Maximus the Confessor and Synthesis or Unity Without Confusion

THEREFORE, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ (excerpt from The Chalcedon Formula, AD 451).

The controversies surrounding the person of Christ, are not so much resolved at Chalcedon, as the parameters of what can and cannot be said are set. The heresies of Arianism (claiming Christ is not divine) and Sabellianism (claiming the Father, Son and Spirit are representative modes or aspects of the singular Godhead), form the poles Chalcedon is aimed at avoiding. It is not only Christology though, which is at stake, as every part of Christian dogma entails navigating between absolute and irresolvable difference or a unity which erases all difference. Is the Godhead one or three, is Christ God or human and in what measure, is humanity primarily soul or body, is the Church a human or divine body, is the Bible the very Word of God or is this the role of Christ, is the universe constituted a realm separate from God (as pure nature) or is nature understood only with reference to divine grace? The differences and the problem of unifying difference could be endlessly multiplied to include every level of reality (the gap between the conscious and unconscious, between the individual and the social, between male and female, the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, etc.). Who are we, who is God, and what is the nature of reality, are ultimately at stake in our understanding of unity and difference. Too much focus on difference or on sameness will have the same violent result of obliterating the constitutive parts of the whole. This was not simply the problem of Kant and Hegel; the problem of the “One and the many” (is reality a plurality or a unity, is God One and yet immanent in the universe) is the oldest of philosophical questions, but it pertains in the most personal manner. Who am I in relation to the neighbor is a singular question. Relationship to the neighbor, to God, to the world, is part of the issue of the I. So, what is at stake at Chalcedon and in Christianity in general, is the unique resolution to dualism and division, and the claim is that in Christ the most fundamental of problems is resolved. Thus, in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies the arcane attention to semantics, to processions, to nuance, may occasionally lose sight of the goal, but the goal of maintaining difference in unity is of supreme importance.

Unity, synthesis and love require difference, distinction, and plurality, and there is the obvious and overwhelming choice of disunity, violence, false synthesis, and hatred. Body/soul, male/female, heaven/earth, divine/human can fall short of unity in the fleshly, the patriarchal, the earthly, or the human. On the other hand, there is no fulness of personhood without the difference synthesized in an abiding unity. There is no pure body, pure soul, pure heaven or pure earth, and there is no humanity apart from divinity. The whole is not reducible to its parts. There is no soulless or bodiless human, no human devoid of the other or devoid of God, and no unity or love apart from difference. This is what is at stake in the Christological and Trinitarian controversies.

The debate pertains directly to the most immanent and practical. The Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ is the archetype and ground for realizing and understanding the synthesis between interior subjectivity and exterior otherness (who am I in relation to God, the neighbor, and the universe), and the means of realizing their co-inherence (or of arriving at love). There is no pure inward or outward, self and other, even within the Godhead. The union without confusion and separation is definitive of divine and human. The true love, making up the essence of the divine is also what it means to be fully human, but this divine essence is not simply an idea but a participatory reality. Thus synthesis, perichoresis, and unity, are continually interpenetrating because they are without confusion and separation. This is the power of God and the power of love definitive of love of God and love of neighbor, and it is Maximus the Confessor who first begins to articulate the positive fullness of the Chalcedonian formula.

Maximus takes the largely negative statement of Chalcedon and extrapolates to a series of revolutionary, but seemingly, inevitable conclusions. He spells out in a concrete fashion how it is that Christ reconciles all things in himself bringing together the created and divine:

He, one and the same, remained unchanged, undivided and unconfused in the permanence of the parts of which he was constituted, so that he might mediate according to the hypostasis between the parts of which he was composed, closing in himself the distance between the extremities, making peace and reconciling, through the Spirit, the human nature with the God and Father, as he in truth was God by essence and as in truth he became man by nature in the Dispensation, neither being divided because of the natural difference of his parts, nor confused because of their hypostatic unity.[1]

What Christ has done in himself; he has done for all of creation. “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[2] The incarnation is the way in which God is drawing all things to himself, completing and fulfilling the work of creation. “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.”[3] In short, “creation is incarnation.”

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences some forms of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between Creator and creation is complete. 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.”[4] What Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace, coming to reflect 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.[5]

This is not the erasure or destruction of the individual, but the opposite, the coming to the full powers of self-determination.[6] 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. 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.”[7] This is accomplished through the incarnate body of Christ, which accounts not only 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.”[8]

For Maximus, Christ resolves the problem of the One and the many, in that God is One and is simultaneously present in the universe creating and upholding all things, as Paul says (Col. 1:15-17; or Heb. 1:3), through his powerful Word. There is the singular Word or Logos, but this Word penetrates all things in what Maximus calls logoi. The logoi are like the musical notes making up a symphony or the single letters making up words and the words making up a book, in which the letters and words take on there meaning in the whole. All things have their being through the differentiation of the logoi, which flow from and are harmonized in the Logos. The logoi constitute both the difference and the unity. God’s wisdom and reason is made multiple in the universe through the logoi, or the “natural differences and varieties” so that “the one Logos as many logoi” remain “indivisibly distinguished amid the differences of created things, owing to their specific individuality which remains unconfused both in themselves and with respect to one another” while at the same time “the many logoi are one Logos, seeing that all things are related to Him without being confused with Him, who is the essential and personally distinct Logos of God the Father, the origin and cause of all things, in whom all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities: all things were created from Him, through Him, and return unto Him.”[9]

Maximus traces this unifying power of Christ, maintaining distinction without confusion, to every phase of salvation and creation.  Like air “illuminated by light” or “iron suffused by fire,” so too God in Christ is establishing, illuminating, refining, and drawing all things to himself in divine love.  The Logos as the unifying power of letters and words of Scripture, not only gives these words their meaning, but clothes them in his Person. So too the many members of the body of Christ, are like the individual members of the human body, each playing its crucial role in the incarnate body of Christ. The “Church of God is an image of God because it realizes the same union of the faithful which God realizes in the universe. As different as the faithful are by language, places, and customs, they are made one by it through faith.”[10] Maximus allows for myriads of differences among the peoples of the earth, while pointing to their oneness in Christ. Everyone converges with all the rest, with no one “in himself separated from the community.”[11] God brings about the union among different people, the different nature of things “without confusing them but in lessening and bringing together their distinction, as was shown, in a relationship and union with himself as cause, principle, and end.”[12]

God is unifying and synthesizing all things, maintaining difference without confusion, through the divinizing work of the God/man. “What could be more desirable to those who are worthy of it than divinization? For through it God is united with those who have become Gods, and by His goodness makes all things His own.”[13] He is our beginning and end marking our telos and power. “For from God come both our general power of motion (for He is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward Him (for He is our end).”[14] The multiplicity of differences are synthesized in the unifying perichoresis of God made man.


[1] Maximus, Epistulae (1-45), PG 91,361-650, Cited in Mika Kalevi Törönen (2002) Union and distinction in the thought of St Maximus The Confessor, Durham theses, Durham University. 32.  Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1087/

[2] Maximus, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[3] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, 60.3.

[4] Ambigua 21.15.

[5] Ambigua 10.41.

[6] Ambigua 7.12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ambigua 54.2.

[9] Ambigua 7.15

[10] Mystagogia, Soteropoulos 1993′ [= PG 91,657-717] 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C] cited in Törönen, 164.

[11] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 152: 19-26 [= PG 91,665D-668A]; Acts 4: 32, cited in Törönen, 165.

[12] Myst. 1, Soteropoulos, 154: 13-154: 20 [= PG 91,66813C]] cited in Törönen, 164.

[13] Ambigua 7.27.

[14] Ambigua 7.10

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.

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