News and Updates: Dean Anderson writes, "St. Bonaventure on the Purpose of Scripture: A Reflection for National Bible Week"

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dean Anderson writes, "St. Bonaventure on the Purpose of Scripture: A Reflection for National Bible Week"

The purpose of Scripture, according to St. Bonaventure, is to return to humanity its original ability to read the book of nature and to restore in humanity its own significance to the praise, worship, and love of God.  After the fall, the book of the world became dead and deleted to us.  So it was necessary that we be given another book through which the meaning of book of the world would be revealed.  Our formerly natural capacity to see the hidden meaning of things is restored by seeing the spiritual senses in a book.  Scripture, by reducing all things back to God, restores creatures to their original state in the minds of the reader or hearer.

Bonaventure maintained that the study of Scripture is essentially the study of God’s voice.  Since God’s voice must be expressed in a manner that is most sublime, he concluded it must have many meanings.  The study of Scripture is special because both the language and the things themselves have significance.  Other sciences use language in ways that restrict its meaning, so that words are proportioned and delimited.  Once a noun has been given a specific sense in astronomy, for example, it is not to be used in another way.  Bonaventure argued that this cannot be the case with the study of Scripture because God is the cause of the soul, of the language that is formed in the soul, and of the things indicated by language.  This way of understanding Scripture was related to the development of the four senses of Scripture.

The four senses that had been approved for use by the medieval Church were the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and tropological.  According to Bonaventure, these senses reflect the Trinity.  The three spiritual meanings or senses under the single literal sense reflect the three persons within a single essence.  Because the way to God is itself threefold in terms of faith, hope and love, all creatures suggest what we should believe (allegory), hope for (anagogy), and do (tropology).

Such an approach to interpreting Scripture may seem fanciful, but the tradition of the four senses is grounded in the way that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament.  This approach to reading is also embedded in the liturgy.  Dei verbum, recognizing the importance of the spiritual senses in tradition, encourages Catholics to continue to study how the Eastern and Western Fathers interpreted Scripture as well as how Scripture is related to liturgy (#23). 


The Patristic way of reading Scripture was to see it as a place of encounter with the living Word.  It was seen as a form of prayer where the Holy Spirit moves through the text to bring its meaning to light for the reader.  The literal sense provides objective elements that construct the intellectual space for the subjective or personal appropriation of the faith.  The Spirit actualizes the text, allowing the reader to see the biblical narrative as his or her own story, through the gifts of faith, hope, and love.  As we think about Holy Scripture next week, we should remember this tradition.  After all, Dei verbum provides us with this exhortation:  “Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that it becomes a dialogue between God and the reader (25).”

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