Apocatastasis: The Restitution of All Things

[Note: This was a paper I wrote for a medieval philosophy final in college. It needs some reworking, but its an interesting topic and I offer it here]

Within Christian theology, especially of the medieval period, there has been dialectic between those thinkers who attempt to follow Aristotle and those who see greater promise in neo-Platonism. In many cases this conflict is present within the same author’s work, and as John of Salisbury notes, they have “labored strenuously to compose the differences between Aristotle and Plato,” but in the end they “arrived on the scene too late, so that their efforts to reconcile two dead men, who disagreed as long as they were alive and could do so, were in vain.”1 Some have divided the schools of Christian neo-Platonism into two branches, namely the Plotino-Augustinian branch and the Iamblicho—Dionysian tradition. This paper will trace the development of the neo-platonic influences from the Iamblicho-Dionysian school, focusing directly on the doctrine of Apocatastasis or the restitution of all things to their original state (restitutio in pristinum statum) and its formulation in the Alexandrian school of the second century to the works of John Scotus Eriugena and demonstrate that Eriugena was strongly influenced by the Iamblicho-Dionysian school in his formulation of salvation.

Of the divisions between the Aristotelians and the neo-Platonists the most central in regards to Christian theology is their disagreement over the nature of matter; specifically how and when matter is or was created. For the Aristotelians and later, the Latin Averoeists, matter was uncreated and co-eternal with God. The Aristotelian position, of which Latin Averoeism is a form, can be summarized in the following manner: If the world can be said to not-exist at a given point, then it can not exist at any and every moment; if however, the world can be said to exist, then it can be said to exist in infinite time and therefore there can not have been, nor can there be a time when it did not or will not exist. Since this is the case “it should be clear that it cannot simultaneously be capable of everlasting non-existence and of everlasting existence.”2 This is the argument that gained ascendancy and was “[u]p to about AD 200 [. . .]the consensus among philosophers was that God and matter were co-eternal (that is, matter was agenetos” or ungenerable.)3

Although the Aristotelian model gained ascendancy among philosophers during antiquity it was still the Timaeus of Plato that “served as the central text upon which discussions of the world’s origins focused, not only in late antiquity, but right up to the revival of Christian Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century.”4 Aristotelianism had no great innate appeal to Christians or Jews who already accepted as a point of faith that God pre-existed the world and had in fact created it from nothing. Because of this, “Philo’s view that God caused matter and its rational structure to come into being at a point is apparently unique in philosophical antiquity; and [. . .] highlights the difficulty which Jews and Christians had in assimilating practically any of the available idioms and philosophical reflection on the origins of the world.”5

It was in the philosophy of Philo, Plotinus and the neoplatonists that Christianity was to find its philosophical inspiration. James Feibleman states that Plotinus’ thought “is a theology in search of a religion” and is eventually discovered by Christianity.6 This discovery and union was helped, at least in part, because “Plotinus and his successors [. . .] firmly repudiate the idea of eternal matter ‘over against’ God: not only the rational world, but matter itself is in some sense a stage in the universe’s eternal flowing forth from the One.”7

Stephen Gersh in his work From Iamblichus to Eriugena divides Christian neo-Platonism into two strands, the first being the Plotino-Augustinian branch, the second the Iamblicho-Dionysian tradition.8 This division is helpful mainly because it allows us to trace a possible route for the doctrine of apocatastasis from the Alexandrian school to Eriugena.

Perhaps the most well known and maligned of the Alexandrian theologians is Origen. Though some scholars believe that Origen was the subject of a smear campaign, no one can argue that many of his musings remain outside the mainstream of the tradition that was codified in the Ecumenical councils.9

One of the most criticized doctrines held by Origen is his belief in a universal salvation. For Origen, to affirm a belief in an eternal hell over which the devil had dominion was to become dualistic by making the devil a god in his own right. Because Origen was very concerned with Gnostic beliefs and sought to counter them, when he speaks of salvation he does not do so in a way that would allow for an evil that is in any way equal to good or God. For him, the focus is on God and the individual, as his statements illustrate:

Within you is the battle you are to fight; the evil structure which must be torn down is within; your enemy comes from your own heart. The enemy would not grow strong against us, nor would the devil himself be able to do anything in us, unless we gave him strength by our vices.10

But while Origen places a great emphasis on personal responsibility, he believed that the passages which support the belief in eternal punishment were properly interpreted as being warnings to sinners to get back on the right path. Origen’s belief—though ambiguous at times—seems to be that of a progressive salvation and an eventual return of all things to God or apocotastasis. For Origen, God was good, and a good God would not punish his creatures eternally. In a way that seems eerily similar to the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace Origen states that:

[E]ven God the Father himself does not neglect the management of our salvation; he himself not only calls us to salvation but also “draws” us. For this is what the Lord says in the gospel: “No one comes to me unless my heavenly father draws him” (Jn. 6:44) . . . Thus it is that we are not only invited by God, but also drawn and forced to salvation. [emphasis mine]11

This statement it problematic since Origen strenuously defended the need for a free will, yet it does seem to indicate that somehow people are forced towards salvation. Origen based his belief in the apocatastasis scripturally in 1 Corinthians 15:23-2812 and, it is important to note, did not denote a pantheistic restoration to unity, but instead a sort of corporate unity in which the saints would know God as the Son knows God by being made internal to the Son and becoming one with God in a similar way to the way in which a husband and wife are to be one flesh.13 This idea is extremely close to that held by Eriugena, for they both believe that in the end God will be “all in all.”14 Despite his rejection of pantheism however, the importance of this statement and its relationship to neo-Platonic thought is evident. The idea that God draws the sinner to salvation and to himself is very much like the picture presented by the neo-Platonists who considered the nature of reality to be such that creation was emanated from the divine One who then draws all things back to himself becoming the beginning and ending of all things.

This idea of creation through emanation, using sun light as a metaphor was adopted Augustine of Hippo and serves to demonstrate that both Augustine and Origen were interpreting neo-platonic thought in light of Christianity or vice versa, despite whatever other differences they may have had and in spite Augustine’s chastening of Origen during the Pelagian controversy.

As Origen’s comments demonstrate, this idea was take over by Christians as well so that there is very little difference to be seen in the neo-Platonic idea that “The return of the soul to God of which it is part is accomplished first through a demonstration of the worthlessness of earthly things and secondly by reminding the soul of its true place,”15 and the doctrine of apocatastasis as expressed by Origen.

Origen was not the only Christian theologian to bandy about the idea of a universal salvation. Indeed it was not in the writings of Origen that such an idea could have made its way into the thought of Eriugena. Instead, it seems it was through a chain of eastern theologians, especially Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor whom Eriugena translated into Latin, often resolving the “ambiguity of the Greek text.”16

It is the contention of many scholars that the thought of Pseudo-Dionysus was fleshed out in the work of Eriugena. Indeed Eriugena’s work comes to be interpreted in a similar way. As Moran comments:

Commentators on these writers usually see them all as teaching that God is not known in Himself but is known in His activities or energies. Their philosophy is seen then to be an account of the processions [. . .] of the divine will, and of the restoration of all things to God in apocatastasis. Eriguena follows this general pattern.17

It now becomes necessary to pay particular attention to the work of Eriugena himself and determine where there are points of reference and departure between his doctrine of salvation and that of Origen.

Before one can understand Eriugena’s beliefs regarding salvation one must consider his thoughts concerning creation. “Eriugena discriminated four stages in ‘the divine unfolding’ whereby the universe emanates from God.”18 Describing creation as a theophany or self manifestation of God, Eriugena often compares it to water coming from a fountain or ripples spreading in a pool.19 For Eriugena, nature was divided into four divisions or species, namely 1) that which is uncreated and creates, 2) that which created and creates, 3) That which is created and does not create and 4) that which is not created and does not create. Just as the neo-Platonists saw the beginning as the end, Eriugena categorizes both divisions 1 and 4 as God; he is both the uncreated creator and the uncreated end of all things. His doctrine of human creation is important to note, as well as its connection to Origen’s thought:

Drawing on the two accounts of the creation of man in Genesis, and following in a rich tradition of biblical commentary stemming from Philo and Origen [. . .], Eriugena’s theory of human nature understands humanity under two aspects: ( I ) perfect human nature as it might be thought of before the Fall and ( 2) present-day fallen human nature.20

Eriugena takes this belief further however and interprets the Greeks as maintaining that there are two creations of man, “an indivisible and universal humanity, very similar to the angelic nature and lacking sexual differentiation; and a secondary nature, ‘which was added to the rational nature as a result of the foreknowledge of the fall’ and which is sexually differentiated.”21 By affirming this dual creation theology and asserting in fact that the original human nature was higher than that of angels because humans were created in the image of God, Eriugena creates a promising ending point for his idea of the final return to the paradise of “perfect human nature.”22 Accordingly, since human nature was perfect then “perfect knowledge of self and Creator was inherent in human nature before sin” and it should not be surprising that “it still has such knowledge potentially only, but even actually in the case of the best men.”23

It is to this perfect human nature that man must aspire to return to, and will eventually return to. This belief is not the pantheism that Eriugena has been accused of, but is similar to that of Origen, in that there seems to be a corporate unity but not a unity of natures. Where in Origen, the final end of all the saints is to be incorporated fully into the Word as members, and achieve full knowledge of God, the same is true of Eriugena, full knowledge and participation in God the Cause is the final end. This end is the end for all men because Eriugena, like Gregory of Nyssa, believes that all men were simultaneously created in Adam and that, had the fall not occurred, man would have reproduced asexually in the manner of angels.24 Since all men participated in this first nature, then, they should all equally endeavor to return to it. Eriugena explains this return in book IV of On the Division of Nature:

The Divine Nature is believed not to be created because it is the Primal Cause of all, beyond which there is no beginning by which It can be created. But since after the return of all things to their primordial causes contained in Divine Nature, no nature will be generated from It any more or multiplied into sensible of intelligible species; they will be one in It just as they are now and always in their causes. It is deservedly believed, therefore, and understood not to create anything; for what will It create when It alone will be all things in all things?25

The similarities with Origen are again apparent and although Eriugena’s thought displays more development and obviously benefited from the intervening centuries and thinkers, the final concept is the same, all things eventually return to their cause and God will be All in All.

  1. Medieval Philosophy, 169 []
  2. Rowan Williams, Arius, 183 []
  3. Rowan Williams, Arius, 184 []
  4. Rowan Williams, Arius, 181 []
  5. Rowan Williams, Arius, 185-186 []
  6. James K. Feibleman, Religious Platonism, 138 []
  7. Rowan Williams, Arius, 184 []
  8. Stephen Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugena, 4-5 []
  9. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, 1-3 []
  10. Balthazar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, 224 []
  11. Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, 67 []
  12. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. (NRSV) []
  13. Crouzel, Origen, 261 []
  14. Stephen Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugenna, 138. Gerch states: “Thus Ps.-Dionysius now describes otherness as the ‘unified multiplication of God,’ [. . .] for Maximus the Confessor the Logos is ‘manifested and multiplied benevolently’ in his creatures, and for Eriugena he ‘becomes all things in all.’ []
  15. Feibleman, 131 []
  16. Gersh states: Thus when examining this intellectual development we need to take into account the tradition proper [. . .] this would consist of the development and transformation of a particular set of notions through Syrianus, Proclus, Damascius, and so on—[. . .]leading into and out of the main stream—including Plutarch of Athens [. . .] unnamed Christian writers [. . .] the undoubted influence of the Cappadocian fathers upon Ps.-Dionysius, of the Cappadocians and of Leontius of Byzantium upon Maximus, and of various translated Greek sources such as Origen, the Cappadocians, Epiphanus [. . .]

    and, Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena, 118

  17. ibid []
  18. Feibleman, 172 []
  19. Medieval Philosophy, 133 []
  20. Moran, 156 []
  21. ibid, 158 []
  22. ibid, 159 []
  23. Myra L. Uhlfelder, trans. , On the Division of Nature, 253 []
  24. Myra L. Uhlfelder, trans. On the Division of Nature, 262 []
  25. ibid, 268 []

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