The Superior Light of Scripture (St. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Part 4)
One of the more helpful books I read last year on education was St. Bonaventure’s On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Over the course of the next couple months I hope to write a series of posts on this book. Each post will provide a brief summary of the content followed by reflections on how his insights in the 13thcentury can help us educate better in the 21stcentury. All page references, as well as the 26 section breaks, come from the Franciscan Institute’s publication in the Works of Saint Bonaventure Series.
The fourth light Bonaventure identifies is the light of sacred Scripture, which he calls the superior light because “it leads to higher things by revealing truths which transcend reason, and also because it is not acquired by human research, but comes down from the ‘God of Lights’ by inspiration” (43). Bonaventure proposes that while the Scripture has one literal sense, it also has a three-fold mystical sense: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The allegorical sense teaches “what to believe concerning the divinity and humanity.” The moral sense teaches us how we ought to live. Finally, the anagogical sense teaches us how to cling to God. These three mystical senses of reading and interpreting Scripture are related to three truths taught by the whole of Scripture: first, the eternal generation and incarnation of Christ, which is concerned with faith; second, the pattern of human life, which is concerned with morals; and third, the union of the soul with God, which is the ultimate goal of both. Finally, Bonaventure claims that the doctors should focus on the first, faith; preachers should be focused on the second, morals; and contemplatives the third, the union of both (45).
Bonaventure’s discussion of this fourth light is intriguing, particularly because the evangelical Protestant tradition, which serves as the primary tradition for the resurgence of classical Christian education, remains overwhelmingly against the fourfold interpretation of Scripture and clings almost exclusively to a literal approach. It seems to me that one of the likely implications of a classical, Great Books approach to education will be a greater acceptance of the allegorical, moral, and anagogical interpretive techniques of the Church Fathers and their medieval successors. I would welcome such a change. Moreover, my own story is an example of such possible implications. As I began reading Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Augustine (among others), I was intrigued, fascinated, and convinced by their interpretive methodology.I expect that many of our students will see the truth and beauty of Athanasius’ words regarding the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation and death and wonder why they have never heard such things in a Sunday sermon. We must be prepared to answer such questions from students that do not diminish the insights of either Athanasius and the Fathers or the wonderful scholarship of our modern era.
For the sake of space in this reflection, which is intended to be brief, I will not discuss my reasons for this change. A great resource that explains many of the reasons I think the approach of the Church Fathers is more helpful than a modern historical-critical approach is Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).