Adiaphorists, Gnesio-Lutherans

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Adiaphora (Gk. "indifferent things"; German Mitteldinge, "middle matters") refers to matters not regarded as essential to faith which might therefore be allowed in the church. In particular the Lutheran confessions of the sixteenth century speak of adiaphora as "church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God."

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Historically the Adiaphorists were those Protestants who, with Philip Melanchthon, held certain Roman Catholic practices (e.g., confirmation by bishops, fasting rules, etc.) to be tolerable for the sake of church unity. This issue became the focal point for a bitter controversy prompted by the Augsburg Interim forced on the Lutherans in 1548 by Emperor Charles V and accepted by Melanchthon and others in the Leipzing Interim. The Gnesio - Lutherans, led by Nicholas von Amsdorf and Matthias Flacius, objected to the presuppositions and judgments concerning adiaphora that led the Saxon theologians (the "Philippists") to forge the Leipzig Interim. The "Gnesios" set down the basic principle that in a case where confession of faith is demanded, where ceremonies or adiaphora are commanded as necessary, where offense may be given, adiaphora do not remain adiaphora but become matters of moral precept.

Those who supported the Interims argued that it was better to compromise appearances in terms of rites and customs than to risk the abolition of Lutheranism in Saxony. Although the controversy over the Interims became unnecessary after the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the dispute continued, and nearly two hundred tracts appeared discussing one stance or the other.

In 1577 the Formula of Concord brought an end to the question for Lutherans by setting forth three fundamental points concerning the nature of genuine adiaphora. First, genuine adiaphora is defined as ceremonies neither commanded nor forbidden in God's Word and not as such, or in and of themselves, divine worship or any part of it (Matt. 15:9). This evangelical principle is integral to the very cornerstone of Reformation theology; it cuts off at the source all false claims of human tradition and authority in the church. The second major point about genuine adiaphora is that the church does have the perfect right and authority to alter them so long as this is done without offense, in an orderly manner, so as to rebound to the church's edification (Rom. 14; Acts 16, 21).

The third assertion goes to the heart of the entire matter: at a time of confession, when the enemies of God's Word seek to suppress the pure proclamation of the gospel, one must confess fully, in word and deed, and not yield, even in adiaphora. Here it is not a question of accommodating oneself to the weak, but of resisting idolatry, false doctrine, and spiritual tyranny (Col. 2; Gal. 2, 5). In sum, the Formula of Concord's position included adiaphora within the domain of Christian liberty, which may be defined as consisting of the freedom of believers from the curse (Gal. 3:13) and coercion (Rom. 6:14) of the law and from human ordinances. This liberty is the direct result of justification (1 Tim. 1:9; Rom. 10:4).

Outside the Lutheran tradition more rigid forms of Protestantism developed, such as the English Puritans, who tended to hold that everything not explicitly allowed in the Bible was forbidden. Others, such as the Anglican communion, were less stringent and regarded many traditional practices, though without scriptural warrant, as adiaphora. Adiaphoristic debates continued to develop periodically. In 1681 a controversy arose between Lutherans regarding participation in amusements.

J F Johnson

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R Preus and W Rosin, eds., A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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