The Adiaphoristic Controversy

What happened to the blessed movement known as The Reformation within a year of the signing of the Augsburg Confession, June 25, 1530, is not unlike the gradual weakening of the storm stirred by the founders of our own beloved Conference back in 1951. The ranks of those who at first defied the tyranny of men and held fast to the truth of God’s precious Word quickly became “thinned” as pressure began to mount against them. It was not merely psychological pressure –the spectre of being all alone and virtually isolated in a tiny fellowship of impoverished remnant congregations; it wasn’t just social pressure –the thought of suddenly being ostracized by former brethren for having been too “quick on the trigger” and “separatistic” and “loathe to stay in and fight” a losing battle. No, it was the clear and present threat on the part of synodical officials that pastors who saw fit to “rock the boat” and to warn their sheep against the deterioration of their church body would be deposed from office, put out of their parsonages, stripped of their pensions, sued in court, slandered in the press, and would likely end up out of the ministry, “ineligible for a call,” and working at some menial job to support their families. And the threats worked! For, instead of the then Chicago Study Club, for example, standing together with one voice against the unscriptural ouster of one of their number and of another brother, both in the fall of 1951, they “cut” and “ran” to a man, silenced, defused, and assimilated back into the body politic with no recriminations –as long as the “sound and fury” of their whimpering protests “signified nothing”. And most of them ended up living peacefully in Synod, retiring in Synod, and some already dying in Synod as respected “conservatives”.

As early as 1531, Luther predicted impending turmoil in the ranks, doctrinal controversies arising from within, threats of violence and eventual open warfare in Germany, and the rending of the visible church to pieces by the instigation of the devil. Shortly before his death he wrote, “Such is plainly his object. If he cannot accomplish it through the Pope and the Emperor, he will do it through those who are [now] in doctrinal agreement with us.” However, due largely to Luther’s personal influence and heroic steadfastness under the gracious hand of God, the “enemies from without” made no overt and violent move against the Lutherans until after the reformer’s death in 1546. But no sooner had Luther been laid to rest than the Pope and the Emperor joined in a combined, frenzied effort to crush protestantism by brute force (as had been their plan all along). Within four months, Emperor Charles V, generously financed by the Pope, embarked upon the Smalcald War, a “Blitzkrieg” operation in which every political ally of the Lutherans was attacked, subdued, and forced to capitulate. Those who refused at first were imprisoned, and some were even sentenced to death.

Then in 1548, the Emperor proclaimed the Augsburg Interim, a document intended by him to regulate the situation and to control the “heretics” until a permanent settlement could be imposed by the Council of Trent. This document, which the faithful Lutherans refused to sign and implement, effectively undid much of Luther’s work and sought to return the churches in almost all respects to the doctrine and practice of the Papacy. Pastors who refused to cooperate were deposed, banished, imprisoned, and even put to death! Some, together with their families, had to flee for their safety and go underground in neighboring states, while bounties were offered for their apprehension. Others decided to go along with the Emperor’s demands in fear for their safety. But the people generally regarded the persecution of their pastors as an unthinkable injustice and cruel tyranny; and many boycotted the churches in silent protest and even refused to work in crucial industries (like mining) until the Interim became an empty, unenforceable edict.

Many of the political leaders, of course, caved in to the demands of the Emperor to protect their personal interests; but staunch Lutheran men like the Elector of Saxony, John Frederick, refused outright to sign the Interim, even though it meant imprisonment and his replacement as elector by a hand-picked “puppet” named Maurice. But even Maurice soon found himself torn between allegiance to the Emperor and his personal disagreement with the terms of the Interim; and he tried to craft a compromise document that might satisfy both the Emperor and the Lutherans of Saxony, and thus not only reduce the tensions between the parties but also the violence, threats and coercion being waged against unbending pastors, professors, and princes.

In order to craft a substitute Interim, Maurice enlisted the help of “Lutherans” whose terror of the Emperor, intimidation by his threats, and fear for their safety made them fitting “targets” for a crafty compromise and “putty” in the hands of clever manipulators. Like so many of the so-called “conservatives” in the large Lutheran synods today, these theologians fancied themselves to be loyal to the cause of the truth and yet, at the same time, ready “for the greater good” of temporal peace and tranquillity to be “peacemakers” and “conciliators”. They were “disciples” or adherents of Philip Melanchthon, who once had been a co-worker and trusted ally of Luther, but who, as an early compromiser of the truth, had altered the Augsburg Confession in an effort to make it more “acceptable” to all parties. This theological scholar from Wittenberg was unwilling to “fight in the trenches” with the other “soldier[s] of Jesus Christ” (II Timothy 2:3) and to risk the anger of the Emperor. Thus, as we read Dr. Bente’s comment in the Historical Introduction to the Book of Concord, “before long his fear to confess and his refusal to give public testimony to the truth was followed by open denial.” (Triglot, p. 98) He and his colleagues at the universities of Wittenberg and Leipzig (who became known as “Philippists” after the name of their leader) collaborated with the Elector Maurice to water down the authority and theology of Holy Scripture (as championed by Luther and his faithful brethren) and to substitute for them their own unionistic and liberal doctrine and practice. In the name of “peace”, Melanchthon crafted the Leipzig Interim, in which he did not hesitate to bargain away truths of Holy Scripture and to accept into the equation of compromise what he regarded to be minor Papal errors, deploring the fact that Luther with his “contentious spirit” had kept the gap between Romanists and Lutherans open and festering by his unwillingness to compromise. And all the while Melanchthon basked in the impression left by Luther’s praise of his gifts and certain of his writings that he was the great reformer’s “heir apparent” and the theological leader of the Reformation! It was indeed a blessing that Luther was safe in heaven and did not witness Melanchthon’s open treachery!

The Leipzig Interim, among other things, omitted the sola fide (“through faith alone”) from the article on Justification, reinstated gratia infusa (“infused grace”) as the power in man to do good works to merit God’s favor, taught that good works are necessary to salvation, stated that the Church can never teach contrary to Scripture and therefore should remain the governing power over Christ’s people, said that all pastors and ministers should be subject and obedient to the “chief bishop,” the Pope, and reinstituted the “sacrament” of Ordination for the bestowal of the pastoral office. Finally, the Interim also demanded that abolished ceremonies –some in and of themselves harmless as neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God (Adiaphora) but nonetheless “traditionally” Roman Catholic, and some in and of themselves false practice on the basis of false doctrine– be reintroduced in the churches of the empire as a show of solidarity between the Lutherans and the Papists in the “intervening period”.

It was this latter demand that gave rise to and fueled the so-called “ADIAPHORISTIC CONTROVERSY” among the Lutherans, a controversy that separated between true and false brethren and revealed the thoughts of many hearts. While Melanchthon and his adherents, the “Adiaphorists”, insisted that the reintroduction of Catholic ceremonies was completely “harmless” and hardly worth all the fuss and furor, particularly when their true interest lay in protecting the “weak” and “frail” from the terrors of persecution, the loyal Lutherans (called the “Gnesio-Lutherans”), chiefly centered in the city of Magdeburg and at the University of Jena under the leadership of Matthias Flacius, saw this move as just the tip of the iceberg poking through a dangerous sea of indifferentism, unionism, and ultimately the compromise and denial of sound doctrine; and the result for the weak among them would be spiritual disaster, as it was for Peter when he sat “in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1) and cozied up to Christ’s enemies around their fire –a fire which in and of itself was neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s Word.

The question-at-issue in the controversy boiled down to this in summary:

Under conditions that amount to spiritual blackmail and extortion, in order to protect themselves and their weak brethren from the ravages of threatened violence and persecution, may Lutherans submit in good conscience to the demand that papal ceremonies be reestablished, even if the ceremonies in and of themselves are truly “indifferent” (neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God), a) without denying the truth of their Scriptural position, b) without denying the true nature of Christian liberty, c) without approving the errors of Romanism, and d) without giving offense either to their enemies (by letting them think that they have won a victory) or to their friends and brethren (by giving in to threats and by compromising the truth for the sake of temporal peace and tranquility)?

The “adiaphorists” held that this posed no problem because it would be done for all the “right” reasons. After all, they argued, the ceremonies are true adiaphora and therefore a matter of Christian liberty. The “gnesio-Lutherans”, on the other hand, rejected it as a treacherous capitulation that would confuse consciences, offend the weak, and give comfort to the enemies of Christ. In short, then, the question amounted in simple terms to this:

“When is an adiaphoron NOT an adiaphoron?”

The basic definition of an adiaphoron is quite simple, and the “gnesio-Lutherans” had no problem with it: Adiaphora are things neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God. As such, they may in Christian liberty be observed or omitted, adopted or rejected, without sin according to Galatians 5 and other passages. HOWEVER, as the “gnesio-Lutherans” pointed out, confession of the truth and the giving of offense ARE matters respectively commanded and forbidden by God’s Word; and when these circumstances play into the matter of adiaphora, what was once a free choice can become a matter of conscience! Thus, under circumstances testing one’s faith, an adiaphoron may become a matter of principle. Adiaphora must therefore be judged by prevailing conditions. Thus Flacius’ axiom or “rule-of-thumb” was adopted by the anti-adiaphorists, the “gnesio-Lutherans”, that

“Nothing is an adiaphoron when confession and offense are involved.”

The matter was finally resolved to the complete satisfaction of all the Lutherans together when Melanchthon, in a letter to Flacius dated September 5, 1556, admitted that the “gnesio-Lutherans” were right in teaching as they did about adiaphora. He did NOT, however, confess that he had been guilty of any deviations from sound doctrine, nor that he had given any offense by his willingness to compromise and betray the Lutheran position. He only admitted to being “drawn into” the political infighting, and he expressed the following qualified confession of having possibly sinned in the matter: “IF in any way I have either fallen or been too weak, I ask forgiveness of God and of the Church, and I shall submit to the judgments of the Church.”

The ADIAPHORISTIC CONTROVERSY was permanently settled by Article X of the Formula of Concord (1580), which, in its Epitome, sets forth, first of all, “the correct and true doctrine and confession” regarding adiaphora and this controversy in particular in the following points:

1) Ceremonies or rites that have been neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word but have been instituted alone for the sake of propriety and good order [I Corinthians 14:40] are in and of themselves no divine worship nor even a part of it. [Compare Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVI. They are not necessary for salvation, are not on a par with the commandments of God, and are not necessary service essential to true Godpleasing worship. Matthew 15:9; Colossians 2:16].

2) The local congregation has the power (under its Christian liberty, Galatians 5:1, etc.), according to circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the church in its midst. [Note that even adiaphora in the church are to have salutary purposes, particularly that they serve the Gospel of Christ and the edification of the members with the Word of God. They are not to be “art for art’s sake,” “ceremonies for ceremony’s sake,” or “rules for rule’s sake.”]

3) With respect to adiaphora (which are a matter of proper seriousness in the church, even though they are not commanded by God), people should not deal with rites and ceremonies in a light or joking manner, so that offense is not given, especially to the weak.

4) When a plain and steadfast confession is required of us (to identify us as separate from errorists and to avoid confusion of identification with the enemies of the Gospel), we should not yield to the enemies and thus give the impression, to our own people or to others, that we have anything in common with them. [So, for example, we deliberately DO NOT IMMERSE in the water of Baptism –not because immersion is wrong, but because it would serve the purposes of the enemies of the truth and identify us with the Baptists and others who require immersion for a valid Baptism. Likewise, we deliberately DO NOT BURN INCENSE or ANOINT WITH OIL as the Romanists do, even though such acts are not wrong in and of themselves. And, with reference to a more contemporary “adiaphoristic controversy”, we deliberately avoid giving even the impression that we have anything in common with the fanatic practice of the E.L.C.R. in Australia, which requires WOMEN to COVER THEIR HEADS in the divine service and to wear DRESSES or SKIRTS instead of slacks as necessary service essential to true Godpleasing worship. See Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVI]

5) No congregation should condemn another on the basis of local preferences in true adiaphora (vestments, liturgical forms, regulations, customs, days and times of service, types of assemblies, etc.) provided that otherwise there is complete agreement between them in doctrine and practice. (I Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:3; etc.)

On the other hand, the Formula of Concord condemns the “false doctrine concerning this article,” including the teachings that

1) Human ordinances and institutions [regulations] should be regarded as a divine worship [that is, necessary for salvation, obedience to God, and true Godpleasing worship].

2) Such ceremonies, ordinances and institutions [regulations] may be even violently forced upon congregations contrary to their Christian liberty in external things.

3) In time of persecution, and when public confession is required, we may yield to the enemies of the Gospel in outward things and craft compromises with them for the sake of safety, etc., even if it means giving a false impression of unity to the weak and unlearned and thus offending them.

4) External ceremonies and adiaphora may be abrogated [taken away] in such a way as to restrict or strip a congregation’s Christian liberty to establish such things in its midst according to its own circumstances and needs for salutary uses and particularly for spiritual edification.

IN SUMMARY, things neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word –under normal conditions considered to be adiaphora and thus free to be accepted or not accepted by the congregation in its liberty– may NOT be TRUE adiaphora

–when a forthright confession of the truth requires us to refuse them, so as not to identify ourselves with the enemies of the truth; and

–when their use may cause offense to weak brethren [not just stubborn brethren, Galatians 5:13] who need first to be edified and strengthened in their faith by the Word before they rightly understand and appreciate true Christian liberty.

–D. T. M.