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

Friday, March 09, 2007

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

III. Trinity and History[i]

Theological thought about the progression of history had been taking place in Christendom at least since the time of Augustine. However, in Bonaventure’s age, there was no theologian of history as influential and controversial as Joachim of Fiore. The abbot Joachim borrowed from Augustine’s analysis of history the scheme of the seven ages corresponding to the seven days of creation. But he broke with Augustine insofar as, for Joachim, the seventh and final age takes place in history, rather than beyond it in eternity. The sixth age is marked by the passion of Christ, and the seventh is the age of the Spirit and of a worldly, contemplative peace.

For Joachim, history and the cosmos exhibit an essentially Trinitarian structure. The procession of history is the milieu in which the interpersonal relationships of God are reflected. The seven ages, like the Trinity, have “inner relations that give history an organic dynamic and character of its own.”[ii] Thus, because of the Trinitarian relations, history takes the shape it does.

The abbot divides his account between multiple patterns within history: most notably the
prima diffinitio” and the “secunda diffinitio.”[iii] The prima diffinitio is the pattern of three unfolded in the social structures of the church that progress through the ages. Each of three ages is characteristically associated with a social vocation (married life, clergy, and monasticism) and a Person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit, respectively). In the final age, the age of the Spirit, the climax of history will issue in the perfect communion of spiritual men in an order of monks, living in contemplative peace. The goal of which is a society that in its communitarian love, images the Trinity socially.

The secunda diffinitio begins with two tempora of history (Old and New Testaments) beginning with Adam to the end of history, dividing the periods at Christ, who stands between as the turning point. The perfection of the New Testament time, as with the third age of the prima diffinitio, is found in a world dominated by the “viri spirituales” who derive from both periods (essentially monastics). The Trinity is exhibited in this second schema insofar as each tempora is formed by the double procession of the Holy Spirit: the first (Old Testament) from the Father’s sending of the Spirit; the second (New Testament) from the Son’s sending of the Spirit. Here, one can see that the image is imperfect, because the spiration in the immanent Trinity is one and eternal from Father and Son together. But as some scholars like E. Randolph Daniel argues, the final age for Joachim can be considered Christ’s insofar as the Spirit (who is unquestionably the dominant player in it) perfects the mystical body of Christ by uniting the various orders within the Church into a plurality in unity, thus forming the perfect image of the Trinity.[iv] In any case, one can see that for Joachim, the Spirit plays the primary role in revealing the Trinity within history: “As one who is sent by two, he could complete the self-revelation of God within history.”[v] And as the one who forms the viri spirituales, he can be seen to function with a primacy in the ascent of man and history to God. The Son, on the other hand, marks a turning point in the process of history, and rather than fully express the Trinity in His Person, He cannot Himself come to full expression in History until the Spirit completes His mystical body in the final age.

For Bonaventure, history and the cosmos exhibit a much more Christocentric structure. But as I mean to show: they are Trinitarian just insofar as they exhibit the Son. Daniel argues that Bonaventure breaks definitively with Augustine’s approach to history, and adopts a theory that closely resembles Joachim’s secunda diffinitio.[vi] Indeed, such an argument is convincing, and even Bernard McGinn suggests that Bonaventure, despite his criticism of the Joachite Trinitarian views (not insignificant for this discussion), displays an “original rethinking of the Joachite tradition” which fused “Joachite eschatology, Franciscan spirituality, and Scholastic passion for order.”[vii] Bonaventure’s two major influences with regard to his theology of history are no doubt Augustine and Joachim, and the degree to which each impacted his thought is difficult to fully realize. He follows Augustine in adopting the seven-day structure[viii]; he follows Joachim in 1) restricting the seventh age to an eschaton realized within history; 2) seeing the process of history in light of a Trinitarian exemplar; and 3) views the final age as one of a contemplative peace brought about through “spiritual understanding.”[ix]

Yet, unlike Joachim, Bonaventure’s account is unapologetically Christocentric. The whole of the world’s history is oriented to and centered on the Incarnation of the Son. Christ is the “center” of Scripture, time, and history: and therefore the consummation of everything within the course of the cosmos is found in Christ. Thus, the cosmos itself is brought to the completion of its creation only through its relationship to the Incarnation: “The first principle acting as restorer brought about the final completion of the universe.”[x] Here one can see the principle of the Son’s exemplarity, and the world’s dynamism through Him, shaping the relation of history to God.

We have seen that just as the Son contains within Himself the actuality of all creaturely perfections, both the world and the individual soul find their consummation in and through the Son. Because of this, scholars like Daniel and Delio have argued that one must view Bonaventure’s theology of history in the light of the mystical ascent of the Itinerarium. As Daniel has held, the Itinerarium is essentially a commentary on the theology of history found in the Hexaemeron (even though it predates it by 14 years).[xi] From the union in Christ of all worldly perfection, both whole and individual, God establishes a relationship of the soul to the world: the soul is a “microcosm” of the world, because both are ordered to Christ as the center.[xii] The destinies of the soul and of history intertwine, and can be seen in light of each other. One can see the structural similarities: in the journey of the soul, one ascends through six levels of purification and illumination (wings of the seraph) before the mystical peace that is union with Christ, while history flows through six ages (six days) before the seventh age of mystical peace; the soul’s ascent is to Christ, the Son, crucified before the believer, while history lusts for Christ as the fulfillment of all time; and the progress of the soul’s ascent is marked by levels of knowledge issuing in a love that exceeds knowledge, while the peace of the seventh age will be marked by a transition from knowledge to “spiritual understanding.” As Delio notes: “Because the journey of the soul recapitulates the journey of the world, Bonaventure indicates that both the soul and the world are destined for spiritual marriage with Christ.”[xiii]

Thus, for Bonaventure, the destiny of history is essentially Christocentric but also essentially mystical. It is the ascent of the spiritual men in Christ that ushers in the final age and thus facilitates the fulfillment of time. But while following Joachim in emphasizing the contemplative nature of the final age, Bonaventure reinterprets the concept of the viri spirituales: for Joachim, the peace of the seventh age comes by way of a future order (or orders) of contemplatives sent by God into time, which he associates with the angel of the sixth seal from Revelation 7: 2; for Bonaventure, the spiritual man is in fact Francis. Thus, the inhabitant of the final age of mystical peace is the poor mendicant who was struck with the stigmata and taken into holy ecstasy. This means that, in light of the overpowering spiritual influence of Francis, Bonaventure’s “spiritual man” is a state realizable now, not in a future age.[xiv] The seventh age takes on a parallel place in history, not a successive one. Francis, in his wounds and his exemplary Christian life, shows that the final age of mystical peace is attainable in the present. Thus, one’s mode of access to this state is not one’s place in a divinely ordained monastic order, or waiting on a future action of the Holy Spirit, but mystical union with the crucified Christ. Here, Bonaventure’s novelty is recognizable: he goes beyond Joachim in attributing the attainment of the future age to a mystical union with the Son. This, as shown in Francis’ spirituality, meets the criteria set out by Bonaventure’s Trinitarian meditations: that one’s progression toward God will be marked with an essential Christocentric element.

Because union with God (as union with Christ) becomes the hermeneutic through which the process of history comes to fulfillment, and because it also marks the immediacy of the final age for spiritual men (such as Francis), the progression of both the soul and history will be realized in the image of Christ: in other words, the signs of such progression become the signs of conformity to the crucified Christ. The perfection of the final age is no longer simply an image of a social Trinity (as with Joachim), but rather the comprehensive conforming of oneself to the Cross of Christ: meaning also the embodiment of God’s love unto death, and even the physical sign of the stigmata (which the age of the Spirit cannot itself usher in). Body and spirit are joined to Christ, and the final age is now marked by the suffering humanity of Christ. The glory of history is reinterpreted as crucifixion with Christ, just as in the Itinerarium the final stage is an ecstatic love only achieved through abandoning oneself to the Cross of Christ.[xv] All of these examples exhibit what occurs for Bonaventure’s spiritual man: such signs show one’s re-orientation in the image of Christ.

It is the concept of the image that, for Delio, marks the underlying difference between Joachim and Bonaventure. For Joachim the revelation of the Trinity in history is exhausted in the community of spiritual men and does not depend upon a fundamental Christocentricity. For Bonaventure, any image of the Trinity can only truly come by way of the image of the Son. As was shown earlier, the Son is given primacy not only as exemplar (all return through Christ) but also as the expression of the Trinity. While the vestiges of the Trinity abound in the world, not even these can ultimately be taken or understood apart from the infinite expression of the Son, and in the end the Trinity is only perfectly revealed by and in the Son. “The appearance of Christ in the final age means the realization of the kingdom; unity in the body of Christ, who is in union with the Father, will bring all those united to Him into the oneness of the Father and Son.”[xvi]

Thus, as noted earlier, the two functions of the Son as exemplar and expression shape the progress of history toward its destiny as well as the revelation of the Trinity within history. The former constitutes the necessarily mystical character of the cosmos as it moves toward its fulfillment in Christ, while the latter establishes the centrality of Christ (even Christ crucified) as the truest image of the Trinity in history. One can argue that these two, as united in Christ, are themselves intertwined: one can only come to the fullest revelation of the Trinity that comes by Christ when one is in ascent toward Christ, remade in the image of Christ, and thus mystically united to Him (since union with Christ is also union with the Father and Spirit to whom He is united, beyond any “knowledge”).[xvii] One might argue that the truest revelation of the Trinity as Trinity within history is found only in one’s participation in the destiny of that history: Christ reveals the Trinity all the more in uniting us to “It,” by uniting us to Himself (even on the Cross). Ultimately, the Christocentric character of history and the cosmos can only end in union not just with Christ (who is the rightful exemplar), but with the entire Trinity, thus revealing even more the Trinitarian structure of history.

In the end, (as Delio argues convincingly), and as I’ve attempted to show, the different accounts of history found in Joachim and Bonaventure respectively derive from two distinct understandings of the Trinity. Delio suggests that while Joachim employs a fundamentally Augustinian conception of the Trinity and views history as “a multi-dimensional pattern of relationships that reaches its consummation in perfect unity-in-diversity,” it is Bonaventure’s preference for the eastern model and the self-diffusive Good that allows him to view Christ as the mediator between Father and Spirit and the center of history, “the center of emanation and return in creation.” She concludes: “The two distinct theologies of the Trinity, therefore, may give rise to two distinct eschatologies, one prophetic in nature and Trinitarian in image, the other mystical in nature and Christoformic in image.”[xviii] Bonaventure’s account of the Trinity allows not only for the expression of the Trinity as Trinity externally, but also allows for the Son’s unique place as the mediator of that revelation. And this function of the Son is united in Christ with His role as exemplar of creation, producing an intriguing complementary relationship between the soul’s (and history’s) ascent to God (in Christ) and the revelation of Triunity (in Christ). It is this interplay that seemingly protects Bonaventure’s “eastern” account of the Trinity from being overly economic in nature, such that problems of subordinationism and tri-theism would become problematic. For there is no pure “diffusion” of the three Persons in history to the human intellect, no unqualified revelation. For Bonaventure, any revelation of Trinity in the economy, in a sense open to metaphysical speculations and judgments, is always continuously purified and surpassed until they are succeeded altogether by the paradigm of union. Because Christ is both telos of creaturely ascent and expression of the divine, there is no revelation of the Trinity that does not accompany a transformation in the receiver via union, in love that surpasses knowledge. Thus, the preference for the economic (as three) does not exclude or disregard an understanding of the immanent Trinity, but is only ever revealed in/through the believer’s mystical ascent: because the milieu in which revelation occurs is always in a world and to a soul that are both already dynamically progressing toward God the Son (in their very being). Thus the Trinity’s economic revelation cannot be seen outside of the mystical progress of men towards God, and ultimately, cannot be properly conceived apart from the “burning love of the crucified.”

[i] For this section, I am greatly indebted to the work of Ilia Delio in her “From Prophecy to Mysticism: Bonaventure’s Eschatology in Light of Joachim of Fiore” in Traditio. vol. 52, 1997: p. 153
[ii] Delio, p. 154
[iii] Ibid. p. 156
[iv] Cited in Delio, p. 156
[v] Delio, p. 158
[vi] Ibid. p. 159
[vii] McGinn, Bernard. “The Abbott and the Doctors : Scholastic Reactions to the Radical Eschatology of Joachim of Fiore” in Church History. vol. 40. 01. 1971: p. 43
[viii] Bonaventure. Breviloquium. Trans. de Vinck, Jose. Paterson, N.J. St. Anthony Guild Press, 1963: IV, chap. 4
[ix] McGinn, p.43
[x] Breviloquium. IV, chap.4: p. 154
[xi] Cited in Delio, p. 160
[xii] Ibid. p. 160; cf. Hexaemeron. I, 11
[xiii] Delio, p. 162
[xiv] Ibid. p.164
[xv] Itinerarium. Chap.7
[xvi] Delio, p.173
[xvii] Itinerarium. Chap. 7. 5
[xviii] Delio, p. 176

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  • At 3/09/2007 3:26 PM, Blogger sjw said…

    I'm interested in William de la Mare, Franciscan Master in Paris 1274/5, who is described as a Bonaventurian. I found your piece very useful. Thanks.
    Steve, Bedfordshire, UK.

  • At 3/10/2007 6:18 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    A very well written work. More than anything else, my comments are upon matters which might not touch Bonaventure -- but on bigger issues which are represented here. But one thing I am surprised you did not discuss too much, and one aspect I think was pertinent to the debate: the so-called Franciscan Spiritualist who would only accept a strict, literalist adherence to the rule of St Francis.

    In some patristic authors, you get the notion of the slow revelation of the persons of the Trinity, into three ages -- that of the Father (Tanakh), that of the Son (current), and eventually that of the Spirit (in the future); Origen was one who hinted at this -- though it's over a decade since I last read through his works and so don't remember where it was in his works, but I think it is in On First Principles.

    Certainly one can find this sense of a literal "millenium" in some pre-Nicene Fathers, and this combined with Origen's suggestion of three stages of history, seems to be the background from which Joachim worked with (beyond the normative Western tradition of Augustine).

    Bonaventure was wise in realizing that he could not dismiss everything that Joachim wrote. Many people who criticize someone fail to realize this point: the way to draw them in is to show agreement and show how that common agreement then makes more sense with your re-evaluation of other issues.

    But in doing so, I think he would have done better if he had known some of the other patristic images, some which have been re-awakened in modern times, for dealing with the Trinity: such as that the Son and Spirit are the two revealing arms of the Father. This would then work to overcome what I think Joachim's problem really was: a modalist-like understanding of history and the Trinity.

    However, since you wrote this, have you read Ratzinger's book on St Bonaventure? I could tell when you wrote it, as you said, it was what you wanted to do, and you dealt with many of the issues that are within the book. When I read part I was sure you had read it, and you were working to continue on its themes.


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