A Celtic Christology: The Incarnation according to John Scottus Eriugena, John F. Gavin. Forward by John Panteleimon Manoussakis, Cascade Books (Eugene, OR), 2014. 160 pages, including bibliography and index, plus Forward. ISBN: 13:978-1-62564-464-0
John Scottus Eriugena, a visionary Irish philosopher and theologian, can be quite mystifying and abstruse. For us today it is often quite difficult to make sense of his Christian Neoplatonism. And more often than not we approach Eriugena through his homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Homilia in prologum Sancti Evangelit secundum Johannem). A natural thing to do, considering that Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature) can be hard to make sense of, especially without more than a cursory understanding of neo-platonic thought. Yet, it is Periphyseon that offers the framework for both understanding his mystical thinking and his Christology.
[The Carmina (a collection of poetry) contains not only philosophical and theological thoughts, but also information about his life and his interactions with his contemporaries, all helping see the person, we know as Eriugena.]
Fortunately for us, Fr. Gavin, drawing from Periphyseon, while not ignoring Eriugena’s corpus of work, makes sense of Eriugena’s Christology in a succinct and easily understandable manner. Fr. Gavin states he is writing only an introduction and minor defense of Eriugena. If indeed it is an introduction, it is an “introduction” that expands Eriugena in a way few do. His is a deep dive into the Christology of Eriugena and a strong defense against the critics of Eriugena.
I wish those many years ago when I first started digging into Eriugena, I would have had Fr. Gavin to guide me. If you are new to Eriugena, I urge you to read, A Celtic Christology: The Incarnation according to John Scottus Eriugena.
Eriugena’s Christology is solidly Incarnation. And this causes problems for many. For some, emphasizing the Incarnation takes away from the more traditional emphasis on the cross and resurrection. For others, Eriugena’s emphasis on Incarnation and nature, smacks of pantheism. Fr. Gavin, in his exposition of Eriugena’s Christology, clearly reveals that although the emphasis is on the Incarnation, the cross and resurrection are part of his Christology. And as Fr. Gavin writes, the charge of paganism comes about from not understanding Eriugena’s mystical bent. A Celtic Christology brings Eriugena fully into the realm of orthodox Christianity.
For Eriugena, Christianity is rooted in God’s philanthrophia in creating, sustaining, and restoring the cosmos. The ultimate expression of the divine philanthrophia is found in the incarnation. It is through the Incarnation that we as believers (or not) mystically participate in the both life of Jesus and the Word (Logos) as Christ as we process toward returning to divine union, or perhaps, a better term, “reunion.”
It is this theme that Fr. Gavin expands in a way that makes sense of Eriugena’s neo-platonic thinking for our modern mind. His emphasis as he writes is both on Jesus Christ and humanity, and he covers this well.
I wish however that Fr Gavin had given more explanation to what the Incarnation means to nature apart from humanity, as well as in relation to humanity. John Panteleimon Manoussakis deals with this to some extent in his Forward to A Celtic Christology. However, I think Eriugena’s thinking about nature needs for emphasis as it is part and parcel of his Incarnational thinking. Let me clear though, this perceived weakness takes nothing away from what Fr. Gavin writes. And in fairness, Fr. Gavin does view Eriugena’s Christology to have an environmental aspect.
In A Celtic Christology, Fr. Gavin presents to us a Christology that shows (1) the centrality of the Incarnation, (2) its participatory nature, and (3) that is an environmental Christology.
Fr. Gavin also points out what he perceives to be to weaknesses in Eriugena’s Christology:
Eriugena does not expand upon Jesus’ two wills, the divine and human, and especially the human as it references imitatio Christi. Fr. Gavin feels that Eriugena fails to provide a “full anthropological basis for the personal human participation in the divine nature (p. 142).”
Eriugena’s rejection of gender distinctions in both pre-lapsarian (fallen from a better state) and resurrected humanity. For Eriugena, gender was only necessary for the propagation of the species. And the resurrected Jesus appeared as a “male” in order that the disciples were able to recognize him. The problem that Fr. Gavin sees, is that such thinking is "docetic," a false appearance for the sake of the Logos’ appearance on earth, negating the Logos’ assuming the flesh of humanity. And that such thinking implies that gender has no spiritual significance.
Fr. Gavin feels that Maximus the Confessor does a better job of explaining the two wills in his reflections on Jesus’ exercise of freedom and that freedom’s role in the deification of creation.
Whether or not, Fr. Gavin is right, his raising of weaknesses, after a positive exposition of Eriugena’s Christology, reminds us not to base all our Christology, and our understanding of the Incarnation, on Eriugena’s Christology.
A couple observations:
Fr. Gavin helpfully sums up each chapter with a “Conclusion.” In this way, I could easily see if I missed, or misunderstood something, and then go back and reread. Notes are provided on the page where referenced. Which I personally find to be of help.
Although the book is titled A Celtic Christology, there is little to explain what makes the Christology Celtic other than the fact that Eriugena was Irish. There is however, within Eriugena’s Christology that draws upon a wider Celtic understanding of the Incarnation in particular, and Christianity in general. The idea of nature being “charged with the divine” precedes Eriugena.
A Celtic Christology: The Incarnation according to John Scottus Eriugena and Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson (Stanford University Press, 2020) by Willemien Otten (reviewed April 2, 2023) make excellent companion volumes.
John F. Gavin, S. J., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies of the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA. He is the author of And They Are Like the Angels in the Heavens: Angelology and Anthropology in the Thought of Maximus the Confessor (2009).
Frank A. Mills, the reviewer, is a retired professor of Celtic Studies in the Department of Cultural Studies, Marylhurst University, an ordained minister and theologian. His reviews can be found on The Theology Brewing Company website and elsewhere.
The book was republished on December 25, 2014 by James Clarke & Co. (Cambridge, U.K.), ISBN-13:978-0227174784
For more on Celtic Christianity please check out the Oran Mór Journal
©Frank A. Mills, 2023