On John Scotus Erigena

«His Theology Proceeds … by Asserting Primarily What God Is Not»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, part of a catechetical series he is giving about great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

Today I would like to speak of a notable thinker of the Christian West: John Scotus Erigena, whose origins are obscure. He certainly came from Ireland, where he was born at the beginning of the 9th century, but we don’t know when he left his island to cross the English Channel and thus fully become a part of that cultural world that was being reborn around the Carolingians, and in particular, around Charles the Bald, in France of the 9th century. Just as we don’t know the exact date of his birth, we also do not know that of his death, which according to the experts, must have been around the year 870.

John Scotus Erigena had a firsthand patristic culture, as much Greek as Latin: He directly knew the writings of the Latin and Greek fathers. He knew well, among others, the works of Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, great fathers of the Christian West; but he also knew the thought of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and other fathers, no less important, of the East. It was an exceptional man who in that epoch also dominated Greek. He showed particular attention to St. Maximus the Confessor, and above all, to Dionysius the Areopagite. Under this pseudonym is hidden an ecclesiastical writer of the 5th century from Syria, but like everyone in the Middle Ages, John Scotus Erigena was convinced that this author was a direct disciple of St. Paul, spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles (17:34).

Scotus Erigena, convinced of the apostolicity of the writings of Dionysius, classified him as «divine author» par excellence; his writings were, therefore, an eminent source for his thought. John Scotus translated his works to Latin. The great medieval theologians, such as St. Bonaventure, got to know the works of Dionysius by way of this translation. He was dedicated during his whole life to going deeper into and developing his thought, paying recourse to these writings, to the point that still today, sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish when we find the thought of Scotus Erigena and when he is doing nothing more than presenting the thought of Pseudo Dionysius.

In truth, the theological work of John Scotus did not have much success. The end of the Carolingian era brought about the forgetting of his works, and a censure on the part of the ecclesiastical authority cast a shadow over his person. In truth, John Scotus represents a radical Platonism, which on occasions seems to approach a pantheistic vision, even if his personal subjective intentions were always orthodox. Some of the works of John Scotus Erigena are still in existence today, among which the treatises «On the Division of Nature» and «Expositions on the Celestial Hierarchy of St. Dionysius» deserve to be particularly mentioned.

In them, he develops stimulating theological and spiritual reflections, which could bring about interesting developments, even for contemporary theologians. I refer, for example, to what he writes on the duty to exercise an appropriate discernment about that which is presented as «auctoritas vera,» or on the commitment to continue seeking the truth as long as an experience of the silent adoration of God is not attained.

Our author says: «Salus nostra ex fide inchoat: Our salvation begins with faith.» That is, we cannot speak of God starting from our inventions, but rather from what God himself says about himself in sacred Scripture. Given that God only speaks the truth, Scotus Erigena is convinced that authority and reason should never be in contraposition one against the other. He is convinced that true religion and true philosophy coincide.

From this perspective, he writes: «Any type of authority that is not confirmed by true reason should be considered weak. … Only that authority is true that coincides with the truth discovered in virtue of reason, even if it is an authority recommended and transmitted for the usefulness of coming generations by the holy fathers» (I, PL 122, col 513BC). Thus he cautions, «May no authority frighten you or distract you from what you understand from the persuasion obtained thanks to an upright rational contemplation. In fact, authentic authority does not contradict right reason, and the latter never contradicts 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, founded on the certainty that true authority is reasonable, given that God is creative reason.

Even Scripture is not exempt, according to Erigena, from the need to apply the same criteria of discernment. In fact Scripture, affirms the Irish theologian, taking up again a reflection already presented by John Chrysostom, would not have been necessary if man had not sinned. Therefore, it must be deduced that Scripture was given by God with a pedagogical intention and lowering himself so that man could recall all that had been stamped on his heart from the moment of his creation «in the image and likeness of God» (cf. Genesis 1:26) and that the original fall had made him forget.

Erigena writes in the «Expositions»: «Man was not created for Scripture, of which he would not have had necessity if he wouldn’t have sinned, but rather Scripture — interwoven with doctrine and symbols — has been given to man. Thanks to it, in fact, our rational nature can introduce itself into the secrets of the authentic pure contemplation of God (II, PL 122, col 146C). The word of sacred Scripture purifies our rather blind reason and helps us to return to the memory of what we, as image of God, carry in our hearts, unfortunately violated by sin.

From here, some hermeneutical consequences are derived regarding the way to interpret Scripture, which can indicate still today the just path for a correct reading of sacred Scripture. It is a matter, in fact, of discovering the meaning hidden in the sacred text and this supposes a particular interior exercise thanks to which reason opens itself to the sure path leading to truth. This exercise consists in cultivating a constant readiness for conversion. To arrive deeply to the vision of the text, it is necessary to advance simultaneously in the conversion of the heart and in the conceptual analysis of the biblical page, whether it be of cosmic, historical or doctrinal character. Only thanks to the constant purification, as much of the eyes of the heart as of the eyes of the mind, can the exact understanding be achieved.

This arduous path, demanding and exciting, made up of continuous conquests and relativations of human knowledge, brings the intelligent creature toward the threshold of the divine Mystery, where all notions verify their own weakness and incapableness and lead, therefore, to going beyond — with the simple, free and sweet force of the truth — all that is continuously reached. The adoring and silent recognition of the Mystery, which flows into unifying communion, is revealed therefore as the only path for a relationship with the truth that is at the same time the most intimate possible and the most scrupulously respectful of the otherness. John Scotus, also utilizing in this a term appreciated by Christian tradition in the Greek language, called this experience to which we tend «theosis» or divinization, with daring affirmation to the point that he was suspected of falling into heterodox pantheism.

In any case, texts like the following cause intense emotion, texts in which, paying recourse to the ancient metaphor of the melting of iron, he writes: «Therefore, as all incandescent iron becomes liquid to the point that it appears only as fire, and nevertheless the substances of the one and the other remain distinct, in the same way it must be accepted tha
t, after the end of this world, all nature, both corporal and incorporeal, will manifest only God, and nevertheless will remain integral, in such a way that God could be in a certain sense understood despite remaining incomprehensible, and the creature itself would be transformed, with ineffable marvel, into God» (V, PL 122, col 451B).

In reality, all of the theological thought of John Scotus turns into the clearest demonstration of the attempt to express the explainable of the inexplicableness of God, basing itself solely on the mystery of the World made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The numerous metaphors used by him to indicate this ineffable reality show up to what point he is aware of the absolute incapacity of the terms with which we speak of these things. And, nevertheless, there remains this enchantment and this atmosphere of authentic mystical experience in his texts that sometimes can almost be tangibly felt.

It is enough to cite, as proof, a page of the book «On the Division of Nature,» which deeply touches our spirit as believers in the 21st century: «The only thing that must be desired,» he writes, «is the joy of the truth, which is Christ, and the only thing that must be avoided is the absence of him. It should be considered that this [absence] is the only 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 worst torment of a rational creature is the privation and the absence of him (V, PL 122, col 989a).

These are words that we can make our own, converting them into a prayer to him who also is the longing of our hearts.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we consider the figure of John Scotus Erigena, an influential Christian thinker of the Carolingian period. Erigena’s interest in Eastern patristic theology, especially that of Dionysius, led him to study the latter’s works thoroughly and to translate them into Latin. According to Erigena, a believer is to seek the truth until he or she reaches a silent adoration of God in whose nature we participate by theosis, or «divinization». Since this experience can never be expressed fully in words, his theology proceeds by apophasis – that is, by asserting primarily what God is not. Yet he also holds that reason is indispensable in the human quest for God. Sacred Scripture, in fact, allows man to recall the truth which was impressed upon his soul at the beginning of time, but which had been forgotten through original sin. By reading the Bible, we can uncover the secrets of a pure, authentic contemplation of God. Let us therefore pursue the path of continual conversion in order to mine the riches of God’s word in our daily prayer and meditation.

I warmly greet all the English-speaking visitors present today. In a special way, I welcome seminarians from the United States participating in The Rome Experience Program, as well as pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Karachi in Pakistan. God bless you all!

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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