Simian Antinomianism

The heresy of antinomianism received its name from Martin Luther, who, wrote against the more “extreme” doctrines of Johannes Agricola, the enfant terrible of Luther’s own novel doctrine of Justification by faith only. In brief, antinomianism — coming from anti + nomos (Gk: “law”) — is the contention that Christians are absolved from adherence to the moral law.

That Luther would object to Agricola was hypocritical on at least two fronts. First, once the cat of sola scriptura was let out of the bag, with its corollary of private interpretation, one would think Luther’s objecting to another’s use of the principle would be self-defeating. (Who did he think he was, the Pope?) Secondly, Agricola’s doctrine, relatively “extreme” as it might have been, agreed in kind with many of Luther’s own remarks denying the necessity of good works or the need of the Christian believer to resist temptation. (It was not for nothing that Luther called the canonical Epistle of Saint James “an epistle of straw.”) In short, Luther himself held to a form of antinomianism.

Agricola’s heresy was not unique. Some early gnostic sects and various weird medieval movements held similar errors. For the antinomian gnostics, one who was adept at the gnosis (the esoteric knowledge) somehow transcended good and evil.

Today, our society is caught in a tug-of-war between two opposite errors on the question of law. Besides the popular antinomianism that denies the natural law and its demands (voiced in such pat-phrases as, “you can’t legislate morality” and “we are free to do whatever we like as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else”), there is the legal positivism of the statist. This latter is the doctrine that law derives from the written body of legislation (statutes, court cases), and does not depend upon a higher standard that is antecedent to the written corpus. Statist liberals are not the only legal positivists by a long shot. Some putative “conservatives” are rightly numbered as such, as they consider the Constitution itself is sufficient as the nation’s law, without reference to the natural law.

The two errors are opposite, but, they are also complementary in a larger dialectic. Where antinomianism reigns, people will act like beasts, naturally. This moral anarchy makes the many and minute laws of the gigantic modern state seem necessary, hence the perceived reasonableness of positivism to bring order out of chaos. The Italian communist revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, understood this, and therefore considered cultural and moral subversion a better alternative to the violent global revolution of his Soviet fellows.

(In “Conscience and the Nanny State” I considered at greater length this phenomenon of moral anarchy breeding tyranny.)

The idea that young people ought to be taught the moral law so that they might be masters of themselves and work for an ordered and just society is brought out in Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book. Those who have only seen the Disney film — which does not remotely do the book justice — should read Kipling’s work before they object to my recommending it. (Which I do, especially in the complete Penguin Classics edition, which contains almost all the Mowgli stories plus much more.)

A passage I find compelling is the description, in the chapter entitled “Kaa’s Hunting,” of the monkeys. These comical creatures are among Mowgli’s enemies because of their lawlessness, but the young “man-cub” does not realize this yet, and is flattered when they seek his company after Baloo, his bear-mentor, had been particularly hard on him during his lessons. When Baloo discovers the illicit friendship, he sternly rebukes the boy. Even Bagheera, the panther, who is much milder than Baloo, is irate that Mowgli would play with the Bandar-log, as the monkeys are called.

Note well the description of the monkeys as without remembrance, without a leader, without a law. For this reason, they are rudderless, fickle, silly, mercurial — and very dangerous. They are, it may be said, without a tradition — and therefore they go chaotically from one novelty to another to another, never learning from their mistakes, yet remaining stubbornly convinced that they are better than all the people of the jungle.

“Mowgli,” said Baloo, “thou hast been talking with the Bandar-log—the Monkey People.”

Mowgli looked at Bagheera to see if the Panther was angry too, and Bagheera’s eyes were as hard as jade stones.

“Thou hast been with the Monkey People—the gray apes—the people without a law—the eaters of everything. That is great shame.”

“When Baloo hurt my head,” said Mowgli (he was still on his back), “I went away, and the gray apes came down from the trees and had pity on me. No one else cared.” He snuffled a little.

“The pity of the Monkey People!” Baloo snorted. “The stillness of the mountain stream! The cool of the summer sun! And then, man-cub?”

“And then, and then, they gave me nuts and pleasant things to eat, and they—they carried me in their arms up to the top of the trees and said I was their blood brother except that I had no tail, and should be their leader some day.”

“They have no leader,” said Bagheera. “They lie. They have always lied.”

“They were very kind and bade me come again. Why have I never been taken among the Monkey People? They stand on their feet as I do. They do not hit me with their hard paws. They play all day. Let me get up! Bad Baloo, let me up! I will play with them again.”

“Listen, man-cub,” said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. “I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?”

“No,” said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.

“The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads.”

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

“The Monkey-People are forbidden,” said Baloo, “forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember.”

A little later, we see that the Monkey-folk, besides desiring to be noticed by the Jungle People, and despite their evident demerits, are intensely conceited and consider themselves cutting-edge:

“They were always just going to have a leader, and laws and customs of their own, but they never did, because their memories would not hold over from day to day, and so they compromised things by making up a saying, ‘What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later,’ and that comforted them a great deal.”

This is a wonderful description of the modernist, the man who hates tradition, law, and Christian social order — and moreover despises those who love such things.

When later, the Bandar-log turn on Mowgli and kidnap him, Baloo and Bagheera resort to the only means they know: to summon the aid of Kaa, the hungry thirty-foot python with the mesmerizing glance, the one creature in the Jungle that the monkeys fear. Mowgli is saved, but only after a gruesome scene of simian carnage that would not be appropriate for a children’s cartoon.

Lord Baden Powell, the founder of scouting, was a personal friend of Rudyard Kipling. Imagery from The Jungle Book was explicitly incorporated into Baden Powell’s program of forming young men. Mowgli, who had to learn the Law of the Jungle, represents the youth being directed and formed according to the “law” of scouting, and names like “cub,” “wolf,” “Akela,” etc., all finding a place in the scouting nomenclature.

  • Brother Andre, my blood bought brother in Christ Jesus,
    Sola scriptura isn’t the trouble here. The same criticism of antinomians could just as easily have been directed against those in power at the council of Constance who believed their denomination could issue death warrants in clear contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ recorded in the 4 Gospels.

    The real trouble, as it has always been for all people, is sin. We sinners still need a savior. We are incapable of fulfilling the laws demands. We need the Word of God to guide and direct our lives; but sin still remains. We still need the cross not as the example of how to live but as the gateway from sin and death into life everlasting.

    Luther was absolutely right to challenge Agricola just as Huss was right 2 centuries before to criticize tyrants who misunderstood the Word of God and used their misinterpretations as license to violate the 5th commandment. Both tyrants and antinomians used their own misinterpretations of God’s Holy Word as license for sin.
    In the end don’t you see that we still need a savior? The law isn’t enough. Works aren’t enough. I give thanks that Lamb of God has come. He died to take away all sin. Believe in him and you shall have life everlasting
    Peace to you in the blessed name of Jesus Christ.

  • John: Sola Scriptura is perennially “in trouble,” since it is heresy. I know that you are a Lutheran minister and therefore disagree, but the truth remains.

    You ask me a question: “In the end don’t you see that we still need a savior?”

    My reply is “yes.” I believe that now, and have always believed that on the authority of God revealing and the Church teaching. This is Catholic dogma and therefore Christian orthodoxy. It is a truth that I would willingly die for, if God would grant such a wretch as me that grace.