Understanding Scripture – Bonaventure

Bonaventure emphasizes faith as the key to Bible interpretation.  The goal of Bible study is not academic knowledge, but wisdom — the experience of knowing and loving God leading to eternal happiness and fulfillment of all our desires.

The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation.  This revelation comes from the Father of Light from whom the whole concept of fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives.  From him, through Jesus Christ his Son, the Holy Spirit enters into us.  Then, through the Holy Spirit who allots and apportions his gifts to each person as he wishes, we receive the gift of faith, and through faith Christ lives in our hearts.

The Light of Faith

So we come to know Christ and this knowledge becomes the main source of a firm understanding of the truth of all sacred Scripture.  It is impossible, therefore, for anyone to achieve this understanding unless he first receives the gift of faith in Christ.  This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding.  As long as our earthly state keeps us from seeing the Lord, this same faith is the firm basis of all supernatural enlightenment, the light guiding us to it, and the doorway through which we enter upon it.  What is more, the extent of our faith is the measure of the wisdom which God has given us.  Thus, no one should overestimate his wisdom; instead, he should soberly make his assessment according to the extent of the faith which God has given him.

Scripture & the Fullness of Happiness

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.

Understanding means Knowing & Loving

If we are to attain the ultimate goal of eternal happiness by the path of virtue described in the Scriptures, we have to begin at the very beginning.  We must come with a pure faith to the Father of Light and acknowledge him in our hearts.  We must ask him to give us, through his Son and in the Holy Spirit, a true knowledge of Jesus Christ, and along with that knowledge a love of him.  Knowing and loving him in this way, confirmed in our faith and grounded in our love, we can know the length and breadth and height and depth of his sacred Scripture. 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.

This excerpt from a short discourse by St. Bonaventure (Prologus: Opera Omnia 5, 201-202) on the Understanding of Scripture appears in the Roman Catholic Divine Office of Readings for Monday in the fifth (5th) week in Ordinary time. It deals with the principles of the interpretation of the Bible otherwise known as biblical hermeneutics.

St. Bonaventure

Born in Italy as Giovanni di Fidanza around the year 1217, St. Bonaventure entered the new religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi called the “Friars Minor” around the year 1243, about twenty years after Francis’ death. Bonaventure studied theology under the famous Alexander of Hales and became a professor at the greatest school of theology in the medieval world, the University of Paris where he taught alongside St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor.” St. Bonaventure’s theology is always written with holy passion, in the tradition of St. Augustine, and always directed towards increasing the depth and intensity of the spiritual life. Because of his burning zeal, Bonaventure became known as the “Seraphic Doctor.” St. Bonaventure was elected minister general of the Franciscan order in 1257 and played a prominent role in settling the dissension that had plagued the order since the death of its founder, St. Francis. In fact Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis was approved by the Friars Minor as the official biography of their founder. Having been created Cardinal Archbishop of Albano in 1273, St. Bonaventure attended the Ecumenical Council of Lyon where he died in the same year that St. Thomas Aquinas died, in 1274. As a theologian, Saint Bonaventure upheld the duty and value of using the human intellect to reflect on the mysteries of faith. But for him all human wisdom was folly when compared to the mystical illumination given to the faithful Christian by God himself. This theme is most beautifully developed in St. Bonaventure’s best known work, his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (Journey of the Mind into God). His most extensive and systematic work of theology is his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. It is however, as a spiritual writer, that Saint Bonaventure has had his greatest and most lasting impact. Be sure to check out the poetic Prayer of Saint Bonaventure. Incorporate it into your own prayer life. It is only fitting that the first Franciscan University in the United States, located in St. Bonaventure, New York, should be named after St. Bonaventure, the greatest of all Franciscan theologians. His feast day in the Roman calendar falls on July 15.