A Theology of History in St. Bonaventure

Roll up your sleeves and read Ratzinger’s thesis on salvation history!  I dare you!

A Theology of History in St. Bonaventure,
by Joseph Ratzinger.

Franciscan Herald Press, 1971, 268 p.; reviewed by Todd Burud, 12/15

Political-correctness drains language of its richness, condescends to the reader (we will tell you how to think), and detaches itself from anything outside its own moment-in-time. For example, the movement to change our dating system from BC/AD, to BCE/CE, detaches us from Christ and His revelation in time. History no longer places Christ at its center. In fact, political-correctness removes Him altogether.

While some people hope to rewrite reality, others work to strengthen it.  In 1953 A.D., Joseph Ratzinger worked on his habilitation thesis–The Theology of History in Bonaventure–gathering deeper insights on the nature of revelation.  These insights grew out his reading of St. Bonaventure and focused on the relationship between salvation-history and metaphysics. Although the theme sounds obtuse, his findings are not.  He highlights why it’s impossible to remove Christ as the center of history.


  1. First, revelation precedes and reaches beyond Scripture.  Ratzinger defines revelation as “a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” Revelation is, first and foremost, an act of God showing Himself. And it “requires a someone who apprehends it,” otherwise, “no re-vel-ation has occurred.” Revelation actually “precedes Scripture” and “is always something greater than what is merely written down.” In other words, Christ Himself is at the center of revelation, and the Church is the someone who apprehends.
  2. Second, revelation is a spiritual understanding of Scripture.  In Ratzinger interprets Bonaventure’s understanding of revelation as “synonymous with the spiritual understanding of Scripture; it consists in the God-given act of understanding, and not in the objective letter alone.”
  3. Third, revelation unfolds over time, “Scripture points to the future.”  Contemporary culture often interprets history with an arrogant indifference. Imbued with an independent humanism, it charts a new world order without admitting historical, cultural, or religious patrimony. But Ratzinger discovered the opposite view in Bonaventure. Every age must approach history with humility and with a sense of continuity. If that’s true of history as a whole, then it’s even more true of Scriptural study:  “[T]he exegesis of Scripture becomes a theology of history; the clarification of the past leads to prophecy concerning the future.”
  4. Fourth, revelation needs an authority outside of the individual for its true interpretation.  We all meditate upon Scripture in order to draw closer to Christ. But within Scripture we also find the objective truths of revelation. These truths can’t be subject to each individual’s private interpretation. So, revelation is fully “realized only in the living understanding of Scripture in the Church.”

Christ’s Incarnation marks the fulfillment of Revelation

Christ is revelation’s “Mediator and Fulfillment”; “In him [the Father] has said everything; there will be no other word than this one” (CCC65). Just as a compass always points north, revelation always points to Christ’s incarnation, a specific moment in time and history. And Ratzinger sees two elements in Christ’s incarnation: 1) Christ mediates salvation, but 2) He also becomes the center of time. According to Bonaventure,

[T]he coming of the Son of God marks the fullness of time: not because time ends with His coming, but because the hidden prophecies of all ages have been fulfilled. Had Christ come at the beginning of time, He would have come too soon; and had His coming been delayed until the very end, He would have come too late. It belonged to Him as the true Savior to provide a time of healing right between the time of sickness and the time of judgment…

Our culture is hungry for a sense of purpose, for a connection to history and to God. Christ is our reference point; He is the true north on our compass; He is the center of time.  And no artificial movement to change BC to BCE, or AD to CE, will change reality.

Approach this book as a challenge

A Theology of History in St. Bonaventure is a thesis; it’s not recreational reading.  I don’t pretend to understanding its entire content, and maybe you won’t either.  But what’s the point of reading something you already know?

Recommended readingCatholicism: Christ the Common Destiny of Man, by Henri De Lubac; and A Theology of History, by Hans Urs von Balthazar.  These books are written by theological giants (and equals) but are less academic than Ratzinger’s thesis.

A Theology of History in St. Bonaventure

One thought on “A Theology of History in St. Bonaventure

  • July 5, 2016 at 9:12 am

    Great advise!

    Even more incisive (and much more difficult) is the original (1955) version of that (1959) thesis, in which Doctor Father Ratzinger explores in depth the metaphysical foundations of the theology of revelation and the relationship between metaphysics and history.

    That earlier version of the thesis was first published only in 2009 (German), etc., not yet in English.


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