“He annuled the curse, put an end to death, opened paradise, destroyed sin, flung wide the gates of heaven, and introduced there the firstfruits of our race”

When the ten disciples were indignant with James and John for separating themselves from their company in the hope of obtaining the highest honor, Jesus corrected the disorderly passions of both groups. Notice how he did it.

He called them to him and said: Gentile rulers lord it over their people, and holders of high office make their authority felt. This must not happen among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to be first among you must be last of all.

You see that what the two brothers wanted was to be first, greatest, and highest: rulers, one might almost say, of the others. So, revealing their secret thoughts, Jesus put a curb on this ambition, saying: “Whoever wants to be first among you must become the servant of all.”

If you wish to take precedence and to have the highest honors, aim for whatever is lowest and worst: to be the most insignificant and humble of all, of less account than anyone else; to put yourselves after the others. It is virtue of this kind that wins the honor you aspire to, and you have an outstanding example of it near at hand. “For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This is what will make you illustrious and far-famed. See what is happening in my case. I do not seek glory and honor, yet by acting in this way I am gaining innumerable blessings.

The fact is that before the incarnation and self-abasement of Christ the whole world was in a state of ruin and decay, but when he humbled himself he lifted the world up. He annuled the curse, put an end to death, opened paradise, destroyed sin, flung wide the gates of heaven, and introduced there the firstfruits of our race. He filled the world with faith in God, drove out error, restored truth, caused our firstfruits to ascend a royal throne, and gained innumerable blessings beyond the power of myself or anyone else to describe in words. Before he humbled himself he was known only to the angels, but after his self-abasement he was recognized by the whole human race.

St John Chrysostom

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“The mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death provides the inner line of tension, always a line of beauty, along which the world moves toward its transfiguration”

Glory’s traces and heaven’s anticipations are present extraliturgically in the devastation as well as, paradigmatically, in the liturgy, and these extra-liturgical traces are proper occasions for delight. Such traces are evident to most human creatures principally as beauty, and this is evident in the nonhuman world, animate and inanimate; in relations among human creatures; and in human artifacts.

That there are traces of the unfallen cosmos’ beauty in the nonhuman world is uncontroversial. Christians and pagans agree that the nonhuman world, animate and inanimate, is sometimes beautiful, and that delight is an appropriate response to that beauty, even though they disagree about how to describe and account for those beauties. Christians understand them to be a remnant of the ordered beauty of the cosmos, as an anticipation of that cosmos renewed as heaven, and always and essentially, as showing the world, no matter how damaged, to be created by the LORD, spirit-infused and spoken by the word.

Gerard Manley Hopkins provides an instance of response of this kind to the nonhuman world’s beauties that, though not typical in its own beauty, is entirely so in accounting for beauty by relating it to Christ.

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

The beauties in question are those of starlight and sunset and thunder. Hopkins kisses his hand to them, acknowledging and celebrating their beauty, delighting in it. But they are not delighted in as self-sufficiently beautiful things: the pagans can do that, and they do. No, they are referred beyond themselves. The “lovely-asunder / Starlight” is said to be “wafting him out of it,” and the “him” in question is Christ. The stars’ beauty shows his; they are beautiful because he is. He is “under the world’s splendour and wonder,” which means at least that he informs it, makes it what it is, and, to those with eyes to see, is evident in a veiled way in it. But the veiled must be emphasized, and Hopkins does that by writing that his (Christ’s) “mystery must be instressed, stressed.” “Mystery” here should be read as the whole mystery of the second person of the Trinity, which means, in Hopkins, as in Christian thought generally, not just the eternal begetting of the Logos by the Father, but also the sacrifice of the incarnate Son for the healing of the world and the culmination of that healing in the world’s renewal as cosmos. This mystery stressed the world in something like the same way that a geological fault stresses the rock in which it is found: the fault provides a line of cleavage along which future movements of the rock will occur, and the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial death provides the inner line of tension, always a line of beauty, along which the world moves toward its transfiguration. Inanimate beauty’s traces—stars, thunder, sunset—are the evidence of this stress, and for the evidence to be appropriated and understood, to whatever limited extent is possible, it “must be instressed,” which is to say intentionally participated in by the Christian, made into the fault line that orders the existence of the perceiver of inanimate beauty in the same way that it orders the beauty perceived.

Paul J. Griffiths

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“Time, now, is systolated—ruched, pleated, tensed, furled, crouched like a cat for the spring, tight-wrapped in grave-clothes like a corpse prepared for resurrection”

If creaturehood implies temporality, and if metronomic time belongs only to the devastation because of its intimacy with death, then there must be a kind of temporality that is not subject to the law of measure, and that therefore does not require death. This would be Edenic and heavenly time, which two need not (and indeed cannot) be identical with one another in every way, but must be so at least in this, that their temporality is not metronomic. How then to characterize Edenic and heavenly time? A good label for this, following a cue from St. Paul, is systolic time. The systole, physiologically speaking, is the regular contraction of the heart as necessary prelude to the driving of blood outward from itself; it is a contraction that prepares the organism for a movement essential to the sustaining of its life. To call time “systolic,” then, is to suggest that it is contracted, gathered, tensed, ready for life-giving action. This sounds mysterious; Paul will help us to understand it better.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, as part of a discussion of what the marriage practices of Christians should be now, since the ascension of Jesus, Paul writes that it is good for Christians to remain as they are with respect to marriage (if married, then married; if not, then not); and that there should also be changes in the way those states of life are lived—those who are married, for example, should live as if they were not. The reason for these changes is that time, now, is systolated (sunestalmenos)—ruched, pleated, tensed, furled, crouched like a cat for the spring, tight-wrapped in grave-clothes like a corpse prepared for resurrection, swaddled like a newborn being carried toward the baptismal font (1 Cor 7:29). The Greek verb here, sustellein, lies at the root of the English “systole,” which is among the reasons for choosing that English equivalent. In the Corinthian correspondence, the participle, when applied to time (kairos in this instance), does not mean that time has grown short, as most English renderings of this word have it. Paul is not grounding the claim that those who have spouses should live hos me, as if they did not, upon the claim that there is not much metronomic time left. That would be an uninteresting claim; it would mean that the principal reason for Christians to live differently is that metronomic time is about to run out, and that we should change because we expect its imminent end. This is the same pattern of reasoning that informs calculation about the dates of the rapture and the Parousia, and that supports throwing caution and money and spouses and jobs and children to the winds once the date and time of the metronome’s final tock is known, or thought to be known. I take Paul, and with him the Christian tradition in its more thoughtful moments, to be suggesting something more interesting.

What might that be? That the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. That time is contracted by those events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility. By and in those events, the events of the passion, metronomic duration, the regularly measurable fabric of timespace, is systolated: it has folds or gatherings in it because of its contraction. The principal fold is exactly that provided by the passion: there, time is folded most thickly, pleated most delicately and intricately, contracted—systolated—most tightly; there (then) eternity’s relation to the devastation’s metronomic death hammer is most intense and most transformative; it is that death hammer that drives the nails through the flesh of Jesus and the spear into his side, and it is the hyperdurational events that follow (death, deposition, burial, descent ad inferos, hell’s harrowing, resurrection, ascension) that remove them, and provide the necessary conditions for the casting of Christ’s blood out into the cosmos and into our hearts. The passion is to the fabric of timespace just as the heart’s systole is to our bodies. Time receives its proper order in the passion, and it is an order opposed in every significant way to the time of the metronome.

Paul J. Griffiths

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Preaching gospel: historical faith versus living faith

Back in 1999 there was great rejoicing among ecumenical folks (myself included) when the Joint Declaration on Justification was signed by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Almost 20 years later, it’s unclear whether it has made much difference to either ecumenical relations, theology, or the preaching of the gospel. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Doctrinal agreements of this sort do not appear to have significant ecclesial traction, despite the enthusiasm of those who have invested so much energy and heart into  their production. The Churches remain as separated as ever and preaching goes on as it ever has, for good or ill.

Given this failure, it behooves us to return to an essay written back in the late 70s by the Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson: “On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession.” Back then Jens was active in the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. He brought to the justification controversy a unique minority perspective. For him the question of justification by faith had little to do with theological formulae and everything to do with the preaching of the gospel. As he puts it:

“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that it must be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. (p. 159)

I have addressed Jenson’s hermeneutical construal of justification in multiple articles, both on Eclectic Orthodoxy and on my old Pontifications blog, and will not rehearse what I have already written. Here I wish to bring attention to one feature that is often overlooked—namely, the difference between “historical faith” and “living faith.”

Catholic theologians responded to the Lutheran assertion of the sola fide (as they understood it) by insisting upon the necessity of charity for justification. They invoked the formula: fides caritate formata, faith formed by love. It’s not enough to simply assent to the teaching of the Church, the Catholics declared. Even the devils believe yet are nonetheless damned (James 2:19). What is needed is personal transformation by grace, lived out in good works. Anything less is not genuine deliverance from sin. The reformers protested: this demand for justifying love generates either self-righteousness or terror. The salvation won by Christ on the Cross is an unconditional gift, and a gift can only be received by faith. As Martin Luther (in)famously translated Roman 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law.” And so the controversy continued for 500 years and perhaps still continues, despite the Joint Declaration.

The Reformation sola fide has always been vulnerable to the charges of antinomianism and cheap grace, and tens of thousands of words have been written to rebut the charges, not always convincingly. It is no easy matter to assert the necessity of justifying faith and not make it an anthropological condition for salvation. What precisely is faith and how is it not a work? If I need faith to be saved, how do I acquire it? It’s one thing to be told that my salvation requires giving alms to the poor (that is in my power), but it’s quite a different matter to be told that all I need to do is trust in Christ. How the heck do I do that? Trust is not something that I can just generate on my own. It either happens in the heart or it doesn’t. And my situation becomes dire if I am also told, as both Catholics and reformers rightly informed their hearers, that faith is an unmerited gift of the Spirit. This anti-Pelagian codicil, as Jenson calls it, casts me into the slough of despond. Am I one of the elect upon whom God has chosen to bestow justifying faith or not?

In the course of their defense of the sola fide, the reformers advanced an interesting distinction between historical faith and lively faith:

There is of course nothing wrong with the exhortation to love, even to love because we would be faithful. But if its slogan, fides caritate formata, is made the formula for what justifies, then in its churchly function it becomes a slogan for precisely what the Reformers attacked: a proclamation of Christ that turns into new exhortation and directs people back to their own fulfillment of—in themselves, necessary—moral and religious standards, to find therein the ground of their confidence before God.

If we turn now to the Reformers’ distinction between historical and living faith, we perhaps expect to find a similar pattern, with some personal quality—though perhaps, for example, sincerity instead of love—stipulated as a needed supplement to historical faith. But in fact the CA [Augsburg Confession] makes a wholly different kind of distinction: “historical faith” is apprehension of the mere “history” of Christ; “living faith” is apprehension of the promise made by those histories when proclaimed as done for us. If my faith is merely historical, the problem is not that I lack a personal quality but that the essential point of the gospel has not gotten through to me—perhaps because the Church did not make it. And thus we come to the true function of the Reformers’ distinction. The difference between historical and living faiths is not between two responses to one message, but between the responses to two different messages: “Christ died for the world, and now this is how you get into the result of his death” versus “Christ died and now lives for you.” (p. 159; emphasis mine)

It’s the difference, in other words, between the gospel proclaimed as conditional promise and the gospel proclaimed as unconditional promise. The former informs the hearer of the facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and summons him to perform the works he must to save himself. Let’s call this historical faith. As Jenson comments: “The Church’s discourse about Christ becomes merely historical speech about him, lacking any unique existential function, a transfer from one head to another of information which can be possessed without personal transformation” (p. 160). The latter opens the hearer to a life lived trusting and hoping in the risen Christ, now graciously present in Word and Sacrament. This is the lively faith that justifies, not as a condition to be fulfilled but as apprehension of the vivifying promises of the Savior. “Faith is a way of knowing,” explains Jenson, “formally determined by its object, promise” (p. 162).

It all comes back to the right preaching of the gospel. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant preachers attend: if the unconditional promise is never declared in the name of Jesus, how can there be lively faith?

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“The LORD does not love the deaths of any of his creatures, and this means that he also does not love their acts of slaughter”

It is Christian doctrine to say that the LORD is creator of all that is, visible and invisible, animate and inanimate. It is also Christian doctrine to say that the LORD acts only out of love because that, most fundamentally and essentially, is what he is. The LORD, then, not only creates the manifold kinds of plants and animals, but also loves them in their particularity—in their appearance, their constitution, their mode of reproduction, their complex symbiotic relations with other such kinds, and so forth. If this is so, and it is hard to see how it is not, and if it is also the case that animals and plants exist on this planet now in an unimaginable abundance of kinds, and that the variety now present is only a small portion of the variety that has been present in the past, then it must be said that the LORD is profligate in his creativity and promiscuous in his loves; he is profoundly and frighteningly excessive in both.

There is, however, one feature of the life of plants and animals here in the devastation that the LORD does not love. That is their ceaseless killing and being killed, eating and beating eaten, the shocking sharkish business that Herman Melville describes with such vividness in his depiction of the whaling trade: men hung and kill and slaughter whales, hoisting their steaming and bleeding corpses onto the decks of their ships even while sharks tear the whale-flesh from below.

Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties; and though sharks also are the invariable outriders of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic, systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere, or a dead slave to be decently buried; and though one or two other like instances might be set down, touching the set terms, places, and occasions, when sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whaleship at sea. If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.

Melville’s suggestion that seeing this shocking sharkish business can conduce to devil worship is entirely apposite, and we need to remind ourselves of it because ordinarily this circle of death appears natural to us. We might find it difficult to imagine how it might be otherwise, how the tiger might be other than carnivorous, how the mosquito might be other than a bloodsucker, how, even, the cow might be other than a grass-eater. But we should say, with as much clarity and precision and force as we can muster, that the sharkish business of blood and death is without remainder an artifact of the fall, the clearest evidence we have of the beautiful cosmos’ degradation into a bloody world. The LORD does not love the deaths of any of his creatures, and this means that he also does not love their acts of slaughter. And so, even though we cannot imagine what it might be like for plants and animals not to kill and eat, not to be killed and be eaten, we can and must say that this is what it will be like in heaven. Death is there removed not only for human creatures, but also, if there are any of them there, for all others. And that is because every artifact of the fall, every product of sin, is without remainder absent in heaven.

Paul J. Griffiths

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Saint Bonaventure as Entrance to the Tradition

by Lance Green

When I first read St. Bonaventure for a class on the doctrine of God, I was committed to a particular brand of Lutheranism with little fondness for metaphysics or participatory language. I was especially wary of any concept of the Tradition as a theological guide. But persistently nagging questions pertaining to the relationship between scripture, the creeds, and the theological-logic behind their formulations left me open to new ideas. St. Bonaventure was the catalyst for shifting my theological paradigm.

I was not looking to abandon the tradition I was baptized into. Luther’s maxim “crux sola est nostra theologia” was chiseled into my bones. Approaches to theology that did not rigorously cling to the cross at every turn were of no interest to me. Further, because I was formed by Lutheranism’s unequivocal commitment to the real presence of Christ in the eucharist and the efficacy of the sacraments, anything that did not affirm a sacramental paradigm seemed like a dead end. In no way did I feel the need to react or respond to my Lutheran tutelage; rather, I wanted to broaden those themes that rang most true.

My first read through Itinerarium mentis in Deum and Breviloquium was all at once destabilizing and deeply comforting. Encountering a rendering of the mystical ascent that was so thoroughly christological and trinitarian resonated with my Lutheran sympathies, and challenged my assumption that participatory theologies too easily ignored the crucifixion.

In what follows, I briefly explicate the themes in St. Bonaventure’s writing that most deeply correspond to my Lutheran roots: the crucifixion and resurrection as the center of both theological reflection and the mystical ascent.

Oriented Toward the Cross

One of the most impressive pieces of St. Bonaventure’s theology is his careful structuring of themes. His theological method and key insights are often interwoven within the very structure of the work. Indeed, the structure of Breviloquium is as theologically rich as his systematic treatments of the Trinity, sin, or christology.

To be brief: Breviloquium‘s seven parts coincide with the story of creation, beginning with its very grounding in the Trinity and ending with completion and sabbath. This chiastic structure is common to St. Bonaventure’s other writing, with each individual section framing the Seraphic Doctor’s overarching commitment to a cruciform theology.

Part 1: The Trinity of God
Part 2: The creation of the world
Part 3: Corruption of sin
Part 4: The incarnation of the Word
Part 5: The grace of the Holy Spirit
Part 6: The medicine of the sacraments
Part 7: The completion of final judgment

Parts 1 and 7 correspond in that the Trinity is the ground of creaturely existence, while the final judgment offers creation its completion. Similarly, Parts 2 and 3 explore God’s creative act and the predicament of human sin, setting up the necessity of the incarnation and the cross. Parts 5 and 6 explicate the healing of humanity through Christ’s sending of the Spirit and the sacraments. Structurally and theologically, then, part 4 implies Christ is the unifying principle, the pinnacle of the Breviloquium. As Joshua Benson aptly states, for St. Bonaventure, “The incarnate Word is expansively unifying in both the text and reality. He is that through which the world comes to be, comes to fulfillment, and humanity is healed; he is that through which these actions of the Triune God are communicated in scripture and expressed theologically” (“The Christology of the Breviloquium,” in A Companion to Bonaventure, pp. 256-257).

In the same way that Part 4 serves as the pinnacle of Breviloquium‘s structural movement, so does St. Bonaventure’s treatment of Christ’s passion serve as the crescendo of Part 4. Christ is the mediating principle between extremes, which means the hypostatic union mediates the extremes of both human nature and God’s nature. Though Christ has the “righteousness and blessedness” of God and the “passions and mortality” of humanity, he does not assume sin’s “corrupting penalties” (i.e., ignorance, bodily infirmity, malice, and concupiscence). As fully human, Christ can share in humanity’s suffering and death despite his inherent innocence.

St. Bonaventure affirms that while the divine nature of Christ did not suffer, he did experience in his human nature “the most all-encompassing passion, for not only every part of his body was affected, but every power of his soul as well. He suffered a passion that was most bitter, for beside the enduring the agony of his wounds he bore the added anguish of grieving for our sins.” The suffering of Christ, however, not only fits the form of God’s chosen mode of restoring humanity, but mirrors the inherent orderliness of creation itself. Thus, “God ought to restore humanity in a way that respects not only our free choice, but also God’s own honor and the orderly function of the universe.” Christ’s painful and sacrificial death, because of his perfect innocence, exemplifies virtue for humanity. And yet, his suffering and death satisfies humanity’s disobedience since there is no “better way to restore that honor [that is God’s] than through humiliation and obedience by one who was not bound to render it.”

That redemption comes with special attention to human agency and God’s honor fits with a larger harmony rooted in St. Bonaventure’s maxim, “contraries must be healed by their contraries.” Adam’s sin took a particular shape, spreading an infection to the rest of humanity that required a mirroring medicine. Adam eats from a tree and so Christ dies from one; the infection is universal and so Christ’s passion must equal the reach: lust healed by the bitterness of the passion, pride healed by the humiliation of the cross, and “as an antidote to a death deserved but unwilled, he chose to suffer a death underserved but freely willed.” Contrasting and restoring human death, then, is Christ’s divine nature. Since the human nature and body of Christ were united in the Word, the death suffered by the human nature “perishes to life.” “Thus,” St. Bonaventure states, “humankind has been freed from death and the cause of death by the most efficacious means: the merit of the death of Christ.”

In the last chapter of Part 4, St. Bonaventure explicates of the effects of Christ’s suffering, and how the redemptive passion and resurrection of Christ has a cosmological scope. His descent, ascension, and sending of the Spirit ground the virtues of faith, hope, and love. He preaches salvation in hell and leads the faithful beyond its broken doors into paradise. Ultimately, Christ’s purpose is to root our faith in the truth that he is both God and man, and seeks our redemption through his resurrection. But this purpose is complete only after a literal 36 hours in the grave to prove that he is truly dead. His ascension 40 days after his resurrection incites hope in the faithful for their future heavenly ends. And the Spirit that inflames love is sent 10 days later. All things are done in their proper time, reflecting a certain ‘fittingness’ to the passion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.

Theology so beautifully structured, whose pinnacle is Christ’s death and resurrection, is compelling to nearly every form of Christianity. St. Bonaventure’s theological method not only cemented my own love for christologically-centered theology, but broadened my interpretation of how the cross functions effectively in our lives. That the mystical ascent could be interpreted through a similarly fitting cruciform logic was wholly new to me.

“Love this Death” and Mysticism

In Itinerarium mentis in Deum, St. Bonaventure carefully details the mystical ascent after meditating on St. Francis’ vision of the six-winged Seraph. Broken into three distinct meditations, the journey has six divisions, culminating in a seventh and final ecstatic union. Beginning by contemplating God through the created universe and sensual world, the journey moves to contemplating God with the rational faculties of the soul, both unredeemed and redeemed. The third division centers on contemplating God as Being and Trinity.

Christ serves as a motif throughout Itinerarium, but the resurrection intentionally bookends the whole work. St. Bonaventure explains that it is the cruciform love of God that so inspired St. Francis. And though the six-wing Seraph symbolizes the six steps of illumination leading to God, “no one rightly enters except through Christ crucified.” Readers are invited to pray “through Christ crucified, through whose blood we are cleansed from the filth of vice.” At the end of the journey, the prayerful are once again faced with the crucified Lord.

What I expected from the notion of ascent was intellectual hubris—finite humans grasping the Being of God and somehow mastering it to form a metaphysics that affirmed their presuppositions about the world. Instead I encountered the humiliation of the cross, the intellect passing over into the God, and a posture rooted solely in prayer. Citing Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Bonaventure writes:

But you, my friend, concerning mystical visions, with your journey more firmly determined, leave behind your sense and intellectual activities, sensible and invisible things, all nonbeing and being; and in this state of unknowing be restored, insofar as is possible, to unity with him who is above all essence and knowledge.

I had never considered that the apophatic discourse of the mystical ascent, found only through prayer, was grounded and brought to fruition by the same thing: Christ crucified. To be united with the God beyond all things means to orient ourselves to the cross, praying with St. Bonaventure:

Whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live. Let us, then, die and enter into the darkness; let us impose silence upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings. With Christ crucified let us pass out of this world to the Father so that when the Father is shown to us, we may say with Philip: It is enough for us.

Conclusion

My unwillingness to charitably read many of the Church Fathers, mystics, or medieval theologians made me a poorer student of theology. Ignoring robust corners of the Tradition for so long only helped to solidify the blinders I wore. That there is a mystical theologian so concerned with emphasizing the cross helped to chip away at my presupposition. Reading St. Bonaventure ended up being an invitation to more carefully engage with the broader Tradition of the Church. Years after this first encounter, having now converted to the Orthodox Church, I can say that it was reading Breviloquium and Itinerarium mentis in Deum that began the process of broadening my horizons.

My intent, of course, is not to imply that St. Bonaventure is every Protestant’s gateway to Orthodoxy or the Catholic Church; rather, deeply cruciform mysticism expands on those themes that are fundamental to the early Reformers. Theologians committed to a charitable and eclectic reading of the Tradition may find a common ally in St. Bonaventure, perhaps leading to the broadened horizons for everyone willing to read, think, and pray along with the Seraphic Doctor.

* * *

Lance Green is a PhD student in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews. His graduate work focuses on the intersection between poetics and metaphysics; more broadly, Lance’s interests include trinitarian theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and questions related to the analogy of being.

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“He is leading forward His redeemed, He is training His elect, one and all, to the one perfect knowledge and obedience of Christ”

For in truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in Baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey His voice or not, He graciously calls us still. If we fall from our Baptism, He calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, He calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting-place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again,—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.

It were well if we understood this; but we are slow to master the great truth, that Christ is, as it were, walking among us, and by His hand, or eye, or voice, bidding us follow Him. We do not understand that His call is a thing which takes place now. We think it took place in the Apostles’ days; but we do not believe in it, we do not look out for it in our own case. We have not eyes to see the Lord; far different from the beloved Apostle, who knew Christ even when the rest of the disciples knew Him not. When He stood on the shore after His resurrection, and bade them cast the net into the sea, “that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord.” [John xxi. 7.]

Now what I mean is this: that they who are living religiously, have from time to time truths they did not know before, or had no need to consider, brought before them forcibly; truths which involve duties, which are in fact precepts, and claim obedience. In this and such-like ways Christ calls us now. There is nothing miraculous or extraordinary in His dealings with us. He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life. Still what happens to us in providence is in all essential respects what His voice was to those whom He addressed when on earth: whether He commands by a visible presence, or by a voice, or by our consciences, it matters not, so that we feel it to be a command. If it is a command, it may be obeyed or disobeyed; it may be accepted as Samuel or St. Paul accepted it, or put aside after the manner of the young man who had great possessions.

And these Divine calls are commonly, from the nature of the case, sudden now, and as indefinite and obscure in their consequences as in former times. The accidents and events of life are, as is obvious, one special way in which the calls I speak of come to us; and they, as we all know, are in their very nature, and as the word accident implies, sudden and unexpected. A man is going on as usual; he comes home one day, and finds a letter, or a message, or a person, whereby a sudden trial comes on him, which, if met religiously, will be the means of advancing him to a higher state of religious excellence, which at present he as little comprehends as the unspeakable words heard by St. Paul in paradise. By a trial we commonly mean, a something which if encountered well, will confirm a man in his present way; but I am speaking of something more than this; of what will not only confirm him, but raise him into a high state of knowledge and holiness. Many persons will find it very striking on looking back on their past lives, to observe what different notions they entertained at different periods, of what Divine truth was, what was the way of pleasing God, and what things were allowable or not, what excellence was, and what happiness. I do not scruple to say, that these differences may be as great as that which may be supposed to have existed between St. Peter’s state of mind when quietly fishing on the lake, or Elisha’s when driving his oxen, and that new state of mind of each of them when called to be Apostle or Prophet. Elisha and St. Peter indeed were also called to a new mode of life; that I am not speaking of. I am not speaking of cases when persons change their condition, their place in society, their pursuit, and the like; I am supposing them to remain pretty much the same as before in outward circumstances; but I say that many a man is conscious to himself of having undergone inwardly great changes of view as to what truth is and what happiness. Nor, again, am I speaking of changes so great, that a man reverses his former opinions and conduct. He may be able to see that there is a connexion between the two; that his former has led to his latter; and yet he may feel that after all they differ in kind; that he has got into a new world of thought, and measures things and persons by a different rule.

Nothing, indeed, is more wonderful and strange than the different views which different persons take of the same subject. Take any single fact, event, or existing thing which meets us in the world; what various remarks will be made on it by different persons! For instance, consider the different lights in which any single action, of a striking nature, is viewed by different persons; or consider the view of wealth or a wealthy man, taken by this or that class in the community; what different feelings does it excite—envy, or respect, or ridicule, or angry opposition, or indifference, or fear and compassion; here are states of mind in which different parties may regard it. These are broad differences; others are quite as real, though more subtle. Religion, for instance, may be reverenced by the soldier, the man of literature, the trader, the statesman, and the theologian; yet how very distinct their modes of reverencing it, and how separate the standard which each sets up in his mind! Well, all these various modes of viewing things cannot one and all be the best mode, even were they all good modes; but this even is not the case. Some are contrary to others; some are bad. But even of those that are on the whole good, some are but in part good, some are imperfect, some have much bad mixed with them; and only one is best. Only one is the truth and the perfect truth; and which that is, none know but those who are in possession of it, if even they. But God knows which it is; and towards that one and only Truth He is leading us forward. He is leading forward His redeemed, He is training His elect, one and all, to the one perfect knowledge and obedience of Christ; not, however, without their cooperation, but by means of calls which they are to obey, and which if they do not obey, they lose place, and fall behind in their heavenly course. He leads them forward from strength to strength, and from glory to glory, up the steps of the ladder whose top reacheth to heaven. We pass from one state of knowledge to another; we are introduced into a higher region from a lower, by listening to Christ’s call and obeying it.

John Henry Newman

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