Calvin, Witsius (1636–1708), and the English Antinomians

in Church History and Religious Culture
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At the core of the Reformation lies the belief that good works are excluded from man’s justification before God. Roman Catholic adversaries feared the rise of immorality and thus accused the Reformed of antinomianism. In this paper the term “doctrinal antinomians” is used for those who deny any human activity within the order of salvation. Within the Reformed tradition we do indeed find examples of such antinomians. As might be expected, they were highly criticised from within their own Reformed camp. However, as part of their defensive strategy they appealed to Calvin as one of their champions. This paper first investigates the manner in which the antinomians referred to him, and then goes on to consider whether their appeal is justified. In order to evaluate to what extent antinomian aspects can be detected in Calvin’s theology, the analysis of the antinomian position by Herman Witsius, a seventeenth-century Dutch theologian, will be used as an investigative tool.

Calvin, Witsius (1636–1708), and the English Antinomians

in Church History and Religious Culture



  • 3

    See Curt Daniel‘John Gill and Calvinistic Antinomianism,’ in The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697–1771): A Tercentennial Appreciationed. Michael A.G. Haykin (Leiden 1997) pp. 171–190 there p. 172; G.A. van den Brink Herman Witsius en het Antinomianisme. Met tekst en vertaling van de Animadversiones Irenicae (Apeldoorn 2008) pp. 12–14.

  • 10

    T. Bozeman‘The Glory of the “Third Time”: John Eaton as Contra-Puritan,’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 no. 4 (1996) 638–654 there 642. For a modern defense of the antinomians see Tim Cooper ‘The Antinomians Redeemed: Removing Some of the “Radical” from Mid-Seventeenth-Century English Religion’ Journal of Religious History 24 (2004) 247–262.

  • 32

    J. Wayne Baker‘Sola Fide, Sola Gratia: The Battle for Luther in Seventeenth-Century England,’ Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985) 115–133; van den Brink Herman Witsius (see above n. 3) pp. 10–12. Rutherford Christ Dying (see above n. 2) p. 252 indignantly stated: “Antinomians belie Luther.”

  • 35

    Ibid. p. 7.

  • 36

    See ibid p. 55.

  • 37

    Ibid. p. 66.

  • 38

    Ibid. pp. 129–131.

  • 39

    Ibid. p. 142.

  • 40

    Ibid. pp. 196–197. See also Williams Gospel Truth (see above n. 13) p. 137.

  • 45

    Ibid. pp. 23 25 39 45 138 146 173–174 184 193.

  • 46

    Cf. ibid. pp. 27 43–44. See also Chauncy Neonomianism (see above n. 24) pp. 80–81 where he quotes this passage. Also Alexander Comrie refers to Calvin’s commentary on Gal. 313 in Catechismus (see above n. 14) p. 285. On Comrie’s antinomianism see G.A. van den Brink ‘Comrie en het antinomianisme’ Documentatieblad Nadere Reformatie 30 (2006) 112–156.

  • 48

    CalvinInstitutes3.1.1 (CO 2: 393). In what follows Calvin stresses first of all the role of the Holy Spirit (3.1.1–3) and consequently the role of faith as the Spirit’s central work (3.1.4). My goal at the moment is not so much to investigate what the means of application is but rather to illustrate that there is a structural difference between impetration and application.

  • 51

    CalvinInstitutes2.10.4 (CO 2: 315): “Hinc etiam convincitur eorum error qui Legem nunquam aliter Evangelio conferunt quam operum meritua gratuitae imputationi iustitiae.” Cf. Institutes 3.2.6 (CO 2: 401–402).

  • 52

    CalvinInstitutes3.17.10 (CO 2: 597–598).

  • 56

    CalvinInstitutes2.5.12 (CO 2: 241).

  • 60

    CalvinInstitutes3.13.5 (CO 2: 564); idem Comm. in Evangelium Ioh. 629 (CO 47: 141). Rutherford Spirituall Antichrist (see above n. 8) 2: 113 criticized this expression: “It is a curious and an unedifying question to search out (as Cornewell doth) whether faith be active or passive in receiving Christs imputed righteousnesse: though if hee speake of actuall believing to call it passive is an unproper speech i. We hold that το credere to beleeve is not imputed as our righteousnesse which is Socinianisme.”


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