Dante was visiting the ten celestial spheres, with Beatrice as his guide. He had already visited the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars Jupiter, and Saturn. He was now in the sphere of the fixed stars, where he had already caught a glimpse of Jesus and His mother Mary.
Dante was hungry for spiritual knowledge, and Beatrice asked the assembled saints to feed him. In response Peter descended from above.
Beatrice suggested that Peter subject Dante to a theological examination. Specifically, she suggested that he test Dante’s understanding of the Christian faith that enabled Peter to walk on the water. Peter already had an insight into Dante’s faith, as Beatrice freely acknowledged; but she pointed out that it would do Dante good to express himself on the subject.
Peter asked Dante for a definition of faith. He drew his answer from Hebrews 11: 1, which he translated into Italian as follows: “Fede è sustanza di cose sperate, e argomento de le non parventi.”
In English, Dante’s definition of faith reads as follows: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the proof of things that do not appear.” (The translation is my own.)
In the original Greek New Testament, the word translated sustanza or substance can also mean “a support” or “the foundation or ground of hope.” I believe “foundation” is a better translation than “substance.”
In explaining the first part of the passage, Dante showed that he understood this. He pointed out that people on earth were not able to see the wonderful joys of the heavenly kingdom, so their hope was founded on faith.
He also gave a good explanation of the second part of the passage. The Medieval mind liked to make syllogisms. Dante pointed out that when treating celestial matters, syllogisms are not based on anything that we can see. Faith is their starting point.
Peter then compared faith to a coin. He acknowledged that Dante had described the coin correctly. He now asked Dante whether he had this coin in his purse. Dante gave a sincere affirmative reply.
Peter then asked Dante about the source of his faith. In a highly poetic manner, he pointed out that the source of his faith was the Old and New Testament, which had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Prompted by Peter, Dante explained why he believed that the Old and New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit. He cited the marvelous works revealed therein, works that nature was powerless to perform.
Peter objected that these marvelous works were attested only by the Old and New Testaments. By citing these works, Dante was using the Holy Scriptures to prove its own authenticity.
Dante pointed out that the growth of the Holy Christian Church was a miracle. When Peter entered the field, he was poor and did not have much to eat. Yet he sowed a good plant. In view of the current condition of the Church, Dante lamented that this excellent vine had become a thorn.
The assembled saints expressed their approval of Dante’s answers by singing the Te Deum. They used a melody that was even more excellent than the melody normally used on earth.
Dante had to answer two more questions. Peter asked him to tell what he believed and why.
Dante told Peter that he believed in one eternal Triune God, who, Himself unmoved, moves all the heavens with love and with desire. The source of his faith was the truth which the Holy Spirit gave the world through Moses, the prophets, the psalms, the gospels, and Peter himself.
Peter was delighted with Dante’s answer. He blessed Dante and danced about him three times, singing all the while. Peter also put a garland on Dante’s brow. This signified that Dante had passed the examination with flying colors.
“Paradiso” of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri; Italian text with English translation by Allen Mandelbaum and notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe di Scipio