An often misunderstood and abused, adiaphora was a crucial apologetic, used to reform the Church against Rome while preserving England from Puritanism. Against radicals who demanded a precise biblical prescription for all worship, Anglican divines (particularly Hooker) defended the validity of the Prayer Book by adiaphora argument; quoting Article XXXIV:
“It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like…Every particular or national church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the church ordained only by man’s authority”.
Adiaphora’s implications were bigger than canonical ceremony. In so far as ritual conveyed “grace”, rites might be ranked by importance. Ceremony was divided between rites which forgave sin (divinely instituted worship) from ritual that was man’s response to justifying grace (Melanchthon calls this “Eucharistic worship”). What has been established by custom for the purpose of praise, edification, and memory, the church has liberty to change or modify when necessary. But what God has instituted which is not part of ‘tradition’ but divine command, no alteration may occur. Such differentation sets apart God’s grace from man’s love, and this is the fundamental distinction between ‘justification by faith’ and merit, i.e., man’s work/response does not remit sin but comes from the promise and efficacy thereof.
When properly understood in the context of the early reformation debates, adiaphora not only seperates God’s decree from man’s response/works but also distinguishes the Church apart from the world. Reformers believed the visible marks of the Church– sacraments and preaching– made her unique from civil institutions. Without such divine signs (Word and Sacrament) the Church might as well be a political party or social welfare program. This is an important apology. Melanchthon says,
“The true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, fervent prayer, and the like. Candles, golden vessels, and similar adornments are fitting, but they are not the specifically unique adornment belonging to the Church. If the adversaries (Rome) make these things the focus of worship, and not the preaching of the gospel, in faith, they are to be numbered among those whom Daniel describes as worshiping their god with gold and silver (Dan. 11:38)”. (Apology, XXIV.51)
While ‘adiaphora’ translates ‘indifferent things’ (sic., sub-title of Article X), it does not mean ‘unimportant’. Adiaphora issues are no less important than charity, mortification/penance, catechism, or even prayer. They constitute our works or response to sin forgiven. We should use the term strictly, meaning rites which do not “justify” or ‘remit’. The Most Reverend Mark Haverland, in Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice, also distinguishes between essential and non-essential matters, “Other beliefs may be true, and important or even necessary for salvation. Anglican also have historically and strongly distinguished dogmas or essential doctrines (which are few and clearly established in scripture) from pious opinions and inessential truths” (p. 3)
Adiaphora thus draws a sharp line between divine grace and man’s response, lending itself to a strong Augustinaian, high-grace teaching (said above). While we may say non-justifying rites are mutable, this does not automatically mean reducing rites to a bare minimum or breaking from a long established tradition is wise. But in extremis, where custom confuses or undermines the Word and Sacraments, tradition calls for reform.
Sadly, adiaphora is wrongly conceived as “license”. Perhaps this is more likely amongst Baptists (and those who have no historical exegete but are congregationalist and radical in polity), yet it is not the case with the Thirty-Nine Articles where the Crown and Bishops were conservative weights . The CofE principally restrained private liberty according to over-arching but real Christian obligations— e.g, obedience to the civil authority, consideration of the weaker brother, mutual submission between churches, and the antiquity of fathers. These restraining principles were summed by Hooker and the BCP Preface. In contrasting such with RPW, we might call them the Canonical Principle of Worship (CPW). The Thirty-Nine Articles say:
“Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren” (Article XXXIV).
Where the 39 Articles relegate questions of adiaphoric ceremony to common order (e.g., Article 34, above), Lutheran confessions more often appeal to theological reasoning. That said, Anglican agreement with Lutheran confessions is not altogether wrong given the Thirty-Nine Articles were an abbreviated reply to continental debates borne after 1530 where Strasburg, Zurich, and Wittenberg pleaded their case at the Augsburg Diet. Lutheran influence during the formative period of the Settlement justifies treating German Concords as virtual tertiary formulas.
The Formula of Concord succinctly defines adiaphora as:
“Some ceremonies and Church practices are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but are introduced into the Church with good intention, for the sake of good order and proper custom, or otherwise to maintain Christian discipline” (Article X, Formula Concordia)
Ceremonies which in principal are contrary to God’s Word are not ‘indifferent’ or ‘free’ but “must be avoided as things prohibited by God”. Ceremonies which are perhaps venerable and owe respect yet not divinely given for the remission of sin may be changed (as the Thirty-Nine Articles say “not all rites being the same”) in a way most useful and edifying for the churches of God. “Nevertheless, all frivolity and offense should be avoided in this matter. Special care should be taken to exercise patience toward the weak in faith…We believe, teach, and confess also that no church should condemn another because one has less or more outward ceremonies…This is true as long as they have unity with one another in the doctrine and all its articles and in the right use of the holy sacraments. This practice follows the well-known saying ‘disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith’ (X.5, 7; Formula). Should the ban on frivolity be akin to the ‘newfangledness’ warned of by the 1550 BCP? [see Preface]
What stands out between Lutheran and Anglican Formulas, especially between late 16th century divines, is Anglicanism’s conservative character. While early Lutherans, like Philip Melanchthon, revered the fathers (Article XXI.1, Augsburg) and regarded old ceremony (Article XV. 44, Apology), later men like Martin Chemnitz bore no adiaphora with Rome as if any discussion with Papacy was instantly compromising. Non-adiaphora Lutherans reasoned that in times of persecution, Christians best “confess every aspect of religion…In this case, even in adiaphora, they must not yield to the adversaries or permit these adiaphora to be forced on them by their enemies, whether by violence or cunning” (X.10, Formula). Thus a prejudice against catholic custom grew though not characteristic of Lutherans until after 1580.
And, while Anglicanism had its own Puritan party, the Puritan expectation that all external worship have divinely command was resisted by Parker and Whitgift. Anglican adiaphora therefore allowed older church rites to survive. The Queen’s chapel, which Puritans disparaged frequently, was a deposit of conservativism which weighted the settlement. The Anglican treatment of lawful custom is thus found not only in her Prayer Book (which despite various revisions, changed very little following 1559) but the Royal Injunctions which interpreted the Ornament Rubric and England’s catholic continuity. We cannot further define the Ornament Rubric without exploring these very important Royal Injunctions (these being the Injunctions of 1559, 1566, 1604, 1629, etc..).