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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.


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. Under the supervision of Prof Judith Wolfe, his graduate work focuses on the intersection between poetics and metaphysics. More broadly, Lance’s interests include Hans Urs von Balthasar, Eastern Orthodox theology, and questions related to the analogy of being.

This pieces was originally published by Eclectic Orthodoxy 

How being a ‘Pastor-Theologian’ Convinced Me that Theology is a Contemplative, rather than Practical Discipline

By Jared Mickelson

Being a minister while pursuing a post-graduate degree in systematic theology taught me that the end of theology is contemplative (or even speculative), rather than practical.

Medieval and Protestant Scholastics debated whether the primary end of theology is speculative, practical, affective, or—more commonly—some particular combination of the three. While this might appear to signal significant doctrinal divergence, when viewed from a perspective shaped by the assumptions undergirding theology in the modern university, one is more impressed by the (relative) scholastic unity rather than diversity. This is because a scholastic’s characterising of theology’s end as either speculative or practical, usually did not concern crude calculations regarding the quantity of space devoted to esoteric ruminations on the triune relations over-against passionate appeals for humanitarian action, but whether the final state of the blessed is better glossed as an act of speculative meditation, active adoration, or affective delight.[1] We might identify a shared affirmation that theology’s end is contemplative, concerning the eternal fulfilment of creatures in God, rather than immediately practical, terminating in the exercise of practical reason in the temporal sphere. Scholasticism was thus rooted in an Augustinian vision, which evinces “A conception of paradise [that] provides a sharp corrective to modern notions of spirituality, inasmuch as eternity will apparently be spent in the reflection on issues today considered purely technical.”[2]

Thus Stephen Long: “I defend a ‘speculative’ theology whereby the doctrine of God serves no interest because God is an end in God’s self and not a means to something else. God is to be enjoyed not used.”[3] Pastors addressing parishioners and academics appealing to university administers or grant instituting bodies, share a common struggle here, to maintain that the knowledge of God is not a means to some other good, but itself constitutes the final, blessed end of human creatures.

Kant in the Conflict of the Faculties, notes that “truth (the essential and first condition of learning in general) is the main thing, whereas utility…is of secondary importance.”[4] Truth, not utility, is the main thing, yet in the same influential essay, Kant relegates theology to the status of an authority based-discipline which cannot attain to questions of truth without stepping outside its restricted domain. Thus post-Kantian academic theology is tempted to justify its existence in the university by means other than the appeal to truth,[5] by appealing instead (for example) to theology’s supposed ability to illuminate the motivations of political actors with religious faith, or to elucidate intellectual history, or to remind other university faculties of questions of ultimate value. Yet this remains a temptation. Articulating theology’s ‘usefulness’ in terms of goods less ultimate than Augustine’s summum bonum, is a perilous reduction of theology’s own historical self-understanding by appeal to mere utility.[6] Truth is ‘the main thing,’ for creatures were made to know and love—and to be known and loved—by the triune God who is truth itself. Theologians—even academic theologians—either have some small role in fitting human creatures for that unspeakably glorious possibility, or are of all people most to be pitied.

This temptation facing the academic theologian is analogous to the challenge facing the minister, particularly the ‘pastor-theologian.’ The minister too is tempted to secure theology’s usefulness by demonstrating its practical utility in securing lesser goods than the summum bonum. Ministry is pressed by the immediate, by the repeated and unceasing insistence that every sermon, address, or homily, succinctly present an immediate point of action capable of being implemented by the close of the week. This preoccupation with the immediate, corresponding to the claim that theology—if it is to be of use to the church—needs be ‘practical’ or ‘relevant,’ paradoxically results in a constriction and diminishment of human personhood. For if the end of the rational creature is blessed fulfilment in contemplation of the living God, and theology—like Christian discipleship, spirituality, and liturgy—exists to form and fit creatures for that end, then to reduce the end of the knowledge of God to the procurement of lesser, more proximate goods, is to obscure the greatest good to which I might direct my fellow congregants. It is to treat them as lesser beings, intended for a more mundane end than that suggested to us by the gospel of God become man.

Yes, theology is practical, but derivatively so: “In knowing and loving God’s name for his sake we rightly order our loves….The goal is resting in God for his own sake; in attaining this goal, practical ends are wondrously achieved.”[7] Pastors and priests most of all, must insist upon a contemplative end for theology, because standing with those we serve amidst the heartaches and tragedies of life, forbids cheap consolation, and the summoning of our congregants to ends less glorious than knowing and loving God himself, for his own sake.

[1] For a more fulsome description, cf. Ulrich Gottfried Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 147-181. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), I, q.7, 1-15, p.20-23.

[2] A N Williams, “Contemplation: Knowledge of God in Augustine’s De Trinitate,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 131.

[3] Stephen Long, “The Perfectly Simple Triune God Symposium,” Syndicate, accessed October 22, 2018,

[4] Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 7:28.

[5] cf. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 104.

[6] Two inaugural lectures issue this clarion call, though in distinct ways: John Webster, Theological Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Edwin Chr. van Driel, “Gospeling: Paul, Protestant Theology, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,”, accessed October 22, 2018,

[7] Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden: Blackwell Pub., 2004), 22.


Jared is married to Becky and serves as a minister at Cornerstone Church in St. Andrews. His PhD research concerns the doctrine of divine attributes from scholasticism to modernity in the Reformed tradition.