I’ve mentioned the seventh-century monk Maximus the Confessor only twice here before. But my lack of referrals to him should not be taken to mean that he is not important to me, or that I don’t frequently go back to him to “measure” other thinkers.
Once known mostly for his role in the Monothelite controversy (as a Dyothelite, Maximus believed that Christ had two wills, corresponding to his divine and human natures, rather than just one will), Maximus’ stock as a theologian has risen tremendously in the past seventy years or so (in the West; his worth has long been recognized in Eastern Christendom). It’s not unusual today to see him referred to as “the greatest of the Byzantine theologians,” and “one of the outstanding Christian thinkers of all time,” and so on.
Thus, I decided to reread what Maximus, and some of his best modern interpreters, had to say about the virtues. I wanted to confirm that Maximus believed that the virtues have an ontological basis, which was my memory of the case.
I started by reading from Lars Thunberg’s book Microcosm and Mediator : The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. I recalled that he has a section on this very topic, and it’s entitled “Divine incarnation in the virtues” (pp. 323-30, 2nd. ed.). In typical Thunberg fashion, the earlier Fathers of the Church who may have influenced Maximus’ thinking on this point are well summarized, and relevant passages by Maximus are presented and commented on. Thunberg is nothing if not thorough, and he is usually a completely reliable guide to the meaning and import of what Maximus wrote . . . but perhaps not so much in this instance? Because as I read, I began to sense an odd disconnect between the passages by Maximus that Thunberg was citing, and Thunberg’s interpretations thereof. Maximus was saying one thing, or so I thought, i.e. that the virtues do indeed have an ontological basis, while Thunberg was saying that Maximus was saying something else, i.e. that the virtues, at least insofar as man is capable of experiencing them, are “a ‘moral’ reflection of the divine attributes,” and that the corresponding process whereby a person develops a likeness to God (divinization) is “always of a moral and volitional character.”
Huh? Had I simply misread Maximus? Given that Thunberg’s knowledge of Maximus is elephantine, and my own, by comparison, is flea-like, it seemed I might have no choice but to give way.
Not so fast, I decided. What did other heavyweight interpreters of Maximus think? I pulled out my copy of Jean-Claude Larchet’s hefty (764 pages) book La divinisation de l’homme selon saint Maxime le Confesseur (The Divinization of Man According to Saint Maximus the Confessor). Now, I read French moderately well, but slowly, and I have to confess to the Confessor’s French interpreter, Larchet, that heretofore I have only read parts of his magnum opus on Maximus (life being short, and his book being long, it may ever be thus). What did Larchet have to say on this particular subject, I wondered.
I quickly located the relevant section, which is titled “La dimension entitative des vertus.” It turns out that Larchet’s reaction to Thunberg’s interpretation was pretty much the same as mine. What do you know? I’d found an ally! The section looked very good, and so I’ve spent the past several days translating it. If I may venture a loose historical analogy, what we have here is the “Daoist” Larchet refuting the “Confucianist” Thunberg (although as Larchet explains in a footnote, he is also responding to another French interpreter of Maximus named Garrigues, and his followers, who took Thunberg’s interpretation and ran with it).
From La divinisation de l’homme selon saint Maxime le Confesseur by Jean-Claude Larchet (pp. 482-8)
The entitative dimension of the virtues
Union to God through the virtues, particularly love, has been understood by some recent commentators of Maximus as being a matter of an imitation or of a communion of hypostatic predispositions of a moral or intentional nature lying exclusively on the plane of behavior, the divinization that is tied to them being, by way of consequence, itself understood as having an intentional and not an entitative character.
It is indisputable, and we have shown it, that the practice of the virtues necessarily takes on a hypostatic dimension, as the initiative of this practice comes down to gnômè and to the choice of the believer, and that the virtues bring up for Maximus personal predispositions (ἕξεις). It is equally indisputable that the virtues have an intentional dimension, as they correspond to an orientation that the person gives to the exercise of his faculties to be in harmony with the will of God or to conform to the logos of well-being. It is true again that, by the practice of the virtues, the believer is in harmony personally, in his mode of existence, with the gifts received at baptism. Finally, it is true that by the practice of the virtues the believer is prepared personally to receive God and to be transformed by Him. But it seems equally indisputable to us that, according to Maximus, the virtues have at the same time an entitative dimension and that the union with God that they permit to a certain extent, just as the relative divinization that results, clearly has an ontological character, and this for several reasons.
We have seen that the virtues have in themselves an ontological reality as they take root in the very nature of man, in which they have been outlays from the beginning by the creator, like seeds whose task is to conserve and to cultivate so that they can grow in him by the action of grace. Love itself is based on an élan (ἔφεσις) conceived by Maximus as belonging to the very nature of man. Moreover, we have seen Maximus proclaim clearly, in the Dispute with Pyrrhus, that “the virtues are natural.”
We have also seen that the Holy Spirit, in baptism, restores this original state and even gives, potentially, to the baptized, whose nature is then grafted onto the body of Christ, the fullness of the virtues, from likeness to God and from divinization.
From another point of view, one finds time and time again in Maximus, as we have seen, the idea that by the virtues man participates in the divine properties, and also the idea that Christ exists mystically in His commandments, and still more constitutes the very essence of the virtues, so that the one who lives virtuously has Christ living and abiding in him, the theme of the birth or the incarnation of Christ in the believer by the virtues moreover being, as we have shown, abundantly present in the works of Maximus. It may suffice for us to recall this short passage of Ambiguum 10 where the two preceding assertions are combined: “If the essence of virtue in each is undoubtedly the one Word of God (because the essence of all the virtues is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself) […] every man participating in the virtue according to a fixed state participates indisputably in God, the essence of the virtues, as he has sincerely cultivated by choice the natural seed of good […].” After quoting this passage more broadly, I. Hausherr made this judicious comment: “Maximus excludes any pantheistic or Origenist interpretation. But one would not do justice to his thought by understanding participation in God via the virtues in our ‘moral sense’. If we are from the image of God through the Logos, and we grow in his likeness by the virtues, this likeness elevating man to a degree of being superior to the image, we have to conclude that the virtues have a supernatural reality, even though they are the result of an innate movement of nature.” And he adds: virtue “allows one to grow ontologically, and not only in a “moral order” emptied of substance. To introduce this modern notion in the language of the Fathers, in speaking for example of a “purely external imitation” of Jesus Christ, is to show that one has not properly understood the Eastern mystical theology.”
The imitation of Christ, often evoked by Maximus, is in fact not understood by him as a purely extrinsic and moral accord, but really as an assimilation to Christ conceived not as being a “moral reflection,” nor as being of intentional nature, but as constituting a genuine ontological appropriation of the virtues that He fully manifests in His humanity and which are themselves divine properties of which He has made participant, by all the work of His economy, the nature He has assumed.
In the same vein, it is advisable to recall that the likeness to God that is fulfilled in the virtues is not an exterior likeness, a simple similarity, but it is also a true assimilation and appropriation of divine qualities of which the believer, by grace, is made participant, as shown by the supremely paradoxical assertion, repeated several times by Maximus, of a reciprocity in this likeness between man and the Word.
The correlative assertion, expressed in several ways, of a real perichoresis of properties between the virtuous man and God should no longer leave any doubt about the fact that the union between God and the believer, and the divinization thereof according to the virtues, is well placed on the entitative level and puts in play the natures of both in accordance with a certain relationship and a certain mode.
The notions, often used by Maximus, of διάθεσις and above all of ἕξις, the first term referring to a passing predisposition or an attitude, the second an habitual predisposition or a stable state, would not themselves be able to be interpreted exclusively in terms of hypostatic intentionality, in other words, without nature itself being in some way involved, Maximus here as elsewhere integrating the two planes. The predispositions and the states correspond to orientations produced by the person from the (natural) operations of the powers of his own nature. One can say that to the form of the predispositions and states corresponds the mode of existence, but as we have shown, the one is for the person, the other in his nature. There is moreover in the notion of ἕξις, that derives from ἒχω, the notion of “possession,” hence the idea that through the state, the person possesses or assumes his own nature in this or that manner (the state can be good or bad, virtuous or passionate). In this sense, one can still say that διάθεσις and ἕξις correspond to a certain quality that the person gives to his own nature and that causes it to exist in a particular way.
We will still note that while the practice of the virtues is a matter for gnômè and corresponds to some predispositions, the virtues would not know how, moreover, to shrink themselves there or to be constituted by them, as is the case in Aristotle’s philosophy for example. Implanted germinatively in nature by the Creator or potentially delivered into it by baptism and often presented as charisms of the Holy Spirit, the virtues appear not only as states acquired by man, but correlatively and inextricably as objective gifts from God, the virtues having the whole of their source in Him and allowing the believer to participate in His qualities.
There is indeed then, adapted to the person, communication to the nature that hypostasizes it, by means of the virtues, not of the essential properties of God (although Maximus often uses this term or the one of “qualities” without being precise), not of the nature of God (so that man does not become God Himself, nor acquire identity of essence with God), but of the divine energies, the believer becoming in this way god by participation, by position, and by grace. The word energy is used only once by Maximus in this context. But the Confessor uses other terms or expressions that one can legitimately consider to be equivalents, thus when he speaks of “divine appearances,” or he uses the vocabulary of light. It is precisely this distinction made by Maximus between the divine essence and the divine energies (we will return of course to this essential point) that permits understanding that man is able to appropriate the divine attributes without God imparting Himself in His very essence, whereas the commentators who overlook this distinction do not see any solution to this problem and any other means of avoiding pantheism than in considering a union on the moral plane and a divinization on the intentional plane.