The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

If the end point of Augustinian thought might be said to be the theology of Martin Luther, in which the essence of God is unattainable (nominalism), then the fulfillment of Origen’s theology must be found in the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), who pictures identification between God and the world. The logic (the Christo-logic) of Origen’s apocatastasis is summed up in Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, hereafter Amb. 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1] Creation’s purpose is found in the incarnation (in the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world), and this end is present in the beginning, so that incarnation is not simply a singular event within creation but is the basis of creation.

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences which one form of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between creator and creation is complete:

This mystery is obviously the ineffable and incomprehensible union according to hypostasis of divinity and humanity. This union brings humanity into perfect identity, in every way, with divinity, through the principle of the hypostasis, and from both humanity and divinity it completes the single composite hypostasis, without creating any diminishment due to the essential difference of the natures.

(QThal. 60.2).

This total identity with God on the part of Christ is perfectly duplicated in the Christian. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather 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” (Amb. 21.15). Maximus is not speaking metaphorically or analogously but is describing a complete identification between the disciple and his Lord. His qualifications pertain only to the difference that what Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace. Or as he states it in Ambigua 10, the disciple may be limited by his nature but nonetheless reflects the “fulness of His divine characteristics”:

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41).

Their “own natural potency” is the only delimitation between the identity of the Word and the one reflecting that Word. Otherwise they are “imbued with His own qualities” and are “reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word” and “possess the fullness of His divine characteristics” which totally interpenetrate but nonetheless do not overwhelm or diminish who they naturally are. It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. He explains that he is not describing the erasure of the individual: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (Amb. 7.12). One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy” (Amb. 7.12). This is accomplished through the body, the incarnation, of Christ.  

The body of Christ not only accounts for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ” (Amb. 54.2). The body of Christ is the body of “each human being” it is the “virtues” or “the inner principles of created beings.” As Jordan Wood puts it, “Everything is his body.”[2] There is a complete identification (though Maximus is careful to stipulate this is not an identity in essence): “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, and obtaining as a kind of prize for his ascent to God the absolutely unique God” (Amb. 41.5).

Maximus is building upon Origen’s notion that the beginning is in the end and the end is in the beginning, which is Jesus Christ. Thus, he describes the virtuous person through Origen’s formula: “For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good, and has shown the end to be the same as the beginning, and the beginning to be the same as the end, or rather that the beginning and the end are one and the same” (Amb. 7.21). As Maximus explains, from the viewpoint of God taken up by the virtuous person “by conforming to this beginning,” a beginning in which “he received being and participation in what is naturally good,” “he hastens to the end, diligently” (Amb. 7.21). This end is the deification of all things: “In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized” (QThal. 2.2).  

As with Origen, it is the incarnate Christ, and not an a-historical or preincarnate Logos, in which he locates the beginning of all things. In the incarnate Word, God has identified with the world, and the worlds beginning and end is found in this identity of the Word (in the middle of history).  As stated in the Gospel of John, this process of creation continues through the Son, and this work is the work of deification:

 In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized—the grace of which God the Word, becoming man, says: “My father is still working, just as I am working.” That is, the Father bestows His good pleasure on the work, the Son carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes in all things the good will of the former and the work of the latter, so that the one God in Trinity might be “through all things and in all things.

(QThal. 2.2).

The Trinitarian work begun through the Son is carried out on all of creation, so that he might be all in all (Col. 3:11).  As Maximus states it in Ambigua 31:

If, then, Christ as man is the first fruits of our nature in relation to God the Father, and a kind of yeast that leavens the whole mass of humanity, so that in the idea of His humanity’ He is with God the Father, for He is the Word, who never at any time has ceased from or gone outside of His remaining in the Father, let us not doubt that, consistent with His prayer to the Father, we shall one day be where He is now, the first fruits of our race. For inasmuch as He came to be below- for our sakes and without change became man, exactly like us but without sin, loosing the laws of nature in a manner beyond nature, it follows that we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature.

(Amb. 31.9)

Maximus might be seen as working out the details of Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become god.” However, he sees this as the working principle of the cosmos, with its own logic and singular explanation. It is not that God became “like” man or that man becomes “like” God, nor is it simply some sort of Greek notion of participation. Maximus gives full weight to both the human and divine principle at work in Christ. He counters the tendency to focus on the deity of Christ at the expense of the humanity. The notion, spoken or unspoken, that the incarnation is in some sense a singular episode in the life of God and not an eternal reality, is here counterbalanced (as in Origen) with a full embrace of both humanity and deity. There is a complete union between God and man, and that union is complete on both sides (divine and human) in Jesus Christ. The movement fully embracing humanity is part of the move to a fully embraced identity between God and humans. “And this is precisely why the Savior, exemplifying within Himself our condition, says to the Father: Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. And this is also why Saint Paul, as if he had denied himself and was no longer conscious of his own life, said: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Amb. 7.11). In the first instance, Christ really becomes human, and in the second instance, Paul really becomes Christ. There is a perichoretic or hypostatic identity in Christ:  

God renewed our nature, or to put it more accurately, He made our nature new, returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh, taken from us, and animated by a rational soul, and on which He lavishly bestowed the gift of divinization, from which it is absolutely impossible to fall, being united to God made flesh, like the soul united to the body, wholly interpenetrating it in an unconfused union, and by virtue of His manifestation in the flesh, He accepted to be hidden exactly to the same degree that He Himself, for the sake of the flesh, was manifested and to all appearances seemed to go outside of His own natural hiddenness.

(Amb. 42.5)

In Wood’s explanation, whether he employs the term or not, Maximus is describing perichoresis – “the idea that the deific state involves the whole God in the ‘whole’ creature and the reverse.” Wood describes Maximus’s perichoretic logic as “two simultaneous, vertical movements (both realized horizontally)—God’s descent and our ascent. Both transgress Neoplatonic participation. They make it so that the very mode (and act) of divinity descends into the finite mode (and act) of the creature just as much as the latter ascends into divinity’s; that both modes exist as one reality; and that even in this single reality both modes perdure entirely undiminished—neither’s natural power limits the other’s act.”[3] A prime example is taken from John’s two-fold description that “God is light” and then his statement a few lines later that “He is in the light.”

God, who is truly light according to His essence, is present to those who “walk in Him” through the virtues, so that they too truly become light. Just as all the saints, who on account of their love for God become light by participation in that which is light by essence, so too that which is light by essence, on account of its love for man, becomes light in those who are light by participation. If, therefore, through virtue and knowledge we are in God as in light, God Himself, as light, is in us who are light. For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image. Or, rather, God the Father is light in light; that is, He is in the Son and the Holy Spirit, not that He exists as three separate lights, but He is one and the same light according to essence, which, according to its mode of existence is threefold light.

(QThal 8.2)

God himself is the light and this light is “in us who are light.” God is both by nature light and by imitation in the light. As Wood points out, there is the typical “by essence” vs. “by participation” distinction here, but then “it descends or “comes to be” or even “becomes” (γίνεται) participated light (i.e. light in a qualified or finite mode).” God becomes the participated mode. “For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image.” In other words, there is full identification between the light that is God and the light in the archetype and the light “in us.” “It’s a claim that in the deified person God descends and ‘becomes’ the very participated mode (and activity) of that person, all while retaining the divine mode unmuted and unqualified and unmediated.”[4]

My point in this short piece is to simply set forth what seems to be the key element in Maximus’ theology, which raises a number of issues. Isn’t there a collapse of any distinction between creator and creation? Doesn’t this reduce to a kind of pantheistic monism, in which everything is Christ? Isn’t this an example of a failure of a breakdown of thought – identity through difference simply reduces to sameness? Isn’t this a return to Hegel, with total focus on the historical becoming of God? Is this a relinquishing of the distinctive role of Christ? While there are possible answers to these questions, the questions indicate the radical nature of Maximus’s Christo-logic.


[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios here after QThal.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 227.

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

Leave a Reply