Anyone who lives in a metropolitan area of the United States can have almost any kind of food delivered to their doorstep within minutes and can post about it immediately on social media for the world to see and critique. Food is no longer just about sustenance, but a qualitative means by which we gain (or lose) righteousness in this life. We judge ourselves and others by our food practices, including our adherence to specific diets, means of food preparation, and even global food adventures.
Who has not heard someone wax eloquently about what foods they do and do not eat? Who has not clicked on a post telling them to “eat this, not that?” Besides, who has not felt guilty about themselves based on whether or not they are eating the right thing, or spent time considering whether their diet should include meat or no meat, carbs or no carbs, whole grains or no grains?
A colleague struggling with pre-diabetic symptoms, perplexed at the plethora of information and/or misinformation about what foods to eat or not to eat, recently expressed to me his frustration, saying exasperatedly, “Maybe I just shouldn’t eat anything. Maybe that would solve my dilemma of what is okay for me to eat!” It’s not that my friend wanted to give up on his health, but he was clearly exhausted from the judgment that so clearly accompanied his food choices. Any of us could easily become overwhelmed by such weariness, and it’s not a stretch to see how food can become the basis of one’s sense of worth and even of one’s righteousness. In this contemporary context in which people so often judge themselves and others on the basis of what they eat, Philip Melanchthon’s words in the article of the Augsburg Confession, “On the Distinction of Foods” come as truly refreshing, good news.
Both consist of the same thing at their heart: they burden consciences unnecessarily over a false sense of righteousness from what Christians eat or don’t eat.
In the year 2030, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession by the first generation of Lutherans to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire . The significance of this event for Protestants as the first declaration of religious liberty should not be underestimated. If the 2017 anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses is anything to go by, this anniversary will be marked by celebrations around the world. As a theologian, I hope that this anniversary will generate renewed interest in God’s justification of sinners as the central theme in Christian teaching and life. Certainly, the “chief article,” Article IV, which states that God receives sinners by faith alone in Christ’s work for them, stands as the heart and soul of this confession . Other important articles on the nature of the Church, the sacraments, worship, and civil affairs all flow from this central teaching. If there is an article in the Augsburg Confession that seems minor, it would be Article XXVI, “On the Distinction of Foods.” The great Danish commentator on the Augsburg Confession, Leif Grane, goes so far as to argue that this article is redundant, as it says nothing that is not already said in spirit in Article XV, “Concerning Church Rites” . It seems that XXVI is relatively unimportant compared to other articles of the Christian faith. After all, what could be more theologically mundane than food?
Yet the popularity of food piety, the idea that one can be considered righteous or should be judged by what they eat or do not eat, has posed a theological problem for Christianity from the time of the New Testament. At the Jerusalem council of the earliest Church, Luke records in Acts 15 that Jewish Christians were judging their Gentile brothers and sisters on the basis of their diet, something that Paul would speak against repeatedly in his letters, especially Galatians and Colossians. Throughout the Middle Ages, the medieval Catholic Church championed the dietary asceticism of monastics as the ideal of Christian spirituality and also bound the consciences of lay Christians with all manner of restrictive food regulations. Both Melanchthon and Martin Luther repeatedly wrote and preached against this spirituality of food as a phony piety that obscures the Gospel, and they felt it dangerous enough to faith that it warranted its own article in the first Protestant confession of faith.
As food and dietary requirements remain very popular topics in our day, and as contemporary Christians may feel their own consciences unnecessarily bound, perhaps it would be helpful for us to take a closer look at this seemingly insignificant article.
Melanchthon follows Jesus, who proclaims in Matthew 15:11 that it is not the food that goes into one’s stomach but the confession that comes from the heart that condemns or justifies one, and Paul who in Colossians 2, rebukes those who judge themselves and bond the consciences of others on the basis of dietary restrictions. The reformer reproaches the food piety rampant in medieval monasticism, which prohibited eating certain kinds of foods and preached an elitist asceticism as the way for the super spiritual to merit God’s favor and salvation in place of the Gospel of God’s salvation of sinners in Jesus Christ. This kind of food piety unnecessarily burdened the consciences of the faithful, making them try harder and harder to merit salvation through their own efforts . The parallels between this food piety of the Middle Ages and the dietary obsession of our own day is not difficult to draw. Both consist of the same thing at their heart: they burden consciences unnecessarily over a false sense of righteousness from what Christians eat or don’t eat.
Our righteousness and the righteousness of our neighbor have nothing to do with what we eat or do not eat.
Melanchthon argues that such fake piety displaces the humble trust of faith in God’s promise as the only right way to have a relationship with God, and puts the focus on the actions and choices of the self, rather than on Christ and His finished work as the true object of such faith . Melanchthon then reprimands those who judge others according to what they eat or do not eat. Quoting Paul’s assertion in Romans 14:17 that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink,” Melanchthon insists that it is contrary to the Gospel to “bind consciences” over matters of food. Simply put, Melanchthon insists that it is unchristian to judge oneself or one’s neighbor on the basis of what they eat, going so far as to label such false piety “demonic,” on account of its drawing attention away from faith in Christ .
Melanchthon is clear, however, that he is not condoning drunkenness, gluttony, and sloth, insisting that it is important that Christians discipline their bodies, exercise, and work honestly in society . Like Martin Luther, who earlier in The Freedom of a Christian emphasized that Christians should discipline and care for their bodies, Melanchthon teaches that one should practice self-control and restraint in this life . There is no problem with Christians trying to eat healthfully and caring for their bodies through observing a healthy diet. In fact, these are good and proper things for Christians to do. The problem, says Melanchthon, arises when they judge themselves or their neighbors on the basis of food and dietary choices rather than recognize that they have already been judged as righteous by God for the sake of Jesus Christ .
In a food-obsessed society in which Christians may feel overwhelmed by competing dietary demands and consciences that may become bound over such demands, Melanchthon’s words in the Augsburg Confession call us back to the One who alone makes us righteous: Jesus Christ. As we approach the 500th anniversary of this confession, we follow Melanchthon’s teaching to let God reception of sinners by faith alone in Christ’s work for them remain the chief article not only in the confession, but also in our Christian lives. Following this teaching, we should always keep before us the finished work of Christ and never bind our own conscience or anyone else’s to some well-intentioned but ultimately harmful, food piety. Our righteousness and the righteousness of our neighbor have nothing to do with what we eat or do not eat, what diets we may or may not follow, or with any choices we make or things we accomplish. Instead, our righteousness and that of our neighbor rests solely on what Jesus has done by his death and resurrection. May the Holy Spirit ever increase in us the firm trust of faith in that divine and finished work, amen.