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  • Most Evident to Us, Most Distant from God:The Body as Locus of Salvation in Bonaventure's Breviloquium
  • Matthew Kemp

The thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure conceives of God not only as the source and cause of the created order, but also its goal and end. As he himself puts it, "the first being is of necessity the final end, the beginning and the consummation, the Alpha and the Omega."1 This schema follows the common patristic and medieval pattern known as exitus-reditus. The return to God is for all of creation, not just spiritual beings like humans and angels.2

Yet Bonaventure accords the human person an indispensable role in his cosmology. As a body-soul composite, the human being alone contains the opposite natures of spiritual and material creation united in one entity, thus displaying the fullness of God's power, wisdom, and goodness. This unique location further allows humankind to function as a mediator between creation and Creator. While the corruption of sin makes this mediation impossible, the incarnation of Christ restores human nature and thus returns all of creation to God.

Bonaventure's cosmologically oriented anthropology has received ample treatment from scholars. However, these studies tend to focus on one of three aspects: the metaphysical significance of the composite nature,3 the place of the soul in returning creatures to God through contemplation,4 or (more recently) the role of the body and senses in his spirituality.5 Much less attention has been given to the bodily dimension of his anthropology and its importance in his entire exitus-reditus schema. While Caroline Walker Bynum has treated Bonaventure's understanding of the bodily resurrection, she limits her inquiry to the eschatological dimension of his thought.6 Likewise, Dawn Nothwehr has noted the body's central place in his thought, but she treats this only briefly.7 It is my contention that this aspect of Bonaventure's theology should be explored more fully in order to gain a greater understanding of his perception of, and esteem for, the body in his theological system. [End Page 53]

In this essay I will build on the work of these scholars by considering Bonaventure's understanding of the body and its role in the larger scope of his theology. I will argue not only that Bonaventure has a positive view of physical creation in general and the human body in particular, but also that the body can be seen as a locus of salvation throughout his theological system. In order to limit the scope of the inquiry, I will confine my analysis to Bonaventure's major work, the Breviloquium, as it contains his entire system in summary form, as well as his more mature thinking since his earlier commentary on Lombard's Sentences. After placing Bonaventure in his Franciscan context, I will trace the role of the body in the text's exitus-reditus schema, and thus explicate five distinct ways that Bonaventure's conception of the body's significance plays out in his theology: (1) in his cosmology and anthropology he gives the body a crucial place in humanity's mediating function; (2) in his interpretation of the Fall, he accounts for the specifically bodily effects of sin; (3) in his Christology he sees Christ's bodily nature as necessary to the redemption of the human race; (4) in his sacramental theology he connects the physicality of the sacraments with human nature and condition; and (5) in his eschatology he places the resurrected body at the center of his understanding of both glory and punishment. Moreover, because of the mediating role that Bonaventure accords to humanity, the body is crucial not only for humankind's salvation but for the return of all creation to God.

Bonaventure's Franciscan Outlook

Before examining Bonaventure's own theology, it is worthwhile to place him in the context of his Franciscan Order, its spirituality, and its founder, St. Francis of Assisi. This background served as a major resource for his thinking on material and bodily reality. Bonaventure is thought to have been born around 1217, a mere eight years after Francis received Pope Innocent III's approval for the new order and rule...


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pp. 53-64
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