The self-appointed watchdog of orthodoxy

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

A consummate preacher and teacher, Bernard also authored numerous theological treatises on topics as diverse as the doctrine of God, grace and free will.

IN BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX we encounter a decidedly different sort of thinker from the theologians we discussed in the previous two articles. As monk, mystic, theologian and energetic polemicist, he is perhaps one of the most interesting figures in the church of medieval Europe.

Born to the lower nobility of Burgundy, Bernard entered the Cistercian order at 22 years of age after the death of his mother. He was soon to become the founder of a new abbey at the Val d’Absinthe, and later to distinguish himself as the primary builder and reformer of the order. Steeped in the theology and spirituality of the early fathers of the Church, he became the self-appointed watchdog of orthodoxy in many ways.

Through his influence, theologians like Peter Lombard, Robert of Poule and John Salisbury were pushed into prominence. But he also persuaded the pope to censure theologians like Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers because he deemed them to have crossed the bright line that separates orthodoxy from heresy. A consummate preacher and teacher, Bernard also authored numerous theological treatises on topics as diverse as the doctrine of God, grace and free will.

At the centre of his theology is Christology, his understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. More than any other theologian of his time, he argued that the incarnation was necessary for revelation: the second person of the Holy Trinity took upon himself human flesh so that he can reveal the triune God to humankind. It is therefore through the humanity of Christ that we see God. us it is in the human shape of the eternal Son that we behold the beauty or “lovableness” of God, and are drawn to love him.

In his sermons on Song of Songs, Bernard writes: “I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with humans as a human. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal beings who were unable to live in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to spiritual love.”

According to Bernard, believers therefore develop a carnal love for Christ, a love that “eliminates the carnal life”. Carnal love, which marks the beginning of the Christian life and devotion, will be gradually transformed first into a rational and finally into a spiritual love.

It is not surprising that Bernard describes salvation and the Christian life chiefly in terms of the believer’s union with Christ, who is the Bridegroom of the Bride (Church). e mystical union therefore serves as the principal metaphor for salvation and reconciliation for Bernard, just as justification by faith is the central soteriological theme for Martin Luther.

Bernard uses the image of a spiritual marriage to present a vivid picture of the reconciled relationship between the sinner and Christ. “When she loves perfectly, the soul is wedded to the Word,” he writes. “Truly this is a spiritual contract, a holy marriage.” As we have seen, this union begins with the believer’s carnal love for the humanity of Christ, but progresses gradually to spiritual love.

However for Bernard, salvation is not just the believer’s union with Christ, but essentially with the triune God. us, in the Sermons on the Song of Songs, he writes: “What does it mean for the Word to come into a soul? It means that he will instruct it in wisdom. What does it mean for the Father to come? It is the Father’s nature to love, and therefore the coming of the Father is marked by an infusion of love.” But this union, Bernard stresses, is only possible “in” and “through” the Holy Spirit, since the latter is the “benign goodness” of both the Father and the Son.

FOR BERNARD, THE CHRISTIAN LIFE is never seen as only the relationship between the believer and God. ere is an ecclesial dimension to the life of the individual Christian that must never be ignored. Jean Leclercq the distinguished scholar of Bernardine theology, put it this way: for Bernard, the Christian life “is a matter of participating in the Church, sharing what the Church has and what the Church is with all those who live by her and in her”.

As monk and mystic, Bernard is of course the theologian of the Christian life par excellence. His approach is undergirded by the profound theology of the Christian life as a synergy of divine grace and human responsibility. e Christian life is a grace-infused life of self-control, self-restraint and self-discipline. It is these spiritual disciplines, according to him, that will regulate the will of the believer who, despite the grace of sanctification, continues to struggle with his fallen nature.

For Bernard, the sinful and rebellious will must by God’s grace be bent to the divine will. “Tame the savage movements of your will and take pains to tame this cruel beast,” he repeatedly exhorts his readers. For it is only when the human will is brought into conformity with the will of God will its true freedom be restored. Obedience is therefore not to break the will, but to set it free from slavery to sin. It is only when the believer submits his will to the divine will that he is “free of instability and inconsistency” and is truly “at one with himself”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.