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?

4 comments:

Rev. Matthew Thompson said...

Having served as a pastor in the church for six years now and having been negligent somewhat of physical exercise I was convicted by our confession in Article XXVI, paragraph 38: "Here [Paul] clearly shows that he was keeping his body under control, not to merit forgiveness of sins by that discipline, but to keep his body in subjection and prepared for spiritual things, for carrying out the duties of his calling."

How can we serve our Lord and His church, over the long haul, if we neglect our health? Someone should forward this paragraph to Concordia Health Plans.

Rev. Matthew Thompson said...

I especially appreciate the short summary of the Christian life in Article XXVII, paragraph 49:

"True Christian perfection is to fear God from the heart, to have great faith, and to trust that for Christ's sake we have a God who has been reconciled. It means to ask for and expect from God His help in all things with confident assurance that we are to live according to our calling in life, being diligent in outward good works, serving in our calling."

What an encouraging view of the Christian life, teaching faith in Christ and dependence upon God in all things.

dave speers said...

Great summary Paul, especially as we focus on the doctrine of vocation and its fullness in contrast to monasticism and much of medieval spirituality.

Reading either in Luther or in Chemnitz (Examinem) on Monastic vows, I was impressed by a comment in which Luther said, when you have nothing to eat, fast, when you have food to eat, give thanks and enjoy it. The Lord will provide opportunities for both. I really like this, inasmuch as one sees Luther's focus on God, active in our lives, no matter the circumstances. In light of this, a very real problem/danger etc which exists today is not to fast when one is poor/without resources, and instead bring out the credit cards and live in the future. (I need, want this today, so I will pay it back Tuesday....ala Wimpy). If we can't indulge on the basis of what we possess, we can borrow from others to indulge our lusts/desires. I believe that this works mightily against self-discipline.

Bror Erickson said...

When I first got to seminary I was amazed at all the emphasis that was put on physical fitness. I sort of wondered if everybody had bought into Modern Society's worship of the body. But when I received my call I started to read a few pastoral ministry texts. I think I read somewhere around five of them as part of my morning devotions. It was when they also were emphasizing the importance of physical fitness that I started changing my mind on the whole matter. Some of these dated from the Nineteenth century, long before the modern fitness craze.
So I began walking for a couple hours in the morning or hiking in the mountains. This was good in that it helped me collect my thoughts, and meet people in the community. However, it did not keep me from gaining wait, nor did it get me in shape. I now run in the mornings and walk in the evenings. I find I have more energy to get things done during the day after running. Walking in the evenings keeps me connected with people in my neighborhood.