January 20, 2017

Another Look: What Matters: Baptism and Vocation

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Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism. . . .

. . . 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.

• Augsburg Confession, Article XXVII

• • •

One of the contributions that Martin Luther and the other Reformers made was to overturn the idea that there are distinctions between Christians; that some are elite and advanced before God while others are simply ordinary, lesser believers.

It was the influence of the monastic institutions in the Church that led to this kind of thinking. Ordinary Christians were called to keep God’s commandments. However, monks and nuns also made vows to observe special counsels such as poverty, chastity, and obedience to their order’s rule of discipline. Separating themselves from ordinary communities, they established their own cloistered centers of prayer, work, study, and ascetic practices. This led to the common perception that those who chose monastic vocations were engaged in a life that was higher than that of ordinary women and men, and that they were on a special path to “perfection,” which was unavailable outside the cloister.

Many people have the idea that the Reformers simply rejected monasticism whole-hog. On the surface, the subsequent history of Protestantism lends credence to this, for the Protestant churches have not traditionally fostered monastic movements within themselves. However, as Dorothea Wendebourg tells us in her essay, “Luther on Monasticism,” the reality is more complicated than that.

First of all, she reminds us that, without monasticism there would have been no Reformation. As she observes,

. . . to a large extent these men [i.e. the Reformers] owed to monasticism the spiritual impulses that made them reformers. The vision of the Christian life and of the church with which they confronted the church of their time was inspired by the ideals and insights that had been shaped in the course of their monastic lives.

• The Pastoral Luther, p. 328

Second, she reminds us that Luther remained a monk until the age of forty-one. He wore the monk’s habit during the most important years of his life, when the Reformation was taking off and gaining steam. Some of his spiritual heroes, such as St. Francis and St. Bernard of Clairvaux were founders of monastic orders. It was, indeed, Luther’s experience as a monk that led him to feel personal anguish about his inability to find comfort before God. After years of study, he came to see that his spiritual life had been built upon a false foundation. The way to peace with God is not through achieving perfection, but through faith in Christ, which unites us to him who is perfect.

This experience led Luther to view the monastic life differently, for now he came to understand that “spiritual perfection” is not simply for those who have taken special vows, but for all baptized people in all walks of life. Wendebourg writes,

Therefore what the monk Martin Luther had discovered as the prerequisite for undivided love and devotion is valid not only for monks and nuns, but also for every Christian. Undivided love and devotion are the fruit of faith. And since it is through the sacrament of baptism that Christ’s becoming one with humanity (which finds its realization in faith) comes about, undivided love and devotion are the fruit of baptism. Luther had recognized fairly early that the decisive step is not entering the monastic life, but baptism. It is in baptism that we receive holiness; holier we cannot become. Therefore it is baptism from which springs a holy life. When he receives the sacrament of baptism, the Christian pledges to lead such a holy life: he promises “to slay sin and to become holy.” This is true of all Christians. “In baptism we all make one and the same vow: to slay sin and to become holy through the work and grace of God, to whom we yield and offer ourselves, as clay to the potter. In this no one is in a better position than another.” [from Luther’s Works] Hence the monk is not in a “better position” than he who leads a secular life; a Christian wife and mother pleases God no less than a monk, perhaps even more. (p. 334)

For many Protestants, this insight spells the end of monasticism, and they heartily agree. They view monasticism solely through the lens of “the way of perfection” that seeks to win God’s favor, or as an institution designed to promote Christian elitism. Reading some of Luther’s scathing denunciations of monks and the monastic way lends support to this, as do the events of the Reformation itself, which led to the emptying of convents and chapter houses.

However, Dorothea Wendebourg shows that, despite his strong criticisms of the cloistered religious life, Luther continued to believe there was a place for monasticism. His strong criticisms, which culminated in his treatise Judgment on the Monastic Vows (1521), were rooted in the sad state of the institutions of his day, not in their original purposes, which he hoped would be renewed.

26573450664_c05ea42503_kUltimately for Luther, it came down the question of vocation and how it should be defined. In common understanding the monk or nun was called to a vocation that was higher than that of the ordinary Christian — indeed, taking vows was seen as a “second Baptism” and, as the Augsburg Confession charges, this “made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism” and led to the highest life possible.

Luther came to teach that such a vocation was not higher, but simply different than that of others; different and still legitimate if accepted as such. In fact, Luther continued to hold that there were some advantages to the cloistered life. For example, he believed that because it involved more suffering than ordinary callings, it may enable those who pursue it to exercise the baptismal life more fully, since baptism is about dying to the world.

Nevertheless, the contribution Luther and the other Reformers made is to help us understand that all Christians in all walks of life have a vocation, and that vocation involves the fulfilling of our baptism. This is what matters in life: (1) that we are baptized into Christ, united to him by grace through faith, and (2) that we embrace the callings God gives us in life as opportunities to live out our baptism by living with faith toward God and active love toward our neighbors.

This has a twofold effect on the relationship between monasticism and the “ordinary” Christian life.

  • First, it removes the religious life of a monk or nun from any special, elite category. They are not the truly “radical” Christians, the “more perfect” followers of Jesus, engaged in a “higher” calling. They take a different path, but in the end they are simply baptized Christians, seeking to live out their baptisms.
  • Second, it raises the standard for Christians in all walks of life. When Luther made his “ecclesiastical visitations,” inspecting the state of the churches and the beliefs and practices of ordinary Christians, he was appalled at what he found. If the monks and nuns were viewed as the truly religious, the common believer was both negligent and neglected as to growing in faith and works of love. Wendebourg calls this effect of the Reformation “the universalization of monasticism.” A renewed emphasis on faith and love for all believers led to the reform of Christian teaching and practices in families and congregations through such means as the Small Catechism, the use of the Psalter, renewal in preaching and pastoral ministry, the development and use of hymns, and habitual forms of prayer for use by individuals and families.

There is only one kind of Christian: one who is called to live out his or her baptism in daily life. No matter what my vocation, I have been raised to walk with Jesus in newness of life therein.

Comments

  1. seneca griggs says:

    That actually was pretty fascinating – there are, indeed, NO elite believers though the callings and the gifts differ.

    • Just read this little blurb today…

      Ephesians 2:19 (NASB)…”So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household…”

      Seems to fit that there are no elite believers. We’re fellow citizens along with the Hall-of-Famers, and a member of God’s household. In fact, I’d say if anything, we’re ALL Hall-of-Famers, just through Christ’s blood.

  2. I think that the only problem I have with Luther’s theology of vocation is that, ultimately, it leads to basing the value of all work in its practicality, its tangible support of the common, shared world, its tendency to propagate and support this-worldly human projects and endeavors. In so doing, it seems to decidedly unbalance the tension between two theological truths: The kingdom of Christ is not of this world, and Christ is Lord of this and every world.

    Everything in vocation then becomes a matter of practically supporting life as it is in the world; vocations which seem to do that become more valued, and those which don’t less. Since there is already a tendency in human affairs to privilege the practical, the wobbly and dysfunctional balance set up in the Middle Ages between this-worldly and other-worldly vocations is completely decided in favor of the this world. The result is that the tension that exists between the world as it is and the world as God’s kingdom, which is a prophetic tension, goes lax and is flattened out to a spirituality, and a spiritual esthetic, that embraces the mundane in the most prosaic fashion imaginable: God’s kingdom as a business. Monastic vocations die off, as does the priesthood, and business models for the Church, and the pastor as CEO, ultimately prevail.

    Don’t know what the solution is, except that it must involve regaining some monastic insights and practices and ways of life lost in the last five hundred years.

    • “it seems to decidedly unbalance the tension between two theological truths: The kingdom of Christ is not of this world, and Christ is Lord of this and every world. Everything in vocation then becomes a matter of practically supporting life as it is in the world; vocations which seem to do that become more valued, and those which don’t less.”

      Like all theological insights, it needs wisdom to be correctly applied. In a lot of old-time evangelical/fundamentalist churches, where if you weren’t a missionary or knocking on your neighbors’ doors tracts in hand, there was something wrong with you – yes, Luther’s observations apply in full force. OTHO, I’m sure that there are churches out there that are so buried in worldly ways of living that a little neo-monastic discipline would do them a lot of good.

      The real question is – where do the congregations we participate in, here and now, fit in this spectrum?

    • But Robert, didn’t you read the last part?

      Not only are all vocations sacred ways of serving God and blessing the world, but all Christians are, in a sense, nuns and monks now, called to “raise our spiritual game,” as it were — to walk in newness of life.

      I would submit that a correct reading of Luther would not abolish the kingdom ethos, but rather infuse it into all of life.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I have with Luther’s theology of vocation is that, ultimately, …basing the value of all work in its practicality

      Does it? I don’t think so. What Luther describes is NOT a Theology of **VOCATION**, but a Theology Of People Living Every Day Life. This use of the term Vocation is obsolete – and confusing [demonstrably so], Theologians have full-on fetish for dead and dead uses of words; that is incurable.

      > Everything in vocation then becomes a matter of practically supporting life as it is in the world

      No… I don’t believe this is what is *meant*, I read this as a Redeemed Life As Vocation [Unnecessarily Awkward? Yes – use of dead words does that]. See “””(2) that we embrace the callings God gives us in life as opportunities to live out our baptism by living with faith toward God and active love toward our neighbors.””” That statement has no specific correlation to Vocation; it can readily apply to an unemployed person in long-term assisted living. On the other hand it may mean what you said – the one suffering from disease can certainly make choices, even if only of words, that will matter to the one providing their care. They can be “supporting life” through kindness and mercy as much as anyone.

    • Hmm. I suppose that at Luther’s time, it went without saying that the “higher” and less practical pursuits were already valued by the church. For example, Lutherism formed at a time when it was still fairly revolutionary to draw the real, physical world based on observation. Since Luther and Lutheranism’s novelty is the way they valued the ordinary world and ordinary work, over and against the alternatives, that is where the stress is. I doubt too many meant to throw all the rest overboard.

      That said, Lutheranism feels gritter to me than is, say, Anglicanism. Perhaps that does reflect a different spirit or instinct.

      I would like to think that Lutheranism’s grittiness needn’t mean too narrow an interest in practicality. After all, one can define “practical” somewhat broadly, as a genuine interest in the flourishing of flesh-and-blood spiritual beings. I like the idea of holding most things to the “test” of whether they are helpful to actual, specific people, so long as we view those people in an expansive way. It seems to me the Christian imagination insists on that bigger view, and fails badly when it forgets this task.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    I admit what follows may be my strong allergy to Theological Word Salad – the tortured use of the term “vocation” to mean something other than “a trade or profession / a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation / a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication”

    I hear what is being said. I just can’t buy into this Theology of Vocation – it is another thing, like “Evangelical”, that once said immediately needs an expanatory defense for any listener not in-the-circle.

    Monasticism certainly is “special” by any normal use of the term – or one could use the term “distinct”. The monk can dedicate their life to something in a way that a burger flipper, janitor, … someone working 2-3 jobs really cannot achieve. That is what irritates me the most; most people do not have “vocations”, they just have jobs. I mean “most people” as in more people than not. “Theology Of Vocation” cannot help but carry classist conotations in a normal reading.

    I am completely down with: “””A renewed emphasis on faith and love for all believers led to the reform of Christian teaching and practices in families and congregation…””” but that reads as far beyond the scope of Vocation.

    Describing this as a Theology Of Vocation is a poor titleing. “””No matter what my vocation, I have been raised to walk with Jesus in newness of life therein.””” – Possibly “Nonvocational Theology” [being a Monk after all is a vocation].

  4. “I hear what is being said. I just can’t buy into this Theology of Vocation – it is another thing, like “Evangelical”, that once said immediately needs an expanatory defense for any listener not in-the-circle.”

    Sometimes, you have to dive into the community’s lingo to get where they are coming from. Usually, it’s worth the effort. 😉

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > dive into the community’s lingo

      True, but one should not be surprised – or offended – when a listener does not cross-reference what you say.
      If you believe your message is important why not state it in the clearest way possible?

      • Sometimes, it’s hard to convey a message without the “lingo” – the ability to do so is a rare gift indeed.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          In French this is called “vulgarization” — the ability to express complex technical information in easily-understandable terms. Steven Jay Gould’s science-essay collections are the type example in English.

  5. Love the photos.

  6. I think in his heart of hearts Chaplain Mike wants to turn us all into Lutherans. If internetmonk becomes a Lutheran blog I for one will no longer read it. There are enough already.

    • There is a difference between *teaching about Lutheran theology* and *insisting everyone be a Lutheran*. I am not a Lutheran, but I appreciate and have learned much from their theology and their categories (I am a GREAT fan of “theology of glory vs. theology of the cross” for example).

      I have run across hardline Lutheran prosthelytizers in the past – and Chap Mike is NOT one of that breed.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      There is much to be commended in Lutheranism. I have a lot of respect for our local Lutheran church; and I have a very dark view of American Churchdom [most have no idea what “relevant” means].

      If I were forced to pick a team Lutheranism would be a contender.

    • Bob, I remember hearing that from you 5 years ago. Didn’t happen, did it?

    • I think that’s a fair critique, or at least a fair “warning” (I’ve sometimes felt that way in the past myself), but there are just too many non-Lutheran things at this site that I don’t worry about it anymore.

      Case in point, just look at the Chaplain Mike’s Year-End wrap-up of Most Discussed Posts.

      http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/70764

      This site remains a treasure to me.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    One of the contributions that Martin Luther and the other Reformers made was to overturn the idea that there are distinctions between Christians; that some are elite and advanced before God while others are simply ordinary, lesser believers.

    Just nowadays instead of Priests, Monks, and Nuns, the Elite and Advanced Before God are called Pastors, Missionaries, Worship Leaders/rock stars, and other Christianese CELEBRITIES.

    • brianthedad says:

      The gospel frees you to be a complete nobody.
      – Peter Ouda (a relative nobody @PeterOuda)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        More like it frees you to be Normal instead of always forcing you to become More Spiritual Than God or else.

        Judaism (the original cultural source) puts a LOT of importance on Just Living Your Life.

    • And perhaps the Quakers went one step further. Meetings may have “clerks” but the role of the clerk is to sum up the sense of the meeting not to express their own views.

      BTW convents continued to exist after the Reformation though now as Lutheran not Catholic, perhaps because they were convenient places to stash unmarried noblewomen. However I gather that the women had the ability to leave and then marry.

  8. Adam sez: “Theologians have full-on fetish for dead and dead uses of words; that is incurable.”
    And: “If you believe your message is important why not state it in the clearest way possible?”

    Browsing my latest catalog of Academic Resources from Christian Book Distributors, my aging eyes picked up a heading of Hated Theologians. That sparked my interest until I looked closer and found it to be Noted Theologians.

    Still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, but if I have any vocation at this point it might be trying to decipher and clarify the obscurities and obfuscations of learned theologians and their many minions, some of whom inhabit these pages. It ain’t easy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Browsing my latest catalog of Academic Resources from Christian Book Distributors, my aging eyes picked up a heading of Hated Theologians. That sparked my interest until I looked closer and found it to be Noted Theologians.

      Freudian slip there?

  9. In context of the tail end of medievalism, seems to me this posting today is basically about marital status and the clothes you wore. Correct me if I’m wrong, but was not Luther a monk until he put on a pair of pants and got married, thus completely turning the world upside down ever since for better or worse? And what do you call people who hang out at a site called Internet Monk? I can’t think of a better way to describe my life than to say I’m a monk, except I’m not very good at it and I wear pants and don’t like being around more than one or two people at a time and don’t like anyone telling me what to do. I have chipmonks living around my house if that counts.

  10. I do find the name of internet monk curious. Why is it since no one here is a monk?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Ask the late Michael Spencer; he named it.

      Did he mention the reason for the name in any of his blog archives?