21 December, 2010

Peter of Damascus on the Clarity and Authority of Scripture

“Whenever a person even slightly illumined reads the scriptures or sings psalms he finds in them matter for contemplation and theology, one text supporting another. But he whose intellect is still unenlightened thinks that the Holy Scriptures are contradictory. Yet there is no contradiction in the Holy Scriptures: God forbid that there should be. For some texts are confirmed by others, while some were written in reference to a particular time or a particular person. Thus, every word of scripture is beyond reproach. The appearance of contradiction is due to our ignorance. We ought not to find fault with the scriptures, but to the limit of our capacity we should attend to them as they are, and not as we would like them to be, after the manner of the Greeks and Jews.

…The person who searches for the meaning of the scriptures will not put forward his own opinion, bad or good; but as St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom have said, he will take as his teacher, not the learning of this world, but Holy Scripture itself. Then, if his heart is pure and God puts something unpremeditated into it, he will accept it, providing he can find confirmation for it in the scriptures, as St Antony the Great says.“

Peter of Damascus, from The Treasury of Divine Knowledge, in The Philokalia, Vol. 3 of The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, translated from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, p.144 (Faber and Faber, London 1984).

Our Peter is not to be confused with the more well-known Peter of Damascus who was bishop of that city at the time of the Islamic conquest in the 8th century, but is rather one who lived in the 12th century; however, like his earlier namesake, he became bishop of Damascus and was martyred by the Muslims. The second Peter of Damascus was a spiritual theologian of the hesychast school of Eastern Orthodoxy, and as such his voluminous writing The Treasury of Divine Knowledge is included in its entirety in The Philokalia, an anthology of hesychast writings first published, oddly, in Venice in the 18th century.

But what concerns us here is not Peter’s hesychasm, but his high regard for the authority of scripture, which he traces back to several of the greatest Fathers of the Greek church, and his suggestions on hermeneutics, which assume the clarity of scripture, properly defined, and the usefulness of the analogy of scripture and interpreting in context. In this he shows himself a disciple of the ancient Antiochian school of Biblical interpretation, which pre-figured many aspects of Reformation hermeneutics. With not a little irony, then, we must say that it is a pity Peter did not more consistently apply his hermeneutic to his hesychasm, which bears the impress of neo-Platonism. Perhaps we can say in his defence that, like him, we all have our blindspots, which are often related to the worldview of our particular time and place.
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