Bernard of Clairvaux – An 850th anniversary tribute

Alan Clifford Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
01 September, 2003 9 min read

The immediate background to Bernard’s life was the 10th-century revival of monasticism. The centre of this revival was the monastery at Cluny in France (between Dijon and Lyons) founded in 910 by Duke William of Aquitaine.

It was believed that the highest state of spirituality could only be attained by means of monastic seclusion. The ancient Benedictine rule of ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’ was vigorously applied by the monks of Cluny.

Cluniac establishments sprang up all over Europe, and great abbey churches — Cluny’s was built from 1089-1131 — dominated the skyline.

However, the simplicity of the early ideal collapsed as the growing importance of the abbeys brought favours and wealth. Extravagance and corruption followed as a matter of course. High spirituality eventually gave way to low carnality.

The Cistercian order arose as a protest against Cluniac corruption as early as 1098. With a renewed appeal to Benedictine austerity, the new institution arose near Citeaux, about 12 miles from Dijon.

Simplicity was to be maintained. Cluniac ostentation in architecture and art was to be shunned, and indulgence with regard to food and ease was forbidden. Worship, silence and manual labour were basic to the regime of communities which later provided educational and medical services.

Medieval Evangelical

Augustine of Hippo apart, no medieval preacher and theologian was regarded by Luther and Calvin with so much honour as Bernard of Clairvaux. Despite his attachment to some of the ideas and errors of his age, Bernard was opposed to the Marian doctrine of the immaculate conception (which only became ‘official’ in 1854). Essentially, he can be regarded as an Evangelical in the Augustinian tradition.

Anticipating the Reformation rediscovery of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, Bernard beautifully points the sinner to Christ: ‘Where, in fact, are safe and firm rest and security for the weak but in the Saviour’s wounds?

‘The mightier he is to save, the more securely I dwell there. The world menaces, the body weighs us down, the devil sets his snares. I fall not, for I am grounded upon firm rock.

‘I have sinned a grave sin. My conscience is disturbed, but it will not be perturbed because I shall remember the Lord’s wounds…

‘Shall I sing my own righteous acts? O Lord, I shall remember your righteousness only, for it is also mine. Namely, he was made righteousness for me by God.’

Model monk

Philip Schaff writes: ‘Bernard, founder and abbot of the convent of Clairvaux, was the model monk of the Middle Ages, the most imposing figure of his time, and one of the best men of all the Christian centuries.

‘He possessed a magnetic personality, a lively imagination, a rich culture, and a heart glowing with love for God and man.’

Bernard’s first biographer said that ‘in his countenance there shone forth a pureness not of earth but of heaven, and his eyes had the clearness of an angel’s and the mildness of a dove’s eyes’.

Schaff adds: ‘there is no spotless saint in this world, and Bernard was furthest from claiming perfection, but he came as near the medieval ideal of ascetic holiness as any man of his century’.

Luther, who was little impressed with monkish pretensions, could say nonetheless that ‘Bernard loved Jesus as much as any one can’.

The boy from Burgundy

Bernard was born at Fontaines near Dijon in 1091, one of seven children, six of whom were sons. His mother Aletha, like Augustine’s mother Monica, was a godly influence on her children.

As a young man, Bernard had a great appetite for scholastic learning. His conversion — in evangelical terms — is hard to date, but on a lonely journey he met with God and resolved to serve him for the rest of his life. So, in 1113, Bernard entered the Cistercian monastery at Citeaux.

Bernard’s over-rigorous pursuit of ascetic discipline adversely affected his health. However, work in the fields gave him opportunity for spiritual meditation. He studied the Scriptures and the early Fathers with great enthusiasm, also finding time to acquaint himself with classical authors.

Bernard studied creation as well as books. His fervour anticipates the romanticism of a later age when he says, ‘Thou wilt find something greater in the woods than in books. The trees and rocks will teach thee what thou canst not hear from human teachers’.

The Clairvaux community

Together with twelve others, Bernard founded a new community at Clairvaux in 1115, on a site once notorious for robbers. ‘Clairvaux’ means ‘Clear Valley’ and Bernard was not slow to see the significance of the area’s transformation.

He wrote, ‘The hills began to distil sweetness, and the fields, before sterile, blossomed and became fat under the divine benediction’.

Frequently visited by princes and high ecclesiastics, the monastery soon became famous. William de Thierry catches something of the atmosphere of Clairvaux: ‘At the first glance, as you entered, after descending the hill, you could feel that God was in the place; and the silent valley bespoke, in the simplicity of its buildings, the genuine humility of the poor of Christ dwelling there.

‘The silence of the noon was as the silence of the midnight, broken only by the chants of the choral service, and the sound of garden and field implements. No one was idle.

‘In the hours not devoted to sleep or prayer, the brethren kept busy with hoe, scythe, and axe, taming the wild land and clearing the forest. And although there was such a number in the valley, yet each seemed to be a solitary.’

Zealous reformer

Notwithstanding the piety and tranquillity of Clairvaux, there was no isolationism or complacency about Bernard. He is famous for rebuking the self-indulgence of the Cluniacs during the incumbency of Peter the Venerable.

Their lifestyle, worship and architecture were exposed as violations of the true monastic vocation. Although Bernard’s criticisms were sharp and forthright, he and Peter remained on good terms.

Peter called Bernard ‘a shining pillar of the church’. He did not excuse the failures of the Cluniacs any more than Bernard pretended that the Cistercians were beyond reproach.

Despite much that was lamentable, the best of Cluniac piety has been preserved in the much loved hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’, written by Bernard of Cluny, a contemporary of Peter and Bernard of Clairvaux. Here we have medieval Augustinian evangelicalism at its most pure and sublime:

O sweet and blessed country,
The home of God’s elect,
O sweet and blessed country
That eager hearts expect;
Jesus, in mercy bring us
To that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father
And Spirit, ever blest.

Conscientious churchman

If Bernard was a zealous monk — he mistakenly urged his married sister Humblina to become a nun even though she had children — he was also a conscientious churchman.

From the perspective of Reformed Christianity, one must lament some of the ideas and causes which Bernard espoused.

For example, the Crusades of the Middle Ages are a blot on Christian history. Opposing the Turks and Saracens by force of arms was a fundamental denial of the true spiritual warfare of the Church of God (see Ephesians 6:12). Yet in 1128, at the Synod of Troyes, Bernard secured recognition for the Knight Templars, ‘the new soldiery’.

Imposed on by Pope and King to ‘run about’ for them, the sick and ageing Bernard preached for the Second Crusade in 1146.

However, it is doubtful if his heart was in it. The entire venture was an ignoble failure, calling forth from Bernard a passionate lament over the sins of the crusaders. His essentially non-violent outlook is seen in his forthright rejection of growing antisemitic persecution.

Political popes

In Bernard’s day, papal activity was more political than spiritual and unseemly rivalry was commonplace. In the reigns of Innocent II and Eugenius III, he was closely involved with the papacy. But although he became involved in politics, he managed to maintain spiritual priorities.

When one of the Clairvaux community became Eugenius III, Bernard was asked to prepare a treatise on papal duties and functions. In De Consideratione, he produced one of the most interesting tracts of the Middle Ages.

Bernard urged the new pope to remember that prayer, meditation and the spiritual edification of the church were the important matters for popes to attend to. He cited a precedent: was not Pope Gregory the Great engaged in writing his commentary on Ezekiel while Rome was being besieged by the Barbarians?

Bernard lived in an age when miraculous claims were commonplace. His own miraculous power is seemingly well documented, though he himself was reluctant to speak of it.

During a tour along the Rhine from Constance and Basel to Cologne, when Bernard was preaching for the Second Crusade, many miracles were reported. More than likely, a spirit of delusion was at work in so ignoble a cause (see 2 Thessalonians 2:9).

Augustinian theologian

Bernard’s theological work is closely bound up with his dispute with Peter Abelard (1079-1142) — a brilliant philosopher and theologian, though conceited and immoral.

Abelard’s mistress Heloise told him of certain objections Bernard had raised to his teaching. Eager for debate, Peter wrote to Bernard accusing him of introducing novelties at Clairvaux, such as hymn singing and deviations from set patterns of prayer.

Bernard did not reply, but William de Thierry believed that Abelard’s teachings departed too seriously from orthodoxy to be ignored. When a personal visit to Paris failed to rectify Abelard’s thinking, Bernard drew the matter to the attention of Pope Innocent II.

At the Synod of Sens in 1141, the issues were publicly debated. Bernard presented charges against Abelard who, to the surprise of all, declined to defend himself. Instead, he appealed to the pope.

After the fourteen charges were considered, Abelard was condemned for heresy. In the words of Schaff, ‘Abelard had joined himself with Arius in ascribing degrees within the Trinity, with Pelagius in putting free will before grace, and with Nestorius in separating the person of Christ’.


Abelard is chiefly remembered for advocating the so-called ‘moral influence’ theory of the atonement. He denied that the death of Christ was necessary to satisfy divine justice and appease God’s wrath. The cross simply revealed the love of God with the purpose of stirring up love in the hearts of sinners.

In response, Bernard taught the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitution. To quote C. Gregg Singer:

‘Bernard’s great contribution to the development of the doctrine of the atonement lay in his insight into the organic relationship between Christ and those for whom he died as an explanation of how the death of One should avail for the sins of many. In this respect he definitely foreshadowed Calvin’s conception of the atonement’.

Bernard’s Augustinianism is particularly seen in his famous treatise De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (On Grace and Free will).

Preacher of Christ

Bernard excelled as a preacher. In Luther’s opinion, ‘Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently’.

Like all his writings, Bernard’s sermons abound in quotations from Scripture. John Calvin endorsed Luther’s verdict by frequently quoting Bernard in his Institutes. Many quotes come from Bernard’s famous sermons on the Canticles.

Bernard was not content with careful exegesis and orthodox doctrine — there is also an unusual fervency and passion in the sermons. It has been said that ‘the constant shadow of things eternal is over all Bernard’s sermons’.

He also knew how to adapt himself to his hearers. Schaff points out: ‘To the erudite he was scholarly; to the uneducated simple. To the spiritually minded he was rich in wise counsels. He adapted himself to all, desiring to bring to all the light of Christ’.

Not surprisingly, Bernard was known as ‘doctor mellifluous’, the ‘honey-flowing doctor’. Here is one of the quotations used by Calvin from Bernard’s famous sermons on the Canticles.

‘The name of Jesus is not only light but food also. Yea, oil, without which all the food of the soul is dry; [it is] salt, without which as a condiment whatever is set before us is insipid.

‘In fine, [it is] honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, joy in the heart, and, at the same time, medicine. Every discourse where this name is not heard is absurd.’

Sweet singer of Clairvaux

For most Christians, their initial acquaintance with Bernard of Clairvaux occurs in worship. Few will be strangers to Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts (tr. Ray Palmer), Jesus, the very thought of thee, and O Jesus, King most wonderful (tr. Edward Caswell).

Even the much-loved chorale, O sacred head sore wounded is attributed to Bernard (versified by Paul Gerhardt, tr. James Alexander).

These hymns reveal the very soul of Bernard. They confirm Luther’s eulogy — ‘Bernard loved Jesus as much as anyone can’. Surely no hymn writer has ever expressed Christian experience more gloriously than Bernard:

We taste thee, O thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon thee still;
We drink of thee, the Fountain-Head,
And thirst our souls from thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
Where’er our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when thy gracious smile we see,
Blest, when our faith can hold thee fast.

The grace of God

To the end of his days, Bernard relied with childlike trust upon the grace of God. In one of his very last letters he begged his friend, the Abbot of Bonneval, to pray earnestly to the Saviour of sinners on his behalf.

His last days were not without sorrow, for his trusted secretary betrayed his confidence and used his seal for his own purposes. Dying in the summer of 1153, none can doubt that in his last earthly moments, Bernard rested entirely in one who was trustworthy to the last:

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed o’er the world thy holy light.

Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
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