St. Bernard of Clairvaux as the Patron Saint of Luther and Calvin, Not Thomas

A friend just reminded, once again, of the role that St. Bernard of Clairvaux played in the formation of both Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s theology, respectively; the latter quoted or alluded to Clairvaux in his Institutes more than any other author. It was this spiritual, even mystical tradition that stood in the background to the foremost of these magisterial Protestant Reformers; it wasn’t Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. I am bringing this up within the ambit of my last post with reference to the retrieval work being done by people like Matthew Barrett and Craig Carter, for the Baptists. When they retrieve the Great Tradition, they ought to nuance their approach such that the historical theology they are said to be retrieving entails the variety of ideational trails present within the theologizing of history’s various and respective thinkers; this includes lines of tradition that are at odds with the mood, and even material offering of someone like Thomas Aquinas. And yet, for some reason, these folks have fixated on Aquinas, and his Aristotelian heritage.

Here is a sampling of Clairvaux; pay attention to what he is saying about God and knowledge of God. Reflect on whether he sounds like a speculative theologian like Aquinas, or if he sounds more like an Athanasius who is committed to a kataphatic and revelational theology of God’s Word.

Once God was incomprehensible and inaccessible, invisible and entirely unthinkable. But now he wanted to be seen, he wanted to be understood, he wanted to be known. How was this done, you ask? God lay in a manger and lay on the Virgin’s breast. He preached on a mountain, prayed through the night, and hung on a cross. He lay pale in death, was free among the dead, and was master of hell. He rose on the third day, showed the apostles the signs of victory where nails once were, and ascended before their eyes to the inner recesses of heaven. . . . When I think on any of these things, I am thinking of God, and in all these things he is now my God.[1]

This is not the theology of Aquinas. Here is Aquinas’ way to God:

. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.[2]

Aquinas is an apophatic theologian who reasons his way to God (see his Prima Pars) discursively through reflection on the ostensibly given vestiges of God in the created order. His is not a committed theology of the Word that is contingent on God’s intensive Self-revelation in the manger, but one that arises from a latent capacity within humanity to think God from a created grace infused into the elect’s accidents of human being. In other words, for Aquinas, to think God does not require the Word of God, per se, it instead is an ecclesiologically based knowledge of God as the Church’s supposition within a hierarchical chain of being, as that finds its primal orientation in its first cause, God, ostensibly supplies the theoretical bases for the Christian, such as Aquinas, to think God in abstraction from God’s Self-revealed Word in Jesus Christ, as that is attested to in Holy Scripture.

What Barrett, Carter, Sytsma et al. are doing, whether that be on the Baptist or Presbyterian side of the coin, is a repristination effort. It would be one thing if they were engaging in a constructive dialogue with the past, allowing the kerygma, the risen Christ as God’s Word to regulate said discussion; but they aren’t! Instead, they are engaging in a just is, which is another way to say, in a natural theological approach to Church History, and said history’s ideas. They are simply presuming that just because there is such an amorphous thing known as the Great Tradition, that just because it has been seemingly allowed to develop, that God must have been providentially supervening in this development, such that it now has His imprimatur stamped on it as a reality from Him. And so, in the final analysis, what is being done, ironically, is a species of the theology being retrieved itself. It ostensibly imbibes a natural theology, as that is uncritically received as the just is mode of theological endeavor, only to find a theologian like Thomas Aquinas, the theologian of natural theology, and sees in him a patron saint of a long lost orthodoxy. And yet how ironic! Thomas Aquinas is a Roman Catholic theologian who thinks God from a theory of ecclesial authority that is itself funded not by a robust theology of the Word, but by a commitment to a philosophical notional construction of God known as the actus purus (pure being) tradition, in regard to thinking God and everything following.

I am here to help apply the brakes. I am a committed Protestant and Reformed Christian who maintains that a robust theology of the Word, that the ‘Scripture Principle’ ought to fund how a Protestant Christian does Protestant theology. To take on the baggage of Thomas’ synthesis of Aristotle, even if some Post Reformed orthodox theologians did this, is neither safe nor sound. And yet these various theologians are engaging in just this practice, and, apparently, unwittingly foisting Catholic theological categories upon their various students, and whomever will listen to their rallying cries on the highways and byways. I would simply ask you to reconsider the way they are taking you, and ask if maybe, just maybe, there isn’t a thread of Protestant historical development that doesn’t repose upon Thomas’ synthesis. There is; and that is exactly why this blog and our books came to exist. That is, to alert people to an alternative and genuinely Protestant, and dare I say, Christian way to think God. To think God in the way that we saw Bernard of Clairvaux thinking God earlier in this article. Both Luther and Calvin had Clairvaux’s christological concentration when it came to thinking God, and this is most surely at odds with Thomas’ synthesis and the repristinational effort currently underway by those noted (and others not).


[1] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo in nativitate Beatae Mariae: de Aquaducto, ed. J. Leclerq and H. Rochais, S. Bernardi Opera 5 (Rome: Cistercienses, 1968), 11 cited by Michael Allen in, Justification.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7