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Byzantine Gospel

Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship

by Fr Aidan Nichols

Maximus the Confessor (580-662), giant among early Byzantine theologians, stands at the summit of the Greek patristic tradition. He is spokesman of the Greek-speaking 'East' in something of the way Thomas Aquinas came to speak for the Latin 'West'. His extreme importance as a spiritual writer is evidenced by the huge space assigned to him in the

Believing in the intimate link between dogma and prayer, Maximus opposed the heresies of his day with his own unmatched synthesis of Christian truth. For this, he was persecuted and mutilated, and died in exile. The modern rediscovery of Maximus, begun by Western Christian scholars such as Vittorio Croce, Pierre Piret, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Lars Thunberg and Juan-Miguel Garrigues, has led to an ever-increasing use of his theology and insights by Orthodox and Catholic theologians throughout Europe and North America. Maximus has also become a central point of reference in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Aidan Nichols has provided the English-speaking reader with a reliable guide to the major studies on Maximus done in Europe in the past twenty-five years: the period of 'rediscovery'. He reads Maximus through the eyes of those who have studied him in depth and builds up a multi-faceted portrait of this prince among theologians, and a comprehensive overview of his theology, his 'Byzantine Gospel'. Along with a brief biography, and an account of the history of the relevant scholarship, sufficient primary texts have been included to convey a sense of Maximus' powers both as a summarizer of the previous tradition, and as an original theologian in his own right.

Aidan Nichols, O.P. is a member of the Dominican Community at Blackfriars, Cambridge, and the author of numerous books on Eastern and Western theology and Church history.

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Preface                                                             ix
1. Background, Life, Work                                            1
2. Vittorio Croce on Maximus' Theological Method                    24
3. Pierre Piret on the Trinity and Christology in Maximus' Thought  64
4. Michel van Esbroeck on Maximus' Mariology                       111
5. Lars Thunberg and Alain Riou on World and Church in Maximus     120
6. Lars Thunberg on Maximus' Doctrine of Man                       158
7. Juan-Miguel Garrigues on Maximian Soteriology                   196
Conclusion                                                         216

Appendix:The Rediscovery of Maximus:A Brief History of 
                                             Maximian Scholarship  221
Bibliography                                                       253
Index of Names                                                     261


The following study makes no claim to originality. It is essentially a synthesis of the European scholarship which has accumulated around the figure of Maximus the Confessor in the course of the last twenty-five years. Both Orthodox and Catholic theology, in Continental Europe, make ever greater use of the insights of this early Byzantine theologian. He is increasingly regarded as the giant of the Greek tradition, to be compared, as the author of its classical statement, only with Thomas Aquinas in the Latin West. Although one outstanding student of Maximus, Lars Thunberg, is Swedish, his work was published in English, thanks to the good offices of Canon A. M. Allchin, now Warden of St Theosevia House, Oxford. Otherwise, all the major monographs are in languages other than English - though the first large-scale American study appeared from the Notre Dame University Press in 1991. My aim has been to provide the English-speaking reader with a reliable guide to a selection of these 'major monographs', chosen - and commented on - in such a way that they provide a comprehensive overview of Maximus' theology: a '
Byzantine Gospel'. At the same time, sufficient primary texts have been included to give the reader a sense of Maximus' powers both as a summariser of the previous tradition, and as an original theologian in his own right. In both capacities he deserves to be remembered, and better known.

Feast of St Gregory the Great, 1992

Chapter 1:Background, Life, Work


When did Byzantium begin? J. M. Hussey, in her
The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire has little hesitation in placing the true beginning of the Byzantine polity not with the foundation, on the site of the ancient Byzantion, of the city of Constantinople as capital of the eastern, and senior, half of the Christian Roman empire, but with the aftermath of what she terms the 'seventh century watershed'.[1] If true, then Maximus the Confessor, who was nineteen years of age when that century opened, lived at a time of momentous importance in the development of European Christian civilisation.

Why does Hussey attach so much weight to the seventh century? In the first place, the rise of Mohammed and the victories of lslam in the south and east contracted the boundaries of Christendom in a dramatic way while also bringing a fresh religious challenge. Secondly, the arrival of the Slavs on the border of Byzantium, and their acceptance of Christianity, brought a compensating 'enlargement and enrichment' to the Christian family. [2] Thirdly, the falling of those great cultural and theological centres of early Christianity Antioch and Alexandria under the Muslim yoke gave a new prominence to the see of Rome, which, with its venerated tombs of the martyr-apostles Peter and Paul was the apostolic see par excellence- as well as to the claims of Constantinople to share in the prerogatives of the 'elder Rome' as Nea Rôma, 'New Rome', Rome redivivus. Fortunately, as Hussey points out, the emperors of Byzantium in this period were of sufficient calibre to rise to the principal demands which a new situation thus placed upon them, above all in the administrative reform of their polity, its institutional reinvigoration.

Drawing on traditions both Christian and Roman-imperial, the early Byzantine state had a capacity to induce respect and even awe which matched the formidable problems - military, administrative and economic - that faced it in this period. As
J. F. Haldon has written:

The political system, with its formal ideology and its assumption of God-given jurisdiction, provided a focus for unity in a culturally, linguistically and economically diverse world, in away that few autocracies have succeeded in doing. [3]

But there was, as the same author points out, a 'price to be paid': open criticism of the manner in which the emperor's guidance of the oikoumenê functioned, notably in its most delicate aspect - the religious, was a dangerous proceeding.

Not the least of the problems which faced the Byzantine ruling elites at the start of the seventh century was the continuing crisis over theological doctrine, endemic since the earliest years of the Christian empire but present in an especially acute form since the Council of Chalcedon, 451, 'unreceived' as this was by the numerous die-hard Cyrillians, or yet more extreme christological 'high Churchmen': the devotees of the Monophysite movement in Syria, Egypt and Constantinople itself. The effort to find some doctrinal instrument which would reconcile the Monophysites to Chalcedon, or at any rate would bring them back into the fold of the imperial Church without alienating Chalcedon's own fervent supporters, not least in the West, dominated the ecclesiastical policy of the Eastern emperors from the time of Zeno's Henotikon or 'Proposal for Unity' of 482. None of the imperial interventions proved lastingly successful - not even the most ambitious of them, the General Council held under the auspices of Justinian at Constantinople in 553 and subsequently reckoned the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church. Though it condemned certain expressions ofthe (Antiochene) two nature Christology, and emphasised the hypostatic or personal identity which bound together the humanity of Christ with the eternal being of God the Word, the Monophysites remained dissatisfied and the separate organisation of their churches gathered momentum. Meanwhile, a related issue, new to the explicit agenda of doctrinal discussion, at once added fuel to the flames and also held out some hope, though this would prove deceptive, of ecclesiastical reconciliation.
This was Monothelitism and its twin brother Monoenergism. So far no Council had explored the question as to whether, in the Word Incarnate, there were two wills, a divine and a human, or simply one personal will that was somehow simultaneously both. Similarly, no Council had essayed an answer to the question whether the Saviour was characterised by a single activity,
energeia, corresponding to the unicity of his hypostasis, or by a twofold acting, conformable to the duality of natures. The question was of no mere academic interest, for, as Hussey points out:

to have agreed on one energeia or one will would have answered one of the principal Monophysite objections to the Chalcedonian definition, and therefore should have gained Monophysite support. [4]

The chronic problem of the Monophysites was compounded at this juncture by military threat from the Sassanid kingdom of Persia whose forces at one point reached the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. Aware of the close link between Chalcedonian faithfulness and loyalty to the empire, the Persians cannily persecuted Chalcedonians, favoured their Monophysite (and Nestorian) opponents. It was this conjuncture which led the emperor Heraclius, supported by the Constantinopolitan patriarch Sergius, to adopt a policy of conciliating the Monophysites through a doctrinal instrument of concord: the affirmation, as a reconciling article, of a single activity, energeia, in the person of the Word Incarnate. There thus opened a new chapter in the story of the Monophysite crisis. The new situation formed the essential public context of St Maximus' life and work. It will be, then, the subject of the rest of this brief account of the Confessor's Byzantine background.

The collaboration of emperor and patriarch is certainly a good example of the Byzantine notion of symphonia between empire and Church, translated into action. Their co-operation seemed indeed providential. To contemporaries Heraclius was the saviour of the empire. The death of Justinian in 565 had been followed by a period of in creasing internal tension coupled with external threat. The steps taken by Justinian's successor, Maurice, to protect the outlying territories - for example by organising the remaining Western provinces into exarchates, one based at Ravenna, the other at Carthage, proved ineffective. In 602, in the course of the failing military effort against the Slays and Avars, who had crossed the Danube and were both occupying and devastating the Balkan peninsula, the semi-barbarian Phocas came to power and inaugurated a reign of terror which only embittered groups within - for instance the Monophysites whom he repressed severely, and emboldened groups without
- above all the Persian king Chosroes II who undertook the invasion of the East Roman polity in 605. The rallying of the exarch of Carthage, Heraclius the Elder, against the régime in 608 was the signal for a revolt which in 610 led the citizens of Constantinople to open their gates to his son, Heraclius the Younger, whose fleet, with the icon of the Mother of God fixed to the mast of its flagship, had appeared in the Golden Horn. Phocas abandoned to the mercies of the mob, Heraclius the Younger was crowned emperor on 5th October in the church of St Stephen by a Constantinopolitan patriarch, Sergius, himself but recently elected.

Sergius acted as Heraclius' counsellor in both the governmental and the psychological senses of that word. To a man given to periods of self-doubt, he offered hope. More materially, he also put the financial resources of the Church at the emperor's disposal for the purposes of the empire's defence. During Heraclius' absence on campaign, Sergius was a principal figure in the administration of the great capital. When the emperor had to deal with Monophysite leaders, in the course of the military operations, Sergius provided him with suitable doctrinal texts. By 614, after some successes and many reverses, Heraclius was ready to retire to the West. What stopped him was Sergius' moral support as also the Persian capture of Jerusalem and the relic of the Holy Cross on 5th May. The Cross's parading in pagan triumph through the streets of Ctesiphon turned the Persian war into a Crusade.
[6] Heraclius made peace with the Slays; he re-organised the empire's administration by concentrating civil and military authority in the hands of those who headed the huge new territorial units of the empire, the 'themes'; in an effort of unification he made Greek its only administrative language. But the same necessary concern for unity also confronted him with the problem of the Monophysites, and here too the faithful Sergius could be of use. A particularly high degree of urgency was attached to this area of policy after 614 when a Monophysite synod, meeting at Ctesiphon under Persian auspices, took steps to strengthen the cohesion of the Monophysite community at large, over against the Chalcedonian 'Great Church'.

The Monophysite interpretation of the famous Cyrilline formula, '
One incarnate nature of the divine Word' was certainly regarded as heretical by both Heraclius and Sergius, though the formula itself was, as the work ofthe divine Cyril, thoroughly approved by them. [7] This circumstance suggested a way out of the dilemma - if only an understanding of Christology could be found which would satisfy at once the supporters of Chalcedon, the legal faith of the empire, and the theological tendencies of those extreme Cyrillians so numerous among its Armenian, Syrian, and Coptic peoples. [8]

During the opening years of his patriarchate Sergius was engaged in assessing the strength of support for this policy, and made approaches to bishops in Egypt and Armenia to this end. The formula he hit on first was that of the single energeia, 'operation' or 'activity', of Christ. From information provided by Maximus the Confessor we learn of four letters by Sergius in which he initiated the exposition of the single energeia teaching. The first was addressed to the leader of a small Monophysite body at Alexandria, George Aras, whom Sergius commissioned to find patristic texts relevant to the unique activity of Christ - the context being negotiations taking place at Alexandria with the Monophysite patriarchs of Egypt, Athanasius Gammala, and of Syria, Anastasius Apozygares, under the aegis of the imperial prefect Nicetas. Sergius' second letter was destined for Theodore, bishop of Pharan, near Mount Sinai. By this point, Sergius had come into possession of a most valuable document - the libellus, 'little book', sent, so it was claimed, to pope Vigilius by a predecessor of Sergius, Menas of Constantinople, in which the patriarch mentioned not only Christ's single activity but also his single will. Theodore replied with enthusiastic approbation. (Maximus would report that the defenders of Monoenergism admitted that the articulation oftheir doctrine came largely from Theodore of Pharan.) Sergius' third letter was despatched to the leader of the Cypriot Monophysites, Paul the One-Eyed. Later, Heraclius would send Paul, whom he encountered during his Armenian campaigns, back to his island, with a decree addressed to the archbishop of Cyprus, Arcadius, forbidding all talk of two activities in Christ after the Union. The fourth letter had as its recipient Cyrus, bishop of Phasis, in Lazica. Cyrus did not understand how Heraclius' instructions to archbishop Arcadius were compatible with the Tome of Leo, which had clearly stated that 'each nature does what is proper to it, in communion with the other'; Sergius hoped to send him some more satisfactory explanations. [9]

Although Severus of Antioch had explicitly taught Monoenergism, in the course of his rejection of Chalcedon, the notion of reconciling Monoenergism with Chalcedon's Diphysitism was the brain-child of Sergius and Heraclius. It seems likely that the first real theologian of Monoenergism was not so much Sergius as Theodore of Pharan, that Chalcedonian whom Sergius had successfully won over to the new policy. Theodore's doctrine is known only from eleven extracts from writings ascribed to him, ançl discussed both at the Lateran Synod of 649 and the Third Council of Constantinople itself, in 681. In these extracts all of Christ's actions are seen as emanating exclusively from the Word. Though Christ knew the 'natural movements' of his humanity, their exercise, like their cessation, depended on the Word's activity alone. Will is also mentioned, as being single and divine. [10] Hence the names whereby in the history of doctrine these eirenic christological excursions became known: not only Monoenergism but also Monothelitism, the teaching on the single will. Theodore was not foolish: as W. Elert pointed out, prima facie, the literary image of Christ presented by the Gospels appeared to be taken with greater seriousness as a christological norm were the Church to affirm one single activity in Christ. [11] Nor, as the Redemptorist F. X. Murphy and the Benedictine Polycarp Sherwood, in their study of the antecedents of Constantinople III, candidly admit, were Heraclius' doctrinal interventions simply political in motivation. The enduring resistance of such Churchmen as Macanus and Stephen ofAntioch, and Constantine ofApamea, to the final victory of Dyothelitism, as well as the survival of its Monothelite alternative in pockets of Syria and Palestine, suggest that the doctrine eventually dubbed heretical represented an 'original religious position'. [12]

Between 622, when the new doctrine began to be employed for the first time, and its first notable success, the '
Pact of Union' with the moderate Monophysites of Alexandria in 633, its role in imperial policy was central yet patchily effective. The turn in Byzantine fortunes assisted matters. In 626, with Sergius leading the resistance, the armed might of Persians and Avars failed to take Constantinople. (The patriarch probably composed the kontakion to the Mother of Christ as protec tress of the City, now incorporated in the Akathistos hymn, for this occasion.) In 628 the Persian king died, and in 629 Heraclius concluded an armistice which enabled the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem, where it was solemnly enthroned on 21st March. In 633 Heraclius called the Armenian catholicos Ezras to a council at Theodosiopolis (Erzerum) where all dissentfrom Chalcedon was foresworn - for the time being. In Syria, likewise, Heraclius used the instrument of a synod, with the Monophysite patriarch and twelve of his bishops participating, at Hierapolis (Mabboug). There, though with more discordant voices on the non-Chalcedonian side, a similar ecclesiastical peace was made on the basis of the one-activity and one-will teachings. In Egypt, things proceeded differently. In 630, or 631 Heraclius nominated Cyrus of Phasis as patriarch of Alexandria - ignoring the sitting Coptic patriarch, Benjamin, as the latter had indeed ignored Cyrus' titular Chalcedonian predecessors, living in Constantinople. The emperor gave Cyrus plenipotentiary powers, inclusive of civil and even militarymatters. But his primary task was the doctrinal peace.

When Cyrus arrived in his city, and, conveniently, his Coptic rival fled, he took the opportunity to publish a 'Pact of Union' to be accepted by all. The Pact condemned any denial that the incarnate Son 'worked both the divine and human by a single theandric activity' - a phrase drawn in part, it would seem, from the recently published writings of the anonymous master who wrote under the name of Denys the Areopagite. [13] Read out from the ambo of the patriarchal church in Alexandria, the Pact was accepted by both parties, and the union sealed with the Eucharist. So Cyrus reported joyfully to Sergius and Heraclius.

As luck would have it there arrived in Alexandria at this moment, en route from Carthage to Palestine, the monk Sophronius, whom Maximus had got to know and revere as a master in north Africa, and who would become, eventually, patriarch ofJerusalem. Though a Damascene, Sophronius had become a monk (along with the noted spiritual writer John Moschus) at the monastery of Theodosius, near Jerusalem. Driven out by the advance of the Persians they had fled first to Antioch, then to Egypt, and in 614 to Rome. On Moschus' death in 619, Sophronius returned to the East to bury his friend. He appears to have found things not to his liking, since Maximus' letters indicate that he was shortly back in the West, at Carthage. A second Eastern journey of return brought him to Alexandria, where he was known as the friend of the sainted patriarchJohn the Almsgiver. [14] Learning of the Pact of Union, Sophronius lost no time in denouncing its doctrinal contents to Sergius. Sergius hesitated. To avoid a controversy he temporised and, along with his permanent synod, issued a decree that henceforth neither one activity nor two should be taught, though all the actions of Christ, divine and human, should be ascribed, in conformity to the witness of the Fathers, to the single agent who was our Lord and true God. [15]

This text, the Psêphos, committed the church of Constantinople to a christological 'solution' which, as events would show, could gain the lasting support neither of the Latin West nor of many in the Byzantine East. Constantinople's 'Determination' put the emphasis, as one would expect of a Cyrilline Chalcedonianism, on the unitary agency of the Godman in the work of salvation. But it went further. While discountenancing the term 'one activity' as tending to eliminate the distinction of natures, it also frowned upon the phrase 'two activities' as seeming to introduce two opposed wills within the personhood of the Saviour. This option it rejected as impious, affirming instead its opposite: namely, that the Lord's flesh, as animated by his intelligence, did nothing of its own initiative but only when God the Word willed it, and as he willed it. [16]

The political situation which surrounded it was of the most delicate. While the provincesjust re-conquered from Persia -Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia - needed re-organisation, and the pacification of Egypt depended on the skills of a single ecclesiastic, Islam was emerging from the confusion which had followed Mohammed's death in 632. By 634 the Arabs would have invested Syro-Palestine. In 635 they captured Damascus; Jerusalem and Antioch would follow in 638. Before them much of the Greek-speaking population of the Near East fled. Chiefly Chalcedonian, and where theologically affected by the movements of the previous century, no doubt NeoChalcedonian, they were welcomed with open arms by a Latin Christendom faithful to the Tome of Leo and the Council of 451. In terms of
Realpolitik, a balancing act - such as the Psêphos represents - was the best Constantinople could manage. [17]

For Sophronius, this would not suffice. Endowed with the blessed quality of turning up at the right place at the right time, he reachedJerusalem as the patriarch Modestus lay dying, and was elected to succeed him, either in late 633 or early 634. His synodal letter informing Sergius of his enthronement argued for both Cyril and Leo, and while defending the '
one incarnate nature' formula as capable of an orthodox meaning, insisted that, since Christ is in two natures he must enjoy all the properties of those natures, including activities. [18] At this stage, however, Sophronius did not directly affirm Dyothelitism, concentrating his fire instead on the Monoenergists. But his
démarche led Sergius to write an able self-defence to pope Honorius. Evoking in optimistic terms the union agreements reached via the instrumentality of the single activity idea, he was pleased to tell Honorius that Leo and his Tome were now liturgically commemorated even in Egypt, while, so far as substantial doctrine was concerned, he himself stood by the approved Fathers. But he also made it plain that, for him, affirmation of two activities leads to an assertion of two wills, and so to the allegation of inner contradiction in the Redeemer's person.

The Greek version of Honorius' reply survives. It praises Sergius for suppressing vain 'quarrels of words', and uses, commendingly, what would soon be marked out as an heretical expression: 'the single will of the Lord Jesus Christ' [19] But in the context of the pope's references to the Letter to the Romans, with its 'law of the Spirit' and 'law of the members', it seems likely that Honorius was thinking of the moral or spiritual unity of Christ's willing. [20] Though the subsequent arrival of Sophronius' synodal letters reminded Honorius more forcibly of his Leonine inheritance, they do not seem to have modified his basic approval for Sergius' strategy.

Meanwhile in 638, shortly before Sophronius' death, a senior bishop of his patriarchate, Stephen of Dora, with his approval, took an oath at the shrine of Golgotha to journey to Rome, there to secure the canonical annullment of the new heresy. At the same time, the Arab advances had taken the heart from Heraclius. Sergius responded by writing, and gaining Heraclius' signature for, an Ekthesisor 'Exposition' of the faith, incorporating the Pséphos but including also an explicit confession of the Lord's single will. [21] Affixed to the doors of Hagia Sophia it was twice synodically approved, once before Sergius' own death in December, and once with the election of his successor Pyrrhus, who issued an encyclical letter requiring
adhesion to it, making play, not least, with the name of pope Honorius.

Honorius was already dead, His short-lived successor, Severinus, despatched his apocrisaries to Constantinople but they felt unable to give any assurance about the pope's possible support for the Ekthesis, news of which they brought back with them to the West. Pope John IV, a curial official consecrated in December 640, had, by the time of Heraclius' death in February 641, condemned the Ekthesis synodically and written to the new emperor, Constantine III, at once complaining of Pyrrhus' letter on the 'Exposition', giving an orthodox interpretation of Honorius' notorious slip, and asking the emperor to withdraw all copies of the offending edict. Constantine was probably orthodox, and docile, but his death in May and the ensuring dynastic struggle prevented any coherent imperial action until the accession of Heraclius' grandson, Constans II, in September. Meanwhile Pyrrhus defended Monoenergism zealously, but Constans replaced him with the patriarch Paul, while at Rome John IV himself died, and was succeeded by a Palestinian Greek, pope Theodore. In 645 or 646, as we shall see in the next section, Maximus arrived in Rome, bringing with him the deposed patriarch Pyrrhus, now temporarily returned to orthodoxy - until shortly the exarch of Ravenna, Plato, persuaded him otherwise. So the main figures of the Lateran synod of 649 were in place. [22]

From the Roman viewpoint, Paul of Constantinople proved no better than Pyrrhus. After much prevaricating, he made a clean breast of things in 643 with a long profession of Monothelite faith. Excommunicated by Theodore, he persuaded Constans II to issue, probably in 648, the
Typos, 'An Edict Concerning the Faith'. Insisting on silence vis-à-vis the entire Monoenergist and Monothelite questions, for the sake of the peace of the churches and the good of the empire, it decreed severe sanctions for any malefactors. [23] What Theodore made of the Typos is unknown. Dying in the spring of 649 he was succeeded by an Umbrian deacon, Martin, who had been papal emissary at Constantinople. The new pope was consecrated without attempt to gain the usual imperial ratification. At the Lateran synod, opening on 5th October 649, he and Stephen of Dora would object to the Typos that it placed orthodox teaching and heretical on the same level, and, by its. interdiction on discourse, deprived Christ of activity and will alike.

Though the Lateran synod was only a council of the Roman province, its essential inspiration, and theological structure, came from the Greek East. [24] Not only were its Acta in Greek as well as Latin; the Latin is hardly more than a translation of the Greek. With the exception of some materials from North Africa, its patristic documentation was entirely Greek. The explanation must be sought in the role at the synod of Greek (and other Oriental) monks, resident at Rome (as elsewhere in the West) , [25] and, above all, of the personal contribution of Maximus - who, however, appears only once under his own name, among the last of the signatories of the formal complaint against the Byzantine authorities. Called by E. Caspar a 'battle-synod', Kampfsynode, [26] its effect was to encourager les autres- the orthodox groupings in the East Roman world. Pope Martin made great efforts to disseminate its decisions: by letter to Sigebert, king of the Franks, and to bishops in the new mission lands of the Low Countries; by envoy to Africa and Palestine; and, most perilous proceeding, to the imperial court-where the papal brief ascribed the Typos calamity exclusively to the patriarch Paul. [27] Murphy and Sherwood wrote finely of it:

One may say that, in a sense, the distinctive mark of the council of the Lateran was to efface itself behind the Sixth Ecumenical Council, just as Martin and Maximus the Confessor carried off their own victory in their effacement in an exile which made the Sixth Council inevitable. [28]

For Constans could admit no threat to his policy. On 17th June 653 he had Martin arrested, by the hand of the exarch of Ravenna, in the Lateran basilica itself. Tried in Constantinople in December on the charge of high treason (all discussion of religion being non-admissible), he was exiled to the Chersonese, in the Crimea, where he died on 16th September 655. He thus outlived Paul, who expired before Christmas 653, and Pyrrhus, who was restored to his patriarchal seat but died likewise in June 654. After the formal condemnation of Martin, however, the emperor sought no further formal act of adhesion by the Papacy to the Typos. Nonetheless in May 655, as we shall discover, the trial of the chief theological instigator of the Lateran synod, Maximus, and of his disciple, Anastasius, at last began.

The broader context to Maximus' life is, then, what Haldon has termed an argument of the State with 'the articulate and literate opposition', centred as that was on the Italian and African clergy, and notably those close to pope Martin, St Maximus, and the organisers of the Lateran synod. [29] As the trial accounts make clear, it amounted to a public debate about the sources of authority within the Empire - a foretaste of the more widespread and embittered, yet fundamentally similar debate of the Iconoclast crisis a few generations later. Yet, as this historian points out, the icons, and the saints themselves, had already begun to appear, in Maximus' own period, more desirable ways of access to the holy, more reliable mediations of God in Christ, than the 'Christ-loving' emperor. [30] In this perspective it is, he thinks, significant that the most telling charge the Confessor's own enemies brought against him was not his opposition to the imperial court, but rather the slur-credited, apparently, among the soldiery- that he had spoken slightingly of Mary of Nazareth, the Queen of heaven. We shall return to that motif in the course of this study.


For information about the life of Maximus we are mainly dependent on successive versions of the official
Vita [31] However, an important addition to our materials is furnished by the Syriac Life, published in 1973, which appears to be contemporary with the saint's own life and death. [32] Its anonymous Monothelite author, hostile to Maximus, presents a quite discrepant account of his early upbringing from that of the Greek hagiographical tradition. While admitting that the question is by no means a closed one, in what follows the early portions of the Syriac Vita will be ignored, and their picture of a Palestinian (indeed, half-Persian) Maximus, trained in the Origenistic-tending monasteries of Judaea, will be passed over in favour of its main rival, which locates his origins and education in the capital, and in humanist circles at that.

On this version: Maximus was born, in c. 580, to a Constantinopolitan family. From the extent of his familiarity not only with Scripture and such Christian theologians as Origen and the Cappadocians but also with philosophical writers, and notably Aristotle, Plato, lamblichus and Proclus, he would appear to have enjoyed the kind of broad humanist education for which the great city was renowned. While still relatively young, he became 'protosecretary' at the court of the emperor Heraclius, who began to reign in 610 - though the date and significance of Maximus' appointment are still disputed. [33] From the continued part he played in official society after his entry into monastic life it has been suggested that his family belonged to an inner circle which provided the Byzantine capital with its intellectual and bureaucratic cadres.

Some three years after taking up his appointment, however, Maximus resigned it in order to enter monastic community at Chiysopolis (Scutari) on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, opposite Constantinople. Whether he became
hêgumenos, abbot, there, or whether this tradition is based on faulty inference from the memory that he was called father (abbas) , is disputed. [34] Some while later, for reasons obscure, he removed himself to the monastery of St George at Cyzicus (Erdek). Although political factors may have been involved in Maximus' withdrawal from court and city, he himself states, in a major autobiographical letter, that his chief reason for embracing the ascetic life was 'philosophy', that is, monastic spirituality. [35] His biographer stresses his advance in ascetical practice, and in the devotional life, [36] while his own writings show 'a considerable insight into the pastoral problems of a monastic community' [37]

Probably in 626, when not only the Persians but also the Avars and Slays were converging upon Constantinople and its environs, Maximus (together with many other Greeks) departed into exile. It is conjectured, on the basis of slightish evidence, that he spent periods in Crete and Cyprus. [38] He arrived in North Africa, home to numerous Byzantines since the reconquest under Justinian, in about 628. At Carthage, he probably occupied the monastery called 'Euchratas' which had as its abbot the erstwhile companion of John Moschus, Sophronius, who in 633 would become the first Chalcedonian to combat the rise of the Monoenergist teaching. This encounter was crucial for Maximus' awareness of the fresh challenge to orthodoxy: new, yet in many respects comparable with the 'moderate' Monophysitism of Severus of Antioch. Though at first feeling the pain of exile very acutely, as letters to the bishop of Cyzicus testify, [39] Maximus came to regard his exile as a permanent state of affairs - though this is it was not to be, thanks to his developing rOle in the empire-wide dispute about both Monothelitism and Monoenergism which henceforth constituted the sole axis of his literary work.

There can be little doubt that Maximus made his mark in Africa, enjoying good relations with the imperial governors Peter the Illustrious and George. [40] Yet such friendships had their perils. The wealth of the province of Africa made it is a possible launching-pad for a coupd'état (as with the two Heraclii), while Maximus' very success in winning the support of the African church for his criticisms of the empire's religious policy (testified by the councils condemning Monothelitism which met locally after 646) testified to its ripeness for religious revolt. It cannot entirely be ruled out that Peter, strategos of Numidia, and George, prefect ofAfrica, had it in mind to make use of Maximus' name and prestige in their own politickings vis-à-vis the Byzantine state. [41]

His Western exile, which would last for a quarter century, contained two notable events of Church-historical concern. In 645, he engaged the deposed patriarch Pyrrhus of Constantinople in theological debate on the issue of the two wills and energies of Christ. Of that disputation, a scribal record has come down to us.
[42] In the presence of the exarch, Gregory, and numerous bishops and other notables, they set themselves to worry out the meaning of the key-terms involved and, through and beyond the question of language, to establish the basic theological principles on which christological doctrine should be set forth. At the close, Pyrrhus declared himself convinced, and ready to place a Dyothelite profession of faith into the hands of the pope, whilst at the same time expressing the hope that he would not be required to anathematise retrospectively his predecessors. It is presumed that Maximus accompanied him to Rome, to make in St Peter's his, as it proved, short-lived orthodox confession. [43]

The second signal event was, of course, the Lateran synod of 649 at which, as we have seen, Maximus was extraordinarily influential even though not necessarily physically present at its sessions. [44] While Maximus' rôle at the synod must be ascribed to the quality of his own teaching and personality, he may also have profited from the prestige enjoyed by Greek exiles in the West.

The emperor, Constans, reacted sharply to the Lateran synod's anathematisation of both Monothelitism and Monoenergism. But owing to the sympathy for pope and synod of the Byzantine exarch in Italy neither the pope nor Maximus were actually arrested until 653. [45] The trial of Maximus was delayed until the spring of 655, and ended inconclusively, as the imperial authorities were unable to prove either main charge against him. These were, that he had conspired treasonably against the emperor, and that his refusal to communicate with the church of Constantinople was both an ecclesiastical and a civil delict. [46] Sent into temporary exile at Bizia in Thrace, an attempt to convince him of the error of his ways, made by a court bishop, Theodosius, failed abjectly, but has left an important record in the Disputatio byzica. [47] Summoned to the capital, he was tempted to surrender to the will of the emperor but finally refused, and was sent back to Thrace, this time to another location, Perberis, for six years. In 662 an overtly Monothelite council at Constantinople anathematised him in his presence, and that of his disciples.

Condemned to mutilation, his tongue, by which he had confessed the two wills and energies of the Redeemer, and his right hand, with which he had refused to sign a compromise statement of doctrine, were cut off. He was exiled to Lazica on the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea, where he died on 13th August 662- a date which is kept liturgically in his honour in both Eastern and Western traditions. [48] As the Swedish Maximian scholar Lars Thunberg put it:

His victory was soon to be won, but he himself could no
longer take part in it.

The American historian of doctrine, Jaroslav Pelikan, commented:

The title 'confessor', which he acquired soon thereafter and which is forever attached to his name, was a tribute to his steadfastness in confessing the faith of the undivided Church in the undivided hypostasis and the distinct natures of the person of the incarnate Son of God. [50]

The doctrine for which he died may seem narrow or technical; the occasion of his martyrdom not especially momentous. Yet the doyen of historians of Byzantine theology,John Meyendorffy could write:

These Christological commitments and debates imply a concept of the relationship between God and man, a theology of 'participation' which would, through the creative synthesis of Maximus the Confessor, serve as a framework for the entire developmentof Byzantine Christian thought until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. [51]


Maximus' literary activity appears to have begun with his transfer to Cyzicus in 624-5. From this period there dates Epistle 1, addressed to the chamberlain John, a letter which has been described as a '
magnificent hymn to charity', [52] as well as the predominantly ascetic discussions in Epistles 2, 3 and 4. But, above all, Maximus is beginning work on his first major treatise, entitled 'On Various Difficult Passages in the Holy Fathers Denys and Gregory', which will pass into history under the name of the Liber Ambiguum- the 'Book of Ambiguities'. [53] As the Ambigua (to give it its shorter title) testifies, the problem pre-occupying Maximus in this period is notyet Monothelitism but rather Origenism, especially as found in a quasi-popularised form through the activities of Evagrius of Pontus, not least in monastic circles. Indeed, Maximus is capable of using at this date turns of phrase which, in the later polemic against Monothelitism, he would take care to render more precise. [54] Maximus' principal aim was to confute the Origenist notion of the henas ton logikôn, or aboriginal unity of all minds, in which he divined the root fault of the Origenist system. Since, in the wake of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Justinian's Council of Constantinople of 553, Origen's name was not officially to be mentioned, Maximus' discussion takes the form of exegesis of some controversial passages in Gregory of Nazianzus that were capable of being understood in an Origenist sense. Its translation into Latin by John Scotus Eriguena achieved a critical edition in 1988. [55]

From the same 'monastic' period come several works of an ascetic-spiritual kind, works with which, until this century, Maximus' reputation was mainly bound up. Notable here are the Liber asceticus or 'Ascetic Discourse', and the Capitula caritatis Centuriae de Caritate, the 'Chapters' or 'Centuries' on charity-so called because what Maximus has to say is arranged in one hundred points at a time. The first of these, the Ascetic Discourse, [56] takes the classic literary form of the dialogue; the second is a collection of apophthegms, or pithy sayings, originally a Stoic genre but launched on its Christian history by Evagrius of Pontus - to whose ideas on holy living these 'Chapters' are also indebted for their content. [57] Even more striking in its debt to that earlier master with an over-clouded reputation is another work, somewhat later, in the same genre - the Capitula gnostica or 'Gnostic Centuries',whose alternative title gives a better idea of their content. [58] The Capitula theologica et economica, 'The Chapters on the Theology and Economy', are not, of course, an early expression of the 'social Gospel' but a series of reflections on God in himself ('Theology') and in his self-disclosure for man's salvation ('Economy'). Both works exhibit Maximus' habit of drawing into a greater synthesis the contributions of his predecessors - having eliminated from the work of the former any elements which were ambiguous or even erroneous.

Before becoming involved in the struggle against Monoenergism and Monothelitism, Maximus produced a number of biblical commentaries, such as those on Psalm 59
[59] and on the Pater. [60] To these will shortly be added the much more compendious series of Quaestiones. The Quaestiones ad Thalassium, a major source for his theological doctrine, [61] and the Quaestiones ad Theopemptum [62] were, as their titles indicate, addressed to individual churchmen perplexed about knotty passages in the interpretation of Scripture. The Quaestiones et dubia, 'Questions and doubtful points', leave the original interlocutors in anonymity. [63] These writings exemplify another literary type quite widespread in Christian antiquity. This was the genre of quaestiones et responsiones, questions and answers on the Bible. [64] The ones Maximus wrote make plain his fundamental allegiance to Alexandrian principles in exegesis - some thing to be explained in the second chapter of this study.

We have already seen how Maximus' respect for the writings of Denys the Areopagite led him to refer to that unknown figure as 'holy father Denys', placing him, in the title of the Book of Ambiguities, on the same level as St Gregory Nazianzen, in the Greek church 'Gregory the Theologian'. Maximus' enthusiasm for the corpus Dionysiacum led him, at roughly the same epoch as the production of his biblical commentaries, to write the Mystagogia - an exercise in liturgical exegesis, a commentary on the rites of the Eucharistic liturgy in its architectural setting. This would remain not only one of the most crafted of his works (which are, in general, lacking in literary workmanship), but one of the most popular in later Byzantine readership. [65]

The place of origin of this literature was the proconsular Africa to which, in around 628, Maximus, in the confused situation attendant on the Persian advance towards Constantinople, had fled from the East to the West, where eventually, with the removal from the scene by death of Sophronius of Jerusalem in 638, Rome was left alone to maintain the Dyothelite teaching over against the great Oriental sees. From 641 onwards, all of Maximus' efforts would be devoted to the continuation of the christological struggle. Everywhere that there was need to defend the orthodox teaching, Maximus directed the little treatises which now form the Opuscula theologica etpol.emica, '
theological and controversial minor works', along with the remaining letters: taken together, these make up the content of that last stage in his literary production. [66]

Maximus' Roman activities, initiated in 646, reached their culmination in the Lateran synod of 649. The formulations of that synod, which have passed into the magisterial doctrine of Catholicism, reflect his theological thinking.
[67] The synod's anathematisations of Monothelitism and Monoenergism provoked Maximus' arrest by the imperial authorities, his two trials and penal exile, all of which succeeded in bringing to an end his theological writing, though the records of his trials, especially the first, described in the Relatio motionis inter Maximum et principes, as well as the debate held at Bizia with the court bishop Theodosius, preserved as the Disputatio byzica in his Acta, are also important sources for his doctrine. It is to the content of Maximus' theological vision, and first of all to his understanding of the foundations of Christian theology, that we must now turn.


1. J. M. Hussey,
The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford 1986), p.9.

2. lbid., p. 10.

3. J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century. The Transformation of a Culture (Cambridge 1990), p. 23.

4. lbid., p. 13.

5. F. X. Murphy. C. Ss. R.. - P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III (Paris 1973), pp. 136-137.

6. lbid., p. 138.

7. lbid., p. 139-140.

8. The whole story has never been better told than by W. H. C. Frend in his The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (Cambridge 1972).

9. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R., - P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III (Paris
1973), pp. 140-142.

10. Ibid., pp. 143-145. The texts are given in Mansi XI, 568B-569E and 572A. For an attempted reconstruction ofTheodore's fuller identity, thoughtand significance. see W. Elert, Der Ausgang der altkirchlichen Christologie (Berlin 1957).

11. Ibid., pp. 11,224.

12. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R., P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., p. 136.

13. Mansi, XI. 565D. Denys, however, had spoken of a '
new' rather than 'single' such activity.

14. On Sophronius and his teaching, see C. von Schônborn, Sophrone de Jérusalem. Vie monastique et Confession dogmatique (Paris 1972).

15. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R.,-P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., pp. 151-152.

16. Mansi XI, 533c-536A.

17. L. Bréhier- R. Aigrain. 'La nouvelle crise religieuse.Juifs. monoénergisme, Islam, 632-639', in idem., Grégoire le Grand, les Etats barbares et la conquête arabe, 590-757 (= A. Fliche et V. Martin [eds.], Histoire de l'Eglise depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, 5, Paris 1938).

18. Mansi XI, 481E.

19. lbid., 540B; see P. Galtier, 'La première lettre du pape Honorius', Gregorianum 29 (1948), pp. 42-61, and G. Kreuzer, Die Honoriusfrage im Mittelalter und in der Neuzeit (Stuttgart 1975), pp. 17-57, for studies.

20. F. X. MurphyC. Ss. R. -P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., pp. 161-162.

21. Manxi XI, 993E-996C.

22. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R. -P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., p. 166.

23. Mansi X, 1029C-1032D.

24. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R. - P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II ci Constantinople IlL op. cit., pp. 178-179.

25. J. M. Sansterre, Les moines grecs et orientaux à Rome aux époques byzantine et carolingienne; milieu du VIe. siècle -fin du IXe.siècle (Brussels 1983).

26. E. Casper, 'Die Lateransynode von 649', Zeitschrift für Kirchengesrhichte 51 (1932), p. 123.

27. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R. -P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., p. 182.

28. Ibid., p. 181.

29. J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, op. cit., pp. 365-366.

30. For the title, see 0. Kresten, 'Justinianos I, der "Christusliebende Kaiser", Römische Historische Mitteilungen 21(1979), pp 83-109; and for the image of the emperor, H. Hunger (ed), Dos byzantinische Herrscherbild (Darmstadt 1975). On the role of the emperor in East Roman Christendom, see A. Nichols, O.P., Rome and the Eastern Churches. A Study in Schism (Edinburgh 1992), pp. 133-151.

31.R Devréesse, 'La vie de saint Maxime le Confesseur et ses récensions', Analecta Bollandiana 46 (1928), pp. 5-49.

32. S. P. Brock, 'An Early Life of Maximus the Confessor', ibid. 91(1972), pp. 299-

33. W. Lackner, 'Der Amtstitel Maximos des Bekenners', Jahrbuch der Oesterreichischen Byzantinistik 20 (1971), pp. 64-65.

34.In his Acta, his signature to the Lateran council and his inscription to most of his works, he appears as simply 'monk' V. Grumel, 'Notes d'histoire et de chronologie sur la vie de Saint Maxime le Confesseur', Echos d 'Orient 26 (1927), p. 32.

35. Epistle 2 (PG 91, 392-408).

36. PG 90, 72D-73A.

37. L. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator. The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund 1965), p.4.

38. P. Sherwood, An Annotated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor (Rouse 1952), p.5.

Epistles 28-31 (PG 91, 620D-625D).

40. P. Sherwood, An Annotated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor, op. cit., pp. 49-52.

41. V. Croce, Tradizione e ricerca. Il metodo teologico di san Massimo il Confessore (Milan 1974), p. 11.

42. Disputatio cum Pyrro (PG 91, 287A-354B).

43. F. X. Murphy, C. Ss. R. -P. Sherwood, O.S.B., Constantinople II et III op. cit., pp. 1 66-167. At any rate, Maximus was in Rome by 646, according to the testimony of the Relatio motionis inter Maximum et principes.

44. P. Sherwood, An Annotated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor, op. cit., p. 20.

45. M. W. Peitz, 'Martin I und Maximus Confessor', Historisches Jahrbuch der Görresgesellschaft 38 (1917), pp. 225ff.

46. The trial is described in the Relatio motionis (PG 90, 109C.-129C).

47. PG 90, 136D-172B.

48. J.-M. Garrigues, 'Le martyre de saint Maxime le Confesseur', Revue Thomiste
76 (1976), pp. 410-452.

49. L. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator. The Theological Anthropology of Moximus the Confessor, op. cit., p. 7.

50. J. Pelikan, 'Introduction', in C. C. Berthold (ed), Maximus the Confessor. Selected Writings (New York 1985), p. 5.

51. J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York 19792), p. 5.

52. V. Croce, Tradizione e ricerca. Il metodo teologico di san Massimo il Confessore, op. cit., p.8. The 'grand chamberlain' was the senior official in the direct service of the Byzantine emperor, the administrator of his household: J. M. Hussey (ed), The Cambridge Medieval History, IV The Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 1967), II. p. 21.

53. In question here is Ambiguo 6-71 (PG 91, 1061-1417); Ambigua 1-5 come from a somewhat later date, around 634.

54. E.g. 'one sole energy of God and of the saints', in Ambigua 7 (PG 91, 1076CD)
- as noted by V. Croce,
Trodizione e ricerca, op. cit., p. 8.

55. E. Jeauneau (ed), Maximi Confessoris Ambigua ad Johannem, iuxta Johannis Scotti Eriugenae latinam interpretiationem (= Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca, 18; Turnhout 1988).

56. PG 90, 912-956.

57. lbid., 960-1080.

58. lbid., 1084-1173.

59. Ibid., 856-872.

60. Ibid., 872-909.

61. Ibid., 244-785; C. Laga - C. Steel (eds.), Maximi Confessoris Quaestiones ad Thalassium 1, Quoestiones I-LV (= Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca, 7, Turnhour 1980); idem., II, Quaestiones LXI-LXV (= ibid., 22, Turnhout 1990).

62. PG90, 1393-1400.

63. Ibid., 785-856; J. H. Declerk (ed.), Maximi Confessoris Quoestiones et dubia (= Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca, 10, Turn hout 1982).

64. Cf. G. Bardy, 'La littérature patristique des 'Quaestiones et responsiones' sur l'Ecriture sainte', Revue Biblique 4l (1933), pp. 205-212; 332-339.

65. PG 91, 657-717; C. C. Sotiropoulos, Hê Myslagôgia tou hagiou Maximou tou Homologêtou: eisagôgê - keimenon - kritikon hypomnêma (Athens 1978). For the difficult problem of the authorship of the fragmentary Scholia on the Dionysian corpus, ascribed to Maximus, see M. L. Gatti, Massimo il Confessore. Saggio di bibliografia generale ragionata e contributi per una riconstruzione scientifica del suo pensiero metafisico e religioso (Milan 1987), pp. 83-86.

66. PG 91, 9-286; for the
Opuscula; Migne reproduces Combefis' collection of forty-five letters at PG 91, 364-649; they are analysed in M. L. Gatti, Massimo il Confessore, op. cit., pp. 48-60. She also notes four other authentic letters, ibid., pp.

67. V. Croce, Tradizione e ricerca, op., p. 12.

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This Version: 18th July 2009

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