Book 4 - Chapter 13 (Parts 1-2)
In this chapter, Calvin examines the issue of taking vows. The first part of the chapter deals with vows in general and the second half of the chapter deals with vows taken by monastics, as well as Calvin’s views on the monastic way of life.
The issue at hand for Calvin is that within the Roman church, vows of one sort or another had been seen to elevate those taking the vows to a higher spiritual level than others. It was understood that monks who professed the vows of their order underwent a second baptism and were forgiven both the guilt and penalty of any post-baptismal sin because, according to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), a vow is a significant meritorious work (meritorious works in the medieval church wiped away sin). In addition, monastic vows allowed monks to die to the world and be raised to a state of perfection. It is against this backdrop that Calvin discusses vows.
Summary: He begins, “Now, if we wish to avoid error in determining what vows are lawful, what ones are objectionable, it is well to consider three things: 1) who it is to whom the vow is made; 2) who we are who make the vow; 3) lastly, with what intention we make our vow” (pg. 1255).
The answer to the first question, to whom vows are to be made, is simply put, God. What this means for Calvin, is that the only vow or promise we are to make to God is the one that God has already asked of us; that we live the kind of life to which we are called by Jesus Christ through the scriptures. We are not to invent new vows/promises that go beyond what God has already directly commanded.
The answer to the second question, who we are who make the vow, means that we are to be careful in vowing to God to do things that are beyond our ability to do. “I mean nothing else here than that you are to temper your vows to that measure which God by his gift sets for you…” (pg. 1256). An example of this might be someone who vows that they will be a pastor, when God has not given them the gifts to so do. Rather than making a rash vow then, individuals ought to spend time discerning God’s specific call on their lives.
The answer to the third question, with what intention do we make our vows, is that our intention ought to be to please God. There are two types of vows that please God. The first are vows of thanksgiving where we vow to do something to show God our gratitude. The second are vows of repentance, where we vow to change our lives because we have sinned against God. Of this second kind of vow, Calvin says that it needs to be useful to the individual making it, rather than it being a way of seeking forgiveness, which is already offered as a free gift.
One final note about vows. Calvin wants people to avoid vows that they think will make them holier before God; including vows such as abstaining from wine, constant fasting or being celibate. These, Calvin argues are false worship because God has not commanded these through the scriptures.
Reflections: In the 1978 movie, “The End”, the main character believes that he only has a very short time to live, and so tries to end his life. In his final attempt, he swims out to sea in order to drown. Suddenly however he has an urge to live and begins making promises to God, that if he lives, he will do all the right things in life. As he manages to make it closer and closer to the shore, his promises to God fade away. This is one of the great problems with vows, that we make deals with God that we are often not capable of keeping. The challenge for us then is to only make the kind of vows (of thanksgiving or repentance) that we know are useful to us to and that we can keep. In so doing we will become more and more the kind of people God desires us to be.
In this chapter, Calvin examines the issue of taking vows. The first part of the chapter deals with vows in general and the second half of the chapter deals with vows taken by monastics, as well as Calvin’s views on the monastic way of life. In this article, we will look at Calvin’s critique of the monastic world in the 1500s.
Summary: Calvin begins by noting that early monastic life was not about living in isolation to gain spiritual perfection, but it was about training clergy. “…monastic colleges were, so to speak, seminaries of the ecclesiastical order…and Augustine show that in his day the monasteries usually supplied the clergy for the church…it is clear…that pious men customarily prepared themselves by monastic discipline to govern the church, that thus they might be fitter and better trained to undertake so great an office” (pg. 1261-62). Thus, for Calvin, there was a purpose for the monastic life. Unfortunately, in his view, the monastic orders had not only abandoned their original purpose, but had exchanged them for unhelpful alternatives.
The first unhelpful alternative was that the monastic orders created rules that were not Biblical and overshadowed any greater purpose for which the monastery might have been founded. “For they count it as a crime for anyone to depart even in the slightest degree from what is prescribed in color or appearance of clothing, in the kind of food, on in other trifling…ceremonies” (pg. 1264). This mattered because the focus of monastic life became following rules, rather than learning or serving.
The second unhelpful alternative was that the monks proclaimed that their lifestyle was the only “holy” lifestyle. “…I should ask them (monastics) why they dignify their order alone with the title of perfection, and take the same title away from all God’s calling” (pg. 1265). This belief was echoed among the populace. “…such admiration of monasticism remains among the people that they think the monastic life alone angelic, perfect, and purged of all fault” (pg. 1265). This mattered because it caused ordinary Christians to forget that every vocation was a gift of God as well as the fact that all Christians, and not merely monastics, were called to live faithful lives.
The third unhelpful alternative was that monks separated themselves from the people. “Do they not separate themselves from the lawful society of believers, in adopting a peculiar ministry and a private administration of the sacraments?” (pg. 1269). This mattered because persons called to ministry were to care for all the people and not merely for themselves.
The fourth unhelpful alternative was that women took vows of perpetual virginity (nuns) at early ages, not simply serve the poor but to closet themselves away from the world, often to escape marriage. “They (single women in the early church) did not vow celibacy to present to God some sort of service abstaining from marriage, but only because they were thus freer to perform their tasks (of service)” (pg. 1274). This mattered because part of the Reformed tradition was that men and women were to engage in family life (marrying and having children), which was a gift from God.
Reflections: As Presbyterians, the monastic life is probably not one which most of us spend much time thinking about. Even so, Calvin’s unhelpful alternatives, as I call them, are good reminders for us of what ought to matter for Christians. These include simplicity in worship (not worrying about clergy outfits), a reminder that our vocations are all gifts from God, that we are all called to Christ-like living, that we are a community of faith in which we are called to care for one another, and that part of our general vocation as Christians is to look for and to help meet the needs of those beyond our walls.