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Adiaphora, Mandata, Damnabilia

Adiaphora, Mandata, Damnabilia


by Oliver K. Olson

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from Spring 2010

A Brief History of Adiaphora

Someone who talks about pastoring a church is Baptist. Someone who writes about congregants is probably Jewish. Anyone who reads this journal uses the word adiaphora.

Adiaphora is a classy word and antedates the English language by a long time. Twenty-five hundred years ago the philosophical sect of the Sophists talked about adiaphora, and the Cynics did it before them. Diapherein in Greek means to separate, to make a difference. Add the letter alpha (an alpha privative) and it becomes adiapherein. Thus, adiaphora means things that do not make a difference. Or it can mean things that are neither good nor evil.

That makes the term a bit too static for good theological use. More useful and religiously interesting is the relationship of freedom and law in St. Paul’s paradox. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.” (I Corinthians 6:12) “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (I Corinthians 10:23-24) In The Freedom of a Christian Man, Luther, too, offered a paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”

Nevertheless, the non-biblical term had been introduced, and it had to be dealt with. The Puritan sourcebook, The Fortress of Fathers, explained that an adiaphoron is “a thing whereof is made no matter, whether a man kepe hit or do not kepe hit.” Their definition agreed with the usage of the Lutherans, who talked about Mitteldinge, indifferent things. Puritans, however, were not fond either of adiaphora or paradox. They eventually decided just to exclude everything not specifically mentioned in the New Testament. A modern continuation of that attitude (and a diverting footnote to American church history) is the contrast one hears about between organic and non-organic branches of the Campbellite tradition. The adjectives are not agricultural; they distinguish between those who permit pipe organs and those who do not. Organs, it is explained, are not mentioned in the Bible.

The same viewpoint stimulated Lutherans in the second adiaphora controversy (the history of dogma distinguishes two adiaphora controversies). About 1681 a new opera house was talked about in Hamburg, and some local theologians, followers of Pietist fathers Spener and Francke, denounced as sin not only the opera but also dancing, smoking, and card-playing. Orthodox Lutheran pastors, on the contrary, looked on the controversial practices as adiaphora.

Our use of the word “adiaphora” today is a legacy of the first adiaphora controversy. The burning question then was whether to obey or to resist the imperial law of 1548, the “Augsburg Interim.” It regulated religious matters after the military defeat of the Lutheran princes. A contemporary description of the situation for English speakers passed a negative judgment on the situation:

“Interim is a booke whiche was at ye Emperoures Maiesties commaundment printed and put forth about the beginning of June, in this yere of our Saviours birthe 1548, wherein is commanded that al the cities in Dutchlande that have receaved the worde of god, and made a change of ceremonyes according to the word shal reforme their churches agayne, and turne to the olde popische ordinaunces as a dog dothe to that he hath spued out, or a washen swine of the myre.”[1]

The “olde popische ordinaunces” were the invocation of saints, prayers for souls in purgatory, processions, festivals, consecrations, vestments, seven sacraments, votive masses, and private masses (communicants, it was explained, were not necessary but merely “useful”).

The punishment for disobedience was fearful. Imperial soldiers enforced the Roman liturgy with guns. Predictably, the majority chose conformity. In any case, many liturgical practices were indifferent. Into the controversy Philipp Melanchthon introduced the word “adiaphora”:

“Although the prince might reach a decision which I cannot accept, I shall nevertheless commit to no seditious act, but will either remain silent, go into exile, or else bear the consequences. For I also previously bore an almost deformed servitude at times when Luther heeded his own temperament, in which there was much polemical zeal, just as there are misfortunes of storms, so there are some faults in the government which must be stringently endured and concealed by the moderate.”[2]

Compromise, as Melanchthon explained, was better than suffering the bitter fate of South Germany. The situation was nothing new: the church had always had to endure servitude.[3]

The Saxon government was also ready to compromise. Its own religion law, the “Leipzig Interim,” was crafted to make the emperor’s law tolerable in a Lutheran land. A preliminary consultation was held from November 16 to 22, 1548, with Melanchthon participating. The guiding rule for the consultants was “to introduce everything not opposed to God’s word and that can be done with a good conscience.”[4] Their recommendation, nicknamed the “Celle Interim” by the resisters, accepted almost all the ordo romanus: baptismal chrism, confirmation as a sacrament, canonical hours, the Latin language, candles, vessels, chants, and the breaking of bread at communion. Since the participants were not quite ready to abandon the Reformation altogether, they attempted a little mitigation. Extreme unction was reintroduced not as a sacrament but “according to apostolic command” (Mark 6:13, James 5:14) for the treatment of the sick, an interpretation that the Roman Catholic church has recently adopted. Fasts were required but as a matter of secular law. Authority for excommunication was transferred to government consistories, but government of the church was entrusted generally to the bishops and the pope—with the wistful provision that they would not persecute sound doctrine.

Melanchthon was ready to cooperate since, typical of his time, he did not believe in the separation of church and state. “Christ determines the doctrine,” he wrote, “the government the church order.”[5] “Ecclesiastical traditions are civil laws, and their enforcement in no way pertains to spiritual government.”[6] “Just as the father of a family is a minister and executor of the church in his family, so is the magistrate minister and executor of the church in the republic.”[7] “The magistrate should be the protector not only of the second table, but of the first.”[8]

By contrast, Matthias Flacius wrote that “the state is the protector of both tables. But in secular office.”[9] As a battle ensign he adopted a flowing, flapping, persuasive, unavoidable symbol—the surplice. “Whoever puts on a surplice,” Flacius wrote, “denies Christ’s teaching.” At the same time, Flacius explained for those who might not understand, “it is not true that we condemn the surplice itself.” What made it unacceptable was coercion. The surplice had to be resisted because the government had commanded it.

In the end, it was the resisters who won the confessional battle. Article x of the Formula—“We believe, teach, and confess that in a time of persecution, when an unequivocal confession of the faith is demanded of us, we dare not yield to the opponents in such indifferent matters”[10]—is a recasting of the famous statement of Matthias Flacius, Nihil est adiaphoron in casu confessionis et scandali: “In the situation in which a confession is required or which causes scandal, nothing is an indifferent matter.”[11] The article is not to be understood as the basic Lutheran statement about the liturgy—as is sometimes the case. Article X is a political statement. Following the old principle of lex orandi lex credendi, Flacius insisted that “cult and doctrine cohere together and are connected.” “It is true, more than true, that confession is in the adiaphora.”[12] Stephan Skalweit suggests that, “[p]robably for the first time in the history of Lutheranism,” Flacius saw clearly the inner connection between doctrine and liturgy.[13] “The devil is especially interested in the liturgy,” Flacius wrote, for “when he has it, he has everything.” “Liturgical changes will be the window through which the wolf will enter the evangelical fold.”1[4]

The defiant party thus ended up making a contribution to the history of political resistance, even revolution. The Formulators of Concord had the almost impossible task of siding with political resistance and at the same time convincing greater and lesser lords to approve it. For Article x they came up with the clever term, “opponents of the gospel.”[15] And the lords all signed it—three princes elector of the Holy Roman Empire, sixteen assorted other princes and thirty-eight cities—even though they feared revolution.

The Lost Words and the Consequences

The permanent effect of the many Reformation quarrels corresponds in general to how noisy they were—and the first adiaphora controversy was very noisy. “What kind of word is ‘adiaphora’?” one weary German said. “I think the accursed devil himself invented it. Now everything is adiaphora, whether one prays to God or the devil.”1[6] The crucial difficulty is that equally important words have been forgotten. Those other words are mandata (things required) and damnabilia (things forbidden). The impression spread that “everything is adiaphora.”

Alertness for avoiding the damnabilia led some Lutherans of the twentieth century meekly to accept what they had once adamantly opposed, the sacrifice of the mass. They were misled because in contemporary literature it was given the innocent-sounding name, “Prayer of Thanksgiving.” Enclosing the words of institution within prayer transforms the ritual direction of the whole service. Thanksgiving and testament are not the same. According to Luther:

“[W]e must therefore sharply distinguish the testament and sacrament itself from the prayers we offer at the same time. Therefore, these two things—mass and prayer, sacrament and work, testament and sacrifice—must not be confused… the former descends, the latter ascends.”[17]

The reversal in ritual direction is all-important. According to Lutheran doctrine, as in the New Testament itself, the words of institution are God’s words, directed to the people. The eucharistic prayer reverses the words of institution and aims them toward God. This distinction, so important to Luther, was distorted by the Lutheran Book of Worship as “historically conditioned material”:

“The Lutheran heritage of worship, therefore, embraces and affirms the whole Christian tradition: its development should not be limited by non-critical adoption of such historically conditioned material as the church orders of the sixteenth century.”[18]

In the tradition of the Augsburg Interim, the Celle Interim, and the Leipzig Interim, the Service Book and Hymnal referred to the adiaphora as “some elements which were lost temporarily”:

“A vision clearer than was sometimes possible in the turmoil of the Reformation controversy has revealed the enduring value of some elements which were lost temporarily in the sixteenth century reconstruction of the liturgy, as, for instance the proper use of the Prayer of Thanksgiving.”[19]

Authority was no longer recognized in the Confessions but rather in the consensus of certain liturgical researchers. Consequently both hymnals broke seriously with the Reformation. Their requirement of the eucharistic prayer is a clear confession that the Lord’s Supper is our thanksgiving. The sacrament is not something that God does but that we do.

The Most Important of the Damnabilia

In their recent “Theses on Worship,” the presidents of the Missouri Synod, concerned about disunity in the “worship wars,” informed us that “worship is not adiaphora.” But the reverend presidents did not discuss damnabilia.

Mandata and damnabilia belong with adiaphora. The most objectionable of the damnabilia is the mass canon. Unwary Protestants are routinely misled about it because it was renamed the “eucharistic prayer” or “prayer of thanksgiving.” Who can be against giving thanks?

But more than simple thanksgiving is involved. As it stands, the practice endorses propitiatory sacrifice as part of Christian worship instead of as the sole work of Christ. The change in terminology happened at the second Vatican Council:

“To be sure, the expression ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ would perhaps not have forced itself through if Salvatore Marsili, who belatedly gave a commentary on the passage, had pointed out earlier that Melanchthon had employed this expression in order rather to emphasize the contrast to the concept of propitiatory sacrifice rejected by him. However, the expression could also be understood in the sense of a sacrifice accomplished in the eucharistic canon; basically he meant by it sacramental sacrifice in contrast to the sacrifice of the Cross. The dual character of our Lord’s institution is well maintained even in the new text: it is a perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and it is a memorial.”[20]

Luther objected to the eucharistic prayer because, at the center of the liturgy, it made the mass a sacrifice. Recently, the definition has been made more precise, one that would have shocked Luther even more: the eucharistic prayer is “a living, active sharing in the redeeming deed of Christ.”

Self-sacrifice thus comes to mean sharing Christ’s sacrifice—and sharing in the atonement. That newest Roman doctrine was built on the construction of a monk named Odo Casel. In his explanation Casel explicitly denied salvation by faith alone:

“Christ’s salvation must be made reality in us. This does not come about through a ‘justification’ from ‘faith’ or by an application of the grace of Christ, where we have only to clear things out of the way in a negative fashion to receive it. Rather, what is necessary is a living, active sharing in the redeeming deed of Christ.”[21]

His construction has been accepted by papal authority, and since Casel theologians routinely argue in favor of “sharing in the redeeming deed.” As another liturgical theologians after Casel put it:

“But our union with Christ is not established simply by faith in his message, but by effectual contact with his redemptive acts. The saving activity by which the Church continues the work of Christ does not consist solely in the Word as preached, but in the Word as sacramentally efficacious. So, in our assembly, the reading and preaching of the Word is followed by the eucharistic celebration, in which the mystery of Christ’s redemptive work is sacramentally renewed, so that we can take part in it.”[22]

It is impossible to believe both: that we are justified by faith and that we are not justified by faith. It is impossible to believe that communion is a sheer gift of God and that it is participation in Christ’s atonement. It is impossible to believe Lutheran doctrine while participating in a rite that teaches something quite the opposite.

Four centuries ago, the eucharistic prayer was enthusiastically promoted by Johann Agricola, chaplain to Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg:

“Whoever does not accept the Interim is not a Christian, because in two years all of Europe will come to the gospel; it will be effective in France, Poland, the whole world… If Luther were alive now and only heard that the mass… was only a commemorative and eucharistic sacrifice he would live ten years longer for joy.”[23]

Neither the victor (Flacius) nor the loser (Melanchthon) of the sixteenth-century adiaphora controversy was overtaken by joy. According to Melanchthon, it was above all the rejection of the eucharistic prayer that preserved the Reformation:

“The action at Leipzig makes no change in the church because the contention concerning the mass and the eucharistic prayer is postponed for further consideration.[24] The controversies about the canon were of the highest importance to me, and I thank God, if I succeed in preventing that these impieties are forced on the pastors.”[25]

The eucharistic prayer, he wrote, could not be accepted without impiety.[26] It was such a weighty matter that it needed to be settled by an ecumenical council.[27] No ecumenical council has done that.

To speak responsibly about the church’s worship it is important to recognize what are mandata and what are damnabilia just as much as what are adiaphora. Mandated, according to Luther’s biblical insight, are the two sacraments of baptism and communion. Not mandated is the action of breaking the bread in the communion liturgy, as other churches have required and Lutherans have resisted. Damned is turning God’s gift into our action. Adiaphora is not the final word.

Oliver K. Olson, retired from the faculty of Marquette University, is the author of Matthias Flacius and the Survival of Luther’s Reform (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002).
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1. A Waying and Considering of the Interim by the honourworthy and highly learned Philip Melanchthon, trans. John Rogers (London, 1548), fol. A iij v.
2. Lowell C. Green, Melanchthon in English (St. Louis: Center for Reformation Research, 1982), 18ff.
3. Corpus Reformatorum, vols. 1–28: Philippi Melanthonis Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia (Halle and Brunswick: C. A. Schwetschke, 1834–60), VII col. 258 [hereafter CR].
4. Ibid., col. 208.
5. Hans Christoph von Hase, Die Gestalt der Kirche Luthers. Der casus confessionis im Kampf des Matthias Flacius gegen das Interim von 1548 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1940), 54.
6. Charles L. Hill, “Some Theses of Philip Melanchthon,” Lutheran Quarterly 6 (1954): 247.
7. CR XVI col. 124.
8. CR III col. 225.
9. Matthias Flacius, Gründliche Verlegung aller Sophisterey (Magdeburg: Christian Rödinger, 1551), fol. A iij r.
10. The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 516 [hereafter BC].
11. Das man in diesen geschwindern Leufften, dem Teuffel und Antichrist zugefallen, nichts in den Kirchen Gottes voerendern soll. Durch Joh. Hermannum (Magdeburg: Michael Lotter, 1548).
12. Ein Buch von waren und falschen Mitteldingen (Magdeburg: Christian Rödinger, 1550), fol. Q iij v.
13. Reich und Reformation (Berlin: Propyläen, 1967), 361.
14. Bulla Antichristi de retrahendo populo Dei in ferream Aegipticae servitutis (Magdeburg: Michael Lotter, 1549), fol. A iij r.
15. BC 517.
16. Ein Vermanung zur Bestendigkeit in bekenntnis der warheit, Creutz, und Gebett, in dieser betrübten zeit sehr nützlich und tröstlich (Mageburg: Christian Rödinger, 1549), fol. A iiij v.
17. Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.), 36:50, 56 [hereafter LW].
18. Worship among Lutherans, ed. Eugene L. Brand (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1983), 12.
19. Service Book and Hymnal (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1958), vii.
20. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. I, ed. Herbert Vorgrimmler (Herder and Herder, 1967), 33. Italics added.
21. Odo Casel, The Mystery of Christian Worship and Other Writings (Westminster, Maryland: Newman, 1962), 14, 52.
22. Charles Davis, Liturgy and Doctrine: The Doctrinal Basis of the Liturgical Movement (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 69ff. Italics added.
23. Gustav Kawerau, “Gutachten Joh. Agricolas über die Annahme des Augsburger Interims,” Neues Archiv für Sächsische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde 1 (1880): 278.
24. CR VI col. 292.
25. CR VII col. 342.
26. CR VII col. 234.
27. CR VII col. 214.

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