When Martin Luther (1483–1546) entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt in 1505, it was a considered decision and the fulfillment of a vow he had made when he cried, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” So he did.
Luther entered one of the most rigorous and observant orders; the rule of the Augustinian monks was demanding. It required them to have all food and clothing in common. They were committed to a life of poverty and severe self-denying piety. Required hours of prayer included predawn services and services at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., just before dark, and before bed, and finally a night vigil. There was meditation, chores, auricular confession, acts of penance, and even at times self-flagellation.
Luther was a devout and busy monk. When, however, he was sent to Rome in 1510 on business for his order, the corruption he saw there among the monks and priests gave him reason to reconsider monastic piety and the theology that underlay it.
Christian monasticism is usually traced to Antony of Egypt (c. 251–356), who as a teenager, according to a misguided interpretation of Matthew 19:21, gave away his possessions and withdrew to the desert for decades. He was perhaps the first hermetic monk and became a celebrity in his own lifetime. The great premise of Christian monasticism was that withdrawal from the comforts and temptations of the material world was necessary for piety because the material world is inherently corrupt and corrupting. This conviction owes more to Plato than to Scripture, which declares creation good (Gen. 1:10, 25), but it was deeply influential and fueled the medieval flight from the material world for a millennium. It also helped to foster the notion that there are two classes of Christians in the church: the ordinary and the extraordinary (or the spiritual). That notion would propel thousands of earnest Christians into monasteries in a quest to become truly “spiritual.”
The Reformation called Christians out of monastic cells and into corporate public worship as the center of the Christian life.
As we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, much is rightly made about the recovery of the biblical doctrines of salvation sola gratia, sola fide. The recovery of a biblical piety and practice is less well known but no less essential to the Reformation. When Luther left the monastery, he left behind Antony’s assumptions about the world, grace, and the Christian life. He recovered the biblical and ancient (anti-Gnostic) Christian doctrine of the essential goodness of creation. He recovered the biblical and Christian doctrine that every Christian, not just the priest and the monk, has a vocation from God. According to Luther, we are not called to flee the material world. We are called to flee sin but to serve Christ in God’s world as sinners freely forgiven for Christ’s sake alone.
As a monk, Luther had been taught grace is a medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we must cooperate for sanctification and salvation. Rome established an elaborate sacramental system and saw the five sacraments she added to the two that Christ had instituted as automatically (ex opere) communicating grace to the recipient. Rome turned grace (divine favor) into magic. In the Reformation, the Protestants rejected the five Roman-added sacraments along with the medieval view of their nature and efficacy. They did so on the authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura), affirming that God’s Word is sufficient for Christian worship and the Christian life.
The Reformation called Christians out of monastic cells and into corporate public worship as the center of the Christian life and from there, back into the world. There were disagreements among the Protestants, however. Where the Lutherans were content to do whatever is not forbidden by Scripture, the Reformed confessed that the second commandment means that the church is authorized to do in worship only what is commanded by God’s Word. Thus, where organs and hymns proliferated in Lutheran churches, the Reformed, like the patristic church, rejected instruments because they believed that they belonged to the period of types and shadows. The Reformed embraced the Psalms as sufficient for public worship, so they worked diligently to produce the first metrical psalters, which Reformed Christians used in public and family worship for centuries.
They also thought of the preaching of the gospel as the means of grace by which the Spirit brings His elect to new life and true faith. Just as by His Word God spoke creation into existence, so too by the preached Word the Holy Spirit calls His elect to new life and to true faith in Christ. So, the sermon became the centerpiece of the Reformed worship service.
In place of the Roman sacramental system, the Reformed returned the two sacraments to their rightful place as visible signs and seals of the promises of the gospel. The Reformed described them not in magical terms but as means of grace, instituted by God, so that in baptism believers and their children should be recognized as members of the covenant of grace and admitted to the visible church. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper, professing believers, by the work of the Holy Spirit, are renewed in their profession and mysteriously nourished with the body and blood of Christ, received through faith alone. Calvin hoped to administer communion weekly, at the end of the morning Lord’s Day service, but he was prevented by the Geneva city council, which worried that weekly communion might lead to a return to Romanism.
Because the Protestants rejected the notion that there are two classes of Christians, both Luther and the Reformed produced catechisms in order to instruct the children and to prepare them for the Lord’s Table, so that all of Christ’s people would be spiritual. For most of three centuries afterward, Reformed children memorized the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) in preparation for their first communion.
Following Luther’s translation of the Greek New Testament into German, the Reformed theologian William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), a martyr for the gospel, translated the New Testament into English in 1525. Ten years later, Robert Olivetan (1506–38) produced a French translation of Scripture. The Reformed devoted themselves to this work so that God’s people could have Scripture in their own language that they might read it, pray over it, and teach it to their children at home. These translations also enabled families to hold devotions during the week, and the metrical Psalters gave them God’s Word for singing at home.
There is a monk within each of us, continually looking for new ways to corrupt Christian piety.
Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were somewhat delayed in England, but William Perkins (1558–1602) and William Ames (1576–1633) developed the piety of Luther, Tyndale, Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) into a warm theology of pastoral practice. As a refugee, Ames carried that theology and piety to the Netherlands, which would inspire Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) and others to form a movement known as the Nadere Reformatie (Later Reformation), which combined the classically Reformed emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry with the strong Reformed emphasis on personal sanctity and piety.
By the late seventeenth century, however, there were those who were discontented with Reformation piety. They worried about nominalism in state churches and longed for an immediate experience of the risen Christ. Led by the Lutheran Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) and others, the Pietists favored small-group prayer meetings (conventicles) over Word and sacrament ministry. They spoke of themselves as the “little church within the church.” Unwittingly, the Pietists established a trajectory that would eventually lead evangelical Protestants back to a sort of monastic, subjective piety of the Second Great Awakening, the Higher Life Movement, neo-Pentecostalism, and more recently a fascination with “spiritual disciplines” in lieu of a piety organized around the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.
When, in 1517, Luther complained about the abuse of indulgences, he began a movement back to Scripture and toward a biblical understanding of piety in which Christ’s grace received in public worship overflows into private prayer and family devotions. He repudiated the error that there are two classes of Christians, and he repudiated their spiritual exercises. The Reformed followed him back to Scripture. But history tells us that there is a monk within each of us, continually looking for new ways to corrupt Christian piety, seeking to draw our eyes away from Christ, His grace, and His piety.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California and associate minister of Escondido United Reformed Church. He is author of Recovering the Reformed Confession.