The Theology of
St. John Scotus Eriugena
by the late +Tanaiste James Allister
Bishop Allister concisely articulates the complex theology of Saint John Scotus Eriugena who, with Saint Morgan of Wales, is one of the two pillars of Celtic theologians.
In 410 of the Common Era the Roman army abandoned its province of Britannia in a consolidating effort to defend Rome. The fall of Rome occurred around 476 A.D. by the reckoning of most modern and contemporary historians. During this time Europe fell into a dark time and much of the legacy that was once that of Rome began to fall away and rot. This time was truly and appropriately named ‘the Dark Ages.’
While mainland Europe struggled against various barbarian tribes the British Isles became isolated to much of what was occurring on the continent. It was during this time that the Celtic Church blossomed and flowered amidst this chaos and strife. Indeed the islands, while not themselves immune from invasion, became a light during the Dark Ages to scholars and students alike. Abbeys, churches and libraries were full of men and women from the continent as well as from the isles and were taught by the many saints of the Celtic Church. Likewise, many of these courageous and adventurous men and women went out to re-evangelize those areas that were once Roman and even those areas that were not. In due time Roman rule would return to the British Isles in the guise of the Roman church when much of Britain decided to bow to the Roman way of Christianity instead of its native Celtic Church after the Council of Whitby in 663 A.D.
It was with this rich history in mind, that in or around the year 811(?) A.D. was born a man named John Scotus Eriugena. His name, quite literally meaning John the Irish born Gael. John was considered not only a great Neo-Platonist theologian and philosopher but a poet and mystic as well.
Not much is known of John’s early years. He was born in Ireland though we do not know where. He was educated in Ireland but again we do not know where he studied. What we do know about John is that he went to Gaul in the mid 9th century and his intellect out shined those that were his contemporaries and he would earn the admiration of King’s and scholars alike.
John was probably a monk or a cleric although it is possible that he was a layman as well. What made John unique was his firm grasp of Greek. John’s reputation with translating Greek got him appointed to a scholarly position at the Palantine School in Paris under the patronage of no less than the Carologinian King Charles the Bald. It was here that John learned a great deal about the classical philosophers as well as the works of Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the confessor. These studies profoundly influenced John and would in time illumine and reflect his Celtic roots and education.
John wrote commentaries on the works of Gregory of Nyssa (one of the three famous Cappadocian fathers) as well as Maximus the Confessor. The work that John was best known for was his introduction to the Latin west of the work and translation of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In fact all of the above works were little known to the Latin west until John translated them from the Greek texts. Dionysius was thought to be the same man by that name who St. Paul converted in the Areopagus while he was in Athens (Acts 17:34). John had no reason to believe the work was not authentic and treated it as an authentic text.
John would go on to write his own theological work know as the Periphyseon. In it, John imitates the scholastic tradition by utilizing a dialog between a teacher and pupil. It must be understood that John’s epistemology, anthropology and cosmology came from the Neo-Platonism philosophical tradition and as such, John considered philosophy to be one and the same as theology. The Bible was analogous to John in part but reflected the truth of things that are divine or of God.
John’s philosophy (and theology) is complex. Suffice it to say that John believed that God created all things. In fact God created all things and since they are from God they are good. John did not hold the understanding of the Doctrine of Original Sin. In fact John’s philosophy flew in the face of the hierarchal theology that was being taught at the time. His view of the creation of man was novel to say the least!
"The fall is, like creation, a timeless event. Man in his prelapsarian
condition was one with God, indistinguishable from him, omnipotent
and omniscient like him, because man was the perfect image of God.
Man fell from this unity because he became obsessed with his own
self-image and self-consciousness and sought to impose human rather
than divine meanings on things. The fall never took place in historical time;
rather for Eriugena, it expresses the metaphysical possibility that man
can achieve unity with God if his freewill is utilized correctly. Eriugena
has no time for the more literal interpretations of the Bible which sought to blame
the devil or Eve for original sin. All human beings are separate from God
so long as their free wills are self-centered rather than directed towards the infinite, endless will of God."
(Kearny, Richard, The Irish Mind, pg. 100, Merlin Press, 1985)
This line of thinking was foreign and refreshing to the academic at the time! Man was not viewed in a negative sense but was a good creation—of God! A divine spark of the creator!
John goes on to say that not only is humanity good, but all of creation is as well agreeing with St. Paul in I Corinthians 15:28. When one turns from God—being self-centered, that for John is the cause of sin. In order to come to know God we must turn to God instead of ourselves. To help this occur God has of his own volition brought into being the second person of the Trinity (Christ—the perfect man). So, through this vehicle of Christ we may turn to God (as our free will dictates) and are saved.
The Holy Spirit is a further manifestation of God that further aids humanity in coming to know God. For John, everything must come through God—humanity itself is an ‘idea’ in God’s mind that plays out in the creature’s life. But what we know about God is limited (since we are creatures and not the creator). God is everything we can describe God to be and yet is none of these things because God far exceeds humanity's ability to comprehend God fully. Further, our free will allows us to turn to God or not. But by turning to God and through the person of Christ we may return to God.
John’s philosophy and theology were accepted for a time as good orthodox teaching. In fact when a German monk by the name of Gottschalk was teaching a theory of Double Predestination, the Church asked for John to debate him. John obliged and his refutation to Gottschalk seemed to settle the matter.
Unfortunately, John’s theology did not endure. Within, 200 years of his writing the Church deemed his work to be heretical and dangerous. This was because John’s theology inferred panentheism or the idea that God is in everything. It seems ironic that this should occur because if one were to approach John’s theology from a modern scientific point of view—humanity is indeed made out of the substance of the universe! But further, the Church objected to the idea that John’s theology would seem to imply that the Church was not needed for salvation but rather by turning to reason one came to know God through this same reason alone.
John T. McNeil writes:
For Eriugena, ecclesiastical authority has no dominion in matters
of the mind; rather reason reigns. Man can attain for himself the
knowledge of God in which religion and philosophy find their unity.
(McNeil, John T., The Celtic Churches, pg. 186, University of Chicago Press, 1975)
In the later part of John’s years he is said to have returned to the British Isles. In fact it was believed that he was asked to come and teach in the Kingdom of Alfred the Great. There is a story that John died when his students stabbed him to death with their quill pens! The story is thought to be apocryphal and is probably more the morbid humor of frustrated students. In all truth it is not known for certain what happened to John. He may have returned to the isles or he may have lived out his life in continental Europe. John was certainly a dynamic and intellectual giant of his day.
Many modern day scholars agree that too little attention is paid to him. Nevertheless, John’s theology was very much so ahead of its time. In recent years many scholars have begun reexamining the work and influence of John Scotus Eriugena. It is an effort that will be beneficial to all who come into contact with this bright and shining scholar ‘of Irish born’ roots.