During his general audience on June 10, Pope Benedict XVI, as part of his series of teachings on the great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages, offered his reflections on John Scotus Erigena, an influential Christian philosopher from the Carolingian period.
John Scotus had a keen interest in Eastern patristic theology. He taught that believers are to seek the truth until they reach a point of silent adoration of God, in whose nature we participate by “divinization.” Yet, John Scotus maintained that reason was indispensable in man’s quest for God and that sacred Scripture allows man to recall the truth that was engraved upon his soul at the beginning of time but that had been forgotten due to original sin. By reading the Bible, we can discover the secrets of a pure and authentic contemplation of God.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about John Scotus Erigena, an influential Christian thinker from the West, whose origins are somewhat obscure.
There is no doubt that John Scotus came from Ireland, where he was born at the beginning of the ninth century, but we do not know when he left the island and crossed the English Channel, thereby becoming part of the rebirth of the cultural world there during the Carolingian era, particularly in ninth-century France during the time of Charles the Bald.
Just as we do not know the date of his birth, likewise we do not know when he died. But according to the scholars, it must have been sometime around the year 870.
John Scotus Erigena had firsthand knowledge of both Greek and Latin patristic culture. In fact, he studied the original writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church.
He was very familiar with, among others, the works of Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great, well-known Fathers of the Christian West, yet he was equally familiar with Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom as well as the other great Fathers of the Eastern Church.
He was an exceptional man, who, even at that time, had mastered the Greek language. He had a particular interest in St. Maximus the Confessor and, above all, in Dionysius the Areopagite.
Dionysius was the pseudonym that was used by an ecclesiastical writer of the fifth century from Syria. However, during the Middle Ages, most scholars, including John Scotus Erigena, were convinced that this Dionysius was a direct disciple of St. Paul — the Dionysius to whom St. Paul makes reference in the Acts of the Apostles (17:34).
The Influence of Dionysius
Since Scotus Erigena was convinced of the apostolic origins of Dionysius’ writings, he considered him the “divine author” par excellence. For this reason, Dionysius’ writings were an eminent source for John Scotus’ own thinking.
He translated Dionysius’ works into Latin, and the great theologians of the Middle Ages, like St. Bonaventure, were familiar with the works of Dionysius thanks to his translations.
John Scotus dedicated his entire life to delving deeper into his thought and developing it and drew upon Dionysius’ writings to such an extent that even today it can be difficult to distinguish John Scotus’ own ideas from his restatement of the ideas of pseudo Dionysius.
In reality, though, John Scotus’ theological labors did not meet with much success. Not only did the end of the Carolingian era lead to his works being forgotten, but censorship by Church authorities also cast a shadow of suspicion over his works.
John Scotus represented a radical Platonism, which, at times, seemed to take on a pantheistic view of life, although his personal and subjective intentions were always orthodox.
Several of John Scotus Erigena’s works have been handed down to us. Two, in particular, merit our attention: a tract called De Divisione Naturae and his Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy of St. Dionysius.
In these works, he developed some stimulating theological and spiritual ideas and indicated some interesting avenues for further study, even for theologians today.
For example, I would point out his writings on the need to exercise appropriate discernment when something is presented as auctoritas vera, or on the commitment to continue seeking the truth, until an experience of this truth in silent adoration of God is attained.
“Salus nostra ex fide inchoat (Our salvation begins with faith),” John Scotus tells us. That is, we cannot speak of God based on ideas that we ourselves invent, but based only on what God says of himself in sacred Scripture.
However, since God only says the truth, John Scotus Erigena was convinced that authority and reason can never be at odds with each other. He was convinced that true religion and true philosophy always confirm each other.
“Any type of authority that is not confirmed by true reason,” he wrote with this in mind, “must be considered weak. ... Indeed, there is no true authority except that which coincides with the truth discovered through the power of reason, even when dealing with an authority that, for all useful purposes, the holy Fathers of the Church recommended and transmitted for those who succeeded them” (I, PL 122, col 513BC).
Therefore, he cautions us: “Let no authority intimidate or distract you from the persuasion you reached from an upright and rational contemplation. Indeed, authentic authority never contradicts right reason, nor can the latter ever contradict true authority. Both one and the other proceed without a doubt from the same source, which is divine wisdom” (I, PL 122, col 511B).
We see here a courageous affirmation of the value of reason, based on the certainty that true authority is reasonable, because God is creative reason.
The Role of Scripture
According to John Scotus, Scripture itself must be approached using the same criteria of discernment. In fact, restating a reflection found in St. John Chrysostom’s works, the Irish theologian maintains that Scripture, though it comes from God, would not have been necessary if man had not sinned.
Therefore, we can deduce that Scripture was given by God for a teaching purpose and out of condescension so that man could remember everything that was engraved on his heart from the moment of his creation “in the image and likeness of God” (see Genesis 1:26) and that original sin had caused him to forget.
“It is not man who was created for Scripture,” John Scotus writes in his Expositiones, “of which he would have no need if he had not sinned, but rather, it is Scripture — weaving together doctrine and symbols — that was given to man. Indeed, thanks to Scripture our rational nature can be introduced to the secrets of a true and pure contemplation of God” (II, PL 122, col 146C).
The word of sacred Scripture purifies our somewhat blind reason and helps us to return to the memory of what we, as images of God, carry in our hearts, which have been marred, unfortunately, by sin.
The Path of Contemplation
This has some consequences in relationship to hermeneutics — about the way to interpret Scripture — which can still show us today the path for reading sacred Scripture correctly.
It means discovering the hidden meaning of the sacred text, and this requires a particular form of inner discipline in which reason can open the sure way to truth. This exercise consists of cultivating a constant readiness to conversion.
Indeed, in order to reach a deeper vision of the text, it is necessary to make progress simultaneously in conversion of heart and in a conceptual analysis of the biblical text, whether it is cosmic, historical or doctrinal in nature.
Indeed, it is thanks to this constant purification of the eyes of the heart as well as the eyes of the mind that an exact understanding can be attained.
This path in the ongoing conquest and relativizing of human knowledge, which is arduous, demanding and exciting, brings the intelligent creature to the threshold of the divine mystery, where all ideas are seen in their inherent weakness and incapacity, thereby impelling us with the simple, free and gentle power of truth to continue beyond all the knowledge that is continually being acquired.
In this way, silent and adoring recognition of mystery, which culminates in a unifying communion, is the only way of achieving a relationship with the truth that is both the most intimate relationship possible and yet a relationship that is scrupulously respectful of otherness.
John Scotus, who used a term in the Greek language that is deeply appreciated in our Christian tradition in order to show this, called this experience towards which we tend theosis (divinization) and used such daring statements to the point that some suspected that he was falling into heterodox pantheism.
Nevertheless, we experience intense emotions when reading texts like the following where — using the ancient metaphor of melting iron — he writes: “Therefore, just as red-hot iron liquefies to the point where it seems to be nothing but fire yet one substance remains distinct from the other, so too we should accept that at the end of this world, all nature, corporeal and incorporeal, will manifest God alone and still remain integral in such a way that God can, in a certain sense, be comprehended while remaining incomprehensible and the created being himself is transformed, with ineffable marvel, into God” (V, PL 122, col 451B).
A Word for Us Today
All John Scotus’ theology clearly shows his attempt to express what can be explained of an ineffable God, based solely on the mystery of the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
The numerous metaphors that he used to express this ineffable reality show us to what extent he was conscious of the fact that the terms we use to speak of these things are absolutely inadequate. Nevertheless, there is a mystical air of enchantment in his writings as well as an atmosphere of authentic mystical experience that we can sense firsthand from time to time.
We can cite as proof a page from De Divisione Naturae that deeply touches the souls even of us believers in the 21st century.
“Nothing else should be desired,” he writes, “than the joy of truth, which is Christ, and nothing else should be avoided than the absence of God. Indeed, his absence should be seen as the sole cause of total and eternal sadness. Take Christ from me and no good whatsoever remains for me; there is nothing that terrifies me as much as his absence. The greatest torment for any rational creature is his absence and being deprived of him” (V, PL 122, col 989a).
These are words that we can make our own, converting them into prayer to him who is the desire of our hearts.