Protestants & the Monastery

Pray without ceasing

-1 Thessalonians 5:17

The Monastic tradition and the Protestant faith have long been at odds with one another. It is not at all surprising, nor unknown, that both Fr. Luther and Mr. Calvin had less than admirable things to say concerning the institution and its place within medieval Europe. Luther’s own monastic experience left such a bad taste in his mouth that he went on to write De votis monasticis (“On monastic vows”), a work arguing that those dedicated to religious life could violate their vows without being guilty of Sin or deserving of punishment. Likewise, those of us within the English tradition are all too familiar with the dissolution of our ancient monasteries under the reign of King Henry VIII and our own dear reformer, Archbishop Cranmer. Concerning the latter, it is said that some 900 religious houses were confiscated by the crown under their reforms. It would appear then that all three streams of orthodox Protestantism (if we may be permitted to call them such) had one nasty reaction or another to this established norm. However, despite the distaste for the practice, it seems history will show that Protestantism was never quite able to remove monasticism entirely from within her ethos. It is my humble opinion that this is simply due to the innate catholicity of the primitive Reformers, despite Protestantism’s tendency to throw the “baby out with the baptismal water”, as it were. This, however, is neither here nor there. Whatever cause may be at work, history reveals that even from the earliest parts of Protestant history, the tenets and form of monastic devotion find itself clinging to her skirt. The Little Gidding Community in England, for example, was established by Nicholas Ferrar in 1626 -only eighty-some years after King Henry VIII dissolutions. The Gidding Community, of course, was unique when compared to medieval monasticism in that it had no formal rule as a medieval monastery would, but rather structured itself according to High Church principles and the Book of Common Prayer. It is perhaps best to call it a remnant of monastic practice within a Protestant context and in many ways a proto-revival of more formal religious institutions later to come. It should also be noted that the little Gidding Community was fiercely attacked by many within English Christendom, especially by those belonging to the Puritan party, and was often referred to as an “Arminian Nunnery”. And yet despite this, the community was visited thrice by our beloved King Charles I, Saint and Martyr. Even to the point of his seeking refuge there in 1646 after a severe royalist defeat. Later, under Charles II, “about 12 Protestant ladies of gentle birth and considerable means” are said to have been desirous of founding a convent while under the ministry and direction of William Sancroft as he served as Dean of St. Paul’s in London. In like fashion, in Protestant Germany, the heirs of Jan Hus in the Moravian Church also maintained quasi-monastic principles. It is said that the small Herrnhut community under Lord Zinzendorf covenanted themselves to pray to the Lord continuously as a community in one-hour intervals over the course of one hundred years or so. Some may be quick to point out that Hus and his followers were not Protestant in the traditional sense (as their movement began before the Reformation), yet it should be noted that the Hussites were swept up in the greater Reformation and became almost indistinguishable from their Protestant counterparts. Likewise, this Moravian community and its zeal for prayer came through the preaching of a Pietist Lutheran pastor, so it is not silly to say that this incredible feat of spiritual devotion is not of Protestant origin.

In keeping with these primitive examples, and despite the unlikeliness, contemporary Protestantism has seen a flourishing of Monastic practice. A couple worthy of note are: The Taizé Community in France, the once home of the Calvinistic Monk, Brother Max Thurian. From the Taizé influence came Saint Augustine’s House, a Lutheran Monastery in the United States, along with her sister houses in Sweden and Germany.  Besides these, beginning in 1841, the Anglican Communion has since produced more monastics and established more religious houses than I have time to tally for this writing. This brief selection demonstrates that within our lifetime, the traditions of Canterbury, Wittenburg, and Geneva have all found new expressions of their primitive faith within this once dejected form of Christian devotion. The historically-mindful Protestant, however, may recoil at the thought these apparent innovations within their tradition. It should be asked (and rightfully so) if these religious communities are contradictory to the Protestant faith? Do they align with her confessions? What about the consensus of her greatest divines? As a general rule, I tend to steer away from confessionalism as it is generally understood. However, confessions themselves are quite useful for articulating varying schools of thought, therefore we will employ them generously to answer these questions. We will be exploring the Lutheran confessions, Mr. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and that which is especially precious to myself, the writings of the English Divines. From these documents, we will take into account the Reformed critiques of medieval monastic norms, determine if monasticism as instituted bears these same flaws, then (continuing in another article) explore a biblical defense of the practice, and finally establish whether or not a contemporary and reformed institution of the primitive devotion is acceptable. It is my conviction that Monastic life is more than compatible with the Evangelical zeal for proselytization, the Reformed faith, and would be nothing but a benefit for the Protestant Church in general, though I will leave it to the reader to decide for himself. Therefore, let us begin:

The Apt Critiques of the Reformers:

Because of the centrality of the Augsburg confession to Lutheranism and its immense influence exerted upon both the Reformed and Anglican Churches alike (though many within may protest this sentiment), it seems fitting to begin with its discussion on monastic vows. In the Confession, Philip Melanchthon notes a diversity of abuses within the theology of his day that found itself integral to the monkish way of life. For example, the traditions of mere men were deemed “holy” as if they were instituted by God or comparable to Sacred Scripture, while they rather obscured the commandments of God as found within His Word. Because of this obscuring of God’s expectations for His people, other vocations were often looked down upon as less-holy, or less-devout than religious or clerical life. Due to these sentiments, Melancthon writes:

…this error greatly tormented devout consciences, which grieved that they were held in an imperfect state of life, as in marriage, in the office of magistrate; or in other civil ministrations; on the other hand, they admired the monks and such like, and falsely imagined that the observances of such men were more acceptable to God. (Article XXVI)

Through a misunderstanding of the doctrine of Vocation, Monastic life, because it was deemed holier or such than other laity, evolved into a means of salvation or “Perfection”. It became an attempt among the clergy and those entrusted to them alike to earn merit in the sight of God, and therefore win salvation for themselves. At the time, monastic vows were seen as a “second baptism” and merited grace before Almighty God. So great was this alleged grace that it was said that others could derive their own merit from the work of monks, “that they could give others a share in their works”. Thus, what was produced was an ever-growing severity of life that must be imposed upon the one devoted to monastic living. In the same Article mentioned above, Melanchthon notes the impossibility of keeping the ever-evolving tradition of the Church, even by those who were dedicated to its practice. But lest we think this was a novel condemnation, it should be noted that these were not new critiques, but rather the Confession mentions earlier theologians (Gerson) who had similarly noticed the despair and even self-harm of those who “were not able to satisfy the traditions”. Melanchthon shows that by making religious life a means of salvation, the institution stood in direct opposition to the revealed Word of God.  Similarly, it invalidates itself as a vocation because it attempted to stand above the other diverse and laudable vocations that God has called His many people to inhabit. It should be mentioned, however, that Melanchthon is not attacking ascetic living, per se, nor the Christian duty to pursue holiness in general (as if he were some sort of antinomian), but rather he is dethroning anything that would attempt to stand as a counterfeit to God’s Grace. For later, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, he says:

Obedience, poverty, and celibacy, provided the latter is not impure, are, as exercises, adiaphora. And for this reason the saints can use these without impiety, just as Bernard, Franciscus, and other holy men used them. And they used them on account of bodily advantage, that they might have more leisure to teach and to perform other godly offices, and not that the works themselves are, by themselves, works that justify or merit eternal life. Finally, they belong to the class of which Paul says (1 Tim. 4:8): Bodily exercise profiteth little. And it is credible that in some places there are also at present good men, engaged in the ministry of the Word, who use these observances without wicked opinions. (Article XXVII)

As can be seen above, the Apology references St. Bernard and St. Francis favorably, both of whom were monastics. So it then seems that our dear Melanchthon wasn’t so much concerned with monastics or necessarily the institution of orders, but rather the many abuses within them, and, more specifically, their lack of Catholicity. Now, when reading the Augsburg Confession one thing becomes readily apparent as it starkly contrasts with the writings of later Protestant Formularies (the Westminster Standards for example), and that is the constant appeal to antiquity as well as the Roman (perhaps better to say Western) Canons of the Church. In Article XXVII of the Confession, which is written specifically in reference to Monastic vows, Melanchthon begins by appealing to these two points of authority to demonstrate how the medieval institution was contrary to what had been laid down as the Catholic faith. First referencing the canons and then antiquity he says:

What is taught on our part concerning Monastic Vows, will be better understood if it be remembered what has been the state of the monasteries, and how many things were daily done in those very monasteries, contrary to the Canons. In Augustine’s time, they were free associations. Afterward, when discipline was corrupted, vows were everywhere added for the purpose of restoring discipline, as in a carefully planned prison. (Article XXVII)

These abuses include those who were forced into taking religious vows, those who were ignorant of what they were vowing into, and those who were underage and not legally allowed to take such vows, but were compelled to do so none the less. On top of these unlawful enterings into the various religious orders, those who found themselves not suited to this particular vocation were unable to leave due to the weight placed upon their vow, and thus many noble Christians found themselves imprisoned. Likewise, the monastics taught that celibacy was greater than matrimony. Rather than teaching that celibacy was a unique calling within Christ’s Elect, they forced those without a gift of singleness to not take wives and thus violated what had been taught by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:2).  But despite this, the Confession recognizes that this was not the original intent nor the primitive practice. Melancthon teaches under the same Article:

What, then, came to pass in the monasteries? Aforetime they were schools of theology and other branches, profitable to the Church; and thence pastors and bishops were obtained. (Article XXVII)

Finally, then, the Augsburg Confession recognizes the laudable nature of the religious life as instituted, teaching that through her existence the Church Universal has received pastors and bishops for her edification.

But what of the rest of the Reformers? Firstly, Mr. Calvin’s view is comparable if not completely summarized in the words of Mr. Melanchthon, as it is not unknown that Calvin claimed to approve of and adhere to the words of the Augsburg Confession. It is recorded in 1557 in a letter to Schallingius that Calvin wrote: “Nor indeed do I reject the Augsburg Confession, which long ago I willingly and gladly subscribed, as the author himself interpreted it”. Some may perhaps say that this is misleading as perhaps Mr. Calvin wrote approvingly of the Confessio Augustana Variata, an altered version of the Confession that radically redefined the Lutheran view of the Eucharist to better fit the Calvinistic opinion. This may perhaps be true, however, the focus of the Altered Augsburg Confession had to do with the nature of the Eucharist and not the text’s condemnation of Monastic Vows as understood by the medieval Church. Therefore, what has been said by Mr. Melanchthon concerning monkishness is approved by Geneva’s beloved Reformer. As if to confirm this, Calvin unsurprisingly makes use of similar critiques in his Institutes. He says:

Still there was nothing with the Fathers less intended than to establish that kind of perfection which was afterwards fabricated by cowled monks, in order to rear up a species of double Christianity. For as yet the sacreligious dogma was not broached which compares the profession of monasticism to baptism, nay, plainly asserts that it is the form of a second baptism. Who can doubt that the Fathers with their whole hearts abhorred such blasphemy? (Institutes 4.13.14)

Likewise, the Institutes, no doubt influenced by the Augsburg Confession, compares medieval monasticism with that at the times of St. Augustine. Calvin says that the virtue expressed within the monks of Augustine’s day is lacking and altogether “alien” to what he and his contemporaries were accustomed to. Calvin does not stop here however, he goes on to tackle a few more issues with the religious orders of his day. Particularly,  drawing from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s many writing and perhaps specifically his Pastoral Rule, it is Calvin’s belief that the Presbyter’s chief duty was that of preaching. Therefore, there should be no confusion between the office of the Priest and the role of the monastic. If the Religious life is one of quiet contemplation and prayer, how then is he to rule a church, bring correction to the sinful, or minister to those in times of trial from behind convent walls. Likewise, the abrasiveness of the Priesthood seems at odds with the stillness of monastic living.  Calvin says:

…even to hold such a place in the Church is so repugnant to the monastic profession, that in old times, when persons were elected out of monasteries to clerical offices, they ceased to be monks. (Institutes 4.5.8)

He then goes on to cite the example of Pope St Gregory who did not “suffer the offices to be thus confounded”. St. Gregory himself teaching that abbots were to relinquish their previous roles as a minister within the Church as it is incompatible with the contemplative life. The priest is to speak whilst the monk is to be silent. Therefore, Calvin saw this confusion of roles as another abuse done to canon law. Drawing upon St. Gregory, Calvin declares that a monk invalidates himself canonically from the office, as the office is chiefly one of preaching and pastoral care. A monk simply can’t perform these tasks. This is not absurd in my opinion, as it is difficult to shepherd a people when you yourself are enclosed and therefore are not free to spread the Word abroad. “Let it now suffice, that in the purer times of the Church it was regarded as a great absurdity for a monk to hold the office of priest”. The French Reformer then turns his gaze to St. Jerome who lends his support in the matter. He recounts how St. Jerome testifies personally that while dwelling among the monks, he does not perform the role of the priest, but rather is contented to “ranks himself among the people” and is likewise governed and tended to by the other priests. Therefore, it is Calvin’s opinion, and it would seem to be of the same mind as Sts. Jerome and Gregory, that the monastic office is a hindrance to the divinely instituted priesthood and the preaching of the Word, which is its chief end. To be fair, our dear Calvin does note that there are such orders, the Order of Preachers for example, who do discuss and share the Word of God with the laity. However, those other orders content themselves with “muttering mass in their cells”. Thus, according to this Reformer, these inventive Monastic Orders have once more found themselves contrary to what is revealed in Sacred Scripture. The Reformer makes his point rather bluntly when he says:

Let a monk, contented with his cell, neither presume to administer the sacraments, nor hold any other public office. Let them deny, if they can, that it is open mockery of God when any one is appointed a presbyter in order to abstain from his proper and genuine office, and when he who has the name is not able to have the thing. (Institutes 4.5.8)

Lastly, Calvin notes the monkish withdrawal from the Church itself. Sadly enough, the ridiculous notion of the Private Mass was all too common among the clergy, and especially of those cloistered. Calvin points out how to be a monk, was in a real sense to withdraw from the Church and therefore “destroyed” its communion. They instead had “erected private altars” for themselves behind their all-too-holy convent walls. Thus, in his opinion, each convent served as its own schismatic community. A fellowship which has removed itself from the Church and its community, alienating themselves from the faithful. This, of course, was not only contrary to what was revealed in Sacred Scripture but also violated Calvin’s pastoral sensibilities. But is this a critique of monasticism as instituted? Calvin does not think so, for in the same breath he once more directs our gaze to the primitive brothers, saying:

what resemblance have they [contemprary monastics] in this respect to the ancient monks? These [the primitive monks], 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. (Institutes 4.13.14)

So it would seem that both Geneva and Wittenburg condemned what they saw in their day, and rightfully so. And yet, despite these condemnations, however, came an approving description of the religious communities of another age, particularly those contemporary with St. Augustine.

Now, we have yet to look at one more school of reformed thought before finally exploring the writings of the earliest Fathers. That is to say, the beliefs of those dwelling within the English tradition, particularly the Prince of the Reformers: Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Though, for the sake of brevity, rather than using the words of the Archbishop himself, it would be apt to make use of the description of corruption within the monastic communities under King Henry VIII as found within the writings of Bishop J.C. Ryle. For now, it is sufficient to know that Cranmer had a significant role in the dissolution of the Monasteries, and we shall let Ryle tell us why that is, as his words are neatly condensed for easy transmission of the matter. I will also be the first to admit that his descriptions are far superior to any that I could ever hope to produce on the subject. If I may be permitted to direct the reader to his account given in Five English Reformers for but a moment, His Grace describes the atrocities as such:

  1. “At the Abby of Hales, in Gloucestershire, a vial was shown by the priests to those who offered alms, which was said to contain the blood of Christ. Onn examination, in King Henry VIII’s time, this notable vial was found to contain neither more nor less than the blood of a duck, which was renewed every week.”
  2. “At Bexley, in Kent, a crucifix was exhibited, which received peculiar honour and large offerings, because of the continual miracle which was said to attend its exhibition. When people offered copper, the face of the figure looked grave; when they offered silver, it relaxed its severity; when they offered gold, it openly smiled. In Henry VIII’s time this famous crucifix was examined, and wires were found within it by which the priests could move the face of the image, and make it assume any expression that they pleased.”
  3. “At Reading Abby, in Berkshire, the following relics. among many others, were most religiously worshipped: an angel with one wing, the spear-head that pierced our Saviour’s side, two pieces of the holy cross, St James’ hand, St. Philip’s stole, and a bone of Mary Magdalene.”
  4. “At Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, the priests exhibited the coals that roasted St Lawrence, the pairings of St Edmund’s toenails, Thomas à Becket’s penknife and boots, and as many pieces of our Saviour’s cross as would have made, if joined together, one large whole cross.”
  5. “At Maiden Bradley Priory, in Somersetshire, the worshippers were privileged to see the Virgin Mary’s smock, part of the bread used at the original Lord’s supper, and a piece of the stone manger in which our Lord was laid at Bethlehem.”
  6. “At Bruton Priory, in Somersetshire, was kept a girdle of the Virgin Mary, made of red silk. This solemn relic was sent a special favour to women at childbirth, to insure them a safe delivery. The like was done with a white girdle of Mary Magdalene, kept at Farley Abbey, in Wiltshire. In neither case was, we may be sure, was the relic sent without a pecuniary consideration.”

These examples given by the first bishop of Liverpool are intended to be comical. The sheer absurdity of the claims found within the mouths of pre-reformation clergy and religious alike are enough to make any sensible Christian today laugh in utter amusement. Ryle’s intention is to show the abased-boldness of the Church in those days, lest we return to them unawares. It is unfortunate that the tone of this chapter cannot last, and the good bishop turns our attention away from such humorous incidents to more serious matters than mere trickery of the laity. Quickly mentioning the ignorance of the priesthood at the time and their abuses of those under their charge, and briefly mentioning one more monkish antic:

So long as a felon or malefactor paid the monks well, he might claim sanctuary within the precincts of religious houses, after any crime, and hardly any law could reach him. Yet all this time for Lollards and Wickliffites there was no mercy at all! (Five English Reformers)

He then finally leaves us with the full weight of religious debauchery saying:

“But the blackest spot on the character of our Pre-Reformation clergy in England is one of which it is painful to speak. I mean the impurity of their lives, and their horrible contempt of the seventh commandment [conerning adultary]. The results of auricular confession, carried on by men bound by their vow never to marry, were such that I dare not enter into them. The consequence of shutting up herds of men and women, in the prime of life, in monasteries and nunneries, were such that I will not defile my readers’ minds by dwelling upon them. Suffice it to say that the discoveries made by Henry VIII’s Commissioners, of the state of things in many of the so-called ‘religious’, were such as it is impossible to describe.”

I need not spell out what Ryle is here insinuating. If the reader finds himself confused by the words above, I advise he seek out his parish priest for an explanation, though I imagine it will be given from behind a blushing face. -This said, the good bishop is not attempting to color the Pre-Reformed Church with broad strokes. In a manner of objective charitability, he notes that these aforementioned tragedies were not true of every religious house. He recognizes that the Godstow Nunnery, near Oxford, had a “stainless reputation”. But despite this shining jewel of monastic piety, it is sad to say that the above descriptions were the majority of religious life in the time of King Henry VIII. But, if despite the overwhelming corruption of the medieval Church there still managed to produce bright stars of spotless reputation such as the Godstow Nunnery, it is possible that the primitive houses shined to an even greater degree! Bearing in mind these critiques of our Divines, and the sheer weight of their words, let us now turn our attention to antiquity.

A Monastic Response:

There are many monastics throughout the course of Church History who have eternally won a place within the hearts of many a Christian. There are perhaps too many an Abba or Abbot whose writings, devotion, or martyrdom has radically shaped the landscape of Christian Orthodoxy and Prayer. There is the famous devotional rule of St. Basil which instructed the faithful of the East for so many centuries. There are the missionary efforts of Sts. Columba and Columban. The Philosophical pronouncements of an Aquinas, or a Scotus. And if these were not enough to fill the reader with appreciation and delight,  the most precious of Christian artifacts continue to be found within some forgotten hall or volume lodged within one obscure monastery or another. It would seem that the entire world has been marked by these relentless signs of Christian devotion. So remarkable is the innumerable spread of Christian Monasticism, and so broad its influence, that I shan’t be foolish enough to think that I could spare even one remark for each. So rather, for the sake of brevity and the sanity of both the reader and author alike, we shall focus our attention on simply two. There are two Fathers who have proven more influential than the rest, those being St. Anthony (sometimes: Antony) the Great, and our Father St. Benedict. These two institutors of monastic living may be deemed proto-monks in their own right. Therefore, they are a safe estimation of whatever constituted the monastic discipline as it was instituted. I have here provided only a few selections of their writings, and only those which seem to address the concerns shown by our Reformers earlier.  The curious reader should be encouraged to pick up some volume of theirs, or perhaps of their pupils if he wishes to know more on the subject. If not, however, the reader should find himself satisfied by what I have provided:

Saint Anthony the Great is often regarded as the “Father of Monasticism”, and therefore he shall be a fitting beginning for our inquiry into the subject. His sayings are in fact invaluable when determining what religious life should be and its consistency with Holy Writ. Most of what is known concerning Anthony is derived from a book written by St. Athanasius know as The Life of Saint Anthony. We will be heavily drawing from its text as well as the Sayings for the Desert Fathers. After St. Anthony, St. Benedict is regarded as the “Father of Western Monasticism”, as he established the norm for Cenobitic orders in the Western Church through his regula or “rule”. Because of this immense influence, we will likewise be exploring this rule in the hopes of answering these Protestant objections.

I. Primacy of Scripture

The chief complaint on the part of the Reformers and their spiritual descendants is that of the lack of Biblical literacy found within the monastic tradition. When examining the critiques we made mention of earlier, One will see that they are all derived from one biblical emphasis or another. So, it would seem that the first step in vindicating the monastic office is to first determine they’re views of the scriptures and whether or not it meets the lofty expectations of Sola Scriptura Protestantism. The writings of the proto-monks are all too willing to give us their response: it is recorded that someone once asked Abba Anthony (a title he is often given), “what must one do in order to please God?”. To which the old man replied:

Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Later, when the monastic community had flourished in Egypt, the humble Saint found himself surrounded by many disciples. As was common practice in the East, and as he had grown in fame over the years, those present begged that he might share some words of wisdom with them that they might be able to emulate his righteousness. Fittingly, and much to Protestant delight, he began his discourse by saying:

The Scriptures are enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up with words. Wherefore you, as children, carry that which you know to your father; and I as the elder share my knowledge and what experience has taught me with you. (The Life of Saint Anthony)

And at another time to a Pilgrim:

Hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture; be mindful of the works of the saints that your souls being put in remembrance of the commandments may be brought into harmony with the zeal of the saints. (The Life of St. Anthony)

Finally, there is a story recounted concerning St. Anthony that goes as such:

The brothers came to Father Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?”  The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures.  That should teach you how.”  But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.”  Then the elder said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matt 5:39)  They said, “We cannot do that.”  The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.”  “We cannot do that either,” they said.  So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.”  Then the elder said to his disciple, “Prepare a little soup for these invalids.  If you cannot do this or that, what can I do for you?  What you need are prayers!” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

In a similar humility, St. Benedict titles chapter 73 of his Rule “Of the fact that the observance of the whole of righteousness is not laid down in this rule”. This title alone should stop any monk who would dare to boast in the keeping of Benedict’s rule. But if this simple phrase were not enough to combat the haughtiness of his medieval descendants, as if his spirituality were the completion of holiness, the thoughtful Father goes on to say:

For what page or phrase of divine authority of the Old or New Testament is not the straightest norm of Human life? Or what book of the Catholic Fathers does not re-echo how we may reach our Creator in a straight run? (Chapter 73:3-4)

For those who may be surprised by such statements, this emphasis on the bible as the ordinary means of godly living as a key tenet of patristic spirituality is not lost on the Reformers. For example, in Archbishop Cranmer’s Preface to the Book of Common Prayer, he says:

“THERE was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted: as (emong other thinges) it may plainly appere by the common prayers in the Churche, commonlye called divine service: the firste originall and grounde whereof, if a manne woulde searche out by the auncient fathers, he shall finde that the same was not ordeyned, but of a good purpose, and for a great advauncement of godlines: For they so ordred the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest parte thereof) should be read over once in the yeare, intendyng thereby, that the Cleargie, and specially suche as were Ministers of the congregacion, should (by often readyng and meditacion of Gods worde) be stirred up to godlines themselfes, and be more able also to exhorte other by wholsome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the trueth. And further, that the people (by daily hearyng of holy scripture read in the Churche) should continuallye profite more and more in the knowledge of God, and bee the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”

Cranmer here extols the wisdom of the Fathers in establishing a rule in which scripture was to be read consistently throughout the calendar of the Church. Contrary to his day, the people were not to be barred from hearing the Word of God, nor from hearing it in its entirety. It is rather the confusing of this principle of biblical emphasis that led to the superstitions and perversions of true religion found within the Medieval Church. For Cranmer goes on to say in the same preface:

“But these many yeares passed this Godly and decent ordre of the auncient fathers, hath bee so altered, broken, and neglected, by planting in uncertein stories, Legendes, Respondes, Verses, vaine repeticions, Commemaracions, and Synodalles, that commonly when any boke of the Bible was began: before three or foure Chapiters were read out, all the rest were unread.”

Though the good Archbishop is here discussing the Divine Liturgy, it serves as a good treatment of the many breviaries and other monastic works that were circulated throughout the religious and laity alike. If this critique of Cranmer’s can be levied against the Monastery (as I have seen done before), as well as the Romish Mass, then so too must the positives of Cranmer’s assessment of the primitive faith be extended to Monasticism as it was instituted. It is no secret the once common “liturgy of the hours”, the saying of prayers seven times a day by the people and clergy alike, had been relocated almost exclusively to the monastery.  It was through this preservation of the offices within the monastic tradition which allowed for Cranmer to once again return it to the laity during the Reformation in the form of the Daily Office. So then, despite this reformer’s personal distaste for the institution, Cranmer saw aspects of monasticism as simply Christian, and thus returned those practices to the people. Chief among these practices was the daily reading of the Bible. Both the quotes of the holy Fathers already given and the actions of our dear Cranmer make this evident. And were this not enough, one may only be directed to St. Benedict’s Rule once more. Not only is it almost entirely a compilation of scriptural quotation, nor does it merely instruct the monk on how and when to meditate on the psalter, but by Benedict’s own words, the rule sees the monastic life of prayer as a response to Holy Scripture, saying:

Let us then at long last get up because Scripture is calling us up with these words; THE HOUR HAS COME TO RISE FROM SLEEP. Let us open our eyes to the divine LIGHT, and with startled ears let us listen to what the divine VOICE is calling out every day, urging us: TODAY, IF YOU SHOULD HEAR HIS VOICE, HARDEN NOT YOUR HEARTS. (Prologue)

Scripture has spoken and the monk responds. The Monk is then to know scripture and live according to its divine command. In support of this, and though we do not have the breadth of time to enter into the subject, let the reader be reminded that the ancient practice of Lectio Divina arose within a Benedictine context. -What has been said to this point should be sufficient to demonstrate that the monastic fathers were not alien to the Word of God, but rather that their lives were centered upon it. The Reformed conviction and the institution of the practice are one in the same. This should prove hopeful for any who wish to attempt a Protestant Monasticism. But which of the Reformers’ critiques does this address? Firstly, this should address all of the abuses listed by Bishop Ryle. The two Fathers listed both stress a conformity of life to the rule of Scripture as well as elsewhere detailing the virtues and piety expected of one who has taken monastic vows. There is no room for such trickery and debauchery within the lives of those who wish to live consistently with the teachings of these men. Secondly, the fears of Mr. Melancthon are put to ease. Neither St. Anthony nor St. Benedict would dare to contradict the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:2. They would not encourage any to put away their wives in order to pursue monastic perfection as to do so would be in violation of Holy Writ and the ancient canons. Neither would they force one into the habit who did not have such a calling to celibacy. All things ought to be done according to the rule of God’s Word. Lastly, Mr. Calvin can rest easy, for the true monastic would never encourage such a life at the expense of the Presbyterial office and the duties laid out for it in Holy Scripture. Mr. Calvin himself knows this as he is the one who quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great, a monastic, and St. Jerome, who lived as a monastic for a time, in defense of his position. Though St. Benedict’s rule does (hesitantly) allow for the admission of a priest into the order, he makes it clear that he is not to be given special privileges, and like the rest of the brothers is subject to the rule and the pastoral care of the Abbot. He ceases to serve as a priest in such an environment unless directed to do so by the abbot and only in particular situations. The rule teaches:

Let him, however, be allowed… to celebrate mass if however the abbot orders him. Otherwise, let him presume nothing, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule, and let him rather give examples of humility to all (Chapter LX)

At this time there were no private masses, no sacramental gluttony within isolated cells by one priest or another, but rather, at the discretion of the abbot a priest may say mass for the congregation of brothers present, that they might receive the sacrament along with the teaching of the Word. This is a very different practice than what our Calvin experienced, nor what Fr. Luther practiced within the walls of his monastery. In this context, I doubt even Mr. Calvin could find fault in the wisdom of St. Benedict’s writing concerning these matters as they are of good order and not at all akin to the superstition of those brothers of the 17th Century. Thus these disputes put to rest, we move on.

II. Vocational Pride

A characteristic of medieval Christianity was its unique and elaborate hierarchy of holiness among the faithful. This, of course, is not in reference to the apostolic ordering of the historic episcopate, but rather the arranging of orders and offices in varying degrees of prestige in such a way that the faithful were duped into believing that one Christian’s God-given vocation merited more grace than another’s. There was little of Christendom not hindered by this strange system that it quickly became a favorite critique of the Reformers. Fr. Luther’s writes in the Smalcald Articles:

…For he who makes a vow to live as a monk believes that he will enter upon a mode of life holier than ordinary Christians lead, and wishes to earn heaven by his own works not only for himself, but also for others… (Part III, Article XIV)

This innovation in Christian holiness produced a two-tier Christianity, making the Church a house divided against itself. A Church where some are excluded from the completeness of God’s Grace offered by Christ to His children. Thus many left godly vocation in pursuit of a monastic life which offered a surer salvation. This absurdity is, of course, contrary to Scripture. If this is permitted to be the understanding of the monastic office, then the one who takes Monastic Vows finds himself in direct opposition to St. Paul who says: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Corinthians 7:20). So foreign to true Christianity is this notion that Calvin notes that it is completely absent from holy write and patristic teaching alike. He says:

Still there was nothing which the Fathers less intended than to establish that kind of perfection which was afterwards fabricated by cowled monks, in order to rear up a species of double Christianity. (Institutes 4.13.16)

So different are the two species of monasticism that Mr. Calvin goes on to say that the comparison is no different than the contrast between apes and men. If Mr. Calvin’s words are to be believed, let us then see what wisdom the Monastic Fathers offer that we might avoid this “double Christianity”.

First, St. Anthony did not write a formal Rule, therefore his manner of living serves as the greatest testament to his expectations for the would-be monastic. St. Athanasius’ prologue to The Life of St. Anthony says as much: “…seeing that for monks the life of Antony is a sufficient pattern of discipline”. Thus the example of the Saint is intended to be prescriptive, and therefore, the following description of his humility to be taken as an admonition:

“…he was tolerant in disposition and humble in spirit. For though he was such a man, he observed the rule of the Church most rigidly and was willing that all the clergy should be honored above himself. For he was not ashamed to bow his head to bishops and presbyters, and if ever a deacon came to him for help he discoursed with him on what was profitable but gave place to him in prayer, not being ashamed to learn himself. For often he would ask questions and desired to listen to those who were present, and if anyone said anything that was useful he confessed that he was profited”

Unlike the monks of the Reformation, their Holy Father Anthony did not presume to be anything more than a layman. He felt no need to boast in his office, but rather joined the rest of the laity in subjecting himself to the rule and wisdom of the Church and Her ministers. Even of the deacons of whose duty it was to serve the laity, St. Anthony served instead and preferred them in honor rather than take any semblance of dignity for himself.  And far be it from teaching self-sufficiency, or of any kind of justifying monastic merit, but rather in similarity to Luther’s convictions and in stark contrast with the pride exhibited within the monks of Medieval Europe, Anthony teaches:

Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Were anyone to boast in the strictness of their life, or the cleverness of the “prison” that they had devised for their body that they might not sin and therefore attain righteousness, the Father Anthony, rather, warns that such practices can be detrimental to their spiritual life. He says: “Some have worn out their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers). St. Anthony rather took a tempered and sympathetic approach to monastic life. Once it was noticed that he was enjoying his time with the brothers rather than praying or instructing others in prayer. Upon seeing this, a hunter passing by took it upon himself to correct Abba Anthony for such idleness. The kind monk responded thus: “If we stretch the brothers beyond measure they will soon break.  Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers). It becomes evident, then, that the way of the monk is a humble way:

I saw all the traps that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through such snares?”  Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility”. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)


Nine monks fell away after many labors. They were obsessed with spiritual pride, for they put their trust in their own works and being deceived they did not give due heed to the commandment that says, “Ask your father and he will tell you.”  (Deut 32:7) (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Likewise, St. Benedict’s Rule has an entire chapter dedicated to the exercise of godly humility that is to be expected of the monk. The seventh chapter of his rule teaches:

“Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard
when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130[131]:1)
But how has he acted?
“Rather have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130[131]:2).”

And in direct contrast to Mr. Calvin’s evaluation of the Religious of his day, that is to say, that there are those who, isolate themselves from the community at behest of their pride, living, in effect, as schismatics: St. Anthony left his home in isolation often, as “all judges used to ask him to come down, because it was impossible for them to enter on account of their following of litigants” (Life of Saint Anthony) and once even returned to Alexandria to uphold and proclaim the orthodoxy taught by St. Athanasius during the disputes with Arius and his followers. Likewise, in true monastic form, he was diligent in welcoming the traveler and pilgrim who sought out his wisdom. St. Athanasius records that he was fond of giving spiritual advice to all who sought it, and our Father Benedict taught: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” (Chapter 53). The monastic life, though of silence and contemplation of self, was a vastly communal life.

Of these examples, there is little that need be expounded upon. These exhortations of the holy fathers already stand in contrast with the descriptions given by the Reformers of the contemporary monastics of their day. If this is the case, then what is critiqued by our beloved Reformers is not so much the institution (though the institution is colored by the malpractice), but rather the obscured expression of whose abuses they had come to experience.

III. Monastic Vows

The Reformed distaste for monastic vows seems to hang upon three general principles. Firstly, the medieval monastic took solemn vows in the hope of attaining salvation. Because this is an innovation in the Catholic Faith and contrary to the teachings of the Gospel, it is not a valid vow, and therefore cannot be upheld. The Augsburg Confession saying:

But it is evident that monks have taught that services of man’s making satisfy for sins and merit grace and justification. What else is this than to detract from the glory of Christ and to obscure and deny the righteousness of faith? It follows, therefore, that the vows thus commonly taken have been wicked services, and, consequently, are void. For a wicked vow, taken against the commandment of God, is not valid; for (as the Canon says) no vow ought to bind men to wickedness. (Article XXVII)


So many wicked opinions are inherent in the vows, namely, that they justify, that they constitute Christian perfection, that they keep the counsels and commandments, that they have works of supererogation. All these things, since they are false and empty, make vows null and void. (Article XXVII)

Secondly, the Reformers saw the many cowled masses hiding behind the monastery walls as rebels who fled from God’s divine institutions (such as to work and tend for a family). On top of this, such acts of rebellion could not be remedied as a monastic profession was a Solemn Vow, which according to St. Thomas Aquinas (see Summa Theologica II-II, q. 88, art. 7), invalidates any marriage as one solemn vow (i.e. a marital vow) cannot overthrow another (i.e. a previous monastic vow). If a man entered the monastic office, and later found himself unable to remain chaste, in that it was not his particular vocation, any wife he took to himself would be considered illegal and the marriage illegitimate by the Church. St. Thomas’ logic is such: A solemn vow is a complete consecration to the Lord. Things which are consecrated to the Lord cannot be used for any other purpose. The Religious is consecrated to the Lord in his entirety and, therefore, cannot cease to be a religious. Because chastity is essential to the religious office it cannot be dispensed with. The problem with this, however, is that the monastic life is instituted by the Church, whereas the institution of marriage is done so by the Divine. Even the current Code of Canon Law used by the Roman Church puts it such: “A vow is solemn if the Church has recognized it as such, otherwise it is simple” (Can.  1192 §2.). Therefore, the belief that the monastic profession was inviolable, even by marriage, was to say that a vow instituted by men was equal or greater to a vow instituted by God Himself. Thus, men and women who were not called to vocational celibacy were trapped therein by the Church and therefore were guilty of not fulfilling the divine requirement of marriage.  Melanchthon says:

There are on record examples of men who, forsaking marriage and the administration of the Commonwealth, have hid themselves in monasteries. This they called fleeing from the world, and seeking a kind of life which would be more pleasing to God. Neither did they see that God ought to be served in those commandments which He Himself has given and not in commandments devised by men. A good and perfect kind of life is that which has for it the commandment of God. It is necessary to admonish men of these things. (Article XXVII)

Though there has been much development and subsequent nuance within Roman Law, their canons still state: “Those bound by a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute invalidly attempt marriage” (Can.  1088), and likewise: “Those in sacred orders invalidly attempt marriage” (Can.  1087).

Lastly, Melancthon’s Confession demonstrates that the Roman Pontiff, on occasion, did away with one person or another’s vows. He says:

Now, if the obligation of vows could not be changed for any cause whatever, the Roman Pontiffs could never have given dispensation for it is not lawful for man to annul an obligation which is simply divine. But the Roman Pontiffs have prudently judged that leniency is to be observed in this obligation, and therefore we read that many times they have dispensed from vows. The case of the King of Aragon who was called back from the monastery is well known, and there are also examples in our own times. [Now, if dispensations have been granted for the sake of securing temporal interests, it is much more proper that they be granted on account of the distress of souls.] (Article XXVII)

Therefore, it is an exaggeration to teach that a vow cannot be violated. Rather, if the Bishop of Rome has the ability to allow men and women to leave the monastery at his discretion, then why not allow it for all who are not fitted to such an environment? In the eyes of the Reformers, the austerity of the profession was unneeded, and in fact proved to be detrimental to the spiritual lives of the monks.

We will ignore the first of these three complaints as I believe it was dealt with sufficiently in the previous section. It is enough to say that the Fathers of Monasticism did not intend to create a system of surer salvation, but rather a spirituality for those with a particular vocation and whose souls’ were in need of the safety of the cell walls.

Concerning the second and the third: It should be noted that this understanding of incompatibility between the one who partakes in a monastic vow and Holy Matrimony does not take into account the broader monastic tradition. For example, it is well known that many abbots within the Celtic tradition were, in fact, married. It is also said that it was common for monasteries and diocese alike to be bequeathed from father to son. Similarly, in the East, Abba Macarius, a contemporary of St. Anthony, was pressured into marriage as he was accused of violating a virgin in a nearby town and, therefore, was required to wed her. Though the woman lied concerning this, he still supported her through the making and selling of his craft. What is interesting is that his monastic office is not diminished by taking her in matrimony. It is, however, to be supposed that he never knew her intimately even after marriage (something that would have appalled the Reformers), it is still significant that he refers to her as “my wife” while continuing steadfastly in his monastic calling. Likewise, St. Theodora of Alexandria was a happily married Egyptian woman. One day, she was seduced by a young man and committed the sin of adultery. Being distraught due to the weight of her sin, she disguised herself as a man and lived the rest of her life in a Monastery as a married woman (though her husband did not know it). The fact that she was not a man was only discovered after her death. Again, such a story would have been hateful to the Reformers, but it does teach that the monastic office was not considered lessened by, or irreconcilable with Holy Matrimony. Moving on, let us turn our attention to our two Fathers in particular. It is significant that, as mentioned earlier, St. Anthony did not write nor employ any kind of formal regula or vow. No mention of one is made of in either The Sayings of the Desert Fathers nor The Life of Saint Anthony. It would seem then (as taught by the Reformers) that the primitive monastic communities were based on mutual consent. A personal striving after holiness and not a binding contract between God and Man. One was free to enter or leave as directed by God’s prompting. Now, St. Benedict, on the other hand, does provide a vow in his rule (Chapter 58), but it does contrast significantly with what was practiced in the medieval Church. For example, the Rule teaches

When anyone is newly come for the reformation of his life,
let him not be granted an easy entrance

There was no quick or hasty admittance to the monastery, no vowing before an age of consent. One must petition for entrance and show steadfastness before any consideration is made. Later, if the aspirant is admitted to the community, he is to be rigorously educated and disciplined in the ways of prayer. He has the rule read to him several times over the course of years wherein he must choose to submit to it. Finally, when it came time, he makes his lifelong vow. St. Benedict says:

From that day forward he may not leave the monastery
nor withdraw his neck from under the yoke of the Rule
which he was free to refuse or to accept 
during that prolonged deliberation.

But what after this? Is a monk free to leave the monastery? The answer is a little unclear. It is certain that the monk is not restrained within the monastery, as was common within medieval Europe. What is clear within the Rule, however, is that it was expected that a vow is to be honored for the rest of a monastic’s life. Though interestingly enough, under the same chapter, St. Benedicts teaches that the secular clothes of the monk are to be retained after he is given his habit so that he may return to them if he leaves or is removed from the religious community. St. Benedict does teach that such a departure is the work of the devil, but he does see such departures as a possibility for the one who has taken monastic vows. He also does not teach that such a person could not enter into Holy Matrimony or any other form of secular life. The lifelong monastic office was expected of those who made the vow due to their profession but not because of some mystical consecration wherein all other forms of life are made invalid in the eyes of God. To say that only the Bishop of Rome could do away with a monk’s profession is silly. It would seem that according to antiquity, such departures were left to the discretion of the one who has undertaken the monastic life, and at most, his abbot.


In closing, the words of the Reformers are not to be ignored concerning this subject. Their critiques are needful and display a level of corruption that one does not wish to see imposed upon Christ’s Church ever again. However, what is often ignored by many within the Protestant Tradition, is the favorable references on the part of our Reformers concerning the monastics of old. This alluded to virtue is loudly displayed within the writings and lives of the earlies Monastic Fathers. From what we have explored, the tenets of Holy Scripture, and the reactionary convictions of the Reformers find themselves quite at home within the primitive tradition. In fact, it would seem that it is the obscuring of this tradition, not the tradition itself, which lead to well known medieval abuses. History then testifies to the fact that there can be a virtuous monastic practice (something often denied by Protestants), as well as the scandal of which we are accustomed. It is my opinion that this notion is displayed quite neatly within John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs wherein at one point of history, one righteous monk or another is condemned and slain for the upholding of the faith, whereas at another point in time, it is the monk who is the one slaying the righteous. Both good and bad examples of this devotion are contained within the same book. This then should serve as a warning lest corruption creep up behind other godly institutions whilst we are unaware. In summation: It is my opinion that the earliest monastics were biblical and virtuous, and this fact was not lost even on the Reformers who suffered under the weight of a corrupted Church. If there is to be a Protestant Monasticism, it need be according to what is exemplified in the figures we have presently explored.

In an article to come, we will determine if such an institution is not only profitable but whether or not it is defensible according to God’s Word. We will then do our best to determine what tenets are required for a contemporary Protestantism in light of all we have discovered.

Soli Deo Gloria

Further reading:

  1. Rt. Rev. Dr. Will Boyd, An Overview History of Monasticism in the Early Church |Digital
  2. The Rule of Saint Benedict | Digital | Physical
  3. The Life of Saint Anthony |Digital | Physical

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