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.
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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.
- in 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.
Ultimately 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.