The question of the nature of theology has received much attention in recent times. While there are many ways in which this question might be approached, the one taken here gets its inspiration from a memorable statement of Fr. Peter Fehlner: “Ignorance of Mary is ignorance of the nature of theology.”[1] The truth of this statement finds its theological basis in the role of Mary as Mater et Magistra theologiae. As Mother and Teacher of theology, Mary instructs the theologian in the understanding of the content of faith. She does this through a special form of teaching called witness, or better, witness-revelation. In order to understand what is distinctive about this form of teaching, it is first of all necessary to compare it to the form of teaching that is characteristic of Christ. As the very revelation of the Father, Christ teaches by way of authority, or better, authority-revelation.

The purpose of teaching via authority-revelation is to establish, in an authoritative manner, the objective content of revelation. Christ does this through his words and deeds, which are partially objectified in Sacred Scripture. This revelation is extrinsic to the believer, i.e., it refers to that which has been revealed by Christ once and for all in a public and propositional form. As such, it is a form of teaching from without.

In contrast, the purpose of teaching via witness-revelation is to clarify and illuminate the meaning of the things of faith. Mary, in union with the Spirit, does this through an interior act of revelation which enlightens the credibile, that is, the things of faith to be believed, and makes them intelligibile, that is, intelligible or understandable. This revelation is intrinsic to the believer, not because it comes from the believer himself but rather because it is the means by which the believer interiorizes what he has already assented to in faith. The passing over from believing the things of faith to understanding them is made possible by this interior cognition of revelation by grace, which is the fruit of Mary and the Spirit’s activity from within. Of course, this passing over also includes — and in fact presupposes — the effort of reason elevated through faith and the gifts of knowledge and understanding, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that it is consummated by revelation.

This brief synthesis finds support in St. Bonaventure’s teaching on the nature of theology and on Mary’s role therein. In his Prologue to Book I of the Commentary on the Sentences, Bonaventure describes the four causes of theology: the material, formal, final, and efficient causes. Speaking in general terms, the material cause pertains to that which has been objectively revealed by Christ, that is, the content of faith. The formal cause, which is the manner of proceeding in theology, is one that is “thoroughly scrutatory and inquisitive of secrets.”[2] In response to the objection that the things of faith are above reason, and that therefore a rational method of proceeding is not convenient for theology, Bonaventure writes that the things of faith are “not above reason elevated through faith and through the gifts of knowledge and understanding. For faith elevates one to assent (to what is to be believed); (the gifts of) knowledge and understanding elevate one to understand what has been believed.”[3] Here we can already see that the passing over from the credible to the intelligible is not possible by means of bare reason alone. On the contrary, it requires the mediatory action of the Spirit in the form of the infused virtue of faith and the infused gifts of knowledge and understanding.

With respect to the final cause of theology, Bonaventure writes that it is “the revelation of ‘things hidden’ [revelatione absconditorum].”[4] However, it is important to note that Bonaventure qualifies what he means when writing that the final cause of theology is the revelation of things hidden away. On the level of cognition, that is, the intellectual level, revelation is indeed the goal of theology. This is borne out in an explicit way when Bonaventure discusses how the cognition of the articles of faith is achieved. In order for this cognition to take place, three conditions must be met: (1) the article of faith must be implicitly or explicitly revealed in Scripture, (2) the theologian must apply the scrutatory and inquisitive manner of proceeding to Scripture, i.e., the addition of reason elevated through faith and the gifts of knowledge and understanding, and (3) the Spirit must bring this rational process of investigating Scripture to term through an act of interior revelation. Therefore, Scripture, reason, and revelation constitute the three conditions necessary for the cognition of an article of faith, though the actual graced-cognition itself is proper to revelation. These three are related in the following manner: “the cognition of [an article of faith] has (its) foundation from Scripture, (its) progress and/or increment from reason, but its consummation from revelation.”[5]

However, on the level of affection, that is, the volitional level, revelation is not the goal of theology. On the contrary, it is love. Thus, Bonaventure, in response to the objection that the goal of theology is revelation pure and simple writes that, although “it [theology] is for laying open things hidden away; it must be said, that that is not a state, because that revelation orders toward affection.”[6] The final status (state) of theology, therefore, is not revelation as such but rather love. Revelation, as a dynamic act on the part of the one revealing — in this case, the Spirit — is ordered towards the illumination of the soul by grace, which in turn is ordered towards affection as to an end. Affection or love pertains to a state of being, whereas revelation does not. Hence Bonaventure calls theology an affective habit, i.e., wisdom, which pertains to the intellect insofar as it is extended to affection. We may, therefore, summarize Bonaventure’s position in his own words: “… [Scripture] excites the intellect to an inquisition and by exciting it in this manner prepares it for revelation, and after revelation it excites to love.”[7]

We now come to our most important consideration, namely, that of the efficient cause of theology. Who is the one responsible for the revelation of things hidden away: the Spirit (and Mary) or the theologian? Up to this point we have reserved this privilege to the Spirit and Mary. Now, however, a qualification is in order. Bonaventure writes that the public-exhibition of hidden things is the work of the theologian, who scrutinizes the depths of objective revelation, i.e., Scripture, by the grace of the Spirit. Although the Spirit “is the chief thorough-scrutinizer of secrets and depths,”[8] nevertheless, the theologian, driven by the charity of this Spirit and brightened by his light and clarity, also scrutinizes the secrets and depths of Scripture and composes his own work of theology. The theologian, therefore, with the Spirit also helping, becomes the “revealer of things hidden away [revelator absconditorum].”[9] Thus, we can say that the efficient cause of theology is a coordinated activity between two persons: the theologian and the Spirit (and Mary). But whose activity predominates? It is clear that since the Spirit is the chief thorough-scrutinizer of the depths of Scripture, he is also the primary efficient cause of theology. The theologian, on the other hand — since his ability to scrutinize the depths of Scripture and bring forth its hidden meanings, is entirely conditioned by the degree to which he is illuminated by the Spirit’s light and clarity — is only the secondary efficient cause of theology.

How, concretely, does Mary fit into this picture? Is not the Spirit’s activity in clarifying and illuminating sufficient? Absolutely speaking, it is. Relatively speaking, i.e., in light of the actual economy of revelation willed by God, it is not, because an essential part of this economy of revelation is the visible mission of the Spirit. And since that mission has multiple terms, there must be a first who is the primary visible term, and this is Mary.[10] With respect to theology, the mission of the Spirit is — as we have described above — that of witness-revelation. Thus, in the visible order, Mary is the primary visible teacher of theology qua witness-revelation. This means that she, in union with the Spirit, clarifies and illuminates the meaning of the content of faith for us. She can do this precisely because the meaning of that content is perfectly clear to her. For all others who engage in theology, whether it be members of the religious state or of the hierarchy or of the laity, that content is not so clear. Not even the Church considered collectively can be said to enjoy this privilege, for clarity of understanding is not a quantitative but rather a qualitative matter. Hence the need for development of doctrine in the life of the Church. In Mary’s case, there was no need for “development” in terms of clarity; she possessed this clarity from the very beginning in virtue of her fullness of grace, which includes illuminating grace.

Mary’s role as teacher in the realm of witness-revelation is highlighted by Bonaventure on numerous occasions. He even prioritizes the Marian witness to the Apostolic witness. For example, in the Collations on the Hexaemeron, Bonaventure writes that the blessed Virgin Mary is the Teacher of Apostles and Evangelists. After confirming that the firmness of faith arises in us from the certain knowledge of the ones testifying, which was especially the case in the Apostles who received an intellectual vision conjoined with a manifest corporal vision, he then goes on to specify — under the same heading of intellectual-corporal vision — that “the blessed Virgin Mary, the Teacher of Apostles and Evangelists, came into contact with [the] Word in her womb and on her bosom.”[11] Although he does not say so explicitly, what Bonaventure is indicating here is that the firmness of faith is ultimately reducible to the testimony or witness of Mary, and this for the precise reason that her certain knowledge of the revelation of Christ is so preeminent that it surpasses that of the Apostles. Not only could she claim to have heard Christ, to have seen him with her eyes, to have looked upon him and touched him with her hands (cf. 1 Jn. 1:1), but even more that she bore him in her womb and nursed him on her bosom. In virtue of this unique closeness to Christ, in terms of both corporal and spiritual contact, Mary became the first witness to his revelation, not merely chronologically but in terms of exemplarity.

As the exemplary witness to Christ’s revelation, Mary enjoys the fullness of the Spirit in a preeminent way, including the fullness of understanding which, in our present economy of revelation, is the ultimate guarantee of certainty by grace. Consequently, as Fehlner writes, “By the fullness of her witness, she teaches in a visible manner what the Holy Spirit, implementing the work of Christ, teaches in an invisible manner … If, then, Mary, by her Immaculate Conception, is constituted primary witness to Christ, the fullness of revelation, and therefore primary teacher of theology, it is only logical to conclude that her actual competence in matters theological is the most perfect of any witness. And that whatever in the course of the history of the Church comes to be clarified … is already clear in her mind.”[12] This is a perfect explanation of what Bonaventure means when he calls Mary the Teacher of Apostles and Evangelists. It is not simply that she taught them in the things of faith but, more to the point, that she taught them precisely because her understanding was so clear that it constituted her the most perfect of any witness. Thus, even the witness of the Apostles is entirely dependent upon her prior witness and draws its certainty from hers. For as teacher of theology qua witness-revelation, Mary illuminated the Apostles’ corporal vision of Christ and made it intelligible.

This seems to be confirmed by Bonaventure in his fifth sermon on the Assumption of Mary. Therein he writes that “the Virgin instructed the Apostles in the mystery of the Incarnation and enlightened them by revealing so great a mystery hidden from eternity …”[13] There are four things to be noted here: (1) Mary taught the Apostles, (2) the concrete form of this teaching was witness-revelation, (3) this witness-revelation enlightened the Apostles, and (4) this enlightenment pertained to the mystery of the Incarnation which, for the Apostles, was not only an object of faith but also an object of sensible experience, i.e., a corporal vision. To sum this up in one sentence we can say: Mary instructed the Apostles in the mystery of the Incarnation by means of an interior revelation, through which she made the content of that mystery intelligible by illuminating it, and this in order that the Apostles could come to understand it with clarity.

The preeminence of Mary’s witness vis-a-vis that of the Apostles is confirmed by Bonaventure in another place, namely, in his fifth sermon on the Nativity of Mary. In this sermon, where Bonaventure describes Mary’s right understanding of the truth of faith, he notes “that while others doubted [i.e., the Apostles], there remained in the Virgin Mary a firm, solid, and unshaken understanding of the truth. The reason for this is that she not only had a speculative understanding of the law [of the Gospel], but also a practical and experimental understanding.”[14] One who doubts cannot be a perfect witness to the revelation of Christ, for perfect witness excludes all doubt. Therefore, since the Apostles doubted, their witness was by its very nature imperfect. Nevertheless, because they were instructed by Mary in the truth of faith and, at Pentecost, received an overflowing fullness of the Spirit “through the administration of cognition or (through) doctrine,”[15] they became in their turn the most perfect witnesses to the revelation of Christ after Mary. It is interesting to note that Bonaventure locates Mary’s perfect witness in her right understanding of the faith, that is, in her theology. Even more interesting is the fact that he emphasizes her practical and experimental understanding of the faith over and above her speculative understanding. This harkens back to Bonaventure’s understanding of theology as being principally practical and experimental (or sapiential) in character, not speculative. Theology, as he says, is an affective habit which is called wisdom, and this habit “is for the sake of contemplation, and that we become good, however principally that we become good.”[16] The reason, therefore, that Mary stood firm in the faith and bore witness to Christ even at the foot of the Cross, was because of the perfection of her theology.

To conclude this article, I would like to reference one last sermon of Bonaventure on Mary that is pertinent to our discussion. The reference comes from Bonaventure’s first sermon on the Assumption of Mary. Towards the end of this sermon, Bonaventure gives a brief exhortation to those who are studious and look for a place of learning. He exhorts such persons as follows: “Whoever will come as a studious person to the mountain of God, that is, the blessed Virgin, will be able to understand divine mysteries. This is clear in blessed Bernard [St. Bernard of Clairvaux] who at first was uneducated, but reached a high perfection of knowledge through his friendship with the blessed Virgin. It is true also of [St.] John the Evangelist, for the closer he came to her, the better he was able to understand the hidden and deep mysteries of God and was able to pass them on.”[17] Let us, then, heed this exhortation of Bonaventure and come as studious persons to the mountain of God, that is, the blessed Virgin. And let us deepen our friendship with her and come ever closer to her, so that we too might be made fit to understand the hidden and deep mysteries of God and be able to pass them on to others. 


[1]     Peter D. Fehlner, “Mary and Theology: Scotus Revisited,” in The Newman-Scotus Reader: Contexts and Commonalities, ed. Edward J. Ondrako (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2015), 112.


[2]     St. Bonaventure, I Sent., Prol., q. 2.


[3]     I Sent., Prol., q. 2, ad 5.


[4]     I Sent., Prol.


[5]     I Sent., d. 11, a. 1, q. 1.


[6]     I Sent., Prol. q. 3, ad 1.


[7]     I Sent., d. 16, a. 1, q. 2, ad 2.


[8]     I Sent., Prol.


[9]     Ibid


[10]    Fehlner, “Mary and Theology,” 131.


[11]    St. Bonaventure, Collationes in Hexaemeron, c. 9.


[12]    Fehlner, “Mary and Theology,” 153.


[13]    St. Bonaventure, Sermon 5 of the Assumption of the B.V.M.


[14]    Ibid


[15]    I Sent., d. 16, a. 1, q. 3, ad 6.


[16]    I Sent., Prol. q. 3, ad 1.


[17]    St. Bonaventure, Sermon 1 of the Assumption of the B.V.M.