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bernard mcginn
The first three chapters of Genesis have attracted numerous interpreters in both Judaism and Christianity for millennia, with readings
ranging from the crudely literal to refined philosophical, theological,
and mystical interpretations. Two of the most profound Latin interpreters were the ninth-century Irish savant John Scottus Eriugena and
thirteenth-century Dominican Meister Eckhart. Both wrote long commentaries on Genesis 1-3 in different genres, and both thinkers display
remarkable similarities, as well as some crucial differences. Without
denying the foundational role of the biblical letter, Eriugena and Eckhart insisted that Genesis 1-3 can only be understood from a rigorously
philosophico-theological standpoint, one in which exegesis reveals the
depths of Christian metaphysics. In the interchange between positive
and negative language about God and the world as revealed in Genesis, as well as in their modes of relating the letter and the spirit of
the text, these two great thinkers made unique contributions to the
history of exegesis.

The bluegrass country of Petersburg, Kentucky, with its Creation Museum may be a fitting place to begin these remarks on
the conflict of interpretations about the opening chapters of Genesis. Founded by the evangelical Ken Ham and his organization
Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum website opens with
the words Welcome and Prepare to Believe. It continues with
the following : The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum
brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and
animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings.
Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and
dinosaurs roam near Edens rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in
the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I apologize that the
resources of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago do
Proceedings of the International Conference on Eriugenian Studies in honor of E. Jeauneau, ed. by W. Otten, M. I. Allen, IPM, 68 (Turnhout, 2014), pp. 463-499.

DOI 10.1484/M.IPM-EB.1.102071


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not allow serpents cunningly coiling in the lobby or lecture hall,

but I take note of the Creation Museum to point to the fact that
the meaning of creation, and especially how to interpret the Genesis account of the making of the world and the origins of humanity, has been, is, and will continue to be an important religious
issueand not just an academic one.
For two thousand years the proper way of reading Genesis on
creation and human origins has been under discussion. The diverse
strands of tradition cobbled together in Genesis 1-3 were presumably intended as a picture of how God formed the universe in
seven days, how humans were made as special creatures, and how
the mysterious serpent tempted the first couple to rebel against
God and lose their original status. Such a matter-of-fact reading,
of course, in which almost every detail of the narrative is taken
at face value has never died out, although it became more difficult with the rise of Greek philosophical attempts to give a rational account of the universe and humanitys place in it, as well as
the forms of literary criticism that noted the inconsistencies and
contradictions (what can be called exegetical irritants) in the
Genesis story.1 The varying interpretations of the first chapters
of Genesis are one of the oldest examples of exegetical struggles.
Between the hyper-literalist views of the Creation Museum sponsors and their ancestors and the opposed position of those who
read Genesis as just another of the many myths regarding origins,
we can identify a broad, if today threatened, stream of interpreters, both Jews and Christians, who over the centuries sought to
conciliate philosophical cosmology and belief in Genesis into a
third kind of reading to provide a foundation for faith in a Creator
God. This is a dangerous middle ground, where, as John Scottus
Eriugena once put it, expositors spread their exegetical sails and
boldly set out to traverse not the smooth and open waters of
the Bible, but the region of the Syrtes where dangerous currents
of unfamiliar teaching threaten shipwreck on every side.2 Among

The most prominent exegetical irritant in Genesis 1-3, commented on from

the outset, was the dual creation of humanity (Gen. 1 :26-27 and Gen. 2 :7).
2 I will refer to the Periphyseon according to the edition of douard
Jeauneau, Iohannis Scotti seu Eriugenae Periphyseon, 5 vols. (Turnhout : Brepols, 1996-2003. CCCM 161-65), citing first the book and in parentheses the
column number of PL 122 and the volume and page number of the Jeauneau

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



the boldest of the mariners who sought to navigate the first three
chapters of Genesis was Eriugena himself. A second was the fourteenth-century Dominican Meister Eckhart. I shall consider these
two master mariners both in light of the tradition of philosophical
readings of Genesis and in terms of the inner dynamics of their
interpretative models. 3
The issue raised by the Bible Museum and its supporters, who
insist on a historically-literal reading of the first three chapters of
Genesis, highlights the problem of the meaning of literal interpretation.4 We all know what physical letters are, but the literal
sense is a far more ambiguous and contested notion. This is especially the case with sacred texts, writings which are accepted as
in some way normative by particular faith communities. We can
take the literal sense as (1) the letters and words on the page and
their significance in the context of forming meaningful phrases
and sentences. We can also expand the literal sense to include (2)
the narrative structure and coherence of whole passages (the medieval series narrationum), and we can go even further and see the
literal sense as (3) the claim to the historical facticity of a narrative, such as the account of the temptation of Adam and Eve in
Genesis 3. The creators of the Bible Museum insist that all three
levels of the literal sense are necessary. Early Christian exegetes
of Genesis held that the first two levels of literalness are foundational for interpretation and therefore they insisted that much
of their exegesis of Genesis was literal, even when it was of a

edition. This passage is Book 4 (743D-44A ; CCCM 164 :5). I will generally
use the translation of I. P. Sheldon-Williams and John J. OMeara, Eriugena. Periphyseon (The Division of Nature) (Montral-Washington : BellarminDumbarton Oaks, 1987), but have sometimes altered it for greater literalness
(this passage is on 383).
3 A great deal has been written about the history of the interpretation of
Genesis, but there are few general surveys. Still useful for the older period,
is Frank Eggleston Robbins, The Hexaemeral Literature. A Study of Greek and
Latin Commentaries on Genesis (Chicago : University of Chicago Ph.D., 1912).
There are also useful essays in In Principio. Interprtations des premiers versets
de la Gense (Paris : tudes Augustiniennes, 1973).
4 On the problematic of the literal sense in modern biblical hermeneutics,
Hans W. Frei, The Literal Reading of the Biblical Narrative in Christian
Tradition : Does It Stretch or Will It Break ?, in Frank McConnell, ed., The
Bible and the Narrative Tradition (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1986), 36-77.


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philosophical, rather than historical character, precisely because

it was true to the littera in the first two senses. Christian readers
split, however, on their attitudes towards the third level of literalness, historicity. Some claimed it too was normative for belief,
while others argued that the Genesis narrative was partly history
and partly a symbolic way of setting out deeper truths about the
world and humanity that required a spiritual reading, called by
various names, especially allegoria and theoria.
Determining the meaning of the three levels of literalness is
incrementally difficult with regard to biblical texts. On the first
level, the interpreter needs to determine what the words on the
page mean, if necessary through philological investigation. On the
second level, the hermeneut needs to explore how the structure
and details of the story fit the interpretive claims being made.
(Crudely put : What exegetical hooks serve to show that the interpretation matches the narrative ?) The knotty problem with the
third level of literality is deciding which passages are literal in
the historical sense of happening in time and which are not, even
though they are presented as if they record temporal events.
Patristic and medieval distinctions between what is historical
and what is not may often seem arbitrary to us today, but closer
investigation reveals that the practice is generally quite nuanced,
because the philosophical exegetethe interpreter who looks for
the deepest truth in the Bibleneeds to have not only a philosophy, but also a theory of exegesis, overt or implied, one that sets
out philosophical and theological criteria for making judgments
about historical literalness. In other words, he or she needs to
make an argument that is open to confirmation or refutation.
Having a theory of interpretation, however, is not enough,
because exegesis is above all a practical art or skill, not unlike
playing a game in which one has to keep within the field of play
and follow the rules of the game to score points. For patristic
and medieval exegetes the field of play was fundamentally ecclesiological, that is, interpretations were meant for the church, so
that any reading that conflicted with church teaching or that did
not nourish the love of God and love of neighbor was outside the
bounds of the playing field and therefore illegitimate.5 The rules
5 These two principlesnot conflicting with the regula fidei and nourishing love of God and love of neighbor (the regula caritatis)are best known

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



of the game are too many to be surveyed here. One of the most
important, however, was the practice of intertextuality. Given the
conviction of the ancient and medieval interpreters that the whole
Bible is Gods word, any passage could be used to illuminate the
meaning of any other passage. Christian conviction that the Old
Testament reached its fulfillment in the New meant that the use
of New Testament texts to illuminate the correct meaning of difficult Old Testament passages was a formal feature of Christian
exegesis. This is especially true of the use of Paul and John to
help understand the Genesis account of creation and fall.
The first-century Alexandrian Jew Philo was the ancestor of
Christian philosophical readings of Genesis. This Jewish philosopher insisted that it was not Greek philosophy that controlled the
interpretation of scripture, but rather that the philosophical truths
written down by Moseswho had attained the very summit of
philosophy, expressed the fullness of truth that the philosophers
had arrived at only partially. In his exegetical treatise On Creation
(De opificio mundi), Philo claims that Moses the Lawgiver avoided
the extremes of setting out a naked law code or of expressing true
laws under the guise of mythic fictions by showing the harmony
between his laws and the order of the world in his exordium to the
Pentateuch, that is, the Genesis creation account. Two fundamental principles govern Philos reading of Genesis 1-3. The first is the
distinction between the active cause, that is, the perfectly pure
and unsullied Mind of the universe (God), and the passive part,
set in motion and shaped and quickened by Mind and changed
into the most perfect masterpiece, this world.6 We might think
of this distinction between the immaterial and material worlds as
Platonic, but Philo found it in Genesis in the difference between
the invisible creation described in Gen. 1 :1-5 and the material

from Augustines De doctrina Christiana 3.10, but they are found, explicitly
and implicitly, in many patristic and medieval exegetes.
6 Philo, De opificio mundi II.8-9, in the translation of F. H. Colson and
G. H. Whitaker, Philo I (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1971.
Loeb Classical Library), 11.


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creation beginning in verse 6 with the solid firmament.7 (This

is a good example of an exegetical hook.) Philos other principle
is that nothing unworthy or anthropomorphic can be said literally of God. Again, he argues for this scripturally, insisting on
the literal truth of Numbers 23 :19 : God is not as man.8 Hence,
while human beings require time for their activity, Gods perfection means that he does all things simultaneously, so the six days
are not to be read as twenty-four hour durations, but rather as
numbers revealing the order of the things God made.9 For Philo
this is a literal reading of the text of the beginning of Genesis,
because it is what the words actually mean.10 Philos readings of
the account of creation and Fall vary across his writings, and he
by no means always rejects the literal-historical dimension of the
texts.11 In On Creation, however, he contends that certain parts of
the Genesis narrative, especially the account of Paradise and the
Fall, are not to be taken literally, but are dictated by a philosophy that is more symbolical rather than strictly accurate (sumboliks mllon kuris philosopheisthai).12 Philo wants to set these
passages off from pagan myths, however, claiming : Now these
are no mythical fictions, such as the poets and sophists delight in,
but rather types calling forth some allegorical truth according to
an underlying meaning (di hyponoin).13

Philo argues this in De opificio mundi VII.29-X.37 (Loeb, 20-29).

For Philos comments on this verse, see his treatise Quod Deus sit immutabilis XIII. 62.
9 De opificio mundi III.13-15 (Loeb, 12-15). See also Legum allegoriae I.2,
and Quaestiones in Genesim I.1.
10 Philo recognizes that some people can misunderstand the letter of the
text, but the remedy for this is a better, or more philosophical, reading of
the letter, not a deeper or hidden meaning. Thus, De opificio mundi VII.26-28
(Loeb, 20-23) argues against those who read en arch chronologically, rather
than as indicating numerical order.
11 On Philos exegesis, Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo. Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2 vols. (Cambridge MA :
Harvard University Press, 1947) 1 : Chap. 2, especially 117-23. In most of
his works Philo stresses an allegorical reading on Paradise and the Fall ; the
Quaestiones in Genesim represents an exception.
12 De opificio mundi LIV.154 (Loeb, 122 ; my translation).
13 De opificio mundi LVI.157 (Loeb, 124 ; my translation). In De opificio
mundi LIX.165 (Loeb, 130-31) Philo famously interprets the man Adam as
the mind, the woman Eve as the senses, and the serpent as pleasure.

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



Christian readings of Genesis begin with Paul and proliferate

in the second and third centuries C.E.14 Origens surviving Homilies on Genesis are predominantly spiritual readings designed to
encourage personal progress in virtue, what would come to be
called the moral, or tropological, sense. The surviving fragments
of his Commentary on Genesis indicate it was more philosophical,
as reflected in his exegetical treatise in Book 4 of On First Principles (De principiis), which has a sophisticated view of the difference between historical narrative, fiction (something which could
have happened), and impossible narratives recounting things that
could never have happened.15 Book 4 specifically singles out Genesis 1-3 as an example of fictive narrative : I believe that no one
can doubt that these things are put forth by scripture in figurative expression, under which certain hidden things are indicated.
Therefore, there is no need for the reader to think that everything
presented as history in Genesis really happened ; rather, it is
easy for any one of us who wants to do it to collect from the holy
scriptures things that were written as actually done (facta), but
which are better and more reasonably judged not to have happened according to history.16 This view seems to indicate that the
founding father of Christian exegesis went beyond Philo in thinking that much of the narrative of the beginning of Genesis was
figurative, not just the story of Paradise.
Despite Origen, the main trajectory in early Christian exegesis,
both in East and West, was uncomfortable with advancing a completely spiritual reading of Genesis in which everything set out in
the first three chapters, was literal only in senses (1) and (2) above
and in which there was no real historia of temporal events. Hence,
many patristic Genesis commentaries were of a mixed character,
14 For a recent overview, Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings. Ancient Christian
Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids : Baker Academic,
2008). For select texts, Andrew Louth, Ancient Christian Commentary on
Scripture. Old Testament I. Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2001).
15 Origen, De principiis 4.2.9, as found in Origenes Werke. De Principiis, ed.
Paul Koetschau (Leipzig : Hinrichs, 1913. GCS Origenes 5), 321-23.
16 Origen, De principiis 4.3.1 (GCS Origenes 5 :324.18-25) : equidem nullum arbitror dubitare quod figurali tropo haec ab scriptura proferantur, quo
per haec quaedam mystica indicentur. [P]erfacile est omni volenti congregare de scripturis sanctis quae scripta quidem tamquam facta, non tamen
secundum historiam conpetenter et rationabiliter fieri potuisse credenda sunt.


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accepting some elements of historicity, but, like Philo, often mixing the philosophically-literal with spiritual/allegorical readings of
some passages, particularly with regard to the account of Paradise
and the Fall. A brief overview will give some sense of the variety.
Basil of Caesareas nine Homilies on Genesis (Homiliae in Genesim) composed probably in Lent of 366 C.E. are an example
of a more literal view.17 Basil does not set out his own theory of
exegesis directly. He is primarily interested in refuting the errors
of Greek cosmology and the Manichaeans on the basis of Genesis,
which he, like Philo, takes as the best philosophical account of
how God produced the world. (This does not prevent him from
making use of Greek philosophy when it suits his argument.) In
Homily 9 he makes clear his literalist intent when he says that he
knows the laws of allegory, but is pursuing the common meaning of the Scriptures and will avoid the idle speculations of the
philosophers.18 But Basil also recognizes that some passages have
deeper meanings. In commenting on the plural in Genesis 1 :26
(Let us make man in our image), for example, he condemns the
Jews for not recognizing that the Second Person was being indicated mystically, but not yet clearly revealed19 Basil seems to
be saying that while the nature of the Son was still hidden before
the Incarnation, the Jews should at least have been troubled by
the use of the plural in this passage. In this same homily Basil
promised to say more about what it means for humans to be created in Gods image and likeness, a promise he did not fulfill, but
which served as the excuse for his brother Gregory of Nyssa to
write his exegetical treatise On the Making of Man (De hominis
opificio) of ca. 380.20
17 Basils nine Homiliae in Genesim were translated into Latin by Eustathius about 440 and were well known in the Latin West. For an edition,
Basile de Csare. Homlies sur lHexamron, ed. Stanislas Giet (Paris : ditions du Cerf, 1949. SC 16). There is a translation by Agnes Clark Way, Saint
Basil. Exegetic Homilies (Washington, DC : Catholic University, 1963).
18 Basil, Homiliae in Genesim 9.1 (ed. Giet, SC 16 : 478-80 ; trans., 35-36).
For another attack on useless allegories, see Hom. 3.9.
19 Basil, Homilia 9.6 (SC 16 : 514-16 ; trans., 147). Basil also uses a number
of moral, or tropological, readings of details of the Genesis narrative ; e.g.,
Hom. 5.6 and 8, and Hom. 7.3 and 5.
20 The best current edition of Gregory of Nyssas De hominis opificio is still
that found in PG 44 :123-256. There is an English version by H. A. Wilson,

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



Gregorys work is a tour-de-force of philosophical interpretation

of the Genesis account of humanitys creation, one emphasizing,
like Philo, the pre-existence of things in the divine mind, an issue
that was not a focus of interest for Basil.21 The overtly philosophical character of Gregorys work, which was later translated into
Latin by Eriugena, appears in the prologue, where he says his
effort will be to fit together, according to the explanation of
Scripture and to that derived from reasoning, those statements
concerning God which seem, by a kind of necessary sequence, to
be in opposition22 For Gregory even the historical facts of the
narrative of Genesis 1-3, such as the creation and order of the
animals, were intended by Moses to reveal a hidden doctrine
and secretly deliver wisdom concerning the soul.23 His account of
the dual creation of humanity in Chapter 16.5-10 is based on the
difference between the a-temporal creation of man in the image
of God mentioned in Genesis 1 :26 and the historical existence
of humanity in its differentiation into male and female of Genesis 1 :27, another example of how a philosophical argument finds
an exegetical hook in the narrative.24 Second only to Augustine,
Gregory was Eriugenas major source for interpreting Genesis 1-3.

On the Making of Man, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library
of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Volume V (Grand Rapids :
Eerdmans, 1976), 387-427. On the sources and teaching of the work, Jean
Laplace, Introduction, in Grgoire de Nysse. La creation de lhomme (Paris :
ditions du Cerf, 2002. 2nd ed.), 5-77.
21 Basil does mention the condition older than the birth of the world and
proper to the supermundane powers, one beyond time, in Hom. 1.5 (SC 16 :
104 ; trans., 9), but passes rapidly over it.
22 Gregory of Nyssa, De hominis opificio, Prol. (PG 44 :128B). The translation of Eriugena was edited by M. Cappuyns, Le De imagine de Grgoire
de Nysse traduit per Jean Scot rigne, Recherches de thologie ancienne et
mdivale 32 (1965) : 205-62, where this passage is found on 210). De hom.
opif. 30.33 (PG 44 :256B) speaks of Mosess mystical account of mans origin (mustikn tou Muses anthrpogonian epigenensthai). For an overview
of Gregorys exegesis, Manlio Simonetti, Exegesis, in Lucas Francisco
Mateo-Seco and Giulio Maspero, eds., The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa
(Leiden : Brill, 2010), 331-38.
23 De hom. opif. 8.4 (PG 44 :144D).
24 De hom. opif. 16.5-10 (PG 44 :181A-85D). Time, as Gregory argues in
chap. 22.4-8 (PG 44 :205B-07B), is the measure created by God to allow for


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A similar interplay between the literal-philosophical readings

and allegorical- tropological readings is found in patristic Latin
exegesis. Early in his career (ca. 375) Ambrose composed a spiritualizing homily On Paradise (De Paradiso) under the influence of
Philo and Origen, a work he later seems to have disparaged.25 This
sermon, however, was a major resource for Eriugena. Ambroses
Homilies on Genesis (Homiliae in Genesim) of ca. 387, like Basil,
are concerned with refuting the errors of the Greek philosophers,
especially about the eternity of matter or the universe, by holding
up Moses as the philosopher who gives the best account of creation.26 Nevertheless, the bishop of Milan often uses tropological
and allegorical readings relating Genesis to the church.
The creative tension between the philosophical-literal and the
tropological-allegorical readings is also found in Augustine, who
struggled throughout his life to find a balance between the two
approaches. Augustine wrote five commentaries on Genesis 1-3.27
The early On Genesis against the Manichaeans (De genesi contra
the development of humanity and the reintegration of fallen souls into the
state of universal restitution announced by Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 15 :51-52).
25 Ambroses two works on the beginning of Genesis, the De Paradiso and
the Exameron, were edited by Karl Schenkl in Sancti Ambrosii Opera. Pars
Prima. Fasciculus I (Vienna : Tempsky, 1897, CSEL 32.1), with the Exameron
on 3-261, and the De Paradiso on 267-336. There are translations in John
J. Savage, Saint Ambrose. Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel (Washington, DC : Catholic University, 1961). The background to Ambroses comment
on the opening of Genesis was studied by Jean Ppin, Thologie cosmique et
thologie chrtienne (Ambroise, Exam. 1.1.1-4) (Paris : Presses Universitaires de
France, 1964). The reading of the Fall in De Paradiso, cap. 2, is deeply Philonian, with Philo actually mentioned in cap. 4. Ambroses debt to Origen is
studied by Herv Savon, Ambroise lecteur dOrigne, in Luigi F. Pizzolato
and Marco Rizzi, eds., Nec Timeo Mori. Atti del Congresso internazionale di
studi ambrosiani nel XVI centenario della morte di santAmbrogio (Milan : Vita
e Pensiero, 1998), 221-34.
26 Ambroses literalist intentions can be seen, for example, In Hexaemeron,
Hom. 3, cap. 4 (17), in discussing the heaven of heavens and the firmament as things of the world.
27 For an overview of Augustine on Genesis, Gilles Pelland, Cinq tudes
dAugustin sur le dbut de la Gense (Paris-Montral : Descle-Bellarmin,
1972). See also Marie-Anne Vannier, Creatio, Conversio, Formatio chez
S. Augustin (Fribourg : ditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1997). Roland
J. Teske, Genesis Accounts of Creation, in Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages. An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1999), 379-

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



Manichaeos, ca. 388-89) is mostly literal in the first book and figurative in the second, such as in its view (like Gregory of Nyssa)
that sexual differentiation was the result of the fall. About 393
Augustine tried to write a literal commentary, but failed. The
treatment of Genesis in Books 11-13 of the Confessions (ca. 400),
however, marked a breakthrough. Here the bishop begins with a
doctrinal consideration of the meaning of creation (Bk. 11) as an
introduction to a literal-philosophical reading of Genesis 1 :1 in
Book 12, followed by an anagogical reading of Genesis 1 :1-3 in
Book 13.1-14, concluding with a treatment of Genesis 1 :3-2 :2 as a
prophetic figura of the role of the church in salvation in 13.15-38.
This remarkable interpretation helped the bishop to undertake his
great Literal Commentary on Genesis (De genesi ad litteram), composed between 401 and 415, which can be considered the supreme
example of patristic literal-philosophical readings of the first
three chapters.28 In it Augustine sets out a careful discrimination
between the philosophically-literal and the figurative readings.29
This long commentary formed the basis for the reading of the
Genesis story in Books 11-14 of the bishops City of God (De civitate
Dei) written about 417-18.
A modern reader of Augustines Literal Commentary might ask,
What is literal about a treatment that finds the Trinity, the
ideal world, the nature of time, the inner constituents of beings,
and so much more in the narrative of Genesis 1-3 ? The answer
is that Augustines literal sense is like Philos, concentrating on
the philosophical truth revealed in the words of the narrative.
This does not mean that Augustine did not accept the historicity of the narrative, even with regard to the account of Paradise.
In City of God 13.21 he says : Some people refer to intelligible
matters the whole of the Paradise account in which the first peo81, argues that the late treatise (ca. 419-21) Contra adversarium legis et philosophorum constitutes a sixth commentary on Genesis.
28 The De genesi ad litteram appears in PL 34 :245-486, but the best modern edition is that of Joseph Zycha, Aurelii Augustini Opera. De Genesi ad
litteram (Vienna : Tempsky, 1894 ; CSEL 28.1), 1-435. There is a translation
with extensive notes and bibliography in John Hammond Taylor, St. Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols. (New York : Newman Press, 1982).
29 For example, Augustine accepts both a literal and a figurative reading
of Genesis 1-3, as he notes in De gen. ad litt. 1.1.1. and 1.17.24. He also lays
down principles for a competent literal reading in 1.19-21.


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ple, the parents of the human race, are said to have existed by
the truth of the holy scripture. He, however, does not take this
path. 30 Rather, he considers the account as both historical and as
prophetic indications foreshadowing things to come (prophetica
indicia praecedentia futurorum). After providing a number of spiritual readings, Augustine concludes his discussion with the axiom :
These interpretations and whatever others can be conveniently
expressed about understanding Paradise in a spiritual way may
be put forth without anyone prohibiting them, as long as the most
firm truth of their history as confirmed by the story of the events
done is believed.31 Augustine, therefore, insisted on the historical
reality of Paradise and the story of the Fall.
Augustines insistence on both literal-historical and figurative
readings of Genesis 1-3 remained basic in the early Middle Ages.32
Many of the details of his readings were also formative for medieval exegetes, but there was a tendency towards a growing historical literalism regarding Genesis 1-3, as can be seen in the case of
Bedes popular In principium Genesis (On the Beginning of Genesis)
written about 720. 33 Bede breaks with Augustine, and indeed, the
tradition going back to Philo, by taking the six days of Genesis
1 as real periods of twenty-four hours, as well as, for example,
interpreting the heaven of Genesis 1 :1 (In principio creavit Deus
caelum et terram) as a place, not the heaven we see, but the higher
heaven where the angels dwell. 34 Such a literalizing tendency is

30 De civitate dei 13.21, in Sancti Aurelii Augustini Episcopi De Civitate Dei,

ed. B. Dombart, 2 vols. (Leipzig : Teubner, 1888), 1 :585.
31 De civitate dei 13.21 (ed., 1 :586) : Haec et si qua alia commodius dici
possunt de intelligendo spiritaliter paradiso nemine prohibente dicantur, dum
tamen et illius historiae veritas fidelissima rerum gestarum narratione commendata credatur. See also De gen. ad litt. 8.1.1.
32 On Latin exegesis after Augustine, Thomas OLoughlin, Teachers and
Code-Breakers. The Latin Genesis Tradition, 430-800 (Turnhout : Brepols, 1999).
33 For an edition, Bedae Venerabilis Opera. Pars II. Opera Exegetica 1, ed.
C. W. Jones (Turnholt : Brepols, 1967. CCSL 118A). There is a translation
and study in On Genesis. Bede, by Calvin B. Kendall (Liverpool : Liverpool
University Press, 2008).
34 On heaven as the place of the angels, In Gen. 1.2ab (CCSL 118A : 4-5 ;
trans., 69-70) ; on day as a twenty-four hour period, In Genesim 1.5 (CCSL
118A : 9-10 ; trans., 75). At the beginning of his commentary, Bede warns

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



also evident in many of the Carolingian commentators, 35 except,

of course, for Eriugena. The Irishmans navigation of the treacherous waters of Genesis 1-3 was, therefore, swimming against the
currents of his time.
Eriugena on Genesis 1-336
What is remarkable about Eriugenas reading of the early chapters of Genesis in Periphyseon is not only its innovative interpretation of Creation, Paradise, and the Fall, but also its rooting
in a consistent theory of exegesis, though one not expressed in a
systematic handbook of interpretation, as we find in Origen and
Augustine. 37 Eriugena, however, was not just an original theoretician. His lengthy exposition of the Genesis text reveals him to
be a skillful player of the exegetical game. The Irishman remarks
on the necessity for creativity in the work of spiritual exegesis
in his Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy (Expositiones in Ierarchiam Coelestem) of Dionysius. And thus theology, he says, like
a kind of poetry conforms holy scripture to our minds resolve by
made up representations (fictis imaginationibus) and leads us from
external bodily senses like an imperfect childhood into the perfect
knowledge of intelligible things as into the mature age of the inteagainst abandoning the literal sense by too quickly seeking the allegorical (In
Gen. 1.1 [CCSL 118A : 3-4]).
35 There are at least seven other ninth-century commentaries on Genesis : (1) Alcuin, Interrogationes et responsiones in Genesim (PL 100 :515-66) ; (2)
Alcuin (Ps.-Augustine), De Trinitate et de Genesi quaestiones 23 (PL 42 :117176) ; (3) Angelome of Luxeuil, Commentarius in Genesim (PL 115 :102-244) ;
(4) Claude of Turin (Ps.-Eucherius), Commentarius in Genesim (PL 50 :8931048) ; (5) Ps.-Bede, Expositio in primum librum Mosis (PL 91 :189-286) ; (6)
Ps.-Bede, De sex dierum creatione (PL 93 :207-34) ; (6) Remigius of Auxerre
( ?), Commentarius in Genesim (PL 131 :51-134) ; and (7) Rabanus Maurus,
Commentarius in Genesim (PL 107 :439-670).
36 Eriugenas treatment of Genesis 1-3 has often been investigated ; see
especially Ren Roques, Gense I, 1-3 chez Jean Scot Erigne, in In Principio, 173-212 ; reprinted in Roques, Libres sentiers vers lrignisme (Rome :
Edizioni dellAteneo, 1975), 131-94.
37 On Eriugena as a biblical exegete, see the essays in Gerd van Riel, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy, eds., Iohannes Scottus Eriugena. The Bible and
Hermeneutics (Leuven : University Press, 1996). In what follows I will make
use of some themes developed in my essay in this volume, The Originality
of Eriugenas Spiritual Exegesis (55-80).


bernard mcginn

rior person.38 The need for creativity in the practice of exegesis

is rooted in the surplus, superabundance, we might even say saturation of meaning in the Bible as the word of God. Augustine had
spoken of scriptures mira profunditas ; Eriugena uses the image
of the peacocks tail. Taking note of the different interpretations
of Genesis 1 :20 in Periphyseon 4, he says : There are many ways,
indeed an infinite number, of interpreting the scriptures, just as in
one and the same feather of a peacock, and even in a single small
portion of the feather, we see a marvelously beautiful variety of
innumerable colors.39 The interpreters art therefore demands
constant attention and frequent improvisation ; those who stick to
one kind of move or play are bound to stumble badly. At the end
of Book 5, for example, he says : Error and extreme difficulty
in interpretation are experienced by those who adopt one and the
same species of exposition without allowing for transition to various figurations (absque ullo transitu in diuersas figurationes). For
the text of holy scripture is all interrelated and is a tissue of indirect and oblique allusions worthy of Daedalus.40
Among the puzzles of Eriugenas lengthy navigation of Genesis is why it even exists, that is, why the philosophical and analytical account of the four species of the genus natura that was
apparently Eriugenas original intention in setting out to write the
Periphyseon morphed into the long reading of Genesis in Books 2
38 Iohannis Scoti Eriugenae. Expositiones in Ierarchiam Coelestem II, 1, CCCM
31 : 24.146-51 : ita theologia, ueluti quaedam poetria, sanctam scripturae
fictis imaginationibus ad consultum nostri animi et reductionem a corporalibus sensibus exterioribus, ueluti ex quadam imperfecta pueritia, in rerum
intelligibilium perfectam cognitionem, tamquam in quamdam interioris
hominis grandeuitatem conformat. Peter Dronke, Theologia velut quaedam
poetria : quelques observations sur la function des images potiques chez
Jean Scot, in Jean Scot rigne et lhistoire de la philosophie (Paris : CNRS,
1975), 243-52, considers this passage primarily in relation to Johns poetic
39 Periphyseon 4.749C (CCCM 164 :13). The theme of the infinite significations of scripture is a constant in Eriugena ; e.g., 560A, 690C, etc. This does
not conflict with Eriugenas claim that although the formulations of scripture
are many, the understanding they lead to is one and uniform insofar as it
brings us to beatitude : Quamuis enim formationes diuine scripture varie sint
ac multiformes sepissime confuse, intellectus tamen earum simplex est et uniformis. (In Coelestem Ierarchiam 4.1 [CCCM 31 : 66]).
40 Periphyseon 5.1010B (CCCM 165 :210).

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



to 5, an exegesis that, while never abandoning the analysis of the

four species of natura, gives the work a distinct flavor and mode of
exposition.41 Why the switch to Genesis ? Perhaps the Irish scholars reading in Eastern and Western Fathers brought him to the
realization that a complete treatment of natura/physis could only
be achieved on the basis of the kind of concordance between ratio
and scriptural expositio that Gregory of Nyssa argued for at the
beginning of the De hominis opificio. One can also wonder if Eriugena may have been dissatisfied with the creeping literalism found
in contemporary readings of Genesis.42 In any case, the Irishman
shows himself deeply conversant with the main expositors of the
Hexaemeron, especially Basil (29 uses), Ambrose (36 uses), Gregory of Nyssa (86 uses), and Augustine (204 uses).43 His lengthy
probing of hexaemeral issues demonstrates a strategy of trying
41 On the four stages of the evolution of Periphyseon as a work-always-inprogress, see Jeauneau, Introduction, Periphyseon 1 :xi-xv, and lxxxii-vi.
Bk. 1 deals with the natura creans and non creata, while Bk. 2 deals with
natura creans et creata, that is, the primordial causes. The commentary on
the Hexaemeron begins in Bk. 2 at 545B. Bk. 3 was to deal with cosmology,
that is, the created universe (natura creata et non creans), but over half of it
still treats the primordial causes. Bk. 4, which was meant to treat God as
the goal of the return process (natura nec creans nec creata), considers human
nature, which belongs both to species 2 and 3, so that it is left for Bk. 5 to
take up the actual return, reditus. Eriugenas fourfold analysis has often been
thought to take its root in Augustine, specifically in De civitate dei 5.9.4 (ed.
Dombart 1 :207), but Jeauneau (ed. 1 :3 note) points out that it is actually
closer to the fourfold division of number found in Philo, De opificio mundi
XXXIII.99 (Loeb, 78), and Martianus Capella, De nuptiis VII.738.
42 Eriugena does not cite any early medieval hexaemeral commentators,
not even Bedes In Genesim, though he uses other works of Bede.
43 The Index Auctorum in Jeauneaus Periphyseon 5, CCCM 165 : 891952, gives the following tally of direct and indirect uses : (1) Ambrose, De Paradiso, 22 with 19 in Periphyseon 4 ; In Hexaemeron 14 with 9 in Periphyseon
3 ; (2) Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichaeos, 10 ; De Gen. ad litt. lib. imperfectus, 4 ; Confessiones 12-13, 13 ; De Gen. ad litt., 135 ; De Civ. Dei 11-14,
42 with 24 in Periphyseon 4 ; (3) Gregory of Nyssa, De imagine, 86, with
13 in Periphyseon 3, 32 in Periphyseon 4, and 12 in Periphyseon 5 ; and Basil,
Homiliae in Hex., 29 with 21 in Periphyseon 3. At the outset of the hexaemeral commentary in Periphyseon 2 (545C ; CCCM 162 :28) Eriugena notes
how almost all commentators have had something to say on the first verses :
Quo in loco omnes sanctae scripturae expositores ingenii sui acumen exercuerunt diuersisque intelligentiae modis quid caeli nomine quid terrae propheta,
immo etiam sanctus spiritus per prophetam uoluit significari exposuerunt.


bernard mcginn

to manufacture, or contrive, a consensus (consensum machinari,

804CD) among his various conflicting authorities.44 Acutely aware
of the gap between the more literal interpreters such as Basil,
Epiphanius, and even at times Augustine, on the one hand, and
the spiritualizing Greeks and Ambrose in his De Paradiso on the
other, Eriugena adopted a policy of exegetical laissez-faire, three
times citing Romans 14 :5 in his defense : unusquisque in suo sensu
abundet (Let each one abound in his own understanding).45 Thus,
he frequently allows a literal understanding advanced by one or
the other of the Fathers as possible, but prefers a spiritual reading
as more fitting and probable.46 Only rarely does he become more
assertive, as at the beginning of Book 5 when he advises carnal
readers of the Paradise account to turn at once to the spiritual
meaning which is taught by the truth, for that is the one and only
way of penetrating the approaches to the mystical writings.47
Eriugenas introduction of this long and winding commentary
on Genesis into his theoretical exposition of the four species of
natura starts rather abruptly. Book 2 begins where Book 1 left off,
recalling the four species of natura (523D-29C). Then the Irishman
introduces the fivefold division of reality from Maximus the Confessor for the first time (529C-45B), discussing not only the return
to God, but also a number of issues about the Fall and sexual differentiation. Returning to the question of the primordial causes,
Nutritor suddenly announces, I consider that we should take the


On consensum machinari, see Giulio dOnofrio, The Concordia of Augustine and Dionysius : Toward a Hermeneutic of the Disagreement of Patristic
Sources in John the Scots Periphyseon, in Willemien Otten and Bernard
McGinn, eds., Eriugena East and West (Notre Dame : University of Notre
Dame, 1994), 115-40.
45 Rom. 14 :5 is cited three times in defense of exegetical liberty : 814A,
816D, and 1022C. See also 860A : Sed eligat quis quod sequatur. At the outset
of the hexaemeral commentary Eriugena notes that he does not want to judge
between conflicting patristic authorities (548D-49A ; CCCM 162 :32).
46 Many texts, especially in Book 4, display Eriugenas willingness to
allow a literal reading even when the spiritual is judged superior : for example, 775B, 781CD, 813D-14A, 818A, 829AB, 833A, 841BC, 844A, 856C-57A,
and 859B-60C.
47 Periphyseon 5 (862A ; CCCM 165 :4) : et ad spirituales intellectus, quos
ueritas edocet, promptus accedat, qua una et sola uia mysticarum litterarum
penetrantur adyta (see also 863A).

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



beginning of our reasoning from the divine oracles [i.e., the scriptures], and the faithful Alumnus responds, Nothing would be
more proper. For it is necessary that every inquiry of truth should
take its beginning from them.48 At least two things seem to be at
work here. First, Eriugenas abiding confidence that true philosophy and true religion are at heart one and the same ;49 and second,
his sense that a universal account embracing cosmology/physics,
anthropology, and theology could not be complete and convincing
unless it was based on scripture, especially Genesis 1-3 read in the
light of the entire Bible. In other words, exegesis is metaphysics
and metaphysics must be biblically based.
This conviction is founded on the essential principles of Eriugenas interpretive theory, both the general principles found throughout his works, as well as those specifically invoked during his navigation of Genesis. The conformity between natura and scriptura is
evident in the discussion of the isomorphism of the four elements
of the created world and the four senses of scripture in Chapter 14
of the Homily on John (Omilia in Iohannem), in which historia is
like earth in the middle, ethica is the surrounding waters, physica
is the air, and theologia is the aether and fiery heat of the empyreum of heaven.50 This is Eriugenas version of the ancient theme,
mediated to him by Maximus the Confessor, of the two books that
reveal Godthe book of nature and the book of scripture. In his
Homily on John he follows tradition in emphasizing that the need
for the book of scripture is a consequence of the Fall that prevented humanity from properly reading the book of nature,51 but
it is interesting that in other appeals to the reciprocity of nature
and scripture this note falls away as he stresses natura and scriptura as equal manifestations of the incarnate Christhis two feet,

48 Periphyseon 2 (545B ; CCCM 162 :27). Eriugena had already made the
same point in Periphyseon 1 (509A ; CCCM 161 :92) : Sanctae siquidem scripturae in omnibus sequenda est auctoritas
49 The relation of recta ratio and auctoritas is one of the constant themes of
Periphyseon, and, indeed, of all Eriugenas writings. For some passages, see
511BC, 513BC, 723A-24B, 749C, 772B, 781CD, 846A, 890B, 924A, etc.
50 Homila in Iohannem 14, in Jean Scot. Homlie sur le Prologue de Jean, ed.
douard Jeauneau (Paris : Cerf, 1969 ; SC 151), 270-72.
51 Homilia in Iohannem 11 (SC 151, 254-56).


bernard mcginn

his double footwear, his two vestments, as one text puts it.52 The
same message is expressed towards the end of the Periphyseon
where he speaks of the man Christ filled with the sevenfold
grace of the Holy Spirit and thickened into flesh by the full-bodiedness of the letter [of scripture] and of visible nature (homo
Christus septena sancti spiritus gratia plenus, uel certe pinguedine
litterae uisibilisque naturae incrassatus). He goes on : For in these
two, in the letter and the visible nature, the corporeality of Christ
is manifest, since it is in them and through them that he is perceived, insofar as he is perceived.53 The reditus, or return, that is,
the realization of human destiny, is achieved by recta ratio investigating both the created universe and the scriptures. In this sense,
exegesis does not so much teach about the return, as effect it.54 The
practice of exegesis, therefore, is philosophical in the etymological
sense of the worda true love of wisdom. It is what makes possible the transitus from the world of the third species of natura to
the fourth, the unknown God.
Eriugena was no enemy of the literal sense, that is, the letter,
[or] what the history says was done.55 The letter is not some
kind of obstacle to be overcome. Like all Christian exegetes, he
holds that much of what the Bible says is historical fact, though
the events described also have deeper spiritual meanings.56 In his
long discussion of the last things in Periphyseon 5, the Irishman
says that the biblical history does not lie and he blames interpreters who do violence to the littera.57 In commenting on the sec52 On natura and scriptura as calceamentum, habitus, and pedes, see the Commentarius in Evangelium Iohannis 1.29, in Jean Scot. Commentaire sur lvangile
de Jean, ed. douard Jeauneau (Paris : Cerf, 1972. SC 180), 154-56 ; see also
Exposit. in Ier. Coel. 1 (CCCM 31, 15). On this theme, Willemien Otten, The
Parallelism of Nature and Scripture : Reflections on Eriugenas Incarnational
Exegesis, in Iohannes Scottus Eriugena. The Bible and Hermeneutics, 81-102.
53 Periphyseon 5 (1005B ; CCCM 165 :203) : His enim duobus, littera uidelicet et uisibili creatura, ueluti quaedam corpulentia Christi apparet, quoniam
in eis et per eas intelligitur, quantum intelligi potest.
54 See Willemien Otten, The Dialectic of the Return in Eriugenas Periphyseon, Harvard Theological Review 84 (1991) : 399-421, especially 420.
55 Comm. in Io. 3.5 (SC 180, 228) : littera est quod sancta narrat historia.
56 Periphyseon 4 (818AC ; CCCM 164 :109)
57 On scripture not lying (935D ; CCCM 165 :106), and for attacks on those
who do violence to the letter regarding the Judgment (996B ; CCCM 165 :189).

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



ond day of creation (Gen. 1 :6-8) in Periphyseon 3 (693C-98C) he

announces that the Fathers have said enough about the allegorical-tropological sense of this day, so that we are attempting,
under Gods guidance, only to say a few things about the creation of things made according to the historical sense (secundum
historiam pauca disserere).58 Eriugenas use of the literal sense in
dealing with the hexaemeral account, however, like that of Philo
and his Christian successors, is philosophically literal. The six
days are not twenty-four hour periods, but are appropriate metaphors for revealing the order of the created cosmos. Hence, the
littera and physica are closely allied : two sides of the same coin.
Defending his account of the first three days as non-allegorical a
little later in Book 3, he appeals to the fourfold division of wisdom (practical, physical, theological, and logical), arguing, In
all these instances we are not dealing with allegory but only the
bare physical consideration, adapting the names of sensible things
to signify invisible things in accordance with a very well-established usage of divine scripture.59
Eriugena also believed that some parts of Genesis 1-3 could not
be taken literally as teaching philosophical cosmology, but had to
be read theologically-allegorically as revealing truths about God
and Gods image, homo. Two other essential principles of his exegetical theory are helpful for determining the shift from the level
of historia-physica to allegoria-theologia. The first is the priority of
negation in speaking about God. For Eriugena the fundamental
teaching of recta ratio is that we cannot know God as God really
is. Reason, says Eriugena quoting Dionysius, is wholly concerned with suggesting and proving by the most accurate investigations into the truth that nothing can be properly said about
God, who is better known by not knowing and of whom igno-


Periphyseon 3 (693C ; CCCM 163 :107).

Periphyseon 3 (705D-707B ; CCCM 163 :125-27, concluding) : In his ergo
omnibus nulla allegoria, sed nuda solummodo physica consideratio tractatus, mutatis sensibilium nominibus ad significanda inuisibilia frequentissimo
diuinae scripturae usu. In beginning his comment on Gen. 1 :24, Eriugena
says that this difficult text will demand an alta physica theoria (763C ; CCCM
164 :32).


bernard mcginn

rance is the proper knowledge.60 What this means in practice is

that many aspects of the Bible, especially those speaking about
God, that are presented literally as affirmative descriptions and
historia must yield to the priority of negative theology. This radical claim about biblical accounts is set out in Periphyseon 1, where
Eriugena also pays tribute to the supreme authority of the sacred
text : The authority of holy scripture must be in all things followed because the truth dwells there as in a retreat of its own
But then he continues, it is not to be believed as a book that
always uses verbs and nouns in their proper sense when it teaches
about the divine nature, but it employs certain likenesses and
transfers in various ways the meanings of the verbs and nouns out
of condescension for our weakness and to encourage by uncomplicated teaching our senses which are still untrained and childish.61
The application of the apophatic imperative to biblical narratives and their historicity is illustrated by the distinction Eriugena makes between mysterium or sacramentum on the one hand,
and symbolum on the other. A mystery (allegoria et facti et dicti) is
an event that actually did happen in historical time, but that has
a further spiritual significance, such as Mosess construction of the
tabernacle, traditionally interpreted as applying to the church or
the soul. A symbolum is an allegoria dicti et non facti, that is, a nar60 Periphyseon 1 (510B ; CCCM 161 :94) : Ratio uero in hoc uniuersaliter
studet ut suadeat certisque ueritatis inuestigationibus approbet nil de deo
proprie posse dici, quoniam superat omnem intellectum omnesque sensibiles
intelligibilesque significationes, qui melius nesciendo scitur, cuius ignorantia uera est sapientia. The two quotations are from the Dionysian Epistula
1 (PG 3 :1065AB). The priority of not-knowing is a constant theme in Periphyseon ; e.g., 597D-98B, 757D-58A, 771BD, 951AC, 1010D, etc.
61 Periphyseon 1 (509A ; CCCM 161 :92-93) : Sanctae siquidem scripturae in
omnibus sequenda est auctoritas, quoniam in ea ueluti quibusdam suis secretis sedibus ueritas possidet. Non tamen ita credendum est ut ipsa semper
propriis uerborum seu nominum signis fruatur diuinam nobis naturam insinuans, sed quibusdam similitudinibus uariisque translatorum uerborum seu
nominum modis utitur infirmitati nostrae condescendens nostrosque adhuc
rudes infantilesque sensus simplici doctrina erigens. Eriugena does not cite
scripture here, but his frequent appeal to biblical texts stressing the unknowability of God demonstrates that he was convinced both reason and scripture taught the same thing. Among his prooftexts were Phil. 4 :7 (pax dei
quae superat omnem sensum), used 9x ; Rom. 11 :34 and 1 Cor. 2 :16 (quid enim
cognoscit sensum Domini), 6x ; and Jn. 1 :18 (Deum nemo vidit unquam), 2x.

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



rative that never actually happened, but that reveals a spiritual

truth, for example, the text from Psalm 113 :4 that speaks of The
mountains rejoicing like rams, and the parables of Jesus.62 For
the Irishman symbols are to be preferred to mysteries, because
everything that happens by way of mystery eventually will be
subsumed into the eternal truths that are more clearly set forth in
the symbols. This distinction will have major relevance for Eriugenas reading of Genesis 2-3.
It is not possible here to follow the details of Eriugenas complete reading of Genesis, but a few remarks about the structure of
his account and some of its central features will help highlight his
place in the history of hexaemeral exegesis.63 The Irishmans navigation of Genesis 1-3 is anything but straightforward, nor should
we expect it to be. After Nutritor and Alumnus agree to launch out
into the dangerous sea of Genesis they engage in a brief discussion
of heaven and earth as the primordial causes (545B-55A),64 before
turning to a detailed account of Trinitarian theology (555A-620A)
inspired by the fact that Genesis 1 :1-2 was traditionally read as
revealing creation to be the work of the three persons, because the
Father (deus) creates in the Son (in principio) and the Holy Spirit
appears in the passage spiritus dei ferebatur super aquas (Gen. 1 :2a).
In Book 3, Eriugena returns to Genesis, not to the narrative itself,
but to a theological prolegomena relating to the notion of creation,
specifically dealing with the primordial causes, the notion of participation, and the status of nihil (619A-90B). The second part of
Book 3 takes up the actual work of exegeting the first five days
(690C-742B), an interpretation Eriugena specifically characterizes as physica, that is, cosmological, as noted above. Tellingly,
62 The most important discussion is from the Comm. in Ev. Ioh. 6.5 (SC 180,
352-56) ; see Jean Ppin, Mysteria et Symbola dans le commentaire de Jean
Scot sur levangile de Saint Jean, in John J. OMeara and Ludwig Bieler,
eds., The Mind of Eriugena (Dublin : Irish University Press, 1973), 16-30 ; and
Jeauneau, Appendice III. Allegoria Mysterium. Sacramentum. Symbolum,
in Jean Scot. Commentaire, SC 180, 397-402.
63 The commentary on Genesis 1-3, although filled with digressions in a
typically Eriugenean way, stretches from Bk. 2 (545B) to Bk. 5 (865C), taking up 320 columns of the 581 in PL 122.
64 Coelum et terra are discussed not only in 545C-55A, but again at 690C93B. There is also a treatment of eschatological texts on coelum et terra in


bernard mcginn

the Irishman distinguishes his literal-physical reading of the five

days from the literal-historical reading of the passage found in the
fourth of Basils Homilies on Genesis, excusing this as the mode of
speaking Basil adopted for his audience, whereas the bishop knew
in reality that God creates all things simultaneously and not dayby-day.65
Book 4 begins with a recapitulation of the first three books as
dealing with the first three species of natura stating that, Now we
come to the Fourth Book which starts with the work of the sixth
prophetic meditation of the creation of the universe [i.e., the sixth
day], goes on to consider the return of all things into that nature
which neither creates nor is created, and so brings our work to
its conclusion.66 Beginning from the account of man being made
in genere animali (Gen. 1 :24a),67 Eriugena wends his way through
the meaning of humanitys creation from the viewpoint of physica
before he finally ascends to the level of theologia in his long reading of Genesis 1 :26 (786A-814A). Having finally arrived at the
allegorical-theological level, the Irishman spends the remainder of
Book 4 (814A-860C) on a theological reading of Genesis 2-3, the
account of Paradise and the Fall.68 Paradoxically, the account of
the Fall is really the story of our present existence, and Paradise
is a symbolum of the universal restitution of man and of all created
things in man.69 Book 5 then begins by completing the exegesis of
65 Periphyseon 3 (707B-09B ; CCCM 163 :127-29). There is a similar passage
excusing the accommodated literalism of the Fathers in Periphyseon 5 (986B87A ; CCCM 165 :176-77).
66 Periphyseon 4 (743C ; CCCM 164 :4) : Quartus hic ab operibus sextae
propheticae contemplationis de conditione uniuersitatis inchoans, reditum
omnium in eam naturam quae nec creat nec creatur considerans finem constituet.
67 On this passage, Jean Ppin, Humans and Animals : Aspects of Scriptural
Reference in Eriugenas Anthropology, in Eriugena East and West, 179-206.
68 Periphyseon 4 (829B-30A ; CCCM 164 :125) provides a handy summary
of the eight main spiritual readings of Gen. 2 :1-3 :13 : (1) Paradise is human
nature made in Gods image ; (2) the fountain is Christ ; (3) the four rivers are
the cardinal virtues ; (4) the tree of life, or All Tree, is the Incarnate Word ;
(5) the tree of mixed knowledge is the desire of the carnal senses ; (6) the man
is the mind presiding over human nature ; (7) the woman is sense knowledge ;
and (8) the serpent is forbidden pleasure.
69 The structure of the remainder of Book 4 is as follows : (a) What is Paradise ? (Gen. 2 :5-21 in 814A-33B) ; (b) Paradise and the Fall (Gen. 2 :22-3 :11

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



Genesis 2-3 with an interpretation of Adam and Eve being cast

out of Paradise (859D-65C), and continues with a long analysis of
the reditus in which elements of the Paradise account, especially
Christ as the tree of life, come back from time-to-time.70 In this
book Eriugena also uses a number of New Testament parables as
symbola of the final state of man and the universe.71
The details of Eriugenas bold exegesis of the Hexaemeron have
been the subject of many investigations.72 Here I only want to ask
what enabled Eriugena to interpret protology as eschatology, that
is, to insist that what is presented as an account of the beginning in Genesis 2-3 is really a revelation of the end.73 Although
exegetes beginning with Philo had insisted that Genesis 2 and 3
cannot be interpreted as history, Eriugena is remarkable in the
way he reduces the story of Paradise to a symbolum of eternal
truths that from our perspective are still to come.74 The fundamental ground for this approach rests in the nature of the Bible as
a book that must express the eternal, a-temporal, reality of God

in 833C-45A) ; and (c) What to make of the accusations, punishments, and

curses in Gen. 3 (Gen. 3 :12-19 in 845A-60C).
70 On Christ as the tree of life in Book 5, see 919AC, 979AC, 981A, 982A,
and 1015AB.
71 The New Testament passages used begin with the story of the ten lepers
of Lk. 17 :12-19 (874AB ; symbolum or mysterium ?) ; and proceeds with the
parables of the prodigal son of Lk. 15 :11-32 (1004D-05C), the lost drachma
of Lk. 15 :8-9 (1005D), the hundred sheep of Lk. 15 :3-6 (1006A-08B), and
finally the ten virgins of Mt. 25 :1-13 (1011A-18D). On the last, see Paul
A. Dietrich and Donald F. Duclow, Virgins in Paradise : Symbolism and
Exegesis in Periphyseon V, in G.-H. Allard, ed., Jean Scot crivain (Montral-Paris : Bellarmin-Vrin, 1986), 29-49.
72 See, for example, the essay in this volume by Donald F. Duclow, The
Sleep of Adam, the Making of Eve : Sin and Creation in Eriugena.
73 The whole interpretation of Genesis 2-3 is based on this approach, which
Eriugena at times makes explicit ; e.g., Periphyseon 4 (809CD ; CCCM 164 :97) :
Nec hoc mirum, cum saepissime diuina auctoritas futura quasi iam peracta pronuntiet. See also 782CD.
74 After citing a long passage from chapter 20 of Gregory of Nyssas De
imagine, Eriugena summarizes Gregorys and his own view : Quisquis diligenter praefati theologi uerba perspexerit, nil aliud, ut opinor, in eis reperiet suaderi quam humanam naturam ad imaginem dei factam paradisi uocabulo, figuratae locutionis modo, a diuina scriptura significari (822A ; CCCM 164 :112).


bernard mcginn

in the categories of space and time.75 As Ren Roques once put it,
what distinguishes Eriugenas interpretation of Genesis 1 :1-3 (and,
I believe, the rest of his exposition of the first three chapters) is
its eternist perspective.76 From this viewpoint, verbs expressing
particular times must become fluid, just as nouns ascribing positive attributes to God must be reversed, or upended. In the case of
nouns and adjectives, Eriugena provides examples in Periphyseon
1, where he shows how we begin with calling God good, only to
realize that God is better spoken of as not-good from the perspective our limited understanding. Therefore, we eventually realize
the supremacy of eminent terms, such as hyperagathos (over-good),
as the most adequate form of predicationwords that are positive
in form, but negative in content.
A similar procedure obtains with regard to verbs, what the Irishman calls a mystica mutatio (810BC), that is, the transmutation of
verbs engineered by recta ratio functioning as the negative horizon
of God-talk. Words describing past, present, and future actions
found in the Bible must always come under scrutiny by the skilled
exegete. As Eriugena advises towards the end of Book 4 :
You ought to study thoroughly (pulchre) the text of the divine
words, which, because of our sluggishness and the carnal senses
that in the corruption of original sin subject us to space and time,
have set forth in a wonderful order very full of mystical understandings matters that were done at one and the same time without temporal intervals as if they happened in space and time
(ueluti locis temporibusque peracta).77

This strategy of verbal transitus, which also involves the transmutation of the exegete to a higher state, as already set out in
75 On time and eternity in Eriugena, see especially Periphyseon 4 (779D81D, 807D-08B, and 848B).
76 Roques, Gense 1, 1-3 chez Jean Scot rigne, 210 : une importante divergence entre Jean-Scot et la plupart de ses devanciers, en ce sens
quil propose une interpretation essentiellement terniste de Gense I, 1-3 (et
meme de Gense I, 1-5, et de lensemble du rcit des six jours).
77 Periphyseon 4 (848AB ; CCCM 164 :151) : Ubi pulchre diuinorum uerborum textum animaduertere debemus. Ea siquidem, quae simul facta sunt
absque temporalium morulorum interstitiis, propter nostrum tarditatem carnalesque sensus, quibus originali peccato corrupti locis temporibusque succumbimus, ordine quodam mirabili, mysticorum sensuum plenissimo, ueluti
locis temporibusque peracta contexuit.

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



Book 1,78 is put into practice in detail in the readings of Books

3-5, especially in Book 4. To cite just a few examples, Eriugena
argues that although the creation of man is mentioned last, he
was actually created first and all other creatures were made in
homo (781D-85C). Gods prognostic operation (prognostica operatio, 798C) understood the whole of human nature in its perfection
at once and, foreseeing sin, formed our nature with a plan of propagation suited to this state (here following Gregory of Nyssa).
Adam did not spend any past time in Paradise ; rather, very
often the divine authority speaks of the future as though it had
already happened (809D). Therefore, what scripture has to say
about the things that took place in Paradise, although they are
introduced by anticipation and as having taken place in Paradise,
are more reasonably understood to have occurred outside Paradise
and after sin (833C). Eriugena also finds exegetical hooks for
the switch in times, noting that in the second creation account
Moses uses the perfect tense (factus est homo in animam viventem,
Gen. 2 :7c), whereas in what is really the first creation account he
uses the pluperfect (plantaverat autem Dominus Deus paradisum,
Gen. 2 :8a), thus indicating the priority in dignity, not in time,
of human nature planted in eternal and paradisical bliss (834BC).
Finally, at the beginning of Book 5, in his interpretation of Gods
speech about casting Adam out of Paradise (Gen. 3 :22) lest he
perchance put forth his hand (ne forte mittat manum suum) and
take also of the Tree of Life and eat and live forever, he finds
another exegetical hook to reverse what tradition had read as a
punishment into a promise of future restoration, fixing on ne mittat as having an interrogative rather than a negative meaning in
this case, translating, May he not perchance put forth his hand
and take also of the Tree of Life ? In sum, Eriugenas reading of
Genesis, and indeed his whole biblical interpretation, rests on the
theory and the practice of an apophatic exegesis in which nouns
and verbs are often not what they seem. As a philosopher-theologian, Eriugena creates an impressive theoretical foundation for his
mode of reading the Bible ; as a philosophical exegete he puts it

78 On the transitus verborum in Periphyseon 1, see 453AB, 460C, 512C,

522B, and especially the discussion of whether God can be said to love in


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into practice. All this is in the service of a deeper reading of the

Bible, as he says in the noted prayer from the end of Book 5 : O
Lord Jesus, I ask of you no other reward, no other beatitude, no
other joy, save that I may purely understand your words that have
been inspired by your Holy Spirit without any error of a faulty
Meister Eckhart on Genesis 1-3
More than four centuries after Eriugena completed his navigation of the Hexaemeron Meister Eckhart took up the challenge.
Eckhart wrote two commentaries on the book, the second of
which also contains a sustained exposition of his theory of biblical interpretation.80 As with Eriugena, we are presented with a
puzzle : Why did Eckhart write two commentaries ? Why did he
preface the second with an exposition on how to read scripture ?
These issues are tied up with the evolution of Eckharts unfinished summa, the Opus tripartitum (Three-Part Work).
Much remains hypothetical about the dating of the Three-Part
Work and the reasons why the Dominican did not complete it. The
book was conceived of as containing a Work of Propositions (Opus
propositionum) consisting of foundational axioms for philosophical
argumentation divided into fourteen treatises, a Work of Questions
(Opus quaestionum) modeled on Thomass Summa theologiae, and
a Work of Expositions (Opus expositionum) divided into scriptural
commentaries to provide material for preaching and model sermons. Aside from the Prologues, what remains consists of six often

79 Periphyseon 5 (1010BC ; CCCM 165 :210) : O domine Iesu, nullum aliud

praemium, nullam aliam beatitudinem, nullum alium gaudium a te postulo,
nisi ut ad purum absque ullo errore fallacis theoriae uerba tua, quae per
tuum sanctum spiritum inspirata sunt, intelligam.
80 Eckhart might even be said to have written three commentaries on
Genesis, or at least Gen. 1 :1, because the Prologus generalis to the Opus tripartitum contains a sample exegesis of this verse. See Prol. gen. nn. 14-22 in
Meister Eckhart. Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke (Stuttgart : Kohlhammer, 1937- ), LW 1 :38-41. This edition is in two sections : Die deutschen Werke
(DW) and Die lateinischen Werke (LW) and will be cited by volume, page, and
line where needed. (The LW also numbers the sections of the text and these
will be given here.)

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



lengthy commentaries.81 The work may have been planned during

Eckharts first period as a master in Paris (1302-03), and parts of
it, including the first Genesis commentary, appear to have been
written from about 1305 on after his return to his home convent
at Erfurt.82
The first commentary, the Exposition on Genesis (Expositio in
Genesim), like all of Eckharts interpretations, does not treat the
text of Genesis as a continuous narrative, but considers specific
verses as auctoritates, that is, texts for investigation and preaching.83 Most of the auctoritates (forty out of seventy-six) concern the
first three chapters. Each verse is treated independently as the
basis for a mini-treatise, a procedure that allows for the development of quaestiones devoted to the analysis of themes related to
particular words and phrases, such as principium and coelum et
terram in Gen. 1 :1 (nn. 2-14), homo ut imago of Gen. 1 :26 (nn. 115-

81 For an introduction to Eckharts Latin exegesis, see Donald F. Duclow,

Meister Eckharts Latin Biblical Exegesis, in Jeremiah Hackett, ed., A
Companion to Meister Eckhart (Leiden : Brill, 2013), 321-36, as well as the
remarks in Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart (New
York : Crossroad, 2001), 22-29.
82 On the Latin writings, see the summary of Alessandra Beccarisi, The
Latin Works, in A Companion to Meister Eckhart, 85-123. Beccarisi depends
on the work of Loris Sturlese cited in the following note.
83 The Expositio Libri Genesis (hereafter Expos. Gen.) exists in four manuscripts and three forms. The earliest form is found in a ms. from the Bibliotheca Amploniana in Erfurt (E) and is edited in LW 1 :35-101. Loris Sturleses
discovery of a hitherto-unknown recension of some of Eckharts Latin works
in a ms. in the Laud collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford (L) represents a reworking and expansion of this and is edited in LW 1.2 :61-329.
Finally, the longest form, with possible additions by later hands, is found in
two mss., one in the library of Nicholas of Cusa (C) and the other at Trier
(T) and is edited in LW 1 :129-444. On the relation of these versions and the
history of the Opus tripartitum, see Loris Sturlese, Un nuovo manoscritto
delle opera latine di Eckhart e il suo significato per la riconstruzione del
testo e della storia dellOpus tripartitum, Freiburger Zeitschrift fr Philosophie
und Theologie 32 (1985) : 145-54 ; Maestro Eckhart. Tabula contentorum in
Libro parabolorum Genesis secundum ordinem alphabeti, in Scritti in onore
di Eugenio Garin (Pisa : Scuola Normale Superiore, 1987), 39-50 ; and Meister
Eckhart in der Bibliotheca Amploniana. Neues zu Datierung des Opus tripartitum, in Andreas Speer, ed., Die Bibliotheca Amploniana. Ihre Bedeutung
im Spannungsfeld von Aristotelismus, Nominalismus und Humanismus (BerlinNew York : Walter de Gruyter, 1995), 434-46.


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120),84 bonum of Gen. 1 :31 (nn. 127-141), and requievit of Gen. 2 :2

(nn. 142-79). Eckhart occasionally says that he is going to provide
a literal reading, as in his interpretation of Gen. 1 :2c (spiritus dei
ferebatur super aquas), where spirit is the air, God is the first
mover, and borne over the waters indicates the natural order of
the elements.85 Thus, the Dominican does not totally neglect the
first level of the littera. Eckharts procedure is unusual, however,
in giving little attention to the littera in the second sense, that is,
the narrative structure of the text. This is true not only of Eckharts Latin commentaries, but also of the way he treats biblical
texts in his preaching. The Dominican tends to deconstruct, even
atomize, the biblical narrative. With regard to the third level of
the littera, historical facticity, commenting on the beginning of the
Paradise story (Gen. 2 :8), Eckhart cites Augustine, John Damascene, and Jerome saying that Paradise should be interpreted
not just historically or just allegorically, but both historically
and allegorically.86 In practice, however, he shows little interest
in historical issues. When, at the end of the first section of his
commentary on Genesis 1 :1, he says, Let these points suffice for
the present regarding the literal exposition of the text (n. 14),
what he means is what Augustine meant, a philosophically-literal
Eckhart is another good example of a metaphysical exegete. In
introducing his Exposition on the Gospel of John (Expositio sancti
evangelii secundum Iohannem) he summarizes the philosophical
nature of his exegesis : In interpreting this word (i.e., Jn. 1 :1) and
everything else that follows my intention is the same as in all my
works : to explain what the holy Christian faith and the two Testaments maintain with the help of the natural arguments of the
philosophers.87 The Dominicans philosophical mode of exposition
is designed to reveal three kinds of truthsdivine, natural, and

The nature of the imago is one of the central themes of Eckharts

thought. In this treatment, the Dominican refers to a lost or unwritten section of the Opus propositionum on De imagine (n. 115 ; LW 1 :270).
85 Expos. Gen. nn. 46-48 (LW 1 :218-19) : Praemissa verba exponuntur primo
litteraliter, secundo moraliter.
86 Expos. Gen. n. 186 (LW 1 :329-30).
87 Expositio evangelii secundum Iohannem (In Io.) n. 2 (LW 3 :4) : In cuius
verbi expositione et aliorum quae sequuntur, intentio est auctoris, sicut et in

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



moral (divina-naturalia-ethica). Thus his reading of Genesis 1-3 is

based on philosophical principles regarding creation. These are set
out not only in his two commentaries on Genesis, but also in his
preaching, notably in Latin Sermon XXIII. This sermon identifies
two common errors about creation. The first is thinking that God
creates outside himself. Do not imagine, he says, that God creates heaven and earth outside himself or alongside himself in some
kind of nothing. Everything that happens in nothing, is surely
nothing By creating, God calls all things out of nothing and
from nothing into existence.88 God, says Eckhart, does not create
a principio, that is, from the Principle, but, as Genesis says, in
principio, that is, he makes all things in himself. Creation in the
Principle, i.e., in the ideal reason (ratio idealis), functioning as
what he calls the essential cause (causa essentialis), is central to
Eckharts commentaries on Genesis, and, indeed, to his thinking
in general. Nothing is outside God. Whatever existence creatures
have is in and dependent upon Gods existence, so that creatures
considered in themselves are one pure nothing, a view that was
later condemned.89 The second false position is that God created
the world and then rested as Genesis 2 :2 seems to suggest. Eckhart says that God created in such a way that he is always creating.90 Since there is no before or after in eternity, creation must
be a continuous activity (creatio continua) and it must also be an

omnibus suis editionibus, ea quae sacra asserit fides Christiana et utriusque

testamenti scriptura, exponere per rationes naturales philosophorum.
88 Sermo XXIII n. 223 (LW 4 :208) : Non est ergo imaginandum quod deus
creavit extra se et quasi iuxta se in quodam nihilo. Omne enim quod fit in
nihilo, utique fit nihil. Non ergo deus creando mundum proicit sive effundit esse rerum in nihilum, sed e converso creando vocat cuncta ex nihilo et
a nihilo ad esse. This principle is often repeated in Eckharts writings ; e.g.,
Prol. gen. n.17 (LW 1 :160) ; Expositio in Sapientiam (Expos. Sap.) n. 122 (LW
2 :459) ; Sermones et lectiones in Ecclesiasticam (In Eccli.) n. 49 (LW 2 :207) ;
Pr. 30 (DW 2 :94) ; etc. Eriugena also insists that God does not create outside
God ; e.g., Periphyseon 3 (666C-67C ; CCCM 163 :68-70).
89 On this theme, Edward Howells, Meister Eckharts Spirituality of Creation as Nothing, Eckhart Review 19 (2010) : 35-46.
90 Expos. Gen. n. 20 (LW 1 :201). Creatio continua is found throughout Eckharts works.


bernard mcginn

eternal activity (creatio aeterna).91 As a passage from his Exposition on Wisdom puts it : according to the text of Genesis 1, In
the beginning God created heaven and earth. He says created
in the past tense, in the beginning in relation to becoming. The
created thing always possesses existence and receives existence.92
To think of a time before creation is as much an error as thinking
of God resting after he had finished creating.
Underlying these transpositions of the tenses of verbs dealing
with the biblical account of creation is an important agreement
between Eriugena and Eckhart : the temporal nature of creation
is true, but only from our own limited perspective. Later in the
Exposition on Genesis, discussing Genesis 2 :2 (God rested from
all the work he had done), he says : The fact that it says had
done is not a problem. With God at one and the same time the
same thing and everything past and future both is present and
is becoming and being done, according to John 5 :17, My Father
works until now and I work.93 For Eckhart, creation properly
understood reveals the intersection of time and eternity, a situation which reaches fulfillment in the Incarnation and in our own
realization of what Eckhart, following Paul (Gal. 4 :4), called the
fullness of time (plenitudo temporis).94
91 Creatio continua et eterna was also the teaching of Erigena, as shown in
multiple passages ; e.g., 556B-57A, 639BC, 669A-70D, 674AB, 675BC, 807B,
etc. On the eternity of the world in Eriugena, Roques, Gense 1, 1-3 chez
Jean Scot, 182-87.
92 Expos. Sap. n. 292 (LW 2 :627). secundum illud Gen. 1 : in principio
creavit deus caelum et terram. Creavit inquit in praeterito, in principio
quantum ad fieri. Semper enim creatum et esse habet et esse accipit,.
93 Expos. Gen. n. 150 (LW 1 :301) : Nec obstat quod dicitur pataret. Apud
ipsum enim simul et id ipsum et praesens est et in fieri et operari omne praeteritum et futurum, secundum illud Ioh. 5 : pater meus usque modo operator,
et ego operor. The critical edition here notes the parallel to Periphyseon 3
(699D ; CCCM 163 :116) ; see also 808A. This point is important for Eckhart,
as we can see from almost identical formulation, also quoting Jn. 5 :17, in the
Prol. gen. in Op. Trip. n. 21 (LW 1 :165).
94 Eckharts views of the relation of time and eternity cannot be pursued here, especially his seminal notion of the plenitudo temporis, on which
see Alois M. Haas, Meister Eckharts Auffassung von Zeit und Ewigkeit,
Freiburger Zeitschrift fr Philosophie und Theologie 27 (1980) : 325-55 ; and
Nicholas Largier, Zeit, Zeitlichkeit, Ewigkeit. Ein Aufriss des Zeitproblems bei
Meister Eckhart und Dietrich von Freiburg (Bern : Peter Lang, 1989) ; and

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



The scholastic nature of Eckharts treatment of Genesis 1 :1 in

the Exposition (nn. 1-28) is evident in his initial posing of four
quaestiones : (1) What does it mean to create in principio ? ; (2) Why
is heaven named before earth ? ; (3) How can the one unchangeable God create many different things ? ; and (4) How can created
things have their existence from another (ab aliunde) and still possess it themselves ?95 Eckharts answer to these questions depends
on a literal-philosophical reading with some moral expositions. In
his usual fashion, he provides not just one single meaning of the
main terms under discussion (in principio-creavit-coelum et terram),
but numerous interpretations. Like Eriugena, Eckhart was convinced that there was an inexhaustible fountain of meanings in
any biblical passage.
The four questions are explored in the first part of the commentary on Genesis 1 :1 (nn. 2-14). Creation in principio means creation in the ideal reason, that is, within the Son of God as the
essential formal cause of all things (nn. 3-5). Creation takes place
in the nature of the intellect (n. 6) and in the first simple now
of eternity (n. 7). Eckhart stresses the eternity of the simple
now in which creation is always happening in several sentences,
a position later condemned as heretical in John XXIIs bull In
agro dominico. For example, article 3 of the bull hereticizes the
statement : In one and the same time in which he was God and
in which he begot his coeternal Son as God equal to himself in
all things, he also created the world.96 The second question deals
with the order and meaning of heaven and earth and allows
Time and Temporality in the German Dominican School. Outlines of Philosophical Debate between Nicholas of Strasbourg, Dietrich of Freiburg, Eckhart of Hochheim, and Ioannes Tauler, in Pasquale Porro, ed., The Medieval
Concept of Time. Studies in Scholastic Debate and its Reception in Early Modern
Philosophy (Leiden : Brill, 2001), 221-53.
95 The comment on Gen. 1 :1 is found Expos. Gen. nn. 1-28 (LW 1 :185-206),
There is a translation in Meister Eckhart. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries,
Treatises, and Defense, translated and introduced by Edmund Colledge and
Bernard McGinn (New York : Paulist Press, 1981), 82-95.
96 Expos. Gen. n. 7 (LW 1 :190) : Simul enim et semel quo deus fuit, quo
filium sibi coaeternum per omnia coaequalem deum genuit, etiam mundum
creavit. Eckhart vigorously defended his teaching on the eternity of creation, both in the hearings at Cologne and at Avignon ; see the Processus contra Magistrum Echardum n. 120 (LW 5 :290).


bernard mcginn

Eckhart to discuss the simultaneous nature of Gods creation of

all things (nn. 8-9), while the third issue, that is, how the one
God can create a diversity of creatures, leads him to explore the
nature of God as an intellectual agent immediately producing the
whole universe, which the Dominican playfully etymologizes as
uni-versum, that is, turned towards the One (nn. 10-13). Finally,
in answering the fourth question, Eckhart uses the definition of
creation as collatio esse to argue that God alone possesses existence
within himself (n. 14).97
Eckhart follows these literal-philosophical interpretations with
two brief moral readings (nn. 15-16), and then, in typical fashion,
launches into a series of thirteen further meanings of the four key
terms of the first verse, stressing both creation being within God
(n. 19) and creatio continua (n. 20). Some of these points are polemical, such as his attack on Avicennas view that God must create
the world through the first emanation, or Agent Intelligence (n.
21). He follows this section with a series of interpretations, both
moral and philosophical, of coelum et terram,98 before ending the
treatise with another characteristic theme : creation as a falling-away (casus) from the divine Oneness and therefore a metaphysical decline into duality and imperfection (nn. 26-28).99 All
these readings may be described as literal-philosophical, but later
on in the Exposition on Genesis Eckhart begins to speak of the
parabolic sense, as when he commences his comment on Genesis
18 with the words, Here you will find eight things to note under
a figure or parabolically. Eckharts use of parabola here is dependent on the Jewish philosopher-exegete, Moses Maimonides.100
97 At this point Eckhart refers the interested reader to the treatment of
Gen. 1 :1 he had already given in the Prol. gen. in Op. Trip. nn. 14-21 (LW
1 :159-165). There is a translation of this text by Armand Maurer in Master
Eckhart. Parisian Questions and Prologues (Toronto : PIMS, 1974), 87-93.
98 Expos. Gen. nn. 22-25 (LW 1 :203-05). These include : (1) heaven and
earth as heavenly and earthly gifts (n. 22) ; (2) heaven and earth as good
and evil (n. 23) ; (3) heaven and earth as active and passive and as form and
matter (n. 24) ; and (4) heaven and earth as intellectual existence and actual
existence and as the superior and inferior (n. 25).
99 In support of this Eckhart cites the Jewish philosopher, Ibn Gabirol (n. 27).
100 Expos. Gen. n. 229 (LW 1 :374). Eckharts other parabolic comments in
the Expos. Gen. include : (1) Gen. 2 :4 (erunt duo in carne una) in n. 199 (LW
1 :345-47), explicitly noting Maimonides ; (2) Gen. 15 :12 on Abrahams sleep

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



At a subsequent date, probably around 1313, Eckhart composed a second commentary on Genesis, roughly the same length
as the former.101 In this work the parabolical reading comes to the
fore, as the title the Book of the Parables of Genesis (Liber parabolorum Genesis) indicates. This work was not intended to be a part
of the Opus tripartitum and may have been the start of a second
incomplete series of commentaries under the general title, Liber
parabolurum rerum naturalium. In the prologue Eckhart sets out
his hermeneutical theory. The Dominican did not employ the
standard medieval four senses of scripture (littera-allegoria-moralis-anagogica), though he used the term allegoria occasionally. He
begins the Prologue to this second Genesis commentary by stating that after expounding the more evident sense of the Book
of Genesis in his first commentary, he now wishes to bring to
light the more hidden sense of some things contained in them in
parabolical fashion, to illuminate the theological, natural, and
moral truths hidden beneath the form and letter of the literal
sense.102 The goal, then, is to dig out some mystical understanding from what is read. None of this is unusual, but what follows
is. Eckhart subverts the traditional distinction between the literal sense and the deeper meaning when he says : Since the literal
sense is that which the author of a writing intends, and God is
the author of every holy scripture, as has been said, then every
in n. 228 (LW 1 :372-73) ; (3) Gen. 16 on Hagar and Sara in nn. 229-33 (LW
1 :374-78) ; (4) Gen. 17 :1ff. containing seven points on Abraham and circumcision and again making use of Maimonides in nn. 234-50 (LW 1 :379-93) ; and
(5) Gen. 28 :12-13 on Jacobs ladder in n. 288 (LW 1 :423), explicitly citing
Maimonides. The Liber parabolorum Genesis (Par. Gen.) n. 178 (LW 1 :648) notes
that the readings of Gen. 15, 16, and 17 of Expos. Gen. are all parabolical.
101 The commentary on Gen. 1-3 in the Expos. Gen. takes up 175 pages in
LW 1, while that in Par. Gen. is 157 pages. The Tabula auctoritatum of the Par.
Gen. lists 28 auctoritates of which 14 deal with Gen. 1-3.
102 The prologus to the Par. Gen. is found in nn. 1-7 (LW 1 :447-56). This
passage is Par. Gen. n. 1 (LW 1 :447) : Expeditis in prima editione quae dicenda
videbantur quantum ad sensum apertiorem libri Genesis intentio nostra est
in hac editione parabolorum transcurrendo aliqua loca tam huius libri quam
aliorum sacri canonis elicere quaedam sub cortice litterae parabolice contenta quantum ad sensum latentiorem.[M]eliora et uberius inquirant quantum ad divina, naturalia et moralia, latentia sub figura et superficie sensus
litteralis. I use the translation in Meister Eckhart. The Essential Sermons.,


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true sense is a literal sense.103 Here Eckhart cites the authority

of Augustine from a passage in Confessions 12.18, where the bishop
allowed that meanings not directly intended by Moses, the human
author of Genesis, might still be true, because God is the author
of all truth. But Augustine did not determine the status of these
readings, that is, whether they were to be considered as literal or
allegorical. Eckhart goes further by claiming that true spiritual
readings have become part of a new malleable and fecund littera
comprising the fundamental truths about things divine (e.g., the
Trinity), natural (e.g., creation), and ethical (e.g., the universal
principles of right action).
The Dominican notes that philosophers like Plato, some poets,
many texts of the Old and the New Testament, as well as Jesuss
parables, demonstrate the legitimacy of teaching philosophical
truths under a metaphor of made-up stories (sub metaphora fabularum). This would seem to indicate that parabolae are fictive narratives, but in practice, as we can see from the many historical
accounts that are treated as parables, Eckhart can use almost any
scriptural passage as a parabola. This is confirmed by what comes
next in the Prologue : his three preliminary remarks for understanding the Book of Parables. These concern not the truth that is
taught, but the mode of presenting the truth, that is, the contrast
between teaching parabolice and teaching demonstrative. Eckhart
highlights the philosophical character of his exegesis when he says
that his commentaries do not intend to prove the divine, natural
and ethical truths revealed by parables in the Bible, but rather
to show the agreement between these truths and what is proven
in demonstrative philosophical fashion in the Book of Propositions
and Book of Questions (nn. 4-6). Hence, he will follow a triple
procedure in the Book of Parables. First, he will provide a literal
interpretation of the text (the first sense of littera) ; then summarize the truths hidden in parabolical fashion, and finally give a
more extensive explanation of the nature and properties of the
divine, natural, and ethical truths hidden under the parable or the
surface of the letter (n. 7). Once again, the narrative and histor-

103 Par. Gen. n. 2 (LW 1 :449) : Cum ergo sit sensus etiam litteralis, quem
auctor scripturae intendit, deus autem sit auctor sacrae scripturae, ut dictum
est, omnis sensus qui verus est sensus litteralis est.

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



ical senses of the littera have fallen away. Nevertheless, a number

of aspects of the Book of the Parables indicate that Eckhart now
treats Genesis in a less atomistic fashion, paying more attention to
the systematic coherence of the book, albeit from the perspective
of translating the parabolae into philosophical treatises.104
The Book of the Parables with its important prologue represents
a deepening of Eckharts exegetical procedure, but not a fundamental shift. This is evident by a look at some of the contents,
which do not differ in essence from what we find in the Exposition on Genesis, though they offer more detail and many new readings. For example, the treatment of Genesis 1 :1, which contains
seven parabolical readings and ten moral interpretations, begins
with a theological addition to what was found in the previous
comment.105 In light of the fact that parables teach divine truths,
as well as natural and ethical ones, the Book of Parables opens
with a discussion of in principio featuring the difference between
divine and natural modes of production, that is, the emanation of
the persons in the Trinity as contrasted with creation (nn. 9-20).
(The Trinity did not feature in the Exposition.) A good deal of
the remaining exposition, however, is an expansion on the final
point of the interpretation of Genesis 1 :1 in the Exposition, that

104 The more systematic perspective of the Par. Gen. is evident, for example, from Eckharts synopsis of the essential points taught in Gen. 1-3 in Par.
Gen. nn. 160-65 (LW 1 :630-36). These are : (1) quod creare sive facere dei,
de quibus fit mentio primo capitulo, item dicere ipsius, de quo fit mentio
primo et tertio capitulo, id ipsum sunt et significant, item praecipere dei,
de quo fit mentio secundo capitulo. (n. 160). (2) Patet etiam consequenter
quod tria his respondentia in creaturis, scilicet fieri sive creari, aut produci,
a deo id ipsum sunt (n. 160). (3) Because these locutiones, responsiones, obedientiae sive audientiae creaturis suavissima sunt (n. 161), Eckhart concludes,
Universaliter enim intemporale semper est, et incorporale sive immateriale ubique
(n. 162). (4) From this he draws a number of conclusions (nn. 163-65) concerning (a) how evil can never totally corrupt the good ; (b) how synderesis
remains even in the damned ; (c) how God does not properly command an
external act ; (d) how an external act is not properly good ; (e) how the external act is onerous but not the internal act ; and (f) how the internal act always
directly addresses God. One may wonder if this more systematic approach to
internal questions might have been influenced by Thomas Aquinass exegesis
in which each book and chapter is divided into a series of issues or questions.
105 Par. Gen. nn. 8-40 (LW 1 :479-507). There is a translation in Meister
Eckhart. The Essential Sermons, 96-107.


bernard mcginn

is, the difference between the One as absolute unity and creation
as a fall from the One into duality. The commentary then turns
to a long analysis of coelum et terram interpreted parabolically as
the extrinsic principles of the universe (i.e., the active and passive
principles) and the internal principles (i.e., form and matter).106
Eckhart had already presented the germ of this reading in Exposition n. 24, though the detail given here is new and has important
additions. The Dominican then closes off his comment on Genesis
1 :1 by giving five more natural readings of the parabola of coelum
et terram (nn. 34-36), before providing ten brief moral interpretations (nn. 37-40).
In some cases the Book of Parables goes well beyond the Exposition. Perhaps the most striking is the treatment of Paradise and
the Fall. In the Exposition Eckhart treated these chapters atomistically with the exception of his long consideration of Gods rest
(Gen. 2 :2). In the Book of Parables, however, both chapters come
in for extensive commentary of considerable originality.107 This is
especially true of the unified treatment of Genesis 3 in the Book of
Parables (nn. 135-59), where Eckhart presents a treatise on theological anthropology based on his new understanding of the literal sense worked out in the Prologue. Like Eriugena, he adopts a
laissez-faire attitude to defend his reading. Noting that the saints
and doctors generally read Chapter 3 in a parabolic way, he says,
It seems that without prejudice to other interpretations, both historical and tropological, of the saints and doctors, it is perhaps
probably correct to say that the tropological sense of the serpent,
the woman, and the man is the same as the historical or literal.108

Par. Gen. nn. 21-26 for the extrinsic principles, and nn. 28-33 for the
intrinsic. Between these two treatments in n. 27 (LW 1 :497) Eckhart inserts
a brief moral interpretation of coelum et terram as the good and divine man
versus the vicious evil man (see Expos. Gen. n. 16 [LW 1 :199]).
107 The different lengths of the comments are revealing. Expos. Gen. treats
Gen. 2 in nn. 142-200 (LW 1 :296-347, but half of this deals with Gen. 2 :2),
while Par. Gen. treats Gen. 2 in nn. 76-134 (LW 1 :541-600) and does not consider Gen. 2 :2 at all. Expos. Gen. has a brief treatment of Gen. 3 in nn. 201-14
(LW 1 :348-60), while Par. Gen. treats Gen. 3 in nn. 135-59 (LW 1 :601-30).
108 Par. Gen. n. 136 (LW 1 :602) : His praemissis videtur quod salvis aliis
expositionibus sanctorum et doctorum tam historice quam tropologice posset
dici probabiliter fortassis quod sensus tropologicus serpentis, mulieris et viri
ipse est, qui et historicus et litteralis est,. The qualifications in this passage
are significant for Eckharts awareness of the radical nature of his exegesis.

eriugena and eckhart on reading genesis



In other words, there is no need to think of Paradise and the Fall

in terms of a particular place and past time ; the narrative of the
Fall is an ethical-philosophical analysis of our current situation as
sinful humans.
I have not engaged in particular comparisons between Eriugena
and Eckhart on reading Genesis 1-3. Many of these would be fascinating, but that would be another essay that would need to take
up the question of the extent to which Eckhart might have had
access to Periphyseon through the excerpts found in the Parisian
Corpus Dionysiacum. What I have tried to do is to concentrate on
the inner dynamics of how these two thinkers present the theory
and the practice of navigating the first three chapters of Genesis.
Both Eriugena and Eckhart are rightly considered apophatic theologians. They are also masters of spiritual exegesis. Nevertheless,
no theologian is ever only apophatic, and no exegete is ever only
spiritual. It is in the playful interchange of both positive and negative language about God, as well as in relating the letter and the
spirit of the biblical message, that the great exegetes demonstrate
their skill and genius.
In concluding, let us return to Kentucky. The Creation Museum
sets out to show its visitors what happened in the Garden six thousand years ago. Were we to ask Eriugena and Eckhart, What
happened in the Garden ?, they might well be puzzled, or perhaps
smile, since they were aware of some people in their own day who
took the Genesis narrative as describing historical, local, and temporal events. Eriugena might respond, Something is happening in
our historical Garden and also happening in the Garden beyond
time. Eckhart might respond, What do you mean happened ?
Genesis reveals Gods continuous creation and our situation within
it. These responses might not satisfy those flocking to the Creation Museum, but I hope they may provide food for thought for
those who have come to Chicago to consider Eriugena, the great
Carolingian nutritor, as well as to celebrate our contemporary
nutritor, douard Jeauneau, who has done more than anyone else
for modern studies of John Scottus Eriugena.