On Tuesday, October 20, 2009, I presented an essay to the WELS Arizona-California District Pastors’ Conference at St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, CA. The essay was titled, “Neither Papistic nor Karlstadtian: Luther’s Principles of Adiaphora Applied to the Liturgical Life of the Church.” The essay was originally written for the final class I was enrolled in at Santa Clara University, where I recently completed a master’s program in liturgy and liturgical music.
Our recent WELS Arizona-California District pastors’ conference was devoted entirely to the subject of adiaphora — a Greek term that means “indifferent (things)” and that refers to matters God has not forbidden or commanded. Public worship forms obviously fall into that category: God has not prescribed specific forms of worship for the New Testament Church. Unfortunately, the discussion often ends there; we don’t always go on to consider whether or not a particular form of worship is also wise and beneficial. This paper, based on Luther’s comments regarding the intersection of worship and adiaphora, offers a pastoral perspective on the forms we use for worship.
I reworked the original paper to speak to the current state of worship issues within the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. For that reason, you might not always be able to apply my comments directly to another situation or denomination, but hopefully the thoughts here will still be useful. You can read the essay by clicking the first link below.
- Essay: Neither Papistic nor Karlstadtian: Luther’s Principles of Adiaphora Applied to the Liturgical Life of the Church
- Related Post: Luther, Liturgy, and Christian Freedom (posted 9/18/2008)
Here are some excerpts from the essay:
Perhaps there is no area of church life where these two extremes are seen more frequently today than the church’s liturgical life. Noted Lutheran music scholar Carl Schalk has coined the terms “rigid repristinators” and “terminally hip” to describe these two camps. Rigid repristinators are those who would suggest that historic Lutheran worship, duplicated as close to sixteenth century forms whenever possible, is the highest form of worship that the church can offer. Innovation and creativity have little place in this philosophy. In stark contrast, the terminally hip camp jumps on the latest fads and bandwagons until the next new movement comes along. This movement tends to be more style-driven than content-driven. Perhaps these statements are oversimplified, but there is no question that both movements exist in the church today. One is legalism; the other is libertinism. Both are threats to the gospel. (p. 2)
In this writer’s opinion, the greater threat within our circles is libertinism, not legalism. One brother pastor observed to me that the problem with legalism in the WELS is not that we have abundant instances of it, but that we don’t always accurately identify what legalism is—especially in the realm of worship. We do know that the mention of the term is enough to win an argument! Throw out the charge of legalism (or pietism, for that matter) and you will generally win the debate—so it seems. But the charge of legalism does not necessarily mean that legalism exists.
Given the preceding observation, perhaps it would be beneficial to discuss what legalism is not:
- The pursuit of excellence and the establishment of high standards for worship is not legalism. The pursuit of excellence rightly belongs in the realm of sanctification: In light of God’s undeserved grace and mercy shown to us in his Son’s redeeming work, how else can we respond but to put our best efforts forward in preaching, presiding, and performing musically during the gathering of God’s people in his house?
- The desire for general commonality in worship forms is not legalism. The insistence of rigid, lockstep commonality would, of course, be a legalistic desire. But the reality that “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23) may lead us to agree in a brotherly way to use common forms that are widely recognized to be clear, Christ-centered communications of the gospel.
- Finally, when a person takes a stand against a practice that is theologically ambiguous or controversial, that also is not legalism. The fact that something may cause controversy—and therefore, division in the church—is certainly reason for concern. If the stand is, “That’s not the way we do things,” then we might be flirting with legalism. But if the concern is that a practice will not be beneficial, or that it might be divisive, then the concern is in the same spirit the apostle Paul exhibited in 1 Corinthians 8-10. (pp. 4-5)
When applying these concerns to the liturgy, Luther warned about those who use the freedom of the gospel as a license to do whatever they please. Rome dictated liturgical practice, leading to an overreaction that called for total freedom in forms with a complete break from the past. But freedom from the liturgical legalism of Rome was not a license to do whatever one pleased in worship. In fact, it leads one to major in minors and take the church’s focus off the saving gospel message, which ought to be the heart of its proclamation and ministry. (p. 6)
Prior to the publication of Christian Worship: Supplement, I had the opportunity to review several liturgical items that would be included in the book. During the review process, I was impressed by the careful consideration given even to minute details—such as whether or not to include the sign of the cross in the Words of Institution, or how informational footnotes would be phrased in Divine Service II. Even the smallest details received serious consideration. The supplement’s committee and reviewers wanted every feature of this new resource to proclaim the Word of God clearly; they also wanted to avoid any unclear statements that would lead to an unintentionally ambiguous confession. If that is the high standard followed for official worship materials, shouldn’t it also be the standard for anything we produce at the local level? (p. 10)
Luther also addresses the matter of ritual, ceremony, and liturgical customs. Once again, Luther keeps a balanced approach. He does not make “papistic” rules about what must be done, nor does he take a “Karlstadtian” approach and forbid ceremonies and other customs. Because of their ability to communicate symbolically, he speaks highly of ceremonies and customs, while not placing them on the same level as the Christ-ordained sacraments. “The outward show of vestments, holy places, foods, and all the endless ceremonies doubtless symbolize excellent things to be fulfilled in the spirit, yet, because there is no word of divine promise attached to these things, they can in no way be compared with the signs of baptism and the bread.” Luther’s rule of thumb for ceremonies is that they should feel natural. The Liturgy ought not be weighed down with legalistic rubrics, but whatever visual elements there are in worship should flow naturally with the content of the service. “Moderation should…be observed in the use of ceremonies, lest they become a burden and a chore. They must remain so light that they are not felt, just as at a wedding no one thinks it a chore or a burden to conform his actions to those of the other people present.” (pp. 14-15)
On the one hand, Luther’s reforms are remarkably conservative for a man who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. In the preface to his Latin service, Luther stated that his goal was never to start anew, but to preserve what was good and to eliminate the bad. “It is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to point out an evangelical use.” Since there was really nothing objectionable in the basic outline of the mass, and since the gospel could be proclaimed through the preceding elements, Luther retained the liturgical flow of worship with what appears to be only minor adaptations.
From another perspective, one could just as persuasively argue that Luther’s reforms were quite bold. He considered the Gloria optional in the Latin service and didn’t even mention it in his German service. He took great liberties with the traditional mass texts in the German service, paraphrasing them to fit hymn tunes, and even eliminating the Benedictus text from the Sanctus. He suggested a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, either using his own or another suitable one prepared locally. The Words of Institution are encompassed in a prayer in the Latin Mass, but are proclaimed to the people in the German Mass. The Eucharistic Prayers are completely removed, leaving only the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer in their place. The Preface dialogue is substituted with an exhortation in the German service.
Luther’s services demonstrate a careful balance. He refrained from establishing new liturgical law. He wisely considered how God’s people can be edified without causing confusion or scandal. He didn’t repeat the old or establish the new just because he could. By all accounts, Luther achieved his desired purpose for balanced liturgical reform that keeps Christ at the center, and set an excellent example for those who bear his name today. (pp. 15-16)