Excursus: John Scottus Eriugena

The greatest philosopher of the early Middle Ages, John Scottus Eriugena, was interestingly, a universalist.  I’m not going to talk much about him myself in this post.  Rather, I want to quote extensively from this excellent essay on Eriugena at the website of  professor of philosophy Leonard O’Brian.  I will refer back to this in developing some ideas in the next couple of posts on heaven, hell, and universalism.  The emphasis in the following quotes is mine.

Eriugena’s metaphysics of emanation produces an optimistic understanding of human nature. In Christian thought usually, the fall requires the resurrection whereby Christ cleanses us of our sins. Christianity generally teaches that (1) God created humankind in His image; that (2) this integrity between Imager and imagee—between God and humankind—did not preclude that the imagee might disobey the Imager; (3) that the imagee did freely choose disobedience; (4) that this act initiated a universal falling of man and woman from their Imager; (5) and that man and woman were thereby weakened, so that only the gracious action of God can save the imagee from sinful inclinations. Incarnation and resurrection constitute this gracious action. Christianity is pessimistic about human nature since regeneration depends essentially on its external source.

In contrast with the usual Christian conceptualization, Eriugena draws on Neo-Platonism. He thus creates a tension. He wishes to develop a fully Christian philosophy. Compared to much of Christianity, however, Neo-Platonists are optimistic about human nature.


From the Neo-Platonic perspective, while the objects of human knowledge—the objectively real ideas, ultimately, the Good or the One—transcend the physical world, we human beings have the potential, through reason, to transcend the physical world ourselves.

How would Eriugena, both Neo-Platonic and Christian, resolve the tension between optimism and pessimism? In his view, the fall and resurrection consist of cosmic processes of differentiation and return to unity. While he conceptualizes the cosmology in four parts or phases, the parts are really one: God, the uncaused, causing the Word or Christ; wherein the primordial principles emanate into the realm of stones, plants, animals, angels, and human beings; these last, the human beings, contributing the further differentiation of gender through the fall; whereupon the Word, Christ, returns to God, unifying man and woman into genderless humankind; and, through humankind, the entirety of creation, returns to unity in the undifferentiated One. In the end, all will be saved, saints and sinners.


The school of thought known as universalism asserts that all will be saved, none damned. Eriugena’s universalism is writ large. Few Christians have subscribed to universalism, although many have propounded its antithesis fiercely.


The contemporary philosopher Jonathan L. Kvanvig cautions against confusing the idea of hell with its literary depictions, which involve fire and unending pain,

“For there is nothing in the traditional doctrine that requires hell to be a place of torture. Such language, as well as the contrasting language of outer darkness, must be treated as the metaphorical language it is, the literal significance of which is to signal an ending for a person that is as bad as anything can be (consistent, of course, with the moral perfection of God).”7

The qualification in the parentheses should give us pause. If hell must be conceived as consistent with the moral perfection of God, it is unclear how even a metaphorical interpretation of sermonic and literary depictions can protect them from the charge that hell would constitute God’s infliction of injustice. As Kvanvig himself notes, it would seem unjust to subject people to a punishment that is infinite for sins that are but finite.8

Kvanvig believes theology should probably replace the traditional punishment model with some version of a choice model. Such a model would represent hell as primarily a choice, which people make, rather than as a punishment; if a punishment at all, a punishment only secondarily. Hell would be a place or state that “honors” human choices. Since, on this model, hell does not (primarily) punish, it does not punish excessively.

Problems confront a choice model. On any account, hell must be an unpleasant place or state, if the concept is to retain recognizable continuity with the ordinary usage of ‘hell’. Questions arise immediately. For example, should a person who disbelieves that there even is a hell be held accountable for choosing to enter hell? Indeed, can we even coherently say that a person who disbelieves that there is a hell “chooses” to enter hell? A man may not suspect that, on a river, his motorboat approaches a submerged log. After hitting the log, would we say that the man “chose to damage his motor?” If we cannot say that a person who disbelieves that there is a hell can choose to enter it, only a modest number of contemporary westerners could enter hell, since many doubt that such a place or state exists. Beyond all of that, who in his right mind, believing that there is a hell, would choose to go there? No one. Since only those in their right minds can be held morally accountable, the concept of hell seems superfluous.

Eriugena’s universalism offers a reasonable alternative. He denies that hell is a place, construing it instead the painful condition of living with the self-indictments of one’s own conscience. Since we are made in the image of God, we have the inherent potential to choose rationally; if we choose irrationally, our own reason will admonish us.

Again, Eriugena’s optimism about human nature predominates. Is he unrealistic? Does he ascribe to human beings greater potential than we have? Do we need the harsh disincentive to moral error that proponents of the punishment model have always invoked, a hell that is bifurcated from heaven as pain is bifurcated from bliss? Maybe, but if Eriugena overestimates the human motivational condition, he does not do so obviously. For, on Eriugena’s view, while all will be saved, not all will be saved equally. “There are many rooms in my Father’s house,” Eriugena says. He continues,

So in the paradise of human nature, everyone will have his place in proportion to his conduct in this life. Some will be farther out as in the outermost porticoes; others closer within, as in the nearer halls of divine contemplation; others in the spacious temples of divine mysteries; and still others in the inmost theophanies above all nature in and with Him who is superessential and supernatural. Blessed are those who enter the inner shrines of Wisdom, which is Christ.9

Eschatology, a division within Christian theology, examines the last things, the second and final coming of Christ, the culmination and end of history. A critic of Eriugena could assert, “… Heaven and hell should be seen as the exclusive and exhaustive eschatological options: one is either with God eternally or one is not, corresponding respectively to heaven and hell.”10 Heaven, in fact, must be bifurcated from hell as torment is bifurcated from bliss.

 But why must the incentive and disincentive exclude each other, as the critic claims? Why is this dichotomy not a false dichotomy? Why is there not a third alternative, namely, being farther or nearer to God in degrees that reflect one’s choices in life? Indeed, why would a morally perfect God, to which Kvanvig refers, have it otherwise?

In summary, Western philosophy probably has underestimated the importance of John Scottus Eriugena. He expounds a sophisticated metaphysics and epistemology that were integrated with one another, and that evoke the mystery of human experience without retreat into skepticism.

In this post, I will let the quoted material speak for itself; I certainly suggest that one read the original essay in its entirety.  Meanwhile, in upcoming posts I want to unpack some of the notions discussed here.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 03/11/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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