In the history of the church, one of the most famous conflicts was between St. Bernard (d.1153), the charismatic abbot of Clairvaux, and Peter Abelard (d.1143), the brilliant medieval logician and theologian.
St. Bernard thought that Abelard’s new approach to theology, an approach that emphasized dialectic (which means pushing objections in order to flush out more precise theological formulation), threw scriptural language into the background. St. Bernard did not want a church fed by treatises; he envisions the faithful feed by sermons profoundly saturated by scriptural language.
I’ve tried to follow St. Bernard by encouraging theologians to return to biblical commentary—for example, the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series.
But as I’ve thought more about St. Bernard and Abelard, I can see that perhaps I haven’t really understood the deeper issue, which is the relation of spiritual discipline to intellectual discipline. Reading St. Bernard, one can see that his deepest commitment is to the priority of spiritual discipline. Our love, for St. Bernard (following St. Augustine) is our weight, our center of gravity. And our love is not formed, shaped, and guided by syllogisms—at least not reliably, not consistently.
There is, I think, a larger truth here. The wise are not always clever, nor are the clever always wise. Wisdom has to do with a feel for life—its fragility, its possibilities, its integrity. This is especially true for theological wisdom, which concerns God, a fullness of truth at once far more alien than what is known by natural wisdom, and at the same time far more searching, more personal, and more penetrating. To receive divine truth the soul must be carefully cultivated with instruments of prayer and spiritual discipline that are more powerful than the intellectual tools of analysis and argument.
So I find myself somewhat chastened. Yes, I’m the general editor of a series of theological commentaries, even writing my own (Genesis). Yet I’ve come to see that it is possible to make scripture one’s focus, but do so under the guidance of Abelard’s spirit of intellectual rigor: parsing, arranging, analyzing. But St. Bernard has taught me that one must be romanced by scripture, one must fall in love with the divine Word, and that this theological love must be disciplined by prayer, liturgy, and church authority in order to become reliable rather than fickle. Only then will our intellectual prowess be put to good use.