Adiaphora in The First Helvetic Confession

The First Helvetic Confession of Faith was another attempted Reformed-Lutheran symbol of unity. Composed thirty years before its more famous successor, the First Helvetic was written by Heinrich Bullinger in concert with men who used to be famous: Grynaeus, Myconius, Judae, and Megander. Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito also supported the First Helevetic. They presented the document to Martin Luther, who initially gave it his approval before later trashing the whole thing as Zwinglian chicanery. Much like the Tetrapolitan, the First Helvetic Confession is a rather dusty document. Still, it is important in showing the continued development of “Reformed” theology. Familiar names are associated with it, and its content is similarly similar to other more famous Reformed documents.

There’s a lot of neat stuff in the First Helvetic, but my current focus is on matters of tradition and human-law in the life of the church. On this point the First Helvetic, again like the Tetrapolitan, rejects “the doctrines of men.” These are defined as anything which leads us “away from God and true faith… no matter how attractive, fine, esteemed and of long usage they may be” (Article 4; Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Cochrane, pg. 101). Article 23 follows up on this, with a rejection of “chalices, priestly gowns for the mass, choir robes, cowls, tonsures, flags, candles, altars, gold and silver, to the extent they serve to hinder and pervert true religion and the proper worship of God, and especially the idols and pictures which are used for worship and are a scandal…” (Cochrane, pg. 109).

This rejection could be read in a very strict fashion. No chalices or robes allowed and not even gold or silver! But this is not what the confession means. Luther continued to use a chalice and wear a robe, as did many of the Reformed. And so the qualifier is important– “to the extent they serve to hinder and pervert true religion and the proper worship of God.” This interpretation is confirmed by the very next chapter, dedicated to the concept of “adiaphora.” It states:

All things that are called, and properly speaking, are adiaphora, may be freely used by devout, believing Christians at all times and in all places, provided he does so judiciously and with love. For a believer is to use all things in such a way that God’s honor is promoted and the Church and his neighbor are not offended. (Article 24; Cochrane, pg. 109).

And so the key to deciding which traditions or ceremonies are permissible is their use and effect. If they are in a general conformity with God’s word and do not pervert worship but rather are used “judiciously and with love,” then they are permitted. No doubt some items would have been thought to be so thoroughly contaminated that they could not used appropriately, but no strict rule is given. Rather we have prudential guidance. The worship of images would always contradict Scripture, and so it would never be allowed. The wearing of a gown, however, would depend.

The First Helvetic Confession is then consistent with the Tetrapolitan Confession, though it likewise leaves the question of tradition and human authority in sacred things somewhat open-ended. There are boundary lines which exclude certain items and actions, but these are not mere laws but rather judgments about pastoral meaning and consequence.


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