Martin Luther: “Bernardus Redivivus”

In the opening paragraph of his essay for a 1992 conference on Bernard of Clairvaux Franz Posset provocatively says that “‘By remote control’, so to speak, Saint Bernard guides Luther’s thoughts across the centuries.” Indeed, “Saint Bernard is quoted or mentioned more than five hundred times in the critical edition of Luther’s works.”:”(Bernardus Magister: Papers Presented at the Nonacentenary Celebration of the Birth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux ed., John R. Sommerfeldt [Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1992], pg. 517.)”: Luther called the Cistercian abbot divus Bernhardus (“divine Bernard”), and drew heavily on his Christ-centered theology in direct opposition to the “sow theologians” (the Scholastics) and the “arch-heretic” Thomas Aquinas.:”(Ibid., 518, citing WA Briefe 1.214, 23 and 56.274.)”: Additionally, Luther used Bernard’s On Consideration as one source for his early criticisms of the pastoral failings of the papacy.

Posset discusses six heads of Bernard’s teaching of which Luther consciously made use in his own reforming work. First was Bernard’s unambiguous advocacy of sola gratia and sola fide. A particular passage which deeply affected Luther was this one:

First of all, we ought to believe that we cannot have forgiveness of our sins other than through God’s indulgence; secondly, that we are powerless to do any good work whatever except by his grace; thirdly, that by no works of ours can we merit eternal life, unless it is given to us freely as well….Undoubtedly, that which has been done can never be undone; yet if God wills not to impute it, it shall be as if it had not been. The prophet [Ps. 31:2] had this in mind when he exclaimed: ‘Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes not sin.’:”(Ibid., 519, citing Bernard’s First Sermon on the Annunciation 1.1.)”:

Following Augustine, Bernard taught that all our merits are the gifts of God (merita omnia Dei sunt dona) and that “a man is freely justified by faith.”:”(Ibid., 519. For citations of Bernard’s solafidian doctrine, see my entry Bernard of Clairvaux: A Forerunner of John Calvin?)”: Luther remembered Bernard’s exposition of Psalm 31 and strongly identified with it in his own 1513 work on the Psalms and in his 1516 Commentary on Romans. Luther referred to Bernard’s sermon again in his lectures on Hebrews in 1517 and on First John in 1527. Posset argues that these continuous appeals to Bernard over the period of Luther’s own theological breakthroughs about justification makes Luther Bernardus redivivus–”Bernard alive again.”:”(Ibid., 520-523.)”:

A second head of Bernard’s teaching which influenced Luther was the abbot’s concept of the “triple advent” of Christ. Christ appeared (or will have appeared) three times, writes Luther:

First, in his first advent when he was incarnated as the Son of God who is the face of the Father….Secondly, in the spiritual advent [in the believer's soul] without which the first is good for nothing. And so one has to recognize his face through faith in which all good things are….Thirdly, in the second and last advent when his face will be fully visible.:”(Ibid., 524, probably using Bernard’s Advent sermons.)”:

A third influence on Luther was Bernard’s speculation about Lucifer’s envy, which Posset summarizes: “God had hidden from the devil his decision that his Son would become man while remaining God. The devil was envious and wished to be like the divine Son.” Luther makes use of this idea in his Christmas sermons in the 1530s, in an exposition of John 1:14 in 1537, and in his commentary on Genesis published between 1544 and 1554. Posset gives one important passage to demonstrate this influence:

Saint Bernard is a wonderful man [mirabile vir]; he believes that the devil in paradise has noticed that God will become man….They [the angels] do not mind at all and they are happy that God is not called an angelic God [Engelischer Gott] and that God does not become an angel….:”(Ibid., 525, citing WA 41:486, 13-28.)”:

A fourth influence of Bernard on Luther is the concept of the “triple miracle.” According to Bernard, the work of God in the Incarnation performed three miracles: “three works, three mixtures when assuming our flesh….Indeed, conjunct to each other are God and man, mother and virgin, faith and the human heart.”:”(Ibid., 526, citing Bernard’s Sermo in vigilia nativitatis Domini 3.7.)”: Luther mentioned this idea in his Christmas sermon of 1520:

Saint Bernard says that in this birth three great and remarkable signs occurred. The first is that God and man became one by the unification of the divine and human nature. The second is that she who gave birth remained a virgin and nursed. The third is that in this even the human heart and faith in such matters could come together and become one. I tell you, the first sign is easy to believe and moves only a few people. The second is easier yet to believe. The third is easiest of the three. Herein lies the real miracle, namely that the Virgin Mary believed that this will happen ‘in her’. This is so great that we cannot marvel enough about it.:”(Ibid., citing WA 7:188.)”:

Luther made mention of the “triple miracle” in 1518 in his interview with Cardinal Cajetan, in a sermon preached sometime between 1519 and 1521, in a sermon for the feast of the Annunciation in 1525, in the Summer Postil for Pentecost Monday, and in a sermon for the feast of the Visitation of Mary in 1533, and in his commentary on Genesis.:”(Ibid., 527.)”:

A fifth area of influence is Bernard’s reasoning about circumcision. Bernard had meditated on circumcision in his sermons for the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, and Luther mentioned this explicitly in his sermon of January 1, 1517, “On Circumcision and the Righteousness of Faith.”:”(Ibid., 527-528.)”:

The last area of influence which Posset covers in his article is Bernard’s “Fasciculus Myrrhae” (little bundle of myrrh). This refers to Bernard’s Forty-third Sermon on the Song of Songs, in which the abbot meditates on the “little bundle of myrrh” mentioned in Song of Solomon 1:12. Bernard allegorizes the Scripture to refer to the believer holding Christ close to his bosom: “never permit for an hour that this precious bunch of myrrh should be removed from your bosom.”:”(Ibid., 528.)”:

Luther mentions this sermon and its meditation on the little bundle of myrrh in his own exposition of Psalm 84 concerning desire for the Lord’s place. While discussing the sparrow finding its home and the swallow its nest, Luther was apparently reminded of Bernard’s meditation on the Song of Solomon, and he interjected the words of “blessed Bernard” into his own sermon. Further, Luther confessed that it was Staupitz who had taught him to keep one’s eyes fixed on Christ, and in his Table Talk Luther connects his superior’s advice directly to Bernard: “It is Bernard’s saying: One must build nests in the wounds of Christ….”:”(Ibid., 529, citing WA TR 1:245, 9-12 [no. 526] and 5:395, 1-2 [no. 5898].)”:

Posset closes his article by citing a number of passages in which Luther has only the highest praise for Bernard of Clairvaux. I will give only a few of these. In 1521 Luther wrote, “No one could better teach the Word of God than the monks, as Saint Bernard and others did.”:”(Ibid., 530, citing WA 8:648.)”: Four years later he said, “I esteem Saint Bernard higher than any monk or priest on earth. I have never heard nor read anything comparable.”:”(Citing WA 16:400.)”: In 1538 he opines, “He is the only one worthy of the name Pater Bernardus and of being studied diligently.”:”(Citing WA 47:109.)”: Perhaps astonishingly, “With his sermons Bernard excels all the other teachers, and even Augustine himself.”:”(Citing WA TR 3:295, 6-9 [no. 3370b].)”: Yet again, “Bernard is golden when he teaches and preaches….Bernard is above all the teachers in the Church….”:”(Citing WA TR 1:272, 4-8 [no. 584].)”: And last but not least, toward the end of his life, in 1545, “I prefer Bernard over all the others. He had the best knowledge of religio, as his writings show.”

From Posset’s discussion of the texts he adduces, it seems indeed that Luther was Bernardus redivivus, and that to better appreciate the seemingly “novel” theology of Luther we would do well to read and meditate upon that of Pater Bernardus himself.

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2 Responses to Martin Luther: “Bernardus Redivivus”

  1. James Swan says:

    Interestingly though, Luther did not follow Bernard’s Mariolatry. Later recollecting Bernard’s influence on his earlier Mariolatry, Luther looked back on the years before his break with Rome and said,

    “St. Bernard, who was a pious man otherwise, also said: ‘Behold how Christ chides, censures, and condemns the Pharisees so harshly throughout the Gospel, whereas the Virgin Mary is always kind and gentle and never utters an unfriendly word.’ From this he inferred: ‘Christ is given to scolding and punishing, but Mary has nothing but sweetness and love.’ Therefore Christ was generally feared; we fled from Him and took refuge with the saints, calling upon Mary and others to deliver us from our distress. We regarded them all as holier than Christ. Christ was only the executioner, while the saints were our mediators” [LW 22:377]

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Well, James, Bernard of Clairvaux was also a high papalist. He agreed with certain doctrines about the pope’s power that would later cause serious problems in Christendom. That doesn’t make him any less of a positive influence on Luther, and if Luther liked him so much (Calvin, too), maybe we ought to pay more attention to him. As one who has read a good deal of Bernard I can say he’s very much worth reading, regardless of where we might disagree with him.

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