“You are Gods”: According to Maximus the Confessor

In that Maximus is explaining Gregory the Theologian and referencing Origen and going beyond him, and accounting for the New Testament picture of the person of Christ (and refuting the Neo-Platonism of his day along the way), to summarize Maximus comes close to a summation of the view of the early church. Maximus provides an unparalleled explanation, not only of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82:6, but of the New Testament picture of Christ being “all in all” or the summation and goal of creation (so that creation and incarnation are mutually implied). On the other hand, to try to fit Maximus to some other frame is to miss the peculiarly Christian nature of his explanation. He makes constant appeal to the incarnation as the singular case for understanding the God/human relationship and Christian salvation. He is well versed in Platonism and Neo-Platonism and is precisely not a Platonist or Neo-Platonist but shows the inadequacies of Greek philosophy.[1] He is coloring in the lines set out by Chalcedon but Chalcedon, at least compared to Maximus, is more of a warning than explanation. The fact that his tongue is torn out, his right hand cut off, and that he is sent into exile points, not to his heterodoxy, but to the thin thread of orthodoxy in the East.

My minimalist picture of Jesus’ quotation and deployment of Psalm 82:6 (in the previous blog here) sets the parameters for the more fulsome explanation of Maximus. The picture in Peter, in the Psalms, and that given by Jesus, is that humans were made, as Peter says to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). As Jesus says about himself, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36) and in some fashion he extends his status to all humankind through quoting (Ps. 82:6), “You are gods.” In short, the New Testament teaches that humankind was made for union with God.[2] Maximus builds upon this conclusion and draws out its implications.

The focus of his work, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers (or The Ambigua) is, according to his translator, “unified around the experience of divinization, which Maximos characterizes as the deepest longing of the saints, the desire of human nature for assimilation to God, and the yearning of the creature to be wholly contained within the Creator.”[3]

Maximus takes up the specific notion and quotation, “you are gods,” in explaining Gregory’s oration on Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven: “Had Paul been able to express the experience gained from the third heaven, and his progress, or ascent, or assumption.”[4] Maximus explains that there are three ways of understanding the fact that some human person might be designated “God.” This might name a condition, an essence, or a grace. “Man” names an essence, while “wicked” or “foolish” name a condition, while “a name indicative of grace is when man, who has been obedient to God in all things is named ‘God’ in the Scriptures, as in the phrase, I said, you are Gods, for it is not by nature or condition that he has become and is called ‘God,’ but he has become God and is so named by placement and grace.”[5] This “grace of divinization” is not conditioned by anything preceding it as it is “completely unconditioned.” It does not refer to a faculty or capacity within the natural essence of man, as then it would no longer be grace.

Maximus thinks the word “assumption” best fits the estate achieved by Paul. It is a passive term and “not something that the apostle accomplished, but rather experienced.” Assumption takes into account both the passive quality but “the activity of the one who assumes” in that “the apostle left behind the names and qualities that had properly been his, for he transcended human nature virtue and knowledge.” And in this way “the name of God, which formerly stood at an infinite distance from him, he came to share by grace, becoming and being called God, in place of any other natural or conditional name that he had prior to his assumption.”[6] Grace does not work by nature or condition, as God himself sets the terms and condition: God is the condition.

I was reminded here and found helpful Barth’s picture of revelation (which I have written on here). God as Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness is not conditioned upon something else. God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. But what Barth misses and Maximus takes into account is the link between redemption and creation. Divinization not only conditions revelation and redemption but describes creation’s logic and purpose. That is, in describing the Logos, Maximus is describing the logic of creation as well as of redemption.

The patristic understanding which Maximus assumes, that the Logos is the incarnate and not the preincarnate Christ, serves as his description of the Logic of creation: “for it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way, and for a certain reason, and (whether they are stationary or in motion) participate in God.”[7] This Logos which stands behind creation’s purpose is the embodied Word: “For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.”[8] The mystery of his embodiment is the abiding reason and explanation to be found throughout the created order.

Though the quote above uses the phrase “participate in God,” Maximus immediately turns, not to Plato or Aristotle but to the incarnate Christ, to explain this participation. The insight of Jordan Daniel Wood, is that participation, as it is understood in Plato or Neo-Platonism, does not go far enough: “The problem arises when we imagine that participation exhausts the God-world relation. More than anyone, Maximus challenges this assumption precisely because he always discovers that the contours of the cosmos are those of Christ.” As Maximus puts it (above), “the Logos of God wills always and all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.” Creation is itself an outworking of the incarnation, and as Wood puts it, “Maximus’s proper Christology really is his metaphysics or cosmology.” In other words, Christ is “the paradigm of creation” and “the perfect microcosm of the world.” Wood raises the question: “does participation describe the peculiar logic of the Incarnate Word?” He answers with a blunt, “No.”[9]

The danger is to imagine we might plug Maximus into some logic (such as Neo-Platonism) other than the specific and unique logic of the incarnation, which for him accounts for all of creation. Creation does not account for itself “naturally” but calls for the supernatural as both logic and end. The logic of Christ is its own logic and Maximus has no concern to relate it to anything else. In fact, quite the opposite: he is concerned to show that it is unrelated to any other account of knowing.

He lays out the parameters of “natural thought” and its end. “Natural intellectual motion,” as he explains, “has its relation to all relative objects of thought” but this eventually leaves one “with nothing left to think about, having thought through everything that is naturally thinkable.” Natural thought does not arrive at God through some natural given, only God himself provides the condition or experience for knowing him. As in Barth’s formula, so with Maximus, “God is not an object of knowledge or predication” such that he is grasped like other objects of knowledge, “but rather (he is grasped) according to simple union, unconditioned and beyond all thought.” He is knowing and the effect of knowing and the progress of knowing. “God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. These things are of course said about Him in an absolute sense, for He is Wisdom and Righteousness and Sanctification itself, and not in some limited sense, as is the case with human beings.”[10] Or as in Barth, God is the subject, object, and predicate of his revealing which, according to Maximus provide for being known “on the basis of a certain unutterable and indefinable principle” known “only to the One who grants this ineffable grace to the worthy.”[11]

The alternative is not nature, but what is “contrary” to grace in that it is attached to a “disposition” in those set “on a course to nonexistence, and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness.”[12] This is not to pit nature against grace, on the order of a two-tiered Thomism or pure nature before its time, as Maximus leaves nature intact but it is a nature which is properly itself only when imbued with grace.

The beginning and end of man consists of a cultivation of the seed of the Good. Man, from his beginning, “received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to the beginning that he received being and participation in what is naturally good, and it is by conforming to this beginning through the inclination of his will and by free choice, that he hastens to the end.” The origin and end cohere in one guided by the Word. “Having completed his course, such a person becomes God, receiving from God to be God, for to the beautiful nature inherent in the fact that he is God’s image, he freely chooses to add the likeness to God by means of the virtues, in a natural movement of ascent through which he grows in conformity to his own beginning.”[13] Created in the divine image man returns to this origin by adding the likeness through his own life course. This can be termed a “natural movement of ascent” as he grows in conformity to the nature in which he was created. Grace can be resisted or obstructed, but this has nothing to do with a pure nature but simply describes one bent toward nothingness.

Man owes his existence directly to God and he can be said to be a “portion of God” insofar as he exists, “for he owes his existence to the logos of being that is in God” insofar as he is good as “he owes his goodness to the logos of wellbeing that is in God; and he is a “portion of God” insofar as he is God, owing to the logos of his eternal being.” Maximus describes this in terms of a true ipseity, which he pits against false notions of movement and impassibility (as in Plato and Aristotle). “In this life he has already become one with himself and immovable, owing to his state of supreme impassibility” and in the life to come in an ongoing divinization “he will love and cleave affectionately to God Himself, in whom the logoi of beautiful things are steadfastly fixed.”[14] He arrives at his beginning and end and is fixed in his totality in the totality of God and is rightly called God in this divinization.

[1] Jordan Daniel Wood has laid to rest the notion that participation, in the Greek sense, adequately encompasses Maximus understanding of divinization. Jordan Daniel Wood, “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018).

[2] A focus of the Bible, which is not absent in Maximus but not emphasized, is that the obstacle that would keep us from this realization is nothing less than a cosmic force for evil opposing God and ourselves.

[3] Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) xvii.

[4] Ambigua 20.1.

[5] Ambigua 20.2.

[6] Ambigua 20.3.

[7] Ambigua 7.16

[8] Ambigua 7.22.

[9] Wood, 11.

[10] Ambigua 7.21

[11] Ambigua 15.9

[12] Ambigua 20.2

[13] Ambigua 7.21.

[14] Ambigua 7.22