Re-Formation 2017 : Contemplative Church

The Protestant 500

by Peter Traben Haas

 The Protestant era turns five-hundred years old on October 31, 2017.[i] At such a symbolic milestone, it is fair to ask the question, What has come of it? Here is my honest answer: a shadow cast by protest birthed unintended shallowness and increasing fragmentation.

Yes, my conclusion is that the Protestant community is more shallow and fragmented than ever, in part because our birth was grounded in division and dogmatic wordiness. However, my hope is that one age of shallowness will birth the next age of depth. That one age of fragmentation will birth the next age of wholeness. And this hope is gaining momentum.

My sense is that the thinning of community cohesiveness and the shallowness of spiritual life that has unfolded since the Reformation, through Modernity, to the present, has delivered the church, especially its pastors, to a breakthrough moment – an opportunity to co-create a new depth and connection in our personal and community spiritual life. The moment we now face invites us to return to a particular kind of doing (i.e. habits and practices) for the sake of a deepening of our being.[ii]

It turns out that the famed Protestant battle cry, saved by faith and grace alone, has left generations of people spiritually half-formed on the journey into the full stature of Christ. This happened, in part, because we forsook the contemplative practices that uniquely help us work out our salvation and participate in Christ’s ongoing formation in the totality of our life. Such formation is a graceful movement that brings the center to the circumference.[iii]  The silent-center-eye of the storm kisses the leading edge of life-tumult; a confluence where all is held by and in the mystery of Presence.

The Protestant impulse to split away from the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-Renaissance era did not cease with Martin Luther (1483 – 1546 CE), John Calvin (1509 – 1564 CE), or John Knox (1532 – 1572 CE). The splitting continued centuries thereafter, and persists even to this moment.[iv] As a result of such ongoing rifts and splits, depth and wholeness are not words that come to mind to describe the quality, mood or status of our current Protestant communities.[v]

While the first five-hundred year milestone of the Reformation sets an important stage for the conversation that follows, this is not a book about the Reformation, or really, even the history of the Protestant church. It is a book about how the Protestant church can move beyond the shadow of the Reformation, evolving forward by going deeper.[vi] To be clear up front: this is a book not about the past, but a book for the present and future.

My hunch and essential thesis is that the Reformation widely threw out essential aspects of the spiritual life that had been carefully cultivated, embedded and handed on, generation by generation within the monastic ethos.[vii]

So, naturally, in the wake of the Reformation era, Protestants increasingly lost touch with key foundational practices that nurtured the spiritual life and formation of individuals and communities. In time, such losses became increasingly evident and various recent efforts have occurred to revive something of what was lost.[viii]

Reformation era historian Lewis Spitz puts a fine point to my hunch. Spitz concludes that the church “entered the Reformation with its spiritual power sadly diminished.”[ix] For example, in the subsequent centuries following the Reformation, we can see indications of the hunger for a reclamation of certain aspects of monastic wisdom and spiritual practices in the rise of the Puritans, Methodism, American revivalism, and, much later, Bonhoeffer’s call to discipleship in community, to name a few. In one way or another, they were all movements that sought to restore the centrality of prayer and the cultivation of what might be called God-devotion, or a kind of Rule of Life.

The Reformation wasn’t all bad. The Reformers called the church back to the bedrock truth that living the Christian life does not save us, but how we live is the fruit of our salvation in Christ. In theological terms, the Reformers were saying that justification is not contingent upon sanctification. Union with God is not contingent upon a spiritual journey toward God, but in Christ, union is our grace-given starting point from which we can continue to abide and bear spiritual fruit. Having said that, it is easy to see that the Reformer’s principal critique of monastic life and spirituality was that it tended to set apart monastics as more superior to ordinary lay folk. To the Reformers, this division was based on, among other things, a false idea they called works-righteousness. [x]

The Reformation also reminded the church that the primary means of grace is not how we live the Christian life – whether ascetical or contemplative – but the proclamation of the Gospel.  Monasteries had become easy targets, often slipping into laxity in their spiritual discipline, perhaps because of their accumulated landed wealth.  The Reformers railed against the apparent worldliness of the monasteries. Luther saw evidence of monastic excess first-hand, and perhaps this rightfully impassioned his caustic critique of the monasteries.[xi]

The Reformers also perceived the blatant dualism underpinning the ideas and practices infusing monastic asceticism. The Reformers replaced this often negative focus on the body, with a recovery of the goodness of creation, including the joys of marriage and family life.  One Reformation era preacher inveighed against the apparent paltry monastic spirituality with the phrase, “The walls don’t make a monastery! It must be within the heart!”[xii]

While it is true that there were significant criticisms and issues with the blatant corruption in some monastic communities, it is also true that charges against the monasteries were overblown. Many monastic orders made repeated attempts toward reform. Even the Lateran Council (1512 – 1517 CE), just prior to Luther’s protest, heard the general abbot of the Augustinian order, Egidio da Viterbo, call for an inward spiritual renewal with external effects.[xiii] In other words, to clean house.

Despite the overall disconnection from the monastic and contemplative aspects of Christian tradition, it is not a shut case. For example, at times, Luther seems to advocate for the ongoing value of monasticism in the wider church writing that,

“I certainly do not say that I would condemn the ceremonies of…monasteries; for this was the first discipline of the religious, that he who enters a monastery learns to obey his superior, not to labor for himself but to serve everyone in every way. Truly, it was the monasteries that served as schools for the exercise and perfection of Christian liberty”[xiv]

And just eight years before his death, Luther seems to defend and also encourage the continuation of monastic communities. His statement reveals the complexities of the Reformation era: “I should especially like to see the rural monasteries and those that have been endowed stay to take care of noble persons and poor ministers. Nor have I proposed anything else from the beginning. From such monasteries suitable men can then be chosen for the church, the state, and economic life.”[xv]

Another indication that the Reformers were open minded to a theologically renewed form of monasticism continuing, is evidenced in the Wittenberg Articles written in 1536 CE: “If certain men who are capable of living a life under a rule prefer to pass their lives in the cloister, we do not reprove them so long as their doctrine and worship remain pure and they consider the practices of monastic life as things indifferent. We are convinced that numerous authentic Christians of sound spirituality have lived exemplary lives in monasteries. It is even to be wished that such cloisters should exist, occupied by learned and devout men, where the study of Christian doctrine can be pursued for the greater good of the Church. These might then be a place where young people are instructed not only in doctrine but also in the ordered devotional life.”

Here, in this brief statement, we see summed up many of the positive qualities of the monastic tradition(s), and its usefulness for spiritual formation. Sadly, the last five-hundred years of Protestant community did not take up the encouragement of the Wittenberg divines, and as a result, the children of the Reformation and her churches have mostly missed out on the treasures of monastic patterns of prayer, study and worship. These monastic ideals and treasures can support the local church and her pastors with deep spiritual flourishing. Interestingly, the closest experience most pastors will have to a monastery is the modern seminary, but even that has become heavily oriented toward academic formation, often lacking opportunities and mentors in spiritual and sapiential formation.

I am not the first to bemoan the absence of the monasteries in the Protestant church. The Danish Lutheran philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, wished for the renewal of monastic life in his increasingly secularized era.   Kierkegaard opined in his journals the wish to move “back to the monastery out of which broke Luther – that is the truth – that is what must be done.”[xvi]

A few monasteries did survive the Lutheran Reformation, transforming themselves from Roman Catholic to Lutheran virtually seamlessly. Of particular note was the Möllenbeck monastery, near Rintein, Germany. History remembers one Möllenbeck monk in particular, Conrad Hoyer, who in 1623 published a brief defense for continuing the monastic life among Protestant Evangelicals.[xvii]

Likewise, in the decades and centuries following the Reformation, small monastic-like spiritual communities sprung up throughout Europe and the New World, most famous of which was the Protestant monastic community in Germany that emerged under the leadership of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700 – 1760 CE), known as the Herrnhut community, meaning the community of “the Lord’s watch”.[xviii] In the modern era, Germany also witnessed stalwart Protestants such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrate the continued need for cultivating spiritual community.[xix]

Perhaps that is enough on the importance for retrieving the essential thrown-away treasures of monastic practices in the wake of the Reformation. More will be said on the matter in what follows. For now, if you are looking for further background on the history of the Reformation and monasticism, I can think of no better recourse to point you to than Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent masterpiece on the subject, Silence: A Christian History. MacCulloch beautifully weaves through the history of Christianity uncovering the role and use of silence, not only in its liturgical and monastic context, but also in its social and subversive contexts.  Peters is particularly good at noticing the contrast and unique roles the monastery played from the early church into the Reformation, whose wordiness and noise caused such a stir in Europe upending the monastic quiet. That Protestant noise would impact much of what would become Western culture as we know it now in the Modern era.

Reading the Reformers’ theological writings of protest and revision, it is evident how silence and the other monastic practices, at the present time, remain a much avoided answer. This is regrettable, because so much of the contemplative dimension of the Gospel and the practices that weave throughout the contemplative traditions can help us respond to the ongoing cultural and ecclesiastical dilemmas that beset us so today. Thankfully, as of late, that avoidance is changing.

© 2009 – 2017 All Rights Reserved.


[i] October 31, 1517 is customarily viewed as the symbolic start of the Reformation: the day Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” known in Latin as the Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum. The theses are widely regarded as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Among other things, the Theses protests against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism and the sale of indulgences. The claim that the theses were actually posted on the church door is understood to be more legend than fact. What is certain is that on October 31, 1517 Luther sent a letter to his superiors including the Ninety Five Theses. For a modern reading on the Reformation, see G. R. Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

[ii] We may be doctrinally pure, but we are also often spiritually immature. As a result, many are rediscovering that in order to become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.4), the journey requires what St. Paul calls the “labor pains” of working out our salvation toward the “full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13; Galatians 4.19; Philippians 2.12).

[iii] Carter Lindberg among others, develops the logic of Martin Luther’s extra nos in Christo in the light of Johannes Tauler’s mystical language which provides the vehicle for expressing Luther’s justification theology. Lindberg notes that Luther understood ,“the destruction of human self-righteousness and the establishment upon this of what is extra nos in Christo as the experiential movement away from all self-concern and inner complacency toward the grace of Christ.” These scholars keenly point out that “Luther transferred the mystical function of ecstatic love (amor extatiens) to faith using the notion of being outside or beyond oneself (extra se) to characterize justification by faith. In oneself the person is nothing but a sinner, but outside oneself in faith in Christ the person is at the same time righteous. For Luther this moving outside oneself is not a silent interior event but rather occurs in the knowledge of faith in which the person’s being is disclosed before God (coram Deo) by the Word. Thus the mystic extra now is a key to the correct understanding of the forensic understanding of Luther’s doctrine of justification.”  Carter Lindberg, The Third Reformation: Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983) 30. Pair Lindberg’s idea with how Martin Luther puts it: “By faith a Christian is caught up beyond himself into God. By love a Christian descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet one always remains in God and in God’s love…” Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520 LW 36,39.

[iv] For a good picture of how Reformation era Protestants unfolded in the American context see Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972) and Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

 [vi] For an excellent history of the Reformation and its historical and social context see Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, revised edition, Volume 1: The Renaissance and Volume 2: The Reformation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1987).  See also Dennis E. Tamburello’s essay on “The Protestant Reformers on Mysticism” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Julia A. Lamm (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Edward Howells essay “Early Modern Reformations” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[vii] For a helpful overview of this thesis see Heiko A. Oberman’s excellent article “Simul Gemitus et Raptus: Luther and Mysticism” in The Reformation in Medieval Perspective, ed. Steven E. Ozment (Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1971) 219 – 251.  See also Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), particularly Chapter Six, “The Protestant Reformation,” 127ff. And for a useful essay on the theological basis of the monastic ethos from a Protestant perspective see Part Three in Francois Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism, trans. W.J. Kerrigan (Baltimore, MD: Helicon, 1963)107ff. For a similar treatment of many of the themes I will be exploring see Anthony Grimley and Johnathan M. Wooding, Living the Hours: Monastic Spirituality in Everyday Life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010).

[viii] Such as the work of Thomas Keating or Richard J. Foster.

[ix] Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, revised edition, Volume 1: The Renaissance and Volume 2: The Reformation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1987) 318.

[x] For an excellent treatment of this see Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) especially Chapter Twelve, “The Reformers and Counter-Reformers,” 205ff, and Chapter Thirteen, “Protestants and Monasticism after the Reformation,” 224ff.

[xi] For a very current review of the Reformers views on monasticism see, Greg Peters, Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of the Religious Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), particularly Chapter One, “The Protestant Reformers,” 19ff.

[xii] Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, revised edition, Volume 1: The Renaissance and Volume 2: The Reformation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1987) 316.

[xiii] See Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, revised edition, Volume 1: The Renaissance and Volume 2: The Reformation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1987) 316 – 317 for a review of the attempted monastic reforms.

[xiv] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works. Vol. XIV. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958) 301.

[xv] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Table Talk. Vol. 54. ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 312.

[xvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard ed. and trans.  Alexander Drew (London: Oxford University Press, 1951) 502.

[xvii] For more in depth treatment of these Protestant-Monastic remnants, see Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) especially Chapter Twelve, “The Reformers and Counter-Reformers,” 205ff, and Chapter Thirteen, “Protestants and Monasticism after the Reformation,” 224ff.

[xviii] Also associated with this were the Moravians, first inspired by Czech Reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369 – 1415). For more background on these historical developments, see Francois Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism, trans. W.J. Kerrigan (Baltimore, MD: Helicon, 1963), especially Part Two, “Trial Communities and Monastic Renaissance” 65ff.

[xix] See especially Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.


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