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§ 123. The Doctrine of Scotus Erigena.


A complete ed. of the works of Scotus Erigena by H. J. Floss, 1853, in Migne’s “P. L.,” Tom. 122. The book De Praedestinatione in col. 355–440. Comp. the monographs on S. E. by Hjort (1823), Staudenmaier (1834), Taillandier (1843), Christlieb (1860, and his art. in Herzog2 XIII. 788 sqq.), Hermens (1861), Huber (1861); the respective sections in Schröckh, Neander, Baur (on the Trinity), Dorner (on Christology); and in the Histories of Philosophy by Ritter, Erdmann, and Ueberweg. Also Reuter: Gesch. der relig. Aufklärung im Mittelalter (1875), I. 51–64 (a discussion of Erigena’s views on the relation of authority and reason).


At the request of Hincmar, who was very anxious to secure learned aid, but mistook his man, John Scotus Erigena wrote a book on Predestination (in 850), and dedicated it to Hincmar and his friend Pardulus, Bishop of Laon. This most remarkable of Scotch-Irishmen was a profound scholar and philosopher, but so far ahead of his age as to be a wonder and an enigma. He shone and disappeared like a brilliant meteor. We do not know whether he was murdered by his pupils in Malmsbury (if he ever was called to England), or died a natural death in France (which is more likely). He escaped the usual fate of heretics by the transcendental character of his speculations and by the protection of Charles the Bald, with whom he was on such familiar terms that he could answer his saucy question at the dinner-table: “What is the difference between a Scot and a sot?” with the quick-witted reply: “The table, your Majesty.” His system of thought was an anachronism, and too remote from the spirit of his times to be properly understood and appreciated. He was a Christian Neo-Platonist, a forerunner of Scholasticism and Mysticism and in some respects of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. With him church authority resolves itself into reason, theology into philosophy, and true philosophy is identical with true religion. Philosophy is, so to say, religion unveiled and raised from the cloudy region of popular belief to the clear ether of pure thought.692692    So it was with Hegel. His pious widow told me that her husband often politely declined her request to accompany her to church, with the remark: ”Mein liebes Kind, dos Denken ist auch Gottesdienst.”

From this alpine region of speculation he viewed the problem of predestination and free will. He paid due attention to the Scriptures and the fathers. He often quotes St. Augustin, and calls him, notwithstanding his dissent, “the most acute inquirer and asserter of truth.”693693    “De Praed., cap. 15, col. 413: ”acutissimus veritatis et inquisitor et assertor.” But where church authority contradicts reason, its language must be understood figuratively, and, if necessary, in the opposite sense.694694    κατ̓ἀντίφρασιν, e contrario. He charges Gottschalk with the heresy of denying both divine grace and human freedom, since he derived alike the crimes which lead to damnation, and the virtues which lead to eternal life, from a necessary and compulsory predestination. Strictly speaking, there is in God neither before nor after, neither past nor future;695695    De Praed., cap. 9 (in Migne, col. 392): ”In Deo sicut nulla locorum sunt, ita nulla temporum intervalla.” A profound thought, not fully considered by either party in the strife. and hence neither fore-knowledge nor fore-ordination, except in an anthropopathic sense. He rejects a double predestination, because it would carry a contradiction into God. There is only one predestination, the predestination of the righteous, and this is identical with foreknowledge.696696    He thus sums up his discussion at the close (Migne, col. 438) ”Cum omnibus orthodoxis fidelibus anathematizo eos, qui dicunt, duas praedestinationes esse, aut unum geminam, bipartitam, aut duplam. Si enim duae sunt, non est una divina substantia. Si gemina, non est individua. Si bipartita, non est simplex, sed partibus composita. Si dupla est, complicata est. Quod si prohibemur divinam unitatem dicere triplam, qua dementia audet haereticus eam asserere duplam? Tali igitur monstroso, venenoso, mortifero dogmate a cordibus nostris radicitus exploso, credamus, unam aeternam praedestinationem Dei Domini esse, et non nisi in his, quae sunt, ad ea vero, quae non sunt, nullo modo pertinere.” For in God knowledge and will are inseparable, and constitute his very being. The distinction arises from the limitation of the human mind and from ignorance of Greek; for prooravw means both praevideo and praedestino. There is no such thing as predestination to sin and punishment; for sin is nothing real at all, but simply a negation, an abuse of free will;697697    Negatio, privatio, defectus justitiae, absentia boni, corruptio boni. On the other hand, Scotus seems to regard sin as a necessary limitation of the creature. But this idea is inconsistent with the freedom of will, and runs into necessitarianism and pantheism. As sin is the defect of justice, so death is simply the defect of life, and pain the defect of bliss. See cap. 15 (col. 416). and punishment is simply the inner displeasure of the sinner at the failure of his bad aims. If several fathers call sinners praedestinati, they mean the reverse, as Christ called Judas amice instead of inimice, and as lucus is called a non lucendo. Sin lies outside of God, and does not exist for him at all; he does not even foreknow it, much less foreordain it; for knowing and being are identical with him.698698    God knows only what is, and sin has no real existence. “Sicut Dem mali auctor non est ita nec praescius mali, nec praedestinans est.” Cap. 10 (col. 395). ”Ratio pronunciare non dubitat, peccata eorumque supplicia nihil esse, ac per hoc nec praesciri nec praedestinari posse; quomodo enim vel praesciuntur, vel praedestinantur, quae non sunt?” Cap. 15. The same thought occurs in his work, De Divis. Nat. He refers to such passages of the Scriptures where it is said of God that he does not know the wicked. But God has ordered that sin punishes itself; he has established immutable laws, which the sinner cannot escape. Free will is the very essence of man, and was not lost by the fall; only the power and energy of will are impaired. But Erigena vindicates to man freedom in the same sense in which he vindicates it to God, and identifies it with moral necessity. His pantheistic principles lead him logically to universal restoration.699699    The predestination theory of Scotus has some points of resemblance with that of Schleiermacher, who defended the Calvinistic particularism, but only as a preparatory stage to universal election and restoration.

This appears more clearly from his remarkable work, De Divisione Naturae, where he develops his system. The leading idea is the initial and final harmony of God and the universe, as unfolding itself under four aspects: 1) Natura creatrix non creata, i.e. God as the creative and uncreated beginning of all that exists; 2) Natura creatrix creata, i.e. the ideal world or the divine prototypes of all things; 3) Natura creata non creans, i.e. the created, but uncreative world of time and sense, as the reflex and actualization of the ideal world; 4) Natura nec creata nec creans, i.e. God as the end of all creation, which, after the defeat of all opposition, must return to him in an ἀποκατάστασις τῶν πάντων. “The first and the last form,” he says, “are one, and can be understood only of God, who is the beginning and the end of all things.”

The tendency of this speculative and mystical pantheism of Erigena was checked by the practical influence of the Christian theism which entered into his education and personal experience, so that we may say with a historian who is always just and charitable: “We are unwilling to doubt, that he poured out many a devout and earnest prayer to a redeeming God for his inward illumination, and that he diligently sought for it in the sacred Scripture, though his conceptual apprehension of the divine Being seems to exclude such a relation of man to God, as prayer presupposes.”700700    Neander, III. 462. The same may be said still more confidently of Schleiermacher, who leaned with his head to pantheism, but lovingly clung with his heart to Christ as his Lord and Saviour. He keenly felt the speculative difficulty of confining the absolute being to the limitations of personality (”omnis definitio est negatio“), and yet sincerely prayed to a personal God. We cannot pray to an abstraction, but only to a personal being that is able to hear and to answer. Nor is personality necessarily a limitation. There may be an absolute personality as well as an absolute intelligence and an absolute will.

Hincmar had reason to disown such a dangerous champion, and complained of the Scotch “porridge.”701701    “Pultes Scotorum.” John Scotus was violently assailed by Archbishop Wenilo of Sens, who denounced nineteen propositions of his book (which consists of nineteen chapters) as heretical, and by Bishop Prudentius, who increased the number to seventy-seven. He was charged with Pelagianism and Origenism, and censured for substituting philosophy for theology, and sophistical subtleties for sound arguments from Scripture and tradition. Remigius thought him insane. Florus Magister likewise wrote against him, and rejected as blasphemous the doctrine that sin and evil were nonentities, and therefore could not be the subjects of divine foreknowledge and foreordination. The Synod of Valence (855) rejected his nineteen syllogisms as absurdities, and his whole book as a “commentum diaboli potius quam argumentum fidei.” His most important work, which gives his whole system, was also condemned by a provincial Synod of Sens, and afterwards by Pope Honorius III. in 1225, who characterized it as a book “teeming with the vermin of heretical depravity,” and ordered all copies to be burned. But, fortunately, a few copies survived for the study of later ages.



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