Readers of Maximus Confessor have long whispered of a gathering insurrection. Wait and keep watch, they’ve cautioned: the Maximian synthesis draws ever close. Sure, there have been prophets. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Polycarp Sherwood, Lars Thunberg – each spoke Maximus’s name into a largely heedless Western audience. Does the publication of Paul Blowers’s Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World signal the eve before the great and terrible day of Maximus? Or is it already upon us? Alright, perhaps I’ve indulged some drama. Perhaps Blowers doesn’t yet break the seventh seal. Perhaps instead he extends a deft, guiding hand through the expanse of Maximus’s thought. Still, it’s exactly the “theo-dramatic” bits of Maximus’s theology that Blowers wants to recover. The book stages a drama in several acts.
The whole comprises four parts, and Part I two chapters. In the first curtains rise on an embattled Byzantium. Blowers tropes Maximus as “betwixt and between” – a conceit that captures the theological and political turbulence of his time. Here Blowers retraces Maximus’s perambulations; negotiates the rival icons of the Greek and Syriac Vitae Maximi; lingers over monastic politics; and wades into the monenergist-monothelite tide whose wake finally made of Maximus a Confessor. The second chapter shifts into a theological key. There Blowers applauds Maximus as author: not Byzantine scholastic, not elder sage – but both. Maximus plays in ten thousand styles exactly because and to the extent that he participates the Word’s revelry (Amb. 71). For Maximus, “Authorship is participating… in the self-disclosure of the Logos-Christ, the Word who authors all truth, goodness, and beauty” (73).
Part II studies “The Cosmic Landscapes of Maximus’s Theology,” or creation (chapter 3), cosmic christology (chapter 4), and the Church (chapter 5). Chapter 3 prods Maximus’s readers to conceive his doctrine of creation outside the confines of comparison to Evagrian or Dionysian legacies. Blowers rather thinks Maximus a “Neo-Irenaean” for whom christology and creation necessarily run together. It’s this “theo-dramatic” that threads together Blowers’s interpretations of Maximus’s logoi-theory, eschatology, divisions of being, and ultimately his christoform politics. The fourth chapter on christology forms the book’s conceptual lynchpin, likely because it’s also Maximus’s. Here Blowers expounds Maximus’s programmatic dictum from Amb. 7 that “always and in all things the Logos, who is God, desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment.” It’s here too that Blowers braves a reading of Maximus’s difficult teaching on “multiple incarnations,” one that stimulates two of our panelists. The chapter also features scrupulous commentary on Maximus’s christological subtleties, not least his teaching on the composite Christ and dyotheletism. Chapter 5 depicts the Church’s role in the transfiguration of the cosmos as it features across Maximus’s Mystagogy. Here Blowers sees Maximus’s doctrines of divine ecstasy and cosmic christology “made thick” (to borrow Maximus-talk) in ecclesial, sacramental, and eucharistic practices.
The book’s third part reads human nature as a “work-in-progress.” Chapter 6 traces Maximus’s anthropology proper along familiar lines: the human’s priestly vocation, her fall and damage, her sexuality, and her last thing. This introduces Chapter 7, where Blowers describes Maximus on atonement and speaks into the contested question of Maximus’s apokatastasis. On the former, Blowers emphasizes the cruciform or “staurological” nexus between creation and salvation. On the latter, Blowers finds in Maximus what Balthasar himself did not, namely a proponent of Balthasar’s own hopeful (but finally uncertain) eschatology. Chapter 8 treats of Maximus on eros – God’s and ours. There he maps Maximus’s “dialetics of desire” to show that eros stands as the beating heart of the theo-drama. Its players enact the drama by learning to imitate God’s eros for them, principally in virtue and liturgical formation.
A fourth and final part closes the book, measuring Maximus’s long afterlife in the medieval west (Eriguena and his like), in Byzantine scholasticism (John of Damascus, Photios, Michael Psellos, Isaac the Sebastocrator), in the contest over filioque, hesychasm, in the Philokalia tradition, in modern Orthodox thought, and in extra-orthodox retrieval (by Balthasar, ecotheologians, and virtue ethicists). An epilogue rewrites Balthasar’s icon of Maximus as bridge between East and West into one between all “participant actors in the cosmic drama whose central plot is the full fruition of the politeia of Jesus Christ” (331).
Our symposium stages scenes beyond the drama Blowers writes. Fr Andrew Louth submits both a dubium and a challenge. The first asks after Blowers’s use of diastema to name the interval that yawns between created and Creator. Surely, Louth wonders, God remains present in and to creation without needing to “overcome” a gap – that’s the dubium. And the challenge? Louth asks Blowers how we should conceive Maximus’s theology of sophia. Has Maximus a “sophiology” like Sergius Bulgakov’s? The topic’s difficult because capillary: it’s at once everywhere and nowhere in particular. Speaking well of Maximus on wisdom remains a tall order, one that Louth thinks Blowers up to.
Aristotle Papanikolau poses a triple question. The first concerns Blowers’s lodestar, Hans Urs von Balthasar. No doubt historical theologians, Papanikolau thinks, ought to learn from and own their debts to recent theology. But debt risks penalty. Do Balthasarian categories – “theodrama,” “play,” “script,” and so on – overwrite Blowers’s Maximus? Next, Papanikolau seeks a blueprint of virtue’s machinations in Maximus. That Maximus doesn’t practice the cool logical forms proper to the scholastic idiom does not render his virtue theory subordinate to (say) Thomas’s. Thomists source Thomas’s virtue ethic to various ends – for moral therapies like trauma theory or psychoanalysis, for example. What might it look like, Papanikolau asks Blowers, for Maximus’s readers to do likewise? Last, he questions whether Blowers’s criticism of John Zizioulas’s Maximus doesn’t indulge overcorrection.
Natalie Carnes repeats a question that has long exercised Maximus’s readers, at least since it puzzled Eriugena in the 9th century. Like him, Carnes want to know what Maximus – or rather Blowers on Maximus – means by “multiple incarnations.” Getting that right is important, she thinks, for stopping gaps within a new theological idiom, here “deep incarnation.” Two problems attend this pattern of thought: first, how to avoid collapsing the Trinity into Christ; second, how to avoid collapsing Christ into world. Maximus’s talk of “multiple incarnations” points up a solution. If Blowers is right to say that Maximus distinguishes modes of incarnation, then “deep incarnation” needn’t spell collapse. Read theo-dramatically, Maximus’s “multiple incarnations” do not erase but rather enshrine difference. The point has less to do with multiple incarnations, then – as if the Word incarnates himself with serial repetition. It has rather more to do with how the Word incarnates himself differently. Wouldn’t “diversity of enfleshments,” Carnes asks, better capture Maximus’s stress on the various modes of incarnation?
Jordan Daniel Wood recites Eriugena’s question still again, though now to a very different and doubtless highly provocative end. What might it mean, Wood challenges, for Maximus to mean what he says about “multiple incarnations”? That is, what if “incarnation” (Wood notices Blowers’s scare-quotes) is actually just incarnation? More, what about Maximus’s claim that deification sees us “become the Lord himself?” Where in Maximus Wood sees identity between God and world, Blowers discerns natural difference and thus analogy. But if the world be hypostatically (not naturally) identical to the Word – as are Christ’s human and divine natures – then identity needn’t sunder natural difference. In this way, Wood thinks his reading secures both natural difference (and so analogy) and radical identity in Maximus. Like Papanikolau, Wood too offers a peroration in defense of Zizioulas. Blowers’s critique betrays, Wood thinks, the logic of natures exactly where Zizioulas reads Maximus according to the logic of persons.
The panelists honor Blowers’s Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World by playing John of Cyzicus to Blowers’s Maximus – by posing ambiguities, that is, and seeking elucidation. They’re rich responses to a rich book. Both together stand testament to Maximus Confessor, whose thought remains among the most elegant, resplendent, and difficult thinkers in the Christian tradition. Readers of patristics in general and Maximus Confessor in particular will not miss this symposium on Paul Blowers’s long-sought masterwork. Neither should anyone with interest in perennial theological questions. I repeat what our author and panelists already know: a Maximian dawn breaks upon the horizon. Wait and keep watch.
The Mechanics of Virtue and Other Minor Quibbles
Over the past fifteen years, there has been an explosion of English-language monographs on Maximus the Confessor; Paul Blowers has written one of the best. Unlike Aquinas, Maximus never wrote a Summa, and the systematization of the dispersed aspects of Maximus’s thought into a coherent vision differentiates this book from the rest. Many of the recently published monographs touched on pieces of the Maximian cosmological mosaic, but Blowers presents the completed image in a way that reflects Maximus’s intent. While not being sympathetic to Blowers’s opposition between “vision” and “philosophical cosmology”—Torstein Tollefsen effectively demonstrated that Maximus did offer the latter—Blowers is right to use the language of “vision,” because Maximus’s concern went beyond philosophical coherence; he wanted to guide the faithful reader to be the very cosmology he was portraying. Although dogma is important, Vladimir Lossky was right in saying that the purpose of dogma is to guide the Christian to be the living dogma. Blowers confirms Tollefsen’s demonstration of the coherence of Maximus’s thought, but in the form of a theo-dramatic narrative that invites the reader into the dramatic play of freedom between the Creator and the created.
Maximus used a variety of forms for distinct purposes, but nowhere does Maximus use narrative and dramatic forms to theologize. Maximus was not a Barthian. The appearance of such words as “theo-dramatic,” “play,” “theatre,” “script,” and “dance” signals Blowers’s affirmation of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s intuition about Maximus’s thought, if not particular interpretations on specific points. Blowers may have opened himself up to critique of superimposing Balthasarian categories on Maximus’s vision; and, indeed, I find it rare—almost refreshing—to witness a scholar of historical theology make use of a contemporary theologian for interpreting one of the church fathers. Simply because Maximus does not use narrative or dramatic forms does not mean that such forms could not be useful both for manifesting the coherence of Maximus’s thought and inviting the reader—as Maximus always did—into that which God has made possible for creation.
The one-sided use, however, of the category of dialectic may slide Blowers’s interpretation of Maximus toward a Barthian scale. Blowers rightly indicates that several kinds of dialectic—cosmological, anthropological, Christological, to name a few—structure the temporal drama between Creator and creature from the moment of creation to that of redemption. An excessive emphasis on the dialectics structuring time can obfuscate a more fundamental logic undergirding Maximus’s thought, which is iconolectic; in the end, only an iconolectic logic makes sense of the relationship between eternity and time, one of the most difficult theological and philosophical problems, and one which problematized Maximus. Tollefsen painstakingly demonstrated that Maximus’s “Christocentric Cosmology” offers a philosophically defensible account of the relation between eternity and time. Blowers does give one of the clearest explanations of Maximus’s well-known notion of the logoi in relation to the Logos, but to discuss the logoi simply as “teleological codes” or “scripts” points only to their temporal dimension, without necessarily making it clear how they are related to and reflective of the pre-eternal Logos. If, in fact, there is a dialectical logic that surrounds the manifestation of the logoi in time, there is an iconolectic logic that structures their relation to the Logos, even as the theo-drama continues to play out.
Blowers does not fail to touch on all the major elements of Maximus’s theology and offers some of the clearest explanations of complex ideas. One such idea is that of the gnomic will, and Blowers is masterful at analyzing the various dimensions of the gnomic will, but also clarifying Maximus’s own struggles in deciding whether and in what way a gnomic will could be attributed to Christ. I agree with Blowers that early Maximian attribution of a gnomic will to Christ can best account for Jesus’s agony at Gethsemane. As successful as Blowers was in clarifying so much that is difficult in Maximus, there is one area where he could have said more: virtue. Blowers does, indeed, include a chapter on virtue, and does provide an excellent understanding of what Maximus meant by virtue. One will not find, however, in this book, nor in the wider literature, an elucidation of what I would call the mechanics of virtue.
Throughout his corpus, Maximus gives a very sophisticated account of virtue in which one finds strong echoes in Aquinas’s own account of virtue. Since Maximus’s concerns were not those of Aquinas, Maximus’s own discussion of virtue lacks Aquinas’s clarity, even if it meets Aquinas’s demand for coherence. Maximus says so many things about virtue, however, that beg for clarification, which include how some virtues engender others and how such engendering ultimately leads to the virtue of all virtues, which is love. Maximus also gives specific advice on the practices one should perform to manifest the virtues and to counter the vices, but as Blowers’s own voice was evident in his discussion of Maximus’s understanding of the gnomic will, it would have been helpful to engage Maximus’s own practical advice on virtue. Is it really true that fasting, hard labor and vigils will check the desires of the concupiscible dimension of the soul? Would solitude, contemplation, and prayer decrease such passions? Would long-suffering, the forgetting of offenses, meekness check anger? Would love, almsgiving, kindness and benevolence decrease anger? Is it really the case that love is begotten of detachment, which is begotten of hope in God, which is begotten of patient endurance and long-suffering, which are begotten of self-mastery, which is begotten of fear of God and, finally, which is begotten of faith, where it all begins? Maximus envisions as part of the wider vision a mechanics of virtue, and while he gives enough to provoke thought, and even virtue, much of what he says remains unclear.
A fuller account of Maximus’s mechanics of virtue would be important for several reasons. First, his prioritizing love as the virtue of virtues constitutes one of the most important contributions and insights of Christian theology. In doing so, he counters Evagrius’s excessive emphasis on knowledge at the expense of love; Maximus does not flip the coin, but argues for the mutually dependent relationship between knowledge and love. The link between virtue and love also makes for fruitful comparison between Maximus and Aquinas, which has yet to be done in any real convincing way that does not simply see Aquinas as a better version of Maximus. They share so much in common, which would make one wonder whether Aquinas was equally as much an ascetic as a philosopher. Differences do exist, and one of the most important being that Maximus does not have the language of acquired and infused virtues. How does such a difference matter for two Christian thinkers who puzzled over the human desire for love of God and saw virtue as a key to the fulfillment of such a desire? Elucidating Maximus’s mechanics of virtue would provide the ground for a more fruitful comparison of Aquinas and Maximus.
In interpreting all other virtues in light of the struggle for learning how to love, Maximus effectively broadens the category of virtue from a moral category to an existential category. Virtue is not simply about right action, or moral knowledge, or even about knowledge in general, but refers to the psychosomatic existence of the human being who struggles to be in authentic relations with self, others and God. As embodied theosis, virtue has relevance not simply for the moral life, but for the full range of experiences possible to the human being, including the experiences of violence and trauma. I have already argued in my own writings that Maximus’s understanding of virtue illuminates the existential experience of violence on the human person in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, capacities for learning, and domestic abuse. These situations are not simply about “morality,” but about the human being in her fullness. To be fair, Blowers does in the final chapter indicate how various elements of Maximus’s theology could impact virtue ethics. A more fully fleshed-out understanding of Maximus’s mechanics of virtue would have surely facilitated its influence on the broader discussions of virtue ethics. It would also have enabled a broader discussion with psychological literature. In effect, Maximus does want to share his discernment and insight in how to learn how to love, and in doing so, he often sounds like someone trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. I would argue that basic psychoanalytical categories of the self could further bolster Maximus’s basic insight into the human learning how to love, but with emphasis on those unconscious factors that affect our capacity to love. Maximus seems to always offer concrete behavioral tips in relation the various passions; but, our capacity for self-deception—itself grounded in unconscious insecurities, anxieties, fear, or even the traumatic experiences—cannot be so easily remedied by certain behavioral strategies. It requires a courageous and often painful ascesis of self-reflection. In short, more could have been said about Maximus and virtue and one can only hope that someone soon will build on the basic understanding that Blowers provides.
I do have one minor quibble and that is with Blowers’s interpretation of John Zizioulas’s reading of Maximus. Blowers seems to have joined the onslaught of criticism of Zizioulas’s theology by patristic scholars, and given the fact that very few exhibit the kind of generosity seen in Blowers’s reading of other scholars, his one-sided treatment of Zizioulas was surprising. For those who are familiar with my work, I am, quite predictably, going to play the role of defending Zizioulas. I do so, not because I think some criticisms are unjustified. Indeed, Blowers’s justifiably critiques Zizioulas’s interpretation of Maximus on nature, but he fails to mention Zizioulas’s rethinking of nature in one of his most recent articles, “Person and Nature in the Theology of St. Maximus.” Blowers does reference the article, albeit only once, but only to indicate—I think misleadingly—Zizioulas’s intransigence on this point. Blowers also fails to give credit to Zizioulas for highlighting in a way that no other Christian theologian has—patristic or systematic—the significance of the category of hypostasis for thinking about what it means to be human. According to Blowers’s own analysis, Maximus tethers his notion of logoi to their tropoi, or modes of existence. If Zizioulas can be criticized for over-emphasizing the tropoi (hypostasis) at the expense of the logoi (nature), then I think Blowers has over-corrected in favor of nature without explaining the existential significance of the tropoi in relation to the logoi.
Such minor quibbles, together with my own desire for more on virtue, should not obfuscate the fact that, again, Blowers had produced one of the best books on Maximus. Those engaging Maximus for the first time should start with this book, while the scholar of Maximus will find much detailed analysis that cannot be ignored and provides solid ground for further insights into Maximus’s vision.
The Drama of Multiple Incarnations
Paul Blowers has plunged deep into the texts and studies of Maximus the Confessor to emerge with a richly-researched, carefully-argued perspective on the Byzantine monk. I imagine this study, like Blowers’s previous work on the great theologian, will nudge Maximus still further into the central conversations of constructive theology today. Maximus is theologically generative because his locutions and descriptions are at once faithful to church doctrine and yet, for many of us trained in Western systematics, so fresh as to be strange. I’d like to take one strange Maximian locution—that of “multiple incarnations”—to think with the Maximus that Blower gives us about an emerging conversation in Christology. I want to ask how Blowers’s Maximus extends, deepens, or challenges the conversation about “deep incarnation.”
But first, what does Maximus mean by multiple incarnations?
Realizing the Mystery of the Logos’s Embodiment
As far as I can tell, the actual phrase “multiple incarnations” is Blowers’s own.1 He develops this Maximian term for the way the Logos “always and in all things desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment [ἐνσωματώσεως τὸ μυστήριον]” (Blowers 73, quoting from Maximus’s Ambiguum 7).2 Throughout his book, Blowers returns to this beautiful description, which evokes God’s longing for intimacy with the world and foreshadows a time when God will be all in all. It is a dense phrase, revealing something of who God is and suggesting a dramatic arc for the multiple incarnations of the Logos.
The “all things” in which the Logos seeks to be embodied include creation, virtuous people, sacramental bread, the church, Scripture, and other holy texts—a diverse list that yet does not exhaust the Logos’s various embodiments (73, 182). What Blowers calls the “economies of the material self-manifestation of the Logos” are vast, such that, in his words, “God’s embodiment is larger, but not qualitatively greater, than his enfleshment in Jesus of Nazareth” (139). In naming an enfleshment of the Logos that extends beyond Jesus without ever surpassing that definitive incarnation, it might sound as if Blowers is positioning Christ’s incarnation at the top of a pyramid of incarnations, culminating a series of embodiments as the best and most important among them. But Blowers takes care to distinguish Maximus on this point from Origen and Eriugena (291). He argues that for Maximus, it is “the Logos as Christ who initiates the terms of his own appearance (and hiddenness)” such that these embodiments are “immediately tributary to the recapitulative purpose of his historical incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth” (78). Christ is not one embodiment of the Logos among others, nor even simply the best of the embodiments. Christ is the subject who through the Logos embodies himself in the world, and these embodiments in turn pay homage to the incarnation of Christ. The multiple incarnations are not separable, at any level, from the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They echo and extend it.
And yet the very multiplicity of incarnations reveals God differently than a singular, echo-less, extension-less incarnation. In particular, the multiplicity displays God’s perfect freedom and surprising playfulness—two related themes for Blowers’s Maximus. That the Logos can realize the mystery of his embodiment so diversely speaks to the freedom in which the Logos initiates the terms of his revealedness and hiddenness; there is no constraint on divine desire. Blowers points to the way Maximus follows Gregory of Nazianzus in this vision of the Logos, for as Gregory writes, “The Logos on high plays (παίζει) in all sorts of forms, mingling (κίρνας) with his world here and there as he so desires” (86, quoting Gregory of Nazianzus Poemata theologica (moralia) 1.2.2, a passage Maximus quotes in his Ambiguum 71). Nazianzen here construes the Logos’s realization of desire through mingling in the world as testifying to the playfulness of the Logos, and Blowers returns often to the image of the Logos-at-play, claiming it as central to Maximus’s Christology and indeed his entire theological story. “At core of this cosmic drama of embodied life . . . is the Logos-Christ himself ‘playing’ manouevering, piloting his creatures through the vagaries of corporeality in virtue of his own assumption of the flesh and appropriation of creaturely finitude” (118). The Logos plays, for example, in the polysemy of Scripture, encouraging the reader to “play along” in this dynamic of concealedness and revealedness, issuing an invitation to a cosmic “game of hide-and-seek” (86). The Logos plays in the world, “teas[ing]” creatures through his corporeal life to “goad [them] toward enduring, eternal goods” (86). The goading Logos desires embodiment in all things to arouse creatures’ desire for intimacy with himself—making himself visible to awaken their desire, hiding to strengthen it as they seek him, and so orienting them to the divine life.
The Dramatics of Multiple Incarnations
The Logos who plays in multiple incarnations is a rich image for reflecting on God’s work in the world. It is rich, in part, because it resists reducing incarnation to the solution to a problem. Or, to put it in Blowers’s terms—drawn from John Behr’s work on Irenaeus—the incarnation is a “solution” that precedes any problem (103). Models of salvation history risk casting the incarnation in a functionalist logic, indexing it to its expedience in solving the problem of sin. But the Logos who plays hide and seek with humanity, embodying himself in multiple ways throughout the world to draw us into divine life—this is a purposiveness that is not reducible to a simple function. It is play.
If the incarnation is not a solution to a problem, neither is creation a starting point for linear salvation history. It is, rather, a stage. The Logos who desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment is shorthand for an entire divine economy, in which, as Blowers writes, “creation and salvation are ongoing, seamlessly interconnected aspects of the single divine initiative, or energeia, God’s urge to share his glory with an ‘other’” (139). In Maximus’s theology, creation, incarnation, redemption, and eschaton are not distinct occurrences that follow after one another; they are intimate and overlapping, various refractions of the embodiment-realizing Logos. From the perspective of creation, the incarnation in Jesus Christ is both unanticipated and yet a continuation of God’s activity; salvation then reveals “the incarnational fullness of Christ and the inauguration of a whole new creation” (228). In this way, the theological plot unfolds as Aristotle claims good tragedies should, with the action building in a way that is fitting, even necessary—until an unexpected twist, which can only in retrospect be seen as itself fitting. And, indeed, Blowers describes the movement of Maximus’s theology as “like a good play” and Maximus as a “skillful dramaturge” (221, 223). He is not thinking of Aristotle, though, but Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose reading of Maximus Blowers wants to affirm even as he deepens it with more recent scholarship (322–23).
Deep Incarnation and Multiple Incarnations
I want to continue Blowers’s work of interpreting Maximus together with recent theological scholarship by considering Maximus’s “multiple incarnations” in light of an emerging conversation in constructive theology about “deep incarnation.” The deep incarnation movement originates with Niels Gregersen, who claims that in becoming incarnate as a particular human in Christ, the Logos “also conjoined the material, living, and mental conditions of being a creature in any epoch.”3 This line of thought has been fruitful for ecologically-minded theologians, as well as those interested in the intersections of religion and science. But it is not without its critics.
In her contribution to a recent volume on deep incarnation, Celia Deane-Drummond names two potential dangers for theologies of deep incarnation. One is Christomonism, in which Christ eclipses the Triune God through a theological habit of eliding Trinitarian accounts of divine work with descriptions of Christ.4 The other is a form of naturalism, in which Christ’s presence in the natural world is equated with that world. How can a theologian committed to deep incarnation avoid collapsing Trinity into Christ and Christ into world? Deane-Drummond suggests as remedy a theo-dramatic framework that does not displace reflection on Christ’s ontological significance but instead helps to interpret it.5 Such ontology-friendly theo-drama can display Christ’s joining with the material world across time, space, and the creaturely spectrum in a way that is meaningful, yet that construes this joining in terms of the revelation of the character of God (avoiding Christomonism) while also maintaining ontological descriptions of Christ’s distinctiveness from the natural world (avoiding naturalism).
I hope it is clear at this point how Maximus’s “multiple incarnations” is exemplary of the theo-dramatic approach to deep incarnation that Deane-Drummond urges. I want to go one step further to identify how engagement with the Maximus Blowers gives us can advance this conversation about deep incarnation to a yet richer place. For, Maximus’s multiple incarnations guard against conflation with the natural world, not just by assuming Christ’s difference from the world but by implying the differences of Christ’s embodiments from one another. The Logos as Christ, for Maximus, is not present to the logoi of creation in the same way that the Logos-Christ is present to the sacramental bread or Scripture or to holy women and men. One way to describe the differences among these presences would be simply to point to the theo-dramatic framework, to the way creation stages the Logos’s movement of greater revelation. But in itself, that single-axis approach to divine presence does not adequately express playfulness of the Logos. The Logos is not just more present in Scripture than in creation; the Logos is differently present.
Maximus does not, so far as I can tell, lay out a taxonomy for modes of the Logos-Christ’s presence. Yet he does suggest important differences in presence. Blowers hints at these differences in his discussion of humanity bearing logoi as creatures, eikon as humanity, and the possibility of likeness and assimilation as holy and deified humans (179–80). He suggests these differences again in his account of the church as a “rich and multifaceted symbolic vector toward deifying assimilation to God” in which the liturgy images and presents Christ differently in different moments (170, 178). But perhaps the place where Blowers underscores the potential for modes of presence most strikingly is when he broaches Maximus’s silence about the anaphora. There he writes, “In the Dionysian-Maximian dialectics of disclosure and concealment, the anaphora, as the nucleus of the Eucharist, effectively poised the faithful between the ‘saturating’ presence of the incarnate Word (the Word who aspires always to be incarnate in all created things) and the infinitely inaccessible essence of the Trinity—an inaccessibility experienced as ‘absence’ but in no way constricting God’s own freedom to be present in the celebration” (191). This complex dynamic of absence and presence insinuates the complexity and nuances to the way the Logos is present in the world—that Christ is not just more or less present (the inaccessibility of the Trinity does not name a diminishment of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist) but present in a distinct mode, in a particular way. Blowers comes closest to naming modes of presence when he claims, “the manner by which Christ can be both the Host (Giver) of the eschatologically-charged Eucharistic banquet and its food (Gift) remains a pure mystery for the Church in the historical meanwhile” (194). The embodiment of the Logos as Giver and the embodiment of the Logos as Gift are not easily disentangled—but neither are they identical. They are, in Blowers’s language, different “manners” of presence.
With a more nuanced approach to divine presence, Maximus can help refine the conversations around deep incarnation. For if deep incarnation (at its Deane-Drummond–approved best) offers a way of reflecting extensively on God’s union with the world in Christ, and if a theo-dramatic framework that interprets ontological difference helps guard against diminishing that union into either Christomonism or naturalism; then Maximus’s theology offers another dimension to the incarnation. The Logos-Christ seeks embodiment differently in diverse forms. The way the Logos-Christ comes to us in the Eucharist is not the way the Logos-Christ comes to us in Scripture, nor in the priest as he enters the sanctuary. And meditating on these different modes of the Logos-Christ’s presence cuts still further against the threat of Christomonism, suggesting a Pneuma no less playful than the Logos. It also provides a way of reflecting on Christ’s relationship to the natural beyond the polarities of union and difference. Maximus, it seems to me, can offer the emerging conversation on deep incarnation theologically generative ways forward.6 Here is just one way that Blowers’s volume makes clear that we need more constructive theological conversations with Maximus.
Having gorged myself on the theological feast that Blowers has prepared for us, I will be digesting his rich food for some time to come. In my stupor of satiation, I offer a petty criticism. I wonder if the phrase “multiple incarnations” suppresses some of the gifts Maximus’s theology gives, particularly in flattening the multiple modes and forms the Logos’s embodiment takes in the world. (I wonder if the intermittent scare quotes around the term indicates Blowers worries about this, too.) I wonder if the more beautiful, unwieldy phrase, the Logos who “always and in all things desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment,” is more suggestive of the diversities of these enfleshments in the world—despite the pleasing provocativeness of “multiple incarnations.”
I offer two qualifications to the claim Blowers seems to have coined “multiple incarnations.” First, Maximus certainly does claim that Christ incarnate is present variously—as a person’s virtues, for example, but I do not discern Maximus himself abstracting those various presences in the term “multiple incarnations.” Second, “multiple incarnations” as a phrase has a life and meaning apart from both Paul Blowers and Maximus, but it is usually invoked to address the question of whether there could have been multiple versions of the Christ-event across the creaturely spectrum and particularly in alien species. Blowers re-coins the phrase for a different phenomenon in Maximus’s thought.↩
I toyed with using feminine pronouns for the divine in this essay, as a way of unsettling the masculine images of the divine that can captivate the imagination. Maximus’s Christology reads differently (less abstractly? perhaps more erotically or maternally?) when it is she who desires to realize the mystery of her embodiment. Ultimately, I kept the masculine pronouns out of continuity with Maximus and Blowers, whom I quote extensively.↩
Niels Henrik Gregersen, introduction to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 7.↩
Celia Deane-Drummond, “The Wisdom of Fools? A ‘Theo-Dramatic’ Interpretation of Deep Incarnation,” in Incarnation, 177. Deane-Drummond engages briefly with Maximus (mostly in terms of how he influences Hans Urs von Balthasar) in her Christology, Christ and Evolution: Wonder in Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 149–51.↩
Deane-Drummond, “Wisdom of Fools?,” 187.↩
There is an essay on Maximus in the Gregersen volume on deep incarnation. It is written by Torstein Theodor Tollefsen and takes as its point of departure the Logos who always and everywhere seeks to realize the mystery of his embodiment. However, his essay is ultimately directed toward the questions of the salvation of animals for Maximus and the compatibility of his theology with evolution. Tollefsen, “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation,” in Incarnation, 99–115.↩
On “Incarnation” in Maximus
I’m of the view that the “Maximus fad” of the past two and a half decades is here to stay, and for our benefit. Blowers’s deceptively dense volume validates this persuasion. You can’t read it and deny Maximus’s perduring relevance to Christian theology.
First, then, an encomium. Anyone familiar with Maximus’s writings knows how convoluted they can be. Blowers has managed not only to limn a fairly comprehensive portrait of Maximus and his thought, but to do so with distinctively Maximian chiaroscuro. Christology is like the soft luster in play with the darker tones of dramatic human existence, in Maximus as in Blowers: we see Maximus’s context (part 1), cosmos (part 2), microcosm (part 3), and after-contexts (part 4), with sophisticated Christology canvassed not in discrete discussion but throughout parts 2 and 3. The form speaks the Maximian axiom that contemplation of Christ is at once that of God, creation, and humanity. Another merit. In what I take to be Blowers’s basic thesis we glimpse Maximus’s “cosmo-politeian” vision, so different from George of Pisidia’s: Christ, and no single achievement of civilization, is the perfect divine-human politeia (101) such that against this horizon we can assume “a healthy dialectic of trust and distrust” of whatever current empire (24). Blowers is also right to press that in an age reared on a “hermeneutics of suspicion” we “have great difficulty fathoming the possibility that anyone could act out of sheer theological principle,” and that Maximus’s entire life and death is proof to the contrary (333).
Specialists typically take great interest when a senior scholar like Blowers weighs in on perennial issues. They will not be disappointed. He suggests that Maximus is more Origenist than is usually granted (1–3, 67–68, 222–24). He accepts Maximus’s Palestinian provenance against the Greek Life (30–42), which he calls “dubious” (71n23). You’ll find among the most incisive treatments of how Maximus can deny Christ a gnomic will and yet account for Christ’s overt fear of death in Gesthemane (156–65, 234–40). Blowers does address the question of apokatastasis in Maximus. This is of special interest since the two opposing voices are those of Blowers’s own authorities (von Balthasar = yay; Fr. Daley = nay). There’s admittedly some disappointment when he evokes his theo-dramatic approach only to suggest that Maximus makes of Gregory Nyssen’s universalism a universal summons to right living (252). But these and other discussions in the book betray a well-trained eye guiding the reader through the nettles of Maximus’s and his commentators’ thought alike. I rather think this volume nearly establishes Blowers’s own name under those of its four dedicatees.
Now, an engagement. I cast my principal issue as a question about Maximus’s talk of four divine incarnations or embodiments (Jesus, universe, language/Scripture, deified person): Of the three last, do we say they are incarnations or “incarnations”? A corollary: if indeed we nestle incarnation-talk between scare quotes, how do these qualify the content of the word “incarnation”? Very often Blowers indulges the quotes (78, 107, 181, 187, 257). This would imply, and Blowers once says, that there’s a qualitative difference between “the incarnation proper of Jesus of Nazareth” and “the ‘incarnation’ of the Logos in the logoi of nature” (107). Yet not a few times the quotes vanish (78, 87, 92, 119, 182). So too do their buffering effect. This leads Blowers to make some provocative claims. The Logos’s Incarnation in the logoi of creatures attests to “the depth of his identification with the creation” (113, my emphasis). This kenotic identification of Word and World means creation bears the cross as its most basic form, its fundament (105; cf. Th. Oec. 1.66). Blowers even faults Eriugena’s reception of Maximus to the extent that the former misses that “all [the Word’s] incarnations are eschatologically simultaneous and it is precisely the Logos qua Christ who is fully present in all of them” (291, his emphasis). It would seem that Blowers like Maximus wants to tender the radical view that the very act of creation is divine Incarnation—untamed by quotes. Incarnation here means that creatio ex nihilo is at once creatio ex Deo and Deus ex Deo. This is to conceive the generation of the World in its absolutely natural difference from God and in its fundamentally hypostatic or personal identity with Him. Creation would be divine ecstasy in the precise form of divine Incarnation, a hypostatic relation that exceeds whatever participative or analogical relation obtains between created and uncreated natures exactly because it precedes every natural relation. Or in Maximian conceit, the Logos (qua hypostasis) becomes the logoi by a “creative and sustaining procession [πρόοδον] of the One to individual beings.” God wrought created nature by His own personal ecstasy, the donation of Himself to be the being of created being, just as in the historical Incarnation He generated His human nature by willing to be that nature in Mary’s womb. If creation be Incarnation, then the God-World identity must be of a hitherto unthinkable order.
But Blowers follows von Balthasar in receding from such a prospect, finally discerning in Maximus only the logic of analogia entis so precious to Catholic theology last century. Perhaps thence comes the adventitious scare quotes. Take, for instance, how Blowers narrates divine and human ecstasy in Maximus. In Amb 71, so important to Blowers’s portrait, Maximus equates Dionysius’s portrayal of God being moved out of Himself toward creation with the Logos’s Incarnation as the logoi of creation. Blowers rightly observes that this movement sets the stage for the dramatic play of mutual erotic ecstasy between God and creation (124). What’s odd is that “ecstasy”—in Dionysius and Maximus a cypher for highest union—is then virtually reduced to the difference between God and World. Blowers recruits Jean-Luc Marion to explain that the Ab-solute “is ecstatically disappropriated from Itself in order that man might receive himself ecstatically in difference.” Divine ecstasy is “a ‘withdrawal’ granting a ‘space’ for creatures to participate in the ‘mystery of alterity.’” Marion assures that alterity “grows as much as union,” but the accent falls squarely on difference, for union lies “solely in distance, anterior and perennial, permanent and primordial.” Marion’s “distance” is for Maximus “the non-negotiable hiatus, or διάστημα, separating Creator and creatures-ex nihilo like an ontological and epistemic fault line,” it’s “a horizon, for participation and communion, ultimately inducing deification but without that frontier ever being fully traversed.” As von Balthasar says, “Being different from God . . . is [already] a way of imitating him.” Blowers glosses: “The image (εἰκών) of God (Gen. 1:26–7) in human beings still presupposes this difference, otherwise there would be no space for ongoing assimilation (ὁμοίωσις) to God.”
Maximus himself braves more than this last remark. Deification is not simply the movement from image to likeness of God. After evoking just this trope, Maximus says when we in “union with the archetype” become “images of Christ,” we further “become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear.” Nor is the diastemic gap between created and uncreated natures “non-negotiable,” never fully traversed. It was fully traversed at least once—in Christ. But as Blowers also knows (107), Maximus claims that the historical Incarnation of Jesus was not some exceptional instance of God traversing that natural chasm in person. Rather it revealed such identity as the vocation of human nature itself:
Had man united created nature with the uncreated through love . . . he would have shown them to be one and the same by the state of grace the whole man wholly pervading the whole God, and becoming everything that God is, without, however, identity in essence, and receiving the whole of God instead of himself.
The universal vocation of humanity is to traverse the diastemic gap, to make them “one and the same” (ἓν καὶ ταὐτὸν). Blowers’s emphasis on natural diastemic difference is surely correct: Maximus himself says creation can never be with God “the same reality” (ταυτόν) by participation. But then Incarnation sans scare quotes means precisely to invoke the unique way the Logos became both “one and two.” And it’s not by participation or assimilation. It’s rather that hypostatic identity not only exceeds every natural relation (and so union), but generates the very natural difference itself. So while the διάστημα ought never to be fully transgressed by some sort of natural closure, this tells nothing of the divine freedom to become identical to all things in the kenotic movement of His own hypostasis. Indeed for Maximus not only can the Word traverse the diastemic gap, He, in His unfathomable condescension, is the gap itself: “Insofar as He had contracted us for Himself into union with Himself, to that extent He Himself expanded [διέστειλεν] Himself for us through the logos of condescension.”
All to say that an “ecstasy” in the manner of divine Incarnation opens up new possibilities for the God-World relation. Several times Blowers takes issue with Yannaras’s and Zizioulas’s emphasis on how divine and creaturely persons can experience an ecstasy from nature in erotic union. Not an ecstasy from nature, counters Blowers, but only of nature (191–92, 317–18). When the Son “goes out” of Himself in the historical Incarnation, for instance, He didn’t forsake His divine nature on the empyrean heights. Divinity comes with Him so that it remains unmoved in essence while the Son’s Person yet bears it. But surely divine ecstasy as Incarnation means both an exodus of and from the divine nature: to the extent that His Person is the divine nature, it’s an ecstasy of that nature; to the extent that His Person is the human nature, it’s an ecstasy from the divine nature; and to the extent that His Person is both, it’s an ecstasy both of and from the divine nature. And if so for the historical, why not for the cosmic Incarnation?
Such is testimony to the merits of Blowers’s book. It’s a historical work that provokes the deepest theological queries—the highest prize in historical theology by my lights. And should my above riposte seem overly contrarian, I hasten to add how it reasserts Blowers’s portrait of the Maximian vision all the more. What could be more dramatic than that creation is not simply a setting of the stage, but is itself the first act of the principal dramatis persona, the profoundest kenotic ecstasy wherein Word identifies Himself with the World and so generates the World—the institution of natural difference by a still more mysterious and ineffable identity between Creator and creation?
 Amb 7.20. Translation, Greek, and precise paragraph enumeration of the Ambigua come from On The Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, 2 vols., edited and translated by Nicholas Constas, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 For the logoi as the Logos’s personal implantation in the whole of creation as in a womb—and indeed in explicit comparison to His gestation in Mary—see Amb 6.3.
 Amb 71 cites DN 4.13: “He is enticed away from his dwelling place above and beyond all things, condescending to penetrate all things according to an ecstatic and supernatural power wherewith he can still remain himself”; also quoted at 260.
 Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, 153; quoted at 125.
 Blowers 126, quoting Marion, Idol, 140 and 162.
 Blowers 126, quoting Marion, Idol, 156.
 Blowers 126–27, citing Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe according to Maximus the Confessor, translated by Brian E. Daley (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003 ), 87. On von Balthasar’s making of Maximus a prime proponent of analogia entis, see Blowers 321–23.
 Amb 21.15 (my emphasis): “καὶ ταὐτὸν αὐτῷ μᾶλλον κατὰ τὴν χάριν ἢ ἀφομοίωμα, τυχὸν δὲ καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ Κύριος, εἰ μὴ φορτικὸς ὁ λόγος τισὶν εἶναι δοκεῖ. . . .” It’s striking that what Maximus calls a “mere simulacrum” (ἀφομοίωμα), to be transcended in mystical union, is precisely the term Proclus uses to qualify the likeness of the highest gods (henads) to the transcendent One; cf. Th. Plat. VI.3: “ἀφομοιωμᾶτικός.”
 Amb 41.5, slightly modified.
 Ep. 6.
 Ep 15 (PG 91, 560D).
 Amb 5.14: the mystery of hypostatic identity between two incommensurable natures becomes evident in the “generation of opposites (τῇ τῶν ἐναντίων γενέσει γνωριζομένην).” This is the inevitable issue of the christological principle of “enhypostatization”; cf. Ep 12 (PG 91, 468AB).
 Amb 33.2, my translation and emphasis: “τοσοῦτον ἡμᾶς δι’ ἑαυτὸν πρὸς ἕνωσιν ἑαυτοῦ συστείλας, ὅσον αὐτὸς δι’ ἡμᾶς ἑαυτὸν συγκαταβάσεως λόγῳ διέστειλεν.”
 This is a necessary issue of Maximus’s modified Neo-chalcedonian formula that Christ’s hypostasis was “out of” the two natures, “in” the two natures, and indeed “is” the two natures. See Ep 12 (PG 91, 468C); Amb 5.12. For a concise discussion and several more references in Maximus’s corpus, see Pierre Piret, “Christologie et théologie trinitaire chez Maxime le Confesseur, d’après sa formule des natures «desquelles, en lesquelle et lesquelles est le Christ»,” in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, Fribourg, 2–5 septembre 18 1980, edited by Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires, 1982), 215–22. That this emphasis on identity was dear to Maximus is clear from the fact that Leontius of Byzantium, a fellow Neo-chalcedonian from whom Maximus drew liberally, never went so far. See Brian Daley, “The Origenism of Leontius of Byzantium,” Journal of Theological Studies 27.2 (1976): 360.
 Perhaps this is why Christ is foreknown by God “before” creation only ever as the sacrificial Lamb (1 Pet 1:20; Rev 13:8): the Lamb is slain before the foundation of the World because that is the foundation of the World.
7.17.17 | Fr. Andrew Louth
Readings and Misreadings
Paul Blowers has established himself as one of the most profound readers of St Maximos the Confessor; in this book he brings to his exposition years and years of patient reading and pondering. In some ways, it seems to me that Paul is uniquely placed to grasp the very kernel of Maximos’ thought. Many of the increasing number of Maximian scholars seem to have come to Maximos with an overriding issue in mind. Maximos as the one who sees the pure gold in Origen’s metaphysical theology, and sifts this from the questionable elements that had also been immensely attractive to some of his (especially monastic) readers: one could say this of Polycarp Sherwood. Maximos as, in some way, bridging the divide, already becoming a rift, between East and West—the group of mainly Dominican scholars, disciples of Le Guillou, who grabbed the headlines of Maximian scholarship in the 1970s; or the grander claim Hans Urs von Balthasar made in the revised edition of Kosmische Liturgie, seeing Maximos as transcending East and West, where “East really means Asia and West das Abendland—the whole of the West tout court.” Or Maximos as articulating as none other the cosmic dimension of Christianity, or the cosmic dimension of Christology: Tollefsen and others. Or some other particular, though axial, doctrine: deification, it may be—Larchet, perhaps—or his profound sense of the crucial distinction between the created and the uncreated: Lévy? None of these approaches and insights is mistaken, but they lead to the heart of the matter, rather than being that heart itself. Paul Blowers, however, began his engagement with the Confessor somewhere else, with a particular work, his Quaestiones ad Thalassium. Larchet, in his introduction to Maximos’ thought that prefaces the new Sources Chrétiennes edition of Ad Thalassium, elegantly structures his account of the ‘corps de l’ouvrage’ by saying that it is “en apparence un commentaire de passages difficiles de Écriture . . . ,”1 but “. . . en réalité un traité de spiritualité.”2 The more one reads Maximos’ Quaestiones ad Thalassium, the more one realizes that here we are at the heart of the Confessor’s concerns: Scripture is for him an engagement with the Word, an engagement that illuminates the other “incarnations” of the Word, in creation and in the Incarnation proper, and an engagement that draws the reader into the very heart of the mystery of Christ. What might look at first sight like another collection of difficulties for Maximos to solve—a genre that was to remain fundamental in later Byzantine theology—is rather a series of examples of how, by reading and meditating on Scripture, the Christian (or monk, in this case, but Maximos wrote for others, too) can deepen his own participation in the mystery of Christ. The fact that Paul began his study of Maximos by engaging with the very heart of his theological endeavour—promoting and fostering the spiritual life of those who turned to him, rather than refining Christian doctrine in some way—has given Paul’s reflections their own unique authority. Starting from his doctoral thesis, published as Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor (1991) and leading to the two major works of recent years, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety (2012), and the book honoured in this symposium, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (2016), Paul has pursued a course marked by a host of truly central articles concerned, mostly, with Maximos the Confessor, and especially with his understanding of the dynamics of the Christian’s engagement with God in Christ, as he or she seeks to reconstruct him- or herself, or perhaps better allow such reconstruction to take place in the fire of encounter with the divine. To this task Paul has brought profound and wide learning (manifest especially in his Drama of Divine Economy), a persistent, almost nagging, questioning of what Maximos really means, and a lively imagination.
All that is more important than anything I have to offer in this attempt to further a conversation with Paul, a conversation that has been going on for a long time, but alas, mainly in my head, by reflecting on a few places in his latest book, where I want to push the debate onwards, maybe also questioning some of his assertions and aspects of his approach.
The first query that arose in my mind reading Paul’s book occurred early on: on page 60. There Paul tells us that “the dispute [at Bizya] began with Theodosios querying Maximus about divine foreknowledge and predestination.” In fact, the dispute at Bizya, an interrogation intended to get Maximos to recant over his opposition to the Typos, does not begin like that. It begins by Theodosios greeting Maximos: “Πῶς ἔχεις, κῦρι ἀββᾶ”—How are you, lord abba? A polite greeting. It is Maximos who turns his greeting into a theological discussion, when he says, “As God preordained before all ages a way of life for me in his providence, that’s how I am.” It might seem a small point, but the text of the Dispute presents Maximos as wholly in charge of the sequence of the dispute, as does the text of the trial (Relatio motionis). It seems to me that, at no point in the trial and the later interrogation, does anyone lead the discussion other than Maximos; and this is remarked on in the text. Maximos’ serene trust in providence, even in the hardship and worse to which he was subjected, is something strange to miss. There is, true, something of a topos about it—one thinks of St John Chrysostom exiled not too far away from where Maximos was eventually to be exiled repeatedly asserting Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ παντῶν ἕνεκα!
A more serious misreading—or so it seems to me—concerns something that Paul repeatedly affirms: that there is a fundamental διάστημα—distance—between God and the created order. What Paul means is correct and fundamental: there is no point of contact/overlap between the uncreated and the created, between God and the created order. This perception, fundamental to the Orthodox rejection of “Arianism” in the fourth century, is something that Maximos radically affirms. In this he reveals his debt to the great fathers of the fourth century, especially Gregory of Nyssa, with whom he shares many of his fundamental metaphysical insights. But neither Maximos nor Gregory expresses this sense of the radical distinction between the uncreated and the created by saying that there is a distance, a διάστημα, between them. Rather, it seems to me, what they both affirm is that διάστημα is characteristic of the created order: created beings are distant from one another; this “distance” (not just spatial, but also temporal, or indeed, I have argued elsewhere, still more general in its application)3 marks the nature of the created order, both manifold and finite, in contrast to the Godhead, one and unbounded. There is no διάστημα between the persons of the Trinity; they know a unity beyond anything that created beings could know. This is clear, it seems to me, in the principal place where Maximos speaks about what we might call, following (though not too closely) his Latin translator and disciple, Eriugena, “divisions of being”: the beginning of Ambigua 41. There Maximos introduces the notion of five divisions, διαιρέσεις, that characterize the substance of everything that has come into being. The first division is between God and the created order; the second, in the created order, between the intelligible and the sensible; the third, in the sensible, between heaven and earth; the fourth, in the earth, between paradise and the inhabited world; the fifth in the world inhabited by humans, between male and female. What is striking about these divisions (διαιρέσεις, not διαστήματα), is that the first is presented in a rather roundabout way: “division” here is called the “ignorance (ἄγνοια) of what it is that distinguishes creation from God.” The other divisions are comprehensible, but this division—between the uncreated and the created—is not; it has to be characterized as “ignorance,” “unknowing.” What Maximos means here is, it seems, clear, even if it is difficult to find a way of expressing it, for God does not belong to τὴν πάντων τῶν γεγονότων ὑπόστασιν, “the substance of what has come to be” in which the five divisions are found. There is no category that embraces both God and the created order, so the “first division” is different from all the rest, which divide the beings that have come to be; we have to characterize it by “ignorance.”
Acknowledgment of this is important, if we are not to misunderstand Maximos (and indeed the whole tradition to which he belongs). God is not “distant” from his created order; there is no distance, διάστημα, that God has to overcome in order to be present to creatures. If God were not present to them, they would have no being at all.
This leads to another topic which Paul mentions in his book and which he will, I hope, one day develop further. This concerns Maximos’ doctrine of the Wisdom of God, his “sophiology.” Paul has this to say:
It is ungracious to complain that Paul takes this no further. No one else has made much of an attempt. Marcus Plested, in a communication to the 2003 Oxford Patristics Conference, remarked that “the theme of wisdom in [Maximos’] work is not one that has attracted any sustained or systematic scholarly attention,” and sought to show that “wisdom constitutes a ‘master theme’ of Maximus’ theological vision.”4 But such a demonstration needed more than the time allotted to a communication. I, too, have failed in such an attempt;5. I can hardly hope to do much better in such brief a space as remains for me. But, as Samuel Beckett says, “Fail again; fail better.”
It seems to me that our reflection of the absence of διάστημα between created and uncreated, human and divine, is the key here. God does not have to overcome any distance between himself and the created order, he is present to it; and this presence, in all its manifestations, is expressed in the Wisdom of God. The problem with developing this, as I see it, is that Maximos rarely (ever?) makes a theme of the Wisdom of God. There are places that can be cited, where he speaks of the Wisdom of God: see Marcus’ article, or Paul’s footnote 29 on page 109. What is much more characteristic of Maximos’ language of σοφία is that for him it is a virtue, a virtue that sums up all other virtues. Perhaps the reason why Maximos seems, from time to time, to gesture in the direction of what we might call sophiology, but then seems never to develop it, lies in the fact that he does develop a comprehensive doctrine of the logoi of being: most of what he wants to say here is expressed in terms of his doctrine of the logoi, rather than in terms of sophia/Sophia. One of the most tantalizing places for grasping what Maximos makes of the wisdom of God, whether the uncreated Wisdom of God, which is the Son, or the wisdom by which we apprehend God (uncreated or created wisdom, to recall the speculations of Bulgakov) is the sixtieth of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium, which Paul has himself translated.6 This question explores the passage in 1 Peter, which speaks of Christ as the Lamb, foreknown before the foundation of the world. The theme of foreknowledge, in a different context, takes us back to where my reflections began. I don’t think the word σοφία is used, and yet the notion of the Wisdom of God manifest in Christ is omnipresent in ad Thalassium 60; so too is the notion of wisdom as constituting our entering into that mystery (there are several places in the Centuries on Love—I. 96, or IV. 2, where σοφία is coupled with δύναμις or γνῶσις—that might be cited in this context). I would be tempted to see here a starting-point for developing Maximos’ doctrine of Sophia, beginning with the crucial role the virtue of sophia plays in his understanding of our response to God.
But, as I said to begin with, all I am seeking to do here is develop further a conversation prompted by Paul’s lifetime achievement in seeking to understand the Confessor.
Maxime le Confesseur, Questions à Thalassios, vol. 1 (SC 529), 12.↩
See my article “Space, Time and the Liturgy,” in Encounter between Eastern Orthodoxy and Radical Orthodoxy: Transfiguring the World through the Word, ed. Adrian Pabst and Christoph Schneider (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 215–31, esp. 216–21.↩
“Wisdom in St Maximus the Confessor,” Studia Patristica XLII (2006) 205–9, at 205.↩
“Sophia, the Wisdom of God, in St Maximos the Confessor,” to be published in the proceedings of a conference on Wisdom, held at Varna in 2015 (by Pro Oriente)↩
St Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 123–29.↩
7.17.17 | Paul Blowers
Response to Fr. Andrew Louth
I began reading the work of Fr. Andrew Louth while I was working on my PhD at the University of Notre Dame in the mid-1980s. Since that time, becoming friends with him and interacting with him in various venues and conferences has been a sheer gift to me. Not only have we had rich conversations, we have even walked together through the bitter cold of a Norwegian winter (!), having been in Trondheim in December 2014 to co-examine a PhD dissertation on Dionysius and Maximus. Fr. Andrew is simply one of the most distinguished interpreters of the Greek and Byzantine patristic tradition (and modern Orthodox theology as well), and is himself a prolific scholar of Maximus the Confessor. I have learned much from him and am indebted to him on many counts (his place in the bibliography of my book will attest as much). So I am very grateful that he has taken the time to give a patient, critical reading to my new monograph, and I am anxious to have more face-to-face conversation with him about it.
I am grateful indeed for Fr. Andrew’s kind opening comments on my work on Maximus over the years, but being the very serious historical theologian that he is, clamoring for precision, I know that he would want me to focus the bulk of my response on his more critical statements about the book, which I take with utmost seriousness and with a humble desire to clarify myself where I think necessary. So here goes.
Fr. Andrew’s has taken issue primarily with three themes in the book: the character of the dispute at Bizya in 656; the matter of Maximus’s understanding of diastêma; and the question of the role of divine Wisdom in the Confessor’s theological vision. So let me take them up in that order.
(1) On the Disputatio Bizyae, in which Maximus, in exile, was cross-examined by the bishop Theodosius of Caesarea Bithyniae, Fr. Andrew suggests that I have misread the opening of the Dispute because I claimed that it commences with Maximus being queried about divine foreknowledge and predestination. Fr. Andrew rightly points out that the actual opening line in the disputation has the bishop politely greeting Maximus with the words, “How are you, lord abba?” and that Maximus ends up essentially commanding the discussion henceforth, including therein a display of his serene confidence in God’s providence in his life. That confidence is signaled in Maximus’s response to the bishop’s greeting: “As God preordained before all ages a way of life for me in his providence, that’s how I am.”1 And yet the first real question in the disputation is posed by the bishop, when he follows up on Maximus’s response: “How can you say that? Did God preordain (προώρισε) our individual destinies before all time?” And what follows, before the two disputants move to pressing matters of Christology, is a brief exchange on the relation between divine predestination and foreknowledge, that vexed issue that would haunt especially the Western churches in later centuries but which here prefaces a debate over divine and human wills in Christ. To my knowledge, my brief treatment on p. 60 of the book does not imply either that Maximus was lacking in confidence in divine providence, nor that he was in command of the conversation (which led, famously, to Theodosius being convinced by his arguments).
(2) I am especially interested in Fr. Andrew’s comments on my alleged “misreading” of diastêma in Maximus, a theme which does indeed come up more than once in the book. I concur with part of his criticism but not with the other part, for reasons which I will explain. He is quite right that for the most part, Maximus’s use of diastêma and its cognates references the constraint of the created universe under spatio-temporal “extension.” We see this especially in the Ambigua to John but elsewhere as well. I wholeheartedly agree with Fr. Andrew that this is for Maximus, as for Gregory of Nyssa, the most important terminology for describing the bounded creation, and indeed, I acknowledge the diastêma-as-“extension” or “interval” (etc.) in the book (see pp. 126 and n96; 145). But my working assumption has always been that Maximus presupposes all of Nyssen’s nuances on diastêma, one of which, as Paulos Mar Gregorios demonstrated some time ago, is the ontological divide “between” Creator and creation,2 which cannot be negotiated epistemically or metaphysically by creatures, and which only God can ultimately bridge (and has always bridged through the Logos-Christ). In Ambiguum 41 (PG 91:1305C) Maximus actually does use the term diastêma to name the gap that divides the five polarities of the universal order, in the mediation of which humanity is called to participate; and of course the supreme of those polarities is that between Creator and creation, although, as Fr. Andrew rightly indicates, that polarity is unique because it is intrinsically an object of our ignorance, ἄγνοια. With respect to the Creator-creation differentiation, I believe that this meaning of diastêma as “gap” is absolutely continuous with the other prevailing sense (spatio-temporal extension), for it really signals the outer boundary of diastemic reality, the ontological and epistemic fault line, as it were, that defines the world as created, not uncreated. To say that diastêma in this sense is “between” Creator and creation is, I would concede, somewhat awkward, since the relation between them is, as Gregorios rightly says, “incommensurable.” But it serves linguistically to accentuate the chasm distinguishing the Uncreated Trinity from the contingent, created cosmos.
What is more, I think Fr. Andrew may have misconstrued me (or at least my intention) where I argue that diastêma, as the chasm “between” uncreated Creator and the creation, constitutes a “distance” between Creator and creation. He asserts that I have identified this “distance” as somehow delimiting or inhibiting the Creator’s presence to the creation. Never did I say or would I say that it is a distance that God has to “overcome.” Rather, I have brought up the issue of the “distance” in referencing the helpful work of Jean-Luc Marion on Dionysius and Maximus as apophatic theologians (see p. 126). The “distance” here is one created by the Creator, the gift of a “space” for creatures to thrive and to participate in “the mystery of alterity,” as Marion calls it. God’s ecstatic expropriation, his removal to make space for the created other, enables creatures’ own ecstatic appropriation of their creaturely gift in worship and in praise. The “distance,” then, is no constraint upon God or upon the transcending divine freedom, but an opening to the mystery of unspeakable love. Diastêma in this sense becomes for creatures not just a delimitation but a horizon of endless (deifying) participation in the grace of the Creator.
(3) I am challenged especially by the last of Fr. Andrew’s critical comments, and it makes me wish that I could have said more about the issue in the book. (And I probably should have.) So can I further justify my claim that “Maximus thus not only renews a Wisdom Christology, he relates to it a Wisdom cosmology and anthropology (108)? As Fr. Andrew notes, no concentrated study on Wisdom in Maximus has yet appeared, and while Marcus Plested has made a preliminary stab at it, I have tried to take it up but without much amplification and elucidation. (I very much wish I could’ve had in hand Fr. Andrew’s soon-to-appear essay on Sophia in Maximus, but alas).
I still believe that Wisdom is an important leitmotif cutting across various aspects of Maximus’s theology, but I also confess that my claim is more inferential than demonstrative. First let me say that I have always tried to follow Sherwood’s cue in emphasizing the positive, not just the negative, features of Maximus’s legacy from Origen (as conveyed to him especially through the Cappadocians). Despite the differences of Maximus’s post-Nicene Trinitarian perspective, he inherited a great respect for Origen’s basic insights into the primal revelatory role of the Logos, including the Logos’s “incarnation” in the logoi of created things. In the Peri Archôn, Origen set out the idea that rational creatures (λογικά) enjoy by their very nature a share in the transcendent “Reason” of the Logos, which is at once a share in his sublime Wisdom and Righteousness,3 the Logos being “Very Wisdom” (αὐτοσοφία) and “Very Righteousness” (αὐτοδικαιοσύνη), and “Very Truth” (αὐτοαλήθεια).4 By the time we get to Maximus, all this has no doubt been filtered through the lenses of the Cappadocian Fathers and the ascetical tradition (esp. Evagrius). Maximus adds his own substantial nuances, of course, but at bottom he still resounds the principle that the Logos—as divine Word, Wisdom, Reason—is the ever-fertile source providentially guiding the fruition (in the Spirit) of the communicative, intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of all rational creatures. The Ad Thalassium richly proves this, with its (Origenian) presupposition that the Logos in his effusive Wisdom pervades and indwells the scriptural text, demanding reciprocation in interpretation that is prudential and spiritually searching. And of course there is a crucial internal link here with Maximus’s anthropology and ethics, since the Logos-qua-Wisdom who “incarnates” himself in the intellectual and moral virtues of the Christian does so commensurate with the Christian’s cultivation of spiritual and practical wisdom. Divine Wisdom’s indwelling (at one with the indwelling love of God) is paradoxically both the cause and the fruit of the Christian’s growth in grace and truth. (Meanwhile, Fr. Andrew is quite right that most of what Maximus has to say about wisdom concerns the moral virtue of wisdom, and we have both written on Maximus’s “virtue ethics”).
This may all seem obvious enough to those like Fr. Andrew who have read Maximus diligently and in context, but it is still easy to ignore it because of other preoccupations with Maximian themes (and because the heavy scholarship on anti-Origenism in Maximus often ignores or eclipses it). I have tried to do justice to the Confessor’s debts (even if secondhand) to pre-Nicene theological traditions that included not just Irenaeus (see my book, pp. 102ff.) but Origen.
In addition, I have attempted in this book and elsewhere to focus more attention on how Maximus interprets the Pauline “scandal” and “foolishness” of God in Christ, which for the Apostle discloses the depth of divine sophia (1 Cor. 1:18—2:16). Fr. Andrew knows well the text of Ambiguum 71 (he translated it in his 1996 book on the Confessor), which is where we see Maximus’s most profound interpretation of that passage from Paul, even if his allusion to it is relatively brief. It comes in the context of Maximus’s contemplation of what Gregory Nazianzen means when he says that “the Logos on high plays (παίζει) in all sorts of forms, mingling (κίρνας) with his world here and there as he so desires” (Poema moralia 1.2.2). Having noted the fact that the divine Wisdom is really a great and unfathomable abyss of sorts, Maximus goes on to the folly/Wisdom of the incarnational kenosis of the Logos, for which Gregory has provided the marvelous image of the free and exuberant “playfulness” of the Word as Wisdom, the maneuvering of the Word in whatever forms and strategies he sees fit to “mingle” with the creation, “ecstatically” engaging it so as to save and transform it. It is the display of the sublimely reckless abandon, as it were, of the triple divine virtues of “Wisdom, Power, and Prudence.” Although Maximus does not consistently recall this image of the play of divine Wisdom throughout his corpus, it is, in my judgment, simply one of the most penetrating ways of interpreting his whole christocentric cosmology. That it appears in the very last of the Ambigua to John makes it a perfect capstone to his earlier discourses in the collection.
The “play” of divine Wisdom also dovetails with the “cruciformity” of creation in Maximus’s theology, something that I also address in the book. I have tried to draw attention to Maximus’s own attempt not just to emphasize the fullness of the “incarnation” of the Logos in the world but also to envision the cross, the epitome of divine folly/Wisdom, at the very core of his interpretation of the divine motive in creation (in the book, see esp. pp. 134, 226, 230–34, 247–48, 315, 334).
Let me once again express my appreciation to Fr. Andrew for his comments and for stimulating me toward greater clarification on these points. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this response and look forward to our future conversation on these and other themes in Maximus.
Using the translation here of Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, Maximus the Confessor and His Companions: Documents from Exile (Oxford University Press, 2002), 77ff.↩
See Gregorios’s Cosmic Man: The Divine Presence: The Theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330–395 A.D.) (New York: Paragon House, 1980), 77–82 (“Diastema as Gap”). Gregorios quotes the major passages in this connection from the Contra Eunomium.↩
E.g., Peri Archôn 1.3.5–6.↩
E.g., Comm. in Johannem 1.9.59; 32.28.347; Comm. in Matthaeum 14.7; Contra Celsum 3.41; 6.47; 6.63.↩