Sunday, August 14, 2011

Martin Luther and Saint Bernard - Surprising Similarities

I have recently finished reading a book I bought from a gift shop at the famous Gethsemane Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, written by the German Catholic theologian Franz Posset is a study in the theologies of the last of the Church Fathers, St. Bernard, and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. As you may have guessed from my previous posts, I tend to focus on Christology through an ecumenical (particularly Lutheran-Catholic) lens to understand Christ and the Church in the modern world. Posset’s thesis is that Martin Luther, though a Protestant reformer, was greatly influenced by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century Cistercian. Although Luther eventually abandoned monasticism altogether, Luther was knowingly (and unknowingly) influenced by Bernard. Sixteenth century libraries, unlike libraries today, contained Bernardine works alongside pseudo-Bernardine ones, making difficult a correct understanding of the medieval saint. In addition to a handful of authentic Bernardine sermons, Luther leaned much about this Church Father from The Golden Legend written by the hagiographer Jacobus de Voragine and the Vita Bern. Posset breaks down Pater Bernhardus  according to the Reformation solas (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Evangelization Alone), and by comparing the two men, attempts to prove that the Reformation cries (the solas) were not Lutheran inventions but were sometimes adopted from Bernard’s own teachings, given nearly four hundred years earlier. Posset argues that Luther and Bernard hold in common what the author calls an “affective christocentrism.”  

When one reviews Luther’s deep appreciation of Bernard’s sermons on the advent, incarnation,  and passion of Christ, and of the bernardine concepts of contrition, humility, self-knowledge, God-knowledge, self-judgment, grace, faith, and Christ’s double right to heaven – which taken together we call his affective christocentrism – one can better understand why the reformer ranked Bernard ‘higher than any monk or priest on earth’ and could state unequivocally that ‘Bernard is above all the teachers in the Church.’(337).

Of course, Luther was not in complete agreement with Bernard, but hostility was often a result of a false understanding of the monk’s teachings, taken from pseudo-Bernardine sources. Interestingly, though an enemy of the cloister, Luther was more influenced by monastic tradition than he was by scholasticism, which Luther openly attacked shortly before his 1517 Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Martin Luther is certainly a complex character, one whom many people have attempted to understand. Like Bernard, de-mythologizing the life of Luther can be challenging.  Posset has also written a biography of Martin Luther (The Real Luther), another recent attempt to understand this complex man. Posset is convinced that Lutheran scholarship is still in its birth pangs because a huge aspect of Luther’s theology has been overlooked. By acknowledging Luther’s monastic influence, the author hopes that his books will help further ecumenical relations, help Catholics come to a better understanding of St. Bernard and his teachings, and help Lutherans come to a better understanding of the man they claim as the founder of their churches.  I will outline some of Posset’s arguments in the next post. It is not common for a Catholic theologian to invest so much time and effort into understanding the life of an excommunicated “schismatic”, but Posset hopes to help Christians approach ecumenical dialogue responsibly and honestly, with a good understanding of each other’s traditions.

Perhaps the bernardine/cistercian tradition is predestined – because of its specific bernardine spirituality and its affinity with Reformation concerns – to become the agent of further redintegratio between the two separated streams of western Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism. There is no doubt that ‘Bernard can be a meeting ground for catholic-protestant dialogue’. In the future, the two streams may again flow together to form one gospel-centered Catholic Church by reappropriating these two giants of western spirituality. (393-394).

I definitely recommend this book not so much because of its great writing style (the writing is okay) but because of its content and the questions that this book explores. Copies of this book are admittedly expensive though (I own a cheap, faulty copy), so I hope to comment further on this book in the future so that others too may feel inclined to join in the dialogue.

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