Did Luther And Calvin Favor Evangelical Monasticism?

calvinus bieres genevaI was clicking around the internets recently and (probably via Twitter) and found a fascinating essay by Greg Peters, Associate Professor of Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University. The burden of the essay is to introduce the reader to and to commend the “new monasticism.” The ancient coenobitic (as distinct from hermetic) monastic theory and practice, as summarized in the various ancient monastic rules (e.g., of Basil, Augustine, and Benedict) called for Christians to take vows before God to live in community, to renounce property, to adhere to a rigorous physical and spiritual discipline. The new monasticism, however, to which Peters calls our attention is less authoritarian, permits marriage, is more ecumenical, and more active toward social justice.

This essay is interesting because, until I taught at Wheaton College, I had never encountered evangelical Protestants who were enthusiastic about the theology and piety of monasticism. My gateway into evangelicalism was a nearby Southern Baptist congregation, there the piety was revivalist but whose theology and practice of “the quiet time” had certain echoes of monastic piety. My gateway into historic Reformed theology and piety was a small German-Russian Reformed congregation not far from the university and my reading of Calvin and Warfield about the same time as an undergraduate student.

By the time I began to teach at Wheaton, I had been in Reformed churches for about 13 years and in that time I had heard and read little positive commendation of monasticism. So it was a real surprise to meet a new colleague who identified broadly with the Reformed tradition but who was equally enthusiastic about (and himself engaged in) the new monastic piety.

Fast forward to this essay by Peters in which he says in passing:

Luther and Calvin both saw value in the institution of monasticism provided it did not involve life-long vows (especially those made indirectly to the pope), was not seen as a superior form of the Christian life, and did not displace baptism. Thus, monasticism was not a superior form of life since all Christian believers were called to the same high standards of holiness. In the words of Luther, “When a [monk] takes his vow he vows nothing more than that which he already vowed at the start in his baptism, and that is the gospel.” Monasticism was simply one form of the Christian life along with non-monastic singleness or parenthood.

This is arresting. I could imagine Luther perhaps making room for monasticism. After all, his understanding of sola Scriptura was that if it is not forbidden, it is permitted. Nevertheless, in my reading of him, he hasn’t been highly enthusiastic about monasticism. Luther was too world-affirming, too earthy to be very enthusiastic. About the fundamental flaw in monasticism, world flight, he wrote, “For we are not made for fleeing human company but for living in society and sharing good and evil.” Monasticism is evil because it promotes the evil notion that there are two classes of Christians, those who have a “higher life” (to borrow an apt nineteenth-century phrase) and those who do not. Of course, for Luther, insofar as monasticism advocates justification and sanctification through works, it is diabolical. Peters is aware of all these places and, in his book Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of the Religious Life (New Monastic Library: Resources for Radical Discipleship) (Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, OR) he surveys Luther’s (early; 1521) assessment of monasticism. He finds one quote (44.304 in Luther’s Works), which he interprets to be Luther’s permission for Christians to enter a monastery. Read in context, however, it is not evident that is what Luther was actually arguing. Rather, it appears that he was explaining the nature of Christian liberty and making the point that whether one is or is not a monk, one has no advantage before God. He was illustrating a larger point in passing rather than setting out a clear exception to his routine denunciation of monasticism as contrary to the will of God and even contrary to the gospel.

Further, Luther articulated his mature views on monasticism in the 1537 Schmalcald Articles (which William Russell has called Luther’s Last Will and Testament), and there, in the Third Article, Luther called for the abolition of monasteries, for the return of monks and nuns to secular life, and for the complete renunciation of monastic worship as “blasphemous” and “wasted effort.” In the third part of the articles, on the Christian life, he rejected monastic vows as in “direct conflict with the first and chief article” and called for their abolition. Insofar as they are regarded as equal to baptism, they are a “blasphemy against God.” It’s not clear at all that Luther was as supportive of monasticism as Peters suggests.

Reformed readers might be surprised, as I was to see the claim that Calvin supported monasticism. In his book he writes,

From the foregoing, we can see that John Calvin was not wholly against monasticism in all its forms since he was capable of speaking at times of the goodness of ancient patterns of monasticism (op cit., 47).

Peters finds this support in Institutes 4.13, where, in the 1559 edition, Calvin wrote 21 sections against Monasticism. Peters recognizes

He has been attacking the foundations and principles of monasticism itself and not simply the failings of a few monks or nuns. (Op cit., 45).

Calvin wrote:

The differences which I have hitherto pointed out between the ancient monks and those of our age are not in manners, but in profession. Hence let my readers remember that I have spoken of monachism rather than of monks; and marked, not the vices which cleave to a few, but vices which are inseparable from the very mode of life (Institutes, [Beveridge edition] 4.13.15).

In other words, it’s hard to imagine, having rejected monasticism per se how Calvin might then turn around and commend any form of it. Peters, however, finds support for his claim in Calvin’s contrast between monasticism as Augustine described it and as it existed in the medieval church and in the 16th century. From this contrast, Peters infers that Calvin was supportive of some form of monasticism.1

Calvin, in contrast to the Anabaptists, and like the rest of the magisterial protestants, was not opposed to vows. In the first six sections of 4.13 Calvin defends the propriety of godly vows. In sections 7-10 he offers a survey of the history of monasticism and an analysis. In 4.13.10 he wrote:

Augustine, while tracing out a holy and legitimate monasticism, would keep away all rigorous exaction of those things which the word of the Lord has left free.2

It’s not obvious that Calvin’s comparison provides support for some form of monasticism. Yes, Calvin did write “legitimate monasticism” but again, read in context, it doesn’t appear to be Calvin’s intent to endorse monasticism per se but to say that monasticism as Augustine envisioned it was relatively purer than monasticism in practice (see below). He admired the discipline of some godly monks but, as Peters himself recognizes, Calvin was a fierce critic not only of the sixteenth-century abuses of monasticism but of the very theory of monasticism as schismatic of the church (4.13.14):

The thing itself declares that all who retire into monasteries withdraw from the Church. For how? Do they not separate themselves from the legitimate society of the faithful, by acquiring for themselves a special ministry and private administration of the sacraments? What is meant by destroying the communion of the Church if this is not?

The “legitimate” and “holy” monks, of whom Calvin approved were those who

though they dwelt separately from others, had not a separate Church; they partook of the sacraments with others, they attended public meetings, and were then a part of the people (4.13.14).

Even that form, however, remain problematic: In 4.13.16 Calvin argued:

Meanwhile I disguise not that even in that ancient form which Augustine commends, there was something which little pleases me. I admit that they were not superstitious in the external exercises of a more rigorous discipline, but I say that they were not without a degree of affectation and false zeal. It was a fine thing to cast away their substance, and free themselves from all worldly cares; but God sets more value on the pious management of a household, when the head of it, discarding all avarice, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, makes it his purpose to serve God in some particular vocation. It is fine to philosophise in seclusion, far away from the intercourse of society; but it ill accords with Christian meekness for anyone, as if in hatred of the human race, to fly to the wilderness and to solitude, and at the same time desert the duties which the Lord has especially commanded. Were we to grant that there was nothing worse in that profession, there is certainly no small evil in its having introduced a useless and perilous example into the Church.

Peters has turned a minor, passing concession, a fine and even technical historical point, into a more general, if qualified, endorsement of monasticism. This reading of Calvin (and Luther) should be criticized.

It would appear that Peters’ claims have more support in Matthew Boulton’s claims about Calvin’s view, in Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology, which he quotes, than in Calvin himself. Calvin’s rejection of monasticism, by the way, reads remarkably like Luther’s Judgment on Monastic Vows. Calvin re-states many of the same criticisms, in the same way.

If evangelicals want to flee to monasteries, that is their business but if they try to take Luther and Calvin with them, they will find themselves saddled with unhappy guests in the new evangelical monastery.


1. It is not easy to follow Peters’ reading of Calvin since he cites page numbers from the Battles edition of the 1559 Institutes rather than using the standard form of citation (e.g., 4.13.10)

2. “Augustinus, dum sanctum ac legitimum monachismum nobis deformat” (OS 5.247.29–30).

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  1. After all, his understanding of sola Scriptura was that if it is not forbidden, it is not permitted.

    not permitted


    Good post. Monasticism as a form of schism. Food for thought!

  2. Bonhoeffer had a different take of monasticism while comparing it with Luther’s approach to the world. Bonhoeffer viewed the monastics as creating a world they could love and then loving the world. Such a world provided no test of their faith nor opportunity for their faith to bear fruit in the world. In contrast, Luther’s faith was a faith that met hardship and had to sustain him through it.

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