Augsburg Confession – Article 27 – Monastic Vows

Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

(To read Article 26, click here.)

In talking about monastic vows, it is necessary, first of all, to consider how they have been handled right up to the present, what the conduct has been in the monasteries, and how so much is daily observed in them that runs contrary not just to God’s word, but also to papal laws. For in the days of St. Augustine monastic lifestyles were voluntary; later, when true discipline and doctrine were in shambles, monastic vows were invented and employed like some imaginary prison in an attempt to restore discipline.

Moreover, in addition to monastic vows, many other components were also introduced, and many people were loaded down with such bonds and burdens even before they had reached an appropriate age.

So too many individuals came to this monastic life in ignorance. Although they may not have been too young, they did not sufficiently gauge or understand their limitations. All of these individuals, now ensnared and entangled this way, have been forced and compelled to remain in such bonds, irrespective of the fact that even papal law sets many of them free. And this has been more oppressive in convents than in monasteries, even though the females should have been spared as the weaker sex.1 This kind of strictness and severity has also bothered many pious people in the past, for they could see quite well that both boys and girls were shoved into the cloisters so that someone else could look after their physical needs.2 They could also see quite well how badly such plans turned out, what scandal, what burdening of consciences it brought about, and many people have complained that in such critical cases no one paid any attention to the canons at all. In addition, such notions about monastic vows now prevail that even many monks possessing even a little understanding have obviously been disturbed by them.

Second page of Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

For they gave the impression that monastic vows were equal to baptism and that people earned forgiveness of sins and justification before God with the monastic life. Yes, they claimed even more than that, saying that people do not simply earn righteousness and piety with the monastic life, but also that they kept the commands and counsels contained in the gospel thereby, and thus monastic vows were praised more highly than baptism. They likewise claimed that a person merits more with the monastic life than with all other positions that God has ordained, such as that of parson or preacher, a position in government, the position of prince or lord, and the like, all of whom serve in their calling according to God’s law, word, and command, without invented spirituality.3 Nor can any part of this can be denied, for it can be found in their own books.

Moreover, whoever is taken prisoner in this way and comes into the cloister learns little about Christ. Perhaps in the cloisters there used to be schools of Holy Scripture and of other arts that could be of service to Christian churches, so that parsons and bishops were obtained from the cloisters. But now they have a much different form. For people used to come together in the monastic lifestyle with the intention of learning Scripture. Now they give the impression that the monastic lifestyle is the kind of existence through which one may earn God’s grace and piety in God’s sight, yes, that it is an estate of perfection, and they place it far ahead of the other estates instituted by God. Therefore all of this is being cited without any calumny,4 in order that it may be all the better perceived and understood what and how our men teach and preach.

First, regarding those who pursue marriage, this is what those in our camp teach: All who are not suited for the single life have every right to marry, for vows do not have the power to overturn God’s arrangement and command.5 Now this is how God’s command reads in 1 Corinthians 7: “To prevent fornication every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.” That is not just what God’s command says, but God’s creation and arrangement also insists on, requires, and urges marriage for everyone who is not endowed with the gift of virginity by a special act of God,6 according to this saying of God himself in Genesis 2: “It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a helper to be around him.”

Third page of Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Now what can anyone produce to oppose this? A person can extol the vow and the obligation as highly as he wants, he can exaggerate its importance as much as possible, he still will not succeed in eliciting the proof that God’s command is thereby overturned. The Doctors of the Church say that vows that run contrary even to papal law are void;7 how much less should they bind and have validity and force when they run contrary to God’s command!

If the obligation of vows had no other reasons to be abrogated, the popes would not have given special dispensations or permissions to annul them. For no one has the right to dissolve the duty that proceeds from divine law. Therefore the popes have certainly deemed that moderation ought to be exercised in this obligation and have frequently given dispensations, such as with a king of Aragon and many others.8 Now if dispensations have been given for the preservation of temporal things, it makes much more sense that dispensations be made for the sake of spiritual needs.

Consequently, why is the opposite pushed so fiercely, that people must keep their vows without any prior consideration as to whether the vow was proper in the first place? For the vow should be achievable and be taken willingly and without compulsion. But the power and capacity within a human to keep perpetual chastity is well known, and there are few of either sex who have taken the monastic vow willingly, of their own accord, and with due consideration beforehand. They are persuaded to take the monastic vow before they have reached a mature understanding; sometimes they are also forced and pushed into it. Therefore it is simply not right for people to debate so carelessly and harshly about the obligation of vows, considering the fact that they all know that it is contrary to the nature and propriety of a vow when it is not taken willingly and after good counsel and consideration.

Several canons and papal laws dissolve vows that have been taken before the age of fifteen years.9 For they judge that a person does not have enough understanding prior to that age to be able to decide how to arrange the course of his entire life. Another canon concedes even more years to human weakness, for it forbids the monastic vow to be taken before the age of eighteen years.10 On such grounds the majority have cause and excuse to leave the cloisters, for the greater part of them have entered cloisters before these ages, while they were still children.

Fourth page of Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Finally, even if the violation of the monastic vow could be censured, it still could not follow from that their marriages should be dissolved. For Saint Augustine says in Subject 27, Question 1, Chapter Nuptiarum [i.e. 41], that such a marriage should not be dissolved.11 Now Saint Augustine has never been lightly regarded in the Christian church, even if some men after him have been of a different opinion.

Now although God’s command regarding marriage sets many of them free and absolves them from the monastic vow, our men can advance even more reasons why monastic vows are null and void. For every form of worship that is instituted and chosen by humans without God’s law and command, in order to obtain righteousness and God’s grace, is opposed to God and contrary to the holy gospel and God’s command, just as Christ himself says in Matthew 15: “They serve me in vain with human rules.” St. Paul also consistently teaches the same thing, that we should not seek righteousness on the basis of our own rules and forms of worship that are invented by humans, but that righteousness and piety in God’s sight comes from faith and confidence, when we believe that God receives us into grace for the sake of Christ his only Son.

Now it is as obvious as it can be that the monks have taught and preached that their invented spirituality makes satisfaction for sin and obtains God’s grace and righteousness. Now what else can that be but diminishing the glory and praise of the grace of Christ and denying the righteousness of faith? Therefore it follows that such vows, as they are ordinarily taken, have been improper, counterfeit forms of worship. Accordingly they are also void. For a godless vow, and one made contrary to God’s command, is null and void, just as the canons teach that an oath should not tie someone up to sin.12

Fifth page of Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Saint Paul says to the Galatians in Chapter 5, “You who wish to be justified by the law are cut off from Christ and have fallen from grace.” Therefore those who wish to be justified by a vow are also cut off from Christ and lacking the grace of God. For they are robbing Christ of his honor as the only one who justifies, and they are giving that honor to their vows and monastic lifestyle.

It also cannot be denied that the monks have taught and preached that they become righteous and earn forgiveness of sins through their vow and monastic existence and mode of living. Yes, they have invented and claimed something that is definitely even more warped and absurd, that they were imparting their good works to others.13 Now if someone wanted to be cruel and rub it in their faces, how many works could he compile for which the monks even now would be ashamed and wish they had not done! What is more, they have also convinced the people that their invented religious orders are states of Christian perfection. If this is not boasting that one is justified by works, what is? Now it is no small offense in the Christian church when a form of worship that humans have invented without God’s command is paraded before the people and they are taught that this form of worship makes people pious and righteous in God’s sight. For the righteousness of faith, which should be receiving the most attention in the Christian church, gets obscured when the people are engrossed with this curious angelic spirituality and false show of poverty, humility, and chastity.

Moreover, the commands of God and true and proper worship are also obscured thereby, when the people hear that the monks are the only ones who can be in a state of perfection. For Christian perfection consists of the sincere and earnest fear of God, and at the same time a sincere confidence, faith, and trust that we have a gracious, merciful God for Christ’s sake, that we may and should ask and desire of God what we need and certainly expect help from him in all troubles, according to each person’s calling and station, and that in the meantime we should also do outwardly good works and carry out our calling with diligence. That is what true perfection and true worship consists of, not in begging or in a black or gray cowl, etc. But the common people get many pernicious ideas from the false praise of the monastic life, when they hear people praising the single life without any restraint. For it follows that one cannot get married without a burdened conscience. When the common man hears that only mendicants can be perfect, how is he supposed to know that he may have property and do business without sin? When the people hear that it is only a “counsel” not to take revenge,14 it follows that some will mistakenly imagine it is not sin to exercise vengeance outside of its exercise by officials. Others will think that vengeance is improper for Christians in any context, even in the government.

A person can also read plenty of examples where some have abandoned wife and children and their administrative office and hidden themselves away in a cloister. They did it, they said, to flee from the world and to seek the kind of life that would please God more than other kinds of lives. They were not even able to recognize that one should serve God in the commands that he has given and not in the commands that are of human invention. The good and perfect state of life has always been the one that has God’s command to support it, but the state of life that does not have God’s command to support it is a dangerous one. Regarding these matters it has been necessary to give the people proper instruction.

In the past, Gerson also rebuked the monks’ erroneous ideas about perfection. He indicates that it was a new saying in his time that the monastic life was a state of perfection.15

So many godless and erroneous ideas are ingrained in monastic vows—that they justify and make a person pious in God’s sight, that they constitute Christian perfection, that by taking them a person keeps both the counsels and commands of the gospel, that they possess extra works, beyond what God actually requires of a person. Since then all of this is false, empty, and made up, that leaves monastic vows null and void too.16

(To continue to Article 28, click here.)

Notes

1 Rf. 1 Peter 3:7

2 This is in fact what likely happened to Martin Luther’s eventual wife, Katharina von Bora. Rf. Rudolf K. Markwald and Marilynn Morris Markwald, Katharina von Bora: A Reformation Life (St. Louis: CPH, 2002), pp. 22-26.

3 See Article 16 and note 4 beneath it.

4 The Latin version reads: “without any hateful exaggeration”.

5 Read Judges 11:30-35 for an example of someone who did not seem to understand the relationship between vows and God’s commands, and 1 Samuel 25:4-35 for an example of someone who did.

6 See 1 Corinthians 7:7 for scriptural support of Melanchthon’s assertion that a special act and gift of God is required in order to maintain virginity.

7 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 2, Subject 20, Question 4, Chapter 2 here (type 878 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

8 The “king of Aragon” (today part of Spain) was Ramiro II (1086-1157). He had been a Benedictine monk, but after the death of his childless brother, Alfonso I, he was released from his vows and succeeded his brother as king. Melanchthon probably knew of this story from Jean Charlier de Gerson’s De consiliis evangelicis et statu perfectionis; rf. Joannis Gersonii Doctoris Theologi & Cancellarii Parisiensis Opera Omnia, ed. Louis Ellies du Pin, vol. 2 (Antwerp, 1706), col. 678c.

9 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 2, Subject 20, Question 1, Chapter 10 here (type 873 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

10 See ibid., Chapter 5 here (type 872 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

11 You can read Melanchthon’s reference here (type 1054 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go; the reference continues onto the next page). The original quote by Augustine in On the Good of Widowhood can be read in English here (from “Therefore the good of marriage” toward the end of Section 11 through “…by how much the less necessity he had to vow” in Section 14), and in the original Latin here, cols. 437-439. The larger point here is that two wrongs don’t make a right. Another practical application of the same principle is when a woman gets a divorce and marries another man, then later has qualms of conscience about whether her divorce had scriptural grounds. Whatever the case might be, she should of course not add sin to sin by divorcing her second husband and seeking to reunite with her first husband. She should rather repent to God of whatever sin may have been, or was, committed in her divorce and seek to live as honorably as possible in her second marriage.

12 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 2, Subject 22, Question 4, Chapter 22 here (type 905 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go). The quote there is taken from an apocryphal letter of Augustine to Bishop Severus of Milevi in Numidia. The writer makes this observation in lines 8-9 of the quote: “It is apparent that oaths were not instituted to be fetters of iniquity.”

13 The technical term for extra good works in Roman Catholic theology is “works of supererogation.” The idea is that those who are truly saints, and thus go straight to heaven when they die, had more merits than were necessary for themselves. The value of these extra works goes into a spiritual treasure box, the treasury of the Church, along with the merits of Christ. The pope can then dispense from this treasury at his discretion, e.g. through indulgences. Rf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., pars. 1474-1479, where, however, the term “works of supererogation” is not used.

14 Melanchthon is referring to Jesus’ preaching on revenge in Matthew 5:38-41. The Romanists called Jesus’ commands in this sermon “evangelical counsels”: “In general, the teachings of the New Law proposed by Jesus to his disciples which lead to the perfection of Christian life. In the New Law, the precepts are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity [Christian love]; the evangelical counsels are to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if not contrary to it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., Glossary). Even according to this modern definition, it clear that willfully and persistently acting contrary to these “counsels” is not necessarily regarded as detrimental to or incompatible with membership in the Holy Christian Church. (Note the word “proposed” and the phrases “whatever might hinder” and “even if not contrary to [charity].”) Rather than interpreting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a more explicit explanation of God’s law already given in the Old Testament, they regard it as a “New Law,” meant only for those who really wish to strive after Christian perfection.

15 Gerson was already mentioned in note 2 under Article 26. He did indeed write prolifically against the concept of the state of perfection; his entire work De consiliis evangelicis et statu perfectionis (On the Evangelical Counsels and the State of Perfection) addresses it. Rf. the link in note 8 above, cols. 669ff.

16 One can tell that Melanchthon is very passionate about this subject; this is the longest article of the Augsburg Confession thus far, and only the next article is longer. His conclusion at the end is reflected in the fact that there are very few Lutheran monasteries today, and those that exist are such in name only. For example, the one-time Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Martin Luther once lived is technically Lutheran today, but is preserved merely as a historical museum. Some monasteries did become Lutheran following the Reformation, but since members only took vows and lived in them on a voluntary basis, their membership dwindled over time until the institutions collapsed. In some cases, the buildings only continued to be maintained because the monasteries were converted into hospitals or other charitable institutions.

About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the South of the U.S.A.

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