Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bonaventure on the Sufficiency of Scripture for Salvation and the Knowledge of God

"The outcome or the fruit of reading holy Scripture is by no means negligible: it is the fullness of eternal happiness.  For these are the books which tell us of eternal life, which were written not only that we might believe but also that we might have everlasting life.  When we do live that life we shall understand fully, we shall love completely, and our desires will be totally satisfied. Then, with all our needs fulfilled, we shall truly know the love that surpasses understanding and so be filled with the fullness of God.  The purpose of the Scriptures, which come to us from God, is to lead us to this fullness according to the truths contained in those sayings of the apostles to which I have referred.  In order to achieve this, we must study holy Scripture carefully, and teach it and listen to it in the same way...Through that knowledge we can come at last to know perfectly and love completely the most blessed Trinity, whom the saints desire to know and love and in whom all that is good and true finds its meaning and fulfillment."

Bonaventure (AD1221-1274), Breviloquium, Prologue.

- - + - -

Bonaventure was a Franciscan friar, a head of that order for a time and also a cardinal and, after his contemporary and adversarial interlocutor Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican friar) perhaps the greatest of the medieval scholastic theologians. He is one of the Doctors of the Church in Roman Catholicism, which accords him the title " The Seraphic Doctor". His Breviloquium (1257), one of the essential works of medieval theology,  is a theological textbook written for beginning students of the day which contains a prologue establishing the primacy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture both for salvation and theology. It also sets out proper hermeneutical principles as Bonaventure understood them. Bonaventure is remembered today chiefly for his strictly theological writings, but in fact his major works in his own estimation were his scriptural commentaries (which also applies to Aquinas and indeed to the 17th century Lutheran scholastics)

Roman Catholicism, which came into being materially at the Council of Trent ( 25 sessions held between 1545-1563), regards Holy Scripture as a formally insufficient source of knowledge for Christian faith and life. The Roman Magisterium supplements Scripture with Sacred Tradition+ and also asserts itself as the sole infallible interpretive authority where Scripture is concerned. It is difficult to see how this position doesn't in fact subordinate Scripture to the human authority of the Magisterium, since the latter authority alone is empowered to define what Scripture means and what facets of Sacred Tradition supplement it.  This is a position which clearly stands in some tension with Bonaventure's view of the sufficiency of scripture enunciated above and his apparent belief in the essential clarity of Scripture. 

Alas, although the stated first principles of Bonaventure and others like him were sound, their practice let them down. Where the medievals who believed in scripture's primacy differ from the  Reformers who were to come is chiefly in philosophical presuppositions and hermeneutics. Greek philosophy - neo-Platonism in Bonaventure's case and Aristotelianism in Aquinas's case - shaped the theology of the medievals more than they realised, leading to distortions in their apprehension of the Christian Faith. In regard to hermeneutics, their liberal use of the so-called spiritual and allegorical senses of scripture, which Luther et. al. were to reject (unless the genre of Biblical writing authorised it) could lead them to fanciful interpretations and the reading into Scripture of meanings not there (eisegesis).  Also, notwithstanding the commitment to the primacy of scripture, the medieval reliance on catenas (collations) of scriptural interpretation going back to the patristic period actually meant that certain traditional readings of scripture, rather than the scriptural text itself, were accorded authority. This meant, for example, that several of Augustine's grievous misinterpretations of scripture , the fruit of his lack of knowledge of the Biblical languages, were perpetuated as an authoritative basis for several doctrines for more than a thousand years in Western Christendom. It was only when Lutheran Reformers, exercising the historical-grammatical exegetical method upon the best Hebrew and Greek texts available to them, allowed God to be God in the church once again, speaking authoritatively to His people through the prophetic and apostolic scriptures.  

"this truth and discipline are contained in the written books and the unwritten traditions which were received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or which were dictated by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles themselves and have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. We (the bishops at Trent). following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receive and venerate with an equal affection of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament (seeing that one God is the author of both) and also the said traditions pertaining to faith and morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth or by the Holy Spirit and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.”  Council of Trent, Decree on the Canonical Scriptures

"... it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed... both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence" Vatican II, Dei Verbum

Pic: a medieval miniature of Bonaventure from an illuminated manuscript. 

For more patristic and medieval quotations see Lutheran Catholicity,          


Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, it’s always instructive to read excerpts from writers other than the usual, viz. Bonaventure. But I must take issue with two things you’ve said. First, your statement that Roman Catholicism came into being materially at the Council of Trent.

I don’t know how this can possibly be thought. To be sure, a particular style and character to Roman Catholicism, beginning at the counter-reformation went on to influence and dominate the Roman Catholic religion until the 20th century, but a Catholicism that was Roman had very early beginnings, characterising some of the creedal and liturgical controversies occurring in the Empire and in Britain, just for starters. That Bonaventure and Aquinas were members of mendicant orders which had been formed very much as a response to spiritual and sociological environments in the post-Roman continent is evidence that a Roman Christianity was evolving across these pre-Reformation centuries. I think that it would be far more accurate to say that Roman Catholicism began materially - if not formally - the day Romans, rather than Greeks and Jews and others, began and dominated the organising and coordinating of communities and the faithful in the Western part of the empire.

Second, your summary of Roman Catholic attitude towards Scripture.

I cannot see how anything Bonaventure has said, in your extract, implies that Scripture is quarantined from history (aka tradition) or its merit is independent of the interpretation brought to bear on it (aka magisterium). All Christians of whatever stripe ultimately rely on a magisterium of some kind, that is, an authoritative filter or criterion of scriptural meaning. If it is not official Church exegesis, it will be private and or individual. Whether the former or the latter is the more useful or the more reliable may be a subject of debate, but that the scriptures are dead words until understood and taught and listened to carefully - as Bonaventure himself says in the extract - should be obvious.

Dei Verbum makes clear in a number of places that the scriptures are themselves part of the tradition, namely that event or part of it that committed the tradition of faith to writing. They were not written as a foundational event, nor, in my opinion, can it reasonably be thought that they operate like a final event. Faith is in the head and heart of each person in their own time and place. Each reading is a spiritual event in its own right; even reading it in Greek rather than Hebrew or one of the many translations will be unique. These readings are nothing if they do not make sense, and the tradition of commentary and practice ground much of the sense of the religion.

In short, whatever the shortcomings of the Roman Catholic psychological dependence on Popes rather than other sources, I do not think Bonaventure can be enlisted to suggest that his view of Scripture differed materially from Catholics of later ages. His statement that they be taught carefully supports, on the contrary, an approach that would insist on a consistent interpretative authority.

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks for your comment Stephen.
Bonaventure other than usual? As I said, he's the greatest scholastic after Aquinas, and indeed was the fountainhead of the Franciscan stream of scholasticism. He is quoted favourably in the Lutheran Confessions on the doctrine of original sin. You Roman Catholics really need to get into pre-Tridentine theology ;-).

On the mater of Roman Catholicism coming into being materially at Trent, I was referring strictly to its doctrinal position upon which was built the modern edifice of Roman Catholicism, at least as it was until Vatican II. Of course there are historical continuities with the pre-Tridentine church, but there are also marked discontinuities too.

Your reading of Bonaventure's quote precisely illustrates the problem "Roman" Catholics have with some of the positions of the pre-Tridentine church. For Bonaventure scripture is sufficient for salvation and the knowledge of God. That could not be repeated formally after Trent, which accorded Tradition its present place in RCism.

On the matter of tradition and de facto magisteria in other confessions of faith dervide from the Reformation(s), yes I grant your point. I am not positing some sort of "nuda scriptura" doctrine here, although many Roman Catholics project that on to Lutherans. At least in Lutheranism, though, they are very much understood to be subject to Holy Scripture. Thus Scripture is known as the "norma normans" (the norming norm) while the Confessions are known as the "morma normata" (the normed norms). The first three documents in the Lutheran Confessions are the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, which define us as dogmatically and historically (and at the time of the Reformation also legally) as a catholic church. However, they are accepted as true summaries and expositions of the teaching of Scripture, and not principally on the authority of the councils which promulgated them, for councils can and do err and their decisions must always be subject to Scripture and to reform. That illustrates the point of difference between us and Rome.

Acroamaticus said...

In the final paragraph "they" refers back to the magisterial documents of Lutheranism and such tradition(s) as we received from the patristic and medieval church. "morma normata" should ne "norma normata" - mustn't type faster than my eyes can proofread!

Acroamaticus said...

I was thinking while having my lunch, Stephen, that those discontinuities I spoke of became magnified in the centuries after Trent, the Marian dogmas and papal infallibility being the prime examples, but not the only ones. Why, John Henry Newman even had to come up with his novel theory of doctrinal development in the attempt to defend the discontinuities to his sceptical Anglican friends. Pope Pius X regarded Newman's theory as so dangerous he condemned it in the Syllabus of Modernist Errors in 1907. But in the light of modern historical scholarship Pius X's vision of a Roman Catholicism in perfect, unaltered continuity with the church of the Apostles simply could not stand. At Vatican II the Modernists won and RCism's journey since has been by their lights, for better or worse (?).