An Orthodox Evaluation of Certain Teachings in the Writings of John Scotus Eriugena in Light of the Theology of St Gregory Palamas — by Father Geoffrey Ready
He makes a pathetic and not undignified figure, this eager, slightly-built Irishman,
with his subtle mind, his studious habits, his deeply reverent spirit,
his almost fanatical devotion to the wise men of former days,
Pagan or Christian, who had lived in the light of a wider civilisation:
called upon to fight the battles of the West with arms forged in the East,
and reprimanded even in the hour of conquest for having transgressed the rules of the field.
Alice Gardner, Studies in John the Scot.
He deviated from the path of the Latins
while he kept his eyes intently fixed on the Greeks;
wherefore he was reputed an heretic.
William of Malmesbury, de Pontificibus.
John Scotus Eriugena stands as a remarkable figure in the spiritual history of the Christian West. His native Ireland was insula sanctorum — the “Isle of the Saints,” where Orthodox Christianity, planted by Saint Pádraig in the fifth century, had taken such root that it had created an entire monastic culture and produced countless thousands of glorified saints. By the ninth century, however, the Apostolic and Patristic Tradition of glorification which had transformed Ireland was coming under an attack which would ultimately prove more devastating than those of the Vikings who were by now violently raiding monastic settlements along the Irish coasts.
In the Carolingian Frankish kingdoms of Western Europe, a new and very different form of Christianity was taking shape as a result of the Franks’ desire to distance themselves from the centre of Orthodox Christianity at Constantinople-New Rome: the Franks, rejecting the East Romans as “Greeks” and “heretics” in the infamous Libri Carolini and at synods in Frankfort and Aachen, created a new Franco-Latin church based largely upon excesses in the theology of Augustine of Hippo and an ecclesial polity founded on feudalism. Over the following centuries, this Franco-Latin faith would come entirely to supplant Orthodox Christianity in the West, by take-over (the Patriarchate of Rome in the 11th century) and invasion (the Norman Conquests of 1066 and 1170). Yet in the mid-ninth century, Orthodoxy was far from appearing as a lost cause in the West: the Frankish innovations were opposed by Irish monastic foundations throughout the continent as well as (with the exception of during the Schism of Pope Nicholas I) by the Patriarchate of Old Rome itself, especially after the Eighth Oecumenical Synod of 879.
It is during this period that we find the Irishman, John Scotus Eriugena, coming among the Franks as schoolmaster at the court of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne himself, and presenting to them the theology of the Irish monastic tradition within which he was raised. In order to defend the spiritual experience of glorification (theosis), he turned naturally to the East, reading as much as possible of the Greek-speaking Fathers. Indeed, despite the prejudices of the Frankish society in which he found himself, “all his sympathies were with the East.” An “enthusiastic student of Byzantine Christianity,” Eriugena dedicated himself to “finding the authentic Christian truth in Greek sources.” Inevitably, though, his approach and his teaching brought him into conflict with Franco-Latin scholastic theologians, and he ended up being condemned for his “heretical” views.
While an exhaustive study of Eriugena from an Orthodox perspective is beyond the scope of this paper, we shall evaluate certain aspects of his doctrine of God and of man and his salvation in light of the theology of an Orthodox Father, St Gregory Palamas, with whom he may be likened in some profound ways. Both were “mystical theologians,” making the primary concern of their theology safeguarding the reality of man’s glorification in Christ. Both were deeply influenced by the Cappadocians, by St Maximos the Confessor and by the Araeopagite corpus. Both were drawn reluctantly into controversy to defend Orthodox spiritual experience against the speculations of scholastic theologians — speculations founded ultimately, though neither Eriugena nor Palamas completely realised this, upon the errors of Augustinianism.
It may be objected that, despite these similarities, an evaluation of Eriugena’s teachings from a Palamite perspective is inherently unfair, since St Gregory lived and wrote some four and a half centuries after Eriugena. Yet we should remember that, unlike the Franco-Latin West, Orthodoxy knows of no doctrinal development over time. As St Gregory Palamas himself attests, the fullness of revelation and glorification was given to the Apostles at Pentecost; it has been the responsibility of each succeeding generation, not to add to that Apostolic experience, but to experience anew the same glorification. What may appear, in the writings of the Fathers and the definitions of the Oecumenical Synods, as new doctrines, are simply the defence of this true spiritual experience against heresies which seek to undermine it. Therefore, what concerns us in our evaluation of the teaching of John Scotus Eriugena is not whether or not he articulates his theology in exactly the same terms as St Gregory Palamas — which would be impossible. Rather, using Palamite theology as a touchstone and summation of the Orthodox Patristic Tradition, we shall attempt to determine how successfully Eriugena is able to reclaim that tradition to defend the experience of glorification in his own day and theological context. On this basis, what is remarkable about Eriugena is that, despite his isolation from and limited access to the Greek-speaking Fathers, his theological “system,” while far from perfect, is surprisingly harmonious with that of the unbroken Orthodox Tradition inherited by St Gregory Palamas.
Brief Life of John Scotus Eriugena
Before we launch into our evalution of his theology, it may prove helpful to recall some of the important aspects of Eriugena’s life. His name literally means John the Scot (i.e. Irishman), born in Ireland (Old Irish, Ériu, Érinn). Unfortunately, he is often mistakenly confused with the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus, who taught at Oxford in the 13th century.
Eriugena was born sometime between between 800 and 815. We do not know much about him before he came to the court of Charles the Bald around 847, but we may assume he was educated in his native land at one of the many famous Irish monasteries. He was never ordained, but he must have been a scholar of some reputation, for King Charles invited him to become the head of his Palace School, and asked him to translate into Latin the works of St Dionysios the Araeopagite. From certain poems and other works dedicated to the king, as well as from anecdotes told about their relationship, Eriugena and the king appear to have been on fairly good terms. Indeed, the scholar was to count on that royal patronage to protect him from ecclesiastical penalties on more than one occasion.
Eriugena translated and wrote extensively during this time. He translated into Latin almost all of the Araeopagite corpus which has come down to us; and he also translated some works by St Maximos the Confessor. Profoundly influenced by these Eastern Fathers, as well as by Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Gregory the Theologian, he also wrote his own commentaries on their works, some homilies, some controversial works (his work rejecting Gottschalk’s doctrine of double predestination is still extant), and some poems. One of his homilies, on the Prologue of John “ranks as one of the greatest homilies of mediaeval spiritual literature,” and was very widely circulated during the Middle Ages, although under the name of Origen or St John Chrysostom.
Sometime between 865 and 870, Eriugena also wrote his great work, the Periphyseon (peri physeos merismou), or de Divisione Naturae. It comprises five books, and is framed as a dialogue between a master and his disciple. One commentator briefly describes the subject of this work as the following: “The first book deals mainly with the doctrine of God as the source of all; the second with the primal causes, which are a medium between God and the creation; the third with the nature of the created universe; the fourth and fifth with the return of all to God.”
Charles the Bald died in 877, and the following year, King Alfred the Great of England defeated the Danes and brought relative peace to England after many years of war. Thus the 12th-century account by William of Malmesbury that Eriugena, towards the end of his life, was invited by Alfred to become master of the monastic school at Malmesbury, an event often rejected by modern scholars, is quite probably accurate. The legend also notes that he readily accepted King Alfred’s offer since he had grown “tired of the suspicions attaching to his work in Francia.” What is less certain is William’s description of Eriugena’s death shortly thereafter at the hands of his students who stab him with their pens. But as one scholar notes, “Whether or no the ugly story of his death by his scholars’ pens may contain any truth, he had to endure sharp thrusts from the pens of those whom he sought to instruct, and who were not able to appreciate his teaching.”
Although William’s account ends with Eriugena’s reverent burial and even notes the inscription on his tomb calling him “Saint John the Wise,” he nevertheless remarks that Eriugena was thought to be a heretic. Yet since Eriugena’s works were not widely disseminated or understood, he escaped definite censure for centuries. It was only in 1225 that Pope Honorius III ordered that all copies of the Periphyseon should be sent to Rome to be solemnly burned. Fortunately, this proved unsuccessful, allowing a few people, notably Nicolas of Cusa in the 15th century, to study Eriugena’s works. In 1681, T. Gale printed the Periphyseon for the first time; and in 1684, it was placed on the Index of prohibited books by the Pope. In this way Eriugena remained almost unknown for centuries. It took the modern reaction against the “definite, juristic, inelastic spirit, and all the influences which are summed up in the word Latinity,” for interest to be kindled in his works once again.
For both John Scotus Eriugena and St Gregory Palamas, one of the central questions in theology, that is, in the doctrine of God, is how the transcendent and the immanent in God can be properly reconciled. As we shall see, Eriugena’s approach, though finally flawed, has much in common with that of Palamas and the Eastern tradition. Indeed, it is “in his theology, first and foremost, that we see the Greek and Eastern tone of John’s mind as opposed to the Latin or German and Western tendencies of his times.”
Apophaticism: the Transcendence of God
St Gregory Palamas makes extensive use of the Araeopagite corpus to develop his apophatic theology and to safeguard the absolute transcendence of God. Palamas writes that God infinitely surpasses all names that could be applied to Him, whether nominalistically or conceptually; He completely transcends all human words or thoughts; indeed, it is not even possible to affirm, “God is unknowable in His essence,” since He is beyond God (hypertheos) and beyond essence (hyperousios).
Like St Gregory, Eriugena derives much of his apophatic theology from the writings of the Araeopagite and St Maximos the Confessor, both of which he not only translated but quotes frequently. Eriugena’s Latin contemporaries “acknowledged in words that God is incomprehensible, yet they thought they knew pretty clearly His mind towards the world, and were not afraid to attribute to Him many of their own impulses and passions.” Whereas the farthest they are willing to push their via negativa is to speak of the “obscurity” of God, Eriugena truly adopts the “transcending theology” of the Orthodox Fathers. Explaining the use of “apophatic” and “kataphatic” theology, he writes:
One branch of theology, named apophatiki, denies that the divine essence (ousia) or substance (hypostaseis) is one of the things that are, that is, of the things that can be named or understood; the other branch, however, namely kataphatiki, predicates of the divine essence all the things that are and, for that reason, is named ‘affirmative’ — not so as to establish that the divine essence is any of the things that are, but to argue that all the things that stem from it can be predicated of it.
None of the “things that are” can be predicated of the divine essence, he says, since God is (as Dionysios had written) hyperousios, hyperagathos, and even hypertheos. Much of Book I of the Periphyseon is taken up with this kind of apophaticism. As one commentator explains, Eriugena carefully examines each of Aristotle’s “ten categories” and finds that none of them can properly be applied to God:
That of relation might seem to be implied in the doctrine of the Trinity, but the philosopher shows that any predication of relations such as fatherhood and sonship to the Divine Being can only be figurative. Locus, which he makes equivalent to definition, cannot be asserted of that which is not contained in any intelligent mind. As to quality, we cannot ascribe to the Universal even the highest of properties. He is not wise and good, but more-than-wise, more-than-good, and the like. He does not even fall under the category of being, since He is more-than-being. Action and suffering may in Scripture be frequently predicated of God. But such predication is always in a transferred or symbolical sense.
At the outset of his work, therefore, Eriugena clearly follows the Orthodox Fathers in recognising the limits of speaking or writing theology. He states this eloquently in Book II of the Periphyseon, writing: “But all these things are more deeply and truly thought than they are put forward in speech, and more deeply and truly understood than they are thought, and they are of a deeper and truer nature than they are understood to be; they definitely transcend all understanding.”
Experience: the Immanence of God
Both St Gregory Palamas and John Scotus Eriugena proceed from this realisation that God surpasses all human knowledge to the assertion that He has nonetheless chosen to reveal Himself in part to the world, and especially to those with true faith in Him. As we shall see in the next section, St Gregory makes a distinction in God between His transcendent and unknowable essence, and His immanent and communicable energies. By participating in these uncreated divine energies, man attains an immediate knowledge of God Himself (though not His essence). St Gregory stresses the experiential and empirical nature of this knowledge of God; knowing God is not possible by philosophical speculation, but only acquired by an inner experience of the reality, an experience derived from prayerful union with Christ who unites in Himself God and man.
Like Palamas, Eriugena is anxious to safeguard the possibility of real experience of God without undermining His absolute transcendence. As one commentator explains, it is precisely Eriugena’s belief in the truth of the Biblical and Patristic Tradition which sets this paradox before him:
To Scotus, as to Dionysios and his predecessors, God was the super-essential, super-intellectual principle beyond all being and thought, though, as a thinking man, Scotus was bound to find some relation between that principle and the world of nature and of humanity; and as a Christian man he was bound to bring his aspiring theological conceptions into some sort of accord with the moral and religious teaching of the Scriptures and of the Fathers of the Church.
As he proceeds to his explanation of how it is possible to know the unknowable God, Eriugena continues to follow the Araeopagite, quoting: “All divine things, in so far as they are manifested to us, are known only by participation therein.” Like Palamas, then, our Irish scholar insists that any true knowledge of God comes from experience and participation, not from rational thinking about Him. Yet in describing how this participation is possible, Eriugena seems to stray somewhat from the Orthodox Patristic Tradition, suggesting that it is founded upon a qualitative similarity between God and the human soul:
In so far as (man) partakes of divine and heavenly existence, he is not animal, but through his reason and intellect and his thoughts of the Eternal, he shares in celestial being…. In that part of him, then, is he made in the image of God, with which alone God holds converse in men that are worthy.
In other words, he appears to be saying that it is possible for man to know God “because in his inmost substance he is of God.”
Eriugena clearly struggles with this paradox because he does not make the distinction that Palamas does between God’s essence and energies (see below). He knows enough, however, to back away from suggesting that man can know God in His essence, saying that this participation in God is not a vision of the “Invisible” (even in the beatific vision of the saints), but rather a vision of the “glory” of God. He develops this idea by using the Araeopagite’s teaching on “theophanies.” According to Eriugena, God reveals His glory in a unique fashion to each angel and man according to the measure he is able to receive it.
Here Scotus strikes more distinctly the note of subjectivity which marks all his system by making the theophany proportionate to the capacity of each mind, whether angelic or human. He interprets the saying “In My Father’s house are many mansions” as signifying the revelation made to each individual consciousness. As many as are the souls of the saints, so many are the divine theophanies.
In Eriugena’s system, though, without the essence—energies distinction, it is never quite clear whether these theophanies are simply manifestations of God “through the medium of creation,” or whether the “higher manifestations” achieved by saints are a true participation in God Himself (without actually knowing the Invisible God as He is).
Yet, despite this confusion, Eriugena insists that the revelation of the “hidden mysteries” of God takes place through the God-man, Jesus Christ. Commenting on the phrase “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men” in the Prologue of John (1:4), he writes that Christ is called the “light of men”
because it was in man that He manifested himself not only to men, but also to angels and every created thing capable of participating in the divine knowledge. For He revealed Himself to angels not through an angel, nor to men through an angel, but to men and angels through a man, not in appearance, but in true humanity itself, which He took wholly to Himself in the unity of His “substance,” and gave knowledge of Himself to those that knew Him. The light of men is, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, who manifested Himself in human nature to every rational and intellectual creature and revealed the hidden mysteries of His divinity by which He is equal to the Father.
In this Christocentric understanding of the revelation of God, Eriugena is perfectly consistent with the Orthodox Patristic Tradition.
Essence and Energies
As noted above, St Gregory Palamas affirms the possibility of God acting in the world and revealing Himself, without undermining the fact that He remains unknowable in His essence, by distinguishing between God’s uncreated essence and uncreated energies. It is through His uncreated energies, His uncreated grace and glory, that God sustains the world; and it is in these energies that man can participate and have communion with God. For Palamas, to believe that man can participate in the divine essence would lead either to pantheism (all is God) or polytheism (all are gods). This crucial distinction between God’s essence and energies is founded upon the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and all of the Fathers, though the Church would wait until the 14th century for Palamas to articulate the doctrine in its clearest and final form.
Like Palamas, John Scotus Eriugena also strives to make some kind of distinction in God between that which He reveals to the world and that which remains unknowable. As we have seen, Eriugena distinguishes between the “Invisible” or “God Himself” on the one hand, and “God’s glory” on the other. Moreover, he clearly states that man cannot participate in God Himself, but only in the divine glory. Yet Eriugena falls short of the Orthodox Patristic Tradition by failing to teach explicitly that this divine glory is uncreated. As much as he tries to break free of it, he seems imprisoned by the Augustinian idea, by his day dominant in the West, that the manifestations of the divine glory or “theophanies” must ultimately be considered creations of God, not really the direct experience of uncreated energies.
Eriugena’s discussion of created and uncreated is a main subject of Book I of the Periphyseon. He says that the term “nature” applies to all things, “to those that are and those that are not.” He goes on to divide nature into four categories: (i) that which creates and is not created; (ii) that which is created and also creates; (iii) that which is created but does not create; and (iv) that which neither creates nor is created. Eriugena explains that categories (i) and (iv) apply only to God: only God is uncreated, and we may speak of Him as both creating and not creating. This does not mean that there is a division in God, but only in our thought of God. This much accords very well with Palamas, for it would not be too much of a stretch to say that Eriugena is speaking of the uncreated essence (uncreated and “non-creating”) and the uncreated energies (uncreated and creating) of God. Like Palamas, Eriugena distinguishes these, but does not separate them. If only Eriugena had held to this, and taught that man and creation — that is, category (iii), created and non-creating — are able to share in God’s energies, but not His essence, we would have no trouble affirming perfect agreement with Palamite theology.
The real problem in Eriugena’s system, however, is category (ii) — that which is both created and creating. This category comprises what he calls the “primordial causes” or the “eternal ideas”; they are basically the divine attributes, or in the terminology of the Araeopagite, the divine “names.” Eriugena goes on to list some of these: Goodness, Existence, Life, Reason, Intelligence, Wisdom, Virtue, Happiness, Truth, Eternity, Greatness, Love, Peace, Unity, and Perfection. Palamas also knows these divine “names,” but for him they are manifestations of the uncreated divine energies; he has no separate category of created divine ideas or attributes. Eriugena himself seems willing to follow this same path, for he insists that in themselves these names really are one, divine, eternal and uncreated — and thus belong to category (i), the “uncreated creating” energies of God — while it is only we who experience them as multiple and created.
For Eriugena, who is not able to come to the proper Palamite distinction between essence and energies, placing the experience of God’s uncreated energies in the category of “created and creating” is necessary to guard against saying that it is possible to know “what God is.” Yet the result of having some kind of created medium between God and man is that it tends towards replacing the personal God of the Holy Scriptures, the Lord who encounters man directly with no intermediaries, with a mere concept or idea of God — something which all of the Fathers, and St Gregory Palamas especially, strongly reject. Eriugena appears to realise this dangerous trajectory towards making God impersonal, and compensates for it by emphasising the subjective and personal nature of the divine theophanies. While it is impossible to know “what God is,” and His “existence and attributes can never be demonstrated,” nevertheless God “can be found and worshipped in the innermost shrine of the soul.”
God the Creator
The scope of this paper does not admit a full commentary on and evaluation of John Scotus Eriugena’s doctrine of creation, but it is important to note that his teaching departs from Orthodoxy precisely where he fails to recognise one of the principal distinctions made by all of the Fathers, including St Gregory Palamas. For the Fathers, while the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are from God’s nature (physis) from all eternity, the creation of the world depends not on God’s nature but on His will (thelima). Therefore, as Fr John Meyendorff explains, “this creative action is conceived as optional, precisely because it does not involve God’s nature and excludes ontological continuity between God and creation.”
Eriugena, like Palamas, begins by insisting that God indeed created the world ex nihilo, and that He is the cause and principle of all things. He writes: “We hold that all things are from God, and that they have not been made at all but by Him, since by Him and from Him and in Him are all things made.” Yet without a proper essence—energies distinction, once again Eriugena’s apophaticism leads him down a dangerous road. He pulls back somewhat, saying that God cannot literally be “Creator,” for this is simply one of the divine names. In fact, since, “according to the apophatic theology of Dionysios, God Himself ‘is nothing,’ because He is ‘superessential’ (hyperousios),” when we say that God created ex nihilo, it is “possible, and even necessary, to say that God creates out of Himself.”
If Eriugena had only distinguished properly between God as hyperousios and the uncreated divine energies which create and sustain the world, he could more easily have conceived of the crucial distinction between divine nature and will. Whereas St Gregory and the Fathers teach that creation is a free expression of God’s goodness and love, Eriugena tends somewhat towards the Neoplatonic notion that the world exists as a necessary emanation of God’s own nature. That is certainly the sense of his statements like, “When we hear it said that God makes all things, we ought to understand simply that God is in all things; that is, that He subsists as the Being of all things” — an assertion which would be quite Orthodox if he were speaking unambiguously about the uncreated energies of God. The same is true of the following passage from Book III of the Periphyseon, in which Eriugena writes eloquently about the participation of all creation in God:
We ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same. For the creature is subsisting in God; and God, manifesting Himself, in a marvellous and ineffable manner is created in the creature, the invisible making Himself visible and the incomprehensible comprehensible and the hidden revealed… and the simple composite… and the infinite finite and the uncircumscribed circumscribed… and creating all things He is created in all things and making all things is made in all things… and He becomes all things in all things.
Unlike Palamas, who emphasises the radical separation between the uncreated God and His creation, Eriugena seems unwilling to make the nature of created things absolutely alien to divine nature. For him, creation becomes “the theophany and self-multiplication of God.” And in so far as creation pre-existed in the divine ideas of the Logos, he says that we may say at the same time that “all things always were, and always were not.”
Following the Biblical and Patristic Tradition, both St Gregory Palamas and John Scotus Eriugena write extensively about the experience of God as light. For St Gregory, God actually is the Light, though not according to His essence, but in terms of His uncreated energies. Thus, the experience of the divine light is not the experience of a created symbol, but of uncreated grace itself. Again, without the Palamite essence—energies distinction, Eriugena cannot quite speak of the divine light as uncreated, though he comes fairly close.
By the time of Eriugena, the Augustinian understanding of the divine light as simply a metaphor “for good, salvation, life and knowledge,” for the Christian life as a “movement from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth” was firmly established in Western theology. It is remarkable, therefore, that Eriugena goes much further than Augustine. He frequently quotes the Apostle Paul’s expression that God dwells in “inaccessible light” (I Tim. 6:16); indeed, for him, God actually is “impenetrable light.” He calls God the lux mentium (noetic light) who illumines the darkened intellect with “the brightness of pure knowledge.” He also develops the theme of the light in his homily on the Prologue of John, saying that God is “the light” who “illuminates Himself, makes Himself known to the world, and shows Himself to them that do not know Him.”
Like Palamas, Eriugena is careful not to equate the spiritual experience of light with a vision of the unknowable divine essence. While the glorified saints advance into that which is “dark from excess of light,” and even see God “face to face” according to the capacity of each, Eriugena says that this is not a direct contemplation of the Invisible God, but a theophany. The light is thus one of the “theophanies of truth, not the truth itself.” It is also a “true symbol” of “the procession of the light of the Father, in Christ, who illumines the hidden places of darkness and ignorance.”
Trinitarian Theology and the Procession of the Holy Spirit
Before we leave our discussion of John Scotus Eriugena’s doctrine of God, we should note that in his Trinitarian theology, Eriugena agrees completely with the Orthodox East: significantly, “following the conventions of Eastern theology,” he “speaks of three substances in one essence, whereas Western theology speaks of three persons in one nature.”
During his lifetime, the Filioque controversy was just heating up; the Council of Aachen convoked by Charlemagne in 809 had declared the Filioque necessary for salvation. In response, Pope Leo III had the original Symbol of Faith without the Filioque engraved in Latin and Greek on silver shields and placed at the doors of St Peter’s in Rome. Eriugena was certainly aware of this controversy, and since he agreed with the Pope that the East Romans had the original Creed, the position taken by the Franco-Latin bishops embarrassed him. In the Periphyseon, he demonstrates that he understands the basis of the Greek-speaking Fathers’ Trinitarian theology, referring specifically to the real difference they accept “between the common ousia and the particular hypostaseis and unambiguously affirming “that the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are to be attributed to the substantia (hypostaseis) of the Father alone.” For him, the Symbol of Faith clearly says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, and deliberately precludes further speculation or discussion. Nevertheless, he himself prefers the Trinitarian formula accepted by earlier Latin-speaking Roman Fathers as well as some of the Eastern Fathers, by which it is declared that the procession of the Holy Spirit is from the Father “through the Son” (per filium).
As in his theology, so also in his anthropology and soteriology John Scotus Eriugena bases his teachings upon the writings of the Araeopagite, St Maximos the Confessor, and the other Greek-speaking Fathers he read and translated. He not only adopts their theocentric anthropology, agreeing with them that it is impossible to understand man without reference to God, but also borrows and extends their “Neoplatonic scheme of procession and return” in order “to express the Biblical conceptions of creation, salvation, and restoration.”
Creation and Fall of Man
The starting point for the doctrine of man of both John Scotus Eriugena and St Gregory Palamas is the creation of man in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Unlike Palamas, Eriugena does not interpret the Scriptural terms “image” and “likeness” as an expression of man’s vocation to growth from potential to fulfilment in God; indeed, he would tend to see a greater realisation of human potential already in the creation of Adam than St Gregory would, for the latter insists that Adam’s fall was actually his failure to realise his true purpose of sharing in the divine life. Nevertheless, both are in agreement that creation in the image of God means that man’s true life is only to be found in God.
One of the principal characteristics of St Gregory’s anthropology is his rejection of the pagan Greek dualistic nature of man. Adopting the holistic approach of the Holy Scriptures, he presents the human person as a “psychosomatic being,” a unity of body and soul, not a soul imprisoned in a body. By contrast, Eriugena, drawing extensively from St Gregory of Nyssa, is somewhat less optimistic about the human body and the material world. He agrees with Palamas that it is the soul which is the governing principle of man, that it is the soul which is most in the image of God. Palamite theology could also admit his view that “the preference of the material to the spiritual [is] at the root of all mischief.” Yet Eriugena then goes on to say that all matter, including human bodies, is a “concourse of accidents,” with no real “substance” except on the level of intelligibility. In this way, he sometimes appears to deny the permanent value of “visible, historical existence, human achievement and creativity in this world.” In the final analysis, however, like Palamas, he is able to reject pagan Greek dualism, and to affirm the reality of the resurrection of body — though, of course, this will be a “spiritual body” (cf. I Cor. 15:44).
In perfect agreement with the Orthodox Patristic Tradition represented by St Gregory Palamas, Eriugena teaches that man’s true destiny is to attain glorification (i.e. deification, theosis) and share full communion with God. Part of being created in the image of God involves the gift of free will: Eriugena teaches that free will, “though a great good, is capable of abuse. It errs when it turns to itself, to the outward, and the lower, rather than to God, to the inward, and the higher.” Adam’s sin was to use his free will to oppose God, rather than to realise his true human purpose. The fall was thus the “self-willed turning away from man’s proper nature and first principle of being.” As the privation of being and good, evil itself has no positive or ultimate existence. Significantly, Eriugena rejects the Augustinian understanding of the fall, not by explicitly condemning Augustine, nor even by ignoring him, but by quoting and then completely re-interpreting him. Whereas Augustine teaches that “natural man” is sinful, Eriugena, like all of the Orthodox Fathers, applies the term “natural” only to deified man. Moreover, unlike Augustine, he denies that man lost his free will in the fall; rather, he contends that “all sin is from free will.”
Redemption in Christ
Both St Gregory Palamas and John Scotus Eriugena agree that God did not abandon man after the fall, but through the Incarnation of His Son, He redeemed man from death and sin, and set him once more on the path to glorification (theosis). Like Palamas, Eriugena includes the whole salvific work of Christ in his theology of salvation, yet focuses principally on the Incarnation. One commentator sums up Eriugena’s soteriology in this way:
The doctrine is set forth in several forms. Christ is to be regarded as a sacrifice which has been effectual for all, as a priest and mediator, as the Ark of the Covenant full of sacred treasures. But generally it is as the Logos entering into human nature, and thereby into the nature of all things which have been created in man, and then returning to the Father or First Principle, that He is regarded as bringing about the final union.
Thus, for Eriugena, as for the entire Orthodox Patristic Tradition, the Incarnation is the means of the deification of man, since in Christ, human nature has already been made to participate in the eternal life of God, and the flesh of man has truly become the flesh of God. Eriugena writes:
He went forth from the Father and came into the world, that is, He took upon Him that human nature in which the whole world subsists; for there is nothing in the world that is not comprehended in human nature; and again, He left the world and went to the Father, that is, He exalted that human nature which He had received above all things visible and invisible, above all heavenly powers, above all that can be said or understood, uniting it to His deity, in which He is equal to the Father.
Our Irish scholar also makes the universal Patristic distinction between man’s deification and that of Christ, noting that the glorified saints are “made God, not by nature, but by grace.”
Furthermore, in his doctrine of salvation, Eriugena upholds the Patristic understanding of the need for man’s co-operation (synergeia) with the divine plan of redemption and glorification in Christ. He emphasises that man must freely accept God’s gift of grace; he writes that “resurrection is effected by the cooperation of both agents, nature and grace.” Grace and free will together are necessary for salvation. In his first major work, De divina praedestinatione, completed in 851, Eriugena refutes the predestinarian beliefs of Gottschalk and others precisely on the basis that they were denying both God’s grace and man’s free will. In this work, soonafter condemned by several Franco-Latin councils, Eriugena again cheerfully misinterprets Augustine to support his Patristic viewpoint and to argue against his opponents who were also using Augustine (though more faithfully) to contend for double predestination, that is, God’s election of certain men for salvation and others for damnation.
Theosis and the Final Restoration of All Things
Neither John Scotus Eriugena nor St Gregory Palamas views salvation simply as the redemption of man from sin and death; like all of the Fathers, they insist that God’s work in Christ, carried out through the mission of the Church, will not be complete until the accomplishment of the “restoration of all things” (i apokatastasis panton).
For men, this restoration (apokatastasis) is nothing other than full participation in the divine life — complete union, as St Gregory Palamas teaches, with the uncreated energies and glory of God. Eriugena, who was surely intimately acquainted with the reality of glorification in the lives of the countless Irish saints, laments the fact that Latin works on theology hardly treat the subject of deification:
This use of this word, Deification, is very rare in the Latin books… I am not sure of the reason for this reticence: perhaps it is because the meaning of this word theosis (the term which the Greeks usually employ in the sense of the psychic and bodily transformation of the saints into God so as to become One in Him and with Him, when there will remain in them nothing of their animal, earthly and mortal nature) seemed too profound for those who cannot rise above carnal speculations, and would therefore be to them incomprehensible and incredible.
Eriugena turns, therefore, to the East and finds in the Greek-speaking Fathers the fuller vision of salvation in Christ he needs in order to express his own spiritual experience. Using the vocabulary of Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximos the Confessor — terms borrowed largely from Neoplatonic conceptions of restitution — he describes the process of purification, illumination and glorification of man as a return to the wholeness of his true nature:
Therefore [created substances] shall be dissolved into those things from which they were taken, in which in truth and eternally they have their being, when every substance shall be purged from all corruptible accidents, and shall be delivered from all that does not belong to the condition of its proper nature; beautiful in its peculiar native excellences, in its entire simplicity, and, in the good man, adorned with the gifts of grace, being glorified through the contemplation of the eternal blessedness, beyond every nature, even its own, and turned into God Himself, being made God, not by nature, but by grace.
While this is a restoration of man’s true nature, this experience of glorification of the saints far exceeds the first Paradise, for they are “to be deified and brought to perpetual contemplation of the highest theophany, or perhaps, even above it.”
From the writings of the Orthodox Fathers of the East, Eriugena also explains that this restoration (apokatastasis) encompasses, not only men, but the whole of creation. Indeed, the two are intimately linked, since, for Eriugena, man is “the microcosm,” the “epitome of that thought of God which constitutes the whole creation.” He describes the restoration of the sensible world as “a return into God and into its primordial causes, in which it naturally subsists” — the “primordial causes” being, as we remarked above, Eriugena’s (somewhat defective) conception of the uncreated divine energies which sustain the whole created world. Furthermore, in keeping with the holistic view of the created world of the Irish Orthodox saints, Eriugena reserves a special place for animals in this restoration of all things, as one commentator explains:
Scotus has a notable tenderness for the animal creation, and refuses to accept those teachers who would deny an immortal soul to beasts. He is inclined to think that the intelligence and the social qualities of the nobler animals are due to some measure of participation in the divine life, which they cannot eternally lose.
Eriugena makes it clear that, although this final restoration can be called the “salvation of all,” not all will receive glorification and participate in the life of God. Still, his vision of salvation is as comprehensive in scope as that of Origen or St Gregory of Nyssa, and thus probably extends beyond that of Palamas. According to one modern writer, Eriugena sees a
perfectly ordered universe, in which no sin or desire to sin remains, and wherein each living being enjoys that proportion of divine wisdom and happiness for which it is fitted. The home is of “many mansions.” All are saved, though not all are deified. Again and again the doctrine is insisted upon that no substance [i.e. hypostaseis] can ever be lost. “The thoughts of the wicked” perish, because they are but vanity. But in their innermost being even the devils are good in that they are, and a suggestion is made, though not followed up, that Origen may be right as to the final conversion of Satan and his ministers.
Echoing the Apostle Paul’s expression that “when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” (panta en pasin — I Cor. 15:28) Eriugena writes that even now, “God is all in all,” though only a few recognise this, and that the final restoration will simply consist of the manifestation of this fundamental reality.
Some modern commentators have picked up and repeated mediaeval Franco-Latin assertions that Eriugena’s vision of the final restoration of all things reflects an essentially pantheistic theology. Even Fr John Meyendorff, who is otherwise very appreciative of the Irish scholar’s works, writes:
There is no doubt that Eriugena’s philosophical and religious vision would tend in the direction of Palamism in that he stood for the full reality of deification. But the absence, in his system, of the distinction between essence and energy inevitably leads him to Neoplatonic monism.
Yet Eriugena himself is careful to guard against any kind of pantheistic or monistic interpretations of what he calls the “resolution of all things into their original elements,” as another modern writer, Alice Gardner explains:
Applied to man, [the resolution of all things] signifies the return of his being into God. But since, for man, to participate in God is to live in perpetual contemplation of the divine glory, and since the substance [i.e. hypostaseis] of all things is eternal, the vision of the beatified universe with which Scotus presents us is not that of a vast sea in which the peculiar qualities of all things are absorbed in a never-ending monotony, but of a perfectly harmonious composition in which all creatures live in unity yet without confusion of individual being.
Not only is there to be no confusion of individual being in the restoration (apokatastasis), but the distinction between created and uncreated will still hold, as Eriugena writes: “What difference between God Himself and the one who is like Him will there be for us to contemplate? This, that the One is not created, while the other subsists through creation.”
Another criticism levelled at Eriugena’s theology of restoration by modern writers is that he appears sometimes to suggest that the participation of man and creation in the divine life can be attained apart from the Incarnation and salvific acts of Christ. Nevertheless, no matter how far he wanders, Eriugena does always come back to the Patristic emphasis on the Christological foundation of glorification (theosis). In Book V of the Periphyseon,for instance, he specifically explains that the unity of the final restoration is accomplished in Christ:
And thus ineffably and supernaturally is the harmony of our Head adapted, to which all His members, being united with each other, shall return, when they “shall come together into the perfect man in the fullness of the age of Christ,” and He shall be and shall appear One in all, and all shall be and shall appear one in the One.
Moreover, Eriugena insists that the deification of man can only be “perfected in Christ and through Christ, who is the end and consummation of our nature.”
The scope of this short study has not afforded us the opportunity to complete a thorough evaluation of the works of John Scotus Eriugena in light of the Orthodox Patristic theology articulated by St Gregory Palamas. With more space, for instance, we would surely criticise his epistemology, especially his inheritance from the Augustinian tradition of a somewhat “rational approach towards the object of faith, the possibility of understanding the latter more profoundly through the light of reason.” The corrective to this kind of philosophical rationalism is the clear distinction made by Palamas between the kind of wisdom or knowledge which leads to salvation and the kind which does not, helpful though it may for exploring creation and improving the human condition.
Still, our brief exploration of Eriugena’s thought has shown the remarkable fact that this ninth-century Irish mystical theologian, in the midst of an hostile Franco-Augustinian environment, was able to muster substantial resources from Orthodox Patristic theology to guard the spiritual tradition of the Irish saints which he inherited. We have held Eriugena up to the highest of Patristic standards, comparing him to that “light of Orthodoxy,” the “pillar and teacher of the Church, adornment of monastics, and invincible champion of theologians,” St Gregory Palamas — and he has fared well. Like St Gregory, Eriugena was called upon in his day to defend the Apostolic and Patristic experience of glorification to a sceptical and scholastic world, and he proved himself more than capable of answering this challenge. Although Eriugena sometimes uses different language than Palamas, and although there are weaknesses in his theological system — something which he himself readily admits — there can be no doubt that these two great theologians are expressing within the limits of human language essentially the same truth and experience of the uncreated glory of God.
Where John Scotus Eriugena has erred in his thoughts and words, before judging him too harshly, we must remember his isolation, that he is indeed the “loneliest figure in the history of European thought.” What he needed — and what he in fact longed for — was the immediate guidance of the Orthodox Fathers to correct his explanations of his spiritual experience. Most especially, he would have profited from access to the monastic literature which existed side by side in the Christian East with those Patristic theological treatises couched in “Neoplatonic” language, some of which he read and translated. Without such spiritual guidance, he ended up to a certain extent fitting St Maximos the Confessor, the Araeopagite and some other Greek-speaking Fathers into his “own original philosophical system,” rather than following them into the fullness of the Orthodox Patristic Tradition. Thus, Fr John Meyendorff comments:
If knowledge of that tradition had been more widespread, Eriugena could have easily given a more “Catholic,” or more “Orthodox” shape to his system, without abandoning what is so precious in it: his “theocentric anthropology” and his understanding of spiritual life as a free ascent to theosis.
Nevertheless, none of Eriugena’s “errors” or “weaknesses” is enough to undermine the essential Orthodoxy of his theological vision. Even when he misses an opportunity to express a crucial aspect of Orthodox theology, such as the distinction between God’s essence and energies, he knows enough to resort to speaking paradoxically in order to pull back from the brink of heresy.
During a period in which it would have been commendable enough for him simply to look desperately to the East for sources of truth, John Scotus Eriugena managed to accomplish so much for Orthodox Christianity in the West, and he truly deserves to be commemorated as the last great Western Orthodox theologian and confessor before the Franco-Latin ascendancy and Great Schism. For the West itself, his life and work represent an enormous missed opportunity, for “if the intellect and the devotion of the Middle Ages had followed the lines of John Scotus, there would have been no scholasticism,” and “we should have found, among mediaeval thinkers, less anxiety to define the indefinable,” and “more patient acquiescence in the limitations of human faculties.” Above all, had the West followed our beloved Irish scholar, it could never have separated itself from the Apostolic and Patristic Faith of the Orthodox Church. In the context of today’s ecumenical dialogue, therefore, it is important for Western Christians to recover Eriugena and make him their own, not necessarily as a teacher with all of the answers, but as a devout Christian theologian and true mystic, who, in the midst of the Dark Ages of Franco-Latin Europe, turned towards the Light.