Sunday, November 11, 2007

Roundtable 28: Monastic Vows

To appreciate the impact Article XXVII of the Augsburg Confession had, and how particularly upsetting it was to common understandings of the time, the reader has to realize how extensive monasticism was across Germany. By the way, the image here is of two Medieval monks the one giving the other the distinctive "tonsure" or shaving the top of the head, as a sign of having taken vows. Monasticism was regarded as the highest form of service to God and, for any other human reasons a person might enter a monastery we should be aware that many in the monasteries were profoundly sincere in their desire to serve God and their fellow man by devoting themselves to a life of ordered, structured prayer in various degrees of separation, even in some cases total seclusion, from the "secular" world around. To this day the "religous" in Roman Catholicism are those who take up vows and orders.

Making Article XXVII of particular interest is the fact that behind the words of the article are the actual experiences of men who had come out of the monasteries, Luther most notably. In spite of the good the monasteries did during the genuine dark ages in Europe after the fall of Rome and before the rise of more organized and centralized government with the formation of the Holy Roman Empire ca. 800, the fact remains that Medieval monasticism had, and still has, no foundation in Sacred Scripture.

The insight that Luther and his fellow Reformers brought to light once more is the teaching that all of life is an opportunity to serve God, in whatever a person's place/station and calling in life is. Modern Lutherans would do well not to think that monasticism is an issue that is of no immediate application, or relevance, to the church today. There has arisen a new kind of monasticism among us: the view that a person is really only engaged in "church work" if he, or she, is a member of a church committee or taking part in some church-sponsored activity. It would be tempting to regard Sundays as our time to be "religious" while the rest of our week is in the "secular" world, regarding Sunday as the time for sacred things, while the rest of the week we must live in the profane world. This article extols the Christian virtues lived out in all of callings and stations in life: mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, employer, employee. Specifically rejected and condemned in this article is the imposition of lifelong celibacy on a person who does who truly does not have the gift of chastity. Forcing chastity on those without the gift is a horrible sin against God's good creation and led many in Luther's time to think that their standing before God depended on the degree to which they could imitate the "holy life" of the monks and nuns.

Article XXVII concedes that perhaps there could be such institutions as monasteries as long as they are "free associations." (par. 2). It was only after discipline in these institutions became corrupt that vows were imposed, "as in a carefully planned prison." (par. 3). Regulations were piled on to regulations, and many children were put into monasteries well before they were old enough voluntarily to take vows of chastity, something that was contrary to the church's own canon laws. Obscured in monasticism were the truly important teachings about: "faith, the cross, hope, the dignity of secular affairs, and consolation for severely tested consciences." (par. 16).

Here we can not help but think of Luther, who in his first hymn written for congregational singing Dear Christians One and All Rejoice, wrote, "Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay, death brooded darkly over me. Sin was my torment, night and day."

Medieval theologians, such as Gerson, pointed out that monasticism's focus on disciplining the flesh and following regulations crowded out more important doctrinal teachings. Appeal is made by the Lutherans to such writings, as evidence that even within Romanism the most serious of concerns with monasticism were being expressed.

Melanchthon defends the Lutherans from the false charge that they had taken up their concerns with monasticism lightly and without due thought and attention. The drumbeat of the Gospel is heard in this article as well when Melanchthon writes, "The Gospel compels us to insist on the doctrine of grace and the righteousness of faith in the churches. This cannot be understood if people think they merit grace by observances of their own choice." (par. 20).

Paragraphs 22-29 are a defense of the Lutheran position that traditions instituted by the Church can not be made binding on people as if by their omission, one places one's eternal salvation at risk. "It is contrary to the Gospel to institute or do such works thinking that we merit grace through them, or as though Christianity could not exist without such service of God" (par. 29). This was precisely what Medieval Monasticism had become to be regarded as: necessary service to God. Monks and nuns were regarded as persons to whom the common folk could look as people pleasing God, whereas they could not, since they could not devote all their time to living in obedience to monastic vows.

The accusation was made that the reason the Lutherans opposed monasticism was simply because they wished to indulge the lusts of the flesh. No doubt Luther's marriage was in view here, along with all those who had forsaken their monastic vows and entered into the estate of marriage. Note that Lutherans today must take care that they not allow the proper doctrine of justification to become regarded as an excuse for not "discipline and the subduing of the flesh" (par. 30). What do we teach? Christians are to bear the cross by enduring affliction, and furthermore "every Christian ought to train and subdue himself with bodily restraints, or bodily exercises and labors. Then neither over-indulgence nor laziness may tempt him to sin." (par. 33). Do you think that Christians today regard gluttony and over indulgence in food as a real threat? How many commercials do you see on American TV for diet and weight loss?

The point however is that efforts to control the flesh and discipline it are never to be put forward as a way to "merit grace or make satisfaction for sin" (par. 33).

It is interesting to note what the Article assumes will, instead of monasticism, be the case in the Church. All people, at all times, will learn and receive instruction about godly discipline and spiritual exercises, bodily restraint, etc. Prayer and fasting are recommended by citing Matt. 17:21. This is perhaps one of the more neglected portions of the Lutheran Confessions. Lutherans are eager to reject monasticism but so doing tend to neglect what the article says about personal discipline. St. Paul is held up as a model to be imitated. He disciplined his flesh in order to keep it "prepared for spiritual things, for carrying out the duties of his calling." And, therefore, note this comment: we do not condemn fasting in itself, but making fasting a requirement on certain days and teaching that fasting were a necessary service of God. (par. 39).

Then, note carefully paragraphs 40-45. Somehow Lutherans today have assumed that the Lutheran Confessions would have in a view that basically anything goes in the church and between various congregations unless, and until, there is some explicit false doctrine. The value of good order is neglected. But the AC here explains that Lutherans keep many traditions that provide for good order. What are they? The lectionary, chief holy days, etc. People are warned that such things do not justify, but things done in service to good order in the church are not rejected.

As you can see, this article, while on the face having only to do with monasticism actually contains a great deal of important insights into the teachings and assumptions of Lutheranism over against personal self-discipline.

Some questions to ponder:
Where and how can I be attentive to personal self-discipline? Do I over-indulge in food and drink? Do I regularly exercise my body to keep in good shape for service to God? When and how do I find myself being lazy, either bodily or spiritually? How does bodily discipline and self-control help me give glory to God and serve Him? How can I help people understand that self-discipline, prayer and fasting and other means of bodily control do not merit God's grace, but rather provide a structure and order by which I can give Him all thanks and praise? What are my various callings in life and how may I serve God in these callings?