The Reformer Saint and the Saintly Reformer

THE FRENCH GENIUS of Geneva, who greatly shaped modern Protestantism, may well have written his greatest works feeling the presence of the French genius of Clairvaux peering over his shoulder.

Because of Bernard’s theological and ecclesiastical point of view, one need hardly be surprised that both Luther and Calvin regarded him as a forerunner of their own movement. Luther expressed his appreciation of Bernard by calling him one of “the greatest doctors of the church,” but did not seem to make much use of his thinking and guidance in his own writings. Calvin, on the other hand, more than once expressed the view that Bernard spoke the very truth itself, and quoted him frequently in the Institutes and at least three times in the commentaries. In fact Calvin seems to refer to him favorably more frequently than he does to any other medieval author. Apparently, he recognized Bernard as being of the same mind with himself on the fundamentals of the faith.

When one turns to examine the evidence for Calvin’s agreement with and use of Bernard’s writings, one must immediately recognize that there were certain elements in the presuppositions of the two men which inevitably brought them together. The first of these was Bernard’s and Calvin’s acceptance of the Bible as the word of God and the final authority for the Christian. Bernard could quote Virgil and Ovid from among the pagans, and Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and others from among the church fathers, but the final authority in his preaching, in his theological and mystical writings and in his arguments with such people as Abelard, was the text of Scripture. He insisted that reason was always subordinate to the Bible, although reason had the responsibility of unfolding and rationally defending biblical doctrines. Such a principle Calvin could well accept, and although he rejected Bernard’s allegorizing, he was not too surprised by it, for he found much the same type of exegesis in the reading of Augustine.

Another common assumption of the two men was their view of the person and work of Christ. Bernard never tired of preaching and writing about Christ, both the divine and the human, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. He constantly stressed that man’s only hope lay in Christ, and although on saints’ days or on special feast days relating to the Virgin Mary, he makes reference to them, praising them highly, one cannot but feel that they were really extraneous to his structure of thought. Indeed, in 1140 when the Canons of Lyons proposed a festival in honour of The Immaculate Conception, he wrote them declaring that it was contrary to scripture and the fathers.

Another common denominator of the two men was their stress on the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin is often regarded by Protestant theologians as the man who really freed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit from all subordinationism, but Bernard had already stressed the place and the work of the Holy Spirit three hundred years before. Nor did he think merely in terms of the Holy Spirit as given to the Christian through the sacraments of the church, but insisted that the Spirit of God came directly upon his people to give them new life in Him.

Calvin never read anyone, least of all Bernard, uncritically; he was always prepared to show where he differed. He rejects some of Bernard’s doctrines, such as that of purgatory and his method of proving it. Nevertheless, in certain central areas of thought, Calvin felt that he and Bernard were definitely in agreement.

On the sinful and lost state of man Bernard was very clear, very explicit, and somewhat repetitive. He emphasized the fact that man by virtue of his descent from Adam, was a sinner bound under sin and under God’s condemnation, so that all men are responsible for the crucifixion of Christ and thus guilty of disobedience to God. One can only be surprised that Calvin did not use more of Bernard on this subject . . . Calvin [in the Institutes] tells us that the admonition of Bernard is worthy of remembrance when he says, “Since we read that a fall so dreadful took place in paradise, what shall we do on the dunghill?”

One’s view of original sin and man’s resulting depravity, has wide implications for one’s whole theology, and this was true in the case of Bernard as well as for others of his contemporaries. ...Bernard saw the Image of God in men as consisting in man’s freedom of will, which in essence is neutral. What determines the will is man’s reason which decides what is good and what is evil. When at the fall, man lost the virtues created in him, he deprived himself of the ability to will according to true reason. His reason failed. . . . Consequently, although man can still will, he cannot will that which is good. Only when man receives grace is he able to will that which is good, i.e., he receives back his freedom.

This all forms the backbone to Bernard’s and Calvin’s views of the central doctrine of Christianity: the atonement. Concerning this, Bernard was loath to be too explicit since he felt that it was a mystery beyond man’s comprehension. Nevertheless, he continued to hold to Augustine’s view that by sin, man had come under the domination and rule of Satan and that it was to free man from that rule that Christ had come to redeem . . . In all of this, Bernard stressed the fact that man could not save himself, but was solely and totally dependent upon Christ as his redeemer.

One could continue to mention other areas of thought in which Calvin followed closely the steps of Bernard. For instance, the Genevan reformer’s insistence that the greatest Christian virtue is humility was something which Bernard had said very frequently in his own day. Furthermore, Bernard’s stress upon the love of God was also central to his thought, and this Calvin constantly reiterated. Calvin, again, did not accept everything that Bernard said, either concerning certain doctrinal points, or in regard to larger considerations. He could not agree with Bernard’s views on monasticism and monastic asceticism, nor did he entirely approve of his mysticism . . .

Even here, however, one cannot but ask if Calvin did not experience some influence by Bernard when it came down to his views on man’s knowledge. In the opening words of the Institutes, Calvin discusses the question of man knowing himself and God, insisting that without one the other is impossible. The knowledge of God, according to Calvin, comes only by revelation understood through the grace of God. This is exactly the position of Bernard in his mystical writings. True, Augustine had said somewhat the same six hundred years before, but it is an interesting speculation as to whether Calvin may not have received some early influences in this direction, through reading the abbot’s writings.

Whether he did or not, the fact still remains that as one reads the Institutes, one cannot but gain the strong impression that, as Calvin put his pen to paper in writing and revising his Institutes, the cowled figure of the Abbot of Clairvaux seems to have been looking over his shoulder. Bernard might well have been surprised and shocked at some of the things that Calvin had to say, but it would seem that, on basic principles of theology and on the criticism of the church, the two men stood very close together.

Perhaps one can most easily sum up the relationship of Calvin and Bernard by saying that Calvin in his endeavor to bring the church back to what he considered to be the New Testament pattern of faith and of organization, continued the line of the Augustinian tradition, of which Bernard of Clairvaux was the greatest medieval exponent. Calvin may well have felt that he was, in his own day, bringing to completion the work Bernard had begun.

By W. Stanford Reid

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #24 in 1989]

W. Stanford Reid is Emeritus Professor of Church History at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. This article was adapted from "Bernard of Clairvaux in the Thought of John Calvin," the Westminster Theological Journal, Volume XLI, Fall 1978, by permission of the author.
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