Way Back to God

The Spiritual Theology of Saint Bonaventure

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Douglas Dales
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    James Clarke Company
    , April
     239 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Way Back to God: The Spiritual Theology of Saint Bonaventure is the second volume by Douglas Dales concerning the 13th-century mystical theologian, scholastic, Franciscan minister general, and cardinal, Saint Bonaventure, serving – in Dales’ words – “to complement” Dales’ monograph Divine Remaking: St Bonaventure and the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2017). A third volume, Truth and Reality: The Wisdom of St Bonaventure has recently followed (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2021). In this present volume, Dale accomplishes a great deal, and his mastery of an array of texts – Bonaventurian and otherwise – is laudable.

The book is structured on various themes as presented in different works. At times, this means the book is quite repetitive. Perhaps either strictly chronological or thematic approaches would have worked better. It is also rather confusing as to why some texts are divided into two or three chapters when no division of the material exists between chapters. The conclusion usefully summarizes the major strands of Bonaventure’s theology, and perhaps this would have provided a more-useful organizational framework for the book as a whole.

While providing an excellent introduction to several key Bonaventurian texts, the referencing could have served the reader better. On several occasions, Dales uses Bonaventure’s language almost verbatim but does not provide an exact quote, so it would be difficult for a new reader of Bonaventure to find this in the Seraphic Doctor’s own works. For example, Dales argues that “the mirror of the soul is cleansed and polished completely” (37), an almost-exact quote of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum’s prologue (no. 4), but no reference is given. In a more severe example, Dale rightly claims that, due to the fall, “human beings are bent over, unable to look up or think straight” (39); such a claim borrows the Bonaventurian imagery espoused most prominently in the prologue to Book 2 of Bonaventure’s Commentary on the Sentences. It would be impossible for a reader new to Bonaventure to pick this reference up from Dales’ book.

With a very few exceptions, the citations provided give only page references for English translations of Bonaventure’s works; given that, in Dales’ own words, his book is intended to “mak[e] his writings, in Latin or English, accessible and attractive” (6), it would have been very useful to provide also the textual references and the page numbers of the Latin critical editions or, better still, the Latin original in the endnotes. On occasion, important terms are given in Latin in the endnotes, such as homo interior (“innermost heart of a person”; 72, 201). However, no citation to the Latin text is provided. Moreover, the bibliography cites only one critical edition of Bonaventure’s texts (from 1895), rather than noting that this is a 10-volume series published between 1882 and 1902.

At times Dales is too dependent on existing summaries and introductions to Bonaventure’s life and works rather than taking on theological, historical, or historiographical questions on his own terms. This often leads to either outdated views or following often-used misconceptions. For example, Dales claims that Thomas of Celano composed two vitae (“lives” or “legends”) of Francis of Assisi (8); since 2014 we know—due to the discovery by Sean Field and Jacques Dalarun of the so-called Vita brevior—that at least three were produced. On the same issue of the vitae of Francis, Dales also posits the now-outdated view that all pre-Bonaventurian vitae of Francis were suppressed where possible; we now know, due to the work of Filippo Sedda and Michael Robson, that such a ban only concerned use in the liturgy.

Dales also claims that Bonaventure’s De Perfectione Vitae ad Sorores was written for Isabelle of France’s community of Poor Clares at Longchamp in 1259 (65-70). While this is a common mistake, such a claim was a mere speculation made by the Quaracchi editors in 1898, with no evidence for either the date of this text or its recipient; we simply know that it was addressed to a Franciscan nun. Moreover, if one wanted to accept the Quaracchi editors’ assertion that it was written to the abbess of Longchamp in 1259, such a recipient would have professed to Isabelle of France’s first rule for nuns (approved in that same year) rather than Clare of Assisi’s 1253 rule. So, it would be difficult to describe such a nun as a “Poor Clare” as Dales does (4, 65), especially since such an order was not founded until 1263 by Pope Urban IV and Isabelline nuns were members of the Sorores Minores inclusae (Sister Minor Enclosed) rather than the Ordo Sanctae Clarae (Order of Saint Clare).

Certainly, Dales goes to great lengths to contextualize Bonaventure’s theological concepts, but in several cases – for example in reference to Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum  this is done by taking an idea mentioned by Bonaventure and discussing that idea in a much broader sense (often way outside Bonaventure’s theological or cultural milieux) in a manner that incorrectly conveys the sense that Bonaventure’s theology could be conflated with these more-general ideas about the same topic (46-9). This also leads to very general statements being made about Bonaventure’s theology that, again, usually lack any referencing (for example, 84, 89).

Overall, this is a very useful book for those new to Bonaventure. However, I think it would have limited scope for those trying to work from a scholarly approach. While this could be used as a course book for undergraduate students, I think it lacks much of the acumen and scholarly apparatus required to make it a useful guidebook for studying the Seraphic Doctor for higher-level undergraduate students or graduate students, with this book requiring—like Bonaventure’s mirror in the Itinerarium—more polishing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Hahn is a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto and the Tutor in the History of Christianity at the University of London.

Date of Review: 
November 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Dales was from 1984 to 2012 Chaplain of Marlborough College, Wiltshire, and he is now a parish priest in the diocese of Oxford. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and the author of several studies in Anglo-Saxon church history and other areas of theology. Among his books published with James Clarke and Co Ltd are: Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain (2010), Alcuin: His Life and Legacy (2012), Alcuin: Theology and Thought (2013), Dunstan: Saint and Statesman (2013) and Divine Remaking: St Bonaventure and the Gospel of Luke (2017).


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