Blog 206: 4.13.11 - 4.13.17

Iain D Campbell

The corruption of monasticism in Calvin's day is evidenced by the boastful promise of perfection, and of a superior spirituality. When men boast that they are in a state in which they aspire to perfection more than others, and people admire monasticism as if it represented a life as pure as the angels, something is very wrong. 'How great the insult offered to God,' says Calvin, when some device of man is preferred to all the modes of life which he has ordered, and by his testimony approved' (4.13.11).

There are several strands to this insult. First is the pretence to bear a greater burden than Christ has imposed on his followers, as if some of Christ's commandments had a special reference to monks and were not applicable to all Christians everywhere. But to be a Christian is to follow a common rule, imposed by Christ on all his followers. Anything else is impiety.

Second is the boast of the monks that they are more pleasing to God since they have forfeited their possessions. When Christ said to the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions (Matthew 19:21) it was not to lay down a common rule, but to show this man his besetting sin: 'had he been as good a keeper of the law as he supposed, he would not have gone away sorrowful on hearing these words' (4.13.13). It is no virtue to sell all that we have; our special case may require some other admonition.

Third is the divisive nature of the monastic life. Here are men who separate themselves not only from the world but from the church, erecting a private altar for themselves, and declaring that the common ministry and pulpit is not sufficient for their piety. Instead of simply being called Christians, the monks name themselves after their leaders, and call themselves Dominicans or Franciscans, just as the church at Corinth was divided by a false allegiance to apostles.

These blemishes are within the monastic system; the lengths to which individual monks have gone in these religious pretences is another matter. The differences between ancient and contemporary monasticism, according to Calvin, are striking, and Calvin sees nothing praiseworthy in a religious life of seclusion from the ordinary, daily routines of our respective callings.

As Calvin considers monasticism in his own day he concludes that all their vows are an abomination to God, their lifestyle has no respect for the calling or approval of God, are consecrated more to the devil than to God, and profess to be wiser than God in the hyper strictness of their own religion, despising the means God has ordained for dealing with sin and for growth in personal holiness.