Love and Unity in Bonaventure’s Commentary on John’s Gospel

Reading Time: 11 minutes

By Zach Watters, Yale University

When Bonaventure asks in his commentary on John’s gospel who loves God more, Peter or John, the question seems somewhat of a tasteless gander. However, Aquinas’ treatment of the same alludes to the fact that, since Augustine, this question has been a dubitatio with various and unsatisfactory answers. Aquinas concludes that the question may be presumptuous since “‘the Lord’ and no other ‘is the weigher of spirits,’” though only after weighing in himself. Bonaventure, who shows no such qualms, favors Peter in every respect. Why must Peter be the greater lover? I contend that multiple texts in Bonaventure’s Commentary, beyond this particular question, portray the two proofs of love that Christ commands Peter to imitate, namely laying down one’s life and feeding the sheep, as central to Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the Church. I argue that by imitating the love of the Trinity, Christians manifest the Trinity’s unity. I will present this argument first by relating unity and Trinitarian love, second by defining the terms of analogy between Trinitarian love and Christian love, third by examining the Son’s love, and fourth by demonstrating how imitation of Christ’s “principal signs” of love manifests unity in the will. 

First, I will establish the relationship between unity and love in the Trinity, according to Bonaventure. In his questions on chapter five, Bonaventure dwells on the ramifications of Christ’s words for Trinitarian theology: “‘The Father shows all to the Son,’ because ‘he loves the Son.’” On the authority of Augustine, Bonaventure says “to show to the Son” means to beget the Son. John’s Gospel says loving the Son is the ratio of the Father showing all to Him, and so Bonaventure asks whether this action, “to love,” should be understood as coming from God’s essence (essentialiter) or from the Father’s hypostasis as a property according to procession (notionaliter). If essentially, then the Trinity’s communal love would cause the Son’s generation, which would make generation a communal action, and the Son too should beget. If notionally, then the procession of the Holy Spirit would be logically prior to the Son’s generation, since the Father’s notional love, or love according to procession, is the Holy Spirit’s common spiration. Bonaventure clarifies by showing that the second term, “to show all,” is an equivocation with “to show.” To show can be equated with begetting, but not to show all, and so the Father’s love does not cause generation. However, love does cause the Father “to show all” to the Son, and so Bonaventure answers that this love is essential, and it “refers to the supreme unity of the Father toward the Son. And since supreme unity is in essence, it follows that there is absolutely no division in operation.” Showing all, therefore, means to involve each other in the same action. For Bonaventure, then, the Father’s love in showing all to the Son is the love that all three Persons share according to their essence, and thus by showing all to each other they do all together in a perfect unity of operation. Thus, loving each other by virtue of their essence is their supreme unity and the logical foundation for their common action. 

Jesus does not leave the apostles unaffected by the Trinity’s transcendent love and unity, but rather commands them to imitate these qualities. Jesus tells the disciples, “As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you,” and then commands them to love each other as Christ has loved them. He also prays that Christians would be one “even as you Father in me, and I in you, that they also be one in us.” However, the unitive love with which the Trinitarian Persons love each other, according to Bonaventure, is incommunicable. Only in God can the Trinitarian Persons, through their essential love, be said to be one simpliciter. Humans who love cannot become one by essence; they can only be one something. Another obstacle to imitation is that the love between the Trinitarian Persons is “natural,” whereas God’s love for humanity is gracious, and human love towards God is owed. Bonaventure must contend, then, with Christ’s command to love like the Father loves the Son when the two loves and the two forms of unity are so incommensurate, and so he sets some terms of analogy. 

I will focus on two terms of analogy. First, the Trinity’s essence, which is love, is the foundation for the Divine Persons’ unified operation. In other words, whenever the Trinity does a communal action predicated of all three Persons, the Trinity is manifesting their essential love. Analogously, human love is manifest in deeds. Indeed, for humanity, love is the root of obedience to the commandments: “the commands are related to the commandment of love, in which all were united and fulfilled.” In fact, love manifesting itself in deeds merits God’s manifestation: “I will manifest myself to you, who keep my commandments, and in so doing love me and thereby merit.” This divine manifestation is communal: “And we will come to him,” and therefore a manifestation of God’s essential love. In the first analogy, then, manifestation of love through deeds is, on its own, an imitation of the Trinity’s essential love.   

In the second term of analogy, though the Trinity’s love is essential, the manner in which it is communicated between the Persons is qualified by the hierarchy of procession. The divine love can either be due or gratuitous (debitus or gratuitus), depending on whether the Person is active or passive in the procession. The Father’s love for the Son and the Holy Spirit is gratuitous, the Son’s love towards the Father is due, the Son’s love towards the Holy Spirit is gratuitous, and the Holy Spirit’s love towards the Father and Son is due. Though the Trinitarian Persons love each other duly and gratuitously, they still love each other ‘naturally.’ The Father’s gratuitous love should not be equated with gracious loving, as the love with which He loves creatures, since the Son is God by emanation and not by participation, and therefore is a natural object of the Father’s love. Christians cannot imitate God’s natural love within Himself, and neither can they imitate God’s gracious love for creatures, since such a love is what bridges the chasm separating uncreated and created. Since Jesus compares His love to the Father’s love towards Him, then the love which Christians are to imitate is a love characterized by gratuity. Christians can imitate the Father’s love by imitating the Son’s love.  

Imitation of Trinitarian love, then, is based on two terms of analogy. Firstly, manifesting love through deeds is itself imitative of the Trinity. Secondly, the love which Christians are to imitate is characterized by gratuity. This gratuity is totally undue giving of self, to which the beneficiary can lay no claim of debt. In order to imitate the Trinity’s love, Christians must imitate the Son’s love, which in my reading, must also have the effect imitating that “supreme unity of the Father towards the Son.” I move now to examining the Son’s love.  

Given Bonaventure’s focus on the analogy between Christ’s love and the Father’s, one would expect allusions to the Father in the commentary on Christ’s passion. Such allusions, at least explicit, are absent. Conspicuously absent, as well, are allusions to Christ’s love in the consummation of His passion. This absence is explicable by the fact that Bonaventure understands the weakness of Christ up unto his consummation in death as the manifestation of His humanity. However, love appears in Christ’s manifestation of divinity after His death when He opens his side and blood and water spill forth. Bonaventure, following the tradition, interprets the flow of blood and water as the sacraments by which “Christ loved the Church… cleansing her in the bath…” Bonaventure has quoted this same verse from Ephesians before when commenting on baptism as the sacrament of regeneration. Following Bede, Bonaventure interprets baptism as the nuptial act of the bridegroom for the bride. Therefore, Christ bathing the Church with water from his side is His manifestation as divine bridegroom through gratuitous love. 

Now, Christ’s gratuitous love has a unifying effect, which analogously manifests the Trinity’s unitive love. Bonaventure comments on how Christ is crucified in the middle of two thieves, just like he was born in the middle of animals, in order to “signify that he was the mediator.” Christ as mediator creates unity, as Ephesians 2:14, to which Bonaventure alludes, saying: “For he himself is our peace, who has made two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Bonaventure expounds upon this theme of unity coming from Christ’s passion when he gives a spiritual interpretation of Christ’s tunic, for which the soldiers cast lots rather than tear. This tunic, “which is undivided, signifies love, which is a garment, because it covers turpitude.” Bonaventure sees in this tunic the occasion to recall several Pauline exhortations to Christian unity, for example, “but above all these things have love, which is the bond of perfection,” “I beseech you brothers and sisters,… that you say all the same thing,” and “[Be] careful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” How seriously Bonaventure takes Christian unity becomes evident when he says that those who fracture the Church’s unity are “worse than the soldiers who crucified him.” For Bonaventure, Christ’s garment, which signifies love, is the wedding garment “without which no one enters into the joy of the wedding feast of the Lamb.” Bonaventure quotes this verse from Matthew’s gospel earlier, when he compares the man without a garment in the parable to the Jews who do not have the love of God. To compare these two garments means that, for Bonaventure, the garment that one must wear into the heavenly banquet is both a love of God and, by signifying the unity of the Church, a love of the fratres Christiani. Furthermore, that this is the garment of Christ in his passion means that love of God and love of neighbor must be an imitation of Christ’s love, which I understand to be His gratuitous love. Bede’s comment, that integral love of God is the diligent care of the brethren, comes here even sharper into focus. 

Christ shows that gratuitous love leads to unity within the Church but also within oneself, and he does so by demonstrating how to unite His wills to do the will of the Father. Bonaventure understands that Christ, in addition to His divine will, also has a rational will and a sensual will. When Jesus was troubled at the death of Lazarus, Bonaventure interprets this disturbance as, not only staying within the realm of a pre-passion, but also as a voluntary disturbance in the senses. In other words, Christ freely wills to undergo pre-passion but without allowing the passion into the reason, thereby sinning. Christ is not, therefore, disunified in the will, even when troubled, because He willingly, both by virtue of the divine will and the human rational will, allows his sensual will to be disturbed. Though Christ’s agony in the garden does not appear in the Gospel of John, Bonaventure uses this opportunity to make the same point. I will return to this when looking at Bonaventure’s treatment of Peter’s wills when undergoing his passion.  

I now move on to examining imitation of the Son’s gratuitous love. Bonaventure, quoting Bede, says: “this is the sole and genuine proof of integral love towards God: if you strive to exercise diligent care for the brothers.” This diligent care is shown by two more proofs, or deeds, which manifest love that Christ demonstrates and then commands Peter to imitate, with each being characterized by gratuity. The first deed manifesting love is laying down one’s life for friends, and the second is feeding. Christ demonstrates both these deeds of gratuitous love in the passion, first by dying, and the second by pouring out his blood which is ‘true drink.’ 

First, laying down one’s life for friends is the “principal sign of love.” Christ teaches that this is the greatest love twice in John’s gospel, and both times, Bonaventure calls this kind of love, vehementissima dilectio, or burning love, as Karris translates it. This love is the gratuitous love with which the Father loves the Son and humanity: “And this was the most burning love, not only in Christ who handed over himself and his life, but also in the Father.” Therefore, this love is also the love which Christians ought to imitate, hence Bonaventure quotes Paul as saying, “Daily I die for your glory, brothers and sisters.” Imitation of this gratuitous love manifests unity within the Church, individually and communally. First, I treat unity within the Church communally. Bonaventure interprets the Church’s unity as one of faith and love. Following Augustine, love in particular is what distinguishes true Christian unity from the ecclesia malorum, who “differ internally in their will and in their goal, for each one seeks his own advantage.” The ecclesia Christi, on the other hand, has a unified will and goal (voluntas and finis). Now for Bonaventure, the will is a rational affection, whose highest act is to love. The goal is an “object of the will.” More precisely, a goal is a good qua good that serves as the object of the will. A unified will and goal is only possible through goodness, or the habit of tending toward the good, which God communicates to the Church as a glory through Christ’s prayer. Goodness is given to the apostles so that they may be “perfect in the unity of love. The unified will and goal of the Church is an imitation of Christ’s unified wills in the act of giving up His life. 

Now, for Bonaventure, since Peter was head of the Church, he “had to excel in imitation.” Peter’s love must be the imitation of Christ’s love par excellence. All pastors, in fact, following Peter, must be capable of imitating the gratuitous love of Christ, which is why Bonaventure quotes Gregory as saying, “The person who does not have love… should never accept the office of preaching.” Therefore, Peter’s imitation of Christ’s gratuitous love also imitates the movements of the will in Christ. When prophesying to Peter about his death, Christ says, “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you wished.” For Bonaventure, Peter girding his tunic and walking where he wishes signifies the activity of the will, which, again, Bonaventure understands to be the faculty of love. Bonaventure says that to will to suffer “comes from the will of reason, but not willing to suffer issues from the will of nature or sensuality. Do not be amazed, since it was thus in the Head,” meaning Christ. Bonaventure grants that in dying, Peter’s natural will and sensual will want opposing things, as Christ voluntarily allowed within Himself. Peter cannot imitate Christ’s voluntary disturbance of the sensual will. In fact, Peter’s sensual will never overcomes its desire to suffer, nor does it need to. However, quoting Augustine, “Peter unwillingly came to death, but willingly conquered death.” Thus, by willing to undergo his passion, Peter, like the Church and like Christ, submits his will to the Father’s, thereby becoming unified in will and goal. Peter therefore consummates his love by laying down his life, a gratuitous deed of love that images the gratuitous love of Christ. 

The second proof of love, feeding, Bonaventure also calls the “principal sign, among others, of [Christ’s] love.” Bonaventure’s interpretation makes sense given that Christ follows each question about Peter’s love with the command to feed. Feeding, then, must also be a gratuitous act of love analogous to the Son’s gratuitous love. Bonaventure notes, somewhat sardonically, that the Lord commanded Peter to feed the sheep, “not to shear them, not to eat them, because a shepherd is not commanded to feed himself out of love of Christ, but the sheep.” Bonaventure links food, in particular, to love, which “gives nourishment, for among the affections it is the greatest unifier.” Further, “just as liquids guide the food into the members, so too does faith and the operation of the intellect lead the way for the powers that exist in the affections. This is what it means to have a meal.” In other words, whereas faith is the drink, love is the solid food in a meal. 

Feeding, then, spiritually manifests the love which unifies because it is an act of love in the one feeding and in the one fed. As seen in the case of laying down one’s life, love here has the same effect in the soul that it has between persons, which is to produce unity. By nourishing love, feeding unifies the affection of the will and orients it toward loving the good food. In the same way, then, that the Church is unified in will and goal, when the person is fed, they themselves become a unity of love. This is especially the case in the context of the Eucharist. Bonaventure glosses Christ’s words, “the person who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood abides in me,” by adding that they abide in love. Here, eating is explicitly linked to love. Bonaventure mentions multiple kinds of feeding, however, all of which involve a kind of gratuitous action of the one feeding directed towards the one fed. Feeding, therefore, is an exercise of gratuitous love ordered towards the members of the Church. Feeding unifies the soul being fed in by feeding it love, and it also unifies the Church by orienting Christians to a unified will and goal. In feeding, then, just as in laying down one’s life, Christian deeds manifesting in love unifies those who abide together in love. These two proofs of love conform the soul and the Church to an image of the Triune God whose unity is God’s essential love.    

The true pastor, in imitation of Christ, lays down one’s life and feeds the sheep. For Bonaventure, Peter is the greatest lover among the apostles because he is a pastor whose commission is to imitate Christ the Good Shepherd in these principal signs of love. In imitating Christ’s love, Peter and all Christians manifest the gratuitous nature of God’s love, thereby becoming unified in the will, which is the faculty of love, and becoming unified among each other. In so doing, Christians manifest, only in image, the supreme unity of the Trinity. 

Works Cited

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition, 2017.

Bonaventure. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Translated by Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2007. 

Prentice, Robert. The Psychology of Love According to St. Bonaventure. St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1957.

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