Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  

Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.   


4 thoughts on “Indifference that Makes a Difference

  1. Joseph Minich

    Brad, This is really good stuff. In the very little primary source reading I've done concerning the early Puritan controversy (Whitgift and Cartwright), it seems to me that the concept is used ambiguously. Whitgift seems to argue that if something does not touch salvation, then the Puritans should conform. It is not a "necessary" issue. But Cartwright considers church government (etc) to be "necessary." What is still not clear to me is whether or not these early Puritans were thinking of "necessity" in terms of spiritual necessity for salvation (i.e. if you aren't Presbyterian – you aren't saved) or moral necessity (i.e. "non-negotiable" with respect to pleasing God more generally). My judgment of charity wants to say that Cartwright means the latter, but Whitgift and Hooker seem to get the impression that he means the former. And I guess the logic would be, "You can't be a Christian if you willfully and passionately disobey God's commands. God commands Presbyterianism. Therefore non-Presbyterians cannot be saved." I guess my question is, "What is your reading?" Modern "by divine law" Presbyterians usually think of other Christians as brothers and sisters and, thus, adiaphora seems to me something like "things that are super important versus things that aren't." But I sometimes get the impression that some early Puritans really thought of the line between necessity and indifference as a line between salvation and damnation which just so happened to include LOTS of things (like church government, lack-of-vestments, etc). What are your thoughts?Joseph


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Joseph,Thanks for the great question. Wanted to let you know that you hadn't been forgotten–it's just I've been in San Francisco the last few days and super-busy. Will try to say something intelligent in response as soon as I can.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Grrr….So, Joseph, I had finally written a comment in reply–and oh what a clever, thoughtful, thorough reply it was–and I check back here and find that it is non-existent, devoured by cyberspace. I have time only to reconstruct its basic outlines:1) I think you have identified the nature of the ambiguity very well indeed–given that Scripture commands and reveals much more than is strictly required for salvation, we are under some kind of necessity to heed these commands, and an obstinate failure to do so can endanger our salvation, making these second-order matters indirectly necessary for salvation. The secondary literature rarely seems to pick up on the importance of this ambiguity.2) The primary sources themselves seem a little unclear on this point. While I think Cartwright in the 1580s is able to make that qualified statement of "necessity" that you offer, his rhetorical fervour in the 1570s tends to cloud the issue, and it's not clear (perhaps not even to him) just what he's saying–the same goes for others of the radical Puritans in the heat of controversy; Whitgift, I think, is at times honestly confused, though also an uncharitable reader. (And you are right that Whitgift occasionally seems to think that if it's not of first-order necessity, it doesn't really matter.) Hooker, I think, realizes the distinction between these two kinds of necessity, and attempts to clarify the issue, but he is not above seizing the rhetorical high ground by focusing on passages where Cartwright seems to be making the more extreme statement. 3) This second-order necessity to obey all that God has commanded in Scripture is why Whitgift and Hooker must also show, not merely that Presbyterian church-government is a secondary matter, but that it is not, in fact, commanded in Scripture (although Hooker will also take the further step of showing how, even if it were, it could be changeable). 4) It's worth noting that Hooker will attribute the same logic of second-order necessity even to matters of faith–as with obeying God's commands in Scripture, so with believing right doctrine, we do not lose salvation by oversight, ignorance, or misconstruction, but only by obstinate rejection. This is how he argues that most Catholics could still be saved, horrifying the Puritans and even alarming Whitgift.


  4. Joseph Minich

    Brad, thanks a ton. I had a suspicion that a more careful reading of the sources (which you have done) would not take away the ambiguity that I noticed in my own limited reading. A helpful response. Thanks!


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