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Pauline Allen & Bronwen Neil

Introduction to Maximus the Confessor (Excerpt)

From: Maximus the Confessor and his Companions. Documents from Exile, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 8-30.
Published by the kind permission of the authors.

4. Development of Monothelitism

The monothelite position was enshrined in the Ekthesis (CPG 7607) drafted by Sergius in 638 with the help of the future Patriarch Pyrrhus, abbot of the monastery of Chrysopolis, who succeeded Sergius in that same year. Both the Ekthesis and the later Typos (647/8) stand in a tradition of imperial statements on faith questions (1) The Ekthesis, signed by the Emperor Heraclius, was drafted in very similar wording to the Pact of Union of 633, up to the point where it rejected the teaching of one or two activities in the divine incarnation:

The expression “one activity', even if it was uttered by certain Fathers, nevertheless alienated and confused some who heard it, who supposed that it would lead to the destruction of the two natures which were hypostatically united in Christ our God. In a similar way the expression 'two activities' scandalised many, on the grounds that it had been uttered by none of the holy and approved spiritual leaders of the church, but to follow it was to profess two wills at variance with one another, such that God the Word wished to fulfil the salutary suffering but his humanity resisted his will and was opposed to it, and as a result two persons with conflicting wills were introduced, which is impious and foreign to Christian teaching (2).

Honorius did not live to make any response to this document, as he died in 638, before he received it—perhaps fortunately enough for Rome's future reputation as the upholder of orthodoxy. His successor Severinus refused to accept it, and was brutalised by the exarch. The following popes, John IV (640-2), Theodore I (642-9), and Martin (649-53), all rejected the Ekthesis. In 641, Emperor Heraclius died and left the crown to Constantine III and Heraclonas, his two sons by different wives. Constantine died in mysterious circumstances soon afterwards, and power was seized by Heraclius' wife and niece, Martina, mother of Heraclonas. She was deposed in November 641 and replaced by Heraclius' grandson Constans II. Pyrrhus, a supporter of Martina, was also deposed and replaced by Paul II as patriarch in the same year.

Maximus the Confessor went to Africa with his disciple Anastasius after the accession of Constans II, according to the Greek Vita (3). He had come out openly against monothelitism in c.640 (4). A comprehensive account of his Christology has been offered by Bausenhart (5), and we will attempt but a brief summary of Maximus' principal arguments against the doctrine of one will. While Maximus was concerned to defend Honorius against charges of personal heresy, he criticized the Constantinopolitan interpretation of the pope's formulation of ‘one will in Christ' as diminishing the Incarnate Word and limiting his saving activity: Honorius' definition referred only to the humanity of Christ, he argued (6). Maximus' early arguments, which draw on the Aristotelian tradition in which will is defined as 'rational desire', are summarized in Opus. 7 (642) and Opus. 3 (c.645), both addressed to the deacon Marinus of Cyprus. In the first of these, Maximus casts around for patristic authorities to refute the Ekthesis. He quotes from a work that was attributed, possibly spuriously, to Athanasius, on the Agony in the Garden:

And when he says, 'Father, if it be possible let this cup pass' as the great Athanasius says in his treatise on the Incarnation and the Trinity, 'nevertheless not my will be done, but yours. For the spint is eager but the flesh is weak,' we understand 'that two wills are manifest here: the human which belongs to the flesh, and the divine. For the human will, because of the weakness of the flesh, seeks to avoid the passion; the divine will is eager' (7).

Maximus adduces further support from Gregory Nazianzen's statement: 'For the willing ofthat one is not opposed [to God] but completely deified' (8). The quotation is deliberately taken completely out of context, as Louth notes (9). To explain this citation, Maximus introduces the distinction between gnomic and natural wills, an important one for the orthodox position, and expanded upon in Opus. 3. All human beings since the Fall have a 'gnomic' or deliberative will, because they are uncertain in their attempt to follow the will of God, since they cannot correctly identify the good, having been blinded by sin. Christ, on the other hand, according to Maximus, did not have a deliberative will since he did not need to deliberate about the right course of action, but rather his natural human will conformed perfectly to the divine will.

The Fathers openly confessed two natural, but not gnomic, wills in Christ, lest they proclaim him double-minded and double-willed, and fighting against himself, so to speak, in the discord of his thoughts, and therefore double-personed (10).

This view presumes the existence of two natures in Christ, a human and a divine one, and two activities. Maximus' doctrine of the 'exchange of properties' (ἀντίδοσις/communicatio idiomatum) affirms that in Christ there is a fully human nature with its own properties, and a fully divine nature with its own properties, neither of which is diminished in any way by the union (11). On the question of two activities, he cites two patristic passages that refer to the unity of activities: ps.-Dionysius' 'theandric activity' (12) and Cyril of Alexandria's statement that 'the activity is shown to have kinship with both (natures)' (13). These are not to be understood as indicating numerical unity after the union, however, but a kind of 'double activity of the double nature' (14). Activities are natural, proceeding from natures, and cannot be understood as hypostatic, for in that case Christ would have a different activity from that of the Father, since he is a separate person (15).

In July 645, Pyrrhus agreed to a public debate with Maximus in Carthage over the orthodoxy of monothelitism (16). The debate was held in the presence of the exarch Gregory (17). Murphy and Sherwood explain the difficulty for the monothelites in this way: the will is a particular human activity, which is primarily known in actions and interactions. Thus the will can easily appear to characterise the person, and agent and action seem impossible to distinguish (18). Since the unity of agent in the incarnate Word had been insisted upon by all who accepted the teachings of Cyril, this orthodox belief seemed to imply the non-orthodox doctrines of monenergism and monothelitism; as the confused Pyrrhus protested, 'But one person who wills presupposes one will of that person, not two (19). If activity and will are assigned to the person, the divine person who is the second of the Trinity will have only a divine will and a divine activity, and the work of salvation will be rendered meaningless, as the actions of a mere puppet. Maximus insisted, however, that will (like activity) was natural, not hypo-static, although it emanated from the person. Our capacity to will is natural; how we will, the process of willing, is personal. According to this distinction, natural will is an essential property of the unalterable natural definition (λόγος φύσεως) of each being (20). Pyrrhus, reluctant to accept that will is characteristic of the nature rather than the person, objected that the human will of Christ, if it were natural, would therefore be necessary, thus excluding all free human movement (21). Maximus' answer is that Christ is, like all human beings, self-determining (αὐτεξούσιο) (22). Christ's was the only human will that was truly free, that is, free to conform to the divine will of God. Human beings can gradually return to this state, as the result of Christ assuming a human will in the incarnation, according to the principle that only that which was
assumed by Christ in the flesh could be saved (23). This is seen most clearly in the events of the Garden of Gethsemane and the passion of the crucifixion. While the incarnate Word suffered the natural movements of the rational soul he was endowed with, in accordance with its logos, such as fear of death, hunger, and thirst, he submitted these movements, by an act of his human will, to the will of the Father (24). Thus he was able to overcome his natural repulsion to death, and to say to the Father, 'Mot my will but yours be done1 (Matt. 26: 39). The main point of Maximus' arguments is presented in the Dispute with Pyrrhus in the simple expression: 'Thus Christ in his two natures, wills and operates our salvation' (25). From the question of two wills, they proceed to two activities, whereupon Maximus again expounds ps.-Dionysius' 'new theandric activity' as referring to a qualitative change in the activities after the union, not a quantitative one (26).

Pyrrhus suffered a resounding defeat, and declared himself persuaded to abandon the heresy, after presenting himself in Rome with a statement of his orthodoxy to Pope Theodore. Maximus seems to have followed him to Rome at his request in 645 or 646. As soon as Pyrrhus reached Ravenna in 647, he recanted and returned to the monothelite fold, perhaps yielding to pressure from the exarch. Maximus continued to oppose the heretical doctrine, unperturbed by the Typos, issued by Patriarch Paul in 647 or 648 in the name of Emperor Constans II, which banned any mention of either one or two activities or wills in Christ. This edict met with widespread resistance, both eastern and western. Theodore and Euprepius, who were sons of the imperial miller, were arrested in Italy and banished to exile in the Chersonese for their opposition. Their friend Anastasius the Apocrisiarius, a papal representative to the emperor, was sentenced to exile in Trebizond at this time. Pope Martin, also an apocisiarius the imperial capital before his election to the pontificate, refused to seek confirmation of his election in 649 from either the emperor or from the imperial exarch, in direct defiance of the heretical rule.


1. Brandes, 143.

2. Ekthesis,ACO ser. 2,1.160. 10-19, trans, by Pauline Allen, forthcoming. This passage is taken over from the Psephos ofjune 633, preserved in the letter of Sergius to Honorius of 634 (CPG 7606), ACO ser. 2, 2/2. 540. 22-544. 4 (=Mansi ii. 533C-536A). Trans, by Murphy-Sherwood, 354.

3. Vita Maximi, Recension III, 'Additamentum' edited by Devreesse, 'La Vie', 5-49. If the account in the Syriac Vita (see the commentary on chs. 17-18 by Brock, 'Syriac Life', 325) is correct, this was Maximus' second sojourn in Africa. The biography of Maximus is treated in more detail in Larchet, 127 f., 148,152-5, 160,169,174. See alsoJ.-C. Larchet, La Divinisation de l'homme selon saint Maxime le Confesseur, Cogitatio fidei 194 (Paris: CERF, 1996), 7-20; J.-C. Larchet and E. Ponsoye, Saint Maxime le Confesseur. Opuscules théologiques et polémiques (fans: CERF, 1998), 7-16.

4. Louth, Maximus, 16; Sherwood, Date-List, no. 6ο, 43 notes that Maximus' earliest attack on the Ekthesis was made in his letter of 640 to Abbot Thalassius concerning the affair of Pope Severinus' apocrisiaries in 638.

5. G. Bausenhart, 'In allem uns gleich außer der Sünde'. Studien zum Batrag Maximos' des Bekenners zur altkirchlichen Christologie, Tübinger Studien zur Theologie und Philosophie 5 (Mainz: Matthias-Griinewald-Verlag, 1992).

6. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91. 328ci-332A3. Cf. Pope John's Defence of Honorius (PL 129. 561-6, in the Collectanea of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).

7. Opus. 7. 81c, Louth, Maximus, 187. Maximus is quoting ps.-Athanasius, On the Incarnation and Against the Arians 21, PG 26, 1021b-c. The work is attributed to Marcellus of Ancyra by M. Geerard in CPG 2806. This passage was also quoted in extenso at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, ACO ser. 2, 2/1. 298. 9-18.

8. Opus. 7. 8ic, ibid., citing Gregory Nazianzen, Sermon 30. 12.

9. Ibid. 217 n. 23: Gregory was arguing against the Eunomians' claim that the distinction between the will of the Son and the will of the Father contradicted the doctrine of their con-substantiality. The citation is given a fairer treatment in Opus. 3. 48a-b.

10. Opus. 3. 56b in Louth, Maximus, 197.

11. As expressed in Opus. 7. 84 d. See Murphy-Sherwood, 229.

12. Ep. ad Gaium 4, PG 3.1072c1.

13. Commentary on John, 4. 2.

14. Opus. 7. 85a. 188.

15. Opus. 7. 85b. 189.

16. PG 91. 288AI~353AII. It is partially translated in Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, 3/1. 405-22.

17. Gregory was later accused of conspiracy against the emperor and was killed fighting the Arab incursions in 647.

18. Murphy—Sherwood, 227.

19. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 289 A2~3; trans, by Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, 3/1. 405.

20. Murphy-Sherwood, 276-8.

21. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 293B5-8.

22. ibid. 3241-9; see Murphy-Sherwood, 276, and 278-81.

23. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91. 325A14; trans, by Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, 3/1. 415. The principle is affirmed by Gregory Nazianzen, Ep. 101.32.

24. Murphy—Sherwood, 285.

25. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91. 320c12-14; cf. Record&7.

26. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91. 345c5-348c; trans, by Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, 3/1. 420.

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