Reformation Context (Part 13): Luther and Bernard

Luther did not see his efforts as “the Reformation.” He was part, to be sure, of a reform movement, but in his mind the Reformation was something that only God could accomplish. Like many of his day, Luther believed that the battle over reformation of the church was indicative that the Last Days had arrive. His own eschatological views associated with the Reformation, however, were developed from the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. 

Rightly understanding Luther, both in reality and in his own view of himself, means understanding the theological and philosophical concepts that influenced and shaped him. The two most significant voices which echoed in Luther’s theology were those of Augustine and Bernard. While many note and point to the former, the latter deserves attention too. We’ll begin with a word about Bernard and some of his general influence on Luther, and then move specifically to the ways in which his writing shaped Luther’s eschatological views with regard to the Reformation.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Our knowledge of Bernard is clouded, as it is with so many figures from church history, by legend. What is true and what is hagiography is not always easy to discern, even for professional historians. We can speak of some obvious facts about the man. Bernard was a Cistercian monk, and later the Abbot of Clairvaux, from which he get his name. He was a preacher, a theologian, and a mystic. Luther hailed him as “the last of the fathers,” by which he meant those early church fathers who, in Luther’s view, did not integrate Aristotelian philosophy into their theology – in other words, a pre-scholastic.

Bernard was also a preacher for the Crusades and played his hand in the politics of these horrific events. Luther does not care for this Bernard, but prefers to the preacher to the Crusader. Overall, Bernard was one of the most, if not the most, influential churchman of his day, and that influence has carried him forward throughout church history. He remains a saint within the Roman Catholic Church, and while Protestants have not yet discovered all the profound influence of this great thinker and teacher for their own theologies, he plays a role in our history too.

Bernard and Luther

As with the man himself, so our knowledge of Luther’s relationship to Bernard is clouded by some uncertainty. When and where he first encountered the man is not accessible to us today. Melanchthon repeats a story, which he says he received direct from Luther, about an Augustinian friar who showed Luther a passage from Bernard on the importance of personal faith. It’s possible that this is true, but we can’t really know since Luther never repeats said story. However he came to be aware of Bernard, we can note that as early as 1512 Luther was making use of his writings. His exposition of the Psalms from that year show more than familiarity with Bernard. 

Of the various doctrines of Bernard several find their way into Luther’s own thought and writing. There were many traditional uses of Bernard among the various orders and monasteries, but Luther created something of his own tradition, pulling quotations and borrowing ideas as he did. Theo Bell has observed of Luther:

He criticizes the spiritual power of Rome, which binds the free preaching of the gospel, and no longer criticizes its worldly power and wealth. He is partial to referring to Bernard’s definition of the hardened heart (cor durum) and to his exhortation to tend the sheep (evangelizare pascere est). In his last appeal to Rome in September of 1520, referring explicitly to De Consideratione twice, Luther derives from Bernard the authority to address the pope by means of fraternal exhortation. (“Luther’s Reception of Bernard of Clairvaux,” Concordia Theological Quarterly. 59.4.1995).

Luther found in Bernard a kindred spirit and a thoughtful articulation of many of his own concerns. Bernard’s critiques are of great significance for Luther’s thought and development.

In addition, while much of Luther’s writing and teaching on the “bondage of the will” stemmed from Augustine, we may also note parallels between his thought and that of Bernard’s. There is no doubt that Bernard developed his own thought after reading Augustine, and yet it was probably  Bernard who popularize the latter’s views on the will and grace. Luther references Bernard directly in his battle with the Scholastics over anthropology and soteriology: Here Saint Bernard throws down Aristotle’s doctrine (quoted in Bell, 251). Calvin is even more specific in his quotations and analyses of Bernard on liberty and free will, but Luther’s mentioning of these ideas explicitly is more sparring. Nonetheless they are present. In development of his eschatology, however, we see many overt parallels to Bernard.

A Shared Eschatological Framework

Bernard had famously broken down history, from the birth of Christ until the end of time, into three epochs: (1) the epoch of the martyrs; (2) the epoch of the heretics; (3) the epoch of the Antichrist. Within the first period, the church suffered persecution and the faithful were called to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Christ. The second period, however, saw attacks from enemies of the faith via doctrinal challenges. These attacks were more serious, Bernard argued, because they were more subtle. The final stage, was the period of the Last Days, and the attack in this period came not from outside, but from within the church herself. The corruption within the church, particularly seen in the heretical deviations of various monks and theologians of his time, had brought the end of all things close. 

Bernard’s warnings about the end times, and his periodization of history, motivated Luther. He saw, like Bernard, the corruption within the church and believed that they were now living in the period of the Last Days. In his own Chronology of the World (Supputatio annorum mundi), Luther writes of six millennium that break up the history of the church. Bernard is explicitly mentioned at the beginning of that six era, the age of the antichrist. He describes a time of darkness, in which Bernard kept the light of the gospel shinning through his preaching, but he is compared, by Luther, to a prophet more than evangelist. He is one who spoke of impending judgment and called the people to repentance. Luther sees himself in this similar role. He compares himself to Jeremiah, and in this vein compares himself to Bernard:

Bernard did something, and now something is done by me, Jeremiah. And so the end may come and that it may come immediately let all pray: Come, Christ, come.

Luther believed that the reformation of the church was the final movement of God before the onset of the millennial kingdom. Bernard helped him to see with eyes of faith the stage in which he lived as the Last Days.

It is argued that the older Luther got the less expectant he was of the immediate return of Christ in his lifetime. But the influence of Bernard’s eschatological perspective gives some explanation of Luther’s move towards passionate reform efforts. Heiko Oberman captures that explanation well:

In the following five years – from 1514 -1519 – Luther found his fears increasingly confirmed, and out of concern grew consternation. This insight into the tradition preceding Luther – St. Matthew, St. Augustine, St. Bernard – allows us to grasp his sense of urgency in preaching the Gospel. This urgency breeds impatience, and impatience an uncompromising stance against all opposition. We should not expect from him a cool and dispassionate analysis of the persons and events of his day. For him, time was not just running – it was running out. The unleashing of the Devil, which Augustine had expected in the distant future and which had drawn close in the days of St. Bernard, has now come about. Once the church invokes canon law and papal might to put its full authority behind indulgences, there can no longer be any doubt: the Antichrist is begotten, the Last Days have begun. (Luther, 71)

It was surely a combination of forces, teachers, and theological concepts which amassed to influence Luther’s eschatology. Not least of these influences was Holy Scripture. Yet, we should appreciate the impact that Bernard of Clairvaux had on his thought. It helps us to better understand his own urgency in the time of the Reformation.

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