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Considering contexts: understanding Article X of the Formula of Concord then and now.

Recently, a group of notable contemporary Lutheran theologians offered the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) what they called an "Admonition for the Sake of the True Peace and Unity of the Church." This document opposes the Concordat between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church USA and contains a request for church leaders in the ELCA to carefully consider Article X of the Formula of Concord and the prohibition against forcing an adiaphoron onto the church. The intention of these authors is to avoid a split in the church over what are nonessential practices and to avoid making that which is indifferent--such as apostolic succession--necessary for unity.

Their determination and the purity of their motives are beyond question. Yet, the "Admonition" applies Article X of the Formula to a division within the church, brought about by persons within the church, and affecting only the church. Can Article X of the Formula, which deals exclusively with a conflict brought about by a collision between secular authorities and church leaders, really be applied so easily to the contemporary conflicts in the North American Lutheran Church? Apparently, it can:
Therefore, it is wrong "when anyone imposes such ceremonies, commands,
and prescriptions upon the community of God with coercive force as if
they were necessary, against its Christian freedom, which it has in
external matters.
 (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X). (1)


Perhaps we would do well to reconsider the historical context of Article X in order to recall what the authors of the Formula meant by "coercive force."

In the early morning hours of February 18, 1546, the hope of both Emperor and Pope became a reality. Martin Luther, heretic, outlaw, and wild boar, died in the town of his birth. Luther's final words came in the form of a confession and a promise to die in the name of Christ and the doctrine that he had preached for so many years.

Shortly after his death a controversy arose in Lutheranism that echoed Luther's confession and promise, a conflict now commonly called the adiaphoristic controversy. At the heart of the conflict between Luther's followers was a question about whether compromise on church rites and rituals (usages) was consistent with the need for bold confession of faith in a time of persecution. Was the church willing to suffer and perhaps taste death in the name of Christ and the evangelical doctrine that it preached and confessed?

This controversy took root when both Emperor and Pope seized the opportunity to crush the Lutheran movement. The time was ripe. For the time being, the Turks were not threatening the lands of Christendom. Many of the conflicts in the empire had been settled. With the death of Luther, it seemed as though there was no evangelical leader with enough authority to hold the movement together.

As events unfolded, Emperor Charles V, in a tenuous alliance with Pope Paul III, attacked and defeated the league of Protestant princes and occupied the heart of the Lutheran movement, forcing the temporary closing of the University of Wittenberg. These defeated territories were placed under a new religious law that demanded the return of Protestants to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

Some Lutherans decided to compromise with the Emperor in hopes of saving their movement. They believed that in indifferent matters, which they called adiaphora, compromises could be made in the name of Christian freedom. This position was born of the hope that the heart of the Lutheran confession, justification by grace through faith alone, would survive changes in church usages. This party came to be called the Philippists, so called because of their commitment to the positions held by Philip Melanchthon.

Others refused compromise in the name of the good confession. Theologians such as Matthias Flacius and Nicolas von Amsdorf claimed that there are no indifferent matters--adiaphora--when the church is being persecuted. To protect their understanding of Christian freedom, these Lutherans refused to be compelled in matters of church usages when the secular arm of authority was forcing the issue. Their opponents called them Gnesio-Lutherans (Genuine Lutherans).

Eventually the Emperor and Pope lost control over the bodies and consciences of their German subjects, and the destruction of the Lutheran movement was avoided. However, the dispute among Lutherans that grew out of the period of persecution raged on until the publication of the Formula of Concord. In the words of its framers,
... a dispute arose among some of the theologians of the Augsburg
Confession over ceremonies and ecclesiastical practices that are neither
commanded nor forbidden in God's Word but have been introduced into the
church with good intentions for the sake of good order and decorum or to
maintain Christian discipline. (2)


After considering the causes of the adiaphoristic controversy, namely the defeat of the Schmalkald League and the imposition of the Augsburg Interim on German lands, it must be concluded that the primary issues at stake were not only theological but were also the result of a collision between theological principles and political realities. Christian freedom was being threatened due to the imposition of rites and rituals by secular authorities. From this historical lens I conclude that the response to the adiaphoristic controversy found in the Formula was an attempt to resolve the need for clear confession of faith when the faith is being persecuted by secular authorities.

Thus, the Formula sought to protect Christian freedom in a time of persecution by calling for restrictions on adiaphora until the persecution ended. However, when there is no threat of physical persecution by secular authorities, the doctrine of Christian freedom is not in jeopardy, so long as the church maintains sound doctrine, and the good confession can be made alongside the acceptance of adiaphora. This conclusion limits the extent to which Article X of the Formula of Concord can be applied to contemporary questions concerning adiaphora.

The history behind the adiaphoristic controversy tells the story of how the Lutheran movement survived past the lifetime of its great leader. The conflict forced the nascent Reformation churches to consider those things that might jeopardize the doctrine of justification and the Christian freedom that followed such a liberating theology. In addition, the adiaphoristic controversy brought to a head the issue of Christian freedom as it related to the demands of secular authority. As a result, the controversy forced the Lutheran Church to determine how to apply the theology of Luther, and Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession, to circumstances not imagined by the reformers.

In the final analysis both sides were correct. The Formula of Concord upheld the position of the Philippists that churches were indeed free to accept adiaphora when they were not viewed as true worship of God. When adiaphora were forced upon the church by secular authorities, the viewpoint of the Gnesio-Lutherans was upheld.

How, then, can the contemporary Lutheran church apply Article X to its own conflicts? The adiaphoristic controversy was rooted in a particular conflict that demanded a particular response. Both the conflict and the response to the conflict are rooted in the persecution of the church by secular authorities. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this historical reality places Article X firmly within a distinct context. Thus, application of the confessional response to the adiaphoristic controversy to contemporary conflicts in the church is somewhat problematic.

The modern church finds itself in a position similar to that of Lutherans in the sixteenth century. How is the church to understand and apply Luther's theology to conflicts that he could never have imagined? Additionally, how is the church going to apply sixteenth-century confessions, particularly Article X of the Formula, to twenty-first-century conflicts?

To make the point more clear, the following questions must be asked and answered. Do contemporary church leaders recognize the struggle between Christian freedom and the demands of secular authority as the root of the sixteenth-century conflict over adiaphora? By contrast, do they apply the confessional response to the adiaphoristic controversy to any and all church struggles that deal with indifferent matters? Does the historical context affect the way that the confessional response to the conflict is applied to contemporary conflicts in the church? Is the historical context ignored?

The Confessions provide clear directives on issues related to adiaphora. In a time of peace, when secular authorities are not interfering with the ordering of the churches, adiaphora are acceptable. In a state of persecution, when a good confession is called for, adiaphora must be rejected if imposed on the church. This principle was much needed during the Nazi regime when the secular authorities demanded to control the practices of the church. Article X was also applicable during the period of apartheid in South Africa when the secular authorities forced upon the church their bigoted worldview. However, the Formula offers little guidance in regard to questions concerning rites and rituals that the church imposes upon itself.

The agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church USA may or may not be undesirable. But it is not undesirable for the reasons stated in the "Admonition." The adiaphoron in question is not being placed upon the church by coercive force, at least not the kind of coercive force addressed in Article X of the Formula, unless we conclude that an ecclesiastical vote is as threatening as a sword. Episcopal succession may not be a theological necessity, but it is not being forced on to the church by secular authorities. How then does Article X of the Formula apply to a mandate voted on by the 1999 Churchwide Assembly? In short, it doesn't.

The church owes the Word Alone Network thanks for its efforts to maintain confessional clarity and its commitments to encouraging dialogue about the nature of Lutheran identity. The church must also hold the Word Alone Network to the highest of standards, including a commitment to the contexts of the confessions that they seek to defend.

1. "Admonition for the Sake of the True Peace and Unity of the Church," http://www.wordalone.org/conferences/theo2002/admonition/admonition.htm.

2. The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 515.

Nathan Montover

St. James Lutheran Church, Bettendorf, Iowa and Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois

montover@aol.com
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Author:Montover, Nathan
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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