St. John the Baptist: early monklike figure (Giovanni Francesco Rustici, early 16th c.)
See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
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There are, of course (biblically speaking) good and bad traditions, but Calvin rarely makes that crucial distinction. Nor does he ever admit that Protestant innovations and novelties and corruptions are examples of bad tradition.
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. It was not enough to neglect the command of Christ, and bear any burdens which false teachers might please to impose, but each individual behoved to have his own peculiar burdens, and thus sink deeper by digging his own cavern. This has been the result when men set about devising vows, by which a stronger and closer obligation might be added to common ties. Having already shown that the worship of God was vitiated by the audacity of those who, under the name of pastors, domineered in the Church, when they ensnared miserable souls by their iniquitous laws, it will not be out of place here to advert to a kindred evil, to make it appear that the world, in accordance with its depraved disposition, has always thrown every possible obstacle in the way of the helps by which it ought to have been brought to God.
The usual anti-Catholic prattle . . .
Moreover, that the very grievous mischief introduced by such vows may be more apparent, let the reader attend to the principles formerly laid down. First, we showed (Book 2 chap. 8 sec. 5) that everything requisite for the ordering of a pious and holy life is comprehended in the law. Secondly, we showed that the Lord, the better to dissuade us from devising new works, included the whole of righteousness in simple obedience to his will. If these positions are true, it is easy to see that all fictitious worship, which we ourselves devise for the purpose of serving God, is not in the least degree acceptable to him, how pleasing soever it may be to us. And, unquestionably, in many passages the Lord not only openly rejects, but grievously abhors such worship.
Calvin's opposition to traditional Christian, Catholic worship is irrational, bigoted, and wrongheaded. If he actually presents some arguments for his antipathy, then I'll be happy to deal with them one-by-one.
Hence arises a doubt with regard to vows which are made without any express authority from the word of God; in what light are they to be viewed? can they be duly made by Christian men, and to what extent are they binding? What is called a promise among men is a vow when made to God. Now, we promise to men either things which we think will be acceptable to them, or things which we in duty owe them. Much more careful, therefore, ought we to be in vows which are directed to God, with whom we ought to act with the greatest seriousness. Here superstition has in all ages strangely prevailed; men at once, without judgment and without choice, vowing to God whatever came into their minds, or even rose to their lips. Hence the foolish vows, nay, monstrous absurdities, by which the heathen insolently sported with their gods. Would that Christians had not imitated them in this their audacity! Nothing, indeed, could be less becoming; but it is obvious that for some ages nothing has been more usual than this misconduct—the whole body of the people everywhere despising the Law of God, and burning with an insane zeal of vowing according to any dreaming notion which they had formed. I have no wish to exaggerate invidiously, or particularise the many grievous sins which have here been committed; but it seemed right to advert to it in passing, that it may the better appear, that when we treat of vows we are not by any means discussing a superfluous question.
Having ridiculously exaggerated the abuses of vows, Calvin claims he has no wish to do so. How charming. As usual, Calvin will paint things in the darkest colors imaginable, with sweeping terms and dramatic flourishes, leading to a conclusion that the thing in question (here, vows), presented as a gross caricature of actual reality, should be essentially eliminated. He does this over and over, leading one to rightly conclude that he is no reformer, but rather, a revolutionary. Vows have a strong biblical basis. They simply need to be correctly understood and applied in the lives of people: not scorned and ditched altogether.
Vows and oaths have a perfectly biblical basis. Here are three Protestant sources that verify this:
- It is no sin to vow or not to vow, but if made . . . a vow is as sacredly binding as an oath (Deut 23:21-23) . . . The seriousness of oaths is emphasized in the laws of Moses (Ex 20:7, Lev 19:12) . . . Ezekiel speaks as if perjury were punishable by death (Ezek 17:16 ff.) . . . Christ taught that oaths were binding (Matt 5:33) . . . Christ himself accepted the imprecatory oath (Matt 26:63 ff.), and Paul also swore by an oath (2 Cor 1:23, Gal 1:20) . . . God bound himself by an oath (Heb. 6:13-18).
(Douglas, J. D. Douglas, editor, The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, 1313, 902)
Oaths were solemn commitments and not to be taken lightly. The 3rd commandment of the Decalog forbids oaths that are made thoughtlessly (Ex 20:7, Deut 5:11); the 9th commandment forbids perjury. An oath must be fulfilled . . . (Ecc 5:4-5).
(Allen C. Myers, editor, Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987 [English revision of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, edited by W. H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J. H. Kok, revised edition, 1975], translated by Raymond C. Togtman & Ralph W. Vunderink, 773-774)
The apostle Paul . . . had his hair cut off . . . 'for he had taken a vow' (Acts 18:18) . . . Vowing was voluntary. But after a vow was made, it had to be performed . . . Deception in vowing is an affront to God and brings His curse (Mal 1:14) . . . Lying about an oath could result in death (Ezek 17:16-18). Jesus Himself was bound by an oath (Matt 26:63-4), as was Paul (2 Cor l:23, Gal 1:20). Even God bound Himself by an oath.
(Herbert, Lockyer, Sr., editor, Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Nashville: Nelson, 1986, 1088, 767)
No argument with the general principles: only regarding how Calvin specifically applies them. Also, when he says "approved by his word," this is accompanied by the usual wrongheaded assumptions involved in sola Scriptura (often requiring explicit biblical indication where that is not necessary).
In the second point which we have mentioned as requiring consideration is implied, that we measure our strength, that we attend to our vocation so as not to neglect the blessing of liberty which God has conferred upon us. For he who vows what is not within his means, or is at variance with his calling, is rash, while he who contemns the beneficence of God in making him lord of all things, is ungrateful.
Sure; no problem.
When I speak thus, I mean not that anything is so placed in our hand, that, leaning on our own strength, we may promise it to God. For in the Council of Arausica (cap. 11) it was most truly decreed, that nothing is duly vowed to God save what we have received from his hand, since all things which are offered to him are merely his gifts.
Catholics fully agree with this.
But seeing that some things are given to us by the goodness of God, and others withheld by his justice, every man should have respect to the measure of grace bestowed on him, as Paul enjoins (Rom. 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:11). All then I mean here is, that your vows should be adapted to the measure which God by his gifts prescribes to you, lest by attempting more than he permits, you arrogate too much to yourself, and fall headlong.
For example, when the assassins, of whom mention is made in the Acts, vowed “that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12), though it had not been an impious conspiracy, it would still have been intolerably presumptuous, as subjecting the life and death of a man to their own power. Thus Jephthah suffered for his folly, when with precipitate fervour he made a rash vow (Judges 11:30).
Vows rashly made are foolish and a bad thing; of course.
Of this class, the first place of insane audacity belongs to celibacy.
And now we start to go off into irrationality and prejudice . . . .
Priests, monks, and nuns, forgetful of their infirmity,
What infirmity? Being called to the religious life? May many more folks be afflicted with this "infirmity"!
are confident of their fitness for celibacy.
If God calls them to such a life; sure. Let every one live in the calling that God has granted them.
But by what oracle have they been instructed, that the chastity which they vow to the end of life, they will be able through life to maintain?
God: the one Who calls.
They hear the voice of God concerning the universal condition of mankind, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Obviously, it is not "universal," or else Jesus wouldn't have noted its non-universality (Matthew 19); nor would Paul have done so (1 Corinthians 7), nor would Jesus, His disciples, John the Baptist, and many other holy men and women, have been celibate.
They understand, and I wish they did not feel that the sin remaining in us is armed with the sharpest stings. How can they presume to shake off the common feelings of their nature for a whole lifetime, seeing the gift of continence is often granted for a certain time as occasion requires?
Because God called them to it; therefore He continues to enable them to fulfill the vow:
Philippians 2:13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Calvin either lacks faith that God is able to do these things in human beings, or he is oddly unfamiliar with biblical passages such as the above.
In such perverse conduct they must not expect God to be their helper; let them rather remember the words, “Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:16). But it is to tempt the Lord to strive against the nature implanted by him, and to spurn his present gifts as if they did not appertain to us.
How can something be "perverse" and an example of tempting God, that was expressly recommended and extolled by our Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul? This is curious logic.
This they not only do, but marriage, which God did not think it unbecoming his majesty to institute, which he pronounced honourable in all, which Christ our Lord sanctified by his presence, and which he deigned to honour with his first miracle, they presume to stigmatise as pollution,
This is fallacious "either/or" reasoning. Catholicism is caricatured (because Calvin can't comprehend celibacy), as devaluing marriage simply because it recognizes also a category of celibacy and being "married to the Lord." The problem obviously resides with Calvin's unbiblical logic and with people who take this vow, that have no business doing so. Neither "problem" casts into doubt the veracity of the principle and the calling, itself.
so extravagant are the terms in which they eulogise every kind of celibacy; as if in their own life they did not furnish a clear proof that celibacy is one thing and chastity another. This life, however, they most impudently style angelical, thereby offering no slight insult to the angels of God, to whom they compare whoremongers and adulterers, and something much worse and fouler still. And, indeed, there is here very little occasion for argument, since they are abundantly refuted by fact. For we plainly see the fearful punishments with which the Lord avenges this arrogance and contempt of his gifts from overweening confidence. More hidden crimes I spare through shame; what is known of them is too much.
Some people abuse a good thing. Why is this some shocking thing? Whatever is abused (which is virtually everything) does not thereby become evil. The Bible itself, for example, is abused all the time, but it doesn't change the fact that it is very good, and God's inspired revelation.
Beyond all controversy, we ought not to vow anything which will hinder us in fulfilling our vocation; as if the father of a family were to vow to leave his wife and children, and undertake other burdens; or one who is fit for a public office should, when elected to it, vow to live private. But the meaning of what we have said as to not despising our liberty may occasion some difficulty if not explained. Wherefore, understand it briefly thus: Since God has given us dominion over all things, and so subjected them to us that we may use them for our convenience, we cannot hope that our service will be acceptable to God if we bring ourselves into bondage to external things, which ought to be subservient to us. I say this, because some aspire to the praise of humility, for entangling themselves in a variety of observances from which God for good reason wished us to be entirely free. Hence, if we would escape this danger, let us always remember that we are by no means to withdraw from the economy which God has appointed in the Christian Church.
Good principles, but applied wrongly or fallaciously, as explained.
Good. God looks at the heart.
Now, as far as I can see, there are four ends to which our vows may be properly directed; two of these, for the sake of order, I refer to the past, and two to the future. To the past belong vows by which we either testify our gratitude toward God for favours received, or in order to deprecate his wrath, inflict punishment on ourselves for faults committed. The former, let us if you please call acts of thanksgiving; the latter, acts of repentance. Of the former class, we have an example in the tithes which Jacob vowed (Gen. 28:20), if the Lord would conduct him safely home from exile; and also in the ancient peace-offerings which pious kings and commanders, when about to engage in a just war, vowed that they would give if they were victorious, or, at least, if the Lord would deliver them when pressed by some greater difficulty. Thus are to be understood all the passages in the Psalms which speak of vows (Ps. 22:26; 56:13; 116:14, 18). Similar vows may also be used by us in the present day, whenever the Lord has rescued us from some disaster or dangerous disease, or other peril. For it is not abhorrent from the office of a pious man thus to consecrate a votive offering to God as a formal symbol of acknowledgment that he may not seem ungrateful for his kindness. The nature of the second class it will be sufficient to illustrate merely by one familiar example. Should any one, from gluttonous indulgence, have fallen into some iniquity, there is nothing to prevent him, with the view of chastising his intemperance, from renouncing all luxuries for a certain time, and in doing so, from employing a vow for the purpose of binding himself more firmly. And yet I do not lay down this as an invariable law to all who have similarly offended; I merely show what may be lawfully done by those who think that such a vow will be useful to them. Thus while I hold it lawful so to vow, I at the same time leave it free.
No particular disagreement.
How can a vow not pertain to the future? How can one vow about a past event?
tend partly, as we have said, to render us more cautious, and partly to act as a kind of stimulus to the discharge of duty. A man sees that he is so prone to a certain vice, that in a thing which is otherwise not bad he cannot restrain himself from forthwith falling into evil: he will not act absurdly in cutting off the use of that thing for some time by a vow. If, for instance, one should perceive that this or that bodily ornament brings him into peril, and yet allured by cupidity he eagerly longs for it, what can he do better than by throwing a curb upon himself, that is, imposing the necessity of abstinence, free himself from all doubt? In like manner, should one be oblivious or sluggish in the necessary duties of piety, why should he not, by forming a vow, both awaken his memory and shake off his sloth? In both, I confess, there is a kind of tutelage, but inasmuch as they are helps to infirmity, they are used not without advantage by the ignorant and imperfect. Hence we hold that vows which have respect to one of these ends, especially in external things, are lawful, provided they are supported by the approbation of God, are suitable to our calling, and are limited to the measure of grace bestowed upon us.
Do not suppose, however, that I so commend the vows which I maintain to be holy that I would have them made every day. For though I dare not give any precept as to time or number, yet if any one will take my advice, he will not undertake any but what are sober and temporary.
What becomes of marriage vows, then?
If you are ever and anon launching out into numerous vows, the whole solemnity will be lost by the frequency, and you will readily fall into superstition.
Yes; vows are too serious to be made constantly. That would cheapen their gravity.
If you bind yourself by a perpetual vow, you will have great trouble and annoyance in getting free, or, worn out by length of time, you will at length make bold to break it.
So much for marriage and lifelong commitment to the priesthood, to the religious life, or to the Protestant sense of pastoral ordination.
Calvin thinks like the Pharisees: the arbitrariness of whom our Lord criticized:
God (contrary to Calvin) seemed to think that such abstinence (far from necessarily or always a "superstition") was a good and spiritually useful thing:
Luke 7:33-34 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, 'He has a demon.'  The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, `Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'
Leviticus 10:8-10 And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying,  "Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations.  You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean;
Numbers 6:1-4 And the LORD said to Moses,  "Say to the people of Israel, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD,  he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink, and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried.  All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.(cf. Judges 13:4, 7; Jer 35:6-14)
Luke 1:15 for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.
Another bound himself to fast,
Fasting has an extensive biblical rationale as well, as I have previously shown.
another to abstain from flesh on certain days,
What Calvin relegates to superstition, St. Paul allows as a perfect freedom for an individual to choose:
Romans 14:3-4, 6b Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. . . .  . . . he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
That the Church also has the prerogative to institute fasts and mandatory abstention, is obvious from all the dietary laws and rules of feasts of the Old Testament. Jesus and the apostles followed these, and so did not overturn the very concept, as Calvin seems to want to do.
which he had vainly imagined to be more holy than other days.
St. Paul gives believers freedom to think one day "better than another":
Romans 14:5-6a One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. . . .
Again, by analogy to the Old Covenant and early Christian adherence to its particulars, the Church has the prerogative to set mandatory holy days as well. Moreover, there is biblical evidence for the notion of a holy day. The most obvious is the Sabbath itself:
Exodus 16:23 he said to them, "This is what the LORD has commanded: `Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD . . .
Exodus 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
Exodus 31:15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD (cf. 35:2; Lev 23:3; Deut 5:12-13; Neh 13:22; Is 58:13; Jer 17:22, 24, 27)
Leviticus 23:8 . . . on the seventh day is a holy convocation . . .
Additional days are described as especially "holy" too:
Leviticus 23:15-16, 21 "And you shall count from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven full weeks shall they be,  counting fifty days to the morrow after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a cereal offering of new grain to the LORD. . . .  And you shall make proclamation on the same day; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work: it is a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.The early Christians observed the Jewish feasts (e.g., Jn 4:45; 5:1; 7:1-2,11,37; 12:20), including Passover (Matthew 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:1-15; Jn 2:13,23). The Last Supper was a Passover ceremony. Therefore, the explicit Old Testament evidence for holy days was carried over into the New Covenant, with the express sanction (by their own practice) of our Lord Jesus and St. Paul.
Leviticus 23:24-25 "Say to the people of Israel, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation.  You shall do no laborious work; and you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD."
Leviticus 23:27-28 "On the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present an offering by fire to the LORD.  And you shall do no work on this same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.
Leviticus 23:33-37 And the LORD said to Moses,  "Say to the people of Israel, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the feast of booths to the LORD.  On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work.  Seven days you shall present offerings by fire to the LORD; on the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is a solemn assembly; you shall do no laborious work.  "These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the LORD offerings by fire, burnt offerings and cereal offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day;
Leviticus 23:39-41 "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.  And you shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.  You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month.
(cf. Num 28:18, 25-26; 29:1, 7, 12)
Nehemiah 8:9-11 And Nehemi'ah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved."
Nehemiah 10:31 and if the peoples of the land bring in wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or on a holy day; and we will forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.
2 Maccabees 6:11 Others who had assembled in the caves near by, to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day.
Things much more boyish were vowed though not by boys. For it was accounted great wisdom to undertake votive pilgrimages to holy places,
Absolutely; this is a pious act, since there is such a thing as a "holy place," described in Holy Scripture.
and sometimes to perform the journey on foot, or with the body half naked, that the greater merit might be acquired by the greater fatigue.
Penance and merit are quite biblical concepts as well. Calvin is literally confronted by contrary biblical data at every turn. How pathetic . . .
These and similar things, for which the world has long bustled with incredible zeal, if tried by the rules which we formerly laid down, will be discovered to be not only empty and nugatory, but full of manifest impiety.
Then the Bible is greatly guilty of the same, and therefore, God Himself. This is what Calvin's system (where it departs from Catholicism) reduces to: opposition to the Bible and God (not just "papists"). The above examples, shocking though they are, are just a few of many many similar examples, shown throughout this critique.
Be the judgment of the flesh what it may, there is nothing which God more abhors than fictitious worship.
God also abhors wanton disregard for His Word (i.e., Holy Scripture). It is there precisely to guide us, but if someone insists on ignoring it over and over, and in many different areas (as we have seen Calvin sadly doing, above) and going their own way, then this is, in effect, a slap in God's face.
To these are added pernicious and damnable notions, hypocrites, after performing such frivolities, thinking that they have acquired no ordinary righteousness, placing the substance of piety in external observances, and despising all others who appear less careful in regard to them.
Calvin and his followers are guilty of the same things; often in some different respects. Where sin is present, it needs to be rebuked and addressed, with a call for repentance. There are many hypocrites in Catholic circles, then and now, but there are also hypocrites in Protestant circles. It is a human problem of sin, not an institutional or doctrinal problem with Catholicism alone, whilst Calvinism is a perfect alternative with no difficulties whatever. That's what Calvin essentially implies to his readers, but it is far from the case, as we have seen. Where true sins are present, he hugely distorts their extent. But even where great sins may be present in practice, this provides no warrant from throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Calvin and other "reformers" so often tragically do.
The ancient modes of many things were very very different . . . : from the Protestant novelties and corruptions.
The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practiced by the monks then resembled that which the Lacedemonians are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age. Augustine also shows that in his time the monasteries were wont to furnish the Church with clergy. For he thus addresses the monks of the island of Caprae: “We exhort you, brethren in the Lord, to keep your purpose, and persevere to the end; and if at any time our mother Church requires your labour, you will neither undertake it with eager elation, nor reject it from the blandishment of sloth, but with meek hearts obey God. You will not prefer your own ease to the necessities of the Church. Had no good men been willing to minister to her when in travail, it would have been impossible for you to be born” (August. Ep. 82). He is speaking of the ministry by which believers are spiritually born again. In like manner, he says to Aurelius (Ep. 76), “It is both an occasion of lapse to them, and a most unbecoming injury to the clerical order, if the deserters of monasteries are elected to the clerical warfare, since from those who remain in the monastery our custom is to appoint to the clerical office only the better and more approved. Unless, perhaps, as the vulgar say, A bad chorister is a good symphonist, so, in like manner, it will be jestingly said of us, A bad monk is a good clergyman. There will be too much cause for grief if we stir up monks to such ruinous pride, and deem the clergy deserving of so grave an affront, seeing that sometimes a good monk scarcely makes a good clerk; he may have sufficient continence, but be deficient in necessary learning.” From these passages, it appears that pious men were wont to prepare for the government of the Church by monastic discipline, that thus they might be more apt and better trained to undertake the important office: not that all attained to this object, or even aimed at it, since the great majority of monks were illiterate men. Those who were fit were selected.
This is fascinating, since we just went through a laundry list of things which Calvin spurned as purely superstitious (abstinence from wine or meat, other fasting, holy days, pilgrimages, penance), yet now he turns around (when he thinks it will suit his purpose in attacking monastic vows) and acts as if stringent dietary abstinence and penitential lack of luxuries in more ancient times were good things ("pious men were wont to prepare for the government of the Church by monastic discipline"). The same exact thing becomes superstitious among Catholics of his time, but "pious" in the good old Golden Age of the Early Church, that Protestants love to believe, bolsters their historical / theological positions. Yet all Calvin sees is "contrast." Such schizoid, self-contradictory tendencies are often observed in Calvin, as in Luther.
Yet Calvin despises clerical celibacy. What he thinks was virtuous in ancient times is now a stinkpot of decadence and no good thing at all.
they pass their lives together, spending their time in prayer, reading, and discourse, not swollen with pride, not turbulent through petulance, not livid with envy. No one possesses anything of his own: no one is burdensome to any man. They labour with their hands in things by which the body may be fed, and the mind not withdrawn from God. The fruit of their labour they hand over to those whom they call deans. Those deans, disposing of the whole with great care, render an account to one whom they call father. These fathers, who are not only of the purest morals, but most distinguished for divine learning, and noble in all things, without any pride, consult those whom they call their sons, though the former have full authority to command, and the latter a great inclination to obey. At the close of the day they assemble each from his cell, and without having broken their fast, to hear their father, and to the number of three thousand at least (he is speaking of Egypt and the East) they assemble under each father. Then the body is refreshed, so far as suffices for safety and health, every one curbing his concupiscence so as not to be profuse in the scanty and very mean diet which is provided.
We see fasting and abstinence. Again, it was "good" in Augustine's time, but somehow remarkably transformed into wickedness by Calvin's time.
Thus they not only abstain from flesh and wine for the purpose of subduing lust, but from those things which provoke the appetite of the stomach and gullet more readily, from seeming to some, as it were, more refined.
Penance and abstinence: exactly what Calvin decried and scorned, not far above.
In this way the desire of exquisite dainties, in which there is no flesh, is wont to be absurdly and shamefully defended. Any surplus, after necessary food (and the surplus is very great from the labour of their hands and the frugality of their meals), is carefully distributed to the needy, the more carefully that it was not procured by those who distribute. For they never act with the view of having abundance for themselves, but always act with the view of allowing no superfluity to remain with them” (August. De Mor. Eccl. Cath. c. 31). Afterwards describing their austerity, of which he had himself seen instances both at Milan and elsewhere, he says, “Meanwhile, no one is urged to austerities which he is unable to bear: no one is obliged to do what he declines, nor condemned by the others, whom he acknowledges himself too weak to imitate. For they remember how greatly charity is commended: they remember that to the pure all things are pure (Tit. 1:15). Wherefore, all their vigilance is employed, not in rejecting kinds of food as polluted, but in subduing concupiscence, and maintaining brotherly love. They remember, ‘Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats,’ &c. (1 Cor. 6:13). Many, however strong, abstain because of the weak. In many this is not the cause of action; they take pleasure in sustaining themselves on the meanest and least expensive food. Hence the very persons who in health restrain themselves, decline not in sickness to use what their health requires. Many do not drink wine, and yet do not think themselves polluted by it, for they most humanely cause it to be given to the more sickly, and to those whose health requires it; and some who foolishly refuse, they fraternally admonish, lest by vain superstition they sooner become more weak than more holy. Thus they sedulously practice piety, while they know that bodily exercise is only for a short time. Charity especially is observed: their food is adapted to charity, their speech to charity, their dress to charity, their looks to charity. They go together, and breathe only charity: they deem it as unlawful to offend charity as to offend God; if any one opposes it, he is cast out and shunned; if any one offends it, he is not permitted to remain one day” (August. De Moribus Eccl. Cath. c. 33). Since this holy man appears in these words to have exhibited the monastic life of ancient times as in a picture, I have thought it right to insert them here, though somewhat long, because I perceive that I would be considerably longer if I collected them from different writers, however compendious I might study to be.
Calvin will go on to condemn the real sins of the monks and priests of his time, but the reader must remember the sleight-of-hand employed. A large part of what was the entire picture of the "holy" monks were those "Catholic" practices which Calvin condemns. If he wishes to cite St. Augustine at length, he won't be able to avoid his readers seeing these particulars. But Calvin seems unable or unwilling to note the striking self-contradiction. If Calvin grants that the ancient monks were more holy (which was in all likelihood the case, in contrast to the corrupt, decadent period of the 16th century, with personal sin among priests and religious sadly rampant), then it is quite obvious that the answer to the current problem is to find a way to get the current clergy and religious reformed, so that they are like their ancient forebears, whom even Calvin admires and offers as a contrast. This was the solution of the Catholic Reformation later in the 16th century, with the Council of Trent and other reforms, but not of the Protestant Revolution.
The answer is clearly not to get rid of the categories of priest and nuns and monks altogether. If the categories are essentially wrong and wicked and unnecessary and unbiblical, etc., then they were just as wrong in the 4th and 5th centuries as they were in the 16th (from a Protestant revolutionary perspective). Therefore, Calvin couldn't have reasoned by way of contrasting the older examples with the newer ones. But Calvin doesn't reason that way. It would be too logically consistent for his taste. Rather, he argues in the following altogether ridiculous fashion:
1) The old priests and monks and nuns were holy and pious; good folk.
2) Today, the same classes are thoroughly corrupt.
3) Therefore, there is no hope, and we must abolish all three classes.
This doesn't even get into the accompanying ludicrous notions of the Mass being blasphemous, abominable, idolatrous, and so forth; yet the very same Mass with the same beliefs, as celebrated by the ancients, somehow doesn't make them culpable of the same wickedness that Calvin accuses Catholics in his time of committing every time they go to church. We see contradiction and unfathomable self-contradiction at every turn when closely examining Calvin's and other Protestant originators' worldviews.
But sound readers may also judge how wildly inconsistent and illogical Calvin is in his arguments, with a little help from a hopefully sound Catholic apologist.
Augustine, while tracing out a holy and legitimate monasticism,
Case in point: observe how Calvin described ancient monasticism as "holy and legitimate." Why, then, doesn't he advocate its continuance in his time, if it was such a holy, good thing? He roundly refutes his own point of view by (on the one hand) granting that the thing was once holy, and (on the other hand) denying any possibility of, therefore, reforming it and getting it back to the place where it once was. He despairs; he lacks hope and faith that the Church can bring this about by God's grace. It's an essentially cynical, pessimistic outlook; most contrary to NT injunctions of idealistic optimism in the Holy Spirit. The early Protestants loved to call themselves "reformers" (and they are called that to this day), yet what they usually advocated was the furthest thing from "reform" -- by any reasonable definition of the term.
would keep away all rigorous exaction of those things which the word of the Lord has left free.
We saw plenty of self-sacrifice and penance in Augustine's description. Calvin seems to want to project onto him his own views, when they are plainly not the same, even in the citation that he himself produces.
But in the present day nothing is more rigorously exacted. For they deem it an inexpiable crime if any one deviates in the least degree from the prescribed form in colour or species of dress, in the kind of food, or in other frivolous and frigid ceremonies.
Why should we think that this is not another example of Calvin's incessant extreme exaggerations of corruption? All we have is his word, after all. Why should anyone accept all his condemnations of Catholicism and Catholics as Gospel Truth? I question even his factuality in many instances.
Augustine strenuously contends that it is not lawful for monks to live in idleness on other men’s means. (August. De Oper. Monach.) He denies that any such example was to be found in his day in a well-regulated monastery. Our monks place the principal part of their holiness in idleness.
How does one prove such a thing? It's simply Calvin's bald word. Why should any intelligent reader accept it without question? Then one would have to also see what Calvin regards as "idleness". Perhaps he would place, for instance, the prayers of monks in that category?
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? Augustine, in fine, requires a monasticism which may be nothing else than a training and assistant to the offices of piety which are recommended to all Christians. What? When he makes charity its chief and almost its only rule, do we think he praises that combination by which a few men, bound to each other, are separated from the whole body of the Church?
What in the world is wrong with separation for the right reasons? One could have a ministry of prayer, which is a non-social thing in and of itself. John the Baptist separated himself. The prophets were usually isolated figures, by the nature of their function. Jesus went away to be by Himself during times of prayer. He fasted 40 days and nights by Himself before He began His public ministry. Again, we observe the rigid legalism and inability to allow different gifts to be exercised in the Church. It's Calvin's way or the highway.
Nay, he wishes them to set an example to others of preserving the unity of the Church. So different is the nature of present monachism in both respects, that it would be difficult to find anything so dissimilar, not to say contrary.
More self-serving, but dubious exaggeration . . .
For our monks, not satisfied with that piety, on the study of which alone Christ enjoins his followers to be intent, imagine some new kind of piety, by aspiring to which they are more perfect than all other men.
Calvin melodramatically ends with a sweeping, bigoted description. Superb propaganda; altogether lousy, deficient, pitiable argumentation . . .