The Unity of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition

Franciscan Saints and MottoDiscovering, studying, and finally entering into an intellectual tradition can be an exciting event when traveling the path toward truth. But sometimes even from within various traditions there can be divergent schools or sects which might compete for being the most faithful to the vision of its founder. This exists, for example, in the Thomistic Intellectual Tradition. There are at least six different schools of Thomistic thought – Neo-Scholastic Thomism, Existential Thomism, River Forest Thomism, Transcendental Thomism, Lublin Thomism, and Analytical Thomism. In addition to these six schools, Radical Orthodoxy might be considered another kind of Thomism since Aquinas is said to have greatly impacted this influential theological movement. So if someone were to say that they are a Thomist, or a follower of the Angelic Doctor’s system of thought, such a description may still need more clarification concerning what that exactly amounts to given the different schools within the tradition.

The temptation to divide the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition into competing schools also exists. It is easy to get caught up following the lead of some intellectuals who, at the very least, implicitly associate the Franciscan masters with divergent schools of thought within the tradition similar to the above mentioned schools of Thomism. If one is not careful, it is relatively easy to create a “schism” within the Franciscan masters.

For example, consider this passage describing the various schools of the Scholastic era,

“It is commonly held that there were four high-medieval schools: Franciscan Augustinianism (divided into three currents), Christian Aristotelianism (Thomism), Averroistic Aristotelianism, and scientifico-physical Augustinianism. Alexander [of Hales] shaped the early Franciscan school and its Augustinian orientation.”[1]

In addition to these schools of thought, consider this description of Bonaventure’s theology and philosophy,

“Bonaventure has said that he loved the life of Francis, because it seemed like the early church of the simple fisherman. He saw in the life of the early Franciscans clear evidence of the order being a divine work, rather than a product of human prudence.

For the next four decades, after his arrival in Paris, Bonaventure played a central role in all of these great medieval movements, — Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, the university, and Franciscanism.

Yet, for all of the influence that these new movements had on Bonaventure, his thought remained firmly rooted in that intellectual giant from late antiquity who so shaped the whole of medieval life and culture, namely, Augustine of Hippo. Augustine remained the predominant influence, outside the Bible, on Bonaventure’s thought, both philosophically and theologically. It was an Augustine read through the eyes of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141). Nevertheless, it is precisely this allegiance to Augustine on a number of key points that helps render Bonaventure ‘the most medieval’ of thinkers, as Gilson so aptly proclaimed him in his book on Bonaventure’s philosophy.”[2]

Provided these descriptions of the high-medieval schools and Bonaventure’s Augustinian commitments, it would seem very easy to manufacture an “old school” Franciscan tradition that follows Bonaventure, and a “new school” Franciscan tradition that follows Scotus. Juxtaposed to Bonaventure’s Augustinian commitments, Scotus could be associated with a unique Franciscanism closely linked to Christian Aristotelianism. To be sure, such a description of Scotus would not make him a follower of Aquinas and Thomism as mentioned in the referenced passage. To the contrary, Scotus has significant disagreements with Aquinas’s system of thought. Nonetheless, if one were so inclined to create a schism between Bonaventure and Scotus, it could be argued that Scotus initiated a school of thought that may be accurately described as Franciscan Aristotelianism, to which William of Ockham could be considered a member as well. This too, requires qualification because William of Ockham has vast disagreement with Scotus, but based on the development of these competing schools from within the single Franciscan tradition, it could be maintained that Scotus and Ockham incorporated into their philosophy an Aristotelianism that Bonaventure would not allow into his. When there was a choice to be made between Augustine or Aristotle, Bonaventure went with Augustine.

This is all quite flawed, however, and in my view, is the incorrect approach to the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition.

In doing this, creating schools within Franciscanism, it tends to generate rivalries where there are none, and creates the illusion of having to choose one of the various schools to follow from within the tradition. This develops into the separation of followers committed to the school of Bonaventure, the school of Scotus, or the school of Ockham.

A better approach, the correct approach, is to enter into the tradition recognizing what these masters share in common, which is their shared love of the Franciscan charism. This love is what primarily generated the systems of thought produced by Bonaventure and Scotus. And while these two have their nuanced differences, they share multitudinous commonalities. I maintain that these commonalities are the outworking of their mutual dedication to articulating a theology and philosophy corresponding to the Seraphic Father’s mystical life in union with Christ.

Trying to pick a school from within the tradition itself seems to be an exercise in over-intellectualizing the Franciscan charism instead of entering into it so that one might grow in their love and fidelity to Christ, as St. Francis did when called by Christ to “go and rebuild my house, which thou seest is falling into ruin.” To fallaciously manufacture schisms within the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition amounts to a totally wrongheaded approach.

This does not put aside the intellectual aspect of the tradition. St. Francis himself recognized the importance of trained theologians just as long as the intellect doesn’t overtake the spiritual unity in the heart that is aligned with Christ. Consider his letter to St. Anthony of Padua,

“I, Brother Francis, send greetings to you, Brother Anthony, my theological superior. I am pleased that you are now teaching sacred theology to our brothers providing one thing: As it says in our Rule, please see that you do not squelch the spirit of prayer and devotion in them as they undertake studies of this kind.”[3]

With that being said, the first intellectual issue that needs to be explained is Scotus’s univocity of being. This theory creates all sorts of controversies, and the mere mention of the term “univocity” might initiate an audible gasp from many who associate it with the dreaded monster of “onto-theology.” For instance, many critics of the univocity of being argue that it basically amounts to the downfall of theology and philosophy, while Scotus argues that without the univocity of being any meaningful theology and philosophy from the Christian perspective is destroyed. Moreover, these same critics argue that Scotus’s univocity of being replaces the Thomistic understanding of the analogy of being, which is mistaken. In truth, Scotus’s position is meant to safeguard analogy from collapsing into equivocity. These are strong criticisms of the Scotistic system of thought, and therefore, criticisms of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition; because of the seriousness of these claims they must be met head on and refuted.

The richness of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition should not be chopped up into schools where rivals spring forth. It should begin by first recognizing its internal Catholicity, and then its fidelity to St. Francis of Assisi. When this approach is taken, the richness of the tradition can be entered into with a full heart. The Franciscan heritage begins with the Seraphic Father, which is developed systematically by the Seraphic Doctor, and finally inherited and perfected by the Subtle Doctor. What I call Seraphic Orthodoxy is the natural outworking of this unified spiritual heritage of Bonaventuro-Scotistic Franciscanism.

Pax et Bonum


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Ibid, Pg. 11

[2] Ibid, Pg. 8

[3] Francis of Assisi: The Essential Writings, Pg. 73


One thought on “The Unity of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s