Luther’s Monks


So Fr. Jonathan of the Conciliar Anglican blog left a comment on my “Is Anglicanism a Variant of Lutheranism?” post (which my friends at FIRST THINGS were kind enough to link to). I had not heard of this blog before, so I took a gander and came upon a post entitled “Ask an Anglican: What Is Anglican Monasticism?” and read this:

The history of Anglican monasticism is both long and rich. In some ways, it is also rather complex—not because of anything unique to monasticism, but because of the historical complexities of the medieval west. Most simply stated, by the fifteenth century there were a large number of unofficial monastic movements. The most famous of these is the Devotio Moderna (literally ‘the Modern Devotion’, but also translatable as ‘the Modern-Day Devout’). The Devotio Moderna was primarily expressed in the Brethren of the Common Life. This group produced Thomas à Kempis, whose great work The Imitation of Christ was the most popular devotional in Europe for two hundred years, from the early-fifteenth through the early-seventeenth centuries. The Brethren also educated Erasmus of Rotterdam, the greatest humanist of the sixteenth century; Erasmus was a Catholic reformer who, despite his sympathies with Luther, remained within the Catholic church. He taught in England when Henry VIII was a young king, and Erasmus’s New Testament Paraphrases were among the official texts of the English reformations (right alongside the Book of Common Prayer, the English translation of the Bible, and the Homilies). The Devotio Moderna is thus important not just as a reform movement which inspired other reform movements, but as a reform movement which directly influenced Anglicanism.

For reasons that I know little about, the Roman Catholic church formally banned the Brethren of the Common Life at the Council of Trent. They lived on, however, in Lutheran lands until the nineteenth century. Martin Luther had a soft spot for them—no doubt because so much of their work consisted in educating the young, which Luther was a strong proponent of. Contrary to what is popularly assumed, the Lutherans did not formally ban monasticism; several Benedictine houses joined the Lutheran movement in the sixteenth century and still today there are Lutheran monasteries and convents. Although the Lutheran confessions were sharply critical of sixteenth-century monastic practice, they never formally rejected monasticism. I do not write this to argue that Lutheranism was somehow ‘more Catholic’ than later Protestant groups. Rather, I write this as a matter of fact: the Brethren of the Common Life were, together with the Lutheran Benedictines, part of the Lutheran tradition from pretty much the beginning. [emphasis mine]

I did not know much of this history. Did you? If so, why didn’t you tell me? What do you think I don’t pay you for, to just sit there and stare at dying pixels?

So I did a little Web digging, and found an article entitled “Martin Luther’s Intervention in Behalf of the Brethren of the Common Life in Herford,” by William M. Landeen (Andrews University Seminary Studies 22, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 81-97). Landeen gives a brief history of the Brethren’s connection to Luther and Lutheranism:

The city of Herford came under the influence of Luther’s ideas rather early. In 1522, Gerard Kropp, rector of the Augustinians in Herford, began to preach the new doctrines with success. It is plausible to hold that the Brethren and the Sisters in Herford knew about Kropp’s activity, but their interest in Luther came from another
source; namely, from Jacob Montanus, scholar, humanist, friend of Melanchthon, member of the Brethren House, and Father Confessor to the Sisters of the Common Life in Herford.

Jacob Montanus, also known as Jacob of Spires, came out of the Miinster circle of Brethren and humanists. He was a pupil of Alexander Hegius, the famous schoolmaster of Emmerich and Deventer, a schoolmate of John Busch, and a favorite of Rudolph von Langen, whose reform of the cathedral school in Miinster made it a famous center of humanistic culture in the early fifteenth century. It was von Langen who, in or about 1512, sent Jacob Montanus to the Brethren House in Herford to assist the Brethren in their school activities in that city.

Just when and how Jacob Montanus came under Luther’s influence escapes us. It must have been before 1523, and the medium could well have been Melanchthon. When the now fragmentary correspondence between Wittenberg and the Brethren in Herford opens with Luther’s letter to Montanus on July 26, 1523, there is already a fraternal and well-established relationship between this humanist and the Reformer. Wrote Luther:

Grace and peace. It is true, my best Jacob, that one theme keeps me preoccupied constantly, namely, the grace of Christ. This is the reason which you and all my friends must bear in mind if I do not write at all, or write seldom or briefly. Concerning your latest communication on the subject of confession, I believe most assuredly that it is permissible to omit completely a recital of each and every sin. A general confession of sins is sufficient to receive the solace of the Gospel and the remission of sins. . . .

Association with the Great Reformer had its consequences:

The adherents of the Devotio Moderna in Herford were accepting Luther, and by 1525 both the Brethren and the Sisters of the Common Life had gone over to the Wittenberger. In that year both Gerard Wiscamp, the rector, and Henry Telgte, the prorector of the Brethren House, were imprisoned “as Lutherans and heretics” by
Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabriick, and were released only when the Brethren paid the sum of 300 gulden as a fine, and further assured the Bishop that they would pay another 1000 gulden should they ever fall into the same heresy again. Actually, Bishop Eric was suing the Brethren in Herford for this latter sum when his death in 1534 stopped the case.

Luther’s teachings on “the grace of Christ” were infectious, and Augustinians and Franciscans(!) were coming under the influence of the Brethren’s Lutheran-inspired reforms. Naturally, city officials became alarmed and

By 1532 the commission had decided on the usual secularization. The monasteries were to cease as such, their inmates must attend the city churches, partake there of the sacraments, and change their clothing and habits of life. The Brethren and the Sisters in Herford refused to comply, and they appealed to Luther. They sent him also an “Apology” for their mode of living and asked him to approve of their statement, which they would read before the city council.

That Apology’s arguments

are all traditional Devotio Moderna arguments and can be found in the constitutions of the various houses in Germany and in the Low Countries. In the first place, appeal is made to Holy Scriptures as the source of the common life with all its requirements as to labor, dress, sacraments, and good works in Christ “in whose name we have been baptized.”

Second, the Bible clearly permits in addition to the married state the state of purity, which the Brethren and the Sisters practiced. Historically, this type of life, freely undertaken without binding vows, was found in the schools of the prophets in the Book of Kings, in the Acts of the Apostles, in the school which Mark the Evangelist founded in Alexandria, and in Augustine’s life with his clergy.

Third, “we desire that our chartered rights in the municipality of Herford shall be protected, just as the canonical status of the school in Wittenberg was left with its rights and honors. . . . The “Apology” ended with the affirmation that everybody in Herford, and especially the Lutheran pastors, knew what the Brethren had believed and suffered, and why their request should be honored.

Luther had been asked to endorse the “Apology,” if he could. He responded without reservation: “I, Martin Luther, confess over this my signature that I find nothing unchristian in this statement. Would to God that all monasteries might teach and practice God’s word so earnestly.” In returning the “Apology” with his endorsement
to Jacob Montanus and Gerard Wiscamp on January 31, 1532, he wrote almost with abandon:

Grace and peace. I have received your communications and have written about this matter to the senate of your city and asked that your house might be protected and spared the uncertainty which the agitators are occasioning you. As for your mode of life, whensoever you teach pure doctrine and live according to the Gospel of Christ, I am greatly pleased. And oh that the monasteries had been or were today so excellent. I scarcely dare wish so much, for if all were thus, the Church would be blessed overmuch in this life. Your manner of dress and other laudable practices have not hurt the Gospel; rather these old usages serve, once the Gospel is firmly planted, to keep under control the raging, licentious, and undisciplined spirits which today are bent upon destroying, not building. Stand, therefore, in your state, and under this manner of life propagate richly the Gospel, which, indeed, you are doing. Live well and pray for me.

Luther continued to support the houses as well as decry extremists in the reform movement who were more bent on tearing down than building up. Luther’s intervention did serve to prevent the secularization of the houses, but conflicts arose not only between the Brethren and the city council but also between the Brethren and Lutheran pastors who were seeking to exercise greater authority over them. Luther would time and again rise to the defense of the Brethren in Herford, including their practice of non-binding vows so that they may live in freedom according to the grace Christ had shown them.

Please note that by no means were all Brethren Lutheran or Lutheranish. In fact, many had the support of popes (albeit in the fifteenth century) against traditional monastic orders that saw their reforms as a threat to their traditional way of life and their monopoly on education.

For more on the Devotio Moderna, click here. For more on the Brethren, among whose members were none other than Erasmus and Thomas á Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ, try here.

Also, Alister McGrath’s painstaking and gobsmackingly brilliant study of justification, Iustitia Dei, which also contains a thorough exploration of the Devotio.

More more on Luther and his monks, there’s this fun blog: The Benedictine Lutheran.