Skip to main content

Franciscan Theological Tradition

FRANCISCAN THEOLOGICAL TRADITION

Contemporary study of the Franciscan theological tradition breaks with the custom, established by earlier generations of scholars, of speaking of a uniform Franciscan school, with a perennial core of fixed and unalterable positions. The comparison of vernacular and academic theologians, some of them previously ignored, prompts an appreciation of the diversity among Franciscan theologians throughout the medieval period. Nevertheless, men and women, drawn to the Franciscan worldview from varying social and political strata, often appear to have shared a common sensibility vis-à-vis the theological concerns that marked their experience of the evangelical life. Questions regarding the possibility of knowing and loving God, the relationship between the current society and the world to come, respect for creation as expression of the goodness of God, free will and revelation, the uniqueness of Christ in personal and cosmic history, together with other concerns, often elicited creative, if not always harmonic responses from those who identified with the gospel proposal of francis of assisi.

Sometime after Nov. 29, 1223, Francis of Assisi sent a brief letter to his confrere, Anthony of Padua, approving his intention to teach theology to the brothers near Bologna as long as study, like any other work, did not extinguish prayer and devotion. Bologna is the same city where Franciscan hagiographical sources note the Poverello earlier demanded the abandonment of the first friary linked to academics. Site of the earliest European university, Bologna is emblematic of the controversy that surrounded theological studies in the Minorite community from the beginning. Unlike their fellow mendicants, the Dominicans, the early Franciscans did not always recognize an intrinsic link between their evangelical vocation and academic theology.

Francis of Assisi, though not trained in the academic discipline of theology, is considered a vernacular theologian who displayed a profound knowledge of Scriptural and Patristic sources cultivated in liturgical prayer, preaching, and reflective literary composition. He reminds the brothers in the Testament (1224) that respect is due to theologians because they minister God's word of spirit and life to the world. Although he described himself as a simple, uneducated man, his writings reveal an educated layman, transformed by God's word and committed to spreading his interpretation of the Christian calling through various venues, including the medium of the written text. The themes he developed in native Umbrian and acquired Latin, such as the goodness of the Triune God, following the poor Christ, the symbolic nature of the world, the dynamics of Gospel fraternity, virtues and vices, and the importance of the Eucharist and the Mother of God, are among the salient insights later Franciscan theologians explored in the cloister, the pulpit, and the classroom.

The cloister of San Damiano was the locus of Clare of Assisi's theological reflection. As a companion of Francis from the earliest days, she focused on the community of sisters, poverty, and Christ. Clare, like Francis, received no formal theological education but was likewise convinced of her experience of the divine and the corresponding responsibility of conveying her faith in word and example. Her Form of Life (1253), the first religious rule written by a woman, and the Testament (12471253) evoke a vision of community as the matrix of evangelical ministry and contemplation of Christ. Her Letters to Agnes of Prague (12341253) written perhaps with the assistance of another early companion of Francis, Brother Leo, demonstrate Clare's ability to synthesize sources from monastic theology within a Franciscan framework of radical poverty and ecstatic prayer. Others after Clare, like Angela of Foligno, who in the Memorial (12961297) describes her spiritual itinerary, would continue to find poverty, inside and outside the cloister, conducive to contemplation of the crucified Christ.

Paris School. Many of Francis's other companions came from the educated ranks of society, as his biographer, Thomas of Celano, relates in The Life of Saint Francis (12281229). Their previous intellectual formation favored the academic theological reflection apparent in their formal preaching and teaching. The missionary thrust beyond the borders of Europe and expansion into areas within Europe where literate and educated, yet unorthodox formulations of the faith flourished, necessitated preaching different from the popular approach the Poverello had employed so successfully. The concomitant entrance into urban areas, where academic faculties were located, facilitated the friars' growing interest in the cultivation of theological study. Beginning with Bologna as early as 1220, houses dedicated to study or studia, and other friaries with lectors for the instruction of the brothers, appeared throughout Europe. The English Minorite Roger Bacon boasted that already by the 1230s the brothers had brought learning into every city; however, two cities, Paris and Oxford, became the intellectual centers identified, in particular, with the nascent Franciscan theology.

The Franciscans arrived in Paris as early 1217 and established a house of studies in 1224 with the assistance of a confrere theologian, Haymo of Faversham. The decision in 1236 of the secular regent master, alexander of hales, to enter the fraternity and transfer his chair of theology to the Franciscan studium provided the friars with the opportunity to receive a university degree at their own school. Alexander, together with john of la rochelle, guided the Minorite school until their deaths in 1245 when they were replaced by odo rigaldus and william of melitona. Each master made a substantial contribution, much of which is remains unedited, to the formation of the friars; however, Alexander of Hales remains the dominant figure of the early Parisian studium. He introduced the Sentences of Peter Lombard into the curriculum and, without neglecting biblical sources, utilized Aristotelian philosophy. Alexander's emphasis on theology as a science included the notion of theological knowledge as sapientia or wisdom, which became a hallmark of the Franciscan approach to education. The Summa (12451256) of Alexander, edited by John of La Rochelle and completed by William of Melitona, together with the Disputed Questions and the Gloss on the Sentences (12231227), treated themes such as the contingency of the world, divine knowledge, the person as the imago Dei, the Incarnation of Christ, and the vision of God as Good.

Alexander's student bonaventure received the habit of the friars in 1243 and became the most influential of the regent masters at the Parisian studium. Although Bonaventure's course of study concluded in 1254, he was not recognized as a master of theology until 1257 due to the conflict between the mendicant and secular masters at the university. Elected general minister of the Franciscan order in the same year, he served in this capacity until his death in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon. The academic works of the Seraphic Doctor included disputed questions, sermons, biblical commentaries and the Commentary on the Sentences (12501252). Bonaventure's university writings present a cosmic vision of emanation, creation, incarnation, redemption, and return. The trinity of persons, not the unity of God, is the starting point of theology. Pastoral and administrative responsibilities as minister general promoted an integration of previously held Augustinian and Neoplatonic positions into a synthesis dominated by the Gospel paradigm of Francis of Assisi and his eschatological role in salvation history. The Journey of the Mind into God (1259), the Major Life of Saint Francis (12601262) and the Collations on the Six Days (1273) illustrate Bonaventure's appropriation of the Poverello as source and stimulus for theology. Later confreres, including Gilbert of Tournai, Walter of Bruges, John Pecham, Matthew of Aquasparta, and Richard of Middleton, would frequently follow the trajectory of his teaching.

Introduced to Bonaventure's apocalyptic views as a student in Paris, peter john olivi also pondered the heritage of the Poverello, the institution and purpose of the Minorite order, and the ages of history marking the approaching eschaton. Upon leaving Paris, Olivi was appointed lector in southern France, then Florence, and again in Provence, where he died in 1298. His utilization of the Joachimite tradition in the Lecture on the Apocalypse (12961297), his stance on poverty in the Questions on Evangelical Perfection (12741279), and his teachings concerning the Virgin Mary and marriage provoked censure and condemnation from some, and admiration and imitation from others. Olivi's biblical and sentence commentaries, selected questions, and sermons illustrate a broad range of interests from the proper study of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ to the economic aspects of religious poverty and the nature of free will.

Oxford School. Like Paris, Oxford was an influential center of medieval Franciscan theology. Thomas of Eccleston's chronicle, On the Coming of the Friars Minor to England (12581259), claims that the friars arrived in the university town in 1224. robert grosseteste served as the first prominent, secular lector for the newly arrived Minorite community until 1235. After being named bishop of Lincoln, Grosseteste provided other secular masters for the Oxford studium, who also received episcopal appointments throughout the British Isles. Adam Marsh, friar and student of Grosseteste, took a chair of theology in 1247, becoming the first of many Franciscan regents at Oxford. The combination of theology and science cultivated by Grosseteste and Marsh found a proponent in Roger Bacon, who, critical of the theological methodology of the Parisian friars, insisted on the epistemological priority of experience and a requisite, reciprocal relationship between science and wisdom. Bacon entered the Franciscan order in 1257, already having taught in the faculty of arts in Paris and Oxford. His Opus Maius, Opus Minus, Opus Tertium, Letter to Clement IV (12661268), and compendiums to the study of philosophy and theology explored the correlation between Church and culture and the possibility, albeit unrealized, of interdisciplinary unity among the scientific, philosophical, and theological branches of knowledge.

John duns scotus, most probably a native of the small Scottish town of Dun near the English border, studied and taught in Oxford and Paris until his death in 1308 at the Minorite studium in Cologne. The "Subtle Doctor" produced a wealth of theological and philosophical works delineating the direction of academic Franciscan theological reflection for centuries. Among his edited works are On the First Principle, Quodlibetal Questions, and sections of the Ordinatio. Scotus directed his acute ability for philosophical analysis toward the integration of Aristotle into theological method, thereby providing a systematic, metaphysical foundation for positions on Christ, the Immaculate Conception, the sacraments, morality, the univocity of infinite and finite being, the contingency of creation, and individuation. His teaching on the principle of individuation, haecceitas, allowed for the appreciation of every contingent being and the freedom of God's revelatory actions in salvation history. Consequently, he held that the incarnation of Christ was not dictated by sin, but, rather, the desire that humanity, together with all of creation, be united to God in the most intimate bond. Throughout his theological texts, Scotus defended reason yet underlined the primacy of love over knowledge, concluding that the essence of beatitude is the love of God.

william of ockham, another prolific friar educated at Oxford, was the last major figure representing the Franciscan theological tradition before the Reformation. Controversial and innovative in both theology and politics until his death in 1347, Ockham elaborated reasoned, nuanced positions on Christology, Mariology, the sacraments, divine freedom, and creation and divine power in his commentaries on the Sentences (13171321). Drawn into the events surrounding the turbulent papacy of John XXII, he defended the received Franciscan interpretation of evangelical poverty in the Opus nonaginta dierum (1332). Other texts, like the Quodlibetal Questions (13231327) and the Treatise on Imperial and Pontifical Power (1347), indicate, respectively, Ockham's willingness to revise previous theological views on the absolute power of God and consider contested political and ecclesial issues.

With few exceptions, the reception and interpretation of Duns Scotus's opus dominated the Franciscan theological tradition after the Reformation to the end of the 19th century. Certainly the writing of Bonaventure, whose synthesis of the spiritual life was widely diffused through vernacular translations, and the writings of others like Peter John Olivi, whose views on evangelical life found favor among the reform minded, were not forgotten. The Franciscan studia, both among the Conventual and Observants after the division of the Minorite Order in 1517, continued to introduce students to a wide diversity of theological texts, often abbreviated, from the Franciscan tradition. Friars on university faculties and elsewhere, however, preferred to comment upon and develop selected Scotist themes in textbook form throughout the Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. The turn toward historical-critical studies in the 19th century, especially in Germany, resulted in renewed academic interest in diverse representatives of Franciscan theology. Romano Guardini, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Paul Tillich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Joseph Raztinger are among the theologians of the 20th century who looked to the broad Franciscan tradition in the formulation of their theological worldviews.

The last decades of the 20th century proffered historical studies in Europe and the Americas on myriad aspects of the Franciscan theological tradition, including new perspectives on previously marginalized or forgotten male and female figures. A critical appreciation of the past with an openness to the present possibilities of dialogue may offer the best prospective for the reception of the Franciscan theological tradition in the future. The contemporary quest for truth and the experience of the divine, concern for the environment and social justice, the desire to unite authentic spirituality and science, and respect for a pluralism of belief and culture in the midst of globalization, are but few of the areas where the resources of the Franciscan tradition continue to provide potential inspiration and insight.

Bibliography: k. osborne, ed., The History of Franciscan Theology (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1994). b. mcginn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism 12001350 (New York 1998). j. merino, Storia della filosofia francescana, tr. l. fiocchi (Milan 1993). f. x. putallaz, Figure francescane alla fine del XIII secolo, tr. c. marabelli, (Milan 1996). b. roest, A History of Franciscan Education (c. 12101517) (Leiden 2000).

[t. j. johnson]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Franciscan Theological Tradition." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Franciscan Theological Tradition." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/franciscan-theological-tradition

"Franciscan Theological Tradition." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/franciscan-theological-tradition

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.