14.12.01, Lane, Bernard of Clairvaux

Main Article Content

Philip F. O’Mara

The Medieval Review 14.12.01

Lane, Anthony N.S.. Bernard of Clairvaux, Theologian of the Cross . Cistercian Studies Series, 248. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2013. Pp. 280. ISBN: 9780879072483 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Philip F. O’Mara
Independent Scholar

Anthony N.S. Lane, Professor of Historical Theology at the London School of Theology, has collected the many references (he counts 667) to the Cross and Passion of Jesus that appear in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux. He translates the most substantial, or at least provides extensive summaries, and shows that many have a more than devotional import. Bernard taught a theology of Redemption, with emphasis, inevitably, on elements of that teaching that were inadequately or misleadingly presented, from the traditional viewpoint, in the writings of his contemporary Peter Abelard. However nuanced and (in some texts) close to orthodoxy were Abelard's opinions, his relentless antagonists William of St. Thierry and Bernard himself struck at a real target in their criticism. Abelard's tendency, implicitly close to Pelagianism, was to consider in argument the rational objections to the doctrine that the human race had come under the domination of Satan, a control from which only the sacrificial death of Jesus had made escape possible. Bernard regarded the argumentative stance as oversimplified and false in its implications even if not in what it directly affirmed. He opposed to it an uncompromising theology of the Cross as indispensable, not only to show the love of Jesus for his chosen, but objectively to rescue them from the control of the devil, and from consequent hopeless estrangement from God and inescapable sin.

Lane traces the history of the doctrine of redemption up until Bernard's time, presents the most important of Bernard's texts, and then analyzes his thinking in two directions: the effect of the Cross on God's relation with humanity, and in particular with the elect, and its role in the human response to God, or as he puts it, "Godward" and "usward," features of the work of Christ; he may have overemphasized this distinction, so important in Reformation thought, as it appears in Bernard's writings. His survey of earlier teaching on the subject emphasizes the approach of Anselm of Canterbury, for whom Christ is essentially the victor over Satan. He reports Anselm's views, and translates or summarizes the contrary arguments and questions of Abelard. Citing several authorities (but not, oddly, Jaroslav Pelikan), Lane observes that Bernard's reflections on the Atonement are all but ignored entirely, or reduced to the record of his refutation of Abelard, in several histories of Christian thought. Scholarship on Bernard himself is almost equally lacking in attention to his doctrine of the Cross, which is most often handled, to the extent that it is covered at all, simply as an element in his attack on Abelard. Bernard wanted to show that Satan has real power over his captives, i.e. all people, who are justly subject to him but mercifully delivered by Christ through the Cross, who conquered our enemy by reconciling us to God, overcoming death through sacrificial love (Sermones in Cantica 20) in the Passion and Resurrection.

Bernard integrated the Catholic doctrine that Christ effected, in the Redemption, the restoration of humanity to the life of union with God with an affective piety that became characteristic of Cistercian teaching, largely thanks to his own abbatial leadership and literary power. Citations given in Lane's appendix establish that Bernard, throughout his career, returned to the power of the Cross for human salvation repeatedly and in many contexts, treatises, letters, and sermons, and usually with direct references to New Testament passages. He draws from the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles, from 1 Peter and Revelation. Lane traces a few more allusions even than those assembled with such diligence and perceptiveness in the critical edition of Bernard's works. This collection of evidence will be of substantial value to future research.

Lane's exposition is uniformly clear, at the expense of some repetition; his findings demonstrate that Bernard, whose mentions of the Cross are often purely devotional or pastoral, was in theological terms, by Catholic standards then (and now) consistently orthodox. Lane also seeks show that Bernard anticipates certain doctrines formulated more precisely in the Reformation, in particular by Calvin. Here his presentation leads, if not to distortion, to emphases that not all readers will find congenial. To employ imputare, as Bernard sometimes does for the action of God in making us righteous, is not in a twelfth-century context to insist on a forensic and exterior significance for justification. Perfect assurance of salvation is not, as Lane acknowledges, part of Bernard's teaching. The Augustinian doctrine of predestination acquires different inflections in the two thinkers but the differences have perhaps had little impact on later theology; the topic thus becomes interesting chiefly for apologists of either the abbot or the reformer. It should be noted that Lane, writing from the Reformed perspective, is entirely unembarrassed in recording Bernard's intense love and exaltation of Mary and other Catholic distinctives; this book is ecumenical and irenic in substance and outlook throughout.

A topic worthy of further study is suggested by the fact that Bernard, like his friend, William of St. Thierry, in his brief commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, firmly maintained the Augustinian distinction between the redeemed human race and the much smaller body of the elect who are actually saved, and to this extent these figures, many of them, e.g. Aelred of Rievaulx and Isaac of Stella, like Bernard members of the Cistercian order, prepared the way for the more fully developed Thomistic doctrine of predestination. Eventually, despite the apparent resurgence of Pelagianism or something close to it in the school of William of Ockham, redemption continued--in Catholic and Reformation teaching alike--to be taken as an absolute necessity to restore sinful humanity to grace. The continuity of this tradition, although the Catholic doctrine that grace transforms the justified sinner interiorly and objectively was not compromised, had an impact on early Protestant thought, and Bernard's writings were often cited by Calvin himself.

Abelard's writings include perfectly orthodox statements to the effect that Christ delivers us from bondage to sin and bears our punishment in our stead, but Bernard understood the principal direction of the latter's thought and, contrary to the claims even of so great an authority as Jean Leclercq, made direct use of Abelard's own writings, not only of the reports of William of St. Thierry. Bernard saw that a purely exemplarist version of the Cross was for Abelard, far more than the traditional view, the essential feature of Christ's work; he wrote of salvation reductively, whereas Bernard in response insists that Christ suffered to pay for our sins and to save us from the penalty due to them. Lane's evidence on Bernard's actual consultation of Abelard's writings brings new accuracy and clarity to an important discussion. Bernard's exaltation of Christ as an example, e.g. of patience, is convincingly shown to be united with a comprehensive and unambiguous doctrine of salvation from sin and from alienation from God. The abbot preached often and ardently, looked at the doctrine that Jesus is the Savior from many perspectives, and in editing his sermons for publication took care to bring out the role of the Redeemer as one from whose conduct, meek and humble of heart, we are to learn. An exemplarist misunderstanding of some passages is possible but it is not Bernard's true position or his central preoccupation, for it was clearly his intention to integrate the devotional and dogmatic aspects of the place of the Cross in Christianity.

Bernard's thought is monastic, i.e. spiritual and pastoral, although some of the features of Scholasticism appear in it. His theological spirituality, inventive and wide-ranging, reinforced throughout the Church the principle that for sinful humanity, the Cross is sacrifice, deliverance, reconciliation, a debt paid, and peace between earth and heaven. The variety of these, Bernard's terms, demonstrates the urgency of his sense that the doctrine of salvation was in need of defense, and not only because of Abelard's rationalist challenge to tradition. Notably, much of Lane's evidence comes from Bernard's treatise for the Templars, In Praise of the New Knighthood, where he declares the Jesus purged our sins, dies and rises as we will, conquers sins and death, and shows himself both righteous and merciful when, as Adam's sin was imputed to us, so must Christ's justice be. It is noteworthy that so many telling passages appear in this work, which must have required translation for most of its intended recipients. On the Love of God, a work in which a more extensive theology of salvation might be expected, actually covers less ground, although here we read that Jesus, the message of whose Cross is eternal life and glory, was delivered to shame and death on our behalf and rescued us from our inability, despite our power of free choice, to see God and obey him. Perhaps few of Bernard's many other references to the Cross add precision or depth to what is found in these sources and in his treatise-length Epistle 190, denouncing Abelard, sent to Pope Innocent II and intended to secure a complete condemnation. They are proof of Bernard's personal devotion and of his awareness that the times required an approach to the doctrine uniting formal (and apologetic) theology with piety and compassion for the sufferings of the Savior.

Medieval theology, at least in the West, had not achieved consensus on any answer to the question of: what is the exact nature of the Redemption? It is not clear that there was a deeply felt impatience to arrive at an agreed formula that would admit of only one interpretation of such a familiar and necessary doctrine as "Jesus died for our sins." There was, however, a widely shared understanding that our need of salvation was, precisely, desperate, since without the grace consequent upon the sacrificial Cross of Christ humanity as a whole would have been eternally, inescapably and justly condemned. Bernard defended this position against Abelard's contrary implications, and the position that has held its central role in Christian theology to this day, although the theologians have never reached consensus on any exact statement of the dogma, and the failure to agree is one of the problems that to this day undermines effort to unify Catholic and Reformation theologies.

Bernard, influenced by the thinking of Origen, wants, in a sense, to go beyond it, but not so as to lose sight of the redemption as an act, necessitated by human separation from the Creator, that affects both the whole Church and the elect souls one by one. All human beings are in solidarity with both Adam and Christ; this aspect of the theology of redemption is a contribution of Bernard himself to the tradition. It is doubtful that Lane has realized how serious Bernard is in regarding the divine decision to offer salvation as genuinely (though not imperatively) grounded in God's nature, or how literal is Bernard's depiction of a conflict among the divine attributes. Bernard's allegory, drawn from Psalm 85:10, of conflict among the four daughters of God, Truth, Righteousness, Mercy and Peace, is hardly theological in the same sense as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, for which it is a preparation, but his dramatic use of it reflects a genuine sense of urgency in the struggle to win, perhaps to achieve in himself, assent to the mystery. Abelard's questioning of the Augustinian teaching changed few minds, certainly not Bernard's thought about predestination, nor did it lead to any doubt about God's justice, but the topic attained in the twelfth century a prominence that it had not had before. For Bernard, our renewed positive relation to the Father is a fact of faith and of experience. Theologically it is central and must involve a great change from our previous separation from God. Lane's study, a reconsideration of Bernard as theologian without really making Bernard into a proto-Calvinist is of lasting value for its positive analysis of the full scope and direction of Bernard's thought.

Article Details

Author Biography

Philip F. O’Mara

Independent Scholar