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Two Early Franciscan Theologians


Many references and quotes throughout this website will be to St. Bonaventure, a member of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) and Minister General of the Order.  He wrote some very important works, especially important readings for Franciscans,  including The life of Saint Francis, The Soul’s Journey to God and The Tree of Life .  He added greatly to our understanding of Franciscan spirituality.

The following information is taken from “Catholic Online,”  http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=169 :

St. Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (Feast day-July 15)

St. Bonaventure, known as “the seraphic doctor,” was born at Bagnorea in Tuscany, in 1221. He received the name of Bonaventure in consequence of an exclamation of St. Francis of Assisi, when, in response to the pleading of the child’s mother, the saint prayed for John’s recovery from a dangerous illness, and, foreseeing the future greatness of the little John, cried out “O Buona ventura”-O good fortune!

At the age of twenty-two St. Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order. Having made his vows, he was sent to Paris to complete his studies under the celebrated doctor Alexander of Hales, an Englishman and a Franciscan. After the latter’s death he continued his course under his successor, John of Rochelle. In Paris he became the intimate friend of the great St. Thomas Aquinas. He received the degree of Doctor, together with St. Thomas Aquinas, ceding to his friend against the latter’s inclination, the honor of having it first conferred upon him. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he enjoyed the friendship of the holy King, St. Louis.

At the age of thirty-five he was chosen General of his Order and restored a perfect calm where peace had been disturbed by internal dissensions. He did much for his Order and composed The Life of St. Francis . He also assisted at the translation of the relics of St. Anthony of Padua. He was nominated Archbishop of York by Pope Clement IV, but he begged not to be forced to accept that dignity. Gregory X obliged him to take upon himself a greater one, that of Cardinal and Bishop of Albano, one of the six suffragan Sees of Rome. Before his death he abdicated his office of General of the Franciscan Order. He died while he was assisting at the Second Council of Lyons, on July 15, 1274.




Paul VI Audience Hall
Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Saint Bonaventure

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to talk about St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. I confide to you that in broaching this subject I feel a certain nostalgia, for I am thinking back to my research as a young scholar on this author who was particularly dear to me. My knowledge of him had quite an impact on my formation. A few months ago, with great joy, I made a pilgrimage to the place of his birth, Bagnoregio, an Italian town in Lazio that venerates his memory.

St Bonaventure, in all likelihood born in 1217, died in 1274. Thus he lived in the 13th century, an epoch in which the Christian faith which had deeply penetrated the culture and society of Europe inspired imperishable works in the fields of literature, the visual arts, philosophy and theology. Among the great Christian figures who contributed to the composition of this harmony between faith and culture Bonaventure stands out, a man of action and contemplation, of profound piety and prudent government. . . . (to continue reading, click here Benedict XVI on Bonaventure)



Bl. John Duns Scotus
Bl. John Duns Scotus

Blessed John Duns Scotus
(c. 1266-1308)

A humble man, John Duns Scotus has been one of the most influential Franciscans through the centuries.

Born at Duns in the county of Berwick, Scotland, John was descended from a wealthy farming family. In later years he was identified as John Duns Scotus to indicate the land of his birth; Scotia is the Latin name for Scotland.

John received the habit of the Friars Minor at Dumfries, where his uncle Elias Duns was superior. After novitiate John studied at Oxford and Paris and was ordained in 1291. More studies in Paris followed until 1297, when he returned to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. Four years later he returned to Paris to teach and complete the requirements for the doctorate.

In an age when many people adopted whole systems of thought without qualification, John pointed out the richness of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition, appreciated the wisdom of Aquinas, Aristotle and the Muslim philosophers—and still managed to be an independent thinker. That quality was proven in 1303 when King Philip the Fair tried to enlist the University of Paris on his side in a dispute with Pope Boniface VIII. John Duns Scotus dissented and was given three days to leave France.

In Scotus’s time, some philosophers held that people are basically determined by forces outside themselves. Free will is an illusion, they argued. An ever-practical man, Scotus said that if he started beating someone who denied free will, the person would immediately tell him to stop. But if Scotus didn’t really have a free will, how could he stop? John had a knack for finding illustrations his students could remember!

After a short stay in Oxford he returned to Paris, where he received the doctorate in 1305. He continued teaching there and in 1307 so ably defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary that the university officially adopted his position. That same year the minister general assigned him to the Franciscan school in Cologne where John died in 1308. He is buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne cathedral.

Drawing on the work of John Duns Scotus, Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854. John Duns Scotus, the “Subtle Doctor,” was beatified in 1993.


Father Charles Balic, O.F.M., the foremost 20th-century authority on Scotus, has written: “The whole of Scotus’s theology is dominated by the notion of love. The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom. As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1105).


Intelligence hardly guarantees holiness. But John Duns Scotus was not only brilliant, he was also humble and prayerful—the exact combination St. Francis wanted in any friar who studied. In a day when French nationalism threatened the rights of the pope, Scotus sided with the papacy and paid the price. He also defended human freedom against those who would compromise it by determinism.

Ideas are important. John Duns Scotus placed his best thinking at the service of the human family and of the Church.



The Immaculate and the Christocentrism of Franciscan Thought

St. Francis often called himself an “idiot,” that is an uneducated man. But whether he was inferior intellectually in wisdom to so many of his famous “educated” sons is a question open to considerable doubt, particularly when we consider that extraordinary relation between him and the Immaculate. And if indeed not only his Order, but Francis himself was chosen by Mary Immaculate to trace out a very clear form of life including as one of its essential elements a very specific cultivation of the intelligence for a very definite intellectual, then we are in a better position to understand a rather surprising phenomenon: the two friars of the first century of the Order’s existence best known for sanctity are also Doctors of the Church; namely, Sts. Anthony and Bonaventure. And the friar who, in the estimation of many sound critics stands at the pinnacle of refined metaphysical reflection within the Franciscan tradition, John Duns Scotus, is a candidate for canonization.

Most people on consideration would have no insuperable difficulty in admitting the profound influence of St. Francis on the subsequent course of theology, nor of appreciating the spiritual and pastoral affinity between Francis on the one hand and the theological work of Anthony and Bonaventure on the other. In the case of Bonaventure, it is generally admitted today that the influence of Francis is a main source for the key orientations of the Seraphic Doctor’s doctrinal synthesis.

But it is the subtle Scotus, seemingly most distant in his metaphysical style of theologizing from the Poverello of Assisi, who, in fact, achieved the clearest, most accurate and explicit theological formulation of that truth central to the entire Franciscan movement, to wit the absolute primacy of Christ, and this because he was the first to arrive at a precise theological analysis of what we now know to be the distinct meaning of “Spouse of the Holy Spirit,” first attributed to Mary by Francis. This, of course, is his teaching on the Immaculate Conception. . . . (to continue reading, click here The Immaculate and the Christocentrism of Franciscan Thought)




Paul VI Hall
Wednesday, 7 July 2010

John Duns Scotus

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This morning, after several Catecheses on various great theologians, I would like to present to you another important figure in the history of theology. He is Blessed John Duns Scotus, who lived at the end of the 13th century. An ancient epitaph on his tombstone sums up the geographical coordinates of his biography:  “Scotland bore me, England received me, France taught me, Cologne in Germany holds me”. We cannot disregard this information, partly because we know very little about the life of Duns Scotus. He was probably born in 1266 in a village called, precisely, “Duns”, near Edinburgh.

Attracted by the charism of St Francis of Assisi, he entered the Family of the Friars Minor and was ordained a priest in 1291. He was endowed with a brilliant mind and a tendency for speculation which earned him the traditional title of Doctor subtilis, “Subtle Doctor”. Duns Scotus was oriented to the study of philosophy and theology at the famous Universities of Oxford and of Paris. Having successfully completed his training, he embarked on teaching theology at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and then of Paris, beginning by commenting, like all the bachelors of theology of his time, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. . . . (to continue reading click here Benedict XVI on Scotus)


Franciscan Theology
Tradition and Spirituality

“Jesus was not an after-thought that happened because mankind did not keep our part of the covenant with God.  Sin was not the reason for Jesus, and nothing man could have ever done could force God to act.  The Incarnation was not a reaction, but the initial action that caused creation in the first place. In other words, the Incarnation was not God’s “plan B” set into motion after “plan A” failed.

“God always intended Incarnation before and regardless of the existence of man or any of his subsequent (to creation) actions.” (Quotation from FUN manual; to read the article, click Understanding-Franciscan-Theology-Tradition-and-Spirituality.)



(Talking Points for Presentation With Quotations From and Based on
by Ouida Tomlinson)

 The whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God’s sharing of life and love in a unique and definitive way.  God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness.  Incarnation is God’s first thought, the original design for all creation.  The purpose of Jesus’ life is the fulfillment of God’s eternal longing to become human.

In other words, even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, God would have sent his Son into the world as that was his plan from the beginning.  Sin was not the reason for the Incarnation.  It was the result of God’s love and free choice.

* * *


There are two main theologies in the Catholic Church:  (1) the primary theology adopted by the Church (i.e. The Work of the Dominican School) and (2) the alternate theology in the Church, (i.e. The Franciscan School).

Thomas Aquinas (Dominican School – The Primary Theology of the Catholic Church)

  • atonement centered
  • Jesus seen as expiation for sin
  • Jesus – Incarnation would not have been necessary if Adam & Eve had not sinned
  • Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aterni Patris 1879 made this school the primary theology taught in all Catholic schools of religion and theology.
  • Primary theology in the Church
  • Juridical or law based (Commandments, laws, rules)



In other words, God sent his Son into the world because of the sin of Adam and Eve and to redeem us from original sin.  Jesus is seen as the expiation for sin.  If Adam and Eve had not sinned, the thinking is that there would have been no need for the Incarnation, for Jesus to be born and to die on the cross.


Original sin is not the reason for the incarnation.  The reason is God’s love and free choice. The incarnation would have taken place even if man had not sinned.  It was God’s plan from the beginning that Jesus would come to be with us because of love.


Design             Execution                                            Completion In

Franciscan view of creation

  • Based on Jesus always being the blueprint and basis for creation. It was always God’s plan in the fullness of time to Incarnate.
  • Jesus the master plan Ephesians 1:4
  • First born of creation Colossians 1:15-18
  • Pre-existent Word – Logos – John 1
  • Center, focus, reason for creation
  • Goal of creation – All things created through Him, for Him and have their goal/fullness in Him – Colossians 1:15-18

Original sin is not the reason for the presence of God-with-us in human reality and history (Incarnation).   God’s love and free choice is!  The Franciscan view of creation moves sin out of the forefront and replaces it with overwhelming love of a Creator overjoyed and passionately in love with creation.  The Franciscan school kept alive the radical love-centered image of God.

“The theology of the Franciscan School develops from an insight of the Eastern Fathers, namely, that the Incarnation is too important and too great an event to be initiated by sin.  This insight stimulates a new understanding and hopefully an appreciation of the fullness of God’s love for creation.  . . .”

“Jesus was not an after-thought that happened because mankind did not keep our part of the covenant with God. Sin was not the reason for Jesus, and nothing man could have ever done could force God to act. The Incarnation was not a reaction, but the initial action that caused creation in the first place. In other words, the Incarnation was not God’s “plan B” set into motion after “plan A” failed.”

“God always intended Incarnation before and regardless of the existence of man or any of his subsequent (to creation) actions. ”

“In the Franciscan vision, creation might look more like this: all creation begins with Jesus, who is the blueprint for creation and is the ultimate goal of creation. . . .”


The following is excerpt from Understanding Franciscan Theology, Tradition and Spirituality referred to above.


(c. 1265 – 8 November 1308)

Blessed John Duns Scotus, OFM, was one of the more important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. He was nicknamed Doctor Subtilis for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought. Scotus has had considerable influence on Catholic thought.

In John’s writing, though not as well organized as the “Summa” of Thomas Aquinas, the Franciscan School moved away from atonement-based theology, which had become the primary theology of the Dominican school. After many years of debate, the Dominican based approach would become the most widely held theology within the Church, though the position of the Franciscan School as secondary remained and still remains today a fully accepted Tradition or alternate theology within the Church, so much so that many of our Roman Pontiffs became members of the Secular Franciscan Order.

Scotus will take the final step in establishing the Franciscan approach/school and our approach to God by explaining that the Incarnation was always the primary goal for all of God’s creation, a plan that could not be changed or altered by mankind’s activities.

It was the desire of God to embrace and in turn be embraced, and this desire, not the sin of man, was the reason for the coming of Jesus, the fulfillment of the intention that became creation. Bl. John Scotus expresses his understanding in his work, the “Primacy of Christ”, the theological foundation that stems from the lived reality of Francis of Assisi.

Scotus places Jesus and the Incarnation firmly at the absolute core of Christian belief. Not starting with the need for a sin offering as we still do today, (we Franciscans so often start here too), but at a beginning based on a total and completely free expression of God’s love and otherness. Sure we don’t deny that Jesus redeemed us and died because of sin, but Jesus was always God’s first intention or master plan and would have become incarnate (taken on our humanity) regardless of sin or anything else.

Jesus came to show us the depths of God’s love and desire to love us, and to offer us the invitation to be loved by us in return. He gave us a true model of how to live life through love and respect for each other.

Jesus passion and death shows us that God loves us so much there is nothing He would hold back on our behalf. Such complete, unconditional and steadfast love on God’s part is the wonderful journey we come to understand, through Scripture, through community and through living authentic lives that seek Jesus.

Scotus affirms that Jesus is the reason, not just for the season as the popular slogan proclaims, but for the existence for all creation. All was made for Him and will return to Him (as we read in the prologue to the Gospel of John 1:1-18).

It is through God’s choice and total freedom that Jesus fills the role of savior and redeemer, but God was never constrained or forced to the cross in order to complete the act of salvation. God could have chosen any method including simply willing salvation. Instead He chose the cross, not from necessity, but to demonstrate the reality and depth of free unconditional love.

In this unconditional Love the welfare of the other is always the central focus of the love.  Nothing can be held back whether through God’s initial self-emptying communication (Incarnation) or the absolute demonstration of self-giving and sacrificial love.

All is freely given up for you!


  • The Incarnation is not a divine afterthought or reaction to any event, but the cornerstone of the whole plan of creation.
  • Everything that was, is and ever will be is based in Christ.
  • The relationship between divinity and humanity, God and humanity, are intrinsically united and all creation is centered on Jesus.
  • Creation is based upon God’s absolute freedom and love, e.g. God’s very nature, and not a need.


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