The Theologian versus the Philosopher: Bernard and Abelard



Saint Peter’s Square
Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two Theological Models in Comparison: Bernard and Abelard

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In my last Catechesis I presented the main features of 12th-century monastic theology and scholastic theology which, in a certain sense, we might call respectively “theology of the heart” and “theology of reason”. Among the exponents of both these theological currents a broad and at times heated discussion developed, symbolically represented by the controversy between St Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard.

In order to understand this confrontation between the two great teachers it helps to remember that theology is the search for a rational understanding, as far as this is possible, of the mysteries of Christian Revelation, believed through faith: fides quaerens intellectum faith seeks understanding to borrow a traditional, concise and effective definition. Now, whereas St Bernard, a staunch representative of monastic theology, puts the accent on the first part of the definition, namely on fides faith, Abelard, who was a scholastic, insists on the second part, that is, on the intellectus, on understanding through reason. For Bernard faith itself is endowed with a deep certitude based on the testimony of Scripture and on the teaching of the Church Fathers. Faith, moreover, is reinforced by the witness of the Saints and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer’s soul. In cases of doubt and ambiguity, faith is protected and illumined by the exercise of the Magisterium of the Church. So it was that Bernard had difficulty in reaching agreement with Abelard and, more in general, with those who submitted the truths of faith to the critical examination of the intellect; an examination which in his opinion entailed a serious danger, that is, intellectualism, the relativization of truth, the questioning of the actual truths of faith. In this approach Bernard saw audacity taken to the point of unscrupulousness, a product of the pride of human intelligence that claims to “grasp” the mystery of God. In a letter he writes with regret: “Human ingenuity takes possession of everything, leaving nothing to faith. It confronts what is above and beyond it, scrutinizes what is superior to it, bursts into the world of God, alters rather than illumines the mysteries of faith; it does not open what is closed and sealed but rather uproots it, and what it does not find viable in itself it considers as nothing and refuses to believe in it” (Epistola CLXXXVIII,1: PL182, 1, 353).

Theology for Bernard had a single purpose: to encourage the intense and profound experience of God. Theology is therefore an aid to loving the Lord ever more and ever better, as the title of his Treatise on the Duty to love God says (Liber de diligendo Deo). On this journey there are various stages that Bernard describes in detail, which lead to the crowning experience when the believer’s soul becomes inebriated in ineffable love. Already on earth the human soul can attain this mystical union with the divine Word, a union that the Doctor Mellifluus describes as “spiritual nuptials”. The divine Word visits the soul, eliminates the last traces of resistance, illuminates, inflames and transforms it. In this mystical union the soul enjoys great serenity and sweetness and sings a hymn of joy to its Bridegroom. As I mentioned in the Catechesis on the life and doctrine of St Bernard, theology for him could not but be nourished by contemplative prayer, in other words by the affective union of the heart and the mind with God.

On the other hand Abelard, who among other things was the very person who introduced the term “theology” in the sense in which we understand it today, puts himself in a different perspective.

(To continue reading, please see here).