Friday, February 06, 2004

Lutheran Monasticism

Lutheran Monasticism

Article XXVII: Of Monastic Vows.

What is taught on our part concerning Monastic Vows, will be
better understood if it be remembered what has been the state
of the monasteries, and how many things were daily done in
those very monasteries, contrary to the Canons. In Augustine's
time they were free associations. Afterward, when discipline
was corrupted, vows were everywhere added for the purpose of
restoring discipline, as in a carefully planned prison.

Gradually, many other observances were added besides vows. And
these fetters were laid upon many before the lawful age,
contrary to the Canons.

Many also entered into this kind of life through ignorance,
being unable to judge their own strength, though they were of
sufficient age. Being thus ensnared, they were compelled to
remain, even though some could have been freed by the kind
provision of the Canons. And this was more the case in
convents of women than of monks, although more consideration
should have been shown the weaker sex. This rigor displeased
many good men before this time, who saw that young men and
maidens were thrown into convents for a living. They saw what
unfortunate results came of this procedure, and what scandals
were created, what snares were cast upon consciences! They
were grieved that the authority of the Canons in so momentous
a matter was utterly set aside and despised. To these evils
was added such a persuasion concerning vows as, it is well
known, in former times displeased even those monks who were
more considerate. They taught that vows were equal to Baptism;
they taught that by this kind of life they merited forgiveness
of sins and justification before God. Yea, they added that the
monastic life not only merited righteousness before God but
even greater things, because it kept not only the precepts,
but also the so-called "evangelical counsels."

Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism
was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was
more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of
pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance
with God's commands, without any man-made services. None of
these things can be denied; for they appear in their own
books. [Moreover, a person who has been thus ensnared and has
entered a monastery learns little of Christ.]

What, then, came to pass in the monasteries? Aforetime they
were schools of theology and other branches, profitable to the
Church; and thence pastors and bishops were obtained. Now it
is another thing. It is needless to rehearse what is known to
all. Aforetime they came together to learn; now they feign
that it is a kind of life instituted to merit grace and
righteousness; yea, they preach that it is a state of
perfection, and they put it far above all other kinds of life
ordained of God. These things we have rehearsed without odious
exaggeration, to the end that the doctrine of our teachers on
this point might be better understood.

First, concerning such as contract matrimony, they teach on
our part that it is lawful for all men who are not fitted for
single life to contract matrimony, because vows cannot annul
the ordinance and commandment of God. But the commandment of
God is 1 Cor. 7, 2: To avoid fornication, let every man have
his own wife. Nor is it the commandment only, but also the
creation and ordinance of God, which forces those to marry who
are not excepted by a singular work of God, according to the
text Gen. 2, 18: It is not good that the man should be alone.
Therefore they do not sin who obey this commandment and
ordinance of God.

What objection can be raised to this? Let men extol the
obligation of a vow as much as they list, yet shall they not
bring to pass that the vow annuls the commandment of God. The
Canons teach that the right of the superior is excepted in
every vow; [that vows are not binding against the decision of
the Pope;] much less, therefore, are these vows of force which
are against the commandments of God.

Now, if the obligation of vows could not be changed for any
cause whatever, the Roman Pontiffs could never have given
dispensation for it is not lawful for man to annul an
obligation which is simply divine. But the Roman Pontiffs have
prudently judged that leniency is to be observed in this
obligation, and therefore we read that many times they have
dispensed from vows. The case of the King of Aragon who was
called back from the monastery is well known, and there are
also examples in our own times. [Now, if dispensations have
been granted for the sake of securing temporal interests, it
is much more proper that they be granted on account of the
distress of souls.]

In the second place, why do our adversaries exaggerate the
obligation or effect of a vow when, at the same time, they
have not a word to say of the nature of the vow itself, that
it ought to be in a thing possible, that it ought to be free,
and chosen spontaneously and deliberately? But it is not
unknown to what extent perpetual chastity is in the power of
man. And how few are there who have taken the vow
spontaneously and deliberately! Young maidens and men, before
they are able to judge, are persuaded, and sometimes even
compelled, to take the vow. Wherefore it is not fair to insist
so rigorously on the obligation, since it is granted by all
that it is against the nature of a vow to take it without
spontaneous and deliberate action.

Most canonical laws rescind vows made before the age of
fifteen; for before that age there does not seem sufficient
judgment in a person to decide concerning a perpetual life.
Another Canon, granting more to the weakness of man, adds a
few years; for it forbids a vow to be made before the age of
eighteen. But which of these two Canons shall we follow? The
most part have an excuse for leaving the monasteries, because
most of them have taken the vows before they reached these

Finally, even though the violation of a vow might be censured,
yet it seems not forthwith to follow that the marriages of
such persons must be dissolved. For Augustine denies that they
ought to be dissolved (XXVII. Quaest. I, Cap. Nuptiarum), and
his authority is not lightly to be esteemed, although other
men afterwards thought otherwise.

But although it appears that God's command concerning marriage
delivers very many from their vows, yet our teachers introduce
also another argument concerning vows to show that they are
void. For every service of God, ordained and chosen of men
without the commandment of God to merit justification and
grace, is wicked, as Christ says Matt. 16, 9: In vain do they
worship Me with the commandments of men. And Paul teaches
everywhere that righteousness is not to be sought from our own
observances and acts of worship, devised by men, but that it
comes by faith to those who believe that they are received by
God into grace for Christ's sake.

But it is evident that monks have taught that services of
man's making satisfy for sins and merit grace and
justification. What else is this than to detract from the
glory of Christ and to obscure and deny the righteousness of
faith? It follows, therefore, that the vows thus commonly
taken have been wicked services, and, consequently, are void.
For a wicked vow, taken against the commandment of God, is not
valid; for (as the Canon says) no vow ought to bind men to

Paul says, Gal. 5, 4: Christ is become of no effect unto you,
whosoever of you are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from
grace. To those, therefore, who want to be justified by their
vows Christ is made of no effect, and they fall from grace.
For also these who ascribe justification to vows ascribe to
their own works that which properly belongs to the glory of

Nor can it be denied, indeed, that the monks have taught that,
by their vows and observances, they were justified, and
merited forgiveness of sins, yea, they invented still greater
absurdities, saying that they could give others a share in
their works. If any one should be inclined to enlarge on these
things with evil intent, how many things could he bring
together whereof even the monks are now ashamed! Over and
above this, they persuaded men that services of man's making
were a state of Christian perfection. And is not this
assigning justification to works? It is no light offense in
the Church to set forth to the people a service devised by
men, without the commandment of God, and to teach that such
service justifies men. For the righteousness of faith, which
chiefly ought to be taught in the Church, is obscured when
these wonderful angelic forms of worship, with their show of
poverty, humility, and celibacy, are east before the eyes of

Furthermore, the precepts of God and the true service of God
are obscured when men hear that only monks are in a state of
perfection. For Christian perfection is to fear God from the
heart, and yet to conceive great faith, and to trust that for
Christ's sake we have a God who has been reconciled, to ask of
God, and assuredly to expect His aid in all things that,
according to our calling, are to be done; and meanwhile, to be
diligent in outward good works, and to serve our calling. In
these things consist the true perfection and the true service
of God. It does not consist in celibacy, or in begging, or in
vile apparel. But the people conceive many pernicious opinions
from the false commendations of monastic life. They hear
celibacy praised above measure; therefore they lead their
married life with offense to their consciences. They hear that
only beggars are perfect; therefore they keep their
possessions and do business with offense to their consciences.
They hear that it is an evangelical counsel not to seek
revenge; therefore some in private life are not afraid to take
revenge, for they hear that it is but a counsel, and not a
commandment. Others judge that the Christian cannot properly
hold a civil office or be a magistrate.

There are on record examples of men who, forsaking marriage
and the administration of the Commonwealth, have hid
themselves in monasteries. This they called fleeing from the
world, and seeking a kind of life which would be more pleasing
to God. Neither did they see that God ought to be served in
those commandments which He Himself has given and not in
commandments devised by men. A good and perfect kind of life
is that which has for it the commandment of God. It is
necessary to admonish men of these things.

And before these times, Gerson rebukes this error of the monks
concerning perfection, and testifies that in his day it was a
new saying that the monastic life is a state of perfection.

So many wicked opinions are inherent in the vows, namely, that
they justify, that they constitute Christian perfection, that
they keep the counsels and commandments, that they have works
of supererogation. All these things, since they are false and
empty, make vows null and void.

I've been providing the full text of the AC articles rather than links for the sake of the reader. If you prefer hypertext links, just let me know, and in the future I'll oblige.

I'm weighing in on this one for some personal reasons. First, one of my closest friends is currently a novitiate in an Orthodox monastic order in Arizona. After a long and painful process of vocational discernment, he has finally found comfort finding himself in the hands of this God who has called him to this vocation. Furthermore, as a subscriber to the rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity, I recognize that orders and rules properly employed can further the gospel and the life of the church. Our Lutheran monastic brothers in Michigan would argue the same.

As Matthew recognizes in the previous post, it is the abuses of monastic vows that are at issue in this article. Abuse #1: trapping young people in the monasteries even if their vocational discernment led them elsewhere. This went against papal canons. It was an intra-Catholic abuse. Abuse #2: confusion of proper following of rites with the free gift of justification in Christ. Abuse #3: the monastics learned little of Christ.

Monasticism is a valid manifestation of a person's vocation and sexual practice. In our modern culture we need to recognize religiously the two estates warranted by Scripture- committed monogamous relationships (marriage), and committed lives of celibacy (sometimes manifested in monastic vows). Both are gifts of God.

The article also recognizes that vows are voluntary, not forced. This is in keeping with Aquinas's dictum, "A vow is a promise made to God. However, no one can obligate himself or herself for something in the power of another, but only for what is in his or her own power" (STh II, 2 q. 88, a. 8.)

The article seems a bit extreme on the issue of nullifying the validity of vows. From my perspective, if monastic vows are taken with the same kind of seriousness as any other vocational calling, and not elevated as being more religious than other callings, more salutary or able to save, then they are simply that, vocations. The flip side of this coin would be to find ways to religiously recognize the vocational calling of all Christians, not just monastics and pastors and a few other servants in Christ's church.

I'll leave my final question open to the answers of others, because I have only an hypothesis, not an answer. I believe, hypothetically, the final statement of this article, "Since then all of this is false, useless, and humanly contrived, monastic vows are null and void", is a statement of liberation for those currently trapped by their vows through the legal and religious system of that day, not ours. It was, like the emancipation proclamation, written for those currently bound in slavery to a system from which they sought freedom. Thus it is not a universal declaration or confession nullifying all monastic vows then and in the future, but nullifying false vows that subscribed to the errors mentioned in the article. There would be room, in this understanding, for contemporary monastic vows rightly understood and practiced, even within the Lutheran tradition. Comments?

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