St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (c. 1217–1274) placed a high value on the doctrine of creation, as is manifest in his several discussions of the doctrine throughout his career.
Getting clear on creation, Bonaventure believed, entailed not only knowing the creature better, but also knowing the creature in terms of the Creator. Higher still is the value he placed on the specific, Scriptural account of creation in Genesis 1. His discussions of the first chapter of Genesis demonstrates an ability to synthesize the literal and figural senses of the text, producing as a result an interpretation of Genesis 1 that is neither solely literal nor figural, but rather fosters a fluid movement from the literal sense into spiritual interpretation. This reliance of the spiritual on the literal is hardly unique to Bonaventure. Yet, Bonaventure applies his interpretation of Genesis to his overall theological program with a breadth that is remarkable. The Bonaventuran outcome of this holistic interpretive strategy is a theological teleology that he applies to the structure of doctrine, to contemplative and mystical practice, and to developing a rule of life.
Bonaventure never wrote what we would call a “commentary” on Genesis. We do, however, find his engagement with the first creation account of Genesis 1–2:4a, otherwise known as the Hexaëmeron,“Hexaëmeron,” from the Greek έξαἠμερος: έξα (six) and ἠμερος (day), also names the genre of biblical commentary originating with Philo of Alexandria’s De opificio mundi, and popularized by Basil of Caesarea and Ambrose of Milan, both of whose commentaries take their name from the genre. in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences and his Breviloquium. We also see the Hexaëmeron employed in less overt ways throughout his corpus, as Bonaventure is known for his use of numerical structure to organize theological loci. The Hexaëmeron is one of his favorite ordering devices; he uses it to structure several texts, including a portion of his inaugural sermon (formerly known as the Reduction of the Arts to Theology), the body of the Breviloquium, the chapters of the Journey of the Mind to God, and the Collations on the Hexaëmeron.
Hexaëmeron in Bonaventure’s Commentary on Sentences
Bonaventure first treats the Hexaëmeron in his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences (completed 1254). He sets out in the second book to give a thorough description of creation from several theological angles: as a divine activity; as the product of that divine act; the phenomena of free will, original sin and its transmission, and grace with respect to free will; and the acquisition of virtue and merit with respect to free will and sin. The doctrine of creation invokes not just scientific—or even philosophical—questions about nature. Rather, the whole dynamic of Christian teaching about what humanity is good for, how sin damages the human, and how God responds to the damage of sin comes into play in Bonaventure’s theology of creation.
The whole dynamic of Christian teaching about what humanity is good for, how sin damages the human, and how God responds to the damage of sin comes into play in Bonaventure’s theology of creation.
Bonaventure situates his analysis of the Hexaëmeron between a discussion of angels and demons and his discussion of sin.In II Sent. 12. The conversation about creation in these distinctions is striking because, like Peter Lombard, Bonaventure accepts the reasonableness of Augustine’s “literal,” a-temporal interpretation of Genesis 1, namely that the days could not have been successive periods of time. Yet, also like Lombard, Bonaventure’s own literal interpretation of the days maintains the temporality of the days. In interpreting Genesis 1 thusly, Bonaventure sees himself accomplishing two goals: first, he is constructing an argument about Scriptural necessity (in contrast to logical necessity); and second, he is keeping with the witness of earlier doctors and fathers. Augustine, Bonaventure explains, sought to provide a literal and sensible interpretation of Genesis 1 that accords with his understanding of divine perfection. As such, Augustine reasoned in On the literal interpretation of Genesis in twelve books, creation as a divine act is simultaneous, it happens not over time but at once, and outside of time precisely because God, who is infinite and perfect, is not bound by time. It is beyond the scope of this post to explore either Augustine’s position or Bonaventure’s relationship to Augustine’s theology further. It is, however, helpful at this point to remember that Augustine interpreted the “days” of the Hexaëmeron literally, even if the word in Genesis does not signify a unit of time. Indeed, Augustine argued, what we call a day is but a temporal reflection of this first and truer day. Thus, Augustine believed that he had offered an interpretation that is thorough-goingly literal.
Bonaventure’s response to Augustine here, as well as in the second part of the Breviloquium, reveals much about his Scriptural hermeneutic. As Joshua Benson notes, Bonaventure does not reject Augustine’s interpretation, but rather challenges it as a literal interpretation.Joshua Benson, “Augustine and Bonaventure,” in The T&T Clark Companion to Augustine and Modern Theology, edited by Chad Pecknold and Tarmo Toom (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 144–146. Bonaventure calls Augustine’s interpretation a reasonable, spiritual interpretation insofar as it perhaps explains the angelic state during the event of creation. But a literal interpretation that maintains the temporality of the creation event, Bonaventure reasons, is not only closer to the received tradition of the saints and doctors; it also provides a structural foundation for the other senses of Scripture, namely, the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical.
Here Bonaventure sees himself employing an hermeneutic principle of fittingness, or congruity, between the different parts of Scripture. In the Sentences commentary, as Benson observes, this fittingness is fourfold (“ratio quadruplex”), and accords with the fourfold sense of Scripture: “literalis, moralis, allegorica et anagogica.”In II Sent. 12.1.2 concl. The literal sense of Genesis 1 pertains to the perfection of the number by which God creates the world. Here Bonaventure refers to the concept of the aliquot, the perfect number six, which both Philo and Augustine employ in their discussion of the Hexaëmeron. The moral sense, according to Bonaventure, pertains to the necessity of grace to complete the soul, in the same way that the seventh day, the day of divine rest which has no evening. Allegorically, we see that the six ages of the world are foreshadowed in the days. Finally, Bonaventure takes the anagogical sense of the Hexaëmeron to be the manner in which the angels comprehend God’s act, which he acknowledges that Augustine had already clearly explained in On the literal interpretation of Genesis. He also notes that Augustine considered this to be the literal, and not anagogical, sense of the text.
Genesis 1 in Bonaventure’s Lecture, the Reduction
Bonaventure reinforces the unity of the literal and figural sense of Scripture in his inaugural lecture (otherwise known as the Reduction), delivered in 1254 as he was made a master at the University of Paris. Bonaventure elicits a threefold figural interpretation from the literal sense of Genesis 1. Genesis teaches us about: the eternal generation of the Son; the pattern of life; and the creaturely telos of reunion with God. More strikingly, he uses the Hexaëmeron as a pattern, or textual structure, for dividing the different loci (“lights”) of knowledge, and argues that just as the days of creation following the first emanate from the fundamental light of one day, so too all knowledge emanates from Scripture. Likewise, just as the whole work of creation is brought to rest in the seventh day, so too all knowledge will be brought to rest in its source in the seventh age, an age which will know no evening. The twofold movement from source to rest-in-the-source, articulated here, is a prime example of the famous Bonaventuran principle of reduction.
Hexaëmeron in Bonaventure’s Breviloquium
In his Breviloquium (1257), Bonaventure returns to the Hexaëmeron but this time with a stronger anthropological focus. He appeals not only to the hermeneutics of the fourfold sense (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical) but also to St. Paul’s language for the love of Christ in Ephesians 3 as a way of dividing the procedure of Scripture. In the prologue of the Breviloquium, he explains that Scripture works by supernatural inspiration to provide the knowledge necessary for salvation. This knowledge has four aspects (terms derived from Ephesians 3): breadth, length, height, and depth. In his discussion of the length of Scripture, Bonaventure again refers to Genesis 1. Scripture, he says, “traverses the greatest possible length, since it begins with the origin of the world and time in the first chapter of Genesis and continues until the end of the world and time in the closing chapters of the Apocalypse.”Breviloquium, prol. 2, trans. Dominic Monti (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2005). The structure of the length of Scripture is sevenfold, and can be known by the major events or characters which mark the beginning of each age (Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Exile, Christ, Christ’s “repose in the tomb” to the general resurrection). Bonaventure observes that the sevenfold structure of salvation history parallels the structure of the Hexaëmeron. Bonaventure observes that the sevenfold structure of salvation history parallels the structure of the Hexaëmeron.In directly correlating each age to each of the seven days, Bonaventure comments that “the course of the macrocosm [history] corresponds with that of the microcosm — namely, of the human being, for whose sake the larger world was created.”Breviloquium, prol. 2.
It is worth noting here that in this way Bonaventure indirectly enters into the debate surrounding Joachim de Fiore’s (c. 1135–1202) controversial belief in a new age of the Spirit. Bonaventure corrects the Joachimite position by reiterating the Augustinian division of the ages, thereby making it clear that we live not in a new age, but rather the six age that began with Christ’s resurrection, and we remain so until Christ’s second coming. However, more than correcting a problematic position in the theology of history, Bonaventure’s Scriptural argument is that history participates in the logic of both creation and salvation. This emphasis on foundation and restoration, and the way that Bonaventure employs it throughout the rest of the Breviloquium, perhaps reflects the abiding influence of Hugh of St. Victor on the structure of Bonaventure’s thought.Hugh’s De sacramentis is divided into two parts, the first on “the work of foundation,” and the second on “the work of restoration.”
In the second reference to the Hexaemeron in the Breviloquium, Bonaventure gives a thorough literal treatment of the days of creation, first in terms of the production of material creation, and second in terms of the role that Genesis 1 has in communicating salvific knowledge. In the former, we see Bonaventure continue to develop both the relationship of macro/microcosm and the movement of emanation/reduction. This is important because both of these metaphysical concepts coalesce in the human being, whose soul is the epitome of creation and that through which all of creation is led into harmonious relationship with God.Cf. Breviloquium II.4. In the latter, developing this anthropological point, Bonaventure shows that we see that in order to know God as Savior, we need to know God first as Creator. In fact, so Bonaventure believes, the language of Genesis 1 already reveals the Trinity, and posits that there is a conformity to the Trinity in the very manner which the days unfold. Accordingly, the work of creation already begins to prefigure the work of re-creation.As he indicates later in Breviloquium IV, revealing the likely influence of Hugh of St. Victor’s De Sacramentis. We see this in figural, or “spiritual” interpretations of Genesis. For instance, “the literal account of the whole creation refers symbolically to the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies.” Likewise, “the ‘seven days’ stand for the seven states of the Church through the succession of the seven ages.”Breviloquium II.5.
Genesis 1 in The Journey of the Mind to God
It is important to briefly mention in our survey of Bonaventure’s treatments of Genesis 1 the popular but dense mystical treatise, The Journey of the Mind to God. Bonaventure organizes this text into six stages (chapters) of contemplative ascent that lead to a seventh, mystical stage where the soul rises with Christ into darkness (rest). The initial six stages reflect the six wings of the seraph, a favorite image of ascent because of St. Francis’s vision of the seraph upon receiving the stigmata.Journey of the Mind to God, prologue 2–3, trans. Oleg Bychkov. In the first chapter, however, Bonaventure also orders the progress of the ascent of the mind to the order creation in the Hexaëmeron, saying “the ‘lesser world’ might be led to the quiet of contemplation in a most orderly way through six successive levels of illumination.”Journey of the Mind to God, 1.5, trans. Oleg Bychkov. Here, as in the inaugural sermon and the Breviloquium, the Hexaëmeron as a structuring device invokes imagery of both creation and restoration or return. Hence, the ascent of the Journey begins with the contemplation of creation and ends in reunion.
Bonaventure’s Collations on the Hexaëmeron
Finally, in 1273/4, at the end of his life, Bonaventure began but unfortunately did not complete a series of lectures, the Collations on the Hexaëmeron. Bonaventure’s aim in the Collationes was not to explain the literal sense of Genesis 1, which he had earlier defined as that “which the words outwardly express.”Reduction of the Arts to Theology 5, trans. Zachary Hayes, OFM (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1996). Rather, the Collations offer a symbolic and spiritual, yet incomplete interpretation of the six days. Particularly, Bonaventure sought to use the six days as a structural lens for understanding wisdom and how humans acquire it.Cf. Kevin Hughes, “St. Bonaventure’s Collationes in Hexaëmeron: Fractured Sermons and Protreptic Discourse,” Franciscan Studies 63 (2005): 108–109. In his Collations, Bonaventure sees Scripture as the guide to the wise and holy life.
We also see in the Collations Bonaventure’s insistence that the center of all things (metaphysical, ethical, and Scriptural) is Christ. Christ is the medium that holds all things together, and provides the key for unlocking the truth about the world and humanity. We can infer Scripture’s role in Christ’s mediation: Scripture reveals Christ to us in a manner analogous to the way that the Eternal Word reveals the Father. And, of course, it is noteworthy for several reasons, many of which have been suggested above, that the symbolic context for Bonaventure’s exploration into Revelation and Christology, is the Hexaëmeron. Furthermore, here again, Bonaventure uses the Hexaëmeron as a numerical structuring device, as the Collations were meant to present six kinds of visions of God and ending with wisdom, the perfect vision, as a seventh. Sadly, Bonaventure was only able to deliver collations through the fourth day of Genesis 1 before he died.