(Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4, part 14)
Chapter 13. Of vows. The miserable entanglements caused by vowing 
    This chapter consists of two parts, - I. Of vows in general, 
sec. 1-8. II. Of monastic vows, and specially of the vow of 
celibacy, sec. 8-21. 
1. Some general principles with regard to the nature of vows. 
    Superstitious errors not only of the heathen, but of 
    Christians, in regard to vows. 
2. Three points to be considered with regard to vows. First, To whom 
    the vow is made viz., to God. Nothing to be vowed to him but 
    what he himself requires. 
3. Second, Who we are that vow. We must measure our strengths and 
    have regard to our calling. Fearful errors of the Popish clergy 
    by not attending to this. Their vow of celibacy. 
4. Third point to be attended to, viz., the intention with which the 
    vow is made. Four ends in vowing. Two of them refer to the 
    past, and two to the future. Examples and use of the former 
5. End of vows which refer to the future. 
6. The doctrine of vows in general. Common vow of Christians in 
    Baptism, &c. This vow sacred and salutary. Particular vows how 
    to be tested. 
7. Great prevalence of superstition with regard to vows. 
8. Vows of monks. Contrast between ancient and modern monasticism. 
9. Portraiture of the ancient monks by Augustine. 
10. Degeneracy of modern monks. 1. Inconsiderate rigour. 2. 
    Idleness. 3. False boast of perfection. 
11. This idea of monastic perfection refuted. 
12. Arguments for monastic perfection. First argument answered. 
13. Second argument answered. 
14. Absurdity of representing the monastic profession as a second 
15. Corrupt manners of monks. 
16. Some defects in ancient monasticism. 
17. General refutation of monastic vows. 
18. Refutation continued. 
19. Refutation continued. 
20. Do such vows of celibacy bind the conscience? This question 
21. Those who abandon the monastic profession for an honest living, 
    unjustly accused of breaking their faith. 
    1. 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. It 
was not enough to neglect the command of Christ, and bear any 
burdens which false teachers might please to impose, but each 
individual behaved 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. Moreover, that the very grievous mischief 
introduced by such vows may be more apparent, let the reader attend 
to the principles formerly laid down. Firsts 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. 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 judgement 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. 
    2. If we would avoid error in deciding what vows are 
legitimate, and what preposterous, three things must be attended to, 
viz., who he is to whom the vow is made; who we are that make it; 
and, lastly, with what intention we make it. In regard to the first, 
we should consider that we have to do with God, whom our obedience 
so delights, that he abominates all will-worship, how specious and 
splendid soever it may be in the eyes of men, (Col. 2: 23.) If all 
will worship, which we devise without authority, is abomination to 
God, it follows that no worship can be acceptable to him save that 
which is approved by his word. Therefore, we must not arrogate such 
license to ourselves as to presume to vow anything to God without 
evidence of the estimation in which he holds it. For the doctrine of 
Paul, that whatsoever is not of faith is sin, (Rom. 14: 23,) while 
it extends to all actions of every kind, certainly applies with 
peculiar force in the case where the thought is immediately turned 
towards God. Nay, if in the minutes matters (Paul was then speaking 
of the distinction of meats) we err or fall, where the sure light of 
faith shines not before us, how much more modesty ought we to use 
when we attempt a matter of the greatest weight? For in nothing 
ought we to be more serious than in the duties of religion. In vows, 
then, our first precaution must be, never to proceed to make any vow 
without having previously determined in our conscience to attempt 
nothing rashly. And we shall be safe from the danger of rashness 
when we have God going before, and, as it were, dictating from his 
word what is good, and what is useless. 
    3. 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 
condemns the beneficence of God in making him lord of all things is 
ungrateful. When I speak thus, I mean not that any thing 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. 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.) Of this class, the first place of insane audacity belongs to 
celibacy. Priests, monks, and nuns, forgetful of their infirmity, 
are confident of their fitness for celibacy. 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? 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.) 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? 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. 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, 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. 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. 
    4. I come now to my third position, viz., that if you would 
approve your vow to God, the mind in which you undertake it is of 
great moment. For seeing that God looks not to the outward 
appearance but to the heart, the consequence is, that according to 
the purpose which the mind has in view, the same thing may at one 
time please and be acceptable to him, and at another be most 
displeasing. If you vow abstinence from wine, as if there were any 
holiness in so doing, you are superstitious; but if you have some 
end in view which is not perverse, no one can disapprove. 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 acknowledgement 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. 
    5. The vows which have reference to the future 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 in as much 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. 
    6. It is not now difficult to infer what view on the whole 
ought to be taken of vows. There is one vow common to all believers, 
which taken in baptism we confirm, and as it were sanction, by our 
Catechism, and partaking of the Lord's Supper. For the sacraments 
are a kind of mutual contracts by which the Lord conveys his mercy 
to us, and by it eternal life, while we in our turn promise him 
obedience. The formula, or at least substance, of the vow is, That 
renouncing Satan we bind ourselves to the service of God, to obey 
his holy command, and no longer follow the depraved desires of our 
flesh. It cannot be doubted that this vow, which is sanctioned by 
Scripture, nay, is exacted from all the children of God, is holy and 
salutary. There is nothing against this in the fact, that no man in 
this life yields that perfect obedience to the law, which God 
requires of us. This stipulation being included in the covenant of 
grace, comprehending forgiveness of sins and the spirit of holiness, 
the promise which we there make is combined both with entreaty for 
pardon and petition for assistance. It is necessary, in judging of 
particular vows, to keep the three former rules in remembrance: from 
them any one will easily estimate the character of each single vow. 
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. 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. 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. 
    7. It is now easy to see under how much superstition the world 
has laboured in this respect for several ages. One vowed that he 
would be abstemious as if abstinence from wine were in itself an 
acceptable service to God. Another bound himself to fast, another to 
abstain from flesh on certain days, which he had vainly imagined to 
be more holy than other days. Things much more boyish were vowed, 
though not by boys. For it was accounted great wisdom to undertake 
votive pilgrimages to holy places, 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. 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. Be the 
judgement of the flesh what it may, there is nothing which God more 
abhors than fictitious worship. 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. 
    8. It is of no use to enumerate all the separate forms. But as 
monastic vows are held in great veneration, because they seem to be 
approved by the public judgement of the Church, I will say a few 
words concerning them. And, first, lest any one defend the 
monarchism of the present day on the ground of the long 
prescription, it is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living 
in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them 
were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity 
and patience. The discipline practised 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. 
    9. Augustine, in two passages in particular, gives a 
portraiture of the form of ancient monasticism. The one is in his 
book, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, (On the Manners of the 
Catholic Church,) where he maintains the holiness of that profession 
against the calumnies of the Manichees; the other in a treatise, 
entitled, De Opera Monachorum, (On the Work of Monks) where he 
inveighs against certain degenerate monks who had begun to corrupt 
that institution. I will here give a summary of what he there 
delivers, and, as far as I can, in his own words: "Despising the 
allurements of this world, and congregated in common for a most 
chaste and most holy life, 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. 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. 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. 
    10. Here, however, I had no intention to discuss the whole 
subject. I only wished to show, by the way, what kind of monks the 
early Church had, and what the monastic profession then was, that 
from the contrast sound readers might judge how great the effrontery 
is of those who allege antiquity in support of present monkism. 
Augustine, while tracing out a holy and legitimate monasticism, 
would keep away all rigorous exaction of those things which the word 
of the Lord has left free. 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. 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. For if you take away their 
idleness, where will be 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? Nay, he wishes them to set an example to others 
of preserving the unity of the Church. So different is the nature of 
present monarchism in both respects, that it would be difficult to 
find any thing so dissimilar, not to say contrary. 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. 
    11. If they deny this, I should like to know why they honour 
their own order only with the title of perfection, and deny it to 
all other divine callings. I am not unaware of the sophistical 
solution that their order is not so called because it contains 
perfection in itself, but because it is the best of all for 
acquiring perfection. When they would extol themselves to the 
people; when they would lay a snare for rash and ignorant youth; 
when they would assert their privileges and exalt their own dignity 
to the disparagement of others, they boast that they are in a state 
of perfection. When they are too closely pressed to be able to 
defend this vain arrogance, they retake themselves to the subterfuge 
that they have not yet obtained perfection, but that they are in a 
state in which they aspire to it more than others; meanwhile, the 
people continue to admire as if the monastic life alone were 
angelic, perfect, and purified from every vice. Under this pretence 
they ply a most gainful traffic, while their moderation lies buried 
in a few volumes. Who sees not that this is intolerable trifling? 
But let us treat with them as if they ascribed nothing more to their 
profession than to call it a state for acquiring perfection. Surely 
by giving it this name, they distinguish it by a special mark from 
other modes of life. And who will allow such honour to be 
transferred to an institution of which not one syllable is said in 
approbation, while all the other callings of God are deemed unworthy 
of the same, though not only commanded by his sacred lips, but 
adorned with distinguished titles? And how great the insult offered 
to God, when some device of man is preferred to all the modes of 
life which he has ordered, and by his testimony approved? 
    12. But let them say I calumniated them when I declared that 
they were not contented with the rule prescribed by God. Still, 
though I were silent, they more than sufficiently accuse themselves; 
for they plainly declare that they undertake a greater burden than 
Christ has imposed on his followers, since they promise that they 
will keep evangelical counsels regarding the love of enemies, the 
suppression of vindictive feelings, and abstinence from swearing, 
counsels to which Christians are not commonly astricted. In this 
what antiquity can they pretend? None of the ancients ever thought 
of such a thing: all with one voice proclaim that not one syllable 
proceeded from Christ which it is not necessary to obey. And the 
very things which these worthy expounders pretend that Christ only 
counselled, they uniformly declare, without any doubt, that he 
expressly enjoined. But as we have shown above that this is a most 
pestilential error, let it suffice here to have briefly observed 
that monasticism, as it now exists, is founded on an idea which all 
pious men ought to execrate; namely, the pretence that there is some 
more perfect rule of life than that common rule which God has 
delivered to the whole Church. Whatever is built on this foundation 
cannot but be abominable. 
    13. But they produce another argument for their perfection, and 
deem it invincible. Our Lord said to the young man who put a 
question to him concerning the perfection of righteousness, "If thou 
wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor," 
(Matth. 19: 21.) Whether they do so, I do not now dispute. Let us 
grant for the present that they do. They boast, then, that they have 
become perfect by abandoning their all. If the sum of perfection 
consists in this, what is the meaning of Paul's doctrine, that 
though a man should give all his goods to feed the poor, and have 
not charity, he is nothing? (1 Cor. 13: 3.) What kind of perfection 
is that, which, if charity be wanting is with the individual himself 
reduced to nothing? Here they must of necessity answer that it is 
indeed the highest, but is not the only work of perfection. But here 
again Paul interposes, and hesitates not to declare that charity, 
without any renunciation of that sort, is the "bond of perfectness," 
(Col. 3: 14.) If it is certain that there is no disagreement between 
the scholar and the master, and the latter clearly denies that the 
perfection of a man consists in renouncing all his goods, and on the 
other hand asserts that perfection may exist without it, we must see 
in what sense we should understand the words of Christ, "If thou 
wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast." Now, there will not be 
the least obscurity in the meaning if we consider (this ought to be 
attended to in all our Saviour's discourses) to whom the words are 
addressed, (Luke 10: 25.) A young man asks by what works he shall 
enter into eternal life. Christ, as he was asked concerning works, 
refers him to the law. And justly; for, considered in itself, it is 
the way of eternal life, and its inefficacy to give eternal life is 
owing to our depravity. By this answer Christ declared that he did 
not deliver any other rule of life than that which had formerly been 
delivered in the law of the Lord. Thus he both bore testimony to the 
divine law, that it was a doctrine of perfect righteousness, and at 
the same time met the calumnious charge of seeming, by some new rule 
of life, to incite the people to revolt from the law. The young man, 
who was not ill-disposed, but was puffed up with vain-confidence, 
answers that he had observed all the precepts of the law from his 
youth. It is absolutely certain that he was immeasurably distant 
from the goal which he boasted of having reached. Had his boast been 
true, he would have wanted nothing of absolute perfection. For it 
has been demonstrated above, that the law contains in it a perfect 
righteousness. This is even obvious from the fact, that the 
observance of it is called the way to eternal life. To show him how 
little progress he had made in that righteousness which he too 
boldly answered that he had fulfilled, it was right to bring before 
him his besetting sin. Now, while he abounded in riches, he had his 
heart set upon them. Therefore, because he did not feel this secret 
wound, it is probed by Christ - "Go," says he, "and sell that thou 
hast." Had he been as good a keeper of the law as he supposed, he 
would not have gone away sorrowful on hearing these words. For he 
who loves God with his whole heart, not only regards everything 
which wars with his love as dross, but hates it as destruction, 
(Phil. 3: 8.) Therefore, when Christ orders a rich miser to leave 
all that he has, it is the same as if he had ordered the ambitious 
to renounce all his honours, the voluptuous all his luxuries, the 
unchaste all the instruments of his lust. Thus consciences, which 
are not reached by any general admonition, are to be recalled to a 
particular feeling of their particular sin. In vain, therefore, do 
they wrest that special case to a general interpretation, as if 
Christ had decided that the perfection of man consists in the 
abandonment of his goods, since he intended nothing more by the 
expression than to bring a youth who was out of measure satisfied 
with himself to feel his sore, and so understand that he was still 
at a great distance from that perfect obedience of the law which he 
falsely ascribed to himself. I admit that this passage was ill 
understood by some of the Fathers; and hence arose an affectation of 
voluntary poverty, those only being thought blest who abandoned all 
earthly goods, and in a state of destitution devoted themselves to 
Christ. But I am confident that, after my exposition, no good and 
reasonable man will have any dubiety here as to the mind of Christ. 
    14. Still there was nothing which the Fathers less intended 
than to establish that kind of perfection which was afterwards 
fabricated by cowled monks, in order to rear up a species of double 
Christianity. For as yet the sacrilegious dogma was not broached 
which compares the profession of monasticism to baptism, nay, 
plainly asserts that it is the form of a second baptism. Who can 
doubt that the Fathers with their whole hearts abhorred such 
blasphemy? Then what need is there to demonstrate, by words, that 
the last quality which Augustine mentions as belonging to the 
ancient monks, viz., that they in all things accommodated themselves 
to charity, is most alien from this new profession? The thing itself 
declares that all who retire into monasteries withdraw from the 
Church. For how? Do they not separate themselves from the legitimate 
society of the faithful, by acquiring for themselves a special 
ministry and private administration of the sacraments? What is meant 
by destroying the communion of the Church if this is not? And to 
follow out the comparison with which I began, and at once close the 
point, what resemblance have they in this respect to the ancient 
monks? These, though they dwelt separately from others, had not a 
separate Church; they partook of the sacraments with others, they 
attended public meetings, and were then a part of the people. But 
what have those men done in erecting a private altar for themselves 
but broken the bond of unity? For they have excommunicated 
themselves from the whole body of the Church, and condemned the 
ordinary ministry by which the Lord has been pleased that peace and 
charity should be preserved among his followers. Wherefore I hold 
that as many monasteries as there are in the present day, so many 
conventicles are there of schismatics, who have disturbed 
ecclesiastical order, and been cut off from the legitimate society 
of the faithful. And that there might be no doubt as to their 
separation, they have given themselves the various names of 
factions. They have not been ashamed to glory in that which Paul so 
execrates, that he is unable to express his detestation too 
strongly. Unless, indeed, we suppose that Christ was not divided by 
the Corinthians, when one teacher set himself above another, (1 Cor. 
1: 12, 13; 3: 4;) and that now no injury is done to Christ when, 
instead of Christians, we hear some called Benedictine, 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. 
    15. The differences which I have hitherto pointed out between 
the ancient monks and those of our age are not in manners, but in 
profession. Hence let my readers remember that I have spoken of 
monarchism rather than of monks; and marked, not the vices which 
cleave to a few, but vices which are inseparable from the very mode 
of life. In regard to manners, of what use is it to particularise 
and show how great the difference? 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. In a few monasteries, indeed, they live chastely, if we are 
to call it chastity, where lust is so far repressed as not to be 
openly infamous; still you will scarcely find one in ten which is 
not rather a brothel than a sacred abode of chastity. But how 
frugally they live? Just like swine wallowing in their sties. But 
lest they complain that I deal too unmercifully with them, I go no 
farther; although any one who knows the case will admit, that in the 
few things which I have said, I have not spoken in the spirit of an 
accuser. Augustine, though he testifies that the monks excelled so 
much in chastity, yet complains that there were many vagabonds, who, 
by wicked arts and impostures, extracted money from the more simple, 
plying a shameful traffic, by carrying about the relics of martyrs, 
and vending any dead man's bones for relics, bringing ignominy on 
their order by many similar iniquities. As he declares that he had 
seen none better than those who had profited in monasteries; so he 
laments that he had seen none worse than those who had backslidden 
in monasteries. What would he say were he, in the present day, to 
see now almost all monasteries overflowing, and in a manner 
bursting, with numerous deplorable vices? I say nothing but what is 
notorious to all; and yet this charge does not apply to all without 
a single exception; for, as the rule and discipline of holy living 
was never so well framed in monasteries as that there were not 
always some drones very unlike the others; so I hold that, in the 
present day, monks have not so completely degenerated from that holy 
antiquity as not to have some good men among them; but these few lie 
scattered up and down among a huge multitude of wicked and dishonest 
men, and are not only despised, but even petulantly assailed, 
sometimes even treated cruelly by the others, who, according to the 
Milesian proverb, think they ought to have no good man among them. 
    16. By this contrast between ancient and modern monasticism, I 
trust I have gained my object, which was to show that our cowled 
monks falsely pretend the example of the primitive Church in defence 
of their profession; since they differ no less from the monks of 
that period than apes do from men. Meanwhile, I disguise not that 
even in that ancient form which Augustine commends, there was 
something which little pleases me. I admit that they were not 
superstitious in the external exercises of a more rigorous 
discipline, but I say that they were not without a degree of 
affectation and false zeal. It was a fine thing, to cast away their 
substance, and free themselves from all worldly cares; but God sets 
more value on the pious management of a household, when the head of 
it, discarding all avarice, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, 
makes it his purpose to serve God in some particular vocation. 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. 
    17. 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 every thing 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? Then what is their species of 
vows? They offer God a promise of perpetual virginity, as if they 
had previously made a compact with him to free them from the 
necessity of marriage. They cannot allege that they make this vow 
trusting entirely to the grace of God; for, seeing he declares this 
to be a special gift not given to all, (Matth. 19: 11,) no man has a 
right to assume that the gift will be his. Let those who have it use 
it; and if at any time they feel the infirmity of the flesh, let 
them have recourse to the aid of him by whose power alone they can 
resist. If this avails not, let them not despise the remedy which is 
offered to them. If the faculty of continence is denied, the voice 
of God distinctly calls upon them to marry. By continence I mean not 
merely that by which the body is kept pure from fornication, but 
that by which the mind keeps its chastity untainted. For Paul 
enjoins caution not only against external lasciviousness, but also 
burning of mind, (1 Cor. 7: 9.) It has been the practice (they say) 
from the remotest period, for those who wished to devote themselves 
entirely to God, to bind themselves by a vow of continence. I 
confess that the custom is ancient, but I do not admit that the age 
when it commenced was so free from every defect that all that was 
then done is to be regarded as a rule. Moreover, the inexorable 
rigour of holding that after the vow is conceived there is no room 
for repentance, crept in gradually. This is clear from Cyprian. "If 
virgins have dedicated themselves to Christ in faith, let them live 
modestly and chastely, without pretence. Thus strong and stable, let 
them wait for the reward of virginity. But if they will not, or 
cannot persevere, it is better to marry, than by their faults to 
fall into the fire." In the present day, with what invectives would 
they not lacerate any one who should seek to temper the vow of 
continence by such an equitable course? Those, therefore, have 
wandered far from the ancient custom who not only use no moderation, 
and grant no pardon when any one proves unequal to the performance 
of his vow, but shamelessly declare that it is a more heinous sin to 
cure the intemperance of the flesh by marriage, than to defile body 
and soul by whoredom. 
    18. But they still insist and attempt to show that this vow was 
used in the days of the apostles, because Paul says that widows who 
marry after having once undertaken a public office, "cast off their 
first faith," (1 Tim. 5: 12.) I by no means deny that widows who 
dedicated themselves and their labours to the Church, at the same 
time came under an obligation of perpetual celibacy, not because 
they regarded it in the light of a religious duty, as afterwards 
began to be the case, but because they could not perform their 
functions unless they had their time at their own command, and were 
free from the nuptial tie. But if, after giving their pledge, they 
began to look to a new marriage, what else was this but to shake off 
the calling of God? It is not strange, therefore, when Paul says 
that by such desires they grow wanton against Christ. In further 
explanation he afterwards adds, that by not performing their 
promises to the Church, they violate and nullify their first faith 
given in baptism; one of the things contained in this first faith 
being, that every one should correspond to his calling. Unless you 
choose rather to interpret that, having lost their modesty, they 
afterwards cast off all care of decency, prostituting themselves to 
all kinds of lasciviousness and pertness, leading licentious and 
dissolute lives, than which nothing can less become Christian women. 
I am much pleased with this exposition. Our answer then is, that 
those widows who were then admitted to a public ministry came under 
an obligation of perpetual celibacy, and hence we easily understand 
how, when they married, they threw off all modesty, and became more 
insolent than became Christian women; that in this way they not only 
sinned by violating the faith given to the Church, but revolted from 
the common rule of pious women. But first, I deny that they had any 
other reason for professing celibacy than just because marriage was 
altogether inconsistent with the function which they undertook. 
Hence they bound themselves to celibacy only in so far as the nature 
of their function required. Secondly, I do not admit that they were 
bound to celibacy in such a sense that it was not better for them to 
marry than to suffer by the incitements of the flesh, and fall into 
uncleanness. Thirdly, I hold that what Paul enjoined was in the 
common case free from danger, because he orders the selection to be 
made from those who, contented with one marriage, had already given 
proof of continence. Our only reason for disapproving of the vow of 
celibacy is, because it is improperly regarded as an act of worship, 
and is rashly undertaken by persons who have not the power of 
keeping it. 
    19. But what ground can there be for applying this passage to 
nuns? For deaconesses were appointed, not to soothe God by chanting 
or unintelligible murmurs, and spend the rest of their time in 
idleness; but to perform a public ministry of the Church toward the 
poor, and to labour with all zeal, assiduity and diligence, in 
offices of charity. They did not vow celibacy, that they might 
thereafter exhibit abstinence from marriage as a kind of worship 
rendered to God, but only that they might be freer from encumbrance 
in executing their office. In fine, they did not vow on attaining 
adolescence, or in the bloom of life, and so afterwards learn, by 
too late experience, over what a precipice they had plunged 
themselves, but after they were thought to have surmounted all 
danger, they took a vow not less safe than holy. But not to press 
the two former points, I say that it was unlawful to allow women to 
take a vow of continence before their sixtieth year, since the 
apostle admits such only, and enjoins the younger to marry and beget 
children. Therefore, it is impossible, on any ground, to excuse the 
deduction, first of twelve, then of twenty, and, lastly, of thirty 
years. Still less possible is it to tolerate the case of miserable 
girls, who, before they have reached an age at which they can know 
themselves, or have any experience of their character, are not only 
induced by fraud, but compelled by force and threats, to entangle 
themselves in these accursed snares. I will not enter at length into 
a refutation of the other two vows. This only I say, that besides 
involving (as matters stand in the present day) not a few 
superstitions, they seem to be purposely framed in such a manner, as 
to make those who take them mock God and men. But lest we should 
seem, with too malignant feeling, to attack every particular point, 
we will be contented with the general refutation which has been 
given above. 
    20. The nature of the vows which are legitimate and acceptable 
to God, I think I have sufficiently explained. Yet, because some 
ill-informed and timid consciences, even when a vow displeases, and 
is condemned, nevertheless hesitate as to the obligations and are 
grievously tormented shuddering at the thought of violating a pledge 
given to God. And, on the other hand, fearing to sin more by keeping 
it, - we must here come to their aid, and enable them to escape from 
this difficulty. And to take away all scruple at once, I say that 
all vows not legitimate, and not duly conceived, as they are of no 
account with God, should be regarded by us as null. (See Calv. ad 
Council. Trident.) For if, in human contracts, those promises only 
are binding in which he with whom we contract wishes to have us 
bound, it is absurd to say that we are bound to perform things which 
God does not at all require of us, especially since our works can 
only be right when they please God, and have the testimony of our 
consciences that they do please him. For it always remains fixed, 
that "whatsoever is not of faith is sin," (Rom. 14: 23.) By this 
Paul means, that any work undertaken in doubt is vicious, because at 
the root of all good works lies faith, which assures us that they 
are acceptable to God. Therefore, if Christian men may not attempt 
anything without this assurance, why, if they have undertaken 
anything rashly through ignorance, may they not afterwards be freed, 
and desist from their error? Since vows rashly undertaken are of 
this description, they not only oblige not, but must necessarily be 
rescinded. What, then when they are not only of no estimation in the 
sight of God, but are even an abomination, as has already been 
demonstrated? It is needless farther to discuss a point which does 
not require it. To appease pious consciences, and free them from all 
doubt, this one argument seems to me sufficient, viz., that all 
works whatsoever which flow not from a sure fountain, and are not 
directed to a proper end, are repudiated by God, and so repudiated 
that he no less forbids us to continue than to begin them. Hence it 
follows, that vows dictated by error and superstition are of no 
weight with God, and ought to be abandoned by us. 
    21. He who understands this solution is furnished with the 
means of repelling the calumnies of the wicked against those who 
withdraw from monasticism to some honest kind of livelihood. They 
are grievously charged with having perjured themselves, and broken 
their faith, because they have broken the bond (vulgarly supposed to 
be indissoluble) by which they had bound themselves to God and the 
Church. But I say, first, there is no bond when that which man 
confirms God abrogates: and, secondly, even granting that they were 
bound when they remained entangled in ignorance and error, now, 
since they have been enlightened by the knowledge of the truth, I 
hold that they are, at the same time, free by the grace of Christ. 
For if such is the efficacy of the cross of Christ, that it frees us 
from the curse of the divine law by which we were held bound, how 
much more must it rescue us from extraneous chains, which are 
nothing but the wily nets of Satan? There can be no doubt, 
therefore, that all on whom Christ shines with the light of his 
Gospel, he frees from all the snares in which they had entangled 
themselves through superstition. At the same time, they have another 
defence if they were unfit for celibacy. For if an impossible vow is 
certain destruction to the soul, which God wills to be saved and not 
destroyed, it follows, that it ought by no means to be adhered to. 
Now, how impossible the vow of continence is to those who have not 
received it by special gift, we have shown, and experience, even 
were I silent, declares: while the great obscenity with which almost 
all monasteries teem is a thing not unknown. If any seem more decent 
and modest than others, they are not, however, chaste. The sin of 
unchastity urges, and lurks within. Thus it is that God, by fearful 
examples, punishes the audacity of men, when, unmindful of their 
infirmity, they, against nature, affect that which has been denied 
to them, and despising the remedies which the Lord has placed in 
their hands, are confident in their ability to overcome the disease 
of incontinence by contumacious obstinacy. For what other name can 
we give it, when a man, admonished of his need of marriage, and of 
the remedy with which the Lord has thereby furnished, not only 
despises it, but binds himself by an oath to despise it? 

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 4
(continued in part 15...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-09: cvin4-14.txt