|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
Luther’s rejection of Monasticism
Calvin’s erroneous views on Monasticism
Fr. Georges Florovsky
Emeritus Professor of Eastern Church History Harvard University
In an attempt to acquaint us even further with Protestantism’s persistent opposition towards Monasticism, fr.Georges Florovsky here outlines the views of the heresy leader Calvin, who had essentially copied Luther’s mistakes.
The spread of anti-monasticism as a basic element of every version of Protestantism is attributed both to Calvin as well as Luther – a trend which thoughtlessly ascribed the decadence of Papist monasticism to the monasticism of the East as well.
In one of the more interesting documents of the Reformation, Calvin's The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of his debt to Luther. Calvin wrote this work in 1543. It was, as its subtitle indicates, “A Humble Exhortation to the Most Invincible Emperor Charles V, and the Most Illustrious Princes and other Orders, Now Holding a Diet of the Empire at Spires.” The Diet was to take place in 1544. Calvin completed the work at the end of 1523 so that it would be read at the Diet of Spires. In the very introduction Calvin writes: “We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built...”
In the fourth book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (chapters 12 and thirteen) Calvin systematically discusses the subject of asceticism and monasticism. Calvin, though an opponent of monasticism, does not reject, as did Luther, ascetical forms of spirituality — such as fasting — that were always a part of Christianity. Calvin has a better grasp of history than (lid Luther. Calvin, though a firm believer in predestination, original sin as interpreted by St. Augustine, and irresistible grace, never quite explicitly taught that certitudo salutis — the “certainty of salvation” — of which Luther was so fond. These two factors contributed in some degree to his less radical approach to some ascetical forms of Christian spirituality.
Calvin is far more judicious in his treatment of ascetical elements in the New Testament than was Luther. Calvin does not reject, for example, fasting. But he defines what he considers to be the “proper nature of fasting.” For Calvin there are “three objectives” to “holy and lawful fasting.” Fasting is to “weaken and subdue the flesh that it may not act wantonly, or that we may be better prepared for prayers and holy meditations, or that it may be a testimony of our self-abasement before God when we wish to confess our guilt before him.” Such as statement would not have been written by Luther. In times of calamity “it is the duty of the pastors to urge the church to fasting, in order that by supplication the Lord's wrath may be averted.” And Calvin anticipates an objection. “But, you object, this is an external ceremony which, together with others, ended in Christ. No, it is an excellent aid for believers today (as it always was) and a profitable admonition to arouse them in order that they may not provoke God more and more by their excessive confidence and negligence, when they are chastised by his lashes. Accordingly, Christ, when he excuses his apostles for not fasting, does not say that fasting is abolished, but appoints it for times of calamity and joins it with mourning.”
Calvin then warns against the dangers of fasting. “But we must always take especial precaution lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church. For it would be much more satisfactory it fasting were not practiced at all, than diligently observed and at the same time corrupted with false and pernicious opinions, into which the world repeatedly falls, unless the pastors meet it with the highest faithfulness and prudence... God does not greatly esteem fasting of itself, unless an inner emotion of the heart is present and true displeasure at one's sin, true humility, and true sorrowing arising from the fear of God. Indeed, fasting is not otherwise useful than when it is joined as a lesser help to these. For God abominates nothing more than when men try to disguise themselves by displaying signs and outward appearances in place of innocence of heart... Another evil akin to this, and to be utterly avoided, is to regard fasting as a work of merit or a form of divine worship. For since fasting is in itself a thing indifferent, and should have no importance except for the sake of those ends to which it ought to be directed, a most dangerous superstition is involved in confusing it with works commanded by God and necessary of themselves without any other consideration... There is a third error, not indeed so impious, but still dangerous: to require it to be kept too strictly and rigidly as if it were one of the chief duties, and to extol it with such immoderate praises that men think they have done something noble when they have fasted.”
It is of interest that Calvin rejects the idea that Christ's fasting set an example. “It is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example for others, but to prove, in so beginning to proclaim the gospel, that it was no human doctrine but actually one sent from heaven.” Even if one accepts Calvin's second premise, the first is not necessarily excluded, for in the very act of “going into the desert” an example is necessarily created, regardless of the other theological reasons one may attach to our Lord's forty day withdrawal and his “ordeal.”
Calvin divides his treatment of “vows” into several categories. “It is clear what great superstition over vows plagued the world for centuries. One person vowed that he would be abstemious, as if abstinence from wine were of itself worship pleasing to God. Another bound himself to fasting; a third, to abstinence from meat on certain days, in which he had vainly imagined there was a singular holiness above other days. And some things far more childish were vowed, but not by children. For men esteemed it great wisdom to undertake votive pilgrimages to holier places, and sometimes to make their journey either on foot or half naked, in order to obtain more merit through their weariness... [these] will be deemed not only empty and fleeting but full of manifest impiety.
For, however the flesh may judge it, God hates nothing more than counterfeit worship. Besides, there are these pernicious and damned opinions: hypocrites, when they have performed such follies, believe that they have procured for themselves exceptional righteousness; they place the whole of piety in external observance; and they despise all others who appear less careful of such things.”
“Since monastic vows are held in greater veneration because they seem to be approved by public judgment of the church, we must speak of them briefly.” Calvin then distinguishes the monasticism of his day with that of antiquity. He is under the impression that the main purpose of the monastery was to train persons for the office of bishop, that they were “monastic colleges.” “Pious men customarily prepared themselves by monastic discipline to govern the church, that thus they might be fitter and better trained to undertake so great an office.” Calvin does recognize that the majority of monks were “unlettered” and hence were not suitable candidates. But the central mission and purpose of a monastery was to school those capable to become leaders of the church. Although numerous bishops came from the early monastic movement, it was not the main purpose of the monastic life. Here Calvin is historically inaccurate, though only in part.
Calvin devotes time to summarizing two works by St. Augustine — On the Morals of the Catholic Church and On the Work of Monks. Based on St. Augustine's presentation of monasticism, Calvin points out that it deteriorated radically since that time. “I merely wish to indicate in passing not only what sort of monks the ancient church had but what sort of monastic profession then existed. Thus intelligent readers may judge by comparison the shamelessness of those who claim antiquity to support present monasticism.” Calvin then depicts what he considers to be the monasticism of his time. “Today... they count it an unforgivable crime for anyone to depart even in the slightest degree from what is prescribed in color or appearance of clothing, in kind of food, or in other trifling and cold ceremonies. Augustine stoutly contends that it is not lawful for monks to live upon others in idleness... Our present-day monks find in idleness the chief part of their, sanctity. For if you take idleness away from them, where will that contemplative life be, in which they boast they excel all others and draw nigh to the angels?... Our monks are not content with that piety to which Christ enjoins his followers to attend with unremitting zeal. Instead, they dream up some new sort of piety to meditate upon in order to become more perfect than all other people... Am I not ignorant of their sophistical solution: that monasticism is not to be called perfect because it contains perfection within itself, but because it is the best way of all to attain perfection.” Here Calvin has specifically a text from Thomas Aquinas in mind. “When they would hawk themselves among the common people, when they would lay a snare for untutored and ignorant youths, when they would assert their own privileges, and when they would enhance their own dignity to the reproach of others — they boast that they are in the state of perfection. When they are so closely pressed that they cannot maintain such empty arrogance, they fall back on this dodge — that they have not yet attained perfection, but that they are in such a state that they aspire to it more than all other men. Meanwhile, such admiration of monasticism remains among the people that they think the monastic life alone angelic, perfect, and purged of all fault. On this pretext they engage in the most profitable commerce... But let us deal with them on the assumption that they attribute nothing more to their profession than to call it a state of acquiring perfection. Indeed, in giving it this name they distinguish it from other ways of life as by a special mark. And who can bear such a great honor being given to an institution nowhere approved by even one syllable; and that all other callings of God are regarded as unworthy by comparison, though they have not only been commanded by his own sacred lips, but adorned with noble titles? And how great an injury, I beg of you, is done Co God when some such forgery is preferred to all the kinds of life ordained by him and praised by his own testimony?”
In his analysis of Matthew 19:21 [“If you wish to be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor”] Calvin writes: “I admit that this passage was misunderstood by some of the fathers, and hence arose the affectation of voluntary poverty, by which only those who abandoned all earthly things and devoted themselves naked to Christ were accounted blessed... Yet nothing was more remote from the thought of the fathers than to establish the kind of perfection afterward fabricated by these hooded Sophists so as to set up a double Christianity. For that sacrilegious doctrine had not yet arisen which compares the profession of monasticism to baptism, and even openly declares it a form of second baptism. Who can doubt that the fathers would have abhorred this blasphemy with all their heart?... For every monastery existing today, I say, is a conventicle of schismatics, disturbing the order of the church and cut off from the lawful society of believers... And that it is not an injustice to Christ when some call themselves Benedictines instead of Christians, some Franciscans, some Dominicans; and when they haughtily take to themselves these titles as their profession of religion, while affecting to be different from ordinary Christians!”
“These differences which I have so far recounted between the ancient monks and the monks of our time are not in morals but in the profession itself. Let my readers accordingly remember that I have spoken rather of monasticism than of monks, and noted not those faults which inhere in the life of a few, but those which cannot be separated from the order of living itself. But what use would it be to explain in detail what a great discrepancy there is in their morals? This is clear: that no order of men is more polluted by all sorts of foul vices; nowhere do factions, hatreds, party zeal, and intrigue burn more fiercely. Indeed, in a few monasteries men live chastely, if one must call it chastity where lust is suppressed to the point of not being openly infamous. Yet you will scarcely find one in ten which is not a brothel rather than a sanctuary of chastity. But what sort of frugality is there in their diet? They are fattened just like pigs in a sty. But that they may not complain of my treating them too unkindly, I go no farther.”
Calvin then summarizes his “comparison of ancient and present-day monasticism,” a comparison based not wholly on the totality of monastic life in the ancient Church but based on St. Augustine's two works. It should be pointed out that St. Augustine himself wrote that he saw no better men than those who improved in monasteries and also that he saw no worse men than those who deteriorated in monasteries. This is quoted by Calvin. Yet, Calvin seems to miss the fact that there have always been both types of monks, and that in that regard ancient monasticism was not really essentially different from the monasticism of his day. But Calvin concludes: “I trust I have accomplished my purpose: to show that our hooded friends falsely claim the example of the first church in defense of their profession — since they differ from them as much as apes from men.”
Calvin's most serious position, however, is that he is essentially opposed to monasticism in general. “I frankly admit that even in that ancient form which Augustine commends there is something that I do not like very much... they were not without immoderate affectation and perverse zeal.” He continues: “It is a beautiful thing to philosophize in retirement, far from intercourse with men. But it is not the part of Christian meekness, as if in hatred of the human race, to flee to the desert and the wilderness and at the same time to forsake those duties which the Lord has especially commanded... it was surely no slight evil that it brought a useless and dangerous example into the church.”
In his consideration of the monastic vows Calvin becomes more negative. “Because it is their intention to establish a new and forged worship to merit God's favor, I conclude from the above evidence that whatever they vow is abominable in God's sight... because they invent any mode of life they please without regard for God's call, and without God's approval, Ô say that this is a rash and therefore unlawful enterprise. For their conscience has nothing to sustain it before God and 'whatever is not of faith is sin'. Moreover, when they bind themselves to many acts of worship at once perverted and impious, which present-day monasticism includes within itself, I contend that they are consecrated not to God but to an evil spirit... [the monks] wrap themselves in a cowl and a thousand impious superstitions.”
Calvin is opposed to the vow of “perpetual virginity to God” because God does not require this of everyone, for it is only “given” to some people. His point is that it is arrogance for someone to think he or she has been given the gift — since not all who enter a monastery have been “given” the gift, it is blatant pride and arrogance on the part of those who do not have the gift to enter a monastery. He further is opposed to the fact that the vow could not be broken. “This practice, they say, was observed from time immemorial: that those who wished to dedicate themselves completely to the Lord should bind themselves by a vow of continence. I admit, of course, that this custom was allowed in ancient times, but I do not grant that that age was so free of all defect that whatever was done then must be taken as the rule. Then there gradually crept in that inexorable severity by which, after the vow was made, no place was left for repentance.” Calvin's point is that there should have been some means for releasing someone from a vow if that person found he could not bear the celibate life. The cure would be to marry. But it is precisely that cure, exclaims Calvin, that was denied.
Calvin's main point is this: “But to remove every misgiving at once, I say that all unlawful or improperly conceived vows, as they are of no value before God, should be invalid for us... It is absurd to hold us to fulfill what God does not require of us; especially since our works are right only when they please God and have the testimony of conscience that they please him. For this principle remains: 'Whatever is not of faith is sin'... Since rashly made vows are of this sort, they not only bind nothing but must of necessity be rescinded. But what of the fact that they are accounted not only worthless in God's sight but also an abomination to him?... all works that do not flow from a pure fountain and are not directed to a lawful end are repudiated by God, and so repudiated that he forbids us not less to continue in them than to begin them. From this it follows that those vows which arise from error and superstition are of no value before God and must also be abandoned by us.”
“And though I should remain silent, experience speaks. For it is not unknown with what great impurity almost all monasteries swarm. And if any seem more decent and more modest than the rest, they are not for this reason chaste, for the evil of unchastity, though repressed and confined, remains within.”
Calvin's theological emphasis is different than Luther's. This is not the place to examine exhaustively the theology of Calvin and Luther. It is sufficient to call attention to Luther's emphasis on the certitudo salutis and Calvin's emphasis on the fear of God. Both, however, believe in predestination to salvation and damnation, in irresistible grace, and in the total depravity of man — in St. Augustine's interpretation of original sin. Both in essence oppose ascetical and monastic forms of spirituality. Luther rejects them totally; Calvin is more judicious. Yet, in Calvin's total theological vision his allowance for certain “proper forms” of fasting and his distinction of lawful and unlawful vows is theologically and ultimately meaningless. He is simply forced to deal with the real spiritual life of persons and hence he realizes that in human ontology certain ascetical practices can be of value. But if this is transferred to the theological vision of Calvin it is without meaning, for man is predestined by the arbitrary and eternal will of God.
Calvin's knowledge of the history of the early Church was better than Luther's. Calvin has some regard for the Church Fathers, although his knowledge is also sorely limited, as evidenced in his debate with Sadoleto. And as it was with Luther, so also is it with Calvin — it is St. Augustine who is the central authority from the Church Fathers. One scholar has actually counted the number of times Calvin quotes St. Augustine, a number which is staggering.
Without Luther there would not have been a Calvin, as Calvin himself acknowledges. Both share the doctrine of justification by faith “alone.” Both share the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, as specifically defined by them — that God alone operates a system of salvation that is mono-energism, not synergism. Both firmly believe that man in himself has no value to God. Any value of man is “imputed” to man by God by a type of divine fiction whereby God looks at man through Jesus Christ and, instead of seeing the real human person, sees Jesus Christ, whom that man has acknowledged as his vehicle of salvation by faith, by believing in Christ. The “new understanding” of Luther, transmitted to Calvin and other Reformers, was one which in the deepest theological sense created a fiction of the entire redemptive process.
From its theological presuppositions ascetical and monastic forms of spirituality simply had to be rejected. They did not fit into their understanding of an authentic synergistic process of redemption, a process that is New Testamental, a process upheld by the Church from the beginning. In rejecting monasticism Luther was rejecting the entire system of Roman Catholic theology which existed in his time. Neither Luther nor Calvin had any knowledge of that Christianity which had existed in the Greek East and had developed on a quite different course than the theology of the West. That Greek Patristic and Byzantine theology unknown to Luther and Calvin could have informed the great debate in the early stages of the Reformation. Perhaps the outcome would have been different. But that was not the case. Reformation theology was already “carved out” by the time of the discussions between Patriarch Jeremias and the Lutheran Divines. And this discussion bears witness that there was not only a different language of theology spoken by each side but a fundamentally different theology of God, man, and salvation.
In the following presentation of the development of ascetical and monastic forms of spirituality there is no pretense that all was purity, that the Byzantine East did not have problems of its own, that excesses did not exist, that often language may come across as sounding as though the ascetics and monks are attempting to “win” the favor of God. But this “winning” of the favor of God is no different from the language used by our Lord, by the Apostles, by the early Church, and by Luther and Calvin when they are forced to deal with man realistically. In the totality of the theology of Eastern and Byzantine monasticism it was a presupposition that everything was a gift of God.
Article published in English on: 10-12-2007.
Last update: 10-12-2007.