Monday 23 June 2008

Bonaventure and Erasmus Two Ways. - An Essay.

Bonaventure and Erasmus two ways.

In this paper we will examine the concept of journey in the
Christian faith. This journey or 'Quest' in my opinion is a two-fold journey. First it is the journey to God or faith, then when we think the quest is over, we discover a whole new journey has begun, that being the journey into God. Thus when we think we have reached our destination we find that it is really just another door, leading to a whole new road. These journeys or quests, take many different paths; we could almost say there are as many paths are there are people. For each person has been shaped by his life, circumstances, times, surroundings and influences. We will examine the concepts of spiritual journeys, or faith quests, and we will look at some historical examples of these processes, from the bible through to our own time. Then we will look at Bonaventure and Erasmus and their specific journeys and their views of such journeys or quests into God.

Though each faith journey is unique there are some characteristics that are common or at least many overlaps in different people's journeys. As Donald Nicholl in the essay Scientia Cordis states: "Certainly a striking feature of many of the great spiritual adventurers of this century has been the way in which, having lost their bearings within their own traditions, they have sought them in some other - and have almost gone over to that tradition, only to discover their bearings once more within their own." Nicholl, here illustrates a point that the quest is journey that will lead one back to one's own tradition; a great example of this quest and the dual nature of the quest of Thomas Merton (1915-1968). As I wrote in an earlier paper: "Thomas Merton was an enigma. He was a monk, a man and a myth. He created the myth with his bestseller The Seven Story Mountain and then spent most of the rest of his life trying to change that story." Merton thought that when he became a Catholic and then a monk he was at the end of his spiritual journey. He wrote his most famous book The Seven Story Mountain and believed he had all the answers, yet within a short time he realized that he was now set upon a new journey, that of growing in this new faith and relationship with God. He wrote prolifically the rest of his life to try and counter the arrogance and mistake of that first book. Now turning to a much older source we have an example from St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians 3:12-16 he states: "Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this in mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind." Here Paul outlines his own striving, and journey into God, and how others should be struggling, striving to follow a similar journey. Also in St. Peter's second letter we see a clear outline of instructions for growth in Christian character, or the path to journey on to grow in Christ Jesus and in fellowship with other believers: "But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ."

From the above examples we see that the concepts of journey, in the Christian life, that there is a path to follow goes back to those who founded Christianity as a sub-sect of Judaism, right up to today. So now a study of St. Bonaventure, his life and his view of spiritual journey begins.

St. Bonaventure; whose years are 1221AD-1274AD, was an amazing man of faith. He is credited as being the second founder of the Franciscans. He taught at the University of Paris, was the Head of the Franciscans(1257AD), a Bishop(1273AD), a Cardinal(1274AD) and he played a major role in the Second Council of Lyons. Bonaventure is considered a disciple of Augustine. In "A history of the Christian Church" it states: "Bonaventure was intellectually a disciple of St. Augustine. Like the Latter, he desired to know but two things; God, the supreme reality, and the soul's progress to union with God. Philosophy and all secular knowledge are, at best, only a means to the end of 'seeing' God (the visio Dei)." Bonaventure's life was a quest for two things, to know God, and to journey towards God. Now let us examine those specific paths.

Bonaventure believed that there were three modes of understanding. Those being: i) reflection on the natural world, ii) the consideration of our natural power and iii) our receiving illumination through Christ who is our mediator. Yet each of these three modes is two-fold in that God can be seen in them and also through them. These six stages are representative of different stages on the road by which we ascend to God. Thus Bonaventure can be seen as a mystical theologian. Walker et. Al. summarize Bonaventure's thought as follows: "By meditation and prayer, and aided throughout by divine grace, the mind journeys to God first by gazing upon his traces in the world at large, then by catching sight of him deep within itself, and finally by rising above itself to behold God the Holy Trinity, who is the origin and goal of all that is. At this highest stage, all intellectual operations cease; the soul (not the mind) unknowingly unites with God in the ecstasy of love and affection." Thus we see clearly Bonaventure's view of the journey into God. Now let us move ahead a few hundred years and onto another quester, that of Desiderius Erasmus.

Desiderius Erasmus the illegitimate son of a Rotterdam priest was born in 1466AD and died some time in 1536AD. His mother passed away when he was young, and his inheritance was squandered, shortly thereafter. Much of his adult life was a struggle to overcome the pain and poverty of his youth. Erasmus studied at the Deventer school (1475AD-1484AD) "where Alender Hegius was headmaster from 1483, awakened his love of letters and introduced him to the 'modern devotion' - the inward, christocentric piety" This drove him to educational excellence. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Steyn in 1486AD and left in 1492AD. In 1492AD he was ordained a priest and he studied at the University of Paris from 1495AD until 1499AD. He spent the rest of his career traversing Europe, seeking patronage, seeking knowledge and deeper understanding, both on the continent and in England. Through this process of seeking knowledge he hungered for the study of
classical and Christian antiquity. He was considered the most educated man of his time. Erasmus was also at the forefront of the Christian Humanist movement. McBrien in his book Catholicism states this: "Although various Christian humanists were sympathetic towards the contemporary emphasis on mysticism, they were strongly committed to the general restoration of the Christian Life itself, so much corrupted then by the worst of the Renaissance spirit. Love for classical antiquity and an optimistic view of human nature were characteristic of this so-called devout humanism, and the spiritual writings of Erasmus (d. 1536) are representative of it." Erasmus was another remarkable man of the church, who strove for understanding his whole life. Now let us turn to his specific thoughts on spiritual journey.

Erasmus was a master of letters, and a wordsmith of the highest calibre. His works were wide ranging and extensive. Including the Greek New Testament published in 1515AD. Yet from my readings his biggest desire was reform; reform of the individual and through that society. Walker et. Al state: "Erasmus has his own constructive program of reform. He envisioned the renovation of church and society through education and eloquence - specifically, through a return to the pristine sources of Christian truth, to the Bible and the fathers, as well as to the ethical wisdom of the ancient sages, to be instilled through the art of persuasion by pleasing discourse." Erasmus wanted to use reason as a tool of spiritual growth, and through that as a tool to change society. Cory and Landry sum up Erasmus's contributions as: "The greatest of the northern humanists was Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536), a scholar learned in the literature of both the Latin and Greek early church writers, and the most famous writer of his age. In his Handbook of the
Christian Soldier, Erasmus argued that true piety depends on the virtue of the Spirit, rather than on conformity to external rites of the church." This echoes a similar thought in Placher: "Erasmus sought to clear away corruption and superstition in order to restore a simple, ethical Christianity in which people would try to follow Christ and be decent to each other." Therefore we see that Erasmus was dedicated to growth in the individual and through that society. Now we will turn to some of Erasmus's own writings and words.

The first quote is from a letter to Paul Voltz: "a great part of holiness consists in desiring with all one's heart to become holy; I do not feel that we should look down on a person striving for such a goal even if the attempt sometimes falls short of success." We see here a clear call to holiness and to personal perusal of that goal. The personal quest. From his writing The Weapons of Christian Warfare; he states: "You must believe me when I say that there is really no attack from the enemy, no temptation so violent, that a sincere resort to Holy Writ will not easily get rid of it. … Therefore, if you will but dedicate yourself entirely to the study of scriptures, if you meditate day and night on the divine law, nothing will ever terrorize you and you will be prepared against any attack of the enemy." We see here a commitment and directions for spiritual growth and protection, for spiritual warfare we must know scripture and be prepared to use it in defence of ourselves. Erasmus also wrote General Rules for Living the Christian Life; I have been unable to find a complete list but here are some of those points I have found:
  • First Rule: Now since faith is the only gateway to Christ, the first rule I would lay down is that we ought to place great reliance on the Scriptures.
  • Second Rule: is that we doubt nothing in the divine promises, then we must act upon them.
  • Forth Rule: Make Christ the only goal of your life. Dedicate yourself to Him all your enthusiasm, all your effort, your leisure as well as your business.
  • Tenth Rule: Make a violent effort to put sinful thoughts out of your mind.
  • Eleventh Rule: You have two dangers to face: one is giving in; the other is becoming proud after a temptation has been conquered.
  • Seventeenth Rule: Each temptation has its own appropriate remedy.

We see then a man passionate about seeing hearts set free, or as St. Irenaeus said, "The Glory of God is a man fully alive!" This quote can describe both Erasmus and Bonaventure, and so we will now compare the two and their different approaches to the spiritual journey.

As a man living in a post-modern world, I have found both these authors fascinating, and believe that we can learn much from them both. As Erasmus looked back to the classical and Christian antiquities, I find that we can look back at the Medieval and Reformation writers and glean the gems from their writings. Yet it is true that these two approach things from very different angles, and present alternative paths to spiritual growth. Bonaventure is a mystic, and though very educated, many today would struggle with the mystical path to spirituality. Yet for some it would be the right route. Erasmus on the other hand is extremely logical, and process oriented; he lays out clear rules and steps to be followed that will help to transform the individual and through the individual transformations help to transform society. Many would find this straightforward approach helpful in developing spiritual disciplines and these steps or rules would help them along in their journey.

For me personally, though both authors and approaches are attractive and intriguing to me, I find the systematic approach in Erasmus most appealing. Clear straightforward rules and guidelines would help me in my spiritual development and faith journey. They are something I can judge and see growth; there would be empirical evidence of progress. The guiding questions could be: Do I see a greater love of others? Do I fail/sin less often? Do I love God and others more than I did last week? Last month? Last year? And from the answers to these questions I could find the
areas in which more work and development would be needed.

In conclusion I believe that all believers are on a spiritual journey, and that all people are spiritual questers. Our quests, either that of to God or that of into God, are lifelong pursuits that we will only improve as people and as believers by seeking means of growth. Either the mystical road represented by Bonaventure, or the progression through rules seen in Erasmus will help us. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, states: "I must reiterate that Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche are thinkers of the very highest order. This is, in fact, precisely my point. We must relearn what this means and also that there are others who belong in the same rank." We are all questers, and can learn from those who have gone before us on this journey. Will we seek the knowledge of those who have gone before us and try and walk in their steps for some distance, or a long way, so that we will be challenged and grow through the process? Or will we try and go it alone? I believe that both Bonaventure and Erasmus would encourage us to: Journey on!


  1. Scientia Cordis in The Beatitudes of Truth: Darton, Longman & Todd, New York 1998, p.150
  2. Thomas Merton, The Man, the Monk, on Monasticism, McEvoy, Steven R. November 25th 1998, p.2
  3. Philippians 3:12-16 NKJV p.867
  4. 1St Peter 1:5-8 NKJV p.905
  5. Biographical information taken from Tyson's An Introduction to Christian Spirituality, p.159-160
  6. A History of the Christian Church: 4th Edition, Walker et. Al. McMillian, 1985, p.338
  7. A History of the Christian Church: 4th Edition, Walker et. Al. McMillian, 1985, p.338-339
  8. A History of the Christian Church: 4th Edition, Walker et. Al. McMillian, 1985, p.408
  9. Catholicism Volume 2, McBrien, Richard P., Winston Press, Minneapolis, 1980, p.1066
  10. A History of the Christian Church: 4th Edition, Walker et. Al. McMillian, 1985, p.410
  11. The Christian Theological Tradition: Second Edition; Cory & Landry, Prenice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2003, p. 256 (Advanced Reading Copy)
  12. A History of Christian Theology; Placher, William C., The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1893, p.184
  13. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.217
  14. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.220
  15. Edited from Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.221-222
  16. St. Irenaeus, as quoted in The Purpose Driven Life, Warren Rick, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002, p.55
  17. The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, Allan New York: Touchstone, 1987, p.240


Tyson, John R. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1999

Cory, Catherine A. and Landry, David T. The Christian Theological Tradition:
Second Edition Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003 (Advanced Reading Copy)

Placher, William C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983

Walker, Williston. et al., eds. A history of the Christian Church: Fourth Edition New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind.
New York: Touchstone, 1987

McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism Volume II
Minneapolis, Wnston Press, 1980

Nicholl, Donald. Scientia Cordis in The Beatitudes of Truth:
Darton, Longman & Todd, New York 1998

Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Life
Zondervan, Grand Rapids 2002

McEvoy, Steven R. Thomas Merton, The Man, the Monk, on Monasticism
Essay for P. Frick, RS 100K Fall 1998

Holy Bible New King James Version:
Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 2003

(First written for RS231 Histroy of Christian Thought Fall 2003.)

No comments: