23 March 2006

Adiaphora, Melanchthon & Tradition

I am in the Doctor of Ministry degree program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Last summer, one class was taught by Dr Andrew Purves, a Presbyterian from Scotland who is quite the scholar in Patoral Theology and, with Thomas Oden, one of the few in that discipline defending the "classic tradition."

Dr Purves was surprised (as was the Episcopalian priest in our class) when I and another man reacted vociferously to this statement in Purves' magnum opus: "Philipp Melanchthon, the German reformer, called these secondary doctrines adiaphora..." (Purves, Reconstructing, p. 17) Our claim was that the term adiaphora had nothing to do with a division within doctrine, but rather addressed issues related to church/state relations and liturgical ceremony.

Clearly, other protestants have learned a different definition than we Lutherans. If we should slide into the scholasticism of "primary" and "secondary" doctrines, or "eseential" and "non-essential" doctrines, we would never think of using a term that means "things indifferent" to describe those so-called "secondary" or "non-essential" doctrines. Yet it shows how a word can be picked up, redefined, and then put back into service in a way that is (a) contrary to its original use and (b) unrecognizable to those who first used it (in this case, Melachthon and the other Lutheran confessors).

I was reminded of this friendly academic exchange when I read, in one of the comments on my blog, a statement by a gentleman who quoted this statement from the Tractate: "No one should... burden the church with traditions, nor let anybody's authority count for more than the Word of God."

The context makes it quite clear that Melanchthon's use of ecclesiam traditionibus (ecclesiastical or churchly traditions) refers to regional customs rather than to the Tradition and, in fact, to innovative traditions; and furthermore, that Melanchthon is not opposing Tradition to the Scriptures but rather these innovative regional customs to the faith once delivered. It's Melanchthon's student, Martin Chemnitz, who helps us see these distinctions.

My point then is simply this: Just like this summer with the word adiaphora, so the word "traditions" has been picked up, redefined, and then put back into service by this gentlemen in a way that is (a) contrary to its original use and (b) unrecognizable to those who first used it (once again, Melachthon).

2 comments:

Carl Vehse said...

"... the LCMS perceived hero of lay rights, congregationalism, and the superiority of the people over the pastor."

Apparently, the "I'll concede on the history of Vehse, Mr Strickert." is now inoperative with the return to such fallacious accusations. Except for a few Missourians, the LCMS perception of Dr. Vehse has been one either of benign neglect or as a brief foil prior to Walther's "Lone Ranger" rescue of the Missouri Saxons. Also, Vehse never argued for "the superiority of the people over the pastor."

"The context makes it quite clear that Melanchthon's use of ecclesiam traditionibus (ecclesiastical or churchly traditions) refers to regional customs rather than to the Tradition and, in fact, to innovative traditions"

Now that's funny! The context makes it quite clear that Melanchthon is referring not only to the traditions made up by the pope, but to the tradition of boasting to be "the vicar of Christ on earth." That's some innovative tradition! That's some region!

fr john w fenton said...

Mr Strickert,

You are quite right. It was low-minded of me to write "I'll concede" and then later snidely write otherwise. I apologize, and I have removed the offending portion.

I've often considered Martin Stephan to have been badly maligned, and I should have the same consideration for Carl Vehse.

As to your argument on tradition, I think I wasn't clear in the use of the word "regional." It refers not to the papal claims, but to the fact that those claims have been made and accepted within only one region of the church. In addition, those claims were well disputed not only by the Orthodox and Protestants in Luther's day, but also by otherwise loyal Roman Catholics. These regional claims were not settled within the pope's own region unti by force with the several decrees eminating from Vatican I.