Vol 42 No 2
Benedict, Maximus and the Greater Hope
Pope Benedict’s nomination of St Maximus the Confessor as a Doctor of the Church invites us to explore the person
of Jesus Christ as the One in whom divine and human wills coexist.
THE SIGNING OF Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi, on the feast of St Andrew the Apostle (30th November), 2007, is widely interpreted as an ecumenical gesture. The theology of hope is one whose major themes are shared by all denominations, and some commentators see in the dating of the encyclical a year after Benedict’s visit to Istanbul—of whose patriarchal see St Andrew is both patron and legendary founder—a sign of the Pope’s ‘hope of unity’ between the Churches. But the date also holds a clue that something more is being offered. In Spe Salvi the Pope offers a unique and unusual olive branch to Orthodoxy with a gesture of recognition and respect that both transcends the confessional divide and goes to the heart of the communion between the Churches.
In the twenty-eighth paragraph of the encyclical Pope Benedict writes about this communion:
Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his ‘being for all’; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole.
The Pope then goes on to quote from the writings of a seventh-century Greek monk, Maximus the Confessor, who wrote that:
Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others…[A]n interior freedom from all possessions and all material goods…is revealed in responsibility for others.1
This quotation from the writings of the Saint known also as Maximus of Constantinople and to the Greeks as Maximus the Theologian says much about Pope Benedict’s approach to communion. Maximus is not, of course, the only saint mentioned in the encyclical; the Pope also quotes from Gregory Nazianzen (another Greek known as ‘the Theologian’), Thomas Aquinas, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo and Bernard of Clairvaux; additionally he cites the nineteenth century saints Josephine Bakhita and Paul Le Bac Tinh, and the twentieth-century cardinals Henri de Lubac S.J. and Nguyen Van Thuan (formerly Archbishop of Saigon).2 Yet it is in this encyclical that for the first time Maximus the Confessor is called a Doctor of the Church—and not just a Doctor of the Church but ‘the great Greek Doctor of the Church’. Considering that apart from Maximus there are only thirty-three other Doctors of the Church, this is quite an accolade.
Doctor of the Church
In the past, Doctors (literally ‘Teachers’) of the Church were announced with fanfare. A requirement for the nomination was that the teacher possessed outstanding holiness, depth of doctrinal insight, and an extensive body of writings which the Church could recommend as an authentic expression of its faith. This last requirement was waived in the case of the next-to-last saint to be named a Doctor, Therese of Lisieux, whose body of writings—though inspiring—was not extensive. Nevertheless her teaching had to be examined by both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints before it could be pronounced ‘eminent’ and her Doctorate proclaimed in a public ceremony at St Peter’s by Pope John Paul II3 . Other saints—Peter Canisius and Albert the Great—became Doctors on the day of their canonisation;4 there is inevitably some sort of procedure and always a ceremony. Yet Benedict’s reference to Maximus as a Doctor in the course of his second encyclical is almost casual: it is as if Maximus always was a Doctor, and the Pope has merely confirmed it for us, albeit somewhat belatedly.
In a way, this isn’t as strange as it seems. Maximus always has been respected as a teacher: he has been revered as a saint since his death in exile in 662; his teaching on the two wills of Christ became orthodoxy at the sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 680-1); and he left a substantial body of writings that fill two volumes of the Patrologia Graeca. The only thing preventing his being named a Doctor was the requisite ecclesiastical approval—namely the Pope’s go-ahead—which until last November just hadn’t been granted.
The history of these Doctors of the Church makes an interesting study. Up until the late sixteenth century, only seven saintly teachers had been awarded the title—four of them fathers of the Western church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great) and three from the East (Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom, who are even today honoured by the Orthodox as ‘the three Holy Hierarchs’). By the Middle Ages the number seemed to have become fixed: there were seven Doctors in the same way that there were seven sacraments, seven days of the week and seven ecumenical councils. Only occasionally was the name of St Athanasius included to equalise the number of Eastern and Western Doctors.
The great Dominican Pope St Pius V changed all this when, in 1567, he added the name of the Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas to the list, and the Franciscan Sixtus Vfollowed suit with the Franciscan St Bonaventure in 1588. From the time of Clement XI in the early eighteenth century two out of every three Popes (there have been eight exceptions among twenty-three pontificates) have invoked their privilege of adding a new name to the list. Most of those named have been Westerners; only four (Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus and Ephrem of Nisibis) were from the East. The vast majority of the Doctors who lived in the second millennium (all except Francis de Sales) belonged to religious orders; only three (Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Therese of Lisieux) were women. Most Popes have restricted themselves to naming only one Doctor during the course of a pontificate; four Popes—Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius XI and Paul VI—have named two or more.
It has become customary, then, for a new Pope to name a new Doctor, and for the theologian Benedict XVI it was only a matter of time. Yet the method of nominating Maximus has proved surprising, and encyclopedists and list-makers are now scratching their heads and wondering if it is actually official. It is, of course: Pope Benedict is simply doing it his own way. It reminds me of the time he dropped the title ‘Patriarch of the West’ from his list of titles: without fanfare, it was simply there in the Annuario Pontificio one year and gone the next. In this pontificate the encyclical—that most authoritative of papal writings—has suddenly become the place to announce which other writers or writings on the faith may also be considered authoritative. Or is this encyclical unique because it is an encyclical about hope?
Maximus and the Two Wills of Christ
So who exactly is this St Maximus, whose nomination to the position of Doctor of the Church has not happened in the way we would have expected? Born around 580 at Constantinople (probably) and called Megistos (‘greatest’—the Latin Maximus is a translation) perhaps in order to compensate for his small stature, he was the son of a Byzantine civil servant. Well educated, by his early thirties Maximus was secretary to the Emperor Heraclius; some time after 610 he experienced a call to the religious life and became a monk at the monastery of Philippicus at Chrysopolis (modern Scutari, the Asian suburb of Istanbul). Around 615 he transferred to the monastery of St George at Cyzicus (modern Erdek) on the Sea of Marmara, but with the advance of the Persian army through Asia Minor in the mid-620’s, and along with many other Greeks, he emigrated. By 630 he was at Carthage in North Africa, where his friend and former tutor Sophronius (the future Patriarch of Jerusalem) was also in exile. Encouraged by Sophronius, Maximus wrote extensively—his works are exegetical, mystical, ascetical and devotional in nature, but his favourite topic was the union of God with humankind brought about through the Incarnation. Maximus is considered one of the Church’s finest teachers on this subject.
The seventh century was one of ongoing controversy about the person of Jesus. While the nature of Christ’s nature had been clarified two centuries earlier at the council of Chalcedon (451), in the 600’s it was the nature of Christ’s intellective faculties that occupied the minds of theologians instead. Earlier in the century the Emperor had tried to heal the rift between non-Chalcedonian Monophysites (who said that there was only one [divine] nature in Christ) and orthodox Dyophysites (who said that Christ is both true God and true man, of one being with the Father as regards his divinity and at the same time of one being with us as regards his humanity) by imposing a proviso to the effect that, despite these two natures, Christ had only one (divine) ‘energy’ (sometimes known as ‘activity’ or ‘operation’). This theory (‘mono-energism’) was demolished by the most perceptive theologians of the day (among them Sophronius), only to be replaced by another according to which Christ had only one (divine) will (in Greek thelêsis or thelêma)5 . This theory was known as Monothelitism.
It was Maximus’ insight that the Will belongs to Nature, and therefore that if Christ has two natures he also has two wills—one divine and one human. Though the churches of the East by and large supported Monothelitism, Maximus’ position was shared by Rome and the West.6 In 649 Maximus was invited to the Lateran synod convoked by the new Pope, Martin I, and invited to state his position publicly. To do so would be to invite the wrath of the Emperor, yet Maximus held the view that ‘the smallest point of faith is to be held at the risk of one’s life’7. In 653 both Martin and Maximus were arrested and brought to trial (separately) in Constantinople. Pope Martin was imprisoned, humiliated and exiled to Cherson, where he died as a martyr to the faith two years later. Maximus also was exiled, to Byzia in Thrace; six years later he was brought to trial again. This time he was imprisoned, beaten, and had his tongue and right hand cut off so that they might never again ‘minister to your blasphemous argument’8 . Exiled to Lazica, near Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, he died on August 13th, 662, at the age of eighty-two.
Maximus may have been small in stature but he was great in his defence of the truth. Though commemorated liturgically as a Confessor, he surely died as much a martyr (literally ‘witness’) to the faith as Pope Martin. As for his holiness and teaching, we can probably apply to Maximus the words which Pope Paul VI applied to St Catherine of Siena, another Doctor who suffered for the unity of the Church: ‘What strikes us most about the Saint is his infused wisdom, that is to say, his lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of the divine truths and mysteries of faith’9 . In a world which wanted Christ to be—at least on some level—fully divine, Maximus insisted that on all levels Christ is fully human as well.
As One in Compassion
Though the possessor of two wills (one divine and one human), in the Gospels Jesus only ever uses the pronoun ‘I’. Though both God and man he is a single Person, and in most cases the divine will and the human will are in perfect accord—for Maximus, the human will assumed by the Logos submitted to the will of the Father as an example of obedience for the sake of our salvation. Only in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus eventually said: ‘Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt’ (Mt 26:39 and parallels), was there any trace of a conflict: in the Garden, the all-too-human fear of suffering and death was at odds with the divine plan10 . Maximus cites as evidence of Jesus’ humanity the numerous other scriptural passages which reveal him as possessing the faculty of will according to his human nature. According to these Christ:
...willed to go to Galilee; willed his disciples to be with him where he is; did not will to drink sour wine mingled with gall; did not want to walk in Judea; did not want anyone to know when he passed through Galilee; went to the region of Tyre and Sidon and entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; though he could not be hidden, wanted to pass by his disciples walking on the sea; and became obedient to the point of death.11
In today’s world, however, where the humanity of Jesus is taken for granted, it is instructive to examine more closely those other passages in Scripture where Jesus uses the word thelô (‘I will’, sometimes translated as ‘I desire’ or ‘I choose’). Maximus pointedly does not, for example, cite Jesus’ quotation of the prophet Hosea (‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ [Mt 9:13; cf. Hos 6:6]), or the resurrected Christ’s ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ (Jn 21:22), or Mark’s reference to the calling of the apostles (‘And he went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired’ [Mk 3:13])—here no doubt because the calling of the Twelve has a divine aspect. But are there places in the Gospels where Christ’s words can be said to represent both his divine will and his human will?
The first use of thelô in the Gospels is found at Matthew 8:3 (and parallels), and here the supremely communal nature of two wills is clear. Confronted with the misery and human suffering of a leper, Jesus responds to his request for healing with the words: ‘I will: do thou be made clean’. Here the union of the two wills in the person of Christ finds expression in humanly charitable yet divinely miraculous healing, providing for the leper hope in a previously unimaginable future. Later in the Gospel Jesus is unwilling to send the crowds away hungry lest they faint on the way (cf. Mt 15:32), and follows this up with a miracle of loaves and fishes; later still he wishes he could have gathered together the children of Jerusalem ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’ (Mt 23:27, with allusions to Isaiah 49:15 and 66:12-3). In all three of these examples we see the divine will and the human will in perfect accord; see also that in their union in Christ they are as one in compassion for Christ’s fellow human beings.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ divinity is expressed more clearly and thelein used more widely. As ‘the Father raises the dead and gives them life,’ Jesus says, ‘so also the Son gives life to whom he will (thelei)’ (5:21); and he desires ‘that they…may be with me where I am, to behold my glory’ (17:24). Those to whom the Son would give life are identified as the disciples, which in a Johannine context means all the faithful. Those who ‘abide in me [may] ask whatever you will (thelête) and it shall be done for you’ (Jn 15:7); and in John’s first Letter this confidence becomes ‘ask anything according to his will (thelêma) [and] he hears us’ (1 Jn 5.14). This doesn’t mean that Jesus’ will is to be identified with ours, however. Rather, Jesus seeks—or came to do—not ‘my own will but the will of him who sent me’ (Jn 5:30, 6:38; cf. 4:34), and the content of the Father’s will is then explained in three ways. Firstly, it is that ‘I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day’ (6:39)12 ; secondly, with a linguistic recapitulation, it is identified with Jesus’ teaching, which is ‘not mine, but his who sent me’ (7:16); and thirdly, it has to do with Jesus’ passion (cf. Mt 26:42 and parallels; Heb 13:12) and death—which is offered for us (cf. Jn 10.15) and for all (cf. 12:32).13
The Perichoresis of the Wills
For Mary Coloe, ‘the greatest teaching in the Gospel of John’ is that of the mutual indwelling, or reciprocal relationships, between Father and Son, Jesus and believers: ‘the same loving communion of life experienced within the divine Godhead is opened up as a possibility for all’.14 The incorporation of humanity into Jesus’ use of thelein in John’s writings reflects this invitation into the divine life. While there is in the coexistence or union of the two wills in Christ a real perichôresis—a ‘genuine reciprocal penetration’—analogous to that among the persons of the Holy Trinity15 , there is also a profound communion with others such that we might even be able to speak of this communion as a ‘constitutive dimension’16 of the perichoresis of the wills. In the perichoresis of the divine and human wills in Jesus Christ we find his compassion for the suffering individual, the multitude, the nation, the human race. In the perichoresis of the divine and human wills in Jesus Christ we find a dwelling place even for ourselves.
Similarly, in the Body of Christ which is the Church—animated by the Spirit of life whose law sets us free from the deficiencies of the human will17—this communion of wills simultaneously reveals not only the nature of God, but what it means to be fully human. In the perichoresis of the two wills in Christ we find the willingness to participate in compassionate and affectionate acts of charity (or love)—‘in the justice and generosity of God towards others’18 —such that there is a place for us in the ‘sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God’19 . In the perichoresis of the two wills in Christ we find the desire to ‘fully reveal man to man himself’20 such that there is a place for us in the redemptive death that ‘has definitively restored his dignity to man and given back meaning to his life in the world’21 . And in the perichoresis of the two wills in Christ we find the mystery of God’s will set forth in Christ, whose purpose is ‘to unite all things in him’22 such that there is hope in the life after this life for us all.
Intra-ecclesially the communion of wills also finds expression in the Ignatian attitude of sentire cum ecclesia (‘think/feel with the Church’), an approach to theological thinking which in a world of disunion is essential for ecclesial communion. We find this attitude above all in the teachings of the Doctors of the Church, whose lives and sanctity are reflected in theologies which are faithful yet creative re-workings of the essential deposit of the Gospel. With teachers like these in our traditions and in our midst, it is clear that we are already participants in a communion of teaching with the Eastern Churches, with whom we share these Doctors’ stories, honour their writings and celebrate their feast days. The Orthodox may not recognise our Eastern Doctors under the same title, but they surely recognise that the Pope means them a great deal of respect with his nomination of St Maximus of Constantinople—whose doctrine of the two wills in the one person of the incarnate Christ has become ‘a pillar of union rather than a source of division between the churches’23—on the feast day of St Andrew the Apostle. This is a significant olive branch. There is hope for the future.
The Doctors of the Future
The nomination of St Maximus the Confessor brings the number of Doctors of the Church to thirty-four, and the number of Eastern Doctors to nine. This is not a large number if we consider that the other twenty-five Doctors are all Westerners, but it at least equals the number of Western Doctors of the first millennium (including St Bede). The split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy occurred around the turn of the millennium (1054 is often cited as a convenient date), and until the Churches are reunited it is unlikely that a Pope will name as Doctor a second-millennium non-Catholic.
But are there other Doctors from the ‘Great Church’ of the first Christian millennium yet to be nominated? A number of saintly teachers who united faith with learning and wisdom, and whose writings ‘draw us into Christ’s ‘being for all’, might still merit the title of Doctor of the Church in addition to those already named. The bishops Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus (a Jewish-Christian), Gregory of Nyssa (the Cappadocian described recently by Pope Benedict as a ‘pillar of orthodoxy’24 ), and Fulgentius of Ruspe (a North African) were all influential writers as well as spiritual leaders. The Church in Spain already acknowledges three ‘Spanish Doctors’—Ildephonsus of Toledo, Leander of Seville and Fulgentius of Ecija. And the feast day of the lay theologian Prosper of Aquitaine is celebrated in the diocese of Lourdes-Tarbes as that of an ‘Aquitainian doctor’25 .
As for the Catholic teachers of the second millennium, there are a number of great saints among these too. The Scottish Franciscan and scholastic John of Duns26 was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993, and the Italian Jesuit Antonio Rosmini-Serbati by Benedict XVI in 2007 (coincidentally just twelve days before the signing of Spe Salvi). The causes of two Venerable cardinals—Cesare Baronio (the ‘Father of Ecclesiastical History’) and the Anglican convert John Henry Newman—are also nearing completion, while St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)—author of a substantial body of work incorporating the themes of phenomenology—was canonised in 1998 and (if the example of St Therese of Lisieux is prophetic) will probably be named a Doctor for the centenary of her martyrdom in 2042. And perhaps the contributions of Henri de Lubac, source of much of the ecclesiology of the second Vatican Council, and Nguyen Van Thuan, whose reflections on the experience of imprisonment have been a source of hope to many27 , might one day be recognised as eminent as well—to the building-up of the Church and to the praise and honour of God.
Michael Modini is a teacher at a Catholic high school in the Brisbane Archdiocese and a former student of both the Catholic Institute of Sydney and the Brisbane College of Theology.
1. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 28; cf. PG 90:962-66.
2. Other sources include Jesus, St Paul, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Plato, Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
3. In 1997, the centenary of her death (on Mission Sunday). The story is told that the priest who was chaplain to the Carmelites of Lisieux used to call Therese ‘the little Doctor’; cf. The Story of the Canonization of S. Thérèse of Lisieux, 144.
4. In 1925 and 1931 respectively.
5. By ‘will’ is understood that rational desire (to use an Aristotelian term) or cognitive faculty or capacity which desires ‘what is in accordance with nature. For every being, and especially the rational beings, desires by nature what is in accordance with nature, having been given by God according to essence the capacity of that for its own constitution … In accordance with this will we willingly think and …wish and…search and consider and deliberate and judge and are inclined towards and choose/decide and rush and use’. Cf. Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor, 123 & 127, citing Maximus’ Opusculum 16 & Disputatio.
6. During his trial Maximus was asked: ‘Why do you love the Romans and hate the Greeks?’ In answer he replied: ‘We have a precept which says not to hate anyone. I love the Romans as those who share the same faith, and the Greeks as sharing the same language.’ Cf. George C. Berthold (ed.), Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, 26.
7. Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘Maximus the Confessor’, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10078b.htm.
8. P. Allen & B. Neil (eds), Scripta saeculi VII vitam Maximi Confessoris illustrantia, 119. Maximus’ two assistants—both called Anastasius—were similarly dismembered and exiled to Perberis.
9. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 62 (1970), p. 675.
10. For Andrew Louth, Maximus’ defence of two wills in the Incarnate Christ is not intended to suggest that there are two subjects in Christ, but ‘to safeguard the full humanity in which the Second Person of the Godhead lives out a human life’ (Maximus the Confessor, 28). Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane shows, ‘in the shrinking’, the determination of the human will to be shaped and brought in harmony with the divine will ‘in accordance with the interweaving of the natural logos with the mode of the economy’ (p. 61).
11. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 138. Scripture references are to Jn 1:43, Jn 17:24, Mt 27:34, Jn 7:1, Mk 9:30, Mk 7:24, Mk 6:48, Phil 2:8. The question addressed to Christ by the disciples, ‘Where do you want (theleis) us to go and prepare, that you may eat the Passover’ (Mt 26:17 and parallels) is an additional reference to the human will.
12. ‘For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day’ (Jn 6:40).
13. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews adds: ‘By that (i.e. the Father’s) will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (10:10).
14. Mary Coloe, Dwelling in the Household of God: Johannine Ecclesiology and Spirituality, 196. Cf. also 1 Jn 3:2, where ‘all are open to the possibility of the divine presence’.
15. Cf. Aidan Nichols, Byzantine Gospel: Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship, 109. Nichols points out that, according to G.L. Prestige, Maximus was the first to use the noun perichôresis (circumincession) in Christology, ‘even if Gregory Nazianzen did centuries before employ the verb’.
16. To appropriate the terminology of the 1971 Synod of Bishops.
17. Cf. Romans 8:2; 7:15, 20.
18. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 28.
19. Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10.
20. Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22.
21. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 10.
22. Ephesians 1:10.
23. Pauline Allen & Bronwen Neil (eds), Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile, 30.
24. Benedict XVI, General Audience of Wednesday, 29th August, 2007.
25. Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints, Vol. 2, 188.
26. The septicentenary of Duns Scotus’ death will be celebrated in November this year.
27. Nguyen’s prison writings were published under the headings Road of Hope, Testimony of Hope and Prayers of Hope. The cause into his beatification was opened in 2007, five years after his death.
The Story of the Canonization of S. Thérèse of Lisieux: with the Text of the Principal Documents in the Process. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd, 1934.
Allen, Pauline, & Bronwen Neil (eds). Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile. Oxford: University Press, 2002.
Allen, P., & B. Neil (eds). Scripta saeculi VII vitam Maximi Confessoris illustrantia. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.
Bathrellos, Demetrios. The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. Oxford: University Press, 2004.
Berthold, George C. (ed.). Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. London: SPCK, 1985.
Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Westminster: Christian Classics, 1956.
Coloe, Mary. Dwelling in the Household of God: Johannine Ecclesiology and Spirituality. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.
John Paul II. Redemptor Hominis. Homebush: Society of St Paul, 1979.
Louth, Andrew. Maximus the Confessor. London: Routledge, 1996.
Nichols, Aidan. Byzantine Gospel: Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993.
Benedict XVI. General Audience of Wednesday, 29th August, 2007. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20070829_en.html.
Benedict XVI. Spe Salvi. 2007. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html.
Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘Maximus the Confessor’. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10078b.htm.