Seen closely, Saint Bonaventure’s warning is based on a doctrine of knowledge rooted in the spiritual-allegorical interpretation of the biblical text concerning the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the lectures on the Hexaemeron delivered in 1273, just a year before his death, the Franciscan Doctor plainly asserts the following:
“He who is concerned only with knowledge (i.e., rational, speculative knowledge – my emphasis) eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”[ii]
As Joseph Ratzinger points out in his dissertation The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (1971), this idea already appears in a sermon from 1267. Here it is affirmed that in the early Church, the two trees, just like those in Paradise, were present. Simultaneously, a symbolic-allegoric interpretation is provided:
“The tree of life is Christ Himself. This tree becomes accessible in the spiritual understanding of Scripture. But he who understands the Scriptures only in the literal sense eats of the tree of knowledge.”[iii]
Taking into account the chronological distance between these works, Ratzinger rightly claims that this interpretation has always been followed by the Seraphic Doctor.[iv]
Consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a sin that literally modified the human nature: from immortals, men have become mortal. In other words, it represents an extremely grave moral error with huge consequences in terms of knowledge.
Saint Bonaventure’s doctrine on knowledge
After mentioning this interpretation consistently present in the works of the Seraphic Doctor, J. Ratzinger states that “apparently Bonaventure was not the first to come upon this exegesis.” Here, he inserts a note in which he acknowledges his doubts and limitations:
“Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the source for this interpretation. Most likely we would not be entirely wrong if we were to think of Joachim. But perhaps the history of the idea goes back further. The statement of St. Francis given above would seem to indicate this, for it was certainly formulated under the influence of some traditional view.”[v]
Fascinated by this symbolic-allegorical hermeneutics applied to the two trees in Paradise, over the past twenty years, I have expanded my readings until I identified an interpretation remarkably similar to that of Saint Bonaventure. However, before presenting this source, which, as you will see, is as plausible as it is unexpected, I will briefly revisit Saint Bonaventure’s interpretation of the two trees to identify their essential features.
Reading carefully the fragments mentioned by Joseph Ratzinger, we first notice that consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a sin that literally modified the human nature: from immortals, men have become mortal. In other words, it represents an extremely grave moral error with huge consequences in terms of knowledge. More precisely, as we can see from the entire context of the statements of Saint Bonaventure, it is about a misguided orientation of a transformative knowledge. The biblical episode proposed by Doctor Seraphicus to help us understand this is the one in which the Savior Christ meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:6-30). Here, we notice that, according to his interpretation, there are accessible two types of water:
“Hence two waters are noted; for one is described as exterior, of which the one who drinks thirsts for more; the other is interior, of which [it is said]: one who believes in me, just as Scripture says: from within [a person] rivers of living water will flow. Now [Christ] said this of the Holy Spirit whom those believing in him will receive. These are the waters from the fountains of the Savior, namely awareness (notitiae) of the graces nourishing souls (animas).”
To drink the “interior” water means to dedicate oneself to the contemplation (i.e., the knowledge) of the mysteries of the Holy Scriptures under the guidance of the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit. To drink the “exterior” water means to get lost in the labyrinth of “naturalistic” disputes about the real existence of a gigantic fish that could have swallowed a man (the prophet Jonah). Or to engage in “historical-critical” discussions about the differences between the manuscripts through which we have received the texts of the Old or New Testament. Thus, when Saint Bonaventura says, “he who is concerned only with knowledge eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” he is referring to that “exterior” knowledge, which, by replacing the contemplative, interior knowledge of God, ultimately gets lost in the labyrinth of the world, after first losing the taste for meditated knowledge of the Holy Scriptures – which can only be acquired in the quietness of a spiritual, i.e. truly Christian way of life.
The Tree of Life is the soul’s intellect, in which the reality of wisdom resides, while the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the body’s sensation, in which irrational motion clearly resides, and, though man received the divine commandment not to touch it or have actual experience of it, he failed to keep the commandment.
The second idea, derived from the first, suggests that, by having access to both ways of knowing, a person can commit a sin of omission that leads to disaster. Because instead of preferring the direct knowledge of God, which requires humility, patience, and perseverance, one chooses an external form of knowledge (focused on the “material nature”) that leads to neglect and, ultimately, to forgetting the mystical purpose of life–union with God and direct knowledge of the Creator. This forgetting begins with the omission of the contemplative knowledge in favor of an inferior, mediated form of knowledge. And this is absolutely foolish, says Saint Bonaventura. For it is as if, when you can know a person directly, face to face, you prefer to know them through a mirror:
“If I should see your face and then ask you to bring me a clear mirror (speculum) to see your face, that request would be foolish.”
What caught my attention in the interpretation of Saint Bonaventure is precisely the omission of a certain form of knowledge–mystical-contemplative–through which original sin is committed. Now, this doctrine was developed by one of the most brilliant mystic theologians in the entire tradition of the Church: Saint Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662).
From Saint Maximus the Confessor to Saint Bonaventure and back again
In question 43 discussed in St. Maximus’ Questions Addressed to Thalassius, we encounter one of the most subtle interpretations of the two trees in Paradise, according to which “the Tree of Life is the soul’s intellect, in which the reality of wisdom resides, while the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the body’s sensation, in which irrational motion clearly resides, and, though man received the divine commandment not to touch it or have actual experience of it, he failed to keep the commandment.”[vi] Essentially, the “test” to which Adam and Eve were subjected in Paradise, and to which we, the baptized, are also subjected, relates to the discernment between what is spiritual and immortal and what is material and fleeting, in order to firmly orient ourselves towards the former category of realities. However, the affective and passionate part of the soul, which perceives the material world through the senses, exercises limited discernment in the pleasure-pain binary. At the same time, it exerts a certain pressure on the higher part of the soul, the intellect, with the sole purpose of strictly pursuing the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This, as Saint Maximus points out, is fatal:
“If man, then, having transgressed the divine commandment, confines himself solely to discriminating between pleasure and pain, then he ‘eats’ from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, he succumbs to the irrationality of sensation, having the ability only to discriminate with respect to what sustains bodies, which embraces pleasure as something good, and rejects what is painful as evil.”[vii]
The original sin of consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a sin of omission, in which divine Wisdom is omitted, and what is inferior is preferred.
In other words, just like in the interpretation of Saint Bonaventure, the original sin of consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a sin of omission, in which divine Wisdom is omitted, and what is inferior is preferred. However, despite the “structural” similarity, our suggestion may seem insufficient. Yet, another passage from the same writing of Saint Maximus will reveal, this time, an almost perfect resemblance.
Question 32 from the same writing contains the answer to one of the most important and challenging questions imaginable: “How can a person find God by ‘groping after Him’?” The response of the great Byzantine master is absolutely brilliant. First, he describes the “method” that the one seeking the Creator must follow, and who “carefully examines with his intellect each of the visible symbols, thoroughly apprehending the divinely perfect logos hidden in each, finds God in that logos.” What we have seen expressed here, both simply and comprehensively, is the foundation of the theology of sacred symbols as first set forth in the texts of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. This type of discernment (διάκρίσις) can be applied in three different contexts:
“In Scripture, he distinguishes between the letter and the spirit; in nature, between its inner logos and its outward manifestation; and in himself, between intellect and sensation. And by having chosen the spirit of Scripture, the logos of nature, and his intellect, and by uniting them indissolubly to each other, he found God–in the sense that he came to know God, as much as this was necessary and possible–in the intellect, in the logos, and in the spirit, for he is utterly removed from all that deceives and seduces the mind into countless erroneous opinions, by which I mean the letter, the outward appearance, and sensation, in which there exist differences of quantity, which is the antithesis of the Monad. But if someone mixes up the letter of the law with the superficial manifestation of visible things and his own power of sensation, and so confuses them all together, he is ‘blind and short sighted,’ being sick through ignorance of the Cause of beings.”[viii]
Without any doubt, we are dealing with the same type of interpretation as that proposed by Saint Bonaventure. First, it is shown how we find God in every word of the Bible, in the Law, or in creation, and it is affirmed that the nourishment we receive through the spiritual understanding of Holy Scripture is Jesus Christ (the supreme Logos) Himself. Then, it is emphasized that omitting this knowledge in favor of the “letter” – or of nature – through an external form of knowledge leads to the death of the one who prefers the literal sense, a death that, in essence, is a kind of repetition of the fall of the first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise.
Although I have no idea about the sources of Saint Bonaventure, and therefore cannot offer any explanation regarding how he adopted the interpretation of Saint Maximus, I can suggest two directions for possible future investigations. The first would inevitably involve the work of a great scholar and translator of the Byzantine doctor’s works, Johannes Scottus Eriugena (c. 815 - 877). Did the Seraphic Doctor know his works? It remains to be proved.
Another possible lead is the common origin of the interpretations of Saints Maximus and Bonaventure. Exegesis has already established that in the development of his theory on the profound nature of the two trees in Paradise, Saint Maximus adopted and developed the spiritual-allegorical interpretation of another great biblical exegete: Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c.335–c.395). It is not excluded that, in fact, Saint Bonaventure knew his exegesis, just as we know for sure that Saint Thomas Aquinas was well acquainted with it. Thus, even if the Seraphic Doctor was not familiar with the writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor, he could have followed the same interpretation under the influence of the famous Cappadocian thinker.
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[i] The teaching that affirms that the texts of both the Old and New Testament, having as their author God himself, are free from any error. In his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, published in 1893, Pope Leo XIII said the following: “The books, all and entire, which the Church accepts as sacred and canonical, with all their parts, have been written at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; so far is it from the possibility of any error being present to divine inspiration, that it itself of itself not only excludes all error, but excludes it and rejects it as necessarily as it is necessary that God, the highest Truth, be the author of no error whatsoever.” (cf. Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Translated by Roy J. Deferrari, Preserving Christian Publications Boonville, New York, 2009, art. 1951, p. 493). Almost 30 years later, in 1920, Pope Benedict XV will repeat the same teaching in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus: “By the doctrine of Jerome those statements are well confirmed and illustrated by which Our predecessor, Leo XIII, solemnly declared the ancient and constant faith of the Church in the absolute immunity of Scriptures from any errors.”
[ii] I quote the English translation of Ratzinger’s dissertation: Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, Translated by Zachary Hayes, O.F.M., Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1971 (Second edition: 1989), pp. 151-152.
[iii] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, p. 152.
[iv] Concretely, he says: “In no place is it ever revoked.” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, p. 152)
[v] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, p. 236, note 56.
[vi] Saint Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture. The Responses to Thalassios, Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, Catholic University of American Press, 2018, p. 247.
[viii] Op. cit., p. 205