Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A More Definitive Definition of Adiaphora

I venture to say that the current definition of "adiaphora" under which we have been working is somewhat inadequate and deficient. It simply is not serving us or these discussions well enough.

Most of us have learned the definition of adiaphora as "things neither commanded nor forbidden by God." However, such a definition does not really capture the original intent and meaning of the term, nor is it entirely useful for the practical everyday use of the Believer.

First of all, the word is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the original term did have an ethical or moral quality that is often missed. The word literally means "things indifferent," and originally indicated a group of actions that were morally neutral, that is, neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is this moral sense that is usually missing from discussions of adiaphora today. Therefore, in order for some activity to be truly adiaphora and thus within the options for a Believer, it cannot have or lead to moral or we might say eternal consequences. With this established, we may proceed to build a better, more useful definition of adiaphora.

Now, for the Believer, any action is either good or bad, moral or immoral, only in relation to the perfect, unchangeable will of God for all people, in all places, and of all times. Obviously, actions such as rejecting Christ as Savior, and not keeping the Commandments are bad, evil, and wrong because they go against God's revealed will for all mankind. In addition, Scripture teaches us that the general overriding desire of God for humanity is that every individual be saved and go to heaven. (First Timothy 2:4) So, naturally God's will revolves around bringing souls to faith and thus salvation. This then also becomes the will and desire of the Believer. Thus, this is the basis for what Paul writes in First Corinthians 8:1-9:23; Gal. 2:3-5; and Col. 2:16-20. In these words we find nothing less than a guide to what actions, that at first might seem to be indifferent, but in reality could present an impediment to saving faith. Since saving faith comes only from contact with the Gospel, and that can happen only through the Means of Grace in Word and Sacraments, whatever gets in the way of these Means of Grace cannot be adiaphora.

Since we are talking mostly about worship services, at this point we can ask what kinds of actions in a worship service support the Means of Grace and which detract from them. Certainly, I think all would have to admit that things such a public confession of sins and absolution, the reading and exposition of Scripture, and the Lord's Supper not only support the Means of Grace, but actually deliver God grace! In addition, a Gloria Patri, Gloria in excelsis, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Nunc Dimitus, along with prayers, Psalms, and solid Biblical hymns can and do support the delivery of the Means of Grace.

By the same token, a worship service without a public confession/absolution, without the reading of Scripture, without a Scripture-based sermon, and without the Lord's Supper is a much poorer vehicle for the delivery of the Gospel through the Means of Grace. In addition, if such a worship service is also centered around satisfying the emotional feelings of people, the message focused on meeting their felt needs, the Means of Grace are not being delivered at all. The Solid Declaration puts it this way:

Likewise, when there are useless, foolish displays, that are profitable neither for good order nor Christian discipline, nor evangelical propriety in the Church, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference. (SD X, 7)

There is still another consideration.

The second part of a good working definition for adiaphora comes from the history of the Lutheran Church, and an important section in the Formula of Concord. Here a brief review would be in order. After Luther's death, his close friend and associate, Philip Melanchthon, sought to protect the new Lutheran faith in Germany by making certain concessions to the Roman church. He felt that, as long as Lutherans were allowed to preach and teach the main doctrines of Luther, they could and should once again accept the authority of the Pope and his bishops over their churches, also the restoration of certain portions of the Mass once objected to and removed by Luther, and the necessity of doing good works as part of salvation, among other things. He was opposed by Illyricus Flacius, who took the position that any time any practice or belief is forced upon Believers, or even just taught as necessary for salvation by any who are in any way shown to be false teachers, such matters cease to be adiaphora, and indeed must be opposed. . (FC, Article X) More simply put, matters that are under controversy cannot really be adiaphora.

So, our expanded definition for adiaphora would now run something like this: "adiaphora are those things which do not in any way provide the possibility of impeding or hindering the proclamation of the Gospel, or anything NOT under controversy, that is, insisted upon as good, right, and even necessary for salvation, when in fact they actually cause opposition to the Gospel or provide temptation to sin."

Thus, real adiaphora would be, by this definition, anything not worth fighting about, or that isn't being fought over! That would eliminate a lot of what is called adiaphora today, wouldn't it!?

And that's just the point – If we're fighting about it, it's not adiaphora! Therefore, whatever it is, it needs to be discussed and debated, some kind of real agreement reached, and the controversy ended.

To recap:

Worded negatively – Something that is detrimental to the Gospel, or under controversy, cannot be adiaphora.

Worded positively – Only what is in no way detrimental to the Gospel, or not at all controversial, is adiaphora.

Now, we can continue our discussions with a renewed understanding of what is and what isn't adiaphora!

Pastor Spencer

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Adiaphora has in mind the freedom of the Christian to act or not act, eat or not eat, speak or not speak, sing or not sing, dance or not dance, play cards or not play cards, etc...

You are right in saying that our definition of what we are free to do and not free to do is always tempered by who is affected by the exercise or non-exercise of our Christian freedom. WE MUST ALWAYS DO only that which draws people to Christ or closer to Christ AND does not lead anyone farther away.

In our everyday lives we are constantly involved in the use or non use of adiaphora. We are having an effect on people all the time. We assume we are having no detrimental effect whatsoever. Yet, we don’t know until they speak to us.

We can’t vary our engagement in or non-engagement in the practice of Adiaphora when we are unaware that those practices are causing offense or are being taken in an offensive way. Only when our brother or sister tells us things are CONTROVERSIAL do we become aware that our practice has to be re-evaluated. Once a brother expresses distress at our practice, we MUST respond appropriately.

As the passages you cite show it is always in a way that does not lead the brother to do what he thinks is sinful and therefore lead him to compromise his faith in Christ by accepting things he believes God forbids.

The quote of St. Paul from Colossians 2 regarding Ceremonial Law shows that there comes a time when standing up for freedom MUST prevail when there are those who are stubbornly refusing to accept something as an Adiaphoron when they refuse to accept that God’s Word proclaims that it is.

We Lutherans who sprinkle are still offending Baptists who insist on immersion and doing so, as Luther said, to stand up for the freedom we have in Christ, even though immersion offers a better illustration of what God does when he drowns our Old Adam.

And so the controversy remains, and we are not in fellowship.

Adiaphora is not just determined by how it affects the Gospel, as if it is to be determined by how it affects some abstract body of doctrine only. It is determined, as you state, by how it affects the way people view the Gospel (Christ).

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