In The Grace of Law, Ernest Kevan makes this point about the moderate antinomians of seventeenth-century England: “The main object of the moderate Antinomians was to glorify Christ; but, failing to understand the true relationship between ‘law’ and ‘grace,’ they extolled the latter at the expense of the former.”
“Moderate antinomianism” has resurfaced under a new banner, with a modified vocabulary but with similar tendencies. New Covenant Theology (NCT) extols the Lordship of Christ in Christian ethics, which we applaud (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:5), but it does so at the expense of the moral law.
What makes an antinomian?
Claiming that NCT is antinomian requires two qualifications. First, NCT is not morally antinomian. It does not say that we should “continue in sin that grace might increase.” Second, NCT is not typically antinomian. In many ways, it is more dangerous than explicit antinomianism because it acknowledges many Reformed doctrines. However, it seeks to redefine the moral law, drives a wedge between Old and New Testament sanctification, and destroys the foundation of much of the Reformed view of the law. Thus, NCT fits within the theologically antinomian camp.
NCT even sounds a clear alarm against antinomianism. However, we must be careful to ascertain what NCT means when it speaks of antinomianism. We must ask: Against what law? And what does the word against mean? Does it mean against altogether? Could it mean against in part? The prefix anti has various nuances. It can mean “against,” “instead of,” or “in place of.” In other words, although NCT may not be against law in an absolute sense, if it denies that the moral law of the Old Testament is the moral law of the New Testament, and if it replaces the moral law with another, then it is antinomian on two counts.
Examining NCT is not easy. Adherents of NCT often disagree when it comes to identifying its fundamental axioms. Another difficulty concerns its origin. Some say it goes back to John Bunyan’s perspective on the law. Others say its origin resides in a mediating position on the law buried in seventeenth-century obscurity. One major NCT proponent even calls it “a novel approach to systematic theology.” Still, though NCT is not easy to pin down, it is not impossible to critique.
Theological antinomianism of NCT
Two tenets of NCT distance it from Reformed orthodoxy and place it within theological antinomianism. The first concerns the function of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue).
The commandments function in at least three ways. First, the Decalogue formed the heart of old covenant law. It was spoken by God, written by God on stone tablets, and then placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex. 20:1–17; 31:18; 2 Chron. 5:10). It constitutes a body of apodictic law; that is, laws that unconditionally and categorically assert right and wrong.
Second, the Decalogue forms the heart of new covenant law. In the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:33, God says: “ ‘I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. . . ’ ” Whenever God speaks of “My law,” He is referring to something already revealed to Israel throughout the Old Testament (2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:30; Jer. 6:19; 16:11). God Himself writing a law is a familiar Old Testament scene. Jeremiah teaches that the basic law of the new covenant is a law that was written on stone by God and will be written on hearts by God.