The mystery of God in John Scotus Eriugena


Working and writing at the Carolingian court, in the time of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), was an Irish master of the liberal arts, John Scotus (‘the Scot’) Eriugena (810-c.880).  His soubriquet ‘Eriugena’ (‘born of Erin’) - was a mixed term of his own invention from the old Celtic language (Eriu is the Celtic name for Ireland) and from the Greek (‘gena’ = ‘born, originating from’) - on which language he was perhaps the only true expert in the Medieval West . The Emperor Charles the Bald therefore entrusted to him the task of translating the precious Codex he had been given by his Byzantine counterpart Michael  III, containing the Corpus Areopagiticum, the complex of writings that at that time went under the name of  Dionysius the Areopagite, and which have come to be known today as the Pseudo-Dionysius.

Scotus Eriugena’s translation became, therefore, vital for the Latin West’s knowledge and understanding of Dionysius, and of other important Greek patristic writers, such as Maximus the Confessor, the brilliant commentator on Dionysius, and Gregory of Nyssa. The Irishman was also the greatest theologian and philosopher before St. Anselm, and in his most famous work, the Periphyseon, constructed the Medieval Latin West’s first system of thought.

Here, he joins the philosophical notion of natura (borrowed from Boethius) with the theological one of creation:  the coupling of these two concepts, he believed, would enable the interpretation of all truth. In this he is strongly influenced by Dionysius, so much so as to constitute the first Christian neo-Platonic system. Paradoxically, his thought brings us back to the present, because some of his intuitions, impregnated as they are with idealism and Nominalism, were taken up by Hegel and his interpreters, whether in philosophy or in contemporary theology. He divided all reality into four parts:

1) Nature which creates and is not created (God)

2) Nature which creates and is created (the primordial, or first, cause)

3) 1)      Nature which does not create and is created (all created things, animate and inanimate)

4) Nature which does not create and is not created (representing creation in its ultimate transformation, but also the mystery of evil, not created by God and capable only of destruction)

   As will be evident, John Scotus Eriugena is capable of expressing, with the few intellectual means available in his own time, a vigorous and almost ‘modern’ philosophical construct, very full and articulate. He saw the reality of God and of the world united inseparably in one single movement of emanation and return (exitus et reditus), following neo-Platonic philosophy. The created world therefore has no consistency except as a theophany, that is to say, a manifestation of God, insofar as it is created by Him and returns to Him. The reality of God in himself is in fact unknowable, but creation is one manifestation of Him. The Incarnation of the Word, masterfully commented on in the Homily on the opening of the Gospel of John, is the historical moment when He who is by nature indefinable is personally united with Man, who is, by contrast, subject to limits and definitions. The Incarnate Word, testified to in the Gospel of John, is the ultimate manifestation of God, of his full and complete revelation, its highest theophany. This ontological (concerning the nature or essence of the person of Christ) union between the two natures constitutes the model, the first cause and the end of all creation.

However, Eriugena occasionally goes to extremes in his efforts to show and explicate this union, falling into a complex and daring language which resulted in his doctrine, based on divine theophany, being accused later of pantheism, that is, of believing that the divine nature is immanent in all creation. His search, though, was sincerely Christian, despite its many limitations. He was, perhaps, ahead of his time, in that his understanding of Greek theology looks forward almost 300 years to the contemporary Palatine and Benedictine masters.

The limits of Carolingian culture appear, therefore, a little too tight for this brilliant Irish master, whose theology would be taken up in various ways by the great masters of Scholasticism, above all by St. Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Eriugenan spirituality is therefore essentially optimistic: Man is destined to divine transfiguration, that is, to the transformation of the self in the image of the Incarnate Word. All are predestined to such transformation. But in order to achieve it, the individual man must embrace the Christian faith, the one true religion, and therefore the only true philosophy. Predestination is tied therefore to the free choice of the individual for or against the Incarnate Word, as set out in the treatise (Of Predestination), written by the Irishman in 851. The important point is that this is the sole certitude about our human life in our possession.

The spiritual model for the Christian, according to Eriugena, is St. John the Evangelist, who, by transcendent spiritual flight, elevated himself like an eagle above the realm of Nature and the realm of Scriptural revelation (the Creation and the Old Testament), to grasp the supreme Principle of all things, the generation of the Word. Thus St. John had become more than man, more than human, in that God had rendered him capable of knowing this profound spiritual reality, and of transmitting it in his scriptural writings, the Gospel and the Letters (Epistles).

We can say then that in John Scotus Eriugena we find expressed the spiritual yearning that has its roots in the Irish monasticism of St. Patrick and St. Colombanus. He showed to the Christians (monastic and lay) of his times the path to theosis (attaining the divine) as a universal call to sanctity for all humankind. Therefore and thereby, true believers can become, by gradual progress, transformed in and into the image of the Son, and may arrive at a knowledge of the mystery of God, in that “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him”.


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