Blog 205: 4.13.4 - 4.13.10

Iain D Campbell

Calvin's third principle for biblical vows is the mind in which such vows are undertaken. God looks on the heart. Calvin sees only four ends to which vows may legitimately be taken: to give thanks for God's goodness, to make amends for our own past sins, to cut off inducements to sin in the future, and to stimulate us to greater obedience. Vows, therefore, may be acts of thanksgiving, acts of repentance, acts of caution or acts of consecration.

Common to all believers are the sacraments, which Calvin describes as 'a kind of mutual contract by which the Lord conveys his mercy to us, and by it eternal life, while we in our turn promise him obedience' (4.13.6). This is a holy vow, and because of its solemnity ought to be taken with care and - remarkably one would think - infrequently and temporarily. Calvin is nothing if not a pastor at this point: 'if you are ever and anon launching out into numerous vows, the whole solemnity will be lost by the frequency, and you will readily fall into superstition. If you bind yourself by a perpetual vow, you will have great trouble and annoyance in getting free...' (4.13.6).

Superstition is what Calvin is attacking in particular in this polemic. People have been proud of the vows they have managed to keep, Calvin alleges. The stricter the vow, the more pleasing it was thought to be to God, as if 'the greater merit might be acquired by the greater fatigue' (4.13.7).

This (naturally, perhaps) leads Calvin to a discussion of monasticism, since the monastic vows are held in high esteem and veneration in the church. Calvin begins by agreeing that monasticism has a long and ancient pedigree in the church, but asserts that the original monasteries were seminaries rather than the places of superstition they have become. Quoting Augustine's address to the monks of Caprae, Calvin argues that 'pious men were wont to prepare for the government of the church by monastic discipline' (4.13.8).

He continues to highlight passages in Augustine that describe ancient monasticism:

Despising the allurements of this world, and congregated in common for a most chaste and most holy life, they pass their lives together, spending their time in prayer, reading and discourse, not swollen with pride, not turbulent through petulance, not livid with envy. No one possesses anything of his own: no one is burdensome to any man. They labour with their hands in things by which the body may be fed, and the mind not withdrawn from God. The fruit of their labour they hand over to those whom they call deans. Those deans, disposing of the whole with great care, render an account to one whom they call father. These fathers, who are no only of the purest morals, but most distinguished for divine learning, and noble in all things, without any pride, consult those whom they call their sons, though the former have full authority to command, and the latter a great inclination to obey (4.13.9).

Does that have any resemblance to a theological seminary near you?

Calvin's argument is that the corruption of monasticism has turned an institution which served the kingdom well into a 'new kind of piety' which aspires to a perfecton never promised by Christ.