Saturday, June 01, 2019

Did Calvin Think Monasticism was Holy and Legitimate?

It's hard to imagine a time in which monasticism was one of the hottest topics of the day. The pens of the Reformers were busy attacking this well-established societal institution, intending to tear it to shreds. Like the other magisterial Reformers, John Calvin was highly critical of monasticism. He presented a lengthy exposition against it in his Institutes, referring to its adherents as "hooded sophists" who put forth fabrications and blasphemy (IV.13.14). Part of his argumentation though is curious; he hearkens back, with seeming approval, to a golden age of monasticism found in the ancient church. He then uses this ideal era of monasticism to pummel what he saw as the corrupted current strain that was provoking such intense societal controversy.

Take a moment to read Calvin's positive assessment of early monasticism found in The Institutes IV.13.8-9. He utilizes and summarizes a lengthy passage from Augustine which describes an almost Utopian monastics life: a group of people denying "the allurements of this world" spending their time "living in prayers, readings, and discussions, not swollen by pride, not disorderly through stubbornness, nor livid with envy." They lack possessions, but do so in such a was so as to not burden anyone else. They eat only what they need so as to distribute the leftovers to the needy. "Many do not drink wine, yet they do not think themselves defiled by it; for they most humanely provide it for the weaker brethren, and those who without it cannot attain bodily health; and they fraternally admonish some who foolishly refuse it lest out of vain superstition they become weaker rather than more holy." "They meet in and aspire together toward one love. To offend against it is considered as wicked as to offend against God himself." These are only a few of the points made by Augustine via Calvin. (Calvin is summarizing Augustine, see NPNF IV, 59 f).

What's so wrong with this way of life? If a group of people want to live together to strive for these spiritual ideals, what harm could there possibly be? Wasn't even Calvin here admitting that monasticism was at one time a good and holy enterprise?  Not necessarily. Calvin presented this exercise in compare and contrast as an apolgetic argument, "lest anyone should defend present-day monasticism on the grounds of its antiquity" (IV.13.8):
I merely wish to indicate in passing not only what sort of monks the ancient church had but what sort of monastic profession then existed. Thus intelligent readers may judge by comparison the shamelessness of those who claim antiquity to support present monasticism (IV.13.10).
By this comparison of ancient and present-day monasticism I trust I have accomplished my purpose: to show that our hooded friends falsely claim the example of the first church in defense of their profession—since they differ from them as much as apes from men (IV.13.16).
Doesn't this apologetic argument though beg the question of the validity of the monastic way of life? Given the positive description of the earlier presented monasticism (that Calvin himself brought up!), shouldn't the Reformers have simply put more effort into reforming monasticism back to its purer state? For Calvin, it seems like a blatant contradiction: the old generation of monks had noble ideals and a quest for holiness. Today's batch of monks are soaked in corruption, therefore the monasteries must go. This simply doesn't follow logically and it seems quite at odds with reforming the church.

The answer to this Calvin conundrum is to read the entire context! In The Institutes, Calvin's argumentation is lengthy and detailed (at times, in  my opinion top-heavy). One has to press through from IV.13.8-9 all the way up to IV.13.16 to come across what John T. McNeil's translation heads as "Considerations Against Ancient Monasticism":
Meanwhile, I frankly admit that even in that ancient form which Augustine commends there is something that I do not like very much. I grant that they were not superstitious in the outward exercise of a quite rigid discipline, yet I say that they were not without immoderate affectation and perverse zeal. It was a beautiful thing to forsake all their possessions and be without earthly care. But God prefers devoted care in ruling a household, where the devout householder, clear and free of all greed, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, keeps before him the purpose of serving God in a definite calling. It is a beautiful thing to philosophize in retirement, far from intercourse with men. But it is not the part of Christian meekness, as if in hatred of the human race, to flee to the desert and the wilderness and at the same time to forsake those duties which the Lord has especially commanded. Though we grant there was nothing else evil in that profession, it was surely no slight evil that it brought a useless and dangerous example into the church (IV.13.16).
Calvin made a related argument in IV.14.14 in arguing against the monasticism of his day:
The facts themselves tell us that all those who enter into the monastic community break with the church. Why? Do they not separate themselves from the lawful society of believers, in adopting a peculiar ministry and a private administration of the sacraments? If this is not to break the communion of the church, what is?
Calvin wasn't looking to the alleged golden age of monasticism to reform it or return it to its former state of glory. It's not simply that the earlier way of monastic life was pure and holy and now needed reformation. Calvin's argument was first a demonstration that the monks of his day were nothing at all like the the monks of old ("they differ from them as much as apes from men").  Then, for Calvin, despite all the positives of monasticism's golden age, it was the monastic fundamental of a lifelong retreat from society and family that discredits it as a way of life.

There is nothing new under the sun, and the wheel has been reinvented! After writing this entry, I came across R. Scott Clark's 2014 blog essay, Did Luther And Calvin Favor Evangelical Monasticism? Clark critiqued an article by "Greg Peters, Associate Professor of Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University," entitled, The New Monasticism Gets Older. Clark covered the same territory I did and arrived at the conclusion I did.  Clark says,
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.
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.
My entry was similarly provoked by an article in which it was being argued Calvin favored earlier monasticism.

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