This episode of CS is titled, “No Dunce Here.”

The Franciscans had an answer to the Dominican Scholastic we looked at in the previous episode. In fact, Aquinas’ Franciscan counterpart lived at the same time. His name was John Bonaventure.

Born in Tuscany in 1221 as John Fidanza, he became known as Bonaventura when he had a miraculous recovery from a grave illness as a child of four. Upon regaining his health, his mother announced, “Bonaventura = Good fortune” and the name stuck.

While Aquinas was predominantly a theologian, Bonaventure was both theologian and accomplished administrator in the affairs of the Franciscans. Where Thomas was precise but dry, John was a mystic given to great eloquence. If Aquinas was prose, Bonaventure was poetry.

Bonaventure joined the Franciscans and immediately excelled in his studies. He spent 3 years in Paris studying under the Scholastic scholar Alexander of Hales. Alexander paid his pupil a huge compliment when he said that in Bonaventure, “Adam seems not to have sinned.”

Finishing his studies in Paris, he stayed to teach, filling the spot of John of Parma when he took on the leadership of the Franciscans. He was only 26. Anyone would have been in over their head at that age since Bonaventure became the leader of the Franciscans when they ere being split by the fracture we talked about in an earlier episode. He took a middle position between the two parties and was able to negotiate an uneasy peace. It was a brutally hard assignment, but Bonaventure pulled it off with aplomb and earned the title of 2nd founder of the order.

The entire idea of mendicancy came under assault during his term at the helm of the Franciscans. He penned a tract that silenced the opposition and reinforced support for the Mendicants.

At the direction of the first Franciscan General Council at Narbonne in 1260, he wrote the Legend of Francis, the authoritative Franciscan account of the Order’s founder.

In 1273, he was made cardinal of Albano, Italy. He died in Lyons while attending a Church council in 1274. The Pope performed extreme unction for him and his funeral was attended by dignitaries from all over the Christian world. He was declared a “Doctor of the Church” in 1587, one of the highest honors the Roman Church can bestow.

Dante, a fierce critic of sham religion, gave Bonaventure great honor by placing him beside Thomas Aquinas.

These two will always be considered by students of history side by side. One historian of mediaeval theology calls them the illuminating stars on the horizon of the 13th C. Aquinas had the sharper mind, but Bonaventure the warmer heart. Maybe this is why each joined their respective orders; Thomas the Dominicans and John the Franciscans.

Bonaventura enjoyed great popularity as a preacher. Being a poet, his sermons were far more eloquent than his peers.

When Bonaventure wrote, like Aquinas, he turned his mind to theology and provided much to the cleaning up of the thoughts of the day. To give an idea of what kinds of things the Scholastics wrestled with, here are some of the topics Bonaventure weighed in on. . . .

The Trinity, creation, sin, the Incarnation, grace, the Holy Spirit, sacraments, and the Afterlife. Having dealt with these basic topics he engaged a whole host of other subjects more popular to discuss. Things like . . .

  • Could God have made a better world?
  • Could He have made it sooner than He did?
  • Can an angel be in several places at the same time?
  • Can several angels be at the same time in the same place?
  • At the moment of his creation was Lucifer corrupt?
    • Did he belong to the order of angels?
  • Is there a hierarchy among the fallen angels?
  • Do demons have foreknowledge of contingent events?

Bonaventure discussed whether or not sexual intercourse took place before the Fall, whether or not before the Fall men and women was equal, did Adam or Eve sin more grievously by eating the forbidden fruit.

With such weighty and important stuff, no wonder these guys spent a good part of their time sitting at a desk, studying.

Bonaventure agreed with Aquinas in denying that Mary was immaculately conceived and free of original sin. He disagreed with his fellow Franciscan, Duns Scotus, on the issue of transubstantiation. Though Scotus differed from Aquinas on precisely WHAT the bread and wine became, he did accept the idea they became something MORE than mere bread and wine, while Bonaventure held to a symbolic nature for the Communion elements.

While Bonaventure was a brilliant mind, it’s not his theology he’s known for. It’s hard to be when you live at the same time as Thomas Aquinas. He’s best known as a mystic and the author of the Life of St. Francis.

While Aquinas’ Summa became the theological textbook of the Roman Church, it was Bonaventure’s devotional writings that stirred the hearts of thousands of everyday priests to seek God by grace and through His Word.

That brings us to another Franciscan and the last of the Scholastics we’ll consider, John Duns [done] Scotus.

Let me begin by saying that the Scotists, the followers of Duns Scotus, and the Thomists, who followed Aquinas, form the 2 great theological schools of the Middle Ages. The battle between them was fierce; at times violent.

Now, I have to say that in reviewing Scotus’ work, I have a difficult time grasping his thought. Being of only average intelligence, most of his work goes way over my head. Scotus was a serious brainiac and when I read him, I’m lost. I’ll attempt a summary of his work later but first, let’s take a look at his life. We can cover it quickly, because, well, we know next to nothing about him.

He was born “John Duns [done]”; in Scotland; thus the Latin nickname “Scotus” by which he’s best known. Scotus became a priest and joined the Franciscans. Most of his career was spent lecturing at Oxford. He eventually taught at Paris and Cologne where he died in 1308. A monument to Scotus in the Franciscan church at Cologne bears this inscription:—

Scotia gave me birth, England nursed me, Gaul educated me, Cologne holds my ashes.

Among the stories told of Duns Scotus is one that gives more insight into his thoughts than entire chapters of his complex written discourses.

Scotus engaged an English farmer on the subject of religion. The conversation came round to predestination.  The farmer, who was sowing his field, said to Scotus: “Why do you speak to me? If God has foreknowledge that I will be saved, I will be saved whether I do good or ill.”

Scotus replied: “Well, if God has foreknowledge that grain in your bag will grow out of this soil, it will grow whether you sow or withhold your hand. You may as well save yourself the labor you’re at.”

Scotus’ mind was more critical than constructive. He tended to pick apart the thoughts and conclusions of others than to develop or declare his own positions. His work feels reactionary, though he was just using the dialectical method in fashion among the Scholastics.

You’ll remember that the great endeavor of the Scholastics was to link faith and reason; to show that faith wasn’t ir-rational; it was super-rational. They aimed to show that the intellect was a tool to inform and strengthen faith, not weaken it.

Scotus is regarded as last of the Scholastics because his work under-cut their endeavor. By using the questioning methodology of the dialectic, he attacked, not the sufficiency of faith as some scholastics had, he attacked the sufficiency of reason as the means to arrive at knowledge. He subjected Scholastic propositions to intense scrutiny. He showed how several of the theological propositions of the Church were difficult to support by reason, yet the Church said they were true. So, the problem had to be with reason, not with Church dogma. Some things had to be accepted, he said, by faith.

Scotus’ adeptness at asking questions that backed people into logical corners earned him both supporters and enemies. At times, his thoughts were so elaborate; his writing so confusing, today we refer to a muddle-headed person as a “dunce” a word derived from his name.

Scotus spent much of his time on the subject of the will. It’s his work on it that framed the philosophical base for the Reformers and their views on God’s Sovereignty and Election.

Scotus was the first major Catholic theologian to support the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. That says the mother of Jesus, though herself born of human parents, was conceived in holiness without the taint of original sin. That idea had been set forward a century earlier in France, where it immediately met with controversy. Scotus defended the view at a public debate in Paris, employing two-hundred lines of argument for its support and winning the university to his side. Although Aquinas rejected it, Scotus’s view won the day. In Dec. 1854, Pope Pius IX, a Franciscan, declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to be a divinely revealed fact and official Catholic dogma.

Aquinas’s reputation in philosophy and theology has eclipsed Scotus’s, though Scotus’s influenced a wide range of later thinkers, including in the 18th C German Protestant philosopher Leibniz and the 20th C French Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin. The Existentialism of the 20th C resurrected Scotus’s emphasis on will over reason.

If you take a college philosophy class today, most likely you’ll be told that faith and reason are totally separate things. Reason, it’s postulated, is based on evidence and the faculty of the mind. Faith is divorced from both reason and evidence; and reason, always trumps faith. This is an complete reversal from the Scholastics, who may be attributed with some of the loftiest moments in the long history of philosophical analysis. For them, faith came first, with reason a tool that helped fill out and bolster faith.

Duns Scotus began the drift away from that by showing how untrustworthy reason could be. His goal was to remind Scholastics that in their emphasis on reason, they’d neglected the primacy of Faith. But in the divorce he postulated between faith and reason, what happened was that later thinkers ran with reason as separate and superior to faith. If Dun Scotus showed up at a college philosophy lecture today, he’d weep that his ideas had been so poorly developed. And he’d annihilate the shoddy thinking of the secular professor.


Into His Image