Maximos the Confessor

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MAXIMOS THE CONFESSOR (c. 580662), Byzantine theologian, Eastern Orthodox saint, ascetic writer, and opponent of monothelitism. What is known about Maximos's life largely derives from an anonymous biography.

Born in Constantinople, Maximos received a good education, which was rare for his time. Indicative of his abilities was his appointment as first secretary to the emperor Heraclius (r. 610641), but Maximos soon recognized his ecclesiastical calling. He entered the Monastery of Philipikos, in Chrysopolis (present-day Üsküdar, Turkey), probably in 614, where he eventually became abbot. Because of attacks by the Persians, Maximos and the other monks were forced to flee to the Monastery of Saint George, at Cyzicus (present-day Kapidagi, Turkey). Two years later Maximos was again obliged to flee because of Persian expansionism. His path likely took him through Crete, and probably Cyprus, to North Africa (626). It is well known that he was in Carthage on Pentecost of 632. At the Eucratas Monastery he became acquainted with Sophronios, another refugee, who later became patriarch of Jerusalem (634638). Maximos was greatly influenced by Sophronios and later called him his forerunner, father, and teacher.

The two monks journeyed to Alexandria in an effort to overturn an agreement of union with the monophysites but were unable to persuade the former patriarch, Cyrus of Alexandria (d. 641), to their cause. Because such concessions to monophysitism were likely to terminate in the heresy of monoenergism, Sophronios had turned against the agreement; Maximos continued in the struggle against the union but acted in a reserved way. After Heraclius published his Ecthesis (638), and a monothelite direction was given to the heresy, Maximos cut off relations with the patriarch Pyrrhus and began his own antimonothelite activities.

Important stages of Maximos's struggle against monothelitism are his dialogue with the deposed Pyrrhus in Carthage; the convocation in North Africa of three antimonothelite synods, where he explained his position; and the continuation of his endeavors in Rome (646), which had become the new center of antimonothelitism. Maximos's efforts were now carried out with unmitigated zeal. He composed treatises and letters to the emperor, the pope, and the patriarch of Constantinople. His antiheretical struggle prompted the convocation of a synod in Rome (649) where he condemned monothelitism.

Maximos's initiatives were regarded by the imperial authorities as hostile to its policy of union and reconciliation. Therefore, Maximos and his companions, one of whom was the papal legate, were taken to Constantinople for questioning. (This was in 655, not, as is commonly reported, during the reign of Pope Martin I.) Although the charge that he had betrayed the interests of the empire was not proved, Maximos was exiled (along with his two disciples) to Byzia in Thrace for refusing to sign the new conciliatory declaration, the Typus of Constans II, under Patriarch Peter (655666). Maximos was called back to Constantinople in 656 for another investigation, but after refusing once again to sign, he was exiled and imprisoned at Perbera. Although his opponents were determined, Maximos's intransigence in matters of faith prevented him from giving in to them. Six years later, Maximos, Pope Martin, and Sophronios were anathemized. There followed exchanges of messages, rumors of torture (some say Maximos was beaten, his tongue cut out, and his right hand lopped off), and further exiling. Maximos was finally imprisoned in the fortress of Schimaris, where after two months he died, on August 13, 662.

Maximos composed numerous works on the interpretation of scripture and on the teachings of the fathers. His doctrinal writings consist largely of short treatises against monophysitism, a more important series against monothelitism, and numerous other ascetical writings. He wrote commentaries on mystical theology and on the work of Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius). Also extant are many letters by Maximos, including the letters and disputation that he wrote to Pyrrhus. Some other writings exist only in manuscript.

The teachings of Maximos developed in two directions: on the one hand, in a theoretical direction, with strong metaphysical emphasis; and on the other, in an existential direction, which elaborated a spiritual way of life. In his theology of the unity and trinity of God, Maximos follows the ontological method and the teachings of the Greek fathers. The interpretation by some Western theologians that Maximos agrees with the view that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son cannot be demonstrated definitively. For example, Maximos sees in the Trinity the relation of three persons who participate jointly in one essence and jointly express a common divine energy: the Father, "by grace"; the Son, "by self-operation"; the Holy Spirit, "by synergy."

Maximos believed that the world was created by God so that beings could participate in his goodness. Accordingly, man holds the dominant place in creation and is the natural link between God and creation; further, all will is united to God through man. The first man, Maximos thought, was created with an orientation toward God and was meant to bridge the distance between "image" and "likeness." For Maximos, disobedience to the divine will constitutes deliberate sin, in which man's will is distorted and his nature corrupted; thus, man loses the grace of apatheia. Also, corruptibility in human nature is inherited; therefore, there is no human possibility of self-regeneration or of exemption from death. However, what man has done out of negligence, the man Christ has corrected.

Maximos's Christology is devoted to his struggle against monophysitism and monothelitism. For Maximos, in Christ, human nature, which had no previous existence as such, became substantial and received existence in the preexisting substance of God the Word (the Logos). As one being, Christ has the same humanity as man but he also has divinity. However, as in the Trinity, in Christ's being one essence is confessed without confusing the two natures.

The resolution of the question of whether there are one or two energies (or one or two wills) in Christ lies in the determination of their origin, that is, whether in the nature or in the person of Christ. For the monoenergists, Christ has only one energy because he has only one active element. For the monothelites, he has only one will because nature, according to doctrines of natural philosophy, is governed by the rule of necessity.

In order to oppose monophysitism, Maximos attempts to define the operational autonomy of the person on the basis of the dynamism of nature. He argues that nature, which is both noetic and created, "has no necessity" (Patrologia Graeca 91.293). Will, as a reasonable desire, presupposes the habit of nature, which is movement and energy, not stasis. The will governs this nature within the functions of the person. For example, sight and speech are capacities inherent in nature, but "how" one sees is dependent upon the person. In this way, Maximos distinguishes between the natural origin of the will and its personal (that is, "gnomic") orientation. As such, will does not violate the order of nature but diverts its movement and, in this case, expresses the ethical responsibility of the person.

According to Maximos, Christ is recognized as God and man from his divine and human qualities. Christ willed, or acted, as God and man. Maximos sees a "divine-human will" and a "divine-human energy" in Christ's very nature. In distinction from his opponents, Maximos argues that if will is identical with persons (and not nature), then the Trinity, which is a trinity of persons, and not of natures, would have to comprise three wills. Further, if the energy were to flow from persons, there would be three energies in the Trinity, and Christ would be cut off from the energy of the Father and that of the Holy Spirit.

The human will of Christ is, by the logic of nature, the same as ours, but its manifestation in Christ is directed by the person of God the Word. Hence, Christ's will experienced everything human except sin. The famous phrase "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Mt. 26:39) expresses the will of the human nature in Christ, that is, his resistance to death as well as his acceptance of it. This is an indication that salvation is completed by the human will. Thus Maximos's intention is to defend the human will of Christ, which also constitutes a defense of the freedom of man in relation to God. Under such presuppositions, Christ healed and divinized corruptible human nature. Christ also formulated a new way of existence for man, free from sin and death. Furthermore, it is through the work of the church, Maximos believed, that familiarization with these gifts of Christ can occur. Likewise, in his dogmatic teaching, Maximos describes the spiritual life as a pedagogical way to salvation and divinization.

The three factors, according to Maximos, that mold man are God, human nature, and the world. It is man's will that moves him in relation to these factors. Being refers to the essence of man, well-being to the call of God to pass from the "image" to the "likeness" of God; eternal being is granted to those worthy of the grace of God. The development of the inner life cultivates the gift of baptism, through which human nature is renewed by Christ's existence. The discovery of freedom and the acquisition of virtues, especially of love, promote the social life of the person and union with God. Spiritual formation, which is carried out through natural and theological vision, follows. In the principles of creation and in the principles of human nature, God is discovered. In the divine Word we possess the unity of the Creator and creation, as the revelation of his person and work to the world.

Spiritual formation is fulfilled in the work of the Holy Spirit, which enlightens man, enabling him to understand beings, the meaning of the scriptures, and the mysteries of worship. At the very center of their existence Christians participate in the divine energy and receive awareness of the spiritual presence of God. Such a processinternal, moral, and spiritualmakes the person capable of theōsis (deification), that is, exemption from the corruption of creation and acquisition of union with God. Finally, full communion and union in the second coming of Christ is awaited as a consummation of our own personal lives, just as resurrection was the consummation of Christ's life.

Maximos's contribution to the intellectual support of orthodox views, his ecclesiastical conduct, and his witness as a confessor were recognized by the Third Council of Constantinople (680681). The basic themes of his teaching, such as the distinction between nature and divine energy, the principles of nature and human will, the communion and synergy of God and man as persons, the participation of man in God, and theōsis all of these influenced the spirituality and later direction of orthodox theology. For example, Maximos's authority was invoked during the hesychast dispute of the fourteenth century. The successful application of Aristotelian dialectic in theology was inaugurated by Maximos, and his teaching has provoked interest in modern theological circles.


Works by Maximos

Maximos's collected works are available in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 4 (Paris, 1857) and vols. 9091 (Paris, 1860). Questions to Thalassius is available in Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca, vol. 7 (Turnhout, 1980). The Ascetic Life has been translated by Polycarp Sherwood in "Ancient Christian Writers," edited by Johannes Quasten et al., vol. 21 (Westminster, Md., 1955).

Works on Maximos

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Kosmische Liturgie: Das Weltbild Maximus', des Bekenners. 2d ed. Einsiedeln, 1961.

Garrigues, Juan Miguel. Maxime le confesseur: La charité, avenir de l'homme. Paris, 1976. Includes a complete bibliography.

Karazafiris, Nicholas. Hē peri prosōpou didascalia Maximou tou Homologētou. Thessaloniki, 1985.

Léthel, François-Marie. Théologie de l'agonie du Christ. Paris, 1979.

Matsouka, Nikos. Kosmos, anthrōpos, koinōnia kata ton Maximon ton homologētēn. Athens, 1980.

Piret, Pierre. Le Christ et la Trinité selon Maxime le confesseur. Paris, 1983.

Radosavljevic, A. To musterion tes soterias kata ton hagion Maximon ton homologeten. Athens, 1975.

Riou, Alain. Le monde et l'église selon Maxime le confesseur. Paris, 1973.

Sherwood, Polycarp. An Annotated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor. Rome, 1952.

Thunberg, Lars. Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. Lund, 1965.

Volker, Walther. Maximus Confessor als Meister des geistlichen Lebens. Wiesbaden, 1965.

Nicholas Karazafiris (1987)

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Maximos the Confessor

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