Antinomianism & Gnosticism

I have an old copy of The Daily Study Bible by Barclay which I have owned and enjoyed for about 50 years.  I just now re-read the introduction to Jude and found the descriptions of antinomianism and gnosticism to be very clear.  Pastor Barclay gives a clear explanation of why these doctrines are wrong, yet why they keep recurring.

I scanned in a few pages from that section of the book – the scanning is not as good as the original, but still readable.  Enlarging the images helps a little.  Here are thumbnails of the images (click on the thumbnails to read them):

I found an on-line source of this part of the commentary at Epistles of John and Jude which I have inserted here:


It may well be said that for the great majority of modern readers reading the little letter of Jude is a bewildering rather than a profitable undertaking. There are two verses which everyone knows–the resounding and magnificent doxology with which it ends: Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.

But, apart from these two great verses, Jude is largely unknown and seldom read. The reason for its difficulty is that it is written out of a background of thought, against the challenge of a situation, in pictures and with quotations, which are all quite strange to us. Beyond a doubt it would hit those who read it for the first time like a hammer-blow. It would be like a trumpet call to defend the faith. Moffatt calls Jude “a fiery cross to rouse the churches.” But, as J. B. Mayor, one of its greatest editors, has said: “To a modern reader it is curious rather than edifying with the exception of the beginning and the end.”

This is one of the great reasons for addressing ourselves to the study of Jude ; for, when we understand Jude’s thought and disentangle the situation against which he was writing, his letter becomes of the greatest interest for the history of the earliest church and by no means without relevance for today. There have indeed been times in the history of the church, and especially in its revivals when Jude was not far from being the most relevant book in the New Testament. Let us begin by simply setting down the substance of the letter without waiting for the explanations which must follow later.


It had been Jude’s intention to write a treatise on the faith which all Christians share; but that task had to be laid aside in view of the rise of men whose conduct and thought were a threat to the Christian Church (Jude 3). In view of this situation the need was not so much to expound the faith as to rally Christians in its defence. Certain men who had insinuated themselves into the church were busily engaged in turning the grace of God into an excuse for open immorality and were denying the only true God and Jesus Christ the Lord (Jude 4). These men were immoral in life and heretical in belief.


Against these men Jude marshals his warnings. Let them remember the fate of the Israelites. They had been brought in safety out of Egypt but they had never been permitted to enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief (Jude 5). The reference is to Num.13:26-33; Num.14:1-29. Although a man had received the grace of God, he might still lose his eternal salvation if he drifted into disobedience and unbelief. Some angels with the glory of heaven as their own had come to earth and corrupted mortal women with their lust (Gen.6:2); and now they were imprisoned in the abyss of darkness, awaiting judgment (Jude 6). He who rebels against God must look for judgment. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had given themselves over to lust and to unnatural vice, and their destruction in flames is a dreadful warning to everyone who similarly goes astray (Jude 7).


These men are visionaries of evil dreams; they defile their flesh; and they speak evil of the angels (Jude 8). Not even Michael the archangel, dare speak evil even of the evil angels. It had been given to Michael to bury the body of Moses. The devil had tried to stop him and claim the body for himself. Michael had spoken no evil against the devil, even in circumstances like that, but had simply said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9). Angels must be respected, even when evil and hostile.

These evil men condemn everything which they do not understand, and spiritual things are beyond their understanding. They do understand their fleshly instincts and allow themselves to be governed by them as the brute beasts do (Jude 10). They are like Cain, the cynical, selfish murderer; they are like Balaam, whose one desire was for gain and who led the people into sin; they are like Korah, who rebelled against the legitimate authority of Moses and was swallowed up by the earth for his arrogant disobedience (Jude 11).

They are like the hidden rocks on which a ship may founder; they have their own clique in which they consort with people like themselves, and thus destroy Christian fellowship; they deceive others with their promises, like clouds which promise the longed-for rain and then pass over the sky; they are like fruitless and rootless trees, which have no harvest of good fruit; as the foaming spray of the waves casts the sea-weed and the wreckage on the beaches, they foam out shameless deeds; they are like disobedient stars who refuse to keep their appointed orbit and are doomed to the dark (Jude 13).

Long ago the prophet Enoch had described these men and had prophesied their divine destruction (Jude 15). They murmur against all true authority and discipline as the children of Israel murmured against Moses in the desert; they are discontented with the lot which God has appointed to them; their lusts are their dictators; their speech is arrogant and proud; they are toadies of the great for sake of gain (Jude 16).


Having castigated the evil men with this torrent of invective, Jude turns to the faithful. They could have expected all this to happen, for the apostles of Jesus Christ had foretold the rise of evil men (Jude 18-19). But the duty of the true Christian is to build his life on the foundation of the most holy faith; to learn to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit; to remember the conditions of the covenant into which the love of God has called him; to wait for the mercy of Jesus Christ (Jude 20-21). As for the false thinkers and the loose livers–some of them may be saved with pity while they are still hesitating on the brink of their evil ways; others have to be snatched like brands from the burning; and, in all his rescue work, the Christian must have that godly fear which will love the sinner but hate the sin and must avoid the pollution of those he seeks to save (Jude 22-23). And all the time there will be with him the power of that God who can keep him from falling and bring him pure and joyful into his presence (Jude 24-25).


Who were the heretics whom Jude blasts, and what were their beliefs and what their way of life? Jude never tells us. He was not a theologian but, as Moffatt says, “a plain, honest leader of the church.” “He denounces rather than describes” the heresies he attacks. He does not seek to argue and to refute, for he writes as one “who knows when round indignation is more telling than argument.” But from the letter itself we can deduce three things about these heretics. (i) They were antinomians. Antinomians have existed in every age of the church. They are people who pervert grace. Their position is that the law is dead and they are under grace. The prescriptions of the law may apply to other people, but they no longer apply to them.

They can do absolutely what they like. Grace is supreme; it can forgive any sin; the more the sin, the more the opportunities for grace to abound (Rom.6). The body is of no importance; what matters is the inward heart of man. All things belong to Christ, and, therefore, all things are theirs. And so for them there is nothing forbidden. So Jude ‘s heretics turn the grace of God into an excuse for flagrant immorality (Jude 4); they even practise shameless unnatural vices, as the people of Sodom did (Jude 7). They defile the flesh and think it no sin (Jude 8). They allow their brute instincts to rule their lives (Jude 10). With their sensual ways, they are like to make shipwreck of the love feasts of the church (Jude 12). It is by their own lusts that they direct their lives (Jude 16).


It is a curious and tragic fact of history that the church has never been entirely free of this antinomianism; and it is natural that it has flourished most in the ages when the wonder of grace was being rediscovered. It appeared in the Ranters of the seventeenth century. The Ranters were pantheists and antinomians. A pantheist believes that God is everything; literally all things are Christ’s, and Christ is the end of the law. They talked of “Christ within them,” and paid no heed to the church or its ministry, and belittled scripture.

One of them called Bottomley wrote: “It is not safe to go to the Bible to see what others have spoken and written of the mind of God as to see what God speaks within me, and to follow the doctrine and leading of it in me.” When George Fox rebuked them for their lewd practices, they answered, “We are God.” This may sound very fine, but, as John Wesley was to say, it most often resulted in “a gospel of the flesh.” It was their argument that “swearing, adultery, drunkenness and theft are not sinful unless the person guilty of them apprehends them to be so.”

When Fox was a prisoner at Charing Cross they came to see him and mightily offended him by calling for drink and tobacco. They swore terribly and when Fox rebuked them, justified themselves by saying that Scripture tells us that Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the priests, and the angel all swore. To which Fox replied that he who was before Abraham commanded, “Swear not at all.” Richard Baxter said of them, “They conjoined a cursed doctrine of libertinism, which brought them to all abominable filthiness of life; they taught …that God regardeth not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart; and that to the pure all things are pure (even things forbidden) and so, as allowed by God, they spoke most hideous words of blasphemy, and many of them committed whoredoms commonly…. The horrid villainies of this sect did speedily extinguish it.”

Doubtless many of the Ranters were insane; doubtless some of them were pernicious and deliberate sensualists; but doubtless, too, some of them were earnest but misguided men, who had misunderstood the meaning of grace and freedom from the law. Later John Wesley was to have trouble with the antinomians. He talks of them preaching a gospel of flesh and blood. At Jenninghall he says that “the antinomians had laboured hard in the Devil’s service.” At Birmingham he says that “the fierce, unclean, brutish, blasphemous antinomians” had utterly destroyed the spiritual life of the congregation.

He tells of a certain Roger Ball who insinuated himself into the life of the congregation at Dublin. At first he seemed to be so spiritually-minded a man that the congregation welcomed him as being preeminently suited for the service and ministry of the church. He showed himself in time to be “full of guile and of the most abominable errors, one of which was that a believer had a right to all women.” He would not communicate, for under grace a man must “touch not, taste not, handle not.” He would not preach and abandoned the church services because, he said, “The dear Lamb is the only preacher.”

Wesley, deliberately to show the position of these antinomians, related in his Journal a conversation which he had with one of them at Birmingham. It ran as follows. “Do you believe that you have nothing to do with the law of God?” “I have not; I am not under the law; I live by faith.” “Have you, as living by faith, a right to everything in the world?” “I have. All is mine, since Christ is mine.” “May you then take anything you will anywhere? Suppose out of a shop without the consent or knowledge of the owner?” “I may, if I want, for it is mine. Only I will not give offence.” “Have you a right to all the women in the world” “Yes, if they consent.” “And is not that a sin?” “Yes, to him who thinks it is a sin; but not to those whose hearts are free.”

Repeatedly Wesley had to meet these people, as George Fox had to meet them. John Bunyan, too, came up against the Ranters who claimed complete freedom from the moral law and looked with contempt on the ethics of the stricter Christian. “These would condemn me as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained perfection that could do what they would and not sin.” One of them, whom Bunyan knew, “gave himself up to all manner of filthiness, especially uncleanness…and would laugh at all exhortations to sobriety. When I laboured to rebuke his wickedness, he would laugh the more.”

Jude’s heretics have existed in every Christian generation and, even if they do not go all the way, there are still many who in their heart of hearts trade upon God’s forgiveness and make his grace an excuse to sin.


(ii) Of the antinomianism and blatant immorality of the heretics whom Jude condemns there is no doubt. The other two faults with which he charges them are not so obvious in their meaning. He charges them with, as the Revised Standard Version has it, “denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). The closing doxology is to “the only God,” a phrase which occurs again in Rom.16:27; 1Tim.1:17; 1Tim.6:15. The reiteration of the word only is significant. If Jude talks about our only Master and Lord and, about the only God, it is natural to assume that there must have been those who questioned the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and of God.

Can we trace any such line of thought in the early church and, if so, does it fit in with any other evidence which hints within the letter itself may supply? As so often in the New Testament, we are again in contact with that type of thought which came to be known as Gnosticism. Its basic idea was that this was a dualistic universe, a universe with two eternal principles in it. From the beginning of time there had always been spirit and matter. Spirit was essentially good; matter was essentially evil. Out of this flawed matter the world was created. Now God is pure spirit and, therefore, could not possibly handle this essentially evil matter.

How then was creation effected? God put out a series of aeons or emanations; each of these aeons was farther away from him. At the end of this long chain, remote from God, there was an aeon who was able to touch matter; and it was this aeon, this distant and secondary god, who actually created the world. Nor was this all that was in Gnostic thought. As the aeons in the series grew more distant from God, they grew more ignorant of him; and also grew more hostile to him. The creating aeon, at the end of the series, was at once totally ignorant of and totally hostile to God.

Having got that length, the Gnostics took another step. They identified the true God with the God of the New Testament and they identified the secondary, ignorant and hostile god with the God of the Old Testament. As they saw it, the God of creation was a different being from the God of revelation and redemption. Christianity on the other hand believes in the only God, the one God of creation, providence and redemption. This was the Gnostic explanation of sin. It was because creation was carried out, in the first place, from evil matter and, in the second place, by an ignorant god, that sin and suffering and all imperfection existed.

This Gnostic line of thought had one curious, but perfectly logical, result. If the God of the Old Testament was ignorant of and hostile to the true God, it must follow that the people whom that ignorant God hurt were in fact good people. Clearly the hostile God would be hostile to the people who were the true servants of the true God. The Gnostics, therefore, so to speak, turned the Old Testament upside down and regarded its heroes as villains and its villains as heroes. So there was a sect of these Gnostics called Ophites, because they worshipped the serpent of Eden; and there were those who regarded Cain and Korah and Balaam as great heroes.

It is these very people whom Jude uses as tragic and terrible examples of sin. So we may take it that the heretics whom Jude attacks are Gnostics who denied the oneness of God, who regarded the God of creation as different from the God of redemption, who saw in the Old Testament God an ignorant enemy of the true God and who, therefore, turned the Old Testament upside down to regard its sinners as servants of the true God and its saints as servants of the hostile God. Not only did these heretics deny the oneness of God, they also denied “our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ.” That is to say, they denied the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

How does that fit in with the Gnostic ideas so far as they are known to us? We have seen that, according to Gnostic belief, God put out a series of aeons between himself and the world. The Gnostics regarded Jesus Christ as one of these aeons. They did not regard him as our only, Master and Lord; he was only one among the many who were links between God and man, although he might be the highest and the closest of all. There is still one other hint about these heretics in Jude , a hint which also fits in with what we know about the Gnostics.

In Jude 19, Jude describes them as “these who set up divisions.” The heretics introduce some kind of class distinctions within the fellowship of the Church. What were these distinctions? We have seen that between man and God there stretched an infinite series of aeons. The aim of man must be to achieve contact with God. To obtain this his soul must traverse this infinite series of links between God and man. The Gnostics held that to achieve this a very special and esoteric knowledge was required. So deep was this knowledge that only very few could attain to it. The Gnostics, therefore, divided men into two classes, the pneumatikoi (GSN4152) and the psuchikoi (GSN5591).

The pneuma (GSN4151) was the spirit of man, that which made him kin to God–and the pneumatikoi (GSN4152) were the spiritual people, the people whose spirits were so highly developed and intellectual that they were able to climb the long ladder and reach God. These pneumatikoi (GSN4152), the Gnostics claimed, were so spiritually and intellectually equipped that they could become as good as Jesus–Irenaeus says that some of them believed that the pneumatikoi (GSN4152) could become better than Jesus and attain direct union with God.

On the other hand, the psuche (GSN5590) was simply the principle of physical life. All things which live had psuche (GSN5590); it was something which man shared with the animal creation and even with growing plants. The psuchikoi (GSN5591) were ordinary people; they had physical life but their pneuma (GSN4151) was undeveloped and they were incapable of ever gaining the intellectual wisdom which would enable them to climb the long road to God.

The pneumatikoi (GSN4152) were a very small and select minority; the psuchikoi (GSN5591) were the vast majority of ordinary people. It is clear to see that this kind of belief was inevitably productive of spiritual snobbery and pride. It introduced into the church the worst kind of class distinction. So, then, the heretics whom Jude attacks were men who denied the oneness of God and split him into an ignorant creating God and a truly spiritual God; who denied the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and saw him as only one of the links between God and man; who erected class distinctions within the church and limited fellowship with God to the intellectual few.


(iii) It is further inferred that these heretics denied and insulted the angels. It is said they “reject authority, and revile the glorious ones” (Jude 8). The words “authority” and “glorious ones” describe ranks in the Jewish hierarchy of angels. Jude 9 is a reference to a story in the Assumption of Moses. It is there told that Michael was given the task of burying the body of Moses. The devil tried to stop him and claim the body. Michael made no charge against the devil and said nothing against him. He said only, “The Lord rebuke you!” If Michael, the archangel, on such an occasion said nothing against the prince of evil angels, clearly no man can speak ill of the angels.

The Jewish belief in angels was very elaborate. Every nation had its protecting angel. Every person, even every child, had its angel. All the forces of nature, the wind and the sea and the fire and all the others, were under the control of angels. It could even be said “Every blade of grass has its angel.” Clearly the heretics attacked the angels. It is likely that they said that the angels were the servants of the ignorant and hostile creator God and that a Christian must have nothing to do with them. We cannot quite be sure what lies behind this, but to all their other errors the heretics added the despising of the angels; and to Jude this seemed an evil thing.

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