Friday, November 14, 2014

Luther on Monasticism

Anyone who is familiar with the writings of Martin Luther knows that he did not hide his disdain for the monastic lifestyle from which he came.  Many people take that criticism to mean that Luther was advocating for the complete removal of monasticism from Christianity.  A careful reading of Luther does not support that conclusion, though.  For, in the midst of his vitriolic writings directed against the medieval monastic institutions, you can find quotes like these:

"And so, if you vow to take up the religious life, and if you live with men of like mind, with a clear conscience that in monasticism you seek nothing to your advantage in your relationship with God, but because either your situation has brought you to embrace this kind of life, or it appeared to be the best way of life for you, without your thinking thereby that you are better than he who takes a wife or takes up farming, then in that case you are neither wrong to take vows nor wrong to live in this way, insofar as the propriety of the vow is concerned." (From "Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows", written in 1521, and found in Luther's Works, Vol. 44, page 304).

In that same writing, Luther had nothing but praise for St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism:

"St. Anthony, the very father of monks and the founder of monastic life, most wisely and in a Christian manner believed and taught that absolutely nothing should be observed which did not have the authority of Scripture. He knew absolutely nothing about monastic vows and ceremonial of this kind, but willingly chose to live as a hermit, and of his own will chose to live unmarried, after the pattern of the gospel.  Pursuing human wisdom, his successors made this way of life into a vow, into a matter of obligation and compulsion.  This way of life is but a specious copy and a mistaken observance of the rule of Anthony, which is the rule of Christ." (Luther's Works, Vol. 44, p. 253).

These passages make it apparent that Luther did not seek to destroy monasticism, but to reform it, and to have it return to its roots according to the way of the early monastics. His criticisms were not directed at the very existence of monasticism, but at the system of vows that had developed, and at the medieval notion that monasticism was a superior form of life compared to other vocations, such as family life and other forms of labor.

Unfortunately, churches that are the heirs of the Reformation have largely forgotten that the rule of St. Anthony is the rule of Christ.  But, as I have noted elsewhere, the seeds are being sown for a new form of monasticism, based on the Gospel and the ancient forms of monasticism.  It is my belief that this new/old form of monasticism  will play a crucial role in the promulgation of the faith in our increasingly secular, post-Christendom context.    


  1. While I fully applaud the spirit of your post, if monasticism is separated from the Church, it will have the same doctrinal problems the Protestant denominations are having now. St Teresa of Avila reformed her order -- reformed -- she did not break away from the Church. The center of monastic life, as is the center of the Church, is the Eucharist. The Mass is central; without it I cannot see how non-Catholic monasticism could flourish.

  2. Thanks Jay for the research and post on Luther's take on monasticism. As a Lutheran trying to understand The Rules of St Benedict and the faith practices which can be used by a layperson, your Blog is a treasure.

  3. Pastor, it seems to me that that new/old form of monasticism is nothing other than what Luther saw as the common piety of all the laity expressed in the Small Catechism, which can rightly be called a rule or enchiridion for receptive piety, especially in the domestic Church and the "holy order" of Holy Matrimony. Luther didn't intend to destroy the monastery but rather bring the maxim of ora et labora into the life of the priesthood of all believers by monasticizing the home.

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