Bonaventure on Dimensions of Scripture
This is a consideration of what Bonaventure writes about the bible in Breviloqium
Starting with the eternal origin from God’s Word he considers its breadth and times and how it should be approached and expounded. I note the general stances but make some modifications and extensions to what he says.
Origin and Mirror from the Eternal Word
Bonaventure writes that scripture is derived from God and in accord with our ability to receive it. But it is only truly understood in relation to Jesus Christ. The Word in Christ is the centre of scripture and this is true even in relation to the Old Testament. For the Christian the old Hebrew grounding is to be interpreted in the light of Christ, who as the original Word has been made known in the life of Israel. Scripture holds up to our gaze a “noble mirror” in which we are to see ourselves and all of God’s transcendence and reality and the life we are to have from Him.
This fundamentally asserts that aspect of Trinitarian belief that the Eternal Word from the Father is spoken and gives order to the cosmos. In accord with this the Word has impressed upon human consciousness things about God in their life and experience and particularly in the lives of the people of the Hebrews. It comes to its greatest focus and addressing us in the life and words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. When Bonaventure writes of the scripture being a “noble mirror” I think that this aspect of scripture enables us to see more what we are like, and what we are called and invited to be. As we read the stories of the people in the ancient texts, as we read the denunciations of the prophets and their hopes for the future, we look at ourselves and the world with an invitation to see a true account of what we are like, and offering a vision of what we should be and can be in union with Jesus Christ, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It shows our old evolved humanity of what are and have been and points to what we may be if we are ever so willing.
Ages of Revelation
Scripture contains the “ages of revelation” in history, specifically in the “ages” (the history and periods related to specific acts of salvation) related in OT but also in the special historical revelation of the Word in the life of Jesus Christ. This also contains the “depths of God’s judgement” as it contains the judgements of God against humanity’s sinful actions and character, although kindly judged in His mercy.
I would go with Bonaventure here in that elements of scripture set out a kind of history of the world. It may not be an accurate history in senses of that meaning today. It is a religiously interpreted history by faith recorded in story and memories of sacred words and events seen in the light of faith. There is the sacred age of Israel’s relations with God. There is then the greater age into which we come with the advent of the Word made flesh and new relationship of God with the all the world in contact with Jesus the Living Word, and the coming and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
It again places before us perceptions of God’s moral accounting of us and should lead us to see ourselves in need of the transformation that can only be brought about by an inner transformation of our consciousness and values. It sets before us both the moral judgments of God and also the revelation of God dealing with our incapability of being true moral beings without acts on God’s part.
The Breadth of Scripture
There is first the simple observation that the bible contains the two testaments (Old and New) and both testaments contain aspects of legal (moral), wisdom, historical and prophetic revelations. It sets out the fact that scripture contains many elements of different types of text.
Despite this variety of text there is also “a wondrous accord” between the two testaments, in telling the story of salvation centred on the revelation of God’s nature and incarnate Word. For even in the Old Testament aspects of Christ are foreseen in narrative, moral and prophetic texts and hence it bears testimony to the Word who will become Incarnate and complete the work of salvation
Bonaventure also writes that rarely is scripture just “philosophy and speculation” and asking definite questions expecting rational answers. It’s not the type of rational enquiry that was popular in his age and even more so in our age. That is not its purpose. Instead scripture is meant to move the reader and people to the goodness it contains from God. It does this by being an authority as a revealed Word from God, revealing exemplary goodness, derived from God’s own goodness in the Eternal Word made physical fully in Jesus Christ. The Breadth of Scripture may also be likened to a great river fed by different streams flowing into the whole and carrying the whole revelation that is life giving from God.
My comment about this is that I think today we need a little bit of caution. Between Bonaventure’s time and ours there has been a wide and varied debate in various traditions about the authorship and age of the biblical texts. There is from a historical- critical enquiry varied evidence of an ongoing reinterpretation of older stories with new emphasis for specific times. It can no longer automatically taken for granted that the prophets were literally predicting the coming of Jesus Christ as he was to appear in history. It may be much more nuanced than that, with the prophets setting out the vision of kind of Messiah and Agent of God who they believed would appear in their time and place. The New Testament writers picked on those aspects of the life of Jesus that that were exemplified in those prophetic traditions and thus confirming Jesus as the fulfilment of such promises. Jesus only symbolically filled out some of the visions and not all the concrete reality of the original visions. He was for instance not a literal “king of Israel” but only symbolically speaking a type of kingly character. His kingship actually transcended the nationalist Davidic kingly character pointing to something much more universal in character. The old prophetic images serve as signs of His ultimate character not the detail of the original visions.
The Length of Scripture
Scripture contains the “ages” from the beginning of life until the final consummation pointed to in the final apocalypse and the New Jerusalem. It starts with primordial life and then proceeds to the time of the revelation of the Law (from Moses) and then the age of grace (revealed in Jesus Christ). This great span of story and revelation should be seen as a whole and the various parts therefore seen in entirety. It is too easy in any period of history to pick out specific bits of scripture and use them out of context for some teaching the preacher wants to use with his (or her) bias. But the bible should not be used in that way. It has a wholeness of scope that shows so much of human life, goodness and evil in the lives of many and therefore corresponds to the whole of God’s governance as Trinitarian life, origin and purpose. Here again there is the need for historical context if we are to make the biblical texts relevant for today without doing injustice to the original limitations of the biblical writers and the numerous circumstances in which they preached and how the subject matter was conveyed and recorded at later times.
Bonaventure again contrasts rational philosophy with revelation in scripture. He thinks that philosophy is about nature and mind but theology is about faith and is something revealed and not made up and argued by men. It is revelation from God’s great love (grace) and this revelation “erects a kind of ladder between the earth” (material universe) “and heavens” (the transcendent reality of God). Scripture thus lifts our vision from beyond our physical existence and temporal desires and points beyond us to the transcendent reality we are to be part of and share.
To which I may add that so much of secular life today wants us to focus only on the material life and present needs. Secular life wants to interpret everything from rational philosophy but rules out ideas of a transcendent reality. We need scripture to lift our sights beyond what may be rationally provable and beyond material concerns. A materialist world view is not enough for the development of individual persons or society. The testaments of faith from scripture need to lift and govern our vision of our own lives if we are to be the most fruitful and best people we can be.
This refers to the underlying mysteries of God that transcend any literal meanings given to the text. It is a kind of “lifting up” that brings us to Christ as our redeemer. Yet we cannot receive these hidden mysteries without approaching the text with a large degree of waiting humility and desire to know Him beyond the text.
An individual text may have many layers of meaning. Often Bonaventure makes use of numbers to bring out symbolic meanings and makes use of allegories in the text. It may indeed need a prayerful and contemplative approach that looks beyond the circumstances of the story or oracle. While there are dangers in this seeing things the text may not mean, it can be a way of fruitful meditation. Another mode of reading it is to immerse oneself in a narrative and see oneself in the text as one of the characters, a method taken up centuries later by Ignatius of Loyola.
Mode of Procedure
The text has a procedure, a mode of guiding us and there is here an emphasis on the authority of the Word who speaks through the text. It is there for us to guide us by disposing our wills in readiness to receive it. It attracts our desires and affections though examples and promises. Scripture may not provide reasoned certitude, that is not is purpose. To that extent it is not like rationalistic philosophy presenting lots of facts and reasoned proofs. There is instead an authority that transcends our reason as something revealed. Because of that underlying authority “no part of scripture is useless” because of this authority.
Bonaventure was a scriptural teacher as well as a philosopher. So him the way scripture was to be expounded was very important. So he writes that the expositor of scripture must bring to light the hidden things within the text that show the meaning and purpose of it. He says that we must stay away from strange allegories and looking at the appropriate context. It’s not always clear he practices what he preaches! He does however make the point that there are different forms within the text with different things requiring varied treatments and ways of expressing the meaning. The preacher cannot approach every text and treat it the same way.
The great history of historical and textual criticism alerts us today that we should look at the appropriate context in which the words may have been written, including the culture and history at the time, and also its position within the scripture and wider situation and theme. Bonaventure shows some sensible foresight that the stories of Israel must be seen in the light of Christ and the Christian intention (while taking note of the history of the text and history of Israel and the professing community). The New Testament is the best measure and interpretation of the Old (but again historical context and some of the original meanings should be taken into account).
Bonaventure thinks that some things in the text will have a literal meaning and importance but sometimes a more enduring meaning and greater spiritual truth will be more important than just the wording. (This especially in regard to cultural contexts). Overall we must be seeking to uncover and expound the transcendent meaning and the permanent reality to create the most relevant message to point to God’s way for us. For Bonaventure there is the centrality of God in Christ as redeemer who dies for us means that the scriptures “take the form of an intelligible cross” on which the whole of the world may be described. Hence all is related to the self-emptying and suffering love of God, and the intention of our redemption and the completion of all God’s love and salvation for humanity and the cosmos.
Although we may look at the bible with a different view today in the light of such historical traditions and the way that the worshiping communities may have shaped scripture, I think that Bonaventure is still right in the focus of the scripture centred on the Word made present in Jesus Christ. He is also right in seeing the scriptures as making up a whole with many historical and prophetic and symbolic dimensions.
We may further follow his asserting that the aim of all the texts is to draw people into relationship with God, confronting the hearer and reader to bring his or her life under the scrutiny of God’s merciful judgement and to bring us into greater conformity with the Word that He may live in us, and guide what we do in all aspects of our individual and corporate lives. Hence the need to approach the scriptures with a sense of humility and wanting to learn and be taught rather than being too critical and asking questions it was never intended to answer.
Lord thy Word abideth and our footsteps guideth
Who its truth believeth light and joy recieveth