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Bernard of Clairvaux
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Fiery Preacher: Bernard of Clairvaux

By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
Guest Writer - Igniting flames of revival across Europe, Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most powerful preachers in two thousand years of Christian history. Passionately in love with Christ, he proclaimed a message of God’s grace and called people to turn from temporal pleasures to pursue a vital relationship with the Lord. That message set ablaze fires of renewal that brought tens of thousands to repentance in a medieval spiritual awakening little known in our day.

A colorful personality who towered over the twelfth century, Bernard was the most prominent figure of his day and one of the most influential Christian leaders of all times. He discipled numerous young men who were wholeheartedly following Jesus, one who became Pope Eugenius III. Across Europe he established Cistercian monasteries which became centers of genuine faith and conduits of spiritual regeneration for the surrounding countryside. His writings led many to Christ during his lifetime and sparked a series of revivals that would sweep Europe over the next three centuries.

Remarkable Ministry

Born in 1090 into the minor nobility of Burgundy, France, Bernard enjoyed a good education and position of privilege. At the age of twenty-two he abandoned the life of comfort to join the newly founded Cistercian Order. Always a charismatic figure followed by others, Bernard brought thirty men with him to Cîteaux—an uncle, four brothers and some twenty-five young nobles. Just three years later Bernard was asked to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, where he remained as abbot until his death in 1153.
Bernard traveled the countryside of Europe, preaching the gospel. Through his ministry, throngs of knights renounced their destinies of glory, warfare and carnal living in order to make a life-transforming commitment to Christ. Pursuing the Lord through the standard means in the day, these new believers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, joining the Cistercian Order, where they could be discipled and learn God’s Word.

Over the next thirty years, Bernard founded sixty-eight new Cistercian communities that functioned much like Christian colleges in our day—teaching Scripture and molding Christ-like character. Supervising these communities, as well as their daughter houses, Bernard eventually oversaw 164 centers.  He personally mentored many young believers and trained new leaders for these monastic houses. In his vast correspondence, he corrected bishops, popes and kings, calling the powerful in the church and state alike to genuine faith and godly leadership.

Always zealous for the Lord, Bernard did not shy away from controversy. In vigorous debate he confronted compromise in the church, especially the growing rationalism of his day that he saw in the universities. He also summoned the nobility of Europe to unite against the military threat of Islam. Above all, Bernard tirelessly preached the gospel to his generation.

Biblical Message

Scripture saturated Bernard’s preaching and writing. When we read his works, we find a quote or allusion to God’s Word is nearly every sentence. Bernard loved Scripture! He had read the Bible—and virtually memorized so many passages—that his message radiated God’s Word.

First and foremost, Bernard charged his hearers to repent and turn from worldliness to a total commitment to Christ. Calling for authentic conversion, Bernard renounced the nominal Christianity that he saw among clergy and laity. His booklet entitled “On Conversion” confronted sin head-on and declared that conversion is absolutely essential for sinners.

Bernard allowed no lukewarm or halfhearted faith in the Cistercian movement, which he helped to spearhead during his lifetime. He wanted to ensure that anyone joining a Cistercian community was soundly converted and passionately pursuing Jesus. Similar to missionary movements and campus ministries of our time, the Cistercians constituted a cadre of radical servants of Christ in the twelfth century.

Intimacy with Jesus

Conversion, for Bernard, meant not simply renouncing the world—it ushered believers into a deeply personal friendship with Jesus. This relational emphasis made Bernard’s message revolutionary in the Middle Ages. While scholastic theologians were debating abstract theology, Bernard insisted on practical application of the Bible in each believer’s life. Although an eloquent author in Latin and a gifted scholar in his own right, Bernard brought Scripture down to earth on an individual level for each believer and his or her relationship with God.

Rather than using terminology of “personal relationship” with the Lord, as we might today, Bernard portrayed our relationship in terms of bride and bridegroom. Employing the imagery of marriage, Scripture presents Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom and the church as his bride (Eph 5:25-33), being prepared for the great wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13; Rev 19:7-9 and 21:1-27).

In his writings, and especially in his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard personalized this reality and welcomed each believing soul to see itself as Christ’s bride and receive the Lord’s tender touch. [1] Sometimes referred to as bridal spirituality, this message invited men and women alike to experience the closest possible relationship with their Savior. The final goal of Bernard’s whole ministry was to bring hungry souls into true intimacy with Jesus.

God’s Love

Central to all of Bernard’s writing is the love of God. It could be said that “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) functions as the key verse in all that the Abbot of Clairvaux says. To this point in the Middle Ages, the church had painted Christ primarily as the vengeful King coming to condemn the ungodly on the Day of Judgment. Bernard presents the rest of the story—portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd whom the Father sent into the world to save the lost and dying. While Bernard never waters down the call to conversion, he makes Jesus approachable and offers grace to those drowning in their sin.

In his work, “On Loving God,” Bernard asks: How much did God love us? He answers with a tour-de-force of passages from the New Testament:

St. John says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). St. Paul says, “He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son, too, said of himself, “No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). [2]

Throughout his writing Bernard emphasizes God’s love and maintains that salvation is entirely by God’s grace. He makes it clear: salvation is by grace alone, not by anything that we could ever do or earn.

In response to God’s love for us, we love him, desire him and seek him with our whole heart. The forgiven soul, says Bernard, “seeks eagerly for his Creator, and when he finds him, holds to him with all his might.” [3]

Lasting Legacy

Bernard of Clairvaux’ preaching and ministry ignited a remarkable revival in his day which ushered untold numbers into a personal relationship with Jesus. His message continued through his writings and fueled spiritual renewals with the Beguines, Francis of Assisi, Friends of God and others over the following centuries. Because of the abbot’s emphasis on grace and his love for Scripture, Luther and Calvin appreciated his contribution to the church. To this day Bernard’s invitation resounds, calling Christians to a radical commitment to the Lord and welcoming us into intimate fellowship with Christ.

Purchase Glenn's book: Seeking Spiritual Intimacy

1 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Kilian Walsh, 4 Vol. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976).

2 Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 175.

3 Ibid., 176.

Also by Glen Myers:

The St. Francis Revival

How Medieval Women Kept Revival Alive

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Learn more at Glenn's Blog:

More Church History on Spiritual Life

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Glenn E. MyersGlenn E. Myers is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. His passion is introducing contemporary Christians to the wisdom, depth and vitality of spiritual leaders from the past two thousand years of the church. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as a pastor, a missionary and a professor.

In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Currently Glenn serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offers retreats and provides spiritual direction. He is a contributor to Zondervan Press’ forthcoming Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. His book on the remarkable believers called Beguines, Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith, by InterVarsity Press, will be in bookstores in Spring, 2011. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog:

© 2010 by Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.

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