Current discussion within Reformed circles on antinomianism turns my thoughts to that groundbreaking classic of Scottish literature, “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” or to give it its full title “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by the Editor”.
This work by James Hogg was published anonymously in 1824. It was truly radical, introducing a double narrative written firstly by Robert Cowlan, the Justified Sinner of the title, and then from another perspective by the Editor. The first narrative gives an insight into the troubled mind of Robert Cowlan; the other is a supposedly objective narrative of the external facts of the case – the murder by Robert of his brother George.
It pioneered the genre of the psychological thriller, so ably built upon by R L Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. However, the story can only truly be followed by someone who has at least a passing awareness of Presbyterian theology and that aberration of true Calvinism that exhibited itself in extreme antinomianism hiding under a cloak of religion. Robert was “elect”, therefore he could not sin. His sins, however cruel and monstrous, were covered by Christ’s sacrifice.
Without doubt many of the proponents of antinomianism were themselves godly individuals. But some who followed their teaching moved in the direction of “free from the Law, oh glorious position; I can sin as I please and still get remission.” They moved in the direction of a life that was not so much liberated as libertine.
James Hogg was known as the Ettrick Shepherd. Of course the title is given to him for the very mundane reason that he was from Ettrick, in the Scottish Borders, and he started life as a shepherd before rising to the literary height that made him, in his time, a better known name than our national poet Robert Burns.
Those who know the history of the church in Scotland know that there was another “Ettrick Shepherd” – the incomparable Thomas Boston who edited “The Marrow of Modern Divinity” that sought to chart a clear path between legalism and antinomianism. I wonder if Hogg ever read Boston? Certainly they share this in common – both are buried in the Ettrick kirk yard.