Love: Bernard of Clairvaux

​When we come to Bernard (1091-1153), we arrive at the highest point so far in church history with respect to a Christian theology of love.  He not only incorporated everything we have looked at previously, he also added new brush strokes to the canvas.

Like those before him, Bernard saw the primacy of God’s love: “It is so important for every soul among you who is seeking God to realize that God was first in the field, and was seeking you before you began to search for Him….He loves both more than you love, and before you love at all.” [1]  Here Bernard is echoing St. John’s words, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

With the primacy of God’s love established, Bernard went on to describe our love to God in four degrees. [2]  In the first degree we love ourselves for our own sake.  And while this is the lowest degree of love, Bernard believed it was a sign of the naturalness of love and a recognition of the imago dei.  This is the level of love charscterized by appreciation.

The second degree of love is loving God because God is useful to us.  In this degree, we do not love God for who God is, but for what God does.  This too is genuine love because it shows we recognize that God is the Source of all goodness and the giver of good gifts.  This the level of love characterized by thanksgiving.

Even though the first two degrees of love are genuine, it is in the third degree when we enter the level of loving that God has in mind for us: loving God for who God is—loving God’s being apart from God’s acts.  This is love characterized by adoration.

The fourth degree of love is one Bernard believed existed, but felt it is rare compared to the first three degrees.  The fourth degree is loving God alone, with no regard for our self on the one hand or God’s gifts on the other.  It is higher than adoration because even in adoration we remain conscious of our self.  In the fourth degree, we transcend the self and dwell in the love of God alone—what Charles Wesley called being “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” [3]. This is love in which God is the sole focus of our life.

The fourth degree is difficult to describe because words cannot grasp it.  One word Bernard used to point to it is ‘harmonization.’  The fourth degree of love is an experience of deep oneness—akin to Paul’s words, “for me to live is Christ” where even the attempt to distinguish our being from God’s being diminishes the love experience. In this degree of love, the union of our spirit with God’s Spirit is so complete that it is pointless to speak of them as separate.  In God we are also most in our true self. [4]

The four degrees of love root Bernard in the mystical tradition, but the love he described did not make him so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good.  Quite the contrary.  He also lived in and taught the importance of the second great commandment. The love of others meant that whatever love we experience on the mountaintop must be lived in the valley.  For Bernard, love is not only contemplative, it is active.

His image to describe this was the reservoir. It fills first, but only in order to give out. Bernard wrote that our desire to be “shown God’s holy Will at every moment [is so] that He may tell us what to do and how to do it.” [5]  Love is obedience and service.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Bernard’s theology of love became the reference point for subsequent Christians who sought to make love their aim, and today his views still shape a theology of love that aspires to love “God alone,” and in doing so, acts to love others as an agent of God’s love.


[1] ‘Bernard on he Song of Songs’ (Mobray & Company, 1952), 261.

[2] E.G. Gardner, tr., “The Love of God,” ‘ Book of St. Bernard’ (Dutton, 1915).  It remains available in multiple editions and formats.  

[3] Hymn, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling”

[4] This does not mean the God/human distinction disappears.  Even our deepest love recognizes that God is God, and we are not.  But in the fourth degree of love, the need to spend time figuring out “what is God” and “what is me” is set aside in a pure experience of being loved and loving.

[5] ‘Bernard on the Song of Songs,’ 184.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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