Thursday, March 17, 2011

Melanchthon on "adiaphoristic rituals"

Since we're talking about "adiaphora" at the moment, here is a very pertinent section from Melanchthon's Loci Communes, "Locus 21: Human Ceremonies in the Church," p.232-233. For as much as I would like to write an article on this subject, I have no time for it this week. I'll let Master Philip's words stand on their own, with a few highlighted phrases that caught my attention. Comments are welcome.


Now that we have pointed out the errors which are inherent in these traditions and have condemned them, I will say what we should believe regarding these adiaphoristic rituals, which ones should be preserved in the churches of the Reformation, and which errors should be removed.

The third rule. In the churches which have been reformed, some rituals which are matters of adiaphora do remain, because in this life our actions have to be arranged in some kind of order. The nature of men understands and loves order, and it is particularly appropriate for the church and gatherings of people. Thus Paul very earnestly says in 1 Cor. 14[:40], “Let all things be done properly and in order.” He demands not only order but a particular care for adorning this order, and thus he adds “properly” in order that we may see what is appropriate for the persons, the places, and the times. There is more need for reverence in churches than in the theater. The action and the speaking of those who teach is more dignified and serious in the divinely called meeting at which Christ and the angels are present than on the stage.

Thus I say that the rites which are matters of adiaphora in the churches which have been reformed should be preserved for the sake of good order, but not added because of the notion of righteousness, worship, necessity, or in support of other errors which I have mentioned above. And we need to keep in mind that except for the matter of offense there is no sin in violating these traditions. Now I shall mention shortly what offenses we must avoid.

Gerson has sought out a great variety of necessary traditions. He sees that this enormous burden is a bloody torment for the consciences of right-minded men, and that on the other hand men who are less able to bear the burdens of the laws adopt an Epicurean contempt for all religion, since they cannot observe too many traditions. Therefore, he establishes grades of traditions. Some, he says, are established for the sake of outward beauty, and others for the sake of necessity. But the mitigations of Gerson do not unburden consciences. The divine authority lightens them by the Word given us through the apostles, which expressly rejects the notion of righteousness and necessity. And public tranquility will again be strengthened by this doctrine: we say that these rites which have been set forth for the sake of good order must be observed for the sake of propriety, and that stubborn men are indeed sinning when they disregard such rituals and give offense in the churches of the Reformation. This is the true necessity of traditions which also unburdens consciences and is useful for maintaining peace.

Some men are by nature savage, and they regard all laws as hateful prisons. It is certainly beneficial to instruct such people regarding the purpose of the law, namely, good order. And we should exhort them to avoid offense and understand that they do not live only for themselves but also for others—indeed, for the church of God.

Others are more placid by nature and more concerned about the feelings of others, and understand that they are born for society. Indeed, they perceive that their chief task is to be eager to help and promote the church. Of their own will, they do observe honorable and useful rituals and avoid offenses. They realize that the public worship services of the church have been established by the special counsel and blessing of God, and that God wills that these services be held frequently, so that the Word of the Gospel may be proclaimed publicly in the land. Such people are eager to maintain good order, tranquility, and reverence in the gatherings of the churches and in the schools, especially since order is conducive for teaching the uneducated multitude, so long as a lengthy series of feast days is not rashly created. For not all the accounts can be recited in one day, and it is better to delay part of the lesson until later. And when the division of time is congruent with the events which are taking place, it will not be more pleasant, but it still will be better for the memory.

Not only should men observe a definite series of days, but also God Himself has preserved in the Old and the New Testaments an order of festival days to observe His marvelous deeds. Just as He willed that a lamb be sacrificed at the beginning of spring, at the same time of year our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and raised again. Just as on the fiftieth day after the departure from Egypt the law was promulgated with public testimony from Mount Sinai, so on the fiftieth day after the Passover by manifest testimony the Holy Spirit was given.

Now we are in the 1,544th year after the birth of Christ. Therefore God Himself and our Lord Jesus Christ and the prophets and the whole church of God, from the Exodus from Egypt to this very year, have attributed to the days of Passover and Pentecost certain sacred activities for 3,049 years. A man who looks at this consensus between God and the church and at these examples, unless he is a one-eyed cyclops, will judge that it is an honorable thing to gather together before God and the everlasting church, and he will consider that he is present as a spectator of those events by which God in those times signified something very important. Indeed, we ought to regard these public gatherings as a beautiful image of our eternal relationship with God, with Christ, and with the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, and other godly men. Such rituals are useful when they are observed in this way without superstition, and they are beneficial for teaching. For where there is no order, no discipline, it is impossible to teach people. And it is necessary that the Gospel be heard and taught. For God does not gather His church in any other way than through the preaching of the Gospel, and we should not even consider a church of the elect except in this visible assembly in which the Gospel is rightly and purely taught. Therefore, this visible assembly is to be loved and cared for, and the ministry of the Gospel must be retained and honorable gatherings must be held. For this purpose there is constant need for order and proper rites.

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