In Stoicism "adiaphora" indicates things outside of moral law — that is, actions that morality neither mandates nor forbids. In the context of Stoicism "adiaphora" is usually translated as "indifferents."
In Christianity, "adiaphora" are matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.
The Stoics distinguished all the objects of human pursuit into three classes: good, bad, and adiaphora (indifferent). Virtue, wisdom, justice, temperance, and the like, were denominated good; their opposites were bad. Besides these there were many other objects of pursuit such as wealth, fame, etc. of themselves neither good nor bad. These were thought therefore in ethics to occupy neutral territory, and were denominated "adiaphora". This distinction amounted practically to an exclusion of the adiaphora from the field of morals.
The concept of adiaphora holds a central place in Pyrrhonism. Pyrrho claimed that all pragmata (matters, affairs, questions, topics) are adiaphora (not differentiable), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, unmeasurable), and anepikrita (unjudgeable, undecidable). Therefore, neither our senses nor our beliefs and theories are able to identify truth or falsehood.
New Testament examples of adiaphora are often cited from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. Some of this epistle was written in response to a question from the Corinthian Christians regarding whether it was permissible for a Christian to eat food offered to idols. In response, Paul replied:
- ...food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Corinthians 8:8–9 New International Version)
However, upon study of several other Pauline passages ones sees that Paul is not necessarily saying that there are such things as adiaphora. Elsewhere he says:
- And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 NIV)
The adiaphora are morally acceptable or unacceptable by God based upon the motive and end of the doer. In this sense there are no indifferent things.
The issue of what constituted adiaphora became a major dispute during the Protestant Reformation. In 1548, two years after the death of Martin Luther, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to unite Catholics and Protestants in his realm with a law called the Augsburg Interim. This law was rejected by Philipp Melanchthon, on the account that it did not ensure justification by faith as a fundamental doctrine. Later he was persuaded to accept a compromise known as the Leipzig Interim, deciding that doctrinal differences not related to justification by faith were adiaphora or matters of indifference. Melanchthon's compromise was vehemently opposed by Matthias Flacius and his followers in Magdeburg, who went to the opposite extreme by claiming that adiaphora cease to be adiaphora in a case of scandal and confession. By 1576 both extremes were rejected by the majority of Lutherans led by Martin Chemnitz and the formulators of the Formula of Concord.
In 1577, the Formula of Concord was crafted to settle the question of the nature of genuine adiaphora, which it defined as church rites that are "...neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God." However, the Concord added believers should not yield even in matters of adiaphora when these are being forced upon them by the "enemies of God's Word".
The Lutheran Augsburg Confession states that the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.
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The Westminster Confession of Faith, a confession of faith written by the Puritans, which after the English Civil War was rejected by the Anglicans, distinguishes between elements or acts of worship (worship proper) and the circumstances of worship. The elements of worship must be limited to what has positive warrant in Scripture, a doctrine known as the regulative principle of worship. In this framework, the elements of worship have included praise (the words and manner of music), prayer, preaching and teaching from the Bible, the taking of vows, and the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, while the circumstances of worship have included the building and its necessary furniture and the time of day for worship.
The circumstances of worship are considered adiaphora, although they must be done for edification and to promote peace and order (compare 1 Cor. 14:26–33; Rom. 14:19). According to the Westminster Confession 20.2, the conscience is left free in general belief and behavior within the realm of whatever is not "contrary to the Word." However, specifically concerning worship and religious faith, the conscience is free from whatever is "besides" Scripture; that is, it is free to worship and believe only according to whatever has positive warrant in Scripture.
Presbyterians who have subscribed to the Westminster Confession, for instance, sometimes considered the questions of musical instruments and of the singing of hymns (as opposed to exclusive psalmody) not drawn directly from the Bible as related to the elements of worship, not optional circumstances, and for this reason they rejected musical instruments and hymns because they believed they were neither commanded by scripture nor deduced by good and necessary consequence from it. Adherence to such a position is rare among modern Presbyterians, however.
The Puritan position on worship is thus in line with the common saying regarding adiaphora: "In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity".
Latitudinarianism in Anglicanism
Latitudinarianism was initially a pejorative term applied to a group of 17th-century English theologians who believed in conforming to official Church of England practices but who felt that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization were of relatively little importance. Good examples of the latitudinarian philosophy were found among the Cambridge Platonists. The latitudinarian Anglicans of the seventeenth century built on Richard Hooker's position, in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that God cares about the moral state of the individual soul and that such things as church leadership are "things indifferent". However, they took the position far beyond Hooker's own and extended it to doctrinal matters.
- The New American Cyclopaedia, 1859, p. 124.
- "XX", Westminster Confession of Faith with proofs, Reformed.
- Schwertley, Brian, "Sola Scripture and the Regulative Principles of Worship", Reformed online.
- Schwertley, Brian, "Musical Instruments in the Public Worship of God", Reformed online.
- Schwertley, Brian, "Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense", Reformed online.
- Waddell, James Alan (2005), The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church: Adiaphora in Historical, Theological and Practical Perspective, Lewiston, NY: Mellen.
- ——— (2009), A Simplified Guide to Worshiping As Lutherans, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
- The Formula of Concord, CTSFW.
- The Augsburg Confession, CTSFW.
- Christian Freedom (scholarly articles), The Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Library.
- The Lex Orandi Lex Credendi Question in Lutheranism Today
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Adiaphorists". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 192. This specifically describes the Lutheran controversy.