Maximus the Confessor’s Answer to the Crisis of Meaning

Saint Maximus the Confessor offers a curious reassurance to the reader of his Ambigua to John. In his description, deification, the “state [when] nothing will appear apart from God,” is the eschatological unity we hope for in Christ. The Confessor addresses the reader directly: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination (αὐτεξουσίου).”[1] Maximus holds in tension obedience and freedom—of conforming our lives to Christ and retaining our own identity.

The Confessor’s thought addresses an underlying problem that vexes our secularized age: the disconnect between faith and life in the world. Two themes are central to this issue: freedom and meaning. First, how does human freedom interact with God’s will? Second, does human creativity and meaning-making add to God’s plan for creation or are these faculties mere temptations that cause us to stray from the divine will?

Maximus’ answer can be found in Christ, the Logos, who wills to unite all things in his one person. On account of this union, the Confessor extends what we say about Christ in the hypostatic union to the Christian who is joined to Christ. He masterfully unites human self-determination with the divine in Christ and in the life of every Christian by participation. Maximus envisions the relationship between God and humanity drawn from the hypostatic union as an endless exchange of loving communion without assimilation or separation. By a close analysis of this dynamic, we will see that human freedom is not simply tolerated as a permissible reality but is a willed part of this ongoing exchange of love.

Defending Christ’s Wills Preserves Our Self-Determination

Our age does not have a monopoly on polarizing rhetoric or divisive issues. Neither are we the only generation to debate the basic constitution of the human person. For the Confessor, the issue was freedom and the battleground of the monothelite controversy of the seventh century. Whether Christ had a divine will that eclipsed a human will or whether He retained both a human and divine will was as gripping to the populace as the latest right versus left controversy of our day. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, we could think of monothelitism as the latest front for the long-standing conflict between the Alexandrian school, or those who emphasized Christ’s divinity over humanity, and Antiochene who championed the human over divine. Hot on the heels of monergism, monothelitism was an attempt to appease both sides by saying that while Christ exerted both human and divine activity, the hypostatic union was only under the control of one divine will. The distinction between energy and will, along with the condemnation of dyothelitism, came in 638 in Emperor Heraclius’ Ecthesis.

Heraclius’ statement of faith was widely accepted in the East with little to no resistance and seemed to have brought together the quarreling parties. Maximus’ dyothelitism was a minority view and, at first, he played only an advisory role to more prominent figures. His involvement in the controversy includes the only records we have of the Confessor participating in a public dispute with Pyrrhus, a former Patriarch of Constantinople. Pyrrhus owed his rise to power to his staunch monothelitism. Following the death of Heraclius, Pyrrhus was accused of plotting against the new emperor and exiled to Carthage. There, he continued to seek support for monothelitism, which came to a head in a public debate between the former Patriarch and Maximus in Carthage in 645. Strikingly, Pyrrhus changed his stance as the result of the debate and rejected the monothelite view.

The aftermath of Maximus’ debate with Pyrrhus marks the Confessor’s definitive alignment with the Papacy against his Byzantine contemporaries. Though Maximus had long held an affinity for the authority of the Church of Rome, the text of the Disputatio ad Pyrrhus makes a surprising claim that Maximus believed his victory could only be ratified by the pope.[2] Soon after the debate, Pyrrhus and Maximus both departed for Rome. Maximus would soon ally himself with pope Theodore I and later Martin I in mounting a defense against monothelitism.

Dyothelitism, that Christ has a human and divine will, becomes Maximus’ confession to the point of suffering, exile, and death. While the debate is framed as a Christological one, the outcome is as anthropological as it is theological. As a consequence of the Christological dictum “what has not been assumed has not been redeemed,” the issue of Christ’s human will is the hinge upon which the goodness of human freedom swings. Proclaiming a monothelite Christ would insinuate that human freedom had not been redeemed.

Christology, thus understood, becomes a proxy war for what it truly means to be human. Maximus believes in the goodness of human freedom and that such freedom is even preserved in the deified state. With Maximus’ emphasis on obedience, we may expect that the Confessor only preserves human freedom to a point—this is not so. His favorite passage for demonstrating the two wills in Christ is his choice for obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane. As we have noted, even at the height of deification “self-determination” is preserved. The will is not destroyed but voluntarily surrendered to God in a way that keeps one united with him. This union affects a restoration and solidification of the “natural disposition” toward God while at the same time granting continued self-determination.

Suspicious Freedom and Nihilism

The tension that the divine will, human nature, deification, and Maximus’ eschatological outlook combine to create is an antidote to nihilism and self-invention. The Confessor offers a convincing account of self-determination that reconciles the innumerable possibilities inherent in human action with the divine will. The narrative of human volition he posits leaves room for a crucial aspect of the human person, one in which it could be said that we reflect the image of God: creativity.

Attempts to articulate how these freedoms relate to one another generally collapse into a monolithic obedience. In such accounts, the fulfillment of human freedom is obeying God’s will in a strict manner. Freedom is reduced to a basic function of accepting or rejecting God’s will. While this certainly describes an aspect of how freedom is exercised in relation to God’s will, it is difficult to square such a position with lived experience. This has had the unintended consequence of creating either a disinterest in freedom beyond the question of sin or by forming a milieu of suspicion of human expression in creativity.

Champions of unbridled human agency can find themselves in the clutches of nihilism. As evidenced by post-modern thought, human creativity is qualified by a radical subjectivity. Not only are the works themselves passing, but the meanings they express are so tied to circumstance and culture that we could not hope to derive a transcendent meaning from them. This subjectivity leads post-modernism to conclude that unconditioned, objective truth is unknowable or inaccessible. There is no objective reality that lies beyond subjective expression and interpretation, or, as Derrida would say, there is no “urtext” that grants us access to the true intention of the author. There is only subjective hermeneutic assessment.

Unmoored from claims to objectivity, human freedom embarks on a novel task of self-invention that replaces the quest for self-knowledge. A post-modern human will is unconcerned with returning to the touchstone of the real since every facet of culture and truth is colored by the same limited subjective viewpoint. We are left with two poles: obedience that is suspicious of self-determination or a nihilistic self-invention.

Divine and Human Freedom in Dialogue

Maximus cuts through a dichotomy of obedience and self-invention with his account of the logoi, which he understands to be God’s will imprinted in creation. The Confessor paints a picture of the universe that is profoundly Christological. Understanding this is the key to how he conceives of God’s will and how it interacts with human freedom. Christ himself is the center at which God desires to unite all things. We can conceive of this in two frames.

Objectively, Christ, as the Logos, provides order, meaning, and direction for all creation. The Logos is spoken to and present within creatures as logoi, individuated expressions that anchor created things in God as their source and sets these things on the path of eschatological return. As God’s creative will, the logos of a creature is its nature. To act in accord with nature is to act according to God’s will, which in turn leads them back to God. For Maximus, this return does not indicate an absorption or assimilation but rather a gathering that affirms the goodness of creation and the otherness of the Divine.

This dynamic takes a different shape when considered subjectively. The logoi are how Christ speaks to persons and invites them to respond in freedom. As in the objective frame, the logoi indicate the God-intended nature of each creature, including human nature. Human agency gives us the capacity to use creation in accord with the logoi or to abuse it in sin. Guided by the logoi, human freedom takes the form of a response to Christ’s words. There is in the logoi a call and response dynamic, facilitating what Nikolaos Loudovikos calls a “dialogic reciprocity.”

The dialogic presentation of the logoi begs a question: how does the immutable will of God remain unchanged if it relies on human freedom for its fulfillment? Maximus answers this question with a distinction between the will of God for a creature (i.e., its nature or logos) and the tropos (i.e., how the logos is expressed in the individuated time and place of the creature). To act in a way that violates the nature of a being would be to move in opposition to its logos and tend toward non-being.[3]

Every innovation, generally speaking, takes place in relation to the mode of whatever is being innovated, not in relation to its principle of nature, because when a principle is innovated it effectively results in the destruction of nature. . . . When, however, the mode is innovated—so that the principle of nature is preserved inviolate—it manifests a wondrous power, for it displays nature being acted on and acting outside the limits of its own laws.[4]

The fire in which Maximus’ logos/tropos distinction is forged is the hypostatic union. Therein human nature is pushed beyond its limits to act in a divine way without violating its own nature. This is a dynamic, dialogic union since the human nature is unable to take possession of divine activity in its own right. This union of humanity and divinity manifests a new sort of activity, “theandric energy”—a concept Maximus inherits from Dionysius as a combination of theos and andros. Christ forges the union between the divine and human in himself and invites every Christian to join himself to this dynamic by participation.

The Confessor extends the relationship defined in the hypostatic union to Christ’s body, the Church. In Christ, the way is open to an active, dynamic union with the divine that never breaks down or assimilates us completely. Humans retain their own identity and nature while God remains transcendent—because of Christ, the two can enter into intimate communion. Maximus describes this active union as a sword, heated in fire:

The quality of sharpness assumes the quality of heat, and the quality of heat that of sharpness (for just as the fire is united to the iron, so too is the heat of the fire diffused throughout the cutting edge of the sword, and the iron becomes burning hot through its union with the fire, and the fire acquires a cutting edge through its union with the iron. Yet neither of the elements undergoes any change in the exchange that results from their union, but each remains secure in its own natural properties, even though it has acquired the property of the other to which it has been joined.[5]

This image aptly demonstrates how Chalcedon attempted to defend against taking this concept too far . . . or not far enough. Maximus adopted the adverbs that serve as the four fences of Chalcedon. Used to define the hypostatic union in Christ—the union of the divine and human natures—these adverbs define the communion of natures as united without division, without change, without separation, and without confusion.

Since the theandric activity of the God-man is willed, we are justified in assuming that motion as a result of human activity and freedom is fitting for the human nature. Motion, change, and dialogue are God-intended realities manifest in creation. To put this another way, God does not will a static universe, but one filled with activity, which moves in accord with its nature. The logoi do not set up creation as a static reality but one in which God wills growth and movement. Moving in accordance with one’s individuated logos does not mean a sort of fated, uniform action, but a free response. This is consistent with Maximus’ view that God contemplates created beings as moving.

Freedom imbues these logoi with a tropic response. Maximus’ schema does not allow for freedom in lieu of God’s will for creation; rather, freedom is inherent to God’s logoi for these creatures as it is part of their nature. Motion connotes the particularity of the manifestation of these logoi in place, time, and in the midst of free agency.

The goal of this movement is eschatological return. God wills that all be united in Christ, yet the manifestation of these logoi in creatures is conditioned by creaturely response in freedom. While the logoi themselves must remain inviolate, their mode, how they are embodied in the movement back to God, which always happens in time and space and how they enter back into eternity, is tropically conditioned. Self-determination is preserved beyond a fundamental choice to act in accord with one’s nature, according to the logoi. Maximus allows room for humanity to freely determine the particularity of how these logoi are returned to God.

Maximus transforms the conflict between self-determination and God’s will into a fruitful collaboration. This dynamic rescues individual human action from degrading into self-invention and nihilistic obscurity. The logoi propose meaning to all of creation, thus rendering no human situation insignificant.

In the logoi, the transcendent is clothed in the immanent and particular. God is at the same time the God of the whole Universe and the God of my unique circumstance, no matter how obscure or seemingly inconsequential. The logoi carry God’s spoken Word to us through the nature of creatures and elicits a response that can only be given by the one being spoken to. There is something unique and unrepeatable about the dialogue of God and every human person.

Our response to the logoi matters because God has decided that his will is not to be imposed on creation but proposed as an invitation containing a myriad of possibilities. The full answer to this invitation is not a simple « yes »or « no » but a unique « yes » that is different based on the human freedom that is being addressed by the logos. There is no dichotomy between free choice and acting in accordance with God’s will because the logoi are not monolithic paths but dialogic propositions that envision responses of movement and possibility.

This dialogue between God and humanity is present in every facet of human life. There is no person, situation, or crisis that is not pregnant with the possibility of becoming an instance where the logos is made manifest and set on a path that returns it toward God. This can also be said in a collective sense, where the logoi unite families, communities, and nations. The fruit of logoic cooperation, which is the same theandric activity Maximus sees in Christ, affirms both the result of human self-determination and the will of God.

Human life as a participation in God transforms the act of meaning-making. Since the dialogue between God and humanity happens by means of the logoi that are embedded within all of creation, every human attempt at meaning-making carries with it the possibility that the collaborative fruit will be eternally ratified in the eschaton. Human creativity, performed in union with God, is granted an eternal validity as God receives it. In literature, architecture, music, painting, drama, the realities contained in the logoi erupt in human expression. Not only in the arts, but also in the daily dialogue of human life, meaning is given to seemingly mundane realities. As Pope St. John Paul II reminds us, “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists §2). This is human freedom’s role, guided by theandric communion: human freedom has a lasting impact on meaning, it does not simply discover it.

Just as we can speak of discerning God’s handiwork and discern him as creator and originator of the logoi, so we can see in how the logoi return to God the human fingerprints on what is offered back to God. God’s will is manifest in the radical particularity of time and space. Our subjective experience of decision is not an illusion or an obstacle to overcome but a divinely willed share in God’s gathering of creation to himself. Humanity’s tropic impact is not in spite of God’s original will for humanity but on account of that same will that desires to hold a dialogue that contains an infinitude of human possibility.

Dialogic reciprocity between God and humanity in radical particularity is the concrete living out of a mystery that undergirds Maximus’ thought. For the Confessor, the reason for the logoi, that the one Logos speaks into all of creation, is “the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.”[6]

As the one who can unite all creation, Christ reaches out to gather all things through the logoi. Yet, he has given humanity a pivotal role in this return. In a bout of divine folly, Christ invites humanity to offer creation back to himself, not in the spotless perfection of platonic forms, but embodied in theandric action. As Christ is clothed with humanity in an inseparable way, so too his logoi return back to him clothed by the particularities of our decisions and creativity.

[1] Ambigua to John 7 PG 91:1076B. All Ambigua citations from On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, )

[2] See Opuscula 12, PG 91:141-144.

[3] Amb 7 PG 91:1084D

[4] Amb 42 PG 91:1341D

[5] Amb 5 PG 91:1060AB

[6] Amb 7 PG 91:1084CD