Bonaventure, Theologian of Time

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 3

Some semi-baked thoughts contrasting Bonaventure and Aquinas on time:

In Bonaventure’s discussion of the “length” of Scripture, we see his interest in developing a theology of time. More than Aquinas, Bonaventure is interested in the temporal aspect of creation. One area where this may be seen is in their respective positions on the question of the eternity of the world. In contrast to the radical Aristotelians founds in the Arts faculty at the University of Paris–according to whom creation had no beginning since, as Aristotle had so cogently argued in his Physics, it makes no sense to speak of a “beginning” in time that has no moment prior to it–both Bonaventure and Aquinas held to the orthodox position that creation had a distinct, precise moment of beginning. Unlike Bonaventure, however, Aquinas did believe that the world’s having a temporal beginning was an article of faith, something that was revealed by Scripture, and therefore was not subject to philosophical demonstration. As far as Aquinas was concerned, there was nothing inconceivable about God having created the world from all eternity. On such a hypothesis, the world would still be created, that is, it would depend upon God’s creative act for its being, but there needn’t be any point when God “began” creating. Thus, while Aquinas found Aristotle’s arguments for the eternality of the world to lack necessity, he did think Aristotle was successful in at least showing the possibility, even if not the factuality, of the world’s eternality.

In contrast to Aquinas’s fideism on this point (ironic given Bonaventure’s conservativism relative to Aquinas), Bonaventure held that the notion of an eternal creation was logically contradictory, inasmuch as the notion of beginningness was built-in to the very meaning of creation. For Bonaventure, the temporal beginning of creation was not merely an article of faith, but was something capable of philosophic demonstration (cp. also Aquinas and Bonaventure’s differing views on the demonstrability of the Trinity; even here, however, while seemingly more rationalistic than Aquinas, Bonaventure was actually simply following Anselm, whom Aquinas criticizes in the Summa).

There are a couple ways of looking at this disagreement. On the one hand, we might see Aquinas as preserving the necessity of Scripture for our knowledge about the origin of the world. On the other hand, implicit in his position is a kind of skepticism towards our ability to know the temporal beginningness of the world, and perhaps as a consequence, a degree of ambivalence towards its importance. Aquinas does say, to be fair, that the world’s temporal beginning better displays (than would its eternity) God’s power and creation’s dependence on God. Yet I don’t think it is accidental that Bonaventure’s fascination with and attention to time in his theology is comparatively absent from Aquinas. The greater influence of Aristotle on Aquinas, after all, means that time, in and of itself, is something more “natural” to him and therefore something, again, in and of itself, that is understandable by reason alone. Aquinas more than Bonaventure will tend to see time more as Aristotle the pagan saw it, as a comparatively desacralized, more theologically neutral space. For Bonaventure, by way of contrast, time can only be understood as created time, which is to say, as Genesis time,and therefore as time-with-a-beginning. Time has a sacramental character that is not as clear in Aquinas’s own philosophical treatment of the subject. (Cp. here, by the way, Thomas’s distinct, compartmentalized treatises in the Summa on “creation” on the one hand and “the work of six days” on the other. Again, where Bonaventure gives us a paradigm of faith seeking understanding, in Aquinas we have reason laying the philosophical foundation upon which the article of faith may later be added).

Related to all of this is Bonaventure’s statement that the length of Sacred Scripture “corresponds to God’s governance of the universe.” Aquinas is also very interested in the subject of divine governance, but for Aquinas the order of the universe is more static, unchanging, whereas Bonaventure’s correlation of divine governance with history reveals an eschatological metaphysics that doesn’t stand out to me as much in Aquinas.

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