Jean-Claude Larchet on Maximus the Confessor: Were the righteous of the Old Covenant able to be divinized?

[I mentioned Jean-Claude Larchet and his book La divinisation de l’homme selon saint Maxime le Confesseur (The Divinization of Man According to Saint Maximus the Confessor) in a prior post.  Historically, divinization (theosis) has been a more important idea in Eastern than in Western Christendom, but this may slowly be changing as more theologians from the West engage with their Eastern counterparts on this topic.  A common misconception about divinization that must be overcome is succinctly dispatched by Thomas Schirrmacher (in this online book review): “Theosis never meant to become God or to become like God in every aspect or to give up the distinction between creator and creation, including man as a created being.”  If divinization has been underexamined in the West, then its foundations and prefigurations in the Old Testament, and the question of whether the righteous of the Old Covenant could have been divinized, have been even more neglected (perhaps also in the East).  It is for this reason that, for me, one of the most interesting sections in Larchet’s book is the one I will translate here, from pp. 208-219 of his book, sans his footnotes (some of the longer passages from Maximus cited by Larchet have already been translated into English, and I have incorporated these other translations).  I had first thought to post this translation all at once, after I was done with it, but since I am rather slow I’ve decided to post it progressively as I work on it – so if you find this topic interesting, you’ll need to check back at this post periodically until I finish.]

Were the righteous of the Old Covenant able to be divinized?

A certain number of considerations appear to rule out that Maximus accepts the possibility that some descendant of Adam may be divinized before the Incarnate Word, by his saving work, has delivered human nature from the consequences of ancestral sin.

In the first place, one can cite the rather pessimistic conception that Maximus has of these
consequences, which go so far as to mark the free will of men giving it a direction and a bad
tendency, expressing itself almost inevitably through the passions by means of a predisposition of will and of a perverted choice piggybacking on the passible aspect of the soul.  Concerning the latter, Maximus notes that the saints before the coming of Christ “circumcised the passionate part of the soul, but nevertheless it was not completely cast off, [because] they were placed under the condemnation of nature, having been engendered by copulation.”

One can next put forward the essential connection that Maximus establishes between the divinization of man and the Incarnation, according to which the latter becomes, after the sin of Adam, the necessary condition for the former.

There is moreover a whole patristic tradition prior to Maximus according to which men are not able, before Pentecost, to receive the fullness of grace, nor particularly the grace of filial adoption, which in the Greek Fathers and in Maximus himself goes hand in hand with divinization.

Generally speaking, the assertion of a possibility of divinization in the descendants of Adam prior to the Incarnation of the Word seems to require us to conclude in no other way than to the pointlessness, or at least to the contingent nature, of the Incarnation of the Word and of His saving work.

Moreover, a text from Maximus makes the time that separates Adam’s sin from the Incarnation of the Word appear as a preparatory time for this Incarnation itself, whereas the time that follows it is the time of divinisation, the latter being conditioned by the former:

Since, therefore, the ages predetermined in God’s purpose for the realization of his becoming human have reached their end for us, and God has undertaken and in fact achieved his own perfect incarnation, the other “ages” – those which are to come about for the realization of the mystical and ineffable divinization of humanity – must follow henceforth.  In these new ages God will show the immeasurable riches of his goodness to us, having completely realized this divinization in those who are worthy. […] We too should therefore divide the “ages” conceptually, and distinguish between those intended for the mystery of the divine incarnation and those intended for the grace of human divinization, and we shall discover that the former have already reached their proper end while the latter have not yet arrived.  In short, the former have to do with God’s descent to human beings, while the latter have to do with humanity’s ascent to God.  (Thal., 22, PG 90, 317D-320B, CCSG 7, pp. 137.28-139.56.  English translation from On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor by Paul Blowers.)

Another text seems to regard it as impossible for fallen human nature, after the sin of Adam, to attain perfection:

It is when man has by the transgression corrupted the natural powers which had been given to him that “the fulfillment is rejected.”  It was thus impossible for nature, darkened by its material tendency, to be exalted to perfection until the Author of nature, supernaturally become man, might have restored nature in accordance with nature.  (Qu. D., 93, CCSG 10, p. 72.)

Maximus furthermore remarks that the saints before the coming of the Lord “hoped and expected that the Author of nature might save it, that which was becoming corrupted.”

All the same, Maximus does not exclude the possibility, for some descendants of Adam, of reaching a certain degree of perfection.

First of all the Patriarchs and the Prophets did not remain totally prisoners, in their nature, of the effects of ancestral sin.  Thus Maximus notices that this is “driven in part by nature” as every saint before the coming of the Lord hoped.  Plus, he says that “in Abraham, the good of nature that was dissolved in the first father by the transgression was redeemed by knowledge.”  Having referred to the logos of being which has to be “kept pure and immaculate in us by all (our) attention and cleansed of the passions that rebelled against it by a well-thought-out zeal for the virtues and the labors that go with it,” he notes: “It is precisely that which the great Abraham had successfully managed in returning himself to the logos of nature’s being or indeed this logos in itself.”  In other words Abraham was able to rediscover an existence in accordance with the logos of nature from which all men since Adam’s sin had been separated.  As for Elijah, he “has kept in himself intact the logoi” of nature.

For Maximus, the gift to Abraham of circumcision, of which the effects are apparent in the spiritual plane, preserves it [the logos of being], as well as the saints who follow it, from the effects of passibility inherited from Adam concerning the passions to which it [passibility] offers, as we have seen, a fertile ground for their development; this preservation is only partial, but it is sufficient to constitute not only a sign, but a real pledge of salvation to come:

The Lord, not bearing that his own model perish right up to the end, on different occasions has prepared everything for his salvation, and in Abraham He made very evident the salvation to come by His coming in the flesh; hence He gives to him, after all the promises concerning it, circumcision, which showed the removal of the passible part of the soul, seeing that all the saints circumcised the passionate part of the soul.  (Qu. D., 113, CCSG 10, p. 83.)

It is in this way that the righteous of the Old Covenant were able to preserve themselves from the bad passions (or get free of them).

Correspondingly, they were able to practice all the virtues.  Thus Maximus notes that “any of the saints, of the ones before the coming of the Lord, was able to exercise all the virtues, even though he had not known all the mystery of the economy.”

Likewise they were able to reach a high degree of spiritual knowledge and contemplation.  According to Maximus, the Prophets had by grace escaped the effects of ancestral sin on human knowledge, namely the enslavement of nous and reason to the senses:

Since at the beginning, by means of sin, the Devil had nailed down these powers [of search and scrutation] of divine things to the nature of visible beings, so there was “no one to understand or search for God” (Ps 13, 2; 52, 3), all participants of [human] nature having the intellective and rational power limited to the appearance of perceptible things and not possessing the faintest notion of things that are beyond sensation, it is with good reason that the grace of the Most Holy Spirit reestablished this power, which had been nailed down, in the removing of material things among those who inwardly were not subjected deliberately to the deception [of the Devil].  In recovering it by grace in its purity, they searched and scrutinized, and therefore searched profoundly and scrutinized profoundly, by the same grace of the Spirit, of course.  (Thal., 59, PG 90, 604CD, CCSG 22, p. 45.17-28.)

Through this synergy of their restored natural powers and grace, they were able not only to have true knowledge of beings, but to understand “the power of the ideas which had been given them by the Holy Spirit,” to receive “the revelations of the divine” and to have “knowledge of the mysteries,” to learn the reasons for the visions they had and to understand the logoi of the divine things that were revealed to them.  About Melchizedek, Maximus notes: “The has ‘neither beginning of days nor end of life’ (Heb 7, 3) shows knowledge of abolishing the property of all times and ages, and of a contemplation going beyond the existence of all material and immaterial essence.”  And he makes clear that true contemplation “is uncircumscribed, not remaining in any of the things that have beginning and end, in itself imaging God who determines every beginning and every end and who draws to Himself, in an inexpressible ecstasy, every intellection from those who have intellections.”

By the practice of the virtues and knowledge, the righteous of the Old Covenant were able to acquire likeness to God, which, as we have seen, corresponds in its perfection to divinization.

Now it is indeed divinization that Abraham and the other righteous seem to attain by the exercise of the virtues, especially the highest of these, love, by likeness to God and the union with Him that it allows to be realized:

For it is the most perfect work of love and the goal of its activity, to contrive through the mutual exchange of what is related that the names and properties of those that have been united through love should be fitting to each other.  So the human being is made god, and God is called and appears as human, because of the one and undeviating wish (in accordance with the will) and movement of both, as we find in the case of Abraham and the other saints.  And this is perhaps what is meant when it is said in the person of God, “I have been likened in the hands of the prophets” (Hos 12, 10): God takes form in each, through his great love for humankind, out of the virtue that is present in each through the ascetic struggle.  For the ‘hand’ of each just man: that is his ascetic struggle in accordance with virtue, in which and through which God receives his likeness to human beings.  Love is therefore a great good, and of goods the first and most excellent good, since through it God and man are drawn together in a single embrace, and the creator of humankind appears as human, through the undeviating likeness of the divinized to God in the good so far as is possible to humankind.  (Ep., 2, PG 91, 401BC.  English translation from Maximus the Confessor by Andrew Louth.)

It is noteworthy that the reciprocity asserted between God and man, which, near this [passage], expresses itself through divinization and that will be encountered many times in the context of the Incarnation (understood in the strict sense) under the form known as the tantum-quantum formula, here stands apart from this context which will only be considered in this same Letter [Ep. 2] subsequently.  That is confirmed by a passage which precedes the one just cited, where it is a question of vision and of the reception of God by Abraham (referring to Gen 18, 1-8) after he had found the logos of his being in all its purity, being himself cleansed of the passions and having shown a zeal for the virtues, particularly for the love of neighbor:

This is precisely what the great Abraham achieved, restoring himself to nature’s logos of being, or reason [logos] to himself, and through this being given back to God, and receiving God (I put it both ways, for both ways can be regarded as being true).  As man he was made worthy to see God, and to receive him, since he lived naturally in accordance with the perfect natural logos through love for humankind.  He was led up to this, having relinquished the individuality of what divides and is divided, no longer leading another human being different from himself, but knowing all as one and one as all.  This is clearly not a matter of inclination, about which there is contention and division, while it remains irreconcilable with nature, but of nature itself.  For it is in accordance with nature that the undeviating image is established, looking to the utterly singular reason [logos], by which we have established that God is certainly manifest, and through which God is set forth as good, by making the creatures his own.  (Ep., 2, PG 91, 400CD.  English translation by Andrew Louth, modified slightly by me in order to comport better with Larchet’s French translation of Maximus.)

It seems to us that the reception of God by Abraham is here understood in a mystical sense of a union of God to Abraham responding to the union of the Patriarch to God, union where God appropriates Abraham and thus shapes him according to Himself, in other words divinizes him.  Maximus also refers to the vision of God by Abraham, here again interpreting Gen 18, 1 (“God appeared unto him near the oak of Mamre”) in a mystical sense; now we see that the divinization of man comes true precisely in the vision of God.

This is confirmed by other texts which assert not only for the righteous of the Old Covenant the experience of a very high knowledge of God that directs them towards divinization, which is thus considered possible for them (in the same way, in a chapter of the second of the Centuries of Theology, it surfaces again that the patriarchs are “the ones who achieved contemplation of the true understanding of divine realities” and for whom the word of God “is a bread nourishing the intellective parts of their soul with a view to the deiform perfection”), but again the possibility of a vision of God.  Maximus brings up in Ambiguum 10 the vision by Moses of “the light mystically expressed in the bush,” such a vision of the light, we shall see, being identifiable with the vision of God and corresponding to a divinizing experience.  But above all he notes in a chapter of Quaestiones et Dubia: “[God] is seen of Abraham by means of an angel (Gen 22, 14-15); of Moses by the fire in the bush (Ex 3, 2); of Isaiah by the seraphim (Isa 6, 1-6); of Ezekiel by the cherubim (Ez 10, 1-5).”  It is therefore not a question of a direct vision, since it involves in every case a mediation.  However, it is indeed a question of a vision of God, as Maximus makes clear: “All by these diverse modes testify to having seen Him.”

The connection here is not explicitly established ​​between the vision of God and the divinization of the one who sees.  But it almost was, in the previous text where Abraham was said not only to see God but correlatively to receive Him as his guest.  We could restrict ourselves to a literal reading of this text and deny it any and all symbolic value and mystical significance if we were not able to find other texts explicitly asserting the divinization of Abraham.  Thus the one already cited on love: “So the human being is made god, and God is called and appears as human, because of the one and undeviating wish (in accordance with the will) and movement of both, as we find in the case of Abraham and the other saints.”  A passage of Ambiguum 10 referring to “the grace of divinization offered to the hope of those who love the Lord” says about Abraham that “he possessed it in advance typologically, being mystically united by faith to the monadic Word, in accordance with which he had become unified, or rather ‘one’ from ‘multiplicity’; he is in this way led alone, wonderfully, towards the One who is absolutely the only God.”  Divinization is also explicitly claimed, in connection with the possession of virtues and knowledge, and the acquiring of likeness to God, for Melchizedec to whom Maximus devotes in the same Ambiguum a long exposition.  It is important to observe that this begins after some considerations on the divinization of the saints and is linked to them.  These considerations are as follows:

So that wholly united, so far as is possible, to the natural power that is within them, they are made by Him so receptive as to be known from the sole one and to possess completely through the divine characteristics the form of the whole God the Word, contemplated as in the clearest of mirrors, missing none of the ancient characters, by which the human is naturally made known, everything yielding to what is better, just as dark air is wholly transformed by light.  (Amb. Io., 10/20, PG 91, 1137BC.  English translation by Andrew Louth.)

That’s when Maximus notes:

This, I think, that wonderful and great man, Melchizedec, knew and experienced, about whom the divine Word in the Scriptures declares great and wonderful things, that he had transcended time and nature, and was worthy to be likened to the Son of God.  For, as far as is possible, he had become such by grace and habit, as the Giver of grace is himself believed to be by essence.  For it is said of him that he is “without father or mother or genealogy” (Heb 7, 3): what else can be understood from this except that, by the very highest pitch of grace in accordance with virtue, he has perfectly put off natural characteristics.  (Amb. Io., 10/20, PG 91, 1137CD.  English translation by Andrew Louth.)

A little later, Maximus does not hesitate to claim that Melchizedec correlatively received the grace of filial adoption:

In these – I mean, in knowledge and virtue – the divine likeness is shown, and through them unmovable love towards God alone is preserved in the worthy.  In accordance with such love the dignity of filial adoption, the divinely-fitting gift of continual converse with God in his presence, is granted, exhibiting the divine likeness to any who begs for it.  (Amb. Io., 10/20, PG 91, 1140B.  English translation by Andrew Louth, modified slightly by me.)

The continuation confirms all this, Maximus claiming that, having put a higher value on virtue than nature and what comes under it, and having surpassed by knowledge any time and age, leaving behind him knowingly, by way of contemplation, that which is after God,

the divine Melchizedec opened his mind to the divine, unoriginate and immortal rays of the God and Father, and was begotten from God through the Word in the Spirit by grace, and bore in himself safe and true the likeness of God the begetter (since in the process of begetting what is begotten is naturally the same as the begetter, for it is said: “What is begotten from flesh is flesh, and what is begotten from the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3, 6)), then it follows that it was not from natural and temporal properties, in which father and mother and genealogy, and beginning and end of days are included, which things having passed beyond he is completely released from them, that he is named but from divine and blessed characteristics, after which his form has been modelled, to which neither time, nor nature, nor reason, nor mind, nor anything else that can be circumscribed can attain.  Therefore the great Melchizedec is recorded as being “without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life,” as the true word of God-bearing men declares about him, not on account of a nature that is created and from nothing, in accordance with which he began to be and will cease to be, but on account of divine and uncreated grace, which eternally exists beyond every nature and all time, from God who eternally is, in accordance with which alone he is acknowledged as wholly begotten from the whole [God].  (Amb. Io., 10/20, PG 91, 1140D-1141B.  English translation by Andrew Louth.)

The divinization of Melchizedek is again suggested a little further on: “In the unknowable, after the effacing of all beings according to the mind, he has penetrated to God himself, and he has been completely modified and totally changed, which can allow us to understand the ‘resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever’ (Heb 7, 3).”  A little further on still, commenting on “without beginning of days or end of life,” and therefore still referring to Melchizedek, Maximus carries out a kind of induction, showing that this situation is generalizable, in other words applicable to all saints, which indicates a contrario that the state of Melchizedek is comparable to the divinized state acquired by the saints of the New Covenant.  This passage, moreover, calls to mind not only an intimate relationship with God and access to the divine life that, by grace, is without beginning or end, but also the indwelling of the Word:

He goes beyond the present life with its wishes for the sake of the better [life], and possesses the living and active and utterly single Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit.  Such a one has no experience of what is present to it, and has become without beginning and end; he no longer bears within himself temporal life and its motions, which has beginning and end and is disturbed by many passions, but he possesses the sole divine and eternal life of the indwelling Word, a life unbounded by death.  (Amb. Io., 10/20, PG 91, 1144C.  English translation by Andrew Louth.)

If the phenomenon of to have become by grace without beginning or end seems to be a privilege recognized explicitly, among the righteous of the Old Covenant, for Melchizedek alone, the grace of divinization seems to Maximus to have been granted to several of them.  Certain texts that we have cited previously show it quite definitely.  It emerges even more clearly in this passage from the Dispute with Pyrrhus, where Maximus notes that it is by the sign of the Word “that Moses, David and all those who had become permeable to the divine energy were moved, through the rejection of their human and carnal properties,” divinization furthermore being characterized by some expressions similar to the latter.  This passage confirms the indwelling of the Word in these righteous, that Maximus refers to with respect to Abraham and, even more definitely, with Melchizedek.

[More later…]

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