106 - Double or Nothing: Maximus the Confessor

Posted on 9 December 2012

Maximus the Confessor brings us to the brink of the medieval Byzantine period with his philosophical defense of Christ’s full divinity and full humanity.

Further Reading

• P. Allen and B. Niel, The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: 2015).

• D. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: 2004).

• D. Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West (Cambridge: 2007).

• J. Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor (South Canaan: 1989).

• A. Louth, Maximus the Confessor (London: 1996).

• J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: 1974).

• T.T. Tollefsen, The Christocentric Cosmology of Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: 2008).

• T.T. Tollefson, Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought (Oxford: 2012).


Samn! 15 December 2012

The discussion here of Cyril and Nestorius isn't entirely accurate. Nestorius was not a supporter of 'Monophysite' Christology, as he argued for two hypostases and two natures in Christ. On the other hand, Cyril also usually (though not always) treated nature as a synonym for hypostasis and so argued for one nature-- the Cyrillian slogan was 'mia physis tou theou logou sesarkomene', 'one incarnate nature of God the Word.' The later Monophsite movement came out of an especially strident emphasis on this slogan.

Also, the promotion of Monergism/Monotheletism by the Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople and the Emperor Heraclius began nearly a generation before the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, around the first decade of the 7th century. If one were to look for a political motivation for this theological compromise, the Persian conquest of Syria and Palestine is a better candidate...

Thanks very much -- you're right, there was a slip here where I meant to write "Appolinarius" rather than "Nestorius." (In fact I've just said in this episode that Nestorius held to the two-nature and two-hypostasis view and go on to discuss the implications of that later in the episode). Sorry about that, I'll see if I can fix it and redo the audio file accordingly.

Regarding the second issue would you agree that, even if monotheletism was originally proposed prior to the Muslim conquests, the conquests do provide an important context for the push towards this compromise during Maximus' career, which he tried to fight? That was really the point I wanted to get across.

Peter Adamson 15 December 2012

In reply to by Peter Adamson

And by the way Cyril's own view on these matters seemed to me, when doing research for the episode, to be extremely controversial. It seems like various groups wanted to claim solidarity with him, so that the "orthodox" party represented by Maximus at least read him as holding to the two nature and one hypostasis theory. But I guess you think that this was a misrepresentation?

Samn! 15 December 2012

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Cyril was never too too consistent with his technical terminology, and additionally since at least the 6th century there's been the accusation that some works attributed to Cyril were in fact Apollinarian forgeries. The most common language in Cyril speaks of one hypostasis and one nature "out of" two natures, with two ousiai. The basic disagreement seems to hinge on whether 'nature' should be treated as a particular or as a universal (Cyril once, famously, conceded that as long as you assume nature to be equivalent of 'ousia' you can speak of Christ being 'in two natures').

After the Council of Constantinople of 553, the Byzantine state church accepted the "one incarnate nature of God the Word" as being an acceptable formulation-- but only as long as 'nature' is being taken as a particular rather than a universal and the juxtaposition of 'incarnate' and 'God the Word' is understood as meaning the same thing as 'in two natures, human and divine'. On the other hand, opponents of Chalcedon didn't take this seriously, and insisted that orthodoxy could only be maintained by using Cyril's own preferred language.

So yeah, basically everyone was trying to claim Cyril for themselves...

Peter Adamson 15 December 2012

In reply to by Samn!

OK, great, thanks -- that's pretty much what I thought. You really seem to know this stuff by the way! I'm very grateful for your input, since it is not really in my area.

Samn! 15 December 2012

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I'm not sure, to be honest. I mean, there was a long history of imperially-sponsored compromises from immediately after Chalcedon in 451 (Zeno's Henotikon, Justinian's almost constant negotiation with Monophysite leaders leading up to the Council of Constantinople of 553, etc.) going up until the Islamic Conquest. I would say that if anything, the permanence of the conquest eventually led the Empire to give up on trying to reach a compromise with the anti-Chalcedonians.

That said, Maximus was aware of the Muslim conquest of Egypt and mentions it in one of his letters. The question of how serious Byzantine popular opinion thought the Arab conquest was at the time is kind of an open question. Most likely, they probably saw it as part of the same long-term weakness and instability along the Eastern frontier that allowed for the Persian invasion, weakness that was certainly exacerbated by theological divisions...

Peter Adamson 15 December 2012

In reply to by Samn!

Right, that makes sense. So more broadly we might say that the various political challenges (both internal and external) faced by the Byzantine emperors would have given them a strong reason to try to heal divisions in the church if they could -- or crush one or the other side if compromise was impossible.

In general, yes. But, Justinian and his wife are an interesting example of the imperial court trying to play up support for both sides simultaneously. A recent book investigating just how complicated things were is "Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church" by Volker Menze. Which I guess all just confirms your point about how important these really arcane questions were for Byzantine politics (and thus world history)...

Just to comment on this discussion of the political motivations, by St Maximus' time the Muslims were definitely a big threat and his persecution should be seen in that context. He was accused of, among other things, helping foment the rebellion of the governor of Africa (the region around Carthage, in Roman administrative term) against the emperor Constans II in Constantinople. The rebellion may not have been directly related to the Islamic invasions, but it certainly did not help. (Incidentally, the rebellion fizzled out when the governor was killed in battle against a Muslim raiding force that had reached the province of Africa.) Maximus was also punished for refusing to accept that the emperor had a quasi-sacerdotal role to play in the church, as if he were able to dictate theology to the bishops who were primarily responsible for formulating doctrine. A classic study of this problem throughout the Byzantine era is Gilbert Dagron's _Emperor and Priest_.

Sam is right that the initial push for compromise in the early 7th century came in the context of the Persian War, but Maximus' tribulations were in direct continuation of this project, since his teacher Sophronius had challenged that first phase, and Maximus continued the fight after his master's death. The coming of the Muslims made things even more difficult. Byzantinists still debate how much religious disagreements opened the door to Persian, then Arab invaders. Many of the Monophysites were loyal citizens of the Empire, and some of the evidence for welcoming the Muslims comes from several centuries later, when it was good politics to portray one's faith community as being early friends of Islam.

Peter Adamson 16 December 2012

Just to say that we've patched this episode with a corrected version, taking account of the point made below. Should be accurate now, I hope. (Amazingly the audio sounds quite smooth, I don't think you can tell it's been patched.)

Theophilus 6 January 2013

This was an exceptional pesentation of a very confusing topic: as succient, clear, and accurate (patch included) as I have ever heard (or read). Of the 106 podcasts I've listened to in your excellent series, I'd rate this one right at the top. While it may be true that many Christians today do not appreciate the importance of this controversy, it has, as you point out, significant implications for the Christian faith.

Peter Adamson 6 January 2013

In reply to by Theophilus

Wow, thanks! That's really good to hear, because it isn't something I have done research on before this podcast. I found it very interesting, I wish that historians of ancient philosophy would look at these theological controversies more closely.

Hope you enjoy the Augustine just as much!


Filip 29 March 2013

Just a slight suggestion regarding the bibliography. Since the most of the presentation deals with Maximus' dyothelite doctrine, I think it is better to propose Joseph Farrell's "Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor", 1989 (though with some reservations on author's position), instead of Meyendorff's Byzantine theology, and instead of Tollefsen's newest book, I would suggest his earlier book "The Christocentric Cosmology of Maximus the Confessor", 2008, since the latter is wholly dedicated to the Confessor's thought, while the former deals with Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Gregory Palamas (and of course to some extent on Maximus himself).

Thanks, that's very helpful, I'll take your advice on this. The reason I put this Tollefson book is that I had just read it, as it happens (for the journal Phronesis, I do the Book Notes on Neoplatonism). No harm in listing both though.


Nicholas Marinides 3 October 2013

You may want to add two more books to the bibliography:

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, trans. Brian Daley (San Franscisco: Ignatius, 2003) -- this is a recent translation, with updated bibliography, of the 2nd edition of Von Balthasar's work, which was originally published in 1941 and is considered the definitive synthesis by a man who was in his own right one of the 20th century's most important Christian theologians/philosophers

Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood NY: SVS Press, 1985) [since reprinted]

The blurb on Amazon says: Lars Thunberg, the author of the excellent study Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of St Maximus the Confessor [1962], provides in this text a shorter, more popular study on this famous Byzantine theologian.

These are both theological studies, but with Maximus you can't avoid the philosophical side of this thought.

T. Franke 8 March 2015

Another example where we can see that movement in the field of theology / philosophy is often pressed by politics. The story is also of interest concerning the very beginnings of Islam. Maximus the Confessor wrote of the conquerers from the desert as ... "Jews". Furthermore, I heard that the Muslim conquest of Egypt was successful also because the prevailing opinions about the trinity and the nature of Jesus in Egypt broke Egyptians apart from Constantinople and made Egyptians lean towards the conquerers who not necessarily deserve to be called "Muslims" at this early stage of Islamic history. I even read that some of these early Muslims received baptism in Egypt ... I have got this knowledge from the book "In the shadow of the sword" which is much more intelligent than its title makes expect you.

This topic has also been covered in recent episodes of the History of Byzantium podcast. It's interesting that Maximus called the Muslims "Jews," I didn't know that!

T. Franke 9 March 2015

In reply to by Peter Adamson

The question whether Maximus called the conquerers "Jews" seems to be in dispute. At least the German Wikipedia says: Yes, he called them "Jews"! - Yet in this source (p. 78) we see an interpretation which sees the reference to the Jews as a sudden change in subject in this letter. From a first glance, I would say, this is not easy to decide, maybe a glimpse into the original Greek text would help? Peter Kirby, too, cuts off the passage with the "Jews".

Rex M Bradshaw 28 May 2017

I'm a bit disappointed you didn't talk about Maximus's theology of creation, as I find that one of the most fascinating aspects of his thought, but I understand you are under time constraints (if you weren't, your podcasts would be too long for my commute). Good work regardless.

Actually I might have a chance to come back to that since there is a whole series planned on Byzantine thought. I am not planning a whole new episode on Maximus but his ideas will no doubt come up numerous times as I tackle that tradition. (Actually I have wondered if it was a mistake not to save him for the Byzantium episodes, but back when I was doing late antiquity it seemed a shame not to have him there.)

Alejandro 31 July 2019

Hi, Peter! I just heard someone say that pre-resurrection Jesus wasn't omniscient and inmediately came back to this chapter. This person is Eastern Orthodox and went as far to say that an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation neither requires nor allows Jesus to have been omniscient prior to his resurrection. But if he wasn't omniscient, how could he be fully divine? (If God is omniscient or omniscience a coherent concept, that is.) Based on your exposition of Maximus' thought, Christ's human nature would have the capacity for limitedness as regards knowledge but would be perfected by the divine nature. In other words, Jesus has the capacity for doubt and ignorance, but his divine nature guarantees that his pronouncements are in accordance with those of an all-knowing God. Do you think Maximus would agree with this?

I'd want to double check this with the texts but my initial reaction is that yes, that must be right: expressions of doubt or hesitation by Jesus (something like "let this cup pass from me") would be ascribed to his human nature, whereas his special knowledge would be due to his divine nature. This would fit with Maximus' similar idea that Christ had two wills, divine and human. But as I say I'd be happy to be corrected on this score.

Alejandro 1 August 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for your response! I think this is what Maximus would say too, but there are, I believe, differences between the act of sinning (to use the example you use) and the act of knowing: I see no contradiction in being tempted to sin (due to human nature) while at the same time choosing not to sin (in accordance with the divine nature). Something can be possible and still never happen (unless you agree with Diodorus Cronus!). But how can you doubt and be perfectly omniscient at the same time? Or, to use an example that all Christians have thought of, how does the divine nature perfect the human nature of Jesus when he was, say, a baby?

See now this is why I am not a theologian.

But seriously, though I can't help with the baby question, I think the knowledge idea could make sense. We could suppose that Jesus has access to divine knowledge but does not always use it, so his divine omniscience might be "tacit" or manifest only occasionally. If we think about omnipotence that would be similar: for the most part Jesus is walking around doing normal human things but on some occasions he performs a miracle, and at those moments he is manifesting his omnipotence.

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