Thursday, April 3, 2008

St Dionysius the Areopagite, Postscript II

St Peter of Damaskos, after citing St Gregory the Theologian's words from his First Theological Oration (oration 27) that "what is said should be commensurate to the capacity of those to whom it is addressed," writes:
For this reason the same saint may say one thing about a certain matter today, and another tomorrow; and yet there is no contradiction, provided the hearer has knowledge and experience of the matter under discussion. Again, one saint may say one thing and another say something different about the same passage of the Holy Scriptures, since divine grace often gives varying interpretations suited to the particular person or moment in question. The only thing required is that everything said or done should be said or done in accordance with God's intention, and that it should be attested by the words of Scripture. For should anyone preach anything contrary to God's intention or contrary to the nature of things, then even if he is an agel St Paul's words, 'Let him be accursed' (Gal. 1:8), will apply to him. This is what St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Antony and St Maximos the Confessor afirm. For this reason St John Chrysostom says: 'It was not the Greeks but the Holy Scripture 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 the same man in another part of Scripture that they blinded him and in this 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.' [Homilies on the Statues XIX, 3 (P. G. xlix, 195)]

Again, some say in their lack of experience that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by St Paul, or that St Dionysius 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 attatined 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).
St Peter of Damaskos, Book I: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, Chapter XXIII (Holy Scripture) in volume three of The Philokalia, pp. 265-266.


Anonymous said...

I am greatly enjoying your blog. If I might make a comment.

It seems to me that church fathers such as St. Dionysius wrote from their spiritual experiences after having gone through long spiritual suffering, fasting and achieving some degree of theosis. Later fathers would not disagree with St. Dionysius because they, too, would have obtained some sort of spiritual knowledge through their ascetic work and understand what is being said. I don't think the fathers wrote these works for the same reasons many academics do today - they were trying to teach others based on their own experiences that were revealed to them by God.

Our modern theologians, approaching these subjects as academics with much less spiritual experience than the fathers, use rational explanation and modern methods of textual criticism to try and compare, contrast and understand such works. I think we can see the fruit of these methods described in your article - St. Dionysius's writings are simply not really understood.

One of my feelings is that our modern Orthodox leaders are mostly academics. My background is engineering, and I have started some businesses. I have been trained to be practical, as in such fields the results of your efforts are clear and measurable. We should remember that the church fathers were also practical - their writings were completed on the basis of results they obtained and observed, and they also understood that what they wrote would produce results. When I read the fathers I never get the feeling they are speaking for the sake of explaining; no, they are speaking for the sake of doing and motivating others to act. They were not academics.

From my own limited experience as a repentant sinner, I can see the changes in myself by trying to follow the true Orthodox faith and lead as much as an ascetic life as possible as the years go by. Deep prayer, fasting and following the liturgical life of the church is ultimately transformational and therapeutic. Our view of life and the world changes as we slowly change. I think this simple approach to the faith is largely lost in some circles, and mostly absent from western Christianity. These fathers understood somehow intuitively that spiritual progress could possibly be "measured" and perhaps described with our limited human language.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your series on St. Dionysios. I have held the same opinions as you for some time and am quite familiar with Frs. Golitzin and Romanides corrections of these misunderstandings.

I'm actually one of those odd Orthodox that believes the author is the actual disciple of St. Paul. I don't go along with the crowd that says that his statments were lifted right out of Proclus without questioning that the reverse may very well be the case. It is this scientific method of textual criticism that is actually distorting the truth (speculatively) and questioning old texts (like the scriptures) that were always quite certain.

Bravo on the series though!


Felix Culpa said...

Photios: I'd really love to hear your argument that the Dionysius of Acts is the author of these treatises. If you would like to write something up along these lines I would be honored to post it here as part of this series.

Anonymous said...

Don't expect anything by way of a knock down argument here on this one. It is based on the liturgical witness that the church venerates the persons she says he is: the author of the texts in question. And the fact that textual criticism doesn't give any truer picture of the author in question. Then there is the unquestioned reading of ancient texts in the light of philosophy and NeoPlatonic writers, i.e. if it looks like a text lifted from the writing of a NeoPlatonist, the NeoPlatonist predated the writer, and the writer is in fact a NeoPlatonist himself and belongs to this genre of writing. This is a Eunomian language theory: that different terminology used constitutes a different author or genre of authors. Think the JEPD theory here in the Old Testament. It's a subtle Gnosticism. Instead of adhering to Tradition that Moses wrote the penteteuch, they [unkowingly] use a Eunomian theory of language that different divine names used by the author in the text necessarily means that the text is written by different authors or different "traditional" groups of authors.

That's the gist in an nutshell, but the Eunomian language theory and its inherent falsity and dialectical method is the thrust of the argument.

St. Dionysios definitely needs some more rescuing I believe.