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Would Bernard of Clairvaux have gone to my church?

January 2005 | by Matthew Holgate

We who call ourselves ‘evangelical’ like to identify great men of the past and perhaps think, ‘he would have gone to my church’. Charles Spurgeon, for example – if he hadn’t been the ‘prince of preachers’ in a former age, I’m sure he would have gone to my church.

If George Whitefield hadn’t have been an itinerant preacher and if Jonathan Edwards hadn’t called so many to the Lord in New England, they would surely have gone to my church. That’s not to say my church is better than any other, but it is Reformed and evangelical – just like Spurgeon, Whitefield and Edwards.

But what if I ask the same question about someone who lived 400 years before the Protestant Reformation? What if he were an abbot of a famous monastery, the pope’s right hand man, and venerated – in his own time and to this day – by the Roman Catholic Church as a ‘saint’? Would Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) have gone to my church?

Theologian

His contribution to theology gave him a reputation as a reformer and gained him much respect among contemporaries. Yes, there was a time when reformers had a place in the Catholic Church.

Bernard taught that for a person to be saved the Holy Spirit must witness to his soul. He wrote: ‘The revelation which is made by the Holy Spirit gives light so that we might understand, and fire so that we may love, according to the words of the apostle: “The charity [love] of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”.’

This, in turn, leads to a relationship with the triune God: ‘Which among you is the soul who has not at some time or other felt, in the depths of conscience, the Spirit of the Son crying: Abba, Father? That soul, beyond any doubt, can believe itself beloved of the Father since it feels touched by the same Spirit as the Son.

‘Have confidence, then, you who are this soul, have confidence and do not falter. Know that in the Spirit of the Son you are the Father’s daughter and at the same time, sister and spouse of the Son’.

Bernard believed that the most important virtue to come from this relationship is love. In his work, On loving God he states: ‘Could any title be greater than this, that he gave himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could he offer than himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest – “Because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19)’.

Friend of popes and kings

Although a friend of popes, Bernard would not kowtow. In fact, as a serious Cistercian, he was horrified by papal worldliness. When one of his disciples Bernard of Pisa became Pope Eugenius III, Bernard reminded him:

‘Remember you are a successor of him who said, “Silver and gold have I none”. Gold and silver and pearls and soldiers you have not received of Christ, but they came to you from Constantine.

‘Never strive after these things. Would to God that before I die I might see the Church as it was in olden times, when the apostles cast their nets not to catch gold and silver but the souls of men!’

Among others with whom he corresponded were a Scottish king, a queen of Jerusalem and the patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch.

Founder of monasteries

He joined the Cistercians at the age of 30. Just three years later he was sent to found a new house at a place called Valley of Bitterness in the diocese of Langres. Bernard renamed the place Clairvaux or Valley of Light.

Bernard personally founded 163 monasteries in different parts of Europe and was indirectly responsible, after 40 years in the cloister, for 343.

It is perhaps a tribute to Bernard that an unappealing monastic life caught on. He adhered to a strictly ascetic form of monasticism called the Rule of St Benedict. Bernard insisted that monks should not be lazy and greatly valued learning among the people of God. He once remarked, ‘The spouse of the Lord should not be a simpleton’.

Prolific writer

His writing style was a thing of beauty, as this extract from his work On loving God amply demonstrates: ‘But the believing soul longs and faints for God; she rests sweetly in the contemplation of him. She glories in the reproach of the cross until the glory of his face shall be revealed.

‘Like the Bride, the dove of Christ that is covered with silver wings (Psalm 68:13), white with innocence and purity, she reposes in the thought of thine abundant kindness, Lord Jesus.

‘And above all she longs for that day when in the joyful splendour of thy saints, gleaming with the radiance of the Beatific Vision, her feathers shall be like gold, resplendent with the joy of thy countenance. Rightly then may she exult, “His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me”.’

Peacemaker

He frequently defended the Church from attacks from without and within. One such attack was to cost Bernard eight years of laborious travel and mediation. On the death of Honorius II in 1130, a schism in the Church was precipitated by the election of two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II.

Given the right to choose between the rivals by King Louis, Bernard decided in favour of Innocent II. He caused him to be recognised by all the great Catholic powers, went with him into Italy, and calmed the troubles which agitated the country. He reconciled Pisa with Genoa, and Milan with the pope and with Lothaire.

This was a feat that would surely put to shame the most skilled diplomats of our own day!

The Second Crusade

In 1144 – following the fall of Edessa to the Turks and at a time when Jerusalem and Antioch were threatened with similar disaster – Bernard supported a second crusade. This was to prove costly and he was criticised when it failed.

We witness his humility in the face of widespread criticism (and perhaps his true motives in supporting the Second Crusade) when he states: ‘I accept being deprived of glory provided the glory of God suffers no outrage’.

If only our religious leaders today showed such boldness and humility!

Accuser of heretics

The most common and widespread heresy of the High Middle Ages was Catharism. Buck’s Theological Dictionary says: ‘Their religion resembled the doctrine of the Manichaeans and Gnostics. They supposed that matter was the source of evil; that Christ was not clothed with a real body; and that baptism and the Lord’s supper were useless institutions’.

In 1144 Bernard wrote two sermons on the Song of Songs condemning the heresy. He observed that it had no named leader but sprang ‘from the suggestions and artifices of seducing spirits’.

The following year Bernard conducted a preaching mission to the south of France. In one place he asked those present to raise their right hands as a sign of catholic unity: all did so.

Saint

As his home-call approached, Bernard said, ‘There are three things on which I base my hopes for eternity: the love of God for his children, the certainty of his promises, and the power by which he will make his promises come true’.

Bernard died in 1153 at the age of 62. He was the first Cistercian monk placed on the calendar of saints and was canonized by Alexander III in 1174. Pope Pius VIII bestowed on him the title of Doctor of the Church in 1830.

I can’t help wondering what Bernard would have thought about all this! Surely he would have had a thing or two to say to Pius VIII.

Conclusion

Bernard believed some things that we would not agree with. However, he attacked the corruption of the Church and the actions of wayward popes. He taught salvation by grace through faith and was the greatest preacher of his age.

He had a captive audience – the model monk setting an example to others. He had the ear of heads of state throughout Europe and the Middle East. Bernard sought biblical truth and was an author of systematic theology. He loved the Lord, the Word, the truth and the people of God.

Although those labelled ‘reformers’ changed over time, their fundamental message did not. Rome hated Luther, Calvin and many others because Rome itself had changed. Luther described the Vatican as the gateway of hell. Was Bernard therefore a gatekeeper of hell?

Certainly not! The problem lay with a Rome that had forgotten the Abbot of Clairvaux and what he taught. If Bernard had been born 400 years later he, like many other reformers, might have been burned at the stake as a heretic. Then he would be venerated by the Protestants as a martyr, rather than by the Catholics as a saint.

Would Bernard have gone to my church? Probably not, but I’m sure he would have been made to feel most welcome.

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