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BONAVENTURE , religious name of Giovanni di Fidanza (c. 12171274), Italian scholastic theologian, minister general of the Friars Minor, cardinal bishop of Albano, doctor of the church, and Christian saint.

Life and Works

Information concerning the early life of Bonaventure is scant. His parents were Giovanni di Fidanza, who was a doctor in Bagnoregio in Tuscany, and Maria di Ritello. Bonaventure himself tells that he was cured of a serious childhood illness through his mother's prayer to Francis of Assisi. After early schooling at the Franciscan friary in Bagnoregio, Bonaventure began his studies at the University of Paris in 1235. After earning a master of arts degree, he entered the Franciscan order (Friars Minor), probably in 1243, pursuing the study of theology first under the Franciscan masters Alexander of Hales and John of La Rochelle and later under Odo Rigaldi and William of Meliton.

After he received a bachelor of scripture degree in Paris in 1248, Bonaventure began lecturing on the Bible. Although not all his commentaries survived, those on Luke and John remain important sources for his early theological viewpoints. After giving his courses on the Sentences of Peter Lombard between 1250 and 1252, he was ready to receive the licentiate and the doctorate in theology. Although there is some debate concerning the exact date of his formal acceptance into the masters' guild, there is strong evidence indicating that he functioned as regent master at the school of the Friars Minor at Paris from 1253 to 1257. During this period, he composed at least three well-known sets of disputed questions: On Evangelical Perfection, On Christ's Knowledge, and On the Mystery of the Trinity. Because of his election as minister general, Bonaventure had to resign his university post to take up the pressing tasks of administration. Even though he no longer lectured at the university, he made Paris his headquarters and preached frequently to the students and masters gathered there.

During his first years as minister general of the Friars Minor, Bonaventure produced three works that are important sources for his system of thought: a concise handbook of theology called the Breviloquium (1257), a brief tract titled Retracing the Arts to Theology (date unknown), and a synthesis of his speculative and mystical theology known as The Journey of the Mind to God (1259). Most of the writings coming from his years as minister general are directly religious or ascetical in nature, including many sermons, letters, and regulations for the friars, two lives of Francis of Assisi, and the Defense of the Mendicants (c. 1269). Of particular importance for insight into the development of Aristotelianism are three sets of conferences held for the friars of Paris: On the Ten Commandments (1267), On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (1268), and On the Six Days of Creation or the Illuminations of the Church (1273). The final set of conferences was left unfinished when Bonaventure was named cardinal bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X in 1273.

Bonaventure left Paris to help with preparations for the Council of Lyons, which convened on May 7, 1274, and he took an active part in the council until his unexpected death on July 15, 1274. Canonized by Sixtus IV in 1482, he was declared a doctor of the church by Sixtus V in 1588 with the title "Seraphic Doctor."

Theological Teaching

Although not a stranger to philosophy, Bonaventure is known primarily as a theologian. He acknowledged philosophy as a legitimate and important level of reflection, but he believed that it must be transcended by speculative theology and finally by mystical union with God. Bonaventure's theology was influenced not only by the spirituality of Francis of Assisi and the thought of Augustine but also by Dionysius the Areopagite, Boethius, Joachim of Fiore, Richard of Saint-Victor, Aristotle, and Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron).

Bonaventure's theological system is strongly Christocentric. While his early Commentary on John describes a view emphatically centered around the Word, his final work, Collations on the Six Days of Creation, reveals a system for which the Word as incarnate is the point of departure for theological reflection. While Christ is the historical foundation of Christian theology, reflection on Christ reveals the ontological foundation of theology, which is the triune God.

Doctrine on God

Bonaventure is deeply Augustinian in his conviction that the existence of God cannot be denied (Opera, vol. 1, p. 155; vol. 5, pp. 4551). Human reason can be called on either to affirm or to deny the existence of God. Bonaventure develops three approaches that he sees not as philosophical demonstrations but as spiritual exercises that make one aware of the closeness of God to the human spirit. Any doubt concerning the existence of God can arise only from some deficiency in the human subject. Ultimately, knowledge of God is not an affair of the intellect alone. Love pushes beyond reason. The knowledge of God through love is the goal to which the intellectual analysis is directed and to which it is subordinate (Opera, vol. 3, pp. 689, 775).

Bonaventure's theology of the Trinity begins with the New Testament perception of God as a mystery of goodness and love. This theme is developed into metaphysical reflection on the nature of goodness and love by drawing on the insights of Dionysius the Areopagite, Richard of Saint-Victor, Aristotle, and the Liber de causis, an influential Neoplatonic work of uncertain authorship. This perception of God as supreme love that is necessarily triune is the highest level of metaphysical insight available to the human mind in this world. Open to us only through revelation, it leads us beyond philosophical metaphysics, which is constrained to reflect on the supreme reality under the name of being (Opera, vol. 5, p. 308). As supreme, self-communicative goodness and love, God is conceived as plenitudo fontalis, an overflowing fount of being and life that first flows into the two internal emanations through which the Son is generated and the Spirit is breathed forth, then flowing outward into creation. Peculiar in Western trinitarian theology is the emphasis given to the primacy of the Father within the Trinity. As the Trinity is first with respect to the created world, the Father is first with respect to the divine persons (Opera, vol. 5, p. 115).


From the centrality of Christ in the spirituality of Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure moves to systematic reflection on Christ as the center. The core of the Christological mystery is that in Christ the center of reality has become incarnate and has been made historically visible. The theme of the center becomes ever more important in Bonaventure's thought, finding its most extensive development in his Collations on the Six Days of Creation. The Son who from eternity is the center of the Trinity mediates all the divine works of creation, illumination, and consummation. When the Son became incarnate in Jesus, he assumed his place as the center of the created universe and its history.

The concept of Christ as center is grounded in Bonaventure's understanding of exemplarity. As a metaphysical concern, exemplarity is the question of the original reality in whose likeness all the copies in creation are formed. The Platonic influence in Bonaventure's thought is apparent in his conviction that exemplarity is the most basic metaphysical question. The Word is the most compact expression of the original divine reality, copies of which are scattered throughout the created cosmos. When the Word becomes incarnate in a particular human being, that human being provides the crucial key to unlock the mystery of reality. As the incarnate Word, Jesus is both the temporal and the eternal exemplar (Opera, vol. 8, pp. 242243). Therefore, his moral teaching and example have normative significance in the search for authentic human existence. For Bonaventure, spirituality is above all the journey of the human soul to God. This journey is made through the person of Christ, who mediates grace to the soul and draws the human person to respond to God by shaping human life in terms of the normative values that have been lived and taught by Christ.

Creation and salvation

Creation and salvation are symbolized by the two sides of a circle whereby Bonaventure expresses the spiritual journey that is the mainspring of world history. Emanation and return (egressus and reditus ) speak of the origin and finality of creation. These paired concepts indicate that in Bonaventure's system creation and salvation are inseparably related. Creation is the movement of finite being from nothing toward that fullness of life that constitutes salvation. Salvation is the actualization of the deepest potential latent in finite reality by reason of the creative love of God.

Bonaventure's understanding of creation coheres with his understanding of God as plenitudo fontalis. Since God is the fullest abundance of being, creation is like an immense river that flows from the fecund love of God. Emanating from the depths of the Father through the mediation of the Son and the Spirit, creation circles back to its point of origin. Emanation is always a movement toward return.

The world of created reality takes shape in a hierarchical order based on degrees of Godlikeness. The faintest reflection of God is found in the shadow (umbra) or vestige (vestigium ) at the level of inorganic substances and lower forms of life. By nature, man is an image (imago ) principally because of his soul. As the image is reformed by grace, it becomes a likeness (similitudo ) of God. An angel, by reason of its purely spiritual nature, is also a similitude. Bonaventure employs the doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite on the angelic and ecclesiastical hierarchies as a means of elaborating the structure of the angelic world and the mediatorial nature of the church.

To the enlightened eye, the entire created world may become a road that leads the human person to God and thus to the fulfillment of creation's destiny. The return of creation to God (technically, reductio ), which takes place in and through the spiritual journey of humanity, is above all the work of the illumination and grace mediated through Christ. The redemptive process, begun decisively in Christ, includes the overcoming of sin (satisfaction) and the completion of the creative work of God (cosmic fulfillment). The theology of redemption is the elaboration of the return of an incomplete and fallen creation to God.

Spiritual life

Bonaventure has long been regarded as one of the masters of the spiritual life. Reflecting the spirituality of Francis of Assisi, the spiritual doctrine of Bonaventure is centered around Christ as mediator of grace and interior teacher of the soul. Christ's historical life and teaching manifest the basic values by which human life is transformed in its response to God's grace. As risen Lord, Christ functions as a hierarch, exercising the three hierarchical acts of purgation, illumination, and perfection, which Bonaventure draws from Dionysius the Areopagite (Opera, vol. 8, pp. 327). Through its response to Christ's action, the soul becomes hierarchized as the disorder of sin is replaced by order. The goal of the spiritual journey is contemplative union in love with God. All philosophical and theological reflection is subordinate to this end. Bonaventure follows Dionysius in describing a level of ecstatic, loving contact with God that transcends all purely intellectual knowledge of God. At this point, apophatic theology and silence are appropriate (Opera, vol. 5, pp. 312313).

The doctrine of the soul's journey integrates the spirituality of Francis into the broader context of Augustinian and Dionysian mysticism. Finally, the journey of the individual soul is integrated into the journey of the church, and Francis of Assisi becomes the model of the destiny of the church as ecclesia contemplativa.

Theory of knowledge

While Bonaventure agrees with Aristotle that knowledge of the external world is dependent on sensation, he attempts to integrate elements of Aristotle's empiricism with Augustine's doctrine of illumination. Convinced that the experience of certitude can be accounted for neither in terms of mutable objects nor in terms of the mutable human mind, Bonaventure suggests a mode of divine cooperation whereby the human mind is elevated by the light of the divine ideas and thus is able to arrive at certitude even though all the objects of experience are mutable (Opera, vol. 5, p. 23). The divine ideas function as a regulatory and motivating influence that illumines the mind so that it can judge in accord with the eternal truth. Illumination is involved especially in the full analysis of finite being, which leads ultimately to absolute being. Such analysis, or reduction, is possible only if the human mind is aided by that being that is "most pure, most actual, most complete and absolute" (Opera, vol. 5, p. 304).

Though the soul is dependent on the senses for knowledge of the external world, it enjoys a relative independence of the senses in its knowledge of itself and its own activity. Thus Bonaventure departs from the Aristotelian view that there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses, and he incorporates into his theory of knowledge the way of interiority inherited from Augustine and found in a variety of mystical systems.

Theology of history

Among the great theologians of history, Bonaventure is one of the most consistently apocalyptic. Influenced by Joachim of Fiore's theory of exegesis, Bonaventure interpreted Francis of Assisi as a positive sign of the dawning of a new contemplative age. The adulteration of the wine of revelation by the water of philosophy was seen as a negative sign of apocalyptic import. To Bonaventure it seemed that his own time was experiencing the crisis of the "sixth age" of history. This would be followed by an age of full revelation and peace prior to the end of the world, an age in which the Holy Spirit would lead the church into the full realization of the revelation of Christ, making all rational philosophy and theology superfluous.


Bonaventure's theological views were instrumental in consolidating late-thirteenth-century opposition to radical Aristotelianism. In the context of the controversy concerning Thomas Aquinas's philosophy, Franciscans, including John Pecham, Roger Marston, William de la Mare, Walter of Bruges, Matthew of Aquasparta, and others, developed a form of neo-Augustinianism that drew much inspiration from the work of Bonaventure. It is hardly possible, however, to speak of a Bonaventurian school in the fourteenth century. The founding of the College of Saint Bonaventure at Rome by Sixtus V in 1587 was intended to foster Bonaventurian studies. The most significant contribution of the college was the first complete edition of the works of Bonaventure (15881599). An attempted Bonaventurian revival in the seventeenth century met with little success. The College of Saint Bonaventure at Quaracchi, near Florence, founded in the late nineteenth century, produced the critical edition of Bonaventure's works, which provides the basis for the many studies that appeared in the twentieth century.

The influence of Bonaventure as a master of the spiritual life has been extensive, especially in Germany and the Netherlands during the late Middle Ages. The Soliloquy and the Threefold Way were widely disseminated in vernacular translations and influenced Germanic education, piety, and theology for centuries. In Bonaventura deutsch (Bern, 1956), Kurt Ruh calls Bonaventure "an essential factor in the history of the German mind" (p. 295).


The most complete and reliable edition of Bonaventure's works is the critical edition published as Opera omnia, 10 vols. (Quaracchi, 18821902).

Of the English translations available, those being published in the series "Works of Saint Bonaventure," edited by Philotheus Boehner and M. Frances Laughlin (Saint Bonaventure, N.Y., 1955), are most useful because of their scholarly introductions and commentaries. This series has published Retracing the Arts to Theology, translated by Emma Thérèse Healy (1955); The Journey of the Mind into God, translated by Philotheus Boehner (1956); and Saint Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, translated by me (1979). A five-volume series of translations by José de Vinck entitled The Works of St. Bonaventure (Paterson, N.J., 19601970) provides no commentary. Three sermons on Christ with commentary offering an orientation to the Christology of Bonaventure are found in my edited volume What Manner of Man? (Chicago, 1974). Ewert H. Cousins's Bonaventure (New York, 1978) provides fresh translations of The Soul's Journey, the Tree of Life, and the Life of Saint Francis with an introduction relating the spiritual doctrine to Bonaventure's theology.

Jacques Guy Bougerol's Introduction to the Works of Bonaventure (Paterson, N.J., 1964) is a useful resource for information on the sources, chronology, and stylistic characteristics of Bonaventure's writings.

John Francis Quinn's The Historical Constitution of Saint Bonaventure's Philosophy (Toronto, 1973) gives a full historical account of the modern controversy concerning Bonaventure's philosophy together with an excellent bibliography. On the philosophical aspects of Bonaventure's thought, Étienne Gilson's The Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure (Paterson, N.J., 1965) is still the classic exposition. Examining the inner structure of Bonaventure's thought from the perspective of archetypal thought-patterns, Ewert H. Cousins's Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites (Chicago, 1978) offers a challenging and controversial analysis.

An excellent resource for Bonaventure's trinitarian theology is Konrad Fischer's De Deo trino et uno (Göttingen, 1978). A full, systematic exposition of Christology emphasizing the synthesis of spirituality and speculative thought is presented in my book The Hidden Center (New York, 1981). Joseph Ratzinger's The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure (Chicago, 1971) is an important study of the mature work of Bonaventure and its relation to Joachim of Fiore. The first four volumes of S. Bonaventura, 12741974, edited by Jacques Guy Bougerol (Grottaferrata, 19731974), include discussion of iconography and articles on philosophy, theology, and spirituality. Volume 5 contains the most extensive and up-to-date bibliography.

Zachary Hayes (1987)

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