Herbst Thomas ,
Recensione: Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. II revised and expanded, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. VIII, pt. 2, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Chapters 9-16.,
Antonianum, 78/4 (2003) p. 719-721
Recent years have seen a resurgence of scholarly works concerned with the theology and spirituality of Bonaventure. Sometimes eclipsed by the pervasive influence of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, as the other great scholastic luminary of late thirteenth-century Paris, exists as an important source for the early Franciscan contribution to the theological milieu that helped to define the spiritual climate of the High Middle Ages and continues to exert an influence far beyond that time and place. Modern Franciscan scholarship has sought to develop and, in some respects, to reclaim this legacy with surprising results. Bonaventure emerges, in his eclectic and synthesizing complexity, in a way in which, perhaps, he would find appropriate as one who ‘stands in the center’. He is a bridge to his and our own Christian past drawing into his synthetic embrace multiple strands of thought and speculation from the first millennium of Christian experience. He is a clear articulator of his own place and time at the heart of the Franciscan evangelical renewal that swept Western Christendom in the wake of the Poor Man of Assisi. Most important, through the extensive surviving corpus of his writings, he is able to communicate a complex and holistic Christian world-view as a legacy to modern ‘itinerants’ wandering in the fractured spiritual landscape of the post-modern world.
Two recent English language translations of Bonaventure’s classics have recently appeared on the bookshelves. The first to be reviewed here, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, has been translated before. One might wonder why yet another translation is necessary? Aside from the scholarly elegance and clarity of Zachary Hayes’ English prose, and the convenient interface with the Latin text, the introduction to the volume written by Boehner makes the purchase of the book well worth while. The introduction is written in three parts (quite Bonaventurian!) and provides an invaluable context for the reading of this difficult and complex work. Bonaventure was controversial in his own day and remains so in our own. He was, and in some quarters still is, accused of mitigating the Franciscan ideal in his role as Minister General of the Order in the tumultuous years of the late thirteenth century. As a Parisian theologian, Bonaventure is sometimes perceived as the antithesis to the simplicity (read: anti-intellectualism) of Francis of Assisi. Boehner demonstrates in the first part of his introduction that the latter accusation, at least, is baseless. He asserts, rather boldly, that Bonaventure remains not only true to the vision of the Founder, but also that the entire work is patterned on a kind of imitatio of Francis as the archetypical ‘pilgrim’ or ‘itinerant’ in the ascent toward God. This fundamental contextualizing of the Itinerarium provides an invaluable frame of reference for the reader and rightly establishes the work as one of the classics of Franciscan spirituality. Boehner builds on this foundation in the second part of the introduction. He points out that the work is not simply speculative in the metaphysical, or even theological, sense, but is instead a work of ‘mystical theology’. This is already well known. What Boehner, however, means by this is that the work is aimed at a specific praxis applicable to every believer and in doing so it reflects the Franciscan evangelical imperative expressed so well in the life and teachings of the Poverello. Francis may be the Alter Christus and the Itinerarium aims very high, but it is still a road ‘well traveled’. Finally, in the third part of the introduction Boehner provides a great service to the reader by simply and concisely explaining the structure and intent of the Itineraium. For all of its brevity, the Itinerarium can be a difficult book to understand. Rich in the background of the spirituality of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that contributed to the Franciscan experience, and explicitly Christological, this section of the introduction outlines the steps of the ‘way’ described by Bonaventure in a manner that will delight and amaze many readers who may have sensed something profound or beautiful in Bonaventure’s insights, but stumbled when confronting the complex strands of thought and influence contained in his actual writings.
The new translation of Bonaventure’s Commentary on the Gospel of Luke differs from that of the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum in that it has never been published in English before. In this second volume covering chapters 9-16 of the Gospel of Luke Robert Karris completes an epic translation of one of Bonaventure’s major works in an area that has, until now, received little attention. Bonaventure is justly famous as a ‘mystical’ theologian and Franciscan apologist in the early intellectual tradition. As such, his classics; Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, Breviloquium, Hexaemeron and, to a lesser extent, the Apologia Pauperum are justly famous. Bonaventure’s stature as a medieval exegete, however, has been underestimated by modern scholarship and this has imperiled a proper understanding of his thought. He is not simply a speculative theologian in the medieval scholastic tradition, or a sophisticated Franciscan apologist but, like Francis before him, his insights are grounded in a specific and highly developed interpretation of scripture. In this respect Karris’ translation of the Commentary on Luke serves as a bridge from the biblical foundations of Bonaventure’s thought to the heights of his complex speculative theology and Franciscan apologetics. Bonaventure’s commentaries on several of the books of the Old and New Testaments make up a significant part of his surviving corpus of literature. Indeed, he was required to write them in the course of his career at the University of Paris. One can only hope that more translations of this nature will be forthcoming.
Of further interest is Karris’ introduction to this volume. Like Boehner’s introduction to the Itinerarium, Karris provides the reader with valuable and interesting background information on the Commentary itself as well as Bonaventure’s own historical context. Of particular interest is Karris’ analysis of Bonaventure’s ‘anti-Judaism’. The problem is pervasive in the theology/spirituality of the Middle Ages and Karris’ analysis is highly instructive. True to the spirit of the perception of Bonaventure’s exegetical works as ‘bridges’ to his speculative theology and spirituality, Karris also provides the reader with brief thematic cross references to other, more famous, works of Bonaventure in this extensive introduction.
Are we witnessing, in our own time, a renewal and reclamation of the very best that the Franciscan intellectual tradition has to offer? If the proliferation of works on Bonaventure that increasingly fill the bookshelves are any indication, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For this writer, at least, that is good news indeed!