It has often been stated by theologians as well as historians that Bernard of Clairvaux was the last “father of the church.” This may seem inappropriate since the Patristic age is usually seen to end around the time of Gregory (600 A.D.). However, the description does offer an accurate depiction of Bernard’s place among later medieval theology. In many ways, Bernard was among the last theologians of the period to deal primarily with Biblical exegesis, though most often in an allegorical manner. He did not give in to all of the subtleties of scholastic theology which was dominated by the thoughts of Aristotle. His writings show a man with simple faith in Christ, trying to encourage others in the love of God and neighbor.
Bernard not only was referred to as a church father, but has been seen by some as a forefather of the reformation. Luther himself quotes Bernard more than any other writer, save Augustine. Bernard perhaps understood the writings of St. Paul better than any other medieval theologian. He shares many affinities with Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Rather than the focus on good works and piety found in many theologians of the day, Bernard focused on the person and work of Christ himself. He was nicknamed doctor passionis. For Bernard, Christ was not seen primarily as judge, but as advocate. Bernard’s sermons contain several statements with this emphasis. “[Christ] gave himself to merit for us, He retains Himself to be our reward, He offers Himself as the food of saintly souls, He gives Himself as the price of redemption of those in captivity.”
Another reason why Luther admired Bernard so highly was that he did not give in to the scholasticism which had just begun to emerge in France. Scholastic theology was to dominate the middle ages until the humanists began looking at Biblical texts in their original language and context. Scholasticism dealt with all possible theological issues, whether important to the Christian faith or not. The old tale says that there was a debate among these theologians about how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin. Bernard was an opponent of scholasticism, specifically the thought of the controversial Peter Abelard. Rather than using Greek secular philosophy, Bernard states, “While I am in this life this more sublime philosophy will be mine-to know… Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
Bernard anticipated the doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide as would be explained by the Reformers. Bernard, following his great teacher Augustine, taught that grace comes prior to conversion. Man, apart from grace does not, and will not decide to follow Christ. “The cause of loving God is God…It is He who gives the occasion, it is He who creates the affection, He who consummates the desire.” The historical theologian Adolf Von Harnack called Bernard Augustine Redivivus, meaning the second Augustine. His view of the provenience of God’s grace is in line with Augustine’s view in his anti-Pelagian writings. Though Bernard does not go the extreme as does Augustine by discussing double predestination, he does attribute all of salvation to God’s eternal election.
"His seed is the eternal predestination by which God has loved his elect… These I have regarded as those who have never sinned, as it were, because although they are seen to have sinned in some things in time, they do not appear to have done so in eternity, because the charity of their father covers a multitude of sins. And He calls them blessed whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered."
Notice that their not having sinned is not attributed to an inward change which God but to God’s forgiveness. Bernard outlines this position in his book On Grace and Free Choice. Though Luther read and quoted this book in his early debates with Eck, Calvin disagrees with many of his conclusions in the Institutes.
Perhaps most importantly for Luther and the reformers, Bernard of Clairvaux anticipated the doctrine of justification by faith alone in several of his sermons. While the majority of scholastic teachers in his day saw the saving righteousness of God as something infused into the believer making him inwardly righteous, Bernard sees it as a gift of forgiveness and mercy. “It suffices me for attaining to all righteousness, to have Him alone propitious toward me against Whom alone I have sinned… Not to sin is the righteousness of God: man’s righteousness is God’s forgiveness.” When Bernard speaks of merit it is most often connected to God’s gift and not to man’s good works. “He gave Himself to merit for us.” Perhaps the most clear statement of this doctrine comes from his sermon SC22, “Therefore the person who through sorrow for sin hungers and thirsts for righteousness, let him trust in the One who changes the sinner into a just person (Rom 4:5), and judged righteous in terms of faith alone (et solam iustificatus per fidem), that person will have peace with God.”
Bernard speaks frequently about the insufficiency of our own merits. “In order to merit, it is enough to know that our merits do not suffice for us.” He makes it clear that he does not hold to a doctrine of penance which puts man’s righteousness in his own hands. “Your sins are very great and beyond number. Never will you be able to make satisfaction for them, so many and so great are they, not even if you strip the very skin from your body.” Being a preacher, he uses his pastoral spirit to comfort his hearers with these doctrines.
"Why are you fearful, ye of little faith? Because He is unwilling to forgive sins? He nailed them to the cross together with his own hands. Because you are delicate and accustomed to a life of ease? But He knoweth our frame. [He remembereth that we are dust.] Because you have grown accustomed to evil and are bound by the fetters of habitual sin? But the Lord looseth them that are fettered. Are you, perhaps, fearful lest, angered by the greatness and number of your sins He will be slow to extend a helping hand? But where sin abounded, grace did more abound."
In at least two more ways Bernard shared theology with the Reformers. Bernard held that baptism was necessary to salvation; however, it was not absolutely necessary. He held, like Luther that though baptism regenerates, it was possible for God to save without it. Though we should not presume that unbaptized infants are with Christ, it is a possibility. More significantly, he seems to hold to something similar to the law/gospel distinction, though he may not speak in those terms. This passage shows a personal experience which demonstrates this principle. “How often has prayer taken me on the brink of despair, and restored me to the state of soul of one exulting in joy and confident forgiveness.” God causes his people to be struck by the law, put into despair, so that he may restore them again through the gospel, offering them forgiveness.
Bernard’s legacy does not end here. Most often he is not remembered as the last church father, the first medieval mystic, or the great theologian of the cross, but as the preacher of the Crusades. The success of the first Crusade had given Christians power over the holy land. Western presence dominated three primary cities: Jerusalem, Edessa, and Antioch. However, after a few decades of attacks, the kingdom of Edessa fell to Muslim forces in 1144. The western world now had a dilemma. Should the church support another crusade to retake Edessa?
The Pope at this time was one of Bernard’s own students, Bernard of Pisa, renamed Pope Eugenius III. Though Bernard did not at first support his friend’s accession to the papal throne, he supported and guided him when he was placed into the Holy See. He wrote a guidebook for the papacy titled “Book of Considerations.” Bernard believed that if the corruptions in the church were to be fixed, they would come from within the Papacy.
Eugenius III called for a second crusade in 1146 to regain Edessa and protect the Holy Land. Enthusiasm was greatly diminished from the first crusade. Thus Eugenius needed a way of exciting the masses to join the crusade. He called upon Bernard who then became the preacher of the second crusade. The question that one must ask at this point is, how does Bernard’s focus on love and grace coincide with his support of a crusade? Can one preach both the love of God and the death of pagans? Perhaps Bernard contradicts himself, or perhaps these two ideas are compatible. The best way to gain an answer to this question is to look at Bernard’s writings themselves.
In a letter written by Bernard to support the crusade, he blames the Muslims victory on the sins of the church. “For our sins, the enemies of Cross have raised blaspheming heads, ravaging with the edge of the sword the land of promise.” Bernard believes that there is some special significance to the church in the nation of Israel. Just as it was in the time of the prophets, the ownership of Israel was directly related to the obedience of God’s people.
Since the Muslims are attacking, this must in Bernard’s mind be a test sent by God. He could of course regain the land by the mere word of his mouth but he wants to make his people choose to serve him by volunteering for the crusade. He first shows the people their sinfulness, then offers them forgiveness. However, unlike many of his sermons, he does not present forgiveness as a free gift in Christ. He sees forgiveness as obtained through the act of crusading. “He wills to be held a debtor, that he may give pay to those that fight for him, pardon of sins, and everlasting glory.” This may seem to have affinities with the doctrine of forgiveness of sins through indulgences as was taught by John Tetsel. However, Bernard does clearly teach that to receive the forgiveness offered through service to God in military orders, one must be truly sorry for his sin. It is not a mere ex opera operato formula.
Much of Bernard’s motivation in preaching in favor of the crusades was his peculiar eschatology. Bernard believed that he was living near the end times. Due to his exegesis of Romans 11, he believed that there was a soon to come conversion of the majority of living Israelites. Bernard believed in a view which might today be classified as postmillennial. Before Christ was to return on earth, the majority of humanity would be converted to Christianity. Paganism would be nearly destroyed. This would explain why Bernard supported the killing of Pagans, and their expulsion from the holy land. It was not due primarily to his view of warfare in general, but of eschatology. Bernard’s eschatology seems to have been largely influenced by the Sibylline Oracles. These were prophecies of a Christian origin written between the 2nd and 5th century AD. In these prophecies, there was to be a leader, claiming to be Roman, who would eliminate paganism from the earth. This leader’s name was to begin with a “C”. He saw the fulfillment of this prophecy in Conrad III of Germany. These ideas caused Bernard, while supporting the violence of crusading, to defend the life of Jews. He vehemently protested the violence which had occurred against Jews by earlier crusaders. This is because Bernard believed the time of their conversion to be soon. “If the Jews be utterly trampled down, how shall the promised salvation or conversion profit them in the end?”
Another motivation behind Bernard’s support, perhaps the most important, was his ecclesiology. Bernard saw the state as having two main purposes. The state was to execute justice in civil matters, and also to protect the true faith of the church. Thus doctrinal purity, though primarily defended by the church, was to be promoted by the state. Bernard was also living in a time when the Papacy was gaining both ecclesiastical and political power. During the first crusade, there was not special appeal made to the churches coercive power as justification for war. However, in Bernard, as well as other writers of this period, this is used as an acceptable argument. The church has the power to command and control warfare. This is why Bernard could focus much of his preaching on individual salvation rather than on the capture of Jerusalem which was the primary motivation for the earlier crusade.
Bernard had an extremely high view of clergy and what they were able to do and command of laity. He held to the traditional medieval notion that Christians who had taken monastic vows were of a higher order than the ordinary Christian. This is why Bernard supported the Knights Templar but did not give as much respect to lay Christians who volunteered. He referred to them as malitia (meaning malice) as opposed to militia. This is relevant to the current discussion because his high view of Church authority led to a high view of the Papacy. As was the case with many other church men, Bernard believed that reformation must begin with the office of the bishop of Rome. Thus, the Pope was to be obeyed at all costs. The cloistered monk who spent most of his life in silent seclusion, writing, meditating and preparing sermons most likely would not tour Europe preaching Crusade without a direct call from the church. It is my contention that because Bernard saw the Papacy as Christ’s human instrument to the church on earth, he saw obedience to the Pope as obedience to Christ himself. Bernard preached for the crusades to because he was commanded to by the successor of Peter. This is not to say that Bernard held to a fully developed doctrine of Papal infallibility as has been taught by Rome since the first Vatican council of 1870. However, Papal authority had grown in the minds of Christians since the reign of Gregory.
Does Bernard contradict himself? Yes and no. It was stated by B.B. Warfield that the reformation was the victory of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church. In the same way one could say the reformation saw the victory of Bernard’s doctrine of grace over his doctrine of the church. Bernard was neither a Protestant, nor a Tridentine Catholic. It is anachronistic to suppose that Bernard must be one or the other. The driving motivation behind most of his life was love for Christ and a desire to please him. Thus, loving the scriptures, Bernard focused on the same message as did God’s inspired writers, the cross. However, loving the church, Bernard felt the need to obey her head by taking up the role of Crusade preaching. In this way Bernard was not contradicting himself; he saw all of his actions as ultimately aimed at the glory of his savior.
However, there is a contradiction in Bernard’s statements of justification. In most of his sermons, Bernard speaks of God’s forgiveness being bestowed on all who are truly sorry for their sin. One realizes his lost state and humbles himself so that God may restore him through grace. He does not speak of satisfaction for sin other than the cross. However, in his crusading sermons and letters, he speaks of forgiveness given through the act of crusading. He seems to give crusading an almost sacramental character. As God gives grace through baptism and the Eucharist, so he gives it through volunteering and fighting. However, Bernard need not be consistent. He did not live in the era that Luther, Chemnits, and Calvin lived in when discussions of justification were central. Bernard was simply a man who loved Christ, tried to glorify him and made several mistakes.