St Maximus the Confessor, Blog 1

How are we to be saved?  Jesus exhort us, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”[1]

St Maximus’ commentary on this commandment teaches us that if we truly Love God, this love is a great blessing that binds God and man together, and as much as is possible for man, Christ incarnate, the perfect deified man, will manifest Himself in the deified man to God.[2]  St Maximus says this clearer in another writing: “Love makes man god, and reveals and manifests God as man, through the single and identical purpose and activity of the will of both.”[3]

St Maximus links Love of god to love of neighbor: “Love of God is opposed to desire, for it persuades the intellect to control itself with regard to sensual pleasures.  Love for our neighbor is opposed to anger, for it makes us scorn fame and riches.”[4]


Pelikan starts his volume on Eastern Christendom with St Maximus, the universal spirit of seventh century Orthodoxy, who preserved the Orthodoxy of past Church Fathers while laying a solid foundation for future generations.  The chief idea of St Maximus and Orthodoxy is deification.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray for deification.  At the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, when the host said the good wine was saved until now, St Maximus teaches this refers to Christ incarnated.  We cannot attain deification on our own, we can only achieve deification as a gift from God, through our adoption by the Father through His Son, through divine grace, but with our cooperation, for our free will must seek deification to receive it.[5]

Theology strives to express the inexpressible, know the unknowable, comprehend the incomprehensible.  Try we must, and we must be humble like St Maximus in studying Scripture, for understanding the definition of words is key to understanding Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers.  According to Pelikan, St Maximus thought that the words used in Scripture, although true, were in a sense inappropriate and “unworthy” in their efforts to describe God.  Scripture itself reveals the unworthiness of using mere words to directly reveal the inner being of God, this inner being of God is better seen when the words in Scripture reveal the saving will of God toward the world.  We must in faith in search of understanding seek to clarify the meaning of the words we use, as St Maximus is quote, “To say something without first distinguishing the meanings of what is said is nothing less than to confuse everything.”[6]

St Maximus was born to an upper-class family near Constantinople around 580, had a classical education in rhetoric and philosophy, and his writings as a contemplative monk brought him to the attention of the royal court.  During his lifetime the Monophysite southern Mediterranean portion of the empire was under siege and would fall to Islam.  St Maximus fought against the doctrine of Monotheletism, the belief that Christ had but one will rather than two wills.  At stake was the doctrine of the two natures, the divine nature and human nature, of Christ decided at the Council of Chalcedon.  To Maximus this was not an obscure dispute, we need to accept fully the humanity of Christ before we can be saved.  The Emperor thought otherwise, wishing to find a theological formulation acceptable to all so his empire would be united.  St Maximus was to face trial in Constantinople.  When St Maximus refused to recant, his tongue and right hand were cut off so he could no longer preach, and he died in exile on the Black Sea in 662.[7]

This doctrine of the two wills is briefly described in the commentary of St Maxims on the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ prays to His Father to ask that this cup be passed from Him, but let not what I will but what thou will be done.  Christ in His human nature fears a painful death, as we would fear a painful death, and calls upon His father in his human nature.  Then Christ demonstrates that His human will concurs with His divine will, which is in both Christ and the Father, by saying He will fulfill the divine will.  The human will of Christ, although human, is not like our human will, as it was in its deified state immediately at the Assumption.[8]


When you read many of the writings about St Maximus, you may get the impression that some of his writings are about theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and other writings are about how you should love your neighbor.  But when you read the writings of St Maximus himself, particularly his works on Theology in the Philokalia, St Maximus does not follow this pattern.  He talks about the Trinity and the divinity, but then he quickly transitions into how our thoughts should be on Christ, how we should worship Christ, how we should talk and act to our neighbor.  The theology of St Maximus regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation is like the absurdity of asking if any noise is made when nobody is in the forest to hear the trees falling.  It is absurd because the Trinity, the Incarnation, Jesus walking in the garden with Adam, Jesus taking flesh to walk with us so we may walk with Him, these are all inextricably the same reality.  Man has always been part of the divine plan.

Similarly, the theology of St Maximus regarding the Incarnation and the Trinity is like the couple who drive to a dinner theatre, but they take a wrong turn, and don’t pay attention, they drive into a canal, and they lose their car, their keys, their money, and they stumble in the theatre with their muddy clothes.  The usher kindly and lovingly admits them in without a ticket, without asking for money, finds them new clothes, and ushers them into a massive room where they discover that not only are there no seats in this theatre, and there is no one play, there is no stage either, but there are thousands of plays intertwined together.  They ask when the play begins, and the usher tells them the play began when they arrived, and it never really ends.  They expect to be spiritually fed, but that is incomprehensible here, nor can they merely watch a play, they are in the play with everyone else, they are there to ascend to the stage, by Loving God, and loving their neighbor, bringing out the best in them, bringing out the best in themselves, becoming divine, with the usher at the side of every actor, ever present, ever consoling, ever comforting, ever assisting.

To put this in a more scholarly manner, St Maximus is a cosmic theologian, where the cosmos of the divine descending from above in the incarnation is mirrored in the micro-cosmos of the individual ascending to Heaven through deification.  The Incarnation of Christ, the hypostatic union of divine and human natures, eternally begotten, is safeguarding the purpose of the Incarnation, the deification of man.  If man chooses, he can through deification be unified in God through grace.  The Logos is the supreme divine Mediator, while humanity, the microcosm of the created order, can participate in Christ’s mediation.[9]

In Thunberg’s erudition, for St Maximus the theologia, the trinitarian mystery, and the oikonomia, the incarnation of the Logos, both differ as they are the same.  They differ as the Logos is of the Trinity, and they are the same as when we imitate Christ, we also imitate the Father, whom we know through Christ, and who offers His only Son as a sacrifice for us, and we also imitate the Trinity as a whole.[10]  The incarnation, the Logos assuming flesh to dwell among, through whom we are saved, by whom we are adopted by the Father, was in the divine plan.  St Maximus speculates that the Incarnation was planned without regards to the possibility of the fall.[11]  Jesus’ taking flesh transcends mere words, the Incarnation means God is personally involved in His creation, and always intended to suffer and die so our soul can ascend so we can truly be like God.

Blog 2 of this series:

[1] Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV

[2] St Maximus, “Second Century of Various Texts,” In the Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 2, translated and edited by GEH Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 171, paragraph 2.
The exact text is confusing: “Love is a great blessing and of all blessings the first and supreme, since it joins God and men together around him who has love, and it makes the Creator of men manifest Himself as man through the exact likeness of the deified man to God, in so far as this is possible for man.”

This is less confusing when you read it in conjunction with John 14:20-23, which contains these two verses: “he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” And: “We (Christ and the Father) will make our home with him” who loves Christ.

So, we cannot say that Christ can be made manifest in us in the same way Christ is made flesh in the Incarnation, but St Maximus definitely sees a parallel, to what extent depends on the exact definition of the word “manifest,” which we can never know, since it describes a divine descriptor.

[3] St Maximus, “First Century of Various Texts,” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 170-171, paragraph 27.

[4] St Maximus, “Fourth Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 110, paragraph 75.

[5] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700),” vol. 2, The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 8-12.

[6] Pelikan, Eastern Christendom, 35.

[7] Lars Thunberg, “Man and the Cosmos” (New York: St Vladimir’s Press, 1985), 12-20.

[8] St Maximus, “Opusculum 6, On the Two Wills of Christ in the Agony of Gethsemane,” In On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, translated and edited by Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken (New York: St Vladimir’s Press, 2003), 173-176.

[9] Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 17-21.

[10] Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, 39-40.

[11] Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, 74.

About Bruce Strom 183 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.