A theologian of grace par excellence

Aug 2012    

Bonaventure (1221 – 1274)

BONAVENTURE IS ONE of the most important theologians and spiritual writers in the 13th century. Born Giovanni di Fidanza in 1221, he entered the prestigious University of Paris in 1235 and came into contact with a group of mendicants known as the Franciscans. Impressed by their simplicity and embrace of poverty, he decided to join the Franciscans and in 1259 was elected as Minister General of the Order of the Friars Minor.

In Paris, he came under the tutelage of Alexander of Hales, who was a leading theologian in Europe at the time. In 1248, he was licensed Bachelor of Scripture and lectured on the Bible and on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a standard textbook in theology. In 1253, he was awarded a licentiate, and later in that year a doctorate. As Doctor of the Church, he had the right not only to teach in Paris, but in all of Christendom.

Bonaventure’s voluminous writings can be divided neatly into four categories. The first category, The Scholastic Treatises, comprises his theological writings during the period when he was teaching at the University of Paris (1248-57). The Spiritual Writings, which form the second category, are works produced when he served as the Minister General of the Franciscan Order. During this period (1259-1273), he continued to maintain ties with the university and offered numerous lectures on theological topics. This series of lectures (collationes) forms the third category of his works. The final category comprises his writings about the Franciscan Order. His writings testify to his tremendous contribution to the Church as theologian, mystic and spiritual leader.

Bonaventure is one of the most creative theologians in the Franciscan tradition. In the compass of this short essay, we will focus on his spiritual writings, especially on his understanding of the soul’s search for God. He is a theologian of grace par excellence. He sees the creation as infused by the grace and the goodness of God. Human existence therefore cannot be properly understood without taking into account the providential and salvific grace of God. Thus, Bonaventure begins his reflection on man’s search for God with the created order, which for him is a graced horizon. He teaches that human beings created in the image of God were originally endowed with a “triple eye”. The eye of the flesh enables man to see the world and appreciate its beauty. The eye of reason gives him the ability to understand the inner workings of reality. And the eye of contemplation opens him to the beauty and wisdom of God.

Sin, however, has brought about a serious distortion to the triple eye of the human person. Sin blurs his vision and produces a kind of blindness that prevents him from perceiving the beauty and meaning of the creation. But most tragically, sin has brought about a strange blindness that prevents him from seeing the wisdom and splendour of his own Creator. Because of sin our intellect is darkened, and we are enslaved by our senses and carnality.

Sinful man, writes Bonaventure, “is distracted by cares, clouded by sense images, allured by concupiscence, and thus totally lying in the things of sense”. In sin, we are lost, wandering aimlessly and asking questions the answers to which we shall never discover by ourselves. Bonaventure portrays the sinner not as someone who is dead, but as someone who is seriously maimed, unable to move and help himself.

In his fallen state, man can do nothing to save himself. For in the darkness of sin, the human being “does not see the light of heaven unless grace with justice comes to one’s aid against concupiscence and unless knowledge with wisdom comes to one’s aid against ignorance”. “All this,” asserts the Franciscan theologian, “is done through Christ.” Thus, only in Christ can the blindness of sinful humanity be healed and its sight restored. Only through Christ can the sinner see once again the beauty of the created order and perceive through it the very beauty of the Creator.

Only through Christ can the human being come to the knowledge of God that leads to devotion. The saving grace of God that Christ has made available “reorders” our disordered souls. The soul recovers its spiritual senses, and is once again made capable of communing with God:

When by faith the soul believes in Christ as the uncreated Word and Splendour of the Father, it recovers its spiritual hearing and sight: its hearing to receive the words of Christ and its sight to view the splendours of Light. When it longs in hope to receive the inspired Word, it recovers through desire and affection the spiritual sense of smell. When it embraces in love the Word incarnate, receiving delight from him and passing over into him through ecstatic love, it recovers its sense of taste and touch.

Bonaventure was a medieval theologian who developed the idea of the spiritual senses found in the writings of Origen.

For him, the Christian life is a Christ-centred life. It is an eucharistic life, a life of thanksgiving to God for what He has done for us in Christ. In offering counsel to a Poor Clare nun on how to make progress in the spiritual life, Bonaventure writes movingly and beautifully:

Your heart is the altar of God. It is here that the fire of intense love must burn always. You are to feed it everyday with the wood of the cross of Christ and the commemoration of his passion … Let your love lead your steps to Jesus wounded, to Jesus crowned with thorns … there transformed into Christ by your burning love for the Crucified … transfixed by the sword of intimate compassion, seeking nothing, desire nothing, wish for no consolation other than to be able to die with Christ on the cross. Then you may cry out with the Apostle Paul: With Christ, I am nailed to the cross. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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