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.
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.
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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.