Church History – John Scotus Eriugena, Scholasticism, and Sincere Heresy

Although I talk rather positively about Augustine and the early Church, there’s one factor that leads to further problems down the line: philosophy. In a strange way, its influence brought both positive and negative elements into the continuing development of theological explication. Should a hermeneutics outside the text dictate how we view it? Is it right, or proper, to set a framework in a doctrinal way? These are questions the Church failed to address at all, simply because they weren’t a problem! However, past the Protestant Reformation we descend into a state of spiritual anarchy from which we haven’t yet recovered (the secular/sacred divide also contributes).

Let us, then, trace the history of this phenomenon and then discover a possible solution to the craziness of hermeneutics. One’s interpretive framework – i.e, “Why did he come to that conclusion” – proves fruitful in most any examination of anything. In any case, we find ourselves with the need for a transcendent standard for interpretation. You can’t just have a subjective analysis make way, as every interpretation commits itself as THE framework for how we understand the world. Stable meaning disintegrates without this fact. So it is in theology as well as anywhere else.


So do we arrive at the scholastics. Jumping ahead about three hundred years, there was a short interruption in the creation of the Carolingian Empire ruled by Charlemagne. This “empire” was really a Germanic tribe that had risen to prominence, but learning and the university had come into creation. It allowed continued intellectual development in regards to Christianity, especially. John Scotus Eriugena was a noted theologian/philosopher in this respect. He was one of the few people to still know Greek, hence being able to translate Biblical texts and the like (thought Latin was still the most used language). He was involved in two of the biggest debates of his time, specifically the idea the God predestines evil and the real presence of the blood and the body. John Scotus Eriugena was, weirdly enough, the odd man out on both; he favored an “in-between” approach to predestination that was not at all approved! And on the other end, believers eat Christ “not dentally but mentally”. He would presage later Protestant thought, but he’s weird in a few way that you may recognize.

For one, he revived a Neo-Platonic metaphysics, a fourfold division of reality into “nature”, or all reality: nature as un-created and creative, God as the creator, nature which is created yet creative, the heavenly ideas on which everything is modeled, nature which is created but not creative, the universe, and nature which is neither created nor creative, God as end/ nal cause. Bizarre, yes, but he was trying to balance theology into a via media, or middle way, between extremes. You can use both negative and positive theology (what God isn’t, what God is) and still come out with something! This is a distinction that makes sense even today when, for example, we say “God is wise” (descriptive), or “God is not wise” (he is in finitely better than our conception of wisdom).

However, his metaphysics brings him dangerously close to pantheism. The problem with Neo-Platonic emanation, other than those which left Augustine unsatisfied, comes from the difficulty in making God create the universe ex nihilo. There’s been strident debate about how God created in Genesis 1 in recent years, but it was almost universally held for 1800 years or so (barring the occassional heretical pronouncement) that God created the universe out of nothing. It did not come from Him, but exists as a thing distinct in and of itself. God may have created everything, but He is distinct from that thing. To find my way out of the darkened cave of confusing philosophical language, God and every else are different.

However, John Scotus Eriugena must say they are the same, almost akin to Pelagius telling everyone that they are good like God is good. He knows that the traditional creational view simply doesn’t fit into his system. He explains it thus, then:

When we hear that God makes all things, we should understand nothing else but that God is in all things, that is, he is the essence of those things. For he alone truly is, and everything which is truly said to be in those things which are, is God alone.

Unfortunately, the logical force of his system tends towards a pantheist view of the world regardless. Furthermore, his doctrine of the All in All, the “cosmic return” is nothing more than another appeal to that effect. He believed that God will be all in all and that nothing will exist by God alone in the end. He frequently refers to 1 Corinthians 15 to make this point, specifically verse 28 (I provide the context simply to make sure we don’t misunderstand this):

20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

When John Scotus Eriugena says “Every creature will be cast into the shade, that is, changed into God, as the stars at the rising of the sun”, that is what he means.Of course, then John Scotus Eriugena ends up supporting a form of universalism. If everything becomes God in the end, doesn’t that mean everyone is saved in the end? Again, the scholastic introduction of philosophy (started with Augustine, to be honest – never said he was my favorite) ends up making Christian theology very difficult. It is precisely because it is forced into a logical, rational mold that makes John Scotus Eriugena’s theology so prone to bizarre flights of fancy and errors.

However, John Scotus Eriugena held fast to revelation. That was still the core of his theology, and nearly every other theology I have read that remains consistent. While the outer shell caused much strife (heck, John Scotus Eriugena’s theology became a rallying call for pantheists in the 14th century, to the point where the Church officially condemns it), his honest search for the truth isn’t something to condemn. We all make mistakes and no person truly has the full Christian picture revealed to them, nor could we comprehend it if we had said information. Rather, we hold fast to revelation from God and to faith, walking in obedience. In that sense, even the theologies that produce errors and strife merely try to enhance their orthodoxy and their obedience to God.

That’s why I emphasize a more conciliatory approach to these discussions that don’t end with straight denouncements.John Scotus

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.