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Naturally and by Grace: Maximus the Confessor on the Operation of the Will

Naturally and by Grace: Maximus the Confessor on the Operation of the Will

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Published by akimel
by Ian A. McFarland
by Ian A. McFarland

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Published by: akimel on May 27, 2013
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SJT 58(4): 410–433 (2005) Printed in the United Kingdom
2005 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltddoi:10.1017/S0036930605001481
‘Naturally and by grace’: Maximus the Confessoron the operation of the will
Ian A. McFarland
Candler School of Theology, 109B, Bishops Hall, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA
Although Maximus’ and Augustine’s theologies of the will were shaped by verydifferent polemical contexts, it is arguable that the two thinkers were interestedin securing the same theological ground. In response to positions that treated thewill as a reserve of human autonomy over against God, both thinkers sought tosee the freedom of the will as a function of its integration into the natural orderthrough grace. Maximus’ concept of the natural will in particular functions asa means of challenging both divine determinism and human libertarianism asadequate accounts of the relationship between divine and human activity.
In one of his early works, Maximus the Confessor offers a brief but im-passioned account of the final destiny of human beings:With the advent of Christ at the end of time, there will be a changeand transformation of inclination and choice in human beings fromfaithlessness to faith, from wickedness to virtue, from ignorance toknowledge of God; because then, at the end of the ages, there will bethrough the same God, our Savior, a transformation and renewal of thewhole human race that is all-encompassing, natural, and by grace, fromdeath and corruption to immortal life and incorruption in the expectedresurrection.
Though Maximus quickly moves on to other matters in this treatise, muchof his subsequent literary output can be read as an attempt to flesh outthe meaning of this seemingly bizarre conflation of intentional, naturaland divine activity in human life. By dint of Maximus’ engagement in theMonothelite controversy, the later stages of this development centre on thewill as the nexus where inclination (
), choice (
), nature (
Expositio in Psalmum 59
(PG 91:857A). It should probably be pointed out that Maximus’talk here of a ‘renewal of the whole human race’ need not be taken as evidence thathe believed in an apokatastasis. See Brian E. Daley, SJ, ‘Apokatastasis and “HonorableSilence” in the Eschatology of Maximus the Confessor’, in Felix Heinzer and ChristophSch¨onborn (eds.),
Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur Fribourg,2–5 septembere 1980
(Fribourg: Editions Universitaires, 1982), 322–3.
‘Naturally and by grace’: Maximus the Confessor on the operation of the will
and grace (
) intersect. Focusing on the figure of Christ as the touchstonefor anthropological reflection, Maximus will come to see the agony in thegarden as the prototype of genuinely human action: at once free, natural andfounded in grace.Vastly influential in Orthodox theology, this model also has much tocontribute to more Augustinian reflections on the relationship betweenhuman freedom and divine grace. Though it is an open question whetheror not Maximus was familiar with Augustine,
both struggled to definethe relationship between freedom, nature and grace. More specifically, bothopposed a model of free will as a reserve of autonomy cut off from God andthe world in favour of an understanding in which it is ‘always already’ relatedto both.
As a consequence of this basic anthropological orientation, bothhad to answer the objection that such a position amounted to a necessita-rianism that ruled out genuine freedom of the will. A crucial issue for bothmen therefore became how divine grace becomes part of human willingwithout rendering mention of one or the other superfluous.Needless to say, thetheologicalcontexts that broughtthese two thinkerstothiscommonpredicamentwereprofoundlydifferent.Augustine’sargumentscentre on the anthropological question of human beings’ capacity to secureblessedness for themselves: over against Pelagian (and pagan philosophical)claims to the contrary, Augustine insisted that they could not; blessednesswas a gift of grace. By contrast, Maximus’ views assumed final form in thecontext of a christological debate in which his main concern was defendingthe presence and power of Christ’s human will over against a position(Monothelitism) which effectively argued that salvation depended on thehuman will being overruled by God. So contextualized, it seems that the twotheologians’ perspectives could not possibly be more divergent
 – and yetone of the chief objection levelled against Maximus by
opponents waspreciselythat
positionunderminedthefreedomofthewill!Tounderstandhow such a charge could make sense, it is necessary to take a closer look atthe details of Maximus’ views.
Maximus spent a long time in North Africa. Arriving no later than 630 (perhapsas early as 628), he stayed till his departure for Rome in 646 and was sympatheticenough to Western theology to have offered a sympathetic interpretation of the
;but he nowhere refers to Augustine in his writings. See G. Berthold, ‘Did Maximusthe Confessor Know Augustine’? in
Studia Patristica
17 (1982), 14–17.
I owe this phrasing to Charles T. Mathewes,
Evil and the Augustinian Tradition
(Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2001), 103.
For an argument seeking to make just this point, see Joseph P. Farrell,
Free Choice in St.Maximus the Confessor 
(South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989).
scottish journal of theology
The category of the will in Maximus
Though Monothelitism provided the stimulus for Maximus’ mature doctrineof the will, many key components of his final position were in placebeforehand. For example, the issue of human freedom is introduced inone of Maximus’ earliest extant works, ‘Letter 2’ (to John Cubicularius), inwhich he speaks of the need to make our capacity for self-determination(
to ep’hemin
) submit to reason and, more specifically, the way in which ourinclination (
) must be persuaded ‘to follow nature and not in any wayto be at variance with the
of nature’ so that ‘we are able to have oneinclination (
) and one will (
) with God and with one another, nothaving any discord with God or one another’.
This wholesale renewal of human intentional action is necessary because through the fall the devil has‘separated us, with respect to our inclination, from God and one another’,having ‘divided nature at the level of mode of existence, fragmenting it intoa multitude of opinions and imaginations’ by introducing into human beingan ‘irreconcilability with respect to inclination’ that led us ‘to turn from thenatural movement [we] once had
. . .
to what is forbidden’.
Already at this very early stage (around 626 and thus well before theemergence of Monothelitism) the basic architecture of Maximus’ laterthinking on the will is visible. Two points in particular are important here.First, Maximus defines fallen existence in terms of division with respectto inclination or
; second, he associates
with personal mode of existence (
) rather than created human nature (
). In the fall humanbeings find themselves divided from God, each other, and even within theirown selves by an ‘irreconcilability of inclination’ that marks a declensionfrom the natural movement towards God characteristic of the will in itsoriginal state.
Whereas humankind was created with a natural desire forGod, the fall perverts desire.
In redemption, however, this internal division
Maximus the Confessor, ‘Letter 2’ (PG 91:396C), in Andrew Louth,
Maximus the Confessor 
(London: Routledge, 1996), 86–7.
Maximus, ‘Letter 2’ (PG 91:396D–397A), 87; the translation has been modified toindicate that Maximus speaks consistently of ‘inclination’ (
) in the singular here.
Thus Maximus can say that ‘nature remains undamaged and undivided in those whohave received
. . .
grace, not divided up into the differences introduced by
’.‘Letter 2’ (PG 91:401A), 89.
As Maximus describes it elsewhere, ‘every wicked power is at work
. . .
driving the
with the natural passions into the corruption of unnatural passions’.
Quaestionesad Thalassium
21 (CCSG 7:128–9) in Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (eds.),
St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ
(Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’sSeminary Press, 2003), 110; translation slightly altered.

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