antinomianism.” If you aren’t good enough but get the benefit anyway, that’s called forgiveness. It seems like forgiveness must be required to go to heaven. Forgiveness negates the necessity of the law. It says you didn’t follow the law properly but it’s okay. If in reality we’re all a bunch of greedy sonsovbitches, then we might need a bit of antinomianism to go to heaven. This fundamental problem of Christian religion goes all the way back to the founding and continues today. It’s an inherent logical problem of Christian faith.
Anyone working out this issue might see-saw back and forth and try to figure out a balance. The history of soteriology (the study of the nature of salvation, its requirements, etc.) is saturated with this debate. Even the average person often constantly tries to figure out how to judge people’s characters fairly.
I want to confess to any highly aware reader that I know this presentation is extremely simplified. In reality both the Puritans and Anne Hutchinson had many subtle qualifications within a sophisticated framework. Nonetheless, I think this simple tension in Christian doctrine really is the root that gives rise to the sophisticated debates which I have simplified.
People tend today to speak dismissively of the Puritans because we are socially more tolerant and consider our social philosophy superior. I believe this comparison is correct. I also believe that taken one by one the average Puritan was generally intellectually superior to the average American today. Today’s American citizen knows (of) theories that hadn’t come about yet: the theories of evolution, gravity, relativity, etc. etc. But they were more adept in their ability to assimilate a subtle concept. Today’s citizens are generally handicapped in this way. The antinomian controversy, although perhaps a display of social ignorance not far off from the witch trials in time and place, showcases reasoning skills that are too sophisticated to take place in today’s forums of public debate. The average citizen today wouldn’t be able to follow along but needs “soundbites” instead. That is part of the reason we are so bewildered by “antinomianism” and our tour guides are unable to talk about it.
At the core of the antinomian debate is a deeper issue native to the species. We all tend to think some people are jerks and others are nice. We judge them by how they act. Sometimes we think that we got someone wrong. And we also know that “no one is perfect.” So we have to sometimes forgive. But most of us have some general view about what is forgivable and what is not. Even if you’re an atheist, if you were to convert to religion tomorrow, these fundamental intuitions and feelings you already possess will come to play a role in your view of how it all works, who goes to heaven or not. But even without any religion we all have some innate theory of what kind of person is the right kind and how much they must have “values” (= “laws”). The republicans for example are the “values” party and the democrats emphasize compassion, etc.
What makes the Puritans intellectually sophisticated and not to be dismissed is that even when their debates are embedded in religious assumptions, their fundamental concepts are universal. Their minds naturally went to the issues that were the deep ones and went beyond their own culture. They rose to the level of philosophy.