John was born in Ireland in the early years of the ninth century. Irish scholars had a great reputation for learning during the eighth and ninth centuries.
By the 840’s, John left Ireland, probably to escape from Viking raids that afflicted the islands. He arrived in the Frankish Kingdom, under Carolingian rule, during an intellectual renaissance that had come to full fruition during the reign of the Carolingian king Charlemagne. When John arrived, Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald, reigned. Charles was a patron of scholars and artists and lay-abbot of the monastery of St. Denis near Paris. Charles lived at the kingdom’s abbeys, governed by monks from royal families, and he built a splendid chapel and monastery at Compiegne near Paris. John became one of many scholarly clerics and monks who frequented Charles’ court.
By 850, John had gained a reputation as an exceptional teacher of the Liberal Arts. Knowledge of the liberal arts was thought to be essential for studying Scripture. John’s teaching drew largely from Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy and from Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Mercury and Philology. His writing picked up themes from Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and Boethius, Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian concepts from the sixth century and earlier. However, his primary source was the Scripture. While reason was essential to understanding the text, the Scriptures themselves were seen by Carolingians as the ultimate authority, complementary to the authority of the Church Fathers from the eastern and western Church alike.
As John’s reputation was developing, a Frankish priest known as Gottschalk was falling under condemnation for teaching dual predestination (the idea that God predestined some people to heaven and others to hell. In 849, Gottschalk was imprisoned in an abbey, where he remained until his death in 868. Once imprisoned, later in 849, he issued a lengthier treatise on his teaching.
Around 850, Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, called upon John to counter Gottschalk’s teachings. Just as Gottschalk had argued from the writings of Augustine, so John also argued from Augustine, interpreting Augustine’s views differently from Gottschalk. However, in so doing, John argued for a position too close to free will (Pelagianism), drawing ire from Hincmar’s fellow clergy. At a synod at Valence in 855, John’s treatise On Predestination was condemned as “Irish porridge”, and after further debates, an agreement was reached at a synod in 860 for a formula acceptable to all shades of Augustinian persuasion. John offered no response to the accusations, which was viewed as arrogance. Much of the rejection was a reaction to the treatise’s originality. John applied the dialectical method of philosophy to the project, applying reason together with the authorities of Scripture and the Church Fathers, in an era in which the accepted means of theological argument relied heavily upon the authority without innovative philosophical reason. John had no further role in the debate, protected by Charles the Bald as a scholar.
Around 860, Charles requested a new translation of the Greek writing of Pseudo-Dionysius, who was then widely believed to have been the same Dionysius converted by the Apostle Paul and mentioned in the New Testament. Few people in the Latin west could then read Greek, and few Greeks could read Latin. John had learned Greek well enough to become a prolific translator. He made Latin translations of the complete works of Pseudo-Dionysius, the Questiones ad Thalassium of Maximus the Confessor, the De hominis opificio of Gregory of Nyssa, and part of the Ambigua ad Iohannes of Maximus.
Around 864, John began his most creative and ambitious project, a five-book work entitled Periphyseon. The themes of Periphyseon included philosophy, nature, and theology. Although Periphyseon is now regarded as a great work, John expressed concerns in its last pages that it might be rejected.
Periphyseon teaches by dialogue between a master and disciple. John taught by using dialectics, which he outlined in On Predestination as division, definition, demonstration, and resolution. While John drew the science of dialectics from Neoplatonism, he carried it further than was conceivable in the minds of his contemporaries, applying this method to consider the entire history of God and the world.
John also sought to balance the thinking of East and West, bringing them into agreement. He adopted the Eastern concept of humanity as created in the image of God, eventually to be restored. By translating Greek theology into Latin, and by writing about the Eastern Church Fathers, John brought the Eastern and Western ends of the Church slightly closer together during the ninth century.
After 870, there is no further record of John’s life. His writing came to an end. Only legends attempt to explain his last days.
Periphyseon was condemned in 1050, 1059, 1210 and 1225. Fifteenth and sixteenth century historians embellished accounts of John’s life, such that in 1586 he was included in the Roman Martyrology, named as “St. Ioannes Scotus” in the Roman Martyrology. His resulting canonization was brief. In 1681, a first printing of Periphyseon was made at Oxford. Three years later, in 1684, Periphyseon was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. Today, Periphyseon is regarded as a great writing of the ninth century.
Dierdre Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena (Great Medieval Thinkers)
Pierre Riché, The Carolingians
Mary Brennan, Foreward to John Scottus Eriugena, Treatise on Divine Predestination.