A look at Milton’s statements concerning antinomianism can enhance our understanding of this fascinating question.
Milton’s writings advance representative formulations of antinomian issues that concerned Independents and sectaries in the periods during and following the Civil War. Specific theological positions are taken in Areopagitica as Milton examines Peter’s dream about the food laws; and in The Discipline and Doctrine of Divorce, where Milton discusses Matthew 19 and Deuteronomy 24.1. Writing these documents in the 1640s, Milton is careful and legalistic as he presents his arguments. He is diplomatic and prudent to convince the men of the times. However, later in the 1660s when addressing posterity Milton is unequivocally antinomian in De Doctrina Christiana (The Christian Doctrine), Chapter 27, as he treats Mosaic Law, the Gospel and Christian liberty. Here Milton writes: “all the old covenant, in other words the entire Mosaic Law, is abolished . . . not only the ceremonial law, but . . . the whole mosaic law is abolished by the Gospel.”
There is a way to bring Milton’s early and late views into unified accordance. The first step in this process is to clarify what is meant by “abrogate” and “law.”
Abrogation in the sense it is used here—de facto abrogation—has no legal status. In is not a procedure; nor is it official, authoritative or binding. It is an activity. Similarly, the concept of “law” in this instance (in any instance) might be more correctly regarded as practice. That is, law itself is not official, authorized or binding. It is an activity. And here a distinction needs to be drawn between law (small “l”) and what we might call Natural Law (large “N” and “L”).
In Matthew 19 Jesus is quite plain in saying that the law in this instance diverges from Natural Law. The Pharisees argue, asking why Moses gives instructions for a divorce procedure if it is against the law, and Jesus answers: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Moses’ abrogation is official, but it is not strictly speaking (at this point) large “L” Legal….. But for the Pharisees in this case “official” is sufficient. Their law is simply official.
Thus when I inquire into notions of abrogation and antinomianism, I ultimately find myself asking what is meant by “law” in the first place? Rather than abrogation, I think what I see is the rejection of a law code that is not Legal. Rather than an official abrogation, what I see as abrogative in the Gospels is the concept of official law being replaced by Natural Law. And, moreover, Natural Law is not binding. That is to say, Natural Law is self-abrogating (both in terms of officialdom and activity) to accommodate particular exigencies of situation and the shortcomings of human beings. Thus when Milton says Jesus “came not to abrogate from the law not one jot or tittle,” he is referring to Jesus adhering to the Natural Law of Moses, while distinguishing from it Moses’ mere edicts. Official abrogation (authorized) as well as de facto abrogation (activity) do not violate the Natural Law, while the law itself –official law—is spurious at the outset; that is, it is a set of official arrangements composed at the service of, and in the interests of, its authors.
For Milton then, Jesus’ activity of straightening things out was an on-going tinkering as supple as the changing scenario (“as when we bow things the contrary way, to make them come to their naturall straitnesse”). Jesus's project was to align the scenario with Natural Law, which is not official but rather an activity of seeing things clearly and moving in that direction.
I am tempted to suggest this activity is the basis of any possible civilization.
As I understand Locke’s formulation, Natural Law accords with what human conduct ought to be, but this is not always in accordance with what people actually do; neither does it accord with the way things happen. Any reasonable law giver, like any reasonable founder of a new religion, must of necessity take this variability into consideration. Any establishment of law, and the benefits according to life by following that law, must be arrived at through flexible rather than proscriptive means.