Maximus the Confessor’s Deepening of the Anthropic Principle

The anthropic principle is the notion that the universe seems to have been fashioned for humans. The earth’s exact optimal distance from the sun, the makeup of the atmosphere, the presence of the moon at exactly the right distance, etc. lends itself to the idea that the universe is peculiarly shaped for humanity. But if we simply have in mind physical survival, that we can breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the fruit, the depth of this anthropocentrism may be limited. Perhaps it is mechanical principles that govern the universe and they happen to accommodate human life, but these principles themselves may be indifferent to the presence of humanity. The anthropic principle does not specify an actual principle, but it seems to point to an underlying principle, which is itself human centered. That is the anthropic principle may or may not lend itself to a specifically Christian interpretation, but given the idea that it is not just any kind of human but the humanity of Christ that is at the heart of creation, this anthropocentrism takes on a particular shape. Christ as the specific human center to the Cosmos – the truth about the world – means that creation’s purpose is not simply anthropocentric but it is Christocentric.

This Christocentrism consists of two parts: the immanent purposes of creation are to be discovered in the particulars of Christ’s humanity (in no way separated from his deity) and the transcendent principles determining creation are to be discovered in his deity (in no way separated from him humanity). That is, creation is not simply made for man, but in Christ we find the very principles guiding and holding the universe together have a human shape. As Colossians 1:16 puts it, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” He is both the means and the purpose of creation.

 It is not mechanical principles, impersonal laws, or sheer power, at work in the world. That is, we might think of Christ as an outside purpose, holding together some other (e.g., mechanical) principle, but what Paul is describing in Colossians, is an inside principle as well. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He is the reason of the universe in a two-fold sense – the teleological purpose or the end for which all things were created, but also as guiding principle or final power at work in creating and holding all things together. Paul does not distinguish between these powers – it is the same Christ at work as the inward principle and the outward goal.

If we think of it in terms of the Logos, it is not that a different Word or logic is at work in bringing about all things and bringing them to their proper end. The principle for which things are created is to be found in their end. “Christ maintained the modes of existence (which are above nature), along with the principles of being (which are according to nature), united and unimpaired” (Amb. 5.17).[1]  “As God, He was the motivating principle for his own humanity,” for humanity in general and for all of creation, and what tells us this is the case is that “as man He was the revelatory principle of His own divinity” (Amb. 5.18). In his incarnation we encounter the manner in which all of creation is through him and for him. “His divine energy was humanized through its ineffable union with the natural energy of the flesh, He completed the plan of salvation on our behalf in a ‘theandric’ manner, which means that, in a way that was simultaneously divine and human, he ‘accomplished both human and divine things’” (Amb. 5.19). The principle and energy behind the incarnation (the “theandric energy”), the energy of his flesh, is the very principle of creation. The Logos completing and perfecting creation in the incarnation, is the Logos through whom and by whom creation was accomplished. Creation and incarnation are conjoined in the singular principle and purpose of the Logos.

This means that, given the revealed purpose and principle of creation in the incarnation, Christ is manifest “in all things that have their origin in Him” (Amb. 7.16). This manifestation is according to the being of each existing thing, and it is not as if the fulness of the principle of the Logos is evident in every existent thing. There is, for example, a logos of angels, and a logos of creatures. “A logos of human beings likewise preceded their creation, and—in order not to speak of particulars—a logos preceded the creation of everything that has received its being from God” (Amb. 7.16). Each and everything, whether angels or men or animals, “insofar as it has been created in accordance with the logos that exists in and with God, is and is called a ‘portion of God,’ precisely because of that logos, which, as we said, preexists in God.” Whether great or small – “By His word (logos) and His wisdom He created and continues to create all things— universals as well as particulars— at the appropriate time.” And inasmuch as he sums up or recapitulates all things in Himself, since “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,” (Amb. 7.16) and this too is made evident in the incarnation, but the incarnation is reflected in all of creation. In summary, “We also believe that this same One is manifested and multiplied in all the things that have their origin in Him, in a manner appropriate to the being of each, as befits His goodness” (Amb. 7.16).

Creation’s purpose was momentarily thwarted by those (and in those) given dominion and responsibility over creation, but this too is part of the purpose of the incarnation: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). Creation and recreation, or creation and incarnation, are not of a separate order. He is at the head of creation as source and purpose and redemption is a filling out or overcoming of any counter-order or counter-purpose that might thwart the principle of creation.

By means of his life, death, and resurrection He restored the divine principle to humanity. He is the beginning of creation (Jn. 1:1) and he is the beginning of redemption: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). All of creation is being deified – he is becoming all in all (Col 3:11). Through Christ “God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy. For all things without exception necessarily cease from their willful movement toward something else when the ultimate object of their desire and participation appears before them” (Amb. 7.12).

All things, according to both Hebrews and Corinthians, will be brought into subjection to Him: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control” (Heb 2:8). “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:28). It is on the basis of this subjection of all things to the Son, and the Son’s subjection to the Father, that what has defied this subjection is defeated. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Co 15:25–26).

And this will take place because that which is within our power, I mean our free will— through which death made its entry among us, and confirmed at our expense the power of corruption—will have surrendered voluntarily and wholly to God, and perfectly subjected itself to His rule, by eliminating any wish that might contravene His will. (Amb. 7.11).

The anthropic principle might seem to be defeated in death, in deadly accidents, in random death, or in the human orientation to death and self-destructiveness. The principle of death might appear to reign over the human centered, life-giving nature of the universe, but in Christ, the centrality of the human is restored in the one who defeats death. This is not a destruction of the power of self-determination but the restoration of this power:

affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition, that is, a voluntary surrender of the will, so that from the same source whence we received our being, we should also long to receive being moved, like an image that has ascended to its archetype, corresponding to it completely, in the way that an impression corresponds to its stamp, so that henceforth it has neither the inclination nor the ability’ to be carried elsewhere or to put it more clearly and accurately, it is no longer able to desire such a thing, for it will have received the divine energy— or rather it will have become God by divinization—experiencing far greater pleasure in transcending the things that exist and are perceived to be naturally its own. (Amb. 7.12)

Our “natural disposition” is that fixed and unchangeable purpose for which and in which we were created. This is the motive force within creation and this motive force, through our acquiescence, takes its place within us. As we are filled with the divine energy of the Spirit, we become that for which we were created: “He has now reconciled you” to the divine purpose “in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col 1:22) as in and through you He is all in all.

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

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.