On Things Indifferent (Adiaphora)

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.  Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:  Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”

1 Cor. 10:31-33



Order of Contents

On Liberty in Indifferent Things
All Particular, Human Actions are Good or Evil
Audiaphora in Relation to Worship





Ursinus, Zacharias – ch. 21, ‘Of Things Indifferent’  in Rules & Axioms of Certain Chief Points of Christianity  in A Collection of Certain Learned Discourses…  (Oxford, 1600), pp. 270-71

Ames, William – bk. 3, ch. 18, ‘Of Things Indifferent’  in Conscience with the Power & Cases Thereof  ([Leiden & London] 1639), pp. 88-91

Gillespie, George – A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies...  ([Leiden] 1637), pt. 4, ‘Against the Indifferency of the Ceremonies’

ch. 1, ‘Of our Opposites’ Pleading for the Indifferency of the Ceremonies’

ch. 2, ‘Of the Nature of Things Indifferent’

ch. 3, ‘Whether There be Anything Indifferent In Actu Exercito [In the Exercised Act]?’  No.

“If it be said that the best man who lives ties not himself to these rules, in the use of every indifferent thing, but oftimes uses or omits a thing of that nature at his own pleasure.

I answer:  In many things we offend all.  And who can understand his errors?  But in the mean time, the rules of the Word limit us so strictly that we may never use a thing in its own nature indifferent at our arbitrament and pleasure, and that the use of it is never lawful to us except it be done piously for God’s glory, profitably for man’s edification and purely with full assurance that that which we do is approved of God.” – p. 16

ch. 4, ‘Of the Rule by which we are to measure & try what things are indifferent’

chs. 5-9 treat of particular aspects of the Lord’s Supper & the prelate-ceremonies

Rutherford, Samuel – ‘Whether or Not Things Indifferent Can be Commanded Because [They are] Indifferent?’  in ‘An Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal’  in The Divine Right of Church Government  (1646), pp. 647-656

Wilkinson, Jr., Henry – ‘Wherein are we Endangered by Things Lawful? Luke 17:27,28’  being sermon 22 of volume 1 of Puritan Sermons

Wilkinson, Jr. was a Westminster divine.




Jeanes, Henry – A Treatise Concerning the Indifferency of Human Actions  (Oxford, 1659)  in A second part of The mixture of scholasticall divinity, with practical, in several tractates: wherein some of the most difficult knots in divinity are untyed, many dark places of Scripture cleared…  (Oxford, 1660)

Jeanes (1611-1662) was a conforming, Anglican, puritan clergyman.

Baxter, Richard – Unum Necessarium: or, Christ’s Justification of Mary’s Choice & of his Servants Wrongfully Accused: Containing a Resolution of Many Weighty Cases of Conscience.  Viz. Indifferent Things, Obedience to the Higher Powers, etc.  (London, 1685)



On Liberty in Indifferent Things & Superstition


John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.10.7

“Section 7. Third part of liberty, viz., the free rise of things indifferent.  The knowledge of this part necessary to remove despair and superstition. Superstition described…

The third part of this liberty is that we are not bound before God to any observance of external things which are in themselves indifferent, (“adiafora”) but that we are now at full liberty either to use or omit them. The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition. In the present day many think us absurd in raising a question as to the free eating of flesh, the free use of dress and holidays, and similar frivolous trifles, as they think them; but they are of more importance than is commonly supposed. For when once the conscience is entangled in the net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape.

When a man begins to doubt whether it is lawful for him to use linen for sheets, shirts, napkins, and handkerchiefs, he will not long be secure as to hemp, and will at last have doubts as to tow; for he will revolve in his mind whether he cannot sup without napkins, or dispense with handkerchiefs. Should he deem a daintier food unlawful, he will afterwards feel uneasy for using loafbread and common eatables, because he will think that his body might possibly be supported on a still meaner food. If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarcely drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will not dare to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way.

For it is no trivial dispute that is here commenced, the point in debate being, whether the use of this thing or that is in accordance with the divine will, which ought to take precedence of all our acts and counsels. Here some must by despair be hurried into an abyss, while others, despising God and casting off his fear, will not be able to make a way for themselves without ruin. When men are involved in such doubts whatever be the direction in which they turn, every thing they see must offend their conscience.”



All Particular, Rational, Human Actions are Good or Evil


William Ames

pp. 89-91  of bk. 3, ch. 18, ‘Of Things Indifferent’  in Conscience with the Power & Cases Thereof  ([Leiden & London] 1639)

“Question 6.  Whether any singular and individual action be indifferent?

10th Answer.  First, there be some actions which though they be actions of a man, yet they are not humane actions; such are those which proceed from imagination only, and not from deliberate reason, as the rubbings of men’s hands, to scratch the head or beard, to take up a straw, etc. while we are thinking of something else: these actions are not morally good or evil, they want that which is required to make them so, namely counsel and deliberation.  For although a man may sin by those actions, as if in time of prayer he suffer his imagination to wander, and do give way to such toyings as those.

Yet these actions considered in themselves are neither good nor evil.  It is true these motions are subject to the command of man’s will, but yet they are so subject that they may be exercised without any precedent act of reason: Neither are we bound any further by reason to prevent them; but only so far that they hinder not the duties we are about.  So for moving of the eyelids, reason and the will have power to moderate them, but it is not worth the while to take notice how often we wink, if so be we take heed that in such things nothing be done which is indecent, or against our duty.

11.  Secondly, every action which proceeds from deliberate reason and is properly called human, considered singularly and in the individual, as it is an exercised action, is either good or evil.  For such a kind of action is either ordered to a good end, or it is not; If it be, then it has the nature of a good action, if other circumstances be correspondent; if it be not ordered to a good end, it is an evil action because it wants the perfection which ought to be in it, and is not according to its rule.

12.  Yet is not required to the goodness of natural action that it be always actually and explicitly referred to the due end, so that this [at least] be done implicity and virtually; because reason in that exercise of such kind of actions, may often with more profit be conversant about those objects.

13.  Thirdly, some one or two circumstances of an human action may be indifferent, as if one scholar be speaking with another, it is sometimes indifferent whether they use the Latin tongue, or any other.  But their talk taken with all the circumstances is necessarily either good or bad: the reason is, because the determination of an action does not depend upon one circumstance apart, but upon all jointly together.

14.  Fourthly, there may be some singular action in which there is no goodness-special to be found, which may not be found in another, and so, that at this time we do this or that, rather than another thing, therein is ofttimes neither good nor evil.  Opportunity, or the suggestion of our minds, without any respect of moral goodness, may be of weight sufficient to make the determination.

15.  Fifthly, although therefore there be no singular actions-human, that is neither good, nor evil; yet there are diverse, which singularly and in comparison of others, are neither necessary nor unlawful.  For as the carver oftentimes has no certain reason why he rather makes this image than that: yet if he make any, it is necessary that he either follow the rules of his art and make a good one, or fail and so make a bad one.  So it is in many singular actions of men, which in respect of the exercise, have no proper reason beside the inclination of the mind, but in the doing they are either good or bad.”


Samuel Rutherford

‘An Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal’  in The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), p. 653

“It is a contradiction that an action-individual should be indifferent, and so neither good nor evil, and yet done in faith and referred to God’s glory: For the ground of doing, which is faith, and the end, which is God’s glory, are individual properties necessarily concurring to the individuation of the action-moral.

2.  An action-individual that is merely indifferent, and so without sin, may be performed without sin or omitted without sin, cannot be an action of faith referred to God’s glory: For what may be done without sin and may not be done without sin, is a will-action, and wants all necessity of reason, and so is an idle and sinful action; but a sinful action may be done in fancy, but in faith it cannot be done; it may in the vain intention of the doer be referred to God’s glory, in intentione erronea operantis, but ex conditione operis, according to the nature of the work, it serves not for God’s glory.

This way to cast stones in the water [for example], should be of faith, and referred to God’s glory: But shall I believe I am doing in faith and glorifying God when I am casting stones in the water, and I have as good reason not to cast at all?  If one will-action that may be done, and may not be done, may be of faith and referred to God’s glory, then may they all be of faith and referred to God’s glory: This is a laughter, rather than divinity.

3. I cannot believe that an action that has as good reason to be omitted as to be done, can be acceptable to God, because I have no ground for my faith; for my faith here leans neither on Scripture nor on Reason; but there is no reason why the action should rather be, nor not be, because it is indifferent; yea, crossing and kneeling [as worship] of themselves shall be of faith, because I believe them to be of faith: But it is a vain thing to say that faith makes its object.

4. There are no actions in the world but they have all their moral necessity from their intrinsic goodness: For from whence is it necessary to love God, but from the intrinsic goodness that the love of God has from God’s command?  For there is no necessity an action to be at all; yea, it is idle and superfluous if there be no goodness in it at all.  If then crossing and kneeling (laying aside the respect of humane laws commanding them) have no necessity-moral from any commandment of God why they should be at all, their necessity must be all from man’s will: this is tyranny in rulers for their sole pleasure to command under the heaviest pain things that have no necessity at all but their will.

5.  Neither is it any yoke to men’s conscience, to square all their moral-action by God’s Word and so to see (‘according as it is written’) before they venture upon any action-moral.  It is liberty to keep God’s way accurately.”



Gillespie, George – ‘Whether there be Any Thing Indifferent in Actu Exercito [in the Exercised Act]?’  in English Popish Ceremonies (1637), pt, 4, ch. 3



Adiaphora in Relation to Worship


Bagshawe, Edward – The Great Question concerning Things Indifferent in Religious Worship, briefly Stated, and Tendered to the Consideration of All Sober and Impartial Men, pt. 1, 2, 3  (London, 1660, 1661, 1662)

Bagshawe (1629-1671) was a non-conforming, puritan.   Richard Baxter criticized Bagshaw as “an Anabaptist, Fifth Monarchy man, and a Separatist”.

Bagshawe “was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where John Locke was also, when Bagshaw was a student (i.e. Fellow of the college).  Locke’s Two Tracts on Government, representing more orthodox views of the time, were intended as replies to Bagshaw’s views on religious toleration, published as, The Great Question concerning Things Indifferent in Religious Worship in 1659.” – Wikipedia




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