Theological Vocabulary: Adiaphora

AdiaphoraThe term adiaphora refer to those points of doctrine which are not essential for salvation. As simple as this term is and as easy as it is to understand its definition, it is an important term given the extreme imbalances within popular theological discourse. Often times we read on the internet, on Facebook posts, etc. folks placing non-essential doctrine on the level of essential doctrine. There are people who are so consumed with their respective area of theological interest that they place an unhealthy and unbiblical emphasis upon the particular point of doctrine.

This can easily be seen in discussions on eschatology (the study of last things/end-times). Since this area of study is so interesting and connected to other important topics within theology, there is often an unhealthy emphasis upon this area, that those who may differ on certain points of a beloved eschatological model are deemed heretics and therefore not saved. Or again, all one need to do is skim through the various online interactions between Calvinists and Arminians. These debates are quickly relegated to name calling and condemnation towards one another. This is what happens when we place the non-essentials on the level of essentials.

It is important however to keep in mind what I am not saying. I am not saying that points of doctrine which are considered adiaphora are not important. Any point of doctrine is important in as much as it reflects the teachings of scripture. Furthermore, areas considered adiaphora can affect what one believes about essential doctrines. For instance, while the Bible does not commit one to only one way of understanding eschatology (end-times), an extreme eschatological position can cause one to implicitly or explicitly deny an essential doctrinal truth, and hence, possibly define one out of the faith. Hence, while some points of adiaphora are seemingly non-consequential, other points may trickle into areas of the essentials and therefore become outright heretical. So we need to keep this in mind as we seek to hold our doctrine (essentials & non-essentials) in healthy balance walking closely to the teachings of scripture to keep us in check.

Perhaps the reader is wondering how one distinguishes essential doctrine from non-essential. This is an important distinction. Let us review our terms for a moment. Essential doctrines are those areas of biblical teaching that are definitional to the Christian faith. That is to say, that to deny an essential doctrine is to define one’s self out of the Christian faith. Non-essential doctrine or adiaphora, are those elements of Christian belief that do not define one in or out of the Christian faith. These are points of belief that Christians can lovingly and respectfully disagree over. Essential doctrines are usually accompanied with a qualifier which indicates the repercussions for denying a point or affirming a point of belief.

A few examples are the following: Jesus says that “unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Notice the point of doctrine that one must affirm (Unless you believe that I AM…). Jesus utilizing the name of God as found in Exodus 3:14 establishes his own deity by identifying himself as the “I AM”. Again, notice the qualifier: If one does not believe that Jesus is God in flesh, (Jhn 1:1, 14, Col 2:9, John 8:24), the person will die in their sins. How do we know that the doctrine of the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine as opposed to something that is merely adiaphora? Because Jesus says that the denial of this teaching results in damnation. Hence it is clear from the text that the belief that Jesus is the I AM (God) is a point of doctrine which is definitional for the Christian faith. Another example is found in Galatians 5:4: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Notice what happens when one seeks to be justified by their works; they are “severed” from Christ. Hence, the idea that we are saved by faith apart from the works of the law is an essential feature of the Christian faith such that to deny it would define a person outside of Christ.

Keeping these things in mind, may we walk a careful balance and not treat non-essential issues as essential issues and vice versa. Doctrine is immensely important and theology matters, but balance and grace the key to a healthy theology.

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