Maximus the Confessor and the Metaphysics of the Person

Author: Father Brian Daley, SJ

Maximus the Confessor and the Metaphysics of the Person

Brian Daley, SJ*

An essay by Jesuit patristic scholar and Ratzinger Prize winner

The central focus of Maximus the Confessor's sweeping vision of the world and its future is generally acknowledged to be what we moderns call his "Christology": his understanding of the person of the Incarnate Son of God as the living, personally realized synthesis (to use Hans Urs von Balthasar's favorite term) of the infinitely different, yet irreducibly interconnected realities of God and his creation.

Balthasar, in his epoch-making book on Maximus of 1968, Cosmic Liturgy, rightly identifies "the most central mystery of Maximus's conception of the world" as "a mystery that holds within itself the solution of all the world's riddles: the unification of God and world, the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the finite, in the hypostasis of a single being — the God who became man". Some pages later, Balthasar cites a famous passage from Quaestiones ad Thalassium 60, written sometime between 630 and 633, as summing up Maximus's grand vision of the story of creation and salvation: For Christ's sake, or for the sake of the Mystery of Christ, all the ages and all the beings they contain took their beginning and their end in Christ. For that synthesis was already conceived before all ages: the synthesis of limit and the unlimited, of measure and the unmeasurable, of circumscription and the uncircumscribed, of the Creator with the creature, of rest with movement — that synthesis which, in these last days, has become visible in Christ, bringing the plan of God to its fulfillment through itself.

Some 10 years later, Maximus began to argue, in a number of places, that an orthodox faith in Christ, founded in the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the theological works that frame them, needs to acknowledge that the Savior, as God and a complete human being, possesses and uses two natural wills: perfectly harmonized by the fact of the Incarnation, yet each functioning in its own way as belonging to a greater natural reality. So in several essays from the early 640s, and in the celebrated Dialogue with Pyrrhus — which is the transcript of a public disputation in Carthage between Maximus the monk and Pyrrhus, the deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, in July of 645 — the Confessor develops at length his reflections on the metaphysics of Christ's person. His arguments here would strongly influence the Churches of West and East — at the Lateran Synod of 649 and at the Third Council of Constantinople of 680/681 — to recognize formally that a serious commitment to the now-classical Christology of Chalcedon requires the admission that the two natures or substances of the one incarnate Son of God continue to be fully operative, in synthetic conjunction with each other, in the natural acts of will that belong to the characteristic functioning of all spiritual beings.

An earlier, strongly cosmic and soteriological perspective on Christ's work in creation, then, characterizes Maximus's theology, as well as a somewhat later, more strictly ontological approach to the reality of Christ, based on a careful analysis of the psychology of human existence that is rooted in the categories of late antique philosophy — revealing to us a speculative Maximus, perhaps, and a later "scholastic" Maximus; a Maximus who sees Christ in the broadest historical terms, and one who scrutinizes Christ's person and being minutely from within. But what connects these two approaches? What I would like to suggest here is that what led to the reorientation of Maximus's thinking and to the setting of these new emphases was most likely his rediscovery, during the theological debates in the 630s, of the crucial importance of texts, arguments and controversies from a century before: arguments engaging the defenders and the critics of the Chalcedon's Christology, which had led to the careful reformulation, at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, of how that Christology was officially expressed.

The context for this rediscovery of sixth-century "academic" theology (if we may call it that), in the mid-630s, was the criticism that apparently greeted the conclusion of the "Pact of Union" between the Melkite Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria and the Egyptian anti-Chalcedonians in June of 633 — a decree by Cyrus affirming that the two original "natures" personally united in Christ were held together by a single "theandric operation" or activity. This phrase, borrowed from the end of the so-called "Fourth Letter", addressed to a certain Gaius, of the Pseudo-Dionysius, and inconclusively discussed by defenders and critics of Chalcedon as early as the 620s, seems at first to have been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who, with the Emperor Heraclius himself, was always on the lookout for language that might lead to rapprochement among dissident Christian bodies within the Empire. In a letter to Honorius, the Pope of Rome, probably written late in 633 or early in 634, Sergius himself endorsed the notion of a "single theandric activity" in Christ and rejected any language of two wills operative in his actions; Pope Honorius responded favorably if somewhat tentatively, citing texts of St Paul and the now-familiar doctrine of the"communion of idioms" in Christ, which seemed to him to point towards a single, ontologically integrated set of activities carried out by the Savior.

But there was obvious concern among some in the Eastern Church. Shortly after the Pact of Union between Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians was announced in Alexandria, the aged and venerable monk Sophronius — himself a Syrian, who had spent many years in the Egyptian desert, had travelled to Rome and then to Carthage, serving in the latter place as a spiritual mentor to Maximus, and had returned to Alexandria in the spring of 633 — was appalled by the notion of a single activity or operation in Christ, seeing here a new form of Apollinarianism; he set out again immediately for Constantinople, to confront Sergius there and prevent him from giving the Pact official ecumenical support. His protests were successful; Sergius, clearly anticipating only new dissent in the wake of Cyrus's Pact, met with his own synod in the early fall of 633 and issued a decree or Psephos, in which he ordered that Church leaders simply avoid language of "one activity" or "two activities" in Christ completely.

These events in Alexandria and Constantinople, at any rate, set the background for Maximus's apparent turn, in the mid-630s, towards a deeper, more technical interest in the terminology of the sixth-century debates on the person of Christ, which had led up to the canons of the Second Council of Constantinople. Maximus seems to have been well-connected in Alexandria; his friend and spiritual son, Peter "the Illustrious", for many years the main Byzantine general in Northern Africa, had apparently been transferred to Egypt in the spring of 633, in the face of growing Islamic expansion in Syria. Alexandria had fallen to the armies of the invading Persian Empire in 619; the official Patriarch, John "the Almsgiver", had fled before this onslaught to his native Cyprus in 616, and the whole Eastern Mediterranean seems to have been in political and religious disarray for several years, until the Persians were forced to lift their siege of Constantinople in 626, and gradually to withdraw eastwards. Now, as the imperial government recovered strength in Egypt, the Emperor was once again intent to unify the people religiously by finding some form of compromise between Chalcedonians and anti-Chalcedonians that leaders and people could live with. A first step in this direction was the Pact of Union we have mentioned, of June, 633.

The language, as in his letters from the mid-630s, is formal, almost liturgical — close to that of Chalcedon, nuanced in terms of Constantinople II; the focus is on the familiar technicalities of terms and phrases, the niceties of prepositions, the meaning of number. It is now the language of academic theological controversy, or of the Alexandrian philosophical lecture-hall, perhaps, rather than the contemplative language of the monastic cell. Yet I would argue that despite this change in tone and language from his earlier works — a change that would be realized more deeply in his passionate defence of Christ's two natural wills that would begin little over a year later — Maximus's Christological vision has lost nothing of its cosmic breadth or soteriological depth. He has simply come to realize that in order to be the one who brings the world to its redemptive and transforming union with its creator, Christ must himself, as one acting, free subject, be able to operate as both creator and creature — must himself be both two, in the irreducible difference of infinite and finite, and one, in the indivisible and decisive agency of the God who has "so loved the world" as to enter it and save it. In the learned paradoxes of Chalcedonian scholasticism, Maximus found the building materials for his own final, characteristic expression of the Christian Mystery.

* The Catherine F Huisking
Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 October 2012, page 4

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