Eriugena: Heretic or last of the Western Church Fathers?

I recently saw that Dumbarton Oaks at long last had re-issued its full English translation of The Periphyseon: The Division of Nature by John Scottus Eriugena, translated by I.P. Sheldon-Williams and John J. O’Meara (this occurred in 2020 but I just caught up with it). I have spent a fair amount of time with the older out-of-print version of that book, and Latin editions of the original, in my scholarship. Spellings and pronunciations of his name differ a bit in English but John Scottus Eriugena is not Duns Scotus as commonly confused. Rather, he is the ninth-century Hiberno-Latin philosopher who, according to later medieval tradition, exchanged puns at dinner with the Frankish King Charles the Bald, founded Oxford University, and was stabbed to death by the pens of his students.

In my 2017 thesis for a diploma in pastoral theology (linked below) from the St. John of Kronstadt Pastoral School of the Chicago Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, drawing on my Eriugena research, I examined the question of whether Eriugena’s work had been treated fairly by modern scholars labeling it heretical (with the scholars being both favorable and unfavorable to that conclusion!), and how his work may or may not be considered by Orthodox Christians today as an Irish philosophical addendum to that of the Church Fathers of the first millennium

My conclusion: Eriugena’s work has been misunderstood in significant ways in the West, because of a lack of fuller understanding there historically of his heavy reliance on Greek Fathers, especially St. Maximus the Confessor, in his synthesis with Augustine’s writings, the latter also clouding the view of his work by some modern Orthodox scholars. While, given unknowns about his life, and ambiguities in his Latin, it is best not to call him a Church Father per se, nevertheless he can be seen as an early medieval Orthodox Christian philosopher, and his work as a kind of apologetic bridge today between Western heterodoxy and Orthodox Christianity as the latter spreads again in the West. In this sense, his writing as Orthodox philosophy is somewhat parallel (in a much earlier Western context) to philosophical writers such as S.L. Frank and Ivan Ilyin in 20th-century Russian Orthodox tradition.

In a newer publication, an essay forthcoming entitled “From Eriugena to Dostoevsky: Christian ‘Universalism’ in Hiberno-Latin Contexts and its Continued Significance,” I also take issue with what I see as the misuse of Eriugena by philosophers such as David Bentley Hart to support modern universalism. That newer essay is in proofs now for a collection entitled Sources of Knowledge: Studies in Old English and Anglo-Latin Literature in Honour of Charles D. Wright (Brepols, forthcoming, 2023).

My delight in that latter volume, as an outlet for recent insights from my Eriugena research a quarter century on, is that it honors a brilliant scholar of Anglo-Saxon and early Irish literatures, Charlie Wright, who also was such a kind and generous mentor to me in developing my interest in early Insular Christianity. My studies of early Irish and Welsh Christianity in particular with God’s grace contributed to my becoming unworthily an Orthodox Christian after years of wandering in the American religious wilderness. With that, my conversion involved also much needed penitential struggle, alongside finally finishing my reading of The Brothers Karamazov (represented in the above-mentioned forthcoming study, too). As a further literary note on that, when some years ago I literally ran into the translator of the edition of The Brothers Karamazov I had read, Richard Pevear, an Orthodox Christian, in a corridor on campus during a visit. I told him effusively that “oh your translation helped bring me into Orthodoxy.” “Oh,” he said, “I shall have to be more careful in future.”

Glory to God for all things!


John Scottus Eriugena in Context: Heretic or Last of the Western Church Fathers? — St. John of Kronstadt Pastoral School Thesis 2017


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