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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 21. Luther as a Monk.


The Augustinian convent at Erfurt became the cradle of the Lutheran Reformation. All honor to monasticism: it was, like the law of Israel, a wholesome school of discipline and a preparation for gospel freedom. Erasmus spent five years reluctantly in a convent, and after his release ridiculed monkery with the weapons of irony and sarcasm; Luther was a monk from choice and conviction, and therefore all the better qualified to refute it afterward from deep experience. He followed in the steps of St. Paul, who from a Pharisee of the Pharisees became the strongest opponent of Jewish legalism.

If there ever was a sincere, earnest, conscientious monk, it was Martin Luther. His sole motive was concern for his salvation. To this supreme object he sacrificed the fairest prospects of life. He was dead to the world and was willing to be buried out of the sight of men that he might win eternal life. His latter opponents who knew him in convent, have no charge to bring against his moral character except a certain pride and combativeness, and he himself complained of his temptations to anger and envy.125125    Köstlin, I., 88 sq., 780.

It was not without significance that the order which he joined, bore the honored name of the greatest Latin father who, next to St. Paul, was to be Luther’s chief teacher of theology and religion; but it is an error to suppose that this order represented the anti-Pelagian or evangelical views of the North African father; on the contrary it was intensely catholic in doctrine, and given to excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and obedience to the papal see which conferred upon it many special privileges.

St. Augustin, after his conversion, spent several weeks with some friends in quiet seclusion on a country-seat near Tagaste, and after his election to the priesthood, at Hippo in 391, he established in a garden a sort of convent where with like-minded brethren and students he led an ascetic life of prayer, meditation and earnest, study of the Scriptures, yet engaged at the same time in all the public duties of a preacher, pastor and leader in the theological controversies and ecclesiastical affairs of his age.

His example served as an inspiration and furnished a sort of authority to several monastic associations which arose in the thirteenth century. Pope Alexander IV. (1256) gave them the so-called rule of St. Augustin. They belonged to the mendicant monks, like the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites. They laid great stress on preaching. In other respects they differed little from other monastic orders. In the beginning of the sixteenth century they numbered more than a hundred settlements in Germany.

The Augustinian congregation in Saxony was founded in 1493, and presided over since 1503 by John von Staupitz, the Vicar-General for Germany, and Luther’s friend. The convent at Erfurt was the largest and most important next to that at Nürnberg. The monks were respected for their zeal in preaching, pastoral care, and theological study. They lived on alms, which they collected themselves in the town and surrounding country. Applicants were received as novices for a year of probation, during which they could reconsider their resolution; afterward they were bound by perpetual vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience to their superiors.

Luther was welcomed by his brethren with hymns of joy and prayer. He was clothed with a white woollen shirt, in honor of the pure Virgin, a black cowl and frock, tied by a leathern girdle. He assumed the most menial offices to subdue his pride: he swept the floor, begged bread through the streets, and submitted without a murmur to the ascetic severities. He said twenty-five Paternosters with the Ave Maria in each of the seven appointed hours of prayer. He was devoted to the Holy Virgin and even believed, with the Augustinians and Franciscans, in her immaculate conception, or freedom from hereditary sin—a doctrine denied by the Dominicans and not made an article of faith till the year 1854. He regularly confessed his sins to the priest at least once a week. At the same time a complete copy of the Latin Bible was put into his hands for study, as was enjoined by the new code of statutes drawn up by Staupitz.

At the end of the year of probation Luther solemnly promised to live until death in poverty and chastity according to the rules of the holy father Augustin, to render obedience to Almighty God, to the Virgin Mary, and to the prior of the monastery. He was sprinkled with holy water, as he lay prostrate on the ground in the form of a cross. He was greeted as an innocent child fresh from baptism, and assigned to a separate cell with table, bedstead, and chair.126126    The cell and furniture were destroyed by fire, March 7, 1872. The cell was reconstructed, and the convent is now an orphan-asylum (Martinsstift).

The two years which followed, he divided between pious exercises and theological studies. He read diligently the Scriptures, and the later schoolmen,—especially Gabriel Biel, whom he knew by heart, and William Occam, whom he esteemed on account of his subtle acuteness even above St. Thomas and Duns Scotus, without being affected by his sceptical tendency. He acknowledged the authority of Aristotle, whom he afterward denounced and disowned as "a damned heathen."127127    "Der vermaladeite Heide Aristoteles." Luther’s attitude to scholasticism and the great Greek philosopher changed again when, in support of the eucharistic presence, he had to resort to the scholastic distinctions between various kinds of presence. Comp. Fr. Aug. Berthold Nitzsch, Luther und Aristoteles . Kiel, 1883. He excited the admiration of his brethren by his ability in disputation on scholastic questions.

His heart was not satisfied with brain work. His chief concern was to become a saint and to earn a place in heaven. "If ever," he said afterward, "a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there." He observed the minutest details of discipline. No one surpassed him in prayer, fasting, night watches, self-mortification. He was already held up as a model of sanctity.

But he was sadly disappointed in his hope to escape sin and temptation behind the walls of the cloister. He found no peace and rest in all his pious exercises. The more he seemed to advance externally, the more he felt the burden of sin within. He had to contend with temptations of anger, envy, hatred and pride. He saw sin everywhere, even in the smallest trifles. The Scriptures impressed upon him the terrors of divine justice. He could not trust in God as a reconciled Father, as a God of love and mercy but trembled before him, as a God of wrath, as a consuming fire. He could not get over the words: "I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God." His confessor once told him: "Thou art a fool, God is not angry with thee, but thou art angry with God." He remembered this afterward as "a great and glorious word," but at that time it made no impression on him. He could not point to any particular transgression; it was sin as an all-pervading power and vitiating principle, sin as a corruption of nature, sin as a state of alienation from God and hostility to God, that weighed on his mind like an incubus and brought him at times to the brink of despair.

He passed through that conflict between the law of God and the law of sin which is described by Paul (Rom. vii.), and which; ends with the cry: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?" He had not yet learned to add: "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. There is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death."



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