Abba Maximos the Confessor - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Maximos the Confessor?
Maximos the Confessor was an influential theologian, prolific author, and a humble monk who was persecuted for his orthodox Trinitarian views. Maximos lived in a day when the main political leaders held heretical theological positions and used their power to torture those who disagreed with them. He refused to recant his arguments against the leaders of the day and suffered because of it, earning the title of Confessor (one who suffers physical harm for Christ).
Abba Maximos was born around the year 580 AD in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey). His writing demonstrates that he was thoroughly educated in the best Greek schools of his day. He offers keen insight into the nature of the interior life, the mystery of Christ’s indwelt presence, and the life of Godliness.
As a young man, Maximos served in the imperial court as a secretary to Emperor Heraclius (610-641AD). Most likely due to his growing concern over heretical theological positions, he resigned his position and took up the life of monastic solitude in Chrysopolis (outside of Constantinople). He became the abbot of the monastery and an expert on the spiritual life. Though not normally counted in the annals of the Desert Fathers, Maximos’ teachings are often seen as the culmination of the teachings on the spiritual life handed down in the desert tradition.
The great strife-causing, theological debate of Maximos’ day was the debate between monothelitism and dyothelitism. Monthelitism essentially interpreted early Christian creeds as having taught that when Christ took on human form, the human will of Christ was subsumed by the divine will and Christ no longer had a human will. Dyothelitism taught the opposite, that Christ had a human will and a divine will. The underlying reason for the argument was not so much what the will of Christ actually was, but rather revolved around the question of, “What was on the inner nature of Christ?” The common Trinitarian view that is widely held today is dyothelitism, that Christ was both fully human and fully divine.
The orthodox position that prevailed was that Christ, in his nature, carried both a human will and a divine will without contradicting each other. Christ must have carried a human will because he stated in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Your will be done,” seeming to acknowledge a laying down of the human will in the face of the divine will. In order for Christ to redeem the will of man it would necessitate his having a human will to redeem. By living a human life, perfectly submitted to the Divine life within, Christ took what was human and “deified” it. Or, as men like Maximos taught, “God became man, so that man could become like God.” Christ as fully human could not have lacked any necessary component of human nature if he was to redeem human nature.
To Maximos, man was created in the image of God, but it would require redemption for man to adopt the likeness of God. For man to walk in the likeness of God, a changing of the human will is necessary. Man carries the image of God in that he reflects God’s creative impulse, he is a reflection of the being of God. But man only reflects the likeness of God by grace, as God’s likeness is seen in wisdom, goodness, etc… Man can only become like God by grace, he is the reflection of the image of God by nature. Absent a human will in Christ as a man, the likeness of God would never be attainable by man, as Christ could not have deified what he did not have. Christ deified what he was by nature.
Maximos taught that the components of the soul of man were the threefold: the intelligent, the appetitive, and the incensive. These are generally synonymous with the threefold distinction commonly taught today: mind, will, and emotions. At the risk of oversimplifying Maxmios’ teaching, the intelligent aspect of the soul is synonymous with the mind, or what you think; the appetitive is synonymous with the will, or what you want; and the incensive is synonymous with the emotions, or what you feel. These components can be trained towards God or spent on the self.
The Spiritual Life
Man in his original state was created in the likeness and image of God, with the “God-given beauty of incorruptibility and immortality.” Mankind carried beauty, dignity, and divinity, given by God freely by nature of man’s creation. Humanity lost these inclinations by nature of the fall and the thrust of the spiritual life is reacquiring the likeness of God that was lost as the result of plucking the fruit. As it was the will of Adam and Eve that led to the direct fall of humanity, so Maximos often teaches that the will must be transformed.
It is through purity that the likeness of God is restored in the heart of man.
“It is for this reason that the Savior says, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,' for he is hidden in the hearts of those who believe in him.” He goes on to expound on Ephesians 3:17 and Colossians 2:3, “If, as St. Paul says, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17), and all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in him (Colossians 2:3), then all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in our hearts. They are revealed to the heart in proportion to our purification by means of the commandments.”
If it is the pure at heart who shall see God (as Matthew 5:8 states), and Christ dwells in the heart through faith (Ephesians 3:17) and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Colossians 2:3), then it is by purity that mankind acquires the treasures of Christ in the heart. As such, Maximos teaches that the thrust of the spiritual life is to acquire purity.
The process an individual goes through is seen as two-fold by Abba Maximos: being born of water and of Spirit. This two-fold birth works the adoption of the believer as a child of God and the transformation of the believer into the likeness of God. Grace is bestowed through adoption, and realized through participation. The birth of the believer into faith (through baptism) is being born of water. This conveys grace through faith.
“The first bears the grace, present in potency, through faith alone.” The second birth, those born of the Spirit, participate in the grace that is conveyed by faith. This grace slowly transforms the inner life into the likeness of Christ: “…but the second, beyond faith, also engenders in the knower the sublimely divine likeness of the One known.”
To Abba Maximos, the spiritual life is the transformation of deification (2 Peter 1:4). The hope of the spiritual is to become like God, and thus reacquire the likeness of God. The work of Christ in redemption is to effect this transformation.
“A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God himself became man. For it is clear that he who became man without sin (Hebrews 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for his own sake to the same degree as he lowered himself for man's sake.” Mankind is not to become God, but rather human nature is to be redeemed towards the divine nature, the nature humans were always intended to carry by nature of being created in the likeness of God. Again, the common refrain of the early church authors’ applies, “God became man so that man would become like God.”