Bernard Of Clairvaux In The Thought Of John Calvin -- By: W. Stanford Reid

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 41:1 (Fall 1978)
Article: Bernard Of Clairvaux In The Thought Of John Calvin
Author: W. Stanford Reid


Bernard Of Clairvaux In The Thought Of John Calvin

W. Stanford Reid

Although various historians have attempted to interpret John Calvin in a number of different ways, one perspective on him which seems to be rather fruitful for the understanding of the sources of his thought is that of regarding him as the climax of medieval Augustinianism. He sought to rid the medieval church of what he considered to be the baleful influence of Aristotle, who had perverted the teachings of Augustine, and also desired to reform the church’s life and activities part of whose decadence he also blamed on Aristotle. Added to this, recognizing that Augustine himself was not always consistent, Calvin sought to remove front Augustinianism those elements which he believed were in conflict with New Testament teaching.1 Looked at from this angle, one perhaps obtains a different perspective on Calvin’s relationship to the middle ages which is brought into even sharper focus by his attitude to the twelfth century saint, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Adolph Harnack has pointed out that Augustine of Hippo left the church “a complex and confused inheritance”, which enabled views inconsistent with his basic presuppositions to creep in.2 This uncertainty came to full expression in the twelfth century with the teaching of Peter Lombard and Peter Abailard who tended to modify and change some of the church’s Augustinian thinking in favour of more rationalistic Aristotelian principles.3 It was against this that Bernard of Clairvaux took his stand. He rejected Abailard’s rationalism and Lombard’s semi-pelagianism

in favour of a return to a more strictly Augustinian point of view. At the same time, he also sought to purify the church’s hierarchy from top to bottom by applying monastic principles to clerical living.4 In both these endeavours he was not successful, largely because the trend of history at this point was against him, but the work was taken up later by other men, and finally culminated in Calvin who probably went farther than Bernard had contemplated in his own day.

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.5 Calvin, on the other ha...

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