A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Monastic Vows

This is part 28 of 29 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XXVII: Of Monastic Vows.

1] 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. 2] 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.

3] Gradually, many other observances were added besides vows. 4] And these fetters were laid upon many before the lawful age, contrary to the Canons.

5] Many also entered into this kind of life through ignorance, being unable to judge their own strength, though they were of sufficient age. 6] Being thus ensnared, they were compelled to remain, even though some could have been freed by the kind provision of the Canons. 7] And this was more the case in convents of women than of monks, although more consideration should have been shown the weaker sex. 8] 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 9] that the authority of the Canons in so momentous a matter was utterly set aside and despised. To 10] 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. 11] 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. 12] 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.”

13] 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. 14] 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.]

15] 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. 16] 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. 17] These things we have rehearsed without odious exaggeration, to the end that the doctrine of our teachers on this point might be better understood.

The Reformers present an overview of monasticism in their day.  Originally monastic orders were for mutual education, study, and reflection.  They were free associations not requiring a vow. However, by the time of the Reformers monastic orders had become something very different.  Parents would put their children into monasteries both to hide them, for political and social reasons, and to gain an extra measure of grace. Those who were in the monastery who wanted to get out could not due to the vows they had taken and lack of mercy on those who had taken vows when they were very young or without full understanding.  In fact, the rules were stricter for women than for men.  As discussed in the section on the Marriage of Priests (Article XXIII), marriages were dissolved or forbidden to monks.  Even worse was the thought that monks were the highest state of Christian perfection.

18] 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. 19] But the commandment of God is 1 Cor. 7:2: To avoid fornication, let every man have 20] 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 21]that the man should be alone. Therefore they do not sin who obey this commandment and ordinance of God.

22] 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 23] 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.

24] 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 25] divine. But the Roman Pontiffs have prudently judged that leniency is to be observed in this obligation, and therefore 26] 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.]

Already discussed much of this in Article XXIII on the Marriage of Priests.  Man-mad ordinances cannot override God’s ordinances.  To do so is to play god.

27] 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, 28] and chosen spontaneously and deliberately? But it is not unknown to what extent perpetual chastity is in the power of man. 29] 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 30] 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.

31] 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. 32] 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. 33] 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 ages.

Vows should be something that is possible to keep.  They should not be made lightly or forced on anyone.  Most monastic vows were taken by minors, those who were not capable of discerning rightly whether or not they could live life as a monk.  Thus by canon law, these vows should have been null and void anyway.

34] 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. 35] 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.

36] 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. 15:9: 37]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.

38] 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? 39] It follows, therefore, that the vows thus commonly taken have been wicked services, and, consequently, are void. 40] 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 wickedness.

41] 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. 42] To those, therefore, who want to be justified by their vows Christ is made of no effect, and they fall from grace. 43] For also these who ascribe justification to vows ascribe to their own works that which properly belongs to the glory of Christ.

44] 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 45] 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! 46] Over and above this, they persuaded men that services of man’s making were a state of Christian perfection. 47] And is not this assigning justification to works? 48] 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 cast before the eyes of men.

In addition, a vow does not dissolve existing marriages.  Even worse these vows and the monastic life were seen as earning salvation.  As previously discussed at length we cannot do this, no work of man can ever hope to bring us justification.

These vows rob Christ of His glory.  They put the salvation of those who take them in jeopardy as they are putting their trust in their vows and not in Christ.  We must believe in Christ alone for our Justification.

49] 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, 50] 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. 51] But the people conceive many pernicious opinions from the false commendations of monastic life. 52] They hear celibacy praised above measure; therefore they lead their married life with offense to their consciences. 53] They hear that only beggars are perfect; therefore they keep their possessions and do business with offense to their consciences. 54] 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 55] not a commandment. Others judge that the Christian cannot properly hold a civil office or be a magistrate.

56] There are on record examples of men who, forsaking marriage and the administration of the Commonwealth, have hid themselves in monasteries. This 57] 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 58] devised by men. A good and perfect kind of life is that which has for it the commandment of God. 59] It is necessary to admonish men of these things.

60] 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.

61] 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.

True service to God is faith.  We are to do good works for our neighbor in the vocations we are in.  This is what true Christian perfection looks like, good works naturally following faith.  We should not point to “super Christians” and think they are somehow more holy than us.  We are all Christians, there are no levels of Christianity (2 Corinthians 5).

Even worse there were some men in the Reformers day who hid in monasteries to escape the world.  We are to be in the world and serve people in it, not flee from it. One cannot reach perfection in this life by becoming a hermit.  Rather we rely solely on Christ and serve our neighbor as best we can. All of the above make monastic vows null and void as all their works are empty and filled with vanity.

The Confutation rejects this article.  The Confutation states that a vow once taken must be kept.  Also, that monasteries are places of good where men and women seek to conform themselves to the evangelical counsels and the Gospel.

The Apology repeats many of the above arguments in more detail.  We will not read them. There is an interesting section on the proper interpretation of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30) who was told by Christ to abandon everything, which the Confutation attempts to use against the Reformers.

40] Again, the Confutation says that the monks merit eternal life the more abundantly, and quotes Scripture, Matt. 19:29: Every one that hath forsaken houses, etc. Accordingly, here, too, it claims perfection also for factitious religious rites. But this passage of Scripture in no way favors monastic life. For Christ does not mean that to forsake parents, wife, brethren, is a work that must be done because it merits the remission of sins and eternal life. Yea, such a forsaking is cursed. For if any one forsakes parents or wife in order by this very work to merit the remission of sins or eternal life, this is done with dishonor to Christ.

41] There is, moreover, a two-fold forsaking. One occurs without a call, without God’s command; this Christ does not approve, Matt. 15:9. For the works chosen by us are useless services. But that Christ does not approve this flight appears the more clearly from the fact that He speaks of forsaking wife and children. We know, however, that God’s commandment forbids the forsaking of wife and children. The forsaking which occurs by God’s command is of a different kind, namely, when power or tyranny compels us either to depart or to deny the Gospel. Here we have the command that we should rather bear injury, that we should rather suffer not only wealth, wife, and children, but even life, to be taken from us. This forsaking Christ approves, and accordingly He adds: For the Gospel’s sake, Mark 10:29, in order to signify that He is speaking not of those who do injury to wife and children, but who bear injury on account of the confession of the Gospel. 42] For the Gospel’s sake we ought even to forsake our body. Here it would be ridiculous to hold that it would be a service to God to kill one’s self, and without God’s command to leave the body. So, too, it is ridiculous to hold that it is a service to God without God’s command to forsake possessions, friends, wife, children.

43] Therefore it is evident that they wickedly distort Christ’s word to a monastic life. Unless perhaps the declaration that they “receive a hundredfold in this life” be in place here. For very many become monks not on account of the Gospel, but on account of sumptuous living and idleness, who find 44] the most ample riches instead of slender patrimonies. But as the entire subject of monasticism is full of shams, so, by a false pretext, they quote testimonies of Scripture, and as a consequence they sin doubly, i.e., they deceive men, and that, too, under the pretext of the divine name.

45] Another passage is also cited concerning perfection Matt. 19:21: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow Me. This passage has exercised many, who have imagined that it is perfection to cast away possessions and the control of property. 46] Let us allow the philosophers to extol Aristippus, who cast a great weight of gold into the sea. [Cynics like Diogenes, who would have no house, but lay in a tub, may commend such heathenish holiness.] Such examples pertain in no way to Christian perfection. [Christian holiness consists in much higher matters than such hypocrisy.] The division, control, and possession of property are civil ordinances, approved by God’s Word in the commandment, Ex. 20:15: Thou shalt not steal. The abandonment of property has no command or advice in the Scriptures. For evangelical poverty does not consist in the abandonment of property, but in not being avaricious, in not trusting in wealth, just as David was poor in a most wealthy kingdom.

47] Therefore, since the abandonment of property is merely a human tradition, it is a useless service. Excessive also are the praises in the Extravagant, which says that the abdication of the ownership of all things for God’s sake is meritorious and holy, and a way of perfection. And it is very dangerous to extol with such excessive praises a matter conflicting with political order. [When inexperienced people hear such commendations, they conclude that it is unchristian to hold property; whence many errors and seditions follow; through such commendations Muentzer was deceived, and thereby many Anabaptists were led astray.] 48] But [they say] Christ here speaks of perfection. Yea, they do violence to the text who quote it mutilated. Perfection is in that which Christ adds: 49] Follow Me. An example of obedience in one’s calling is here presented. And as callings are unlike [one is called to rulership, a second to be father of a family, a third to be a preacher], so this calling does not belong to all, but pertains properly to that person with whom Christ there speaks, just as the call of David to the kingdom, and of Abraham to slay his son, are not to be imitated by us. Callings are personal, just as matters of business themselves vary with times and persons; but the example of obedience is general. 50] Perfection would have belonged to that young man if he had believed and obeyed this vocation. Thus perfection with us is that every one with true faith should obey his own calling. [Not that I should undertake a strange calling for which I have not the commission or command of God.]

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXVII (XIII) 40-50

It all comes back to vocation.  Vocations are given to individuals, not to all.  We are not all pastors, kings, fathers, mothers, employers, etc.  Christ’s calling here only applies to the Rich Young Man, not to all of us.

It is clear from all of this that monasticism, as practiced by the Roman Catholics, is not God-pleasing but an abomination.  That does not mean that there cannot be God-pleasing monks. Rather the fact that the monks escaped from the world and set up new ordinances that contradicted God’s ordinances means that they were not God-pleasing at all.

1 Jesus, priceless treasure,
Fount of purest pleasure,
Truest friend to me.
Ah, how long in anguish
Shall my spirit languish,
Yearning, Lord, for Thee?
Thou art mine,
O Lamb divine!
I will suffer naught to hide Thee,
Naught I ask beside Thee.

2 In Thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking,
Ev’ry heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash
And thunder crash;
yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

3 Satan, I defy thee;
Death, I now decry thee;
Fear, I bid thee cease.
World, thou shalt not harm me
Nor thy threats alarm me
While I sing of peace.
God’s great pow’r
Guards ev’ry hour;
Earth and all its depths adore Him,
Silent bow before Him.

4 Hence, all earthly treasure!
Jesus is my pleasure,
Jesus is my choice.
Hence all empty glory!
Naught to me the story
Told with tempting voice.
Pain or loss,
Or shame or cross,
Shall not from my Savior move me
Since He deigns to love me.

5 Evil world, I leave thee;
Thou canst not deceive me,
Thine appeal is vain.
Sin that once did blind me,
Get thee far behind me,
Come not forth again.
Past thy hour,
O pride and pow’r;
Sinful life, thy bonds I sever,
Leave thee now forever.

6 Hence, all fear and sadness!
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within.
Yea, whate’er
I here must bear,
Thou art still my purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless treasure!

(LSB 743)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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