The Voice of the Eagle by John Scotus Eriugena (Review)

Who Should Read This Book (These Books) – Readers interested in the history of Christian theology and spirituality who desire not just intellectual understanding but also to sit at the feet of a spiritual master.

What’s the Big Takeway – My takeaway as I read these ancient saints is consistently the same: they have an understanding of the divine and a spirituality centered on Jesus that Christianity would do well to recover today.

And a quote: “For the generation of the word from the Father is the very creation itself of al causes, together with the operation and effect of all that proceeds from them in kinds and species. Truly, all things were made from the generation of God-the-Word from God-the-beginning. . . The beginning, the principle, from whom all things are is the Father; the beginning, the principle, through whom all things exist is the Son. The father speaks the Word – the Father brings forth his Wisdom – and all things are made” (ch. VII)

(Another quote!): “For, just as in the case of one who speaks, when he stops speaking, his voice ceases and disappears, so also with the Heavenly Father, should he stop speaking his Word, the effect of his Word – the created universe – would cease to subsist. For the continuous maintenance by substitution – the very continuance – of the created universes it he’s speech of God the Father, the eternal and unchangeable generation of the Word” (ch. XVI)

Way back when I was in seminary, our church history professor assigned us to read a spiritual master and journal on what we learned. I chose Irenaeus in my early church history class and Anselm in medieval church history. As I write this, I can’t recall who I read in the Reformation and Modern classes. Menno Simmons and Karl Barth? It doesn’t matter. The point is – this assignment changed my life.

We were in an academic setting and many of us wanted to dive deep into either the historical story or the brilliant works of theology. Our professor led us into both of things areas, but he also wanted to feed our souls. The whole idea that you can separate that academic/rational from the soul/spiritual is a symptom of the modern world. All the great brilliant theologians of the premodern era – Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm – were deeply in tune with the spiritual life. There was no separation between their study of Jesus/gospel/God/theology and their prayer lives.

I say this assignment changed my life, because I have continued to assign it to myself. Of course, I feel totally inadequate and practically still a beginner in the spiritual life. Though, maybe that’s the point in reading these saints: to be humbled about how far we have to go.

The latest spiritual master I’ve discovered is John Scottus Eriugena, a 9th century Irish theologian. A few months ago I read his Treatise on Divine Predestination in which he argues against double predestination. Double predestination taught that some are chosen (predestined) for heaven while others are chosen for hell. This teaching was supported by some of Augustine’s treatises, though Eriugena quotes other works of Augustine to refute it. Over the years this teaching has stuck around in some forms of Calvinism.

Eriugena paints a picture of God as wholly Good and thus the cause only of the Good:

God cannot be both the highest essence and not be the cause of those things only that derive from him. But God is the highest essence. He is therefore the cause of those things only which derive from him. Sin, death, unhappiness are not from God. Therefore God is not the cause of them. The same syllogism can be put this way: God cannot be both the cause of those things tat are and the cause of those things that are nothing. But God is the cause of those things that are. Therefore, he is not the cause of those things that are not. Sin and its effect, death, to which unhappiness is conjoined, are not” (ch. 3.3)

Every good thing either is God or is made from God; all that is made from God effects no corruption of the good, and conversely: therefore no corruption of the good is from the good. All sin, because it is evil, is a defect of the good; no corruption of the good is from the good; therefore no sin, because it is evil, can be from the good. Every creature sharing in reason is a great good; from no good is evil; therefore sin is from no creature sharing in reason” (16.4)

The analytical mind may not be satisfied with this answer. How can evil be nothing? If God only predestines those who are known by God, doesn’t the lack of choosing constitute a choosing in itself? These questions are valid but is also worth recognizing that Eriugena is far from the only theologian in the Christian tradition who argues this. It is actually the majority opinion (at least, in my understanding) as echoed by Gregory of Nysa, Maximus, Julian of Norwich and many others.

That’s sort of a tangent. I haven’t even gotten to the book I am actually reviewing. The Voice of the Eagle is Eriugena’s homily on the beginning of the Gospel of John. Its truly beautiful, and quite short, less than 100 pages. We see the same beautiful picture of God here; God is Love who holds the entire cosmos together in love.

Following the short homily are about 200 pages of reflections from the translator, Christopher Bamford. These reflections are good in their own right and are filled with quotes from the tradition. But I think it would have been better to synthesize the reflections into the text of the homily. In other words, after a section of the homily include the reflections as a sort of commentary. The way it is set up, I felt like I was reading a different book. To be clear, Bamford’s reflections are good and thus its a book I’d like to read. It just seemed too disconnected.

Overall though, if you’re looking for a spiritual master to make you think and feed your soul, Eriugena may be a good one to add to your list.

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