October 3, 2017

On Reading the Works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite (St. Peter of Damascus)

By St. Peter of Damascus

(A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, Bk. 1)

For should anyone preach anything contrary to God’s intention or contrary to the nature of things, then even if he is an angel St Paul’s words, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:8), will apply to him. This is what St Dionysius the Areopagite, St Anthony and St Maximus the Confessor affirm. For this reason St John Chrysostom says: ‘It was not the Greeks but the Holy Scriptures that transmitted these things to us. There is no contradiction when Scripture says about a certain person both that he did not see Babylon as a captive and, elsewhere, that they took him to Babylon with the rest. For one who reads attentively will find it said about this same man in another part of Scripture that they blinded him and in dm condition took him off as a captive (cf. 2 Kgs. 25:7; Jer. 52:11): Thus he went to Babylon, as the one writer says, but did not see it, as the other says.

Again, some say in their lack of experience that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by St Paul, or that St Dionysios the Areopagite did not write one of the treatises ascribed to him. But if a man will pay attention to these same works, he will discover the truth. If the matter pertains to nature, the saints gain their knowledge of it from spiritual insight, that is, from the spiritual knowledge of nature and from the contemplation of created beings that is attained through the intellect’s purity; and so they expound God’s purpose in these things with complete accuracy. Searching the Scriptures, as St John Chrysostom says, like gold-miners who seek out the finest veins. In this way they ensure that ‘not the smallest letter or most insignificant accent is lost’, as the Lord put it (Matt. 5:18).

Such is the situation with regard to things that pertain to nature. When the matter in question is something that lies beyond nature, whether it be sensible or intelligible, or even a written phrase, the saints know about it through the gift of prophecy and through revelation, provided that such knowledge is given them by the Holy Spirit. But if this knowledge is not given them, and if for their own good the matter remains beyond their understanding, they are not ashamed to speak the truth and to confess their human weakness, saying with St Paul, ‘I do not know; God knows’ (2 Cor. 12:2). As Solomon said, ‘There are three things of which I am ignorant and a fourth which I do not know’ (Prov. 30:18. LXX). Again, St John Chrysostom says, ‘I do not know; and if the heretics call me an unbeliever, let them call me a tool as well.’