Bernard of Clairvaux: A Forerunner of John Calvin?

This is the question that A.N.S. Lane explores in his contribution to a 1992 scholarly conference on Bernard of Clairvaux.:”(Bernardus Magister: Papers Presented at the Nonacentenary Celebration of the Birth of Saint Bernard of Clairvauxed, John R. Sommerfeldt [Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1992].)”:

Lane, who did substantial work on Calvin and Bernard at Oxford, begins by summarizing Calvin’s familiarity with and use of the writings of Bernard. Calvin was apparently not very familiar with Bernard until third edition of Institutes in 1543, which has 8 citations from 5 works of Bernard.:”(The references from the third edition of the Institutes are: 3.2.25; 3.12.3; 3.13.4; 3.15.12; 4.5.12; 4.7.18, 22; and 4.11.11.)”: He cites Bernard in 6 other works between 1543 and 1547, but there are no more citations until 1554, two years after the Opera omnia of Bernard were published at Basel. Then, from 1552 to 1559 Calvin cites Bernard far more extensively, showing very good acquaintance with his writings. It is true that he usually cited Bernard for anti-Rome polemical concerns, but not always: sometimes he cited Bernard for humanist reasons, because he likes his style and feels he expressed some point most elegantly.:”(Ibid., pp. 533-535.)”:

The meat of Lane’s article concerns Calvin’s use of Bernard of Clairvaux to support one of the Reformation’s chief concerns: the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Lane lists four major aspects of the Protestant doctrine, each clearly found in Calvin, which are relevant to his study of Bernard. First, justification is forensic, “referring to our status before God rather than our state.” Second, “justification is deliberately and systematically differentiated from sanctification.” Third, “we are justified or reckoned righteous not because of anything in ourselves but because of the ‘alien’ or external righteousness of Christ reckoned or imputed to us.” Fourth is “the assurance of salvation, the conviction that my sins are forgiven, that I am a child of God.”:”(Ibid., pg. 537.)”:

Lane is aware of the ongoing scholarly debate concerning “forerunners of the Reformation,” and in this light he mentions earlier historically unqualified Protestant efforts, such as that of James Buchanan, to find clear examples of pre-Reformation figures teaching the essence of Reformation doctrinal distinctives. Likewise, he is aware of current scholars such as Alister McGrath who say that at least regarding justification by faith alone there were no such precursors. But if Buchanan wsa “less historically acute,” Lane thinks McGrath’s belief suffers from his lack of attention to spiritual writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux.:”(Ibid., pg. 536-538.)”:

Lane is convinced that “an examination of Bernard’s teaching reveals not that it wsa consistently protestant, but that it contains elements which prefigure all of the above points.” If this is so, it shows that “while the explicit statement of the protestant doctrine of justification was a novelty in the sixteenth century, the elements that make it up were not without precedent.”:”(Ibid., pg. 538.)”:

On the first point of summation above, the forensic nature of justification, Lane cites Bernard as follows: “Therefore wherever there is reconciliation, there is remission of sins. And what is this except justification?” and “If he accuses me, I shall not accuse him back, but rather justify him.”:”(Ibid. The citations of Bernard are respectively from Epistola in erroribus Abaelardi 8.20, and Sancta Bernardi opera 8:34.)”:

On the second point, a distinction between justification and sanctification, Lane gives no direct citations of Bernard. He admits that “Bernard does not make a consistent distinction between them.” But, he argues that “anyone who believes in the forgiveness of sins thereby makes a distinction between justification and sanctification, at least implicitly,” for “if my sins are forgiven, it means that there is a difference between what I am (guilty) and how God views me (forgiven).” Without directly citing it he points to a sermon of Bernard’s that “contrasts at length our true state with God’s estimate of us.”:”(Ibid. The sermon cited is from Sancta Bernardi opera 5:389-395.)”:

On the third point, the basis of being reckoned righteous, Lane discusses Bernard’s understanding of merit. In his treatise On Grace and Free Choice, Bernard does argue that God rewards our merits. However, following Augustine, “Bernard holds to a doctrine of merit while ultimately referring all to the sole operation of grace.”:”(Ibid., pg. 539.)”: As Bernard puts it in one place, “Human merits are not such that on account of them eternal life is owed to us ex iure, or that God would do us an injury if he did not bestow it.”:”(Ibid., cited from Sermo in annuntiatione dominica 1.2)”: Rather, we should put our trust in God’s mercy working through Christ’s death.:”(Numerous citations are given here, including Sermo super Cantica canticorum 14.1, 22.8, 43.1-4, 50.2, 60.4, 67.11, 68.6, and 73.4.)”:

Bernard’s consistent teaching, Lane argues, is that the ground of our confidence must be solely the mercy of God. Interestingly, Bernard twice states that justification is by faith alone:

Wherefore, let whoever feels remorse for his sins and hungers and thirsts after righteousness believe in you who justify the ungodly and, being justified by faith alone, he shall have peace with God.:”(Sermo super Cantica canticorum 22.8.)”:

He who will not have believed will be condemned, [Mark] says, doubtless implying that faith alone sometimes suffices for salvation, and that without faith nothing suffices.:”(Epistola de baptismo 2.8.)”:

Now of course, Lane notes, by “faith alone” Bernard meant what Robert Bellarmine meant several centuries later when he wrote of a “living faith which is joined together with love.”:”(Ibid., pg. 540, cited from Bellarmine De justificatione 1.25.)”: But, Lane correctly urges that “the reformers never imagined that saving faith could exist without love–they merely insisted that love was not the ground of justification.”:”(Ibid., pg. 540.)”: As Calvin puts it, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”:”(Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, with the Antidote, in H. Beveridge (ed.), John Calvin, Tracts, 3 [Edinburgh, 1851], pg. 152; see Institutes 3.16.1.)”:

Even more interesting, Bernard explicitly teaches not just the common Medieval understanding of the non-imputation of sin, but beyond that, the actual imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer:

What could man, the slave of sin, fast bound by the devil, do of himself to recover the righteousness which he had once lost? Therefore another’s righteousness was ascribed to him who lacked his own….If one died for all, then all have died, so that, just as one bore the sins of all, the satisfaction of one is imputed to all….Why should I not have someone else’s righteousness since I have someone else’s guilt? It was someone else who made me a sinner, it is someone else who justifies me from sin: the one through his seed, the other through his blood. Shall there be sin in the seed of a sinner and not righteousness in the blood of Christ?:”(Epistola in erroribus Abaelardi 6.15f.)”:

Furthermore, “Death has been put to flight in the death of Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.”:”(Ad milites Templi de laude novae militiae 11.22.)”: Bernard teaches that if we lack merits we can rest on the Passion of Christ,:”(Sermo super Cantica canticorum)”: and that the satisfaction of Christ is imputed to all because he bore the sins of all.:”(Epistola in erroribus Abaelardi 6.15.)” He is reported to have said on his deathbed:

I admit that I myself am neither worthy nor able to obtain the kingdom of heaven by my own merits. But my Lord has obtained it by a double right: by inheritance from the Father and by the merit of his passion. Being content with the former, he gives the latter right to me. I claim it for myself on the basis of his gift and so will not be put into confusion.:”(Vita prima 1.12.57.)”:

As to the fourth point, assurance of salvation, Lane shows that Bernard’s teachings contain “residual ambiguities, if not contradictions.”:”(Ibid., pg. 542.)”: Bernard “teaches the possibility, sometimes even the necessity, of assurance of present forgiveness of sins,” yet although this present evidence “is a ground for hope concerning the future” it is “not for certainty since perseverance to the end is not guaranteed.”:”(Ibid.)”: This construction obviously differs from that of Calvin, who considered confidence of future salvation to be included in saving faith.:”(Institutes 3.2.7.)”:

Lane’s conclusion about Bernard from his analysis of various texts is that

Bernard lived before the sixteenth-century controversies and so it is wrong to expect him to have given consistent answers to questions that had not yet been raised. But there is a strand of his teaching which clearly prefigures the distinctive features of the protestant doctrine noted above.:”(Ibid., pg. 543.)”:

What this means for today’s changed climate between Protestants and Catholics is that the charged polemical categories of past ages need not govern the discussion of justification in the pre-Reformation tradition. Some of the delegates to the Council of Trent, notably Pole and Contarini, who were more or less friendly to the Protestant doctrine and wished it to be incorporated into the at that time undecided catholic doctrine of justification cited some of the same passages of Bernard that Calvin did, including the ones on imputed righteousness.:”(Lane here gives only a string of references to the documents of the Concilium Tridentinum: 5.355, 353, 374, 562; 12.620, 634, 703.)”: This among other things means that “there is value in a study of Bernard and those catholic theologians in the sixteenth century who followed him. Bernard can be a meeting ground for catholic-protestant dialogue on this subject.”:”(Ibid., pg. 544.)”:

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One Response to Bernard of Clairvaux: A Forerunner of John Calvin?

  1. Marvin says:

    You might want to check out the book Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of Saint Bernard on the same topic.

    It’s my impression that Calvin and Bernard shared similar aesthetics. The Cistercian movement that Bernard founded was in some respects a reaction to the oppulence of medieval monasticism embodied in Cluny. Reformed churches have a similarly minimalistic aesthetic–partly out of qualms about idolatry, and partly out of a conviction that church money ought to be spent on the poor and not on churches, a conviction Bernard would have affirmed.

    A few years ago I went on retreat at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, a Cistercian monastery, and was interested in how at home I as a Presbyterian felt there. It’s a very “clean” church. Red tiled floors, no stained glass. As beautifully austere as any New England meeting house, only in red tile rather than whitewashed wood.

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