Many words can be used to describe Martin Luther. As a reformer in the fifteen hundreds he was confident, bold, and controversial. It seems odd that the formation of his faith took place in one of the most pious endeavors one can undertake, the life of a monk. The man who passionately spoke against the pope, the Turks, and the Jews got his beginnings in the most humble of lifestyles. In the year 1505, Martin was walking back to Erfurt from a trip to Mansfeld in the middle of a storm. A lightning bolt struck him and he cried to St. Anne for help exclaiming “I will become a monk”.  this vow led to drastic changes in Luther’s life. Luther’s father, Hans, was very proud of his son’s master’s degree and was anticipating great things from his son1, and Martin’s vow to join the monastic life upset his father. Despite his father’s urgings, Luther took his vow seriously (believing it to be the will of God) and became a monk.
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Martin Luther entered the Augustinian Order in the “Black Cloister” of Erfurt. The life of a monk in the middle ages was not an easy one. The monks took many vows, the three key vows being the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity.  The vow of chastity refers to sexual purity and abstinence. The vow of poverty led monks to dispose of all personal property and live simple lives. The vow of obedience bound monks to their superiors in the order and the church. The life of the monk involved an intense routine of worship services, prayers, confessions, and other religious acts. Luther was not brought peace by these acts as many other monks in his order were, but was instead tortured by the monastic life. Luther said “I hoped I might find peace of conscience with fasts, prayer, and the vigils with which I miserably afflicted my body, but the more I sweated it out like this, the lest peace and tranquility I knew.”1 He took the monastic rituals extremely seriously, leading him to repeat prayers and other rituals over and over again if he felt he had omitted Luther once commented “Along with many others, I myself have experienced how peaceful and quiet Satan is inclined to be during one’s early years as a monk.”  Luther was known to spend many nights in terror over spiritual matters, which further burdened his already stressful life. Although the life and rituals of a monk brought Luther no comfort, he was diligent in his performance of his duties. Luther said “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.”5
An important occurrence in Luther’s journey as a monk took place on Cantate Sunday in 1507. Martin Luther had the opportunity to perform his first mass. In attendance were his Father, Hans, and several of his spiritual mentors. He was worried about his ability to celebrate the mass perfectly. Luther said of the preface to the mass (where Luther addresses God the Father through the Son); “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-struck. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such Majesty. . .Who am I that I should lift up my eyes . . ? At his nod the earth trembles. . . And shall I, a miserable pygmy, say I want this, I ask for that? For I am dust and ashes and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God”!’ Luther was in terror as he stood unworthy before the one true God. This event had profound effects on Luther and his celebration of the mass. Luther seemed throughout his career as a monk to be constantly preoccupied with his unworthiness. This is one of the many issues that haunted Luther’s nights during his time at the monastery. After the mass, Luther’s father rebuked him and reminded him of his disapproval by reciting the fourth commandment. Luther’s first mass was a traumatic experience in his life.
Another issue that haunted Luther was the practice of confession. Luther spent much of his time as a monk confessing his sins. Much the same as prayers and canonical hours, Luther was haunted with the thought of imperfect performance of confession. Luther confessed his sins over and over again to his superior and confessor, Johann Staupitz, who would come to have a great influence on Luther’s faith walk. Staupitz eventually became frustrated with Luthers confessing and reconfessing and told him “You want to be without sin, but you don’t have any real sins anyway. Christ is the forgiveness of awful sins, like the murder of ones parents, public vices, blasphemy, adultery and the like. These are real sinsâ€¦ you must not inflate your halting, artificial sins out of proportion!” Luther was reported to have spent more than one occasion in six hour plus confession sessions with Staupitz. Staupitz and Luther had many discussions over the course of Luther’s confessing that helped shape the faith of the young monk. They discussed grace and salvation through the blood of Christ alone, concepts that would appear strongly in Luther’s reformation
Staupitz made many attempts to convince Luther to become a doctor and was eventually forced to order Luther under his vow of obedience to become a doctor. After Luther received his doctorate in October of 1512, he engaged in deep biblical study in preparation for his lectures. He spent much of his time writing letters regarding theological matters. During this time his theology began to develop concerning the righteousness of God. Previously he had been frustrated with this concept, saying “I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God. I did not love, indeed I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly (if not blasphemously and certainly with great grumbling) I was angry with God, and said ‘As if needed it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through eternal sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the ten commandments, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel’s threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Luther’s concept of the righteousness of God shifted from righteousness being something that is achieved by humans to it being a gift bestowed upon mankind by God. This was a critical transformation in Luther’s thinking that led to many other changes. Luther became increasingly unhappy with the practices of the church, particularly the practice of indulgences. Luther’s frustration with indulgences led to the posting of the ninety five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Thus began the protestant reformation.
Throughout the Reformation, Luther put out many documents regarding many areas of the life of a Christian. Many of these documents addressed the monastic life that Luther struggled so much with in his younger years. Monastic vows were addressed in many of Luther’s important documents including To The Christian Nobility, and On The Freedom of A Christian. Luther even condemned the monastic lifestyle as a “blasphemous humanly invented service” in the Smalcald articles, one of the items in the book of Concord. Luther’s strongest condemnation against monasticism came in his 1521 document “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows.” This document was brought about by argument over the issue of clerical celibacy taking place at churches in Magdeburg, Meissen, and Wittenberg. Luther wrote Theses on Vows addressing this subject. He was urged to write “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows.” when it came to his attention that many monks were leaving of considering leaving their monasteries. This book would serve as a guide or manual for a monk had left or was considering leaving.
The concept of counsels is essential to understand when approaching this work of Luther. Luther shows that the teachings of the New Testament are split up into precepts and counsels. Precepts are the teachings that God has commanded us to follow. Counsels are teachings that may be beneficial to the life of a believer, but are not commanded. One of the problems with the situation regarding monastic vows is that supporters of vows see the commands of Christ as counsels rather than precepts. Luther holds the view that Christ’s teachings are precepts and following anything contrary to or even beyond the teachings of Christ is sin. This argument is of great importance to the issue of monastic vows.
The first section of the book is entitled Vows do not rest on the Word of God, they run counter to the Word of God. Luther starts out his document by presenting monastic vows as a danger. The fact that monastic vows are not commanded in the Bible was Luther’s first major issues with the practice. Luther says that the “father” of monks, St. Anthony did not intend for Christians to pursue a monastic lifestyle, the lifestyle was what he felt led to live. Only after St. Anthony’s life did the monastic lifestyle become a vow. Luther also speaks to the authority of Paul in this first section of the work. He says that Paul had unique authority compared to most church fathers because his authority came directly from Christ. After making those two points, Luther says “Let this principle be laid down: Whatever is commanded which is contrary to or beyond Christ is condemned”. He goes on to say that this principle exists even if it is in an attempt to follow the saints of church fathers. Although Luther does not believe in the divine authority of the saints or church fathers, he uses the saints in his work which would certainly appeal to a monk debating whether or not to leave the monastery.
Luther clarifies the purpose of the gospel as he moves through this section. He feels as if part of the idea behind monastic vows comes from a flawed view of the gospel. The gospel is “simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man,” according to Luther. The gospel, which frees us from death, sin and the power of the devil, should not lead one into a monastic life. This section also states that everything taught by Christ is necessary to be obeyed. The teachings of Christ are clearly laid out for us as necessary when he refers to them as commandments. Since the teachings of Christ are commandments, Luther says that choosing to follow something else such as monastic vows is “Godlessness, blasphemy, sacrilege”.
Luther is extremely clear that virginity is never commanded in the bible. Moreover, it is not a “counsel”, biblically is not recommended for our benefit. Luther rebukes the church presenting virginity as something needed for salvation. Luther also says that monastic vows are improper because they cause monks to forsake their Christian duty, a concept very important to Luther. The first section of “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” uses scripture and logic to show that monastic vows are not mandated or suggested in scripture, and in some cases can run contrary to scripture.
The next section of the work is titled “Vows Against Faith”. Luther goes to lengths in this section to show that monastic vows are sins. Luther claims that those who take monastic vows are not placing their faith in Christ but in other things. Luther puts it well when he says “They assess all the things of God by the limitations of their own human judgment, and found their faith not on the rock of faith but on the sands and swamps of their own unbelief.” The belief in vows and therefore works is unnecessary in light of salvation through the blood of Christ. This concept goes to show the impact that Luther’s time at the monastery had in his theology. The long nights he spent contemplating salvation and the long discussions he had with Staupitz through the confessional wall concerning grace were making their appearance in his theology. Luther cites scripture throughout this work, leaning especially on Romans on the topic of justification.
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Over the course of his work during the reformation, Luther was relentless in his defense of the gospel, especially when any party threatened salvation by faith alone. When Tetzel was at the height of his popularity, Luther was quickly on the defense, writing and speaking passionately against the sale of indulgences. This was also the case with monastic vows. Luther spent page after page giving passage after passage explaining that salvation was a gift of God, not achievable by works. To assist in making his point against monastic vows, he brings up that the apostle Paul said “Everything that is not of faith is sin.” Luther is very clear that monastic vows violate faith.
The next section in “The judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” is entitled Vows Are Against Evangelical Freedom Luther takes time to define Christian Liberty, which he did in an in depth manner approximately one year prior to this work in On the Freedom of a Christian. Part of the freedom given to us by God’s gift of salvation, according to Luther, is that we do not have to place out trust in works. Monastic vows represent a direct violation of this concept in Luther’s eyes. Luther
An important part of “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” comes when Luther speaks of the two ways to carry out works of the law. According to Luther, there are times when works of the law are carried out by our own will and effort. Works of the law are often done by the work of Christ in the life of a Christian. Luther says that vows can work in much the same way. It is possible for Christ to work in the life of a Christian leading him or her to make a vow “in the spirit of freedom.” In the case of Monastic vows however, Christ is not leading towards a vow. Christ cannot be behind a monastic vow because monastic vows attempt to further bind monks to the law (which as Luther stated earlier is not the law of God, but includes extra regulations added by humans). All Christians should have the freedom of the gospel, not the bondage of the law. Luther says that a vow complying with evangelical freedom would include a way to relinquish the vow. This is sometimes necessary according to Luther who says “If love should demand that the vow be broken and you were to hold fast to your vow you would be sinning.”
Luther began his document by destroying the authority of monastic vows. When he comes to his fourth section, Vows Are Contrary To The Commandments of God, he has also shown monastic vows as enemies of Christian freedom and of the faith itself. Luther begins the section by taking issue with the denominations of monks; “They are no longer called Christians, or children of God, but rather Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians.” In fulfilling the title of this section, Luther shows monastic vows being in opposition to both the first and second commandments. Monks, by elevating themselves above other members of the body in title and behavior, set themselves as the head of the church rather than Christ. This is a clear violation of the first commandment. Luther also presents monks as having an inflated view of themselves, believing themselves to be more pious, more worshipful, and more holy. Luther sees this as a violation of the second commandment. He says that by their actions and their view of themselves they blaspheme against the name of God. The practice of monastic vows is in contrast to the first table of the Ten Commandments, dealing with humans relations to God.
Luther also accuses monastic vows of being in violation of the second table of the Ten Commandments, the table dealing with the reactions between men. The nature of the monastic lifestyle, seclusion and piety is a violation against one’s Christian duty to his or her neighbor, or as Luther puts is a “violation against love.” Luther has now taken his views farther than before, accusing monastic vows and monks themselves of directly violating several of the Ten Commandments.
The fifth and final section of Luther’s work, Monasticism is Contrary to common sense and reason, showcases his God given abilities. Luther was well versed in logic and rhetoric from his schooling. This final section uses logic as much as scripture to put to rest the issue of monastic vows. Luther takes very basic biblical concepts and uses logic to show how monastic vows are contrary to the concepts. After this logical attack, Luther finishes the work with a “Final Assault.” Luther takes the ideas expressed over the lengthy work and condenses them into a conclusion. He shows each of the three vows that monks take to be unnecessary, unworthy, and sinful. The indecisive monk reading “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” no longer has any questions as to the worthiness of monastic vows.
Martin Luther wrote “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” to help struggling monks, of which he was one, in their decision to leave their order. Many of the issues that Luther addresses in this work are issues that confronted him during his time at the monastery. Luther was haunted by the need to perform works to gain salvation in his time at the monastery. He was also haunted by the need to perform the practices and rituals necessary of a monk. He addresses both of these issues at length in his document. His time at the monastery makes this piece a very personal work for Martin Luther. Luther underwent a transformation during his time at the monastery that led to his reformation theology. After his theological transformation, he applied his theology to the issue of monastic vows that haunted him for so long. Martin Luther was profoundly affected by monasticism, which showed in the theology of the reformation.
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