Blessed John Duns Scotus, Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, Saint Bonaventure, Scholasticism, Seraphic Orthodoxy, The Franciscans

Saint Bonaventure & Bl. John Duns Scotus

saint-bonaventure-and-blessed-john-duns-scotusGiven my recent investigations into the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, I have naturally been reading as much literature by and about Saint Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus as I possibly can. While these two great figures have differing styles of writing and contemplation, I have noticed that the stylistic differences share a common Franciscan unity. My initial hunch has been that Saint Bonaventure, being the first intellectual master of the Franciscan tradition, initiated the process of thematically drawing out the spirituality of Saint Francis by developing a distinctive approach to Franciscan philosophy and theology. The Seraphic Doctor would eventually develop a robust system of thought that in my view, doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Blessed John Duns Scotus would later inherit Bonaventure’s legacy, re-formulate it, and eventually become the primary intellectual force within the Franciscan tradition.

Consider this description of Saint Bonaventure’s use of analogy,

“While the notion of analogy is common among Scholastics, it has a unique tonality in Bonaventure who seems to stress the positive side more than the negative. ‘The created world is like a book in which is reflected, represented, and read the Creative trinity.’ While analogy, at one level, is a mode of predication, it is far more than this since our understanding of predication reflects our understanding of what constitutes the real order of things. If all creation springs from the triune God, then in some way creatures must reflect this fact. Bonaventure finds a universe that reflects the Trinitarian God in different degrees, from the most distant resemblance of the vestige to the highest likeness of the similitude. He finds triadic structures at virtually every significant level of concern. If the world, in its depth, is a vast symbol of the divine reality, then analogy is the key to unlocking the meaning of the universe. And for those who learn to read the analogies, the world becomes a path or a ladder that leads back to God.”[1]

Later, when discussing the hierarchical nature of Bonaventurian themes, a similar conceptual understanding of analogy associated with God’s relation to the created order can be identified,

“The levels of the hierarchy are not merely superimposed layers with no significant relation to one another. On the contrary, there are lines of interaction between the various degrees of hierarchies. There is a chain of mediation in which the higher members of the hierarchy pass on influences to those members immediately below them. Guardini compares the entire structure to a system of canals through which a common vital power streams. While the beings of the hierarchy have a mediating role to play in reference to one another, it is the influence of God that streams forth through the channels of this vast, living, organism, reaching into all areas of the spiritual life and brining forth the higher degrees of God-likeness in creatures.”[2]

In my view, these paragraphs describing Bonaventure’s views on analogy and God’s relation to the created order are entirely in line with the classical theistic tradition of the Catholic Church. And rather than abandoning the lead of the Seraphic Doctor, Scotus, the Subtle Doctor, will eventually draw out of these Bonaventurian themes a system of his own while staying true to the Franciscan heritage initiated by the spirituality of Saint Francis, the Seraphic Father of the order. To be sure, there are important philosophical differences between Bonaventure and Scotus, but the Franciscan charism motivating their work unifies the spirit of their systems.

Far from being a proto-modernist, the gifted Scotus advances the tradition inherited from the Franciscan forefathers,

“Bonaventure died in 1274, was canonized in 1482, and made a primary Doctor of the Church in 1588. He was succeeded in the chair of theology at Paris by Gilbert of Tournai, Walter of Bruges, John Pecham, Matthew of Aquasparta, and Richard of Middleton. Marcil points out that the thirteenth century theologians kept an independent style, but generally followed the Bonaventurian lead while departing on some points. Marcil has in mind Peter of Olivi and John Duns Scotus. But for the purposes of the narrative on Scotus, the caveat is that Scotus’ style may only appear to be more arid, and a digression from Bonaventure. Therefore, the critical question is: is Scotus’ thought a digression or a fuller explanation of what Bonaventure began? Upon close examination, Scotus does not represent a substantial change in approach to the nature of philosophy and theology. Rather, it can be argued that he gives a more rigorous analysis.”[3]

I am finding that my independent investigations support the contextual claims of the above paragraph. The unity of the Franciscan spiritual heritage allows a both/and approach to the systems of Bonaventure and Scotus.

The Newman-Scotus Reader provides this summary of the foundational elements of the Franciscan tradition (Pg. 77, 78):

There are four very important points that will be developed in the chapters ahead. They center on the Franciscan thesis which originates in St. Francis himself. It is the theory about the nature of the predestination of Jesus and Mary. Jointly they are prior to anything else willed by God for existence and not conditioned on the sin of Adam and Eve, a priority that is at the root of any possibility of redemption after sin. Exemplary causality includes their mediatory influence in the world, not only after sin, but before, in the human and angelic orders…

  1. First, familiarity with Scotus’ life, works, and some of his forerunners confirms the place of Scripture, Tradition, the Fathers of the Church, especially the Alexandrine School, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, John of Damascene, the Victorines, and Anselm.
  2. Second, the Scotistic School is inseparable from the overall context of what is called the Franciscan School. Francis of Assisi wanted educated friars who did their theology on their knees. He was not a tenured theologian, but, in this sense, no less a theologian.
  3. Third, from this vantage point, there is no split between Bonaventure and Scotus, but rather a more exact mode of defining by Scotus that anticipates the future objections of Kant, and, anticipates the overall outline of chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium at Vatican II.
  4. Fourth, the thought of William of Ockham (d.1347) is often presumed to be the next generation in continuity after Scotus’ thought, but Ockham’s nominalism is more closely associated with agnosticism that fails to have scholarly verifiable purchase in Catholic philosophy.


UPDATE: During the scholastic era, one of the important areas of discussion concerned Augustinian illuminationism and the Aristotelian theory of cognition. Saint Bonaventure argued in favor of the Augustinian position. Saint Thomas’s view was a sort of middle ground between the two theories. Some scholars claim that Saint Thomas abandoned illuminationism, but I do not think that is the case. Aquinas is more Augustinian than some may be willing to admit. Blessed John Duns Scotus, however, ended up siding entirely with the Aristotelian theory, and eventually moves beyond Aristotle. Scotus argues that if the Aristotelian theory of cognition is adopted, an adjustment is required in the area of our understanding of being, that is, analogy of being would not be sufficient to derive concepts of God from the created order, at least without divine illumination. This is a primary reason why Scotus developed his theory of univocity of being, which gets you the benefits of illuminationism without some of the epistemic baggage, at least according to Scotus. And contrary to his critics, Scotus does not abandon analogy. He tries to show that if analogy is possible, univocity is always present in the schematic of being. As interesting as Scotus’s move might be, I find myself siding with the “old school” emphasis on analogy, participation, and illumination.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] The Hidden Center: Spirituality and Speculative Christology in St. Bonaventure, Hayes, Pg. 15

[2] Ibid, Pg. 17

[3] The Newman-Scotus Reader: Contexts and Commonalities, Ondrako, Pg. 77


2 thoughts on “Saint Bonaventure & Bl. John Duns Scotus

  1. Pingback: The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition | The Socratic Catholic

  2. Pingback: The Unity of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition | The Socratic Catholic

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