Christ as Analogy Versus the Lie of the Anti-Christ: Maximus as an Answer to the Challenge of Barth

Though it may be an odd juxtaposition to pit Maximus the Confessor against a much later theological development, it might be argued that Maximus’ notion of transfiguration into the image of Christ (in which he deploys terms like analogy) grounds theology differently than the analogy of being or the univocity of being. Whether or how the analogia entis, as Barth would have it, is the anti-Christ, there is no question that theology, the church, and Christianity attached itself to the worst forms of evil; a failure most ingloriously manifest in the Holocaust but continuing in a variety of forms. The argument is not so much whether theology experienced its own form of the fall, but the question is about the details. Does the fault lie with Constantinianism, Augustinianism, or Onto-Theology? Is it primarily the fault of Rene Descartes, or as Radical Orthodoxy would have it, is it Duns Scotus that ruined everything? The story that one might tell to illustrate where the fault lies is highly contested, but nominalism and voluntarism and the subsequent rise of secularism and atheism describe the reduction of God (to a part of the furniture of the universe) and then his eventual banishment. This result is beyond question, but the issue is whether there is a unified story that explains this disaster and what would constitute its alternative?

 In the description of Conor Cunningham, the story can be told through the singular idiom of “meontotheology” (his neologism) in which absolutely nothing serves in place of the divine absolute.  “Nihilism is the logic of nothing as something, which claims that Nothing Is.”[1] Cunningham is not so much arguing with the grain of the thinkers he is detailing, but is demonstrating that their key idea or point of mediation often reduces to nothing. He begins his story with Plotinus and Avicenna, fore-echoing Descartes: “Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) was directly influenced by Plotinus. He took from the Neoplatonists the idea that being was equivalent to the intelligible (in this sense creating was thinking) . . .”[2] Being then, is a possibility or logical contingency of thought. Scotus extends this understanding such that Cunningham concludes: “there is but one being, which in its unity is formally distinct from itself (namely God), such that univocity of being again for this reason ‘is not’ being; already as one being it departs from pure existence. This is the meontotheology of nihilism’s logic: nothing as something.”[3]  The real univocity concerns not being per se, but nonbeing.

It was not that Scotus’ was arguing toward this conclusion, but as Cunningham makes the case, his system permits the conclusion that what the finite and infinite share is nothing (as an essence). That is “there is a latent univocity of non-being” in God and creation and this is all they share. Scotus would completely separate God and creatures such that “God and creature share in no reality.”[4] Yet, “Every created essence [is] nothing other than its dependence with regard to God.”[5] The substance of this dependence is in a contingency or possibility which reduces to nothing in itself: “Hence God and creatures do share in a certain ‘non-reality’, whose nullity is nonetheless fundamental.”[6] Cunningham demonstrates the same logic at work, in various forms, in Plotinus, Avicenna, Ghent, Scotus, Ockham, Henry of Ghent, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Paul Celan, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, and Žižek.  In each of them there is a mediating term or idea that reduces to a reified nothing.

While this may initially appear to be a fantastic claim, I would suggest that what Cunningham has hit upon is more extensive and compelling than he realizes. My work has added a footnote to his understanding, taking it out of the realm of philosophy or theology alone, and describing it in terms of psychology, desire, and even a necessary part of a failed human identity. The philosophical and theological fold into the psychological as they reify the symbolic order. That is, language per se is made substantial and points only to itself, and this is not simply a philosophical dilemma, this is the human dilemma. The truth illustrated by Descartes is that thinking strives toward being. “I think therefore I am” translates into “I would be through my thought.” Nominalism and voluntarism – a separation between God and his word – leaves us with something other than the divine Word and brings us to the Cartesian moment. The word (the symbolic, language, law, thought, propositions, philosophy, etc.) serves in place of the Word (Jesus Christ).

In other words, the problem of theology and philosophy is not a problem apart from what the Bible describes as the universal problem: reliance on the law (trust in the symbolic, trust in Judaism, trust in culture, etc.) displaces a direct reliance, trust and participation in the reality of God given in Christ. By the same token, univocity, analogy, being, propositionalism, onto-theology, inasmuch as they foster a mediating principle which functions to displace the first-order reality of Jesus Christ are then, the anti-Christ.

This will, as John describes, show itself in obvious ways in a series of lying possibilities. There is a lying spirit, there are lying prophets, and there is the big lie of the anti-Christ (I John 4:1-3).  The lie which would separate the humanity and deity of Christ is connected to every form of lying and liars, but the primary thing John notes about these liars and their lie is, “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (I Jn. 4:5). Either the world or Christ, in John’s estimate, serves as foundation and ground. This difference marks the lie over and against the truth and shows up in one’s ethical orientation. The truth is connected to love, while the “spirit of error” not only separates the deity and humanity of Christ, but it separates ethics and theological understanding. Theoretically it is possible to hate the visible neighbor and love the invisible God, but this too is a sign of the lie (I Jn. 4:20). Living in God or living through God, is the way John characterizes the truth as it shows itself in love (I Jn. 4:16).

The danger is we might read John analogously, metaphorically, or hyperbolically, (according to the world?), and miss that he is speaking literally. There is no padding, no mediating term, no emanation, in John’s life lived in God. Instead, there is direct identity between the life of God given in Christ and the life of the believer. Jesus is God come in the flesh, and this includes the flesh of his body the church, and only thus is he life and love and truth, and there is no possibility of stating this according the world.

The theologian who has best captured and built upon this literalism of identity, may be Maximus the Confessor. Far from fitting Christ to the frame of the world, Maximus presumes the incarnation of Christ – God come in the flesh – is the truth of the world. Maximus succeeds in holding together doctrine, hermeneutics, and ethics in the singular concept that just as Christ bodies forth God in the world, the world (as his creation, as what he holds together) is subsequent to and taken up in the incarnation. Paul Blowers rehearses many of the themes worked out in my recent blogs (the equation of Christology and cosmology, the incarnation as preceding both Scripture and the world and serving as their logic, etc.) but Blowers specifically pits Maximian theology against analogy: “the Confessor’s primary analogy to convey the condescension of the Word into the logoi of creatures (and of Scripture, and of the virtues) is the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. In reality this is not an ‘analogy’ at all since it is precisely the Logos ‘destined…before the foundation of the world’ to become the incarnate and sacrificial Lamb (1 Peter 1:19-20) who originally contained the logoi and willingly communicated his presence to creatures through them.”[7] As Jordan Wood summarizes the point: “This remarkable observation—that the ‘analogy’ between historical and cosmic Incarnation is no mere analogy—commits Blowers to the thesis that for Maximus the Word’s condescension in the logoi of creation, in Jesus, in Scripture, and in the deified are ‘eschatologically simultaneous’.” He concludes, “And so the truly astounding insight, one Blowers seems to intimate, is that Maximus rethinks not just how God is present in Jesus in order to distinguish this presence from God’s presence in the cosmos, but that he then reintroduces this mode of presence as the potential mode the Word might be present in the cosmos itself.”[8]

The term analogy may still apply, but it has taken on a direct identity with the divine. As Wood puts it, “Here ‘analogy’ takes on altogether jarring and different senses than we’re used to encountering in much modern theology. Here it implies a symmetry between God and the world grounded in hypostatic identity (like Christ’s natures).”[9] Maximus employs “analogy” in this sense, that saved humanity is analogous to the union found in Christ. It is not an analogy of being, but the analogy of Christ. In the same way that Jesus Christ is constituted a particular individual (the divine in the human), so all humans become who they are, as John describes it, only through participation and union with the divine life.  “For each of those who has believed in Christ according to his own power, and according to the state and quality of virtue existing within him, is crucified and crucifies Christ together with himself, that is, he is spiritually crucified together with Christ. For each person brings about his own crucifixion according to the mode of virtue that is appropriate to him . . .” (Amb. 47.2). Humans are both created and infinite, not because these categories reside naturally together in body and soul, but because Christ, in his hypostatic union stands at the head of a completed humanity in which flesh and Spirit inhere. However, in each individual this life will manifest uniquely but “analogously” to Christ.  

Maximus illustrates the point with Melchizedek who, “so transcendentally, secretly, silently and, to put it briefly, in a manner beyond knowledge, following the total negation of all beings from thought, he entered into God Himself, and was wholly transformed, receiving all the qualities of God, which we may take as the meaning of being likened to the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (Amb. 10.45).[10] What is true of Melchizedek is true, first of all in Christ: “For alone, and in a way without any parallel whatsoever, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, is by nature and in truth without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Amb. 10.46). Maximus goes through each of the points set forth in Hebrews: he is without genealogy, as both of his births are inaccessible and incomprehensible. He has no beginning or end of days because he is absolutely infinite – “He is God by nature. “He remains a priest forever, for His being is immune to death by vice or nature, for He is God and the source of all natural and virtuous life” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ and Melchizedek can be extended to all: “And you must not think that no one else can have a share in this grace simply because Scripture speaks of it solely with respect to the great Melchizedek, for in all human beings God has placed the same power that leads naturally to salvation, so that anyone who wishes is able to lay claim to divine grace . . .” (Amb. 10.46). What is true of Christ is true of every believer:

He who loses his own life for my sake, will find it— that is, whoever casts aside this present life and its desires for the sake of the better life—will acquire the living and active, and absolutely unique Word of God, who through virtue and knowledge penetrates to the division between soul and spirit, so that absolutely no part of his existence will remain without a share in His presence, and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him, which is in no way bounded by death. (Amb. 10.48).

There is an analogy with Christ, but there is no natural analogy between creature and creator, or between God and being. The creator is absolutely separate, unknowable, and beyond human comprehension. There is no univocity or analogy between God and creation. “God . . . is absolutely and infinitely beyond all beings, including those that contain others and those that are themselves contained, and He is beyond their nature, apart from which they could not exist . . .” (Amb. 10.57).  It is Christ alone who has brought together Creator and creation, flesh and Spirit, divine and human in who he is, but he has accomplished this salvation for all who would believe. “For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own” (Amb. 4.8).

In the words of Ephesians, “He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph 2:14–16). There is a law, a symbolic order, a human word which would pursue being, unity, and analogy through a unified nothingness, and it is precisely from this word which the Word of Christ delivers.  Christ alone is “all in all” (Col. 3:11) The theological tragedy is not a separate problem from the human tragedy, of trying to accomplish on the basis of the world what can and has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.


[1] Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism (London: Routledge, 2002), as summarized on the back cover.

[2] Cunningham, 9.

[3] Cunningham, 31.

[4] Duns Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, V. Quoted in Cunningham, 31.

[5] Scotus, Opus Oxoniense II, d. 17, q. 2, n. 5. Quoted in Cunningham 31.

[6] Cunningham, 31.

[7] Paul M. Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety, (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 166. Quoted in Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 94.

[8] Wood, 95.

[9] Wood, 30.

[10] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2; 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.

“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