Adiaphora

Adiaphora is a term that has played an important role in Lutheran history but not much in our own, although perhaps it should. Adiaphora is originally a Greek word that has been translated in different ways depending on context. In Lutheran theology it has sometimes been rendered as “middle things,” things that are neither required nor forbidden.

To compress and badly distort the full story, after Luther’s death and Lutheran defeat in the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was in a position to impose what he saw as a fair solution to achieve religious harmony, the Augsburg Interim, which would have required Lutheran congregations to accept the celebration of all the Catholic sacraments. Support for accepting the Interim among Lutherans was led by Phillip Melanchthon and others at Wittenberg. What the emperor was asking for, in their view, were mere adiaphora, things not of central importance about which the faithful could find opportunities for compromise.

Not so fast, said Matthias Flacius (“Illyricus,” as he was originally from Croatia). Flacius was a prominent voice among the party of the Gnesio-Lutherans (from another Greek word for “genuine” or “authentic”; sixteenth-century Lutherans had no qualms about branding dissenting co-religionists as crypto-Papists or outright Satanists). Flacius certainly believed that while there could be adiaphora in the church, he argued that real adiaphora must be chosen by the church rather than imposed from outside; must not be proclaimed as necessary for salvation; and must not sell ungodliness as righteousness. In one of his (exceedingly numerous) contributions to the polemic literature of his day, Flacius proposed the following rule for what constituted adiaphora.

All ceremonies and church practices, be they as neutral by nature as you wish, cease to be adiaphora when they are accompanied by coercion, vain belief that they are necessary or constitute worship, renunciation, offense, a clear opportunity for godlessness, and ultimately whatever in any way does not build up but rather destroys the church and is an affront to God.

[Note that this is a hybrid translation based on both the Latin and German versions, which each have ambiguities.]

Flacius is saying in effect that the history of the Reformation from 1517 to that moment had been (among other things) about eliminating empty ceremonies and other needless accretions; in that context, Flacius argued, there could be no merely neutral performance of the old sacraments. In his view, while the mass might consist only of words with no inherent significance in themselves, to celebrate mass in a Lutheran church in 1547 could only be seen as a rejection of one of Luther’s central teachings and thus a renunciation of the Reformation and the true gospel along with it.

While I’m more sympathetic with Charles V’s view of sacraments, I think Flacius was on to something about adiaphora. We invest words and images and objects with meaning through a communal process and in a context that includes both the church and the society in which it exists. We can’t say “It’s just a word” or “it’s just a picture” or “it’s just a piece of cloth” when the thing in question has already been elevated to a point of doctrinal significance or marker of group identity. There are certainly adiaphora in the church. But the point of the Restoration (among other things) is to be led by a living prophet, so that dismissing as mere adiophora things that the prophets regularly teach and emphasize has consequences that far outweigh the apparent significance of the thing itself.

7 comments for “Adiaphora

  1. Hunter
    August 14, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Interesting post, thanks.

    But I don’t necessarily agree that the concept of adiophora should not apply to what the prophets teach. I mean, the history of the on-going Restoration is one of prophets teaching and emphasizing things that functionally dismiss what other prophets have taught and emphasized. (Or maybe that’s part of your point: dismissing what the prophets teach as mere adiophora does not fall within the province of the members (as opposed to the current prophet)?)

  2. August 14, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    Hunter, the different concepts on authority are going to introduce some complexity. Taking into account the prophetic and hierarchical leadership structure, I’d argue that one prophet changing what a previous one had said is okay, since it’s being done from within the church. That kind of change would probably pass muster with some Latter-day Saint version of Matthias Flacius. That same LDS Flacius would probably object to members of the church doing the same.

  3. Hunter
    August 15, 2019 at 8:31 am

    OK, makes sense.

  4. Roger Hansen
    August 18, 2019 at 3:49 am

    Jonathan, this sounds too much like “when the prophet has spoken, the thinking is over.” I’m old enough to have lived thru the black-ban debacle. If more members like myself had been more vocal maybe this disaster would have ended sooner. I see the same train wreck occurring with LGBTQ+ issues. Prez Oak’s obsessions are harming the Church and have a weak scriptural basis. Maybe our noise will hasten a reasonable solution.

    God gave me a brain and a conscious, my parents (and hopefully the Church) gave me standards to live by, plus there is personal revelation. All these guide my life decisions. I’m more than willing to follow if the doctrine makes sense and is just. But i’m not and never will be a blind follower. Life is too short.

  5. Lc
    August 19, 2019 at 1:21 am

    Roger,
    Sorry but it’s an immutable fact that one lgbtq couple (or non-monog cohort across time) damns themselves by eliminating any future descendants and curtails the glory of prior generations by severing would-be future descendants from the family tree. Think of the loss across generations who will never come into existence. A+A=2A, B+B=2B, while A+B=? across time and eternity.

    What’s more damning than not only limiting your own progression, but limiting the progression of the one you claim to love, and further eliminating any future descendants from existence, and even further celebrating this and encouraging others to do so as well in the name of love?

    I’ve already showe biologically above with a simple mathematical equation that one relationship not only ends with nothing more than it started, but when it’s antecedants are considered it’s actually destroying an existing family tree linked back to God while the other relationship continues and creates entire generations of posterity.

    From Latter-day Saint perspective we further add that it’s a part of worlds without end, that we are gods precisely because we have bodies designed for procreation and that to be damned eternally is to be denied a body without ever having the possibility to procreate. That’s the terrible punishment placed upon Lucifer and his followers: no body; and what’s the primary purpose of a body if not to multiply and replenish the earth? Our entire biological reality is centered around sexual reproduction. That’s indisputable.

    Lqbtq individuals may be good people, heterosexual may individuals be terrible people — that’s what the teachings of Christ are there for to demonstrate how we should live our lives. But biologically, spiritually, and eternally we have a purpose. That purpose is actively harmed across time and eternity when we fail to understand and teach avoidance of the seriousness of sexual sin with generational consequences.

    Those who cant procreate by reason of infertility, or other factors beyond their control will be denied nothing in the resurrection, but that doesn’t change the tragic reality of that limitation in mortality. It’s not a positive thing, but a part of the fallen world like much hardship we endure.

    So Pres. Oaks needs our prayers to continue to be strong in the face of nonsense criticisms like yours that reduce love to mere flashes of desire and feeling that burn brightly and die as quickly as a handful of dry grass on a fire. Your misunderstanding of life, love, and the plan of salvation is not a virtue.

  6. Lcn
    August 19, 2019 at 1:22 am

    ? Equalls infinity sign above… Apparently the ASCII code doesn’t translate in the comments.

  7. Roger Hansen
    August 19, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    LC, nice try at humor, I sincerely hope your comment is a gag.

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