Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church

St. Bernard was an abbot for thirty-six years, during which time he founded one hundred and sixty monasteries of his order. Now, one knows what kind of monasteries the Cistercians have. At that time, perhaps, they may have been smaller, but today they are regular principalities. And I will say even more: at that time, that is, under the reign of the emperors Henry III, IV, and V, within the span of twenty years, four different princely monastic orders came into being—the Grandmontines, the Reformed Regular Canons, the Carthusians, and the Cistercians. And what do you suppose happened in the four hundred years since then? I truly believe that one could well say it rained and snowed monks—and it would be no wonder if there were no city or village today without a monastery or two, or at least a terminary or stationary……

The world wants to be fooled. If you wish to catch many robins and other birds, you must place an owl or a screech owl on the trap or lime-rod, and you will succeed. Similarly, when the devil wants to trap Christians, he must put on a cowl, or (as Christ calls it) a sour, hypocritical expression [Matt. 6:16]. Thus we stand in greater awe of such owls and screech owls than of the true suffering, blood, wounds, death, and resurrection, which we see and hear of in Christ, our Lord, endured because of our sin. So we fall, in throngs and with all our might, away from our Christian faith and into the new holiness, that is, into the devil’s trap and lime-rod. For we always must have something new. Christ’s death and resurrection, faith and love, are old and just ordinary things; that is why they must count for nothing, and so we must have new wheedlers (as St. Paul says). And this serves us right since our ears itch so much for something new that we can no longer endure the old and genuine truth, “that we accumulate,” that we weigh ourselves down with big piles of new teachings. That is just what has happened and will continue to happen. For the subsequent councils, especially the papal ones (for afterward they are almost all papal), did not merely refrain from condemning these new good works, but exalted them throughout the world far above the good old works, so that the pope canonized or elevated many saints from the monastic orders.

At first it was rather nice to look at—and still is—but in the end it becomes an abominable, monstrous thing, since everyone adds to it from day to day. Thus, the beginning of St. Francis’ order looked fine, but now it has become so crude that they even put cowls on the dead so that the dead might be saved in them. Isn’t it terrible to hear that? Well, that is the way it goes: if one starts to fall away from Christ and gets into the habit of falling, one can no longer stop…..That is what the new holiness does and must do because it wants to do better than the true, old Christian holiness, which does not fool like this, but remains constant and always exercises itself in faith, love, humility, discipline, patience, etc.; one sees in it nothing abominable, but only lovely, charming, peaceful, kind, and useful examples that please God and man. But the new holiness blusters with a peculiar, new demeanor to entice unsteady souls to itself. It makes a great ado, but there is nothing to it, as St. Peter writes [II Pet. 2:14–22].

Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, LW 41:126-27 (1539)

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