Two Visions of Heaven: Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas

In a series of public addresses at Saint Peter’s between 2006 and 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI commented on the lives and teachings of various key Christian thinkers, from apostolic times up to the late 19th Century. In March 2010, Pope Benedict dedicated three of his addresses to Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, and in the last of these talks (March 17th), he compared the great Franciscan saint with a contemporary of his – the Dominican friar, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

After considering the many similarities between the two saints (and Doctors of the Church) – their participation in Church renewal via their respective mendicant orders, their careful and systematic examination of the mysteries of the Faith, and their commitment to the inseparable dialogue between faith and reason – Pope Benedict goes on to show the most significant ways in which they differed. One of these is their conception of theology, as to whether it was primarily a practical or theoretical discipline:

Thomas’ conclusion is: theology entails both aspects: it is theoretical, it seeks to know God ever better, and it is practical: it seeks to orient our life to the good. But there is a primacy of knowledge: above all we must know God and then continue to act in accordance with God (Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 1, art. 4). This primacy of knowledge in comparison with practice is significant to St Thomas‘ fundamental orientation…

…St Bonaventure makes a triple distinction. He extends the alternative between the theoretical (the primacy of knowledge) and the practical (the primacy of practice), adding a third attitude which he calls “sapiential” and affirming that wisdom embraces both aspects. And he continues: wisdom seeks contemplation (as the highest form of knowledge), and has as its intention “ut boni fiamus” that we become good, especially this: to become good (cf. Breviloquium, Prologus, 5). He then adds: “faith is in the intellect, in such a way that it provokes affection. For example: the knowledge that Christ died for us does not remain knowledge but necessarily becomes affection, love” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 3).

taken from Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages (2011), pp.265-266, Fortress Press.

Saint Bonaventure’s three-fold distinction here allows him to more fully integrate the two aspects of knowledge and practice within the third category of wisdom, and so resolve their tensions in this category, whose dominant note is love – we must have knowledge of God in order to love Him, but our increase in knowledge becomes ever more suffused with love, and spurs us on to work that love out in practice. Love, in Saint Bonaventure’s theological framework, is the factor that binds knowledge and practice together, a binding which when observed in occurrence, we call wisdom.

Thus his view does not contradict Saint Thomas’ (as it still presupposes we must first know who God is before we can do anything), but complements it and deepens the meaning of what knowledge is and becomes, as greater intimacy with God is found. This difference in outlook also led to the two saints developing two distinct, but ultimately complementary views of beatitude – what our experience and enjoyment of God in heaven will be like:

For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary. Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

ibid, pp.266-267.

            Again, just as knowledge of God here on earth is not prompted by a desire to know Him purely for the sake of accumulating data about Him, but is born out of love and is intimately related to loving, in heaven the interrelation between our knowledge of God and our love of Him will become so perfected that the distinction almost disappears. Saint Thomas’ insistence that the beatific vision will consist of seeing and knowing God is surely correct, but is again only further enriched by Saint Bonaventure’s claim that knowledge is perfected by love.

To summarise, one could say that although we can know a lot about a person by studying their character, behaviour, etc, we only really know them with our whole being when we love them – it is only when we love that we push out of our selves enough to truly engage with the other. In heaven, when all our attachments to self are finally reoriented to what is Good, True, Beautiful (c.f.; Philippians 4:8-9), we will finally be able to love with every fibre of our being, and it is in that mode of loving that we will know God as He is.

It is a wonderful testament to both the unity and diversity of the Catholic Church, that in two saints with quite different approaches to theology, who produced insights with distinct outlooks, that their conclusions can be reconciled and placed side by side within the greater context of the deposit of faith. This is the true glory and worth of the saints – to provide such a variety of expressions of holiness and thought, but that all are yet branches stemming from the One True Vine. Thereby there is a school of theology, a charism, a way of life, a devotion, to suit every inquirer and everyone who seeks to grow closer to the Lord, and in doing so they will all be drinking from the same Fountain, who pours forth love eternally, and whose waters, once we let Him in, will never cease to nourish our souls.

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6 thoughts on “Two Visions of Heaven: Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas

  1. Bonaventure is a neglected theologian (at least in our day) due to the attention focused on his contemporary. But, a simply marvelous spiritual classic is “The Journey of the Mind to God” which is freely available as a pdf download from several sites. Some reviewers have found it extremely dense – and it is. But, it is also clear, and a slow deliberate read will yield treasure.

    • Thanks for the comments! I agree – the Seraphic Doctor is often overshadowed by the Angelic Doctor! Also, I feel St Bonaventure often gets lumped in with other Franciscans of his time and later (particularly William of Ockham and Roger Bacon) by people who see his thought as laying the ground for their voluntarism and nominalism. Not a view I share, but it is common in some circles unfortunately.

      As for The Journey of the Mind to God, I have a pdf copy, and was able to print it out (for free, thankfully), but haven’t taken the plunge yet, as it does (as you say some reviewers have noted) seem quite an imposing read. Nevertheless, I will get there eventually – it is on ‘the list’!

      • It was a required read for a class I was taking, and of course we were immersed in the vocabulary and thought at the time, so that probably helped me – plus it was short. But, based on what I’ve seen you write, you are well equipped. If you have read “Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila – then here is my non-politically correct way of comparing – St. Bonaventure provides kind of a manual while St. Teresa provides kind of a story. It’s like as if you had two tire changer experts, recognized in their field, one a guy and one a girl, tell you how to change a tire.

        Anyway, well worth diving in.

        • It is funny you shouldn’t mention The Interior Castle as well – I have a copy sitting on the shelf next to me, also on the ‘to read’ list (and has been for quite a while now!)

          Thanks for the comparison between the two texts – not only does it provide a good way of comparing their two styles, but it has also given me the impetus to pick up and read both of them. As it happens, I am working my way through the Divine Comedy at the moment (another one on the list) – not spiritual reading as such, but it is certainly good material for Lenten reflection!

  2. Pingback: July 17th: Mercy in Heaven

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