When speaking of monastic vows, it is necessary, in the first place, to consider how they have been viewed hitherto; what regulation they had in monasteries, and that very many things were daily done in them, not only contrary to the Word of God, but also in opposition to Papal laws. In the time of St. Augustine monastic life was optional; subsequently, when the right discipline and doctrine were corrupted, monastic vows were devised, and by these, as a species of imprisonment, they wished to re-establish discipline.

In addition to these monastic vows, many other things were introduced, and with these burdens and fetters, many persons were oppressed, even before they had arrived at years of maturity.

Many persons likewise entered into such monastic life through ignorance, who, although they were not of years too immature, did not sufficiently consider and weigh their abilities. All these, thus involved and ensnared, are urged and forced to remain in such bonds, although even the Papal regulations would liberate many of them. And it was more oppressive in nunneries than in monasteries; yet it would seem fit that females, as being weaker, should have been spared. This severity likewise met the displeasure of many pious persons in former times; for they well knew that both boys and girls were often thrust into these monasteries merely for the purpose of being supported. They saw also how evil this course of procedure proved, what offences, what burdens of conscience it produced, and many people complained, that in a matter so perilous the canons were not regarded at all. Besides this, an extravagant opinion obtained concerning monastic vows, which was very prevalent, and which was displeasing even to many monks, who possessed some little reason.

For they allege, that monastic vows are equal to Baptism, and that by monastic life remission of sins and justification may be merited before God; yea, they add still farther, that by monastic life, not only righteousness and holiness are merited, but also that by it the commands and counsels comprehended in the Gospel, are kept: and thus monastic vows were commended more highly than Baptism. Again, that men merit more by monastic life than by all other conditions which God has established; as that of pastor and minister, prince, ruler, and lord, and the like, all of whom according to the command, word, and precept of God, serve in their vocations without pretentions of superior holiness. None of these things can be denied, for they are extant in their own books. Moreover, he that is thus ensnared and enters into a monastery, learns but little concerning Christ.

Formerly, schools were kept in monasteries for the purpose of teaching the holy Scriptures and other things which are useful to the Christian church, so that ministers and bishops could be selected from them. But now there is a different custom. For formerly they assembled in monasteries with a view to learn the Scripture, but now they falsely pretend that monastic life is of such a nature, that men merit the grace of God and holiness before God by it; yea, that it is a state of perfection, and they exalt it far above other states which God has instituted. We cite all these things, without detraction, in order that it may be the better understood and comprehended how, and what we preach and teach.

First, among us we teach concerning those who propose marriage, that all those who are not qualified for a single state, have a perfect right to marry. For vows cannot annul the order and command of God. Thus reads the command of God, 1 Cor. 7, 2: “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” And not only the command of God, but also his creation and ordination, urge and enforce all those to a state of matrimony, who are not endowed with the gift of continence, by a special gift, agreeably to this declaration of God himself, Gen. 2, 18: “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make him an help meet for him.”

Now, what can be alleged against this? They may applaud vows and duty as highly as they please, and adorn them as much as possible, yet it cannot be maintained that God’s command can thus be annulled. The doctors say, that vows, even in opposition to the authority of the Pope, are not binding; how much less, then, should they bind, and have power and effect against the commands of God?

If the obligation of vows had no reason for their being annulled, the popes would not have granted dispensations against them; for it is not proper for any man to annul obligations which grow out of divine rights. Wherefore the popes have considered well, that in these obligations equity should be employed, and they have often granted dispensations, as with the king of Arragon, and many others. Now, if for the preservation of temporal things, dispensations have been granted, more justly should they be granted on account of the necessity of souls.

Secondly, why do the opposite party so strenuously insist that vows must be kept, and not first consider whether the vow is of a proper nature? For such vows as can be kept, should be made voluntarily, and without constraint. But it is well known how far human power and ability can maintain perpetual chastity. Nor are there many, either of males or of females, that have taken monastic vows of themselves, freely and with due consideration. Before they arrive at a proper understanding, they are persuaded to assume monastic vows. Sometimes they are also urged and forced to them. For this reason it is not just, to insist so obstinately and strenuously upon the obligation of vows, seeing that all must confess, that it is contrary to the nature and essential character of a vow, to make it unwillingly and without due counsel and consideration.

Some canons and Papal regulations rescind the vows which were made previous to the fifteenth year. For they maintain, that before that period no one has knowledge sufficient to enable him to determine upon the order and regulation of a whole life. Another canon allows a still greater number of years on account of human weakness. It forbids the taking of monastic vows under the eighteenth year. From this prohibition the greater part would have excuse and reason to withdraw from monasteries; for the greater part entered them before that age. Finally, if even the breaking of monastic vows might be censured, yet it could, however, not follow from this, that their marriages should be dissolved. For St. Augustine says, 27 Quæst., 1 Cap., Nuptiarum, that “such marriages should not be dissolved.” Now St. Augustine stands in high repute in the Christian church, although some have since maintained otherwise.

Although the command of God concerning marriage, absolves very many from their monastic vows, yet our writers allege many other reasons, why monastic vows are void and ineffectual. For every species of worship, chosen and instituted by men without the precept and command of God, in order to obtain righteousness and divine grace, is repugnant to him, and in opposition to his command and to the Gospel. As Christ himself says, Matt. 15, 9: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” So St. Paul also teaches every where, that men should not seek righteousness from religious services devised by men, but that righteousness and holiness in the sight of God, come from the faith and confidence that God accepts us graciously for the sake of Christ his own Son. Now, it is clear, that the monks have taught and preached that their assumed piety atones for sin, and obtains righteousness and the grace of God. What else is this, but diminishing the glory and honor of the grace of Christ, and denying the righteousness of faith? Wherefore it follows that the customary vows are a false and an absurd worship of God. For that reason they are also not binding. For an ungodly vow, and on contrary to the command of God, is void, and the canons teach also that an oath shall not be an obligation to sin.

St. Paul says, Gal. 5, 4: “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law: ye are fallen from grace.” Therefore those also who wish to be justified by vows, are separated from Christ, and fail to obtain the grace of God. For these rob Christ of his honor, who alone justifies, and thus they bestow such honor on their vows and monastic life.

Nor can it be denied, that the monks have taught and preached that by their vows and monastic habits and conduct they are justified, and merit the forgiveness of sins; and, indeed, they have invented things still more absurd, and have asserted, that they impart their good works to others. Now, if some one would press the matter and bring all these charges in array against them, how many things could be collected, of which the monks themselves are now ashamed, and which they would disown! Besides these things they have also persuaded the people, that their self-devised religious orders constitute Christian perfection. This is, indeed, commending works as a source of justification. It is not a small offence in the Christian church, to appoint for the people a species of worship, which men have devised without the command of God, and to teach that such worship makes men pious and just before God. For the righteousness of faith, which should be chiefly inculcated in the church, becomes obscured, when the eyes of the people are blinded with this strange, angelic spirituality and false pretence of poverty, meekness, and chastity.

Moreover, by this means the commandments of God, and the proper and true service of God, are obscured, when the people hear that the monks alone are in a state of perfection. For Christian perfection consists in fearing God from the heart and with earnestness, and also in cherishing sincere reliance, faith, and trust, that for the sake of Christ we have a gracious and merciful God, that we may and should ask and desire of him what is necessary for us, and confidently expect help from him in every tribulation, according to our calling or station in life; that we also should in the meantime perform good works towards others with diligence, and attend to our occupations. In this consist true perfection and the proper service of God, – not in mendicancy, or in a black or gray hood, &c. But the common people are led into many pernicious views by the false commendation of monastic life. If they hear a state of celibacy applauded beyond measure, it follows that they are pained with the sting of conscience in their matrimonial relations. For from this, if the common man hears that the mendicants alone are perfect, he is not able to perceive that he may possess property, and carry on an occupation, without sinning. If the populace hear that it is merely a recommendation not to exercise revenge, it follows that some will think it no sin to exercise private revenge. Others are of opinion that revenge does not at all become a Christian, not even the government. Many examples are on record, of persons who abandoned their wives and children and business, and shut themselves up in monasteries. This they said, was fleeing out of the world, and seeking a life more pleasing to God than their previous one. Nor were they able to understand, that men should serve God in those commandments which He has given, and not in the commandments devised by men. Now this is a good and perfect state of life, which is founded on the command of God, but that is a dangerous state of life, which is not founded on his command.

Concerning these things it was necessary to instruct the people properly. Gerson, in former times, has also censured the error of the monks, concerning perfection, and he intimates that in his day it was a new doctrine that monastic life should be a state of perfection. Many ungodly views and errors attach to monastic vows; as, that they justify and make holy in the sight of God; that they constitute Christian perfection; that by them both the counsels and commands of the Gospel are fulfilled; that they have a superabundance of works which men do not owe to God.

Since, then, all these things are false, vain, and fictitious, monastic vows are void and ineffectual.