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Book review: Way Back to God: The spiritual theology of Saint Bonaventure and Truth and Reality by Douglas Dales

07 July 2023

Edward Dowler finds his appetite whetted for Bonaventure’s writings

THESE books are two out of a trilogy of introductions (Books, 20 July 2018) to the work of St Bonaventure (1217-74) by Douglas Dales, a long-serving school chaplain and now parish priest.

Bonaventure, the Church’s Doctor Seraphicus, was an early member of the Franciscan order and a prolific theologian, heavily influenced by, among others, St Augustine of Hippo and St Anselm.

Dales explores the ways in which Bonaventure saw, and himself embodied, the Franciscan movement as a mirror of the Church more widely in its movement from comprising “simple and unlettered” people to including the most illustrious and learned teachers. An emphasis on the importance of poverty, both material and spiritual, in the sense of absolute dependence upon God, is accordingly combined with enormous insight and learning throughout his work.

Dales offers summaries of a number of Bonaventure’s books in these two volumes, in addition to wider commentary on his theological influences and overall approach. One of the central works explored, which gives its title to the first of these volumes, is the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (Journey of the Mind to God) in which he charts the progress of the human mind towards God. The mind travels through consideration of material reality to fathom the mystery within itself and, ultimately, the being of God.

But Bonaventure insists that ultimately the journey entirely depends on grace: “seek and ask grace, not learning; desire not understanding; groaning in prayer, not diligence in reading; the Bridegroom, not the (human) teacher; God, not man. Seek darkness, not clarity; not light but the consuming fire of God himself, which Christ enkindles in the white flame of his most burning passion. . . a person who loves this death can indeed see God.”

A further point of particular interest is Dales’s exploration of Bonaventure’s understanding and interpretation of scripture. As for Augustine, complete mastery of the Latin Bible was combined with rather less familiarity with Hebrew and Greek. The life of Francis and the centrality of holiness provide his guiding principles of interpretation.

Bonaventure’s conviction is, as Dales puts it, that “hidden within the detail of the stories in the Bible are keys to understanding the nature of reality, divine and human, and the ways of God in redeeming human beings through Christ and by the Holy Spirit”.

Dales’s summaries and commentary on Bonaventure’s works are accessibly written and mercifully free from technical jargon. His immense learning and careful scholarship will surely make these works enduring guides to Bonaventure’s voluminous writings. But, in the face of such an impressive work, this reviewer has a slight sense of unease about the overall conception. This comprehensive study advertises itself as guide through Bonaventure’s writings and “not a substitute for reading them”.

This being so, perhaps it would be preferable if the author had offered first-hand extracts from Bonaventure’s various works, together with introduction and commentary, so as to enable Bonaventure to speak more clearly for himself rather than through secondary description. Perhaps a Bonaventure reader might be a future project.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

Way Back to God: The spiritual theology of Saint Bonaventure
Douglas Dales
James Clarke & Co. £70 (hbk), £27.50 (pbk)
(978-0-227-17693-1 hbk)
(978-0227-1794-8 pbk)

Truth and Reality: The wisdom of St Bonaventure
Douglas Dales
James Clarke & Co. £70 (hbk), £27.50 (pbk)
(978-0-227-17732-7 hbk)
(978-0-227-17733-4 pbk)

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