CALVIN & MONASTICISM
The scope of monasticism is much greater than I realized. This posting will not cover this topic in any way completely. But there are several perspectives that we will at least move quickly over to expose you to various aspects of monasticism – both historically and renewed interests that we are seeing in Christianity today.
Monastic traditions from Roman Catholicism (RC) with its CONTEMPLATIVE MYSTICISM are showing up in mainstream Evangelical Churches. These trends have been introduced from several sources including popular authors and teachers such as the Quaker mystic RICHARD FOSTER, DALLAS WILLARD, BRENNAN MANNING…etc. Under the guise of SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES and SPIRITUAL FORMATION, a mystical approach to CONTEMPLATIVE MEDITATION that actually initiates an altered state of consciousness that is virtually identical to those practiced in Eastern religions such as ZEN BUDDHISM and the transcendental meditation of HINDUISM. Other popular Evangelicals are participating and leading the charge such as RICK WARREN and KAY WARREN. (K. Silva, John Calvin on Monastic Vows i.e. Spiritual Disciplines)
As we looked at Monasticism, in the previous postings, you may recall that it is primarily an institutionalized religious practice or movement whose members attempt to live by a rule that requires works that go beyond those of either the laity or the ordinary spiritual leaders of their religions. Commonly CELIBATE and universally ASCETIC, the monastic individual separates himself or herself from society either by living as a HERMIT or anchorite (religious recluse) or by joining a COMMUNITY (coenobium) of others who profess similar intentions. First applied to Christian groups in antiquity, the term monasticism is now used to denote similar, though not identical, practices in religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Daoism.
The word monasticism is derived from the Greek monachos (“living alone”), but this etymology highlights only one of the elements of monasticism and is somewhat misleading, because a large proportion of the world’s monastics live in cenobitic (common life) communities. The term monasticism implies celibacy, or living alone in the sense of lacking a spouse, which became a socially and historically crucial feature of the monastic life. (Encylopedia Britannica)
Historically, some people left cities and civilization to go live a life as hermits in seclusion away from people (usually in a desert). This trend began after Constantine made Christianity legal (i.e. no more persecutions). Some early church saints felt that this would soften Christianity and they wanted to show their diligence to God by living a life of solitude that included more ascetic (and mystical) practices to demonstrate their sacrificial duty to God while being on the front lines in confronting Satan. Eventually, even though in isolation for the most part, limited community engagement developed with other monks and local communities and monasteries were established. Early desert communities were in Egypt and parts of the Middle East. Some contact developed with other cultures by being located close to trade routes from the Far East into cities like Alexandria, Egypt. Some belie
ve this may have started interaction between Roman Catholic monks and other monks from Eastern religions. Even today, some common reasons used for this interaction usually include issues such as the common practice of meditation used by those in the East and within Christianity. The reasoning goes something like this – “why not learn off of each other and share traditions associated with meditation?” What developed over time was not necessarily mediation as outlined in the Bible. Biblical meditation includes rational concepts focused on God’s word. Unlike Eastern meditation, which includes more mystical concepts such as emptying your mind of any thoughts.
Characteristics of monastic traditions include CONTEMPLATIVE spirituality, centering prayer, silence & solitude along with other practices including TAIZE, LECTIO DIVINA, CHANTING, TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION, and many forms of what is called CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER. These practices involve clearing out your mind of any thoughts (including thoughts about God) and moving away from rational and objective practices such as studying God’s word and instead relying on more intuitive rationalization experiences that may have no basis in Scripture. In fact, similar practices can be found in EASTERN religions. This may not be by accident since some of the early monastic locations were close to trading routes through areas such as Egypt and the city of Alexandria. At these important waypoints, there were interaction and trade between those from the East and those from the West. The ultimate goal of these mystical traditions is to grow in INTIMACY with God by being unified with Him. This mystical approach is said by these proponents to be inside each of us throughout the world. A natural outcome of this type of INTUITIVE path is UNIVERSALISM.
Some of these practices have been seeping into the Evangelical Church more recently as Christians seemingly are excited to try the latest popular trends working its way through Christian groups.
Some basic questions need to be asked. First, when Christians follow after these monastic practices, what basis from Scripture are they using to justify their use? Why are some Evangelicals seeking to add practices historically associated with Roman Catholicism to their own practices? What are some of the dangers involved in doing so?
Historically, let’s look now at how some of the Reformers viewed monasticism.
(A.) JOHN CALVIN made mention of these monastic characteristics as practiced by monks in the RC Church. Take note of the type of language used in describing this monastic practice –
“IT is indeed deplorable that the Church, whose freedom was purchased by the inestimable price of Christ’s blood, should have been thus oppressed by a cruel tyranny, and almost buried under a huge mass of TRADITIONS; but, at the same time, the private infatuation of each individual shows, that not without just cause has so much power been given from above to Satan and his ministers.
MONKS place the principal part of their holiness in idleness. For if you take away their idleness, where will that CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE by which they glory that they excel all others, and make a near approach to the angels?… [I]nstead of Christians, we hear some called BENEDICTINES, others Franciscans, others Dominicans, and so called, that while they affect to be distinguished from the common body of Christians, they proudly substitute these names for a religious profession…
This much is certain, that there is no order of men more polluted by all kinds of vicious turpitude; nowhere do faction, hatred, party-spirit, and intrigue, more prevail… It is fine to philosophise in SECLUSION, far away from the intercourse of society; but it ill accords with Christian meekness for any one, as if in hatred of the human race, to fly to the wilderness and to SOLITUDE, and at the same time desert the duties which the Lord has especially commanded.
Were we to grant that there was nothing worse in that profession, there is certainly no small evil in its having introduced a useless and perilous example into the Church. Now, then, let us see the nature of the vows by which the MONKS of the present day are initiated into this famous order. First, as their intention is to institute a NEW and FICTITIOUS WORSHIP with a view to GAIN FAVOUR with God, I conclude from what has been said above, that everything which they vow is abomination to God.
Secondly, I hold that as they frame their own mode of life at pleasure, without any regard to the calling of God, or to his approbation, the attempt is rash and unlawful; because their conscience has no ground on which it can support itself before God; and “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
Moreover, I maintain that in astricting themselves to many perverse and impious modes of worship, such as are exhibited in MODERN MONASTICISM, they consecrate themselves not to God but to the devil. For why should the prophets have been permitted to say that the Israelites sacrificed their sons to devils and not to God (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37), merely because they had corrupted the true worship of God by profane ceremonies; and we not be permitted to say the same thing of MONKS who, along with the cowl, cover themselves with the net of a thousand impious SUPERSTITIONS? (http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/calvin-institutes-christianity/book4/chapter-13.html)
(B.) SCRIPTURE’S WARNINGS
Let’s take a look at a few verses from the Bible. As Evangelicals include monastic characteristics such as silence, solitude, asceticism….etc., it is not uncommon that leaders, pastors, seminary professors….etc., to step out further and spend times of seclusion and solitude at the local monastery. Spending time alone in MONASTERIES is for periods of isolated prayer and developing greater intimacy with God. What is concerning is that even though these times are promoted as being in isolation, it is not uncommon to hear stories of these leaders spending time with monks from the monastery learning more about contemplative practices.
23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:23 ESV)
There is so much in Colossians 2 that identifies our fullness can only be found in Christ plus nothing else. It will be well worth your time to read all of Colossians 2. With Roman Catholicism (RC), there are several requirements put upon man in order to achieve salvation. Some of these include examples such as ASCETICISM – which brings to mind an image of monks living a life of sacrifice, servitude, and works based motivation for gaining God’s grace.
The Colossian church was exposed to teaching that said that Christians need Christ plus other things. Colossians 2, states – It was these “other things” which elevates you. When you read all of Colossians 2, Paul identifies several of these other things:
- Christ plus PHILOSOPHY – added human wisdom to the reality of Christ.
- Today, that equates to a body of beliefs and practices commonly found in LIBERALISM, NEO-ORTHODOXY, MODERNISM. (John MacArthur)
- It starts out with Christ, but it’s Christ plus human wisdom, human reason, human logic, human philosophy….etc.
- Paul warns them in Colossians 2:8 – “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world”
=> BUT, our fullness is in Christ. Christ is sufficient. We should not let anyone say you must have Christ plus their philosophy, or perform in an ascetic manner to earn God’s favor.
- You not only needed Christ plus human wisdom to be spiritual, but you needed Christ plus legalism. Verse 16, he says again, “Let no man therefore judge you in food or drink or in respect of a feast day, a new moon, or a Sabbath.” Don’t let anybody determine how spiritual you are by the number of rituals you keep
- => In other words, don’t let anybody evaluate your spirituality on the basis of the RITUALS that you keep because, in verse 17, “Those are a shadow of the things to come, but that which is to come is Christ and He is here.” So it isn’t Christ plus philosophy, and it isn’t Christ plus legalism.
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through PHILOSOPHY and EMPTY DECEIT, according to the TRADITION OF MEN, according to the BASIC PRINCIPLES of the WORLD, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
- Thirdly, Colossian church were saying that it was Christ plus MYSTICAL experiences – MYSTICISM. Look at verse 18. He further says, “Don’t let these false teachers beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility –“ it really means a false humility “ – that comes from worshiping angels and having visions.” Now, the Greek text says, “…intruding into things which he ‘hath’ seen.” The word “not” should not be there.
And then, he says there’s even ASCETICISM – asceticism being self-denial, a MONASTIC kind of life, a MONASTIC kind of life, going into a hermit existence, and he talks about that from verse 20 to 23, the people, the kind of earthly religion, “the rudiments of the world,” again, that same phrase, meaning the basics of human religion which say, “Touch not; taste not; handle not,” and it goes on to talk about the fact that you neglect the body at the end of verse 23, and so forth.
And here is like flagellation, and anything you do to deprive your body, this is asceticism, monkish kind of life, monastic, self-denial, deprivation. But the point is this: There have always been, since Colossians 2, and all through the church, and there always will be, people who want to say that having Jesus Christ through His marvelous act of salvation is not enough. You’ve got to do “this” to get it all.
A look into the future trends –
(C.) THE NEW MONASTICISM
George Grant states that –
By the thirteenth century, the West’s idealistic wars against a fearsome Islamic threat had failed ignobly; its stagnating economy had cast a pall of depression across the once prosperous and thriving land; its national and political leaders revealed in pomp, circumstance, and internecine rivalry while their subjects cowered in poverty, fear, and injustice; and the church’s spiritual authority was marred by the flaming vices of perversity, carnality, and avarice. No wonder, then, that even the most pious men tended to press into brash, adventurous superstition or retreat into timid, monkish isolation.
Sound familiar? It should. High medievalism, for all its obvious differences, is so like our present circumstances that historian Margaret Tuchman’s famous description, “A Distant Mirror,” may be more apt than ever. Indeed, the rise of a “New Monastic Movement” among young, urban, evangelical hipsters in recent days is a reminder to us that we are not so different from our barely remembered ancestors as we might suppose. But as understandable as this impulse to run for cover in this time of uncertainty, distrust, and crumbling cultural stability might be, it is hardly a Scriptural response.
A genuinely integrated Christian view regarding life and work must be cognizant of both perspectives regarding the world—and treat them with equal weight. It must be engaged in the world. It must be unengaged in worldliness. It must somehow correlate spiritual concerns with temporal concerns. It must coalesce heavenly hope and landed life. It must coordinate heartfelt faith and down-to-earth practice.
The only way we can do that is to bring our faith right into the thick of our mess of a world. As appealing as a retreat into some monastic sanctuary might seem to us during these wearying days in which we live, it is hardly a biblical alternative. And while there are innumerable commendable aspects of the “New Monastic Movement”—including concern for justice issues, care for the poor, sacrificial stewardship, and covenant community—its high ideals are best pursued as we engage the world, as we “go … and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [he has] commanded [us]” (Matt. 28:19–20).
For nearly two millennia, many Christians have chosen to express their piety through ascetic living. Though the roots of monasticism existed long before, the sixth-century monk Benedict of Nursia is considered to be the founding father of the medieval monastic movements. Benedict’s charter, known as the Benedictine Rule, outlined key principles of holiness and self-denial for communities of monks and nuns who were committed to the values of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God. However, later generations did not always show the same degree of commitment and devotion as their predecessors. In response, certain influential leaders responded to corruption and decline by calling for a return to Benedict’s rigid standards. While returning to the rigor of the past, these leaders also envisioned new ways for monks to carry out their mission within a changing world.
The New Monks
John Caddock in Brennan Manning’s “New Monks” & Their Dangerous Contemplative Monasticismstates states that
…..in The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning quotes Catholic saints, medieval mystics, and monks, including Charles de Foucauld, Francis De Sales, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena. The most frequently cited sources are part of the community of Roman Catholic clergy who are instrumental in promoting modern contemplative spirituality: THOMAS MERTON, Anthony De Mello, William Shannon, HENRI NOUWEN, Peter Van Breemen, William Reiser, David Steindl-Rast, and BASIL PENNINGTON. Although the word contemplation brings to mind a monastic life dedicated to pence and cloistered within the walls of the monastery, not so with these New Monks.
The New Monks critique the current state of Christianity by arguing that since God is holy and is a “wholly other,” He cannot be defined by systems of doctrine. They maintain that western rationalism has crushed the knowledge of God and that we must return to a more intuitively received knowledge. We must move beyond the intellect, beyond doctrine, and beyond words to a DEEPER union with God. Their writings contain rather complex discussions on the nature of being and share common themes of universality, mystical union with God through contemplation (wordless “prayer”), social justice, and non-violence.
The New Monks maintain that ALL RELIGIONS should immerse themselves in the MYTHS of their TRADITIONS because there is power in the “collective unconscious” of the TRADITION to shape the EXPERIENCE of its followers. So, for the New Monk, the use of biblical language has great power within the Christian tradition. For example, the call to salvation is actually a call to a transformation of consciousness to be psychologically awakened to the UNITY and ONENESS of ALL CREATION. For the New Monks, all religions at their deepest mystical level use myth and symbol to say the same thing.
The New Monks believe we are born into a DUALITY between self (the ego) and ONENESS (being). The ego is driven by fear of death and alienation and is the source of all suffering and woundedness. The fall, a mythical story, has a deeper more “universal truth,” which is intended to shed light on present human experience. We have fallen from oneness and harmony of paradise into alienation and a sense of separation. We must simply realize that the gulf that appears to separate “sinful” humanity from a righteous God has never existed; we are and always have been one with God. For the New Monks, this is God’s unconditional love and grace.
THOMAS MERTON, who is frequently cited by Manning, is the forerunner of the New Monks. Having accepted so much of the new theology, Merton remained involved in the Roman Catholic Church only by a thin affirmation of a God in Nature and a reverence for tradition. He popularized JUNGIAN Psychotherapy in his writings about spiritual healing, agreeing with Jung’s mythic perspective of biblical doctrines.
Merton traveled to Asia on a quest to redefine what being a monk entailed and found it in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. There he discovered great similarities between monastic contemplation and Eastern meditation and determined that they were both in touch with the same mystical source. He felt the emphasis on experience and inner transformation rather than doctrine would be the ecumenical meeting place between East and West.
Merton advocated moving the practice of contemplation from its marginal state of use by only the Catholic monks behind the cloistered walls to a broader use by the common man. Dedicated to civil rights, antiwar, and liberationist activism, he came to call his fellow activists “true monks.” In The Signature of Jesus, Manning precisely echoes the themes of contemplative spirituality. It appears his intention was to bring to Protestants what Thomas Merton brought to many Roman Catholics.
Legalism and the Conscience: 1 John 2:1-2
Legalism is best disguised when it takes up residence in our consciences. From there it can taunt us, urging us to do better and try harder in our feeble fallen existence.
Such guilt-riddled consciences long to be soothed. Invariably, false religion steps into that void, offering a system of works. Man-made religions are particularly appealing to burdened sinners desperate to silence the cries of their consciences.
Roman Catholicism is a great example. We’ve already pointed out their codified denials of salvation by grace alone. On top of that, however, Catholic dogma also affirms works- righteousness through their doctrine of penance:
Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1459.
In his book, The Gospel According to Rome, James McCarthy explains how penance is implemented and enforced among Roman Catholics: “To assist the person in making reparation for his sin, the priest imposes an act of penance. It is selected to be ‘in keeping with the nature of the crimes and the ability of the penitents.’”  James G. McCarthy, The Gospel According to Rome (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995), 79. Prior to his conversion, Martin Luther was deemed by his Catholic peers to be a penitent with a lot of “ability.” As a result, he suffered egregiously under the weight of Roman Catholic penance.
Professing Protestants, Practicing Catholics (www.gtw.org)
All true Protestants gladly join with Martin Luther in proclaiming the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ—completely apart from any human effort. Even so, the harsh practices of his former monastery often linger in our cloistered consciences.
To be sure, most Christians find the Catholic doctrine of penance to be abhorrent. Nonetheless, many are inwardly self-flagellated by their guilt-riddled consciences. They know their right standing with God hinges on Christ’s atoning work, yet still consider it to be a fragile reconciliation—one that’s on a perpetual knife edge. God may have adopted them as His children, but they still live in constant fear of being disowned if they commit a big enough sin. For this reason, many churches are full of Protestants who think and act like Catholics.
It may have been imperceptible to my Christian friends, but my mind was racked with legalistic guilt and fear. Worse still, I actually thought my mental penance demonstrated great humility and righteousness. But living under that kind of pressure isn’t a form of piety, nor does it reflect a low view of self. Rather, it reveals unbelief concerning God’s Word and a low view of Christ in His role as our heavenly Advocate:
Travis Allen writes in an article, Brothers, We are Not Monks –
Any sane person would consider the monastic life to be something like a prison sentence. But busy pastors often straddle the line of sanity—to them, a monastery can sound like a five-star getaway. Quiet. Reading. Study. Contemplation. Meditation. Routine. Predictability. Compared to some of the inglorious and often thankless work of shepherding people, taking the monk’s cowl can seem pretty appealing.
The problem is, it’s just a bit unrealistic. More within reach is to find a better, more acceptable, even admirable way to “retreat into the monastery.” Some pastors want to follow a different “leading of the Lord”—take on more oversight, join a leadership think tank, teach courses at a college or seminary, write articles and books, ascend to a ministry of “wider influence”—almost anything is preferable to the nitty-gritty of pastoral work.
None of that is necessarily wrong. Some pastors are doing those things in addition to shepherding the flock of God. They work hard and ought to be honored for it. On the other hand, some men need to get out of pastoral ministry. They simply don’t belong there in the first place.
But it’s important to recognize that pastoral ministry, theology, and practical Christian growth must be connected to the local church. If it’s disconnected from the local church—divorced from shepherding the flock of God—then it’s not God’s design for the edification and growth of Christ’s church. Monasteries, in whatever form, are not part of the plan.
What is part of the plan is the regular, routine, mundane stuff of life lived, raw and honest, with other believers in the context of the local church. The plan has to do with the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and pains, of normal human relationships.
Our theology—our study of God—teaches us never to be remote or aloof; we are to be intimately connected to the day-to-day lives of other people. We are to bring our theology out of the neat, clean, sterile environment of a classroom, and into the gritty, messy, real work of shepherding sheep. No room for that in a monastic cell.
Just look at Jesus. John 1:14-18 says Jesus tabernacled among us in full humanity to make the Father known to us (i.e., to teach us theology proper). Though He is our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14), He didn’t teach us about God from that lofty vantage. He came close enough “to sympathize with our weaknesses,” to be “tempted in all things as we are” (“yet without sin,” Hebrews 4:15). That’s the stuff of pastoral ministry, taught by “the Chief Shepherd” Himself (1 Peter 5:4).
From a practical perspective on monasticism, one must also raise the question about Roman Catholicism priesthood in general. Several problems come to mind:
- Living a life of solitude – is it biblical?
- Restricting oneself from marriage – is that healthy over the long-term?
- Have a works-based focus instead of a focus on God’s grace.
This posting won’t do this topic justice – so many more issues could be included. But let me conclude with several questions that come to mind.
- EVANGELICALS, why are we reverting back to a monastic spirituality that focuses on items that don’t reflect who we are as born-again Christians? They don’t reflect the freedom and liberty we have in Christ by God’s GRACE. We are introducing TRADITIONS, following after ICONS, engaging in practices that have their foundation in MYSTICISM and early ROMAN CATHOLICISM.
- While a respect for the reverence of certain aspects of our faith may be noble, following after TRADITIONS, MAN-MADE THEOLOGY and MYSTICAL CHURCH PRACTICES such as LECTIO DIVINA, SPIRITUAL FORMATION, ASH WEDNESDAY observance, STATIONS OF THE CROSS, MYSTICAL MEDITATION which shares little from Scripture and yet shares more from Eastern Mysticism.
- Many Evangelical Christians specifically LEFT Roman Catholicism for exactly these same reasons.
=> The further we move from the Bible, the easier it is for error to creep into the Church.