With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Trinity, Christ, and History in St. Bonaventure (part I)

This is the first part of a paper I did a few semesters back for Cyril O’Regan’s class on the Trinity

I. Introduction:

Bonaventure, as a Trinitarian thinker, can be seen in many lights; as a champion of the Augustinian tradition, with ample regard for divine simplicity, unity, and the problem of appropriations; in another sense, as a unique integrator of eastern Trinitarian views into the western mindset, having been exposed to the rich Greek heritage “emanating” westward from such bountiful “fonts” such as Denys, Maximus, and the Cappadocians (through Eriugena)[i]. One may note as well his notably Franciscan spirituality: emphasizing poverty, humility, and Christ crucified, all likely deriving from the very wounds of his spiritual father Francis. And as a thinker interested in the ends of history, the great doctor shows signs not only of Augustine but even of the controversial vision of Joachim of Fiore, whom he (and the Church) criticized.
From this considerably rich deposit, consisting of some of the most intriguing and central issues to his theology, we can draw out two factors that definitively characterize his theology of history and its relation to the rest of his thought: his unabashed devotion to Christ and the fundamental relationship he draws between the Trinitarian processions and the created world. From these, one can see the role that the revelation of the Trinity has in relation to the unfolding of finite history. First we shall examine some foundational principles of Bonaventure’s Trinitarian thought (deriving key features from Neo-Platonic sources) that come to affect the status of the world and of history; and by then analyzing some notable characteristics of his vision of history in comparison to Joachim’s, one can see more clearly how his conception of the Trinity weighs upon and shapes the direction and path upon which the cosmos progresses toward its end; ultimately revealing not only the Christocentric aspects of the world and history, but also its fundamentally Trinitarian orientation.

II. Trinity and World:

The Triunity of God is revealed in Christian Revelation, and nowhere is Bonaventure so bold as to reduce the richness of that Revelation to a preambula fidei, that the intellect should have stumbled upon on its own. The Trinity does however express itself within human reasoning, weds itself to the rational, in the principle that the perfection of being entails a bringing forth of that which is of the same kind. Being in its height is ecstatic. The highest being requires the highest form of self-communication (which in Christian terms takes the form of an infinitely selfless love). Thus, Bonaventure’s “dynamic” vision of the Trinity, flowing from the “emanation tradition” of the Eastern Fathers: God is supremely dynamic insofar as the generation and diffusion of being from the Father (fontalis plenitudo) amount to eternal processes: generation of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. And yet Bonaventure (the good westerner that he is) does not shirk the unity of the Divine essence in favor of a Greek infatuation with Persons: he notes that because of God’s absolute simplicity, the self-communication(s) of this highest being must in some sense be compatible with divine unity. Both simplicity and the principle of a self-diffusive perfection of being characterize Bonaventure’s speculation upon the Trinity, and it is because of the former that one establishes an absolute uniqueness of God from other beings; and because of the latter that one can say the Trinitarian emanations are in a real sense “intrinsically necessary.”[ii] And as von Balthasar points out, it is the combination of Biblical Revelation and the Neo-Platonic principles that draws the self-diffusion of being up into the divine Being before all else: “The old Platonic axiom bonum diffusivum sui now in the light of Christian revelation no longer refers simply to God’s relationship with the world but to his absolute being itself…” He continues, drawing out the consequences of this move: “and this opens the way for an explanation of the structure that belongs to the natural kinds in the world, makes it possible to trace them back to their origin without absorbing them monistically into the rays of the light that is their source.”[iii]

In this application of the self-diffusion principle and its connection with the perfection of Being, one can see not only the “intrinsic necessity” of the Trinitarian relations, but also the necessity of the Trinity as foundation of the world and its relations. Because God is diffusive of created being only insofar as He is (as Father) diffusive of eternal emanations, there is no possibility of considering God’s relation to the world outside of or prior to God’s internal relation to Himself in the Trinitarian Persons. This is also evident in that, for Bonaventure, diverging from Augustine, the Greek preference for Persons commands an essentially un-Augustinian understanding of God’s relation to the world.[iv] God acts toward the world as He is in se, as Trinitarian. While for both Augustine and Denys, the Triunity of God is in many respects restricted to a divine height beyond expression in the world, for Bonaventure real expression occurs: “Rather, the Trinity is truly revealed in its overflow into the world (in creation and the Incarnation of Christ), and shows itself thereby to be the a priori ground of everything that exists in the world.”[v] The places of the Persons are preserved externally just as they are in the heart of God’s Being, and appropriation comes to signal the propria of the Persons in God’s communication of Himself: “This means nothing less than the grounding of the act of creation in the act of generation in the Godhead…”[vi] Bonaventure attempts here to forge a middle-way between subordinationism (the danger always lurking about the emanation tradition of the Greek Fathers) and a conflation of natural and supernatural.

The emanations within God, then, as eternal and infinite, become the exemplars which all external expressions image (i.e. creation). Bonaventure even holds that the many finite processions within creation all point to eternal processions. But for the Seraphic Doctor, the emanation of the Son is given a primacy as exemplar. In the generation of the Son, the Father expresses Himself: fully and completely, in all His power and capacity. In the Son the self-diffusion is relentlessly self-abandoning (yet not to the Father’s dissolution): for the Son is the perfect realization of the Father and His power in a way that no creature could achieve. And because the Father’s capacity in diffusion includes the capacity of everything real and possible, it includes all of creation as well. In the Son, the Father’s infinitely possible capacity becomes actualized perfectly. As von Balthasar writes: “If the Father has really given expression in the Son to His whole being and capacity, then in the Son everything that is possible through God has taken on reality: if anything else outside God is realized through God, it can have possibility and reality only through and in the Son.”[vii] For Bonaventure the second Person of the Trinity is therefore the archetype of the world, the exemplar of all creatures: to put it in Neo-Platonic terms (from which Bonaventure likely drew for much of his analysis of God’s relation to the world) the realm of the eternal or divine ideas of the created order is essentially swept up into the reality of the Son, such that all ideas of the creatures are eternally actual in the Son’s Being.[viii] Thus, as for Neo-Platonic philosophy (broadly speaking), the realm of these ideas contain a greater ontological density than the created “shadows,” the Son as perfectly embodying all of the Father’s capacity in creation marks a unique “place” in the divine being of exemplarity: such that, as emanation of creatures implies a certain “falling” in degrees of reality from the ideas, so too do creatures in their being descend from the (infinitely) ontologically richer reality of the Son. And as there is a built-in dynamism of reditus in the imperfect creature toward the ideal, there is thus an essentially Christocentric element to the dynamics of all creaturely being. There is an energetic eros in creatures to seek their perfection, their ideal; and this can only be found in the Son, in whom all of the perfections of creatures exist in actu. The Neo-Platonic cyclical “flow” is baptized here and shines forth the undeniable relationship that all creation has with the Son as exemplar; and thus the undeniable relation the Son has to all progression of creation toward God (including the mystical one).

The process of the world’s history is for the great doctor one such dynamic that is ultimately only conceivable as destined to the Son: “…we can affirm that the highest and noblest perfection in the universe is not attained until such a time as the nature that contains the germs that make for the spirits (rationes seminales) and the nature that contains the concepts of reason (rationes intellectuals) and the nature that contains the archetypical designs of the world (rationes ideales) are united to form one single person: and this happened at the Incarnation of the Son of God.”[ix] As we shall see, from this concept Bonaventure draws the conclusion that Christ is the “center” of all history.

A certain primacy is also given to the Son by Bonaventure with reference to the world in revelation. The Son, the Word, is the universal expression of the Father. The Holy Spirit is construed as the Father’s giving. Insofar as these notions are distinguishable, one can see how the primacy of second Person functions with regard to revelation. The Son is God as He is perfectly expressed, and thus this “manner” of being within the Godhead affords the Son’s appropriation of “truth” in its most fundamental sense. The Word is the dynamic revealing of the Father, and thus the entire substance of God perfectly outpoured (within Himself). And as we have seen, because He contains the fullness of the Father’s infinite capacities, the Son is at one and the same time the universal expression of all that is created. For Bonaventure, there is no expression or revelation of anything apart from the primal and eternal revelation of the Father in the Son. All created expressions can only express themselves because of that Original expression.

And the Son is not only the perfect “representing” of the Father, but also of the Spirit’s relation to the Father. In this sense, the Son is Himself the perfect “revelation” (if revelation has meaning within God) of the Trinity within the Godhead. And in terms of gracious revelation of God as three Persons, the perfect “witness” to the Trinitarian relations can only be He who is Himself the infinite expression of the three: “this witness (of the Father, Son, and Spirit) is expressed only by the Word, for the Word gives expression to the Father and to itself and to the Holy spirit, and to everything else.”[x] The Son gives expression to His begottenness from the Father as well as His spiration of the Spirit with the Father. No doubt here the notion of the “filioque” plays a key role in Bonaventure’s positioning of the Son as “unifying center between Father and Spirit”: who leads back to the Father and in that “leading back” (love) constitutes the spiration of the Holy Spirit. The Son, insofar as He is “God as truth” and thus is the expression of the Trinity itself, renders all revelation of the Trinity in history, covenant, economy, etc. of an intrinsically Christocentric nature. The fullest expression and revelation of the Trinitarian Persons, insofar as (following the Greek paradigm) they are expressed in the world as they are Personally, nevertheless are only so revealed through the second Person, and thus through Christ. The image of Christ, as we shall see, will function for Bonaventure as the truest image of the Trinity. Revelation of Trinity and its meaning for history centers around Jesus Christ.

The two complementary Christocentric notions of 1) the Son as exemplar of creaturely reality (rendering all reditus toward God inherently through Christ) and 2) the Son as supreme expression of the Trinity (rendering all Trinitarian revelation ultimately through Christ) are what give Bonaventure’s account of history its radically Christocentric flavor while at the same time and only in this way characterizing the fullest expression of the Trinity in relation to the destiny of the world. As will be illustrated, in Bonaventure’s account of history, the two “poles” of ascent through Christ and revealing through Christ intertwine and are joined in the one Person of Christ who, for Bonaventure, is the dramatic “center” of all history. By a brief examination of some features of Bonaventure’s theology of history, one will be able to see how these Trinitarian principles shape the theological account of the process of the world.

[i] Woo, Esther. “Theophanic Cosmic Order in Saint Bonaventure” in Franciscan Studies: vol. 31 annual IX. Franciscan Institute. St. Bonaventure, NY. 1971
[ii] Bonaventure. Interarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Mind to God). Trans. Boehner, Philotheus O.F.M. Indianapolis. Hackett Publishing, 1990. Chap. 6. 2
[iii] von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics vol. II: Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Style. Trans. Louth, Andrew. San Francisco. Ignatius Press, 1984. p. 285
[iv] This is not to suggest an incompatibility between a rich Trinitarian view of God’s relation to the world and Augustine’s “preference” for divine unity in the economy. Any way of phrasing the difference in the thinkers seems to fail in articulating their continuity…
[v] Ibid. p.261
[vi] Ibid. p.291
[vii] Ibid. p.292
[viii] Woo, p.308
[ix] Bonaventure. De Red. Art. 20: V 324b. cited in: von Balthasar, p. 309
[x] von Balthasar, p.290; cf. Bonaventure. Collationes in Hexaemeron: 9. 2

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  • At 3/08/2007 5:02 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I'm glad to see another post from you, and one of such a meaty topic at that! I was real surprised to find two posts -- one from you and one from Brendan, all appear on the same day. After the famine, I have had a feast!

    I have not posted for a couple weeks. I've been engaged with movie making (and learning how to do stop motion animation), and then I got sick. I have a piece I plan to write this weekend (continuing the themes I have been writing on of late) and I will hopefully be able to post it next week. I want both your post and Brendan's to recieve their proper due and for neither of them to get lost by posting too much too quick on the blog!

    St Bonaventure remains my favorite scholastic theologian, and the more I study his works and the controversies he dealt with, the more I find myself sympathetic to him and what he tried to accomplish. I especially understand why he grew more and more separated from academic theology.

    I was surprised you had not (yet) mentioned the Pope's great book on Bonaventure in this text; perhaps you will get to it, or perhaps when you wrote it you had not read it? IF you have not read it yet, you should -- it's one of the best presentations on Bonaventure's theology (not spirituality) that I have read, and it convinced me to buy St Bonaventure's Commentary on the Six Days of Creation.

    I'm looking forward to reading all that you wrote in this essay -- and I am glad you are posting it. I will await making further comments until I have read it all.

  • At 3/08/2007 9:03 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Haha, yes, I apologize for my absence. I've been reading all of your posts of course, but I was in London this past weekend and internet access is, well, "dodgey." I wanted to make sure I posted something, anything, before I jet off again: for the next three weeks I will be traveling around Europe, ending up in Rome for Easter. So I definitely won't have access to a computer in, say, Prague.

    I'm glad you're familiar with the Holy Father's work on Bonaventure. My entire point behind the paper was really an excuse to read his work on Bonaventure. But after days of searching for it in the ND library, it remained elusive! I felt almost dirty completing the paper without drawing from it! So while not unaware of Benedict's work on Bonaventure, it sadly makes no appearance. Mea Culpa!

    I should be able to post the second half by tomorrow, before I leave for the west of Ireland. And do keep up the good work.e

    Pax Christi,

  • At 3/08/2007 9:05 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 3/08/2007 10:25 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Great work. Trinitarian thought is like the "quantum physics" of theology...very complex, abstract, but very enriching as a pursuit. You treat it with a finesse very uncharacteristic for one so young.

    Hey, I was wondering if you're aware of two texts you might find intersting:
    First, "Theology and the Political, The New Debate" and second, "Between System and Poetics". The first, if I recall correctly, we may already have discussed a bit. Philip Blond's essay is particularly insightful, especially as a critique of the direction of phenomenology. The second is an entire volume dedicated to Desmond.
    Seen them?

  • At 3/10/2007 8:36 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Mr. Sammon,

    Many thanks. I recall talking about "Theology and the Political," but I haven't picked it up yet. It is now at the top of my list.

    "Between System and Poetics" I've known about for a while. When Desmond was at Notre Dame last year for a conference, I ran into a guy who studied at Leuven and, I believe, wrote an entry for the book (can't remember his name now). Anyway, he told me to look out for it. Last time I checked it was running at $90+ on amazon, so I think I may have to wait a while or dig around in libraries. Prof. O'Regan has an entry as well I think, so I might be able to bum a copy off of him.

    This will probably be my last comment before I go dark for a few weeks. I will be in touch once I return from the Continent.

    Pax Christi,


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