Colossians 2.16ff. is a locus classicus for discussing the Protestant doctrine of adiaphora, or things indifferent.1 In his commentary on Colossians (1566), Niels Hemmingsen provides a convenient treatment of the issue in his exegesis of the first two verses of the passage. We’ll look at what he has to say over the course of two or three posts.
“Therefore let no one judge you in food and drink, or in a part of a festival day or a New Moon or a sabbath, which are a shadow of future things, but the body is of Christ.”
The conclusion has to do with the cataloging of certain rites that the Judaizing Christians wanted to impose on the Colossians as necessary for salvation and the completion of the gospel. “Let no one,” he says, “judge you.” Do not fear the judgment of any man by which they want to prosecute you as defendants until you are condemned, as if you were violators of the decrees of God. For that which he called “decrees” above, he now expounds by a division of the Mosaic rites–not, indeed, a complete and full one, but rather he leaves the rest to be understood after having named a few general types. For the judgment and the reasoning is the same for all of them. But doesn’t the Word of God commend the choice of foods, festivals, etc. to the people of God? Indeed it does commend them, but in accordance with the time, in order that they might be shadows of future things, that is, obscure representations of the absent Christ. But after the body has come in Christ Jesus, it is not fitting that we pursue shadows. Consequently the vindication of Christian liberty from the Mosaic rites and other human traditions should be observed here.2
- The primary issue for Protestants with respect to ceremonies is always the crucial tanquam necessarios ad salutem ac complementum Evangelii (“as necessary for salvation and the completion of the gospel”). As we shall see in future installments, this caveat does not eliminate ceremonies from the worship of God (corporate human activity is ceremonial by definition, and therefore as long as worship is performed by human beings it will have ceremonies), nor does it tell us anything about particular modes of ordering corporate life–e.g., whether there should be a calendar in the church,3 and so on. It does not mean, that is, that commemorating the Incarnation (say) is illicit or a violation of the Word of God. It does mean that, as soon as someone says, “Participate in this human tradition on pain of eternal damnation,” the prudent man will run in the other direction as though his hair were on fire. This is the issue in Galatians, and it is also the issue in Colossians. Human traditions are not the “decrees of God.”
- After the coming of Christ, the Mosaic rites themselves fall into this category, even though they were not human inventions. These, indeed, were the “decrees of God.” How to account for this? Because they were temporary (ad tempus). That is to say, they were shadows (umbrae), and once the fullness–what Paul calls the “body”–has come, the shadows are done away with. After the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, the ceremonial rites of Moses belong to the same category as other human traditions: they cannot be imposed as necessary for salvation and the completion of the gospel. Were there circumstances in which the Apostles allowed some liberty in the observance of the old rites, at least for a time? Yes–the most famous example is Paul’s allowing Timothy to be circumcised. But when it became a question of the necessity of such a practice to right standing with God (e.g. in the case of Titus in Galatians 2), Paul was absolutely adamant that no such thing could be tolerated, and that there must be no imposition of Mosaic rites on the Gentiles as a justifying supplement to the gospel. In the classical Protestant tradition, the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the imposition of human traditions as a justifying supplement to the gospel.
In the next post, we shall examine the rules (regulae)4 that, in Hemmingsen’s view, govern the observance of Christian festivals.