Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) is a Father of the Church and arguably the most important Christian theologian of the seventh century. There is scholarly dispute about his place of birth and early life. At the age of thirty and under Heraclius, he allegedly became head of the Imperial Chancellery. However, he abandoned public life to enter the monastery of Philippicus in Chrysopolis. When the Persians invaded Anatolia, he moved to Carthage, where he studied the writings of St. Gregory Nazianzen and Pseudo-Dionysius. There he became involved in the Monothelite controversy, arguing against the Monothelites that, if Jesus had two complete natures, both human and divine, so too must he possess two wills, one human, the other divine. He defended his position in Rome, where it was approved by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649. In 654, however, Emperor Constans II, a supporter of Monothelism, had both Martin and Maximus arrested. In 655, Maximus was tried in Constantinople, condemned as a heretic, and sent into exile. When he was tried and condemned again in 662, he was not only sent into exile once more but, to prevent him from speaking and writing in defence against the Monothelite heresy, suffered torture and perhaps the amputation of his tongue and right hand. 

In this interview, Prof. Bronwen Neil discusses St. Maximus and some of the best books on his life, work, and thought.     

Bronwen Neil is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, a member of the Macquarie University Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and Environment, and deputy director of the Creative Documentary Research Centre. She is section head for Religious Studies in the Australian Academy of Humanities and a member of the Classics and History sections. Her books include Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile, (co-authored with Pauline Allen) Greek and Latin Letters in Late Antiquity: The Christianisation of a Literary Form, and she is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook to Maximus Confessor.

  1. Maximus the Confessor
    by Andrew Louth
  2. The Cappadocians
    by Anthony Meredith
  3. Seventh-Century Popes and Martyrs: The Political Hagiography of Anastasius Bibliothecarius
    by Bronwen Neil
  4. Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World
    by Paul Blowers
  5. Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity
    by Phil Booth

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What would you add to the opening survey of Maximus’s life?
There are two early biographies of Maximus the Confessor and they conflict with one another. Each is written from a very different point of view. There is the Greek version, edited by Pauline Allen and myself, and the Syriac version, which has been edited by Sebastian Brock.

The Syriac version was only discovered in the eighties and so is very new information. It has brought a different lens to Maximus and his relationship with the monk Sophronius. It is highly critical of Maximus. It calls him the son of a whore and a merchant. It charges his teacher, Sophronius, with being a secret Origenist and am evil influence on Maximus. Origen is the third century speculative theologian who was very controversial in his own day.

These two views of Maximus depended on whether you were a fan or opponent of the Council of Chalcedon.

" Maximus offers a way of pursuing deification or theosis, while not opting out of the really difficult task of getting on with your neighbours."

What drew you to study Maximus the Confessor and write on him?
I was drawn to Maximus after reading George Berthold’s anthology of his writings in the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

The first thing I read was the Four Centuries on Love (Capita de cartiate). It took my breath away. I was struck by how Maximus combined Platonism with the doctrine of becoming one with God through contemplation (theosis) and a down-to-earth spirituality about fostering good relationships with those who endeavour to love God and pursue truth. Great theologians have often had disputes with their enemies and strife with members of their own communities. Maximus offers a way of pursuing deification or theosis, while not opting out of the really difficult task of getting on with your neighbours.

Why has interest in Maximus grown so significantly over the last hundred years?
Maximus has always been notoriously hard to read. Little was known about his life until Sebastian Brock uncovered the Syriac Life of Maximus. This stirred some people in Belgium, Russia, Greece, Serbia,  America, the UK, and Australia to make the Greek life available. With it, new editions of the major works of Maximus came out, mostly in the Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca (i.e. the body of Christian works written in Greek) of patristic writings. Once the critical editions were available, people started to translate them into French, English, Greek, Russian, Romanian and other languages. As translations became available, the interest in Maximus just grew and grew, partly because he refers to so many other Church Fathers in his own works.

You have touched upon how his writings can be difficult. Do you have any advice on how to read him for those who are approaching his works for the first time?
It is best to start with an easier text, such as The Centuries on Love. Once you are hooked, you start to understand his very difficult vocabulary.

When I was in Athens studying modern Greek, I once asked my teacher to give me a side lesson on vocabulary that would help me read Maximus. There was just one word that this Greek teacher had absolutely no idea about. So, she went to her twenty-volume historical dictionary of the Greek language and found the word there. According to the dictionary, it was a hapax legomenon: Maximus was the only writer ever to have used it. That gives you an idea of just how specialised his vocabulary can be at times. Hence, reading his work demands patience and persistence.

It is also important to recognise that he was not a systematic thinker. He was responding to controversies of the day and to the questions that were put to him. His friend, Thalassius, sent him a list of forty questions and Maximus tried to answer them, one by one. So, the resultant book is not your average introduction to the Gospel. It is dealing with the intricacies of the theology of the Incarnation and what that means for us humans. It is dealing with the legacy of Chalcedon and the split within the Church that followed upon that council.

One book that really helped me was On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor by Paul Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. The book consists mostly of excerpts from the Ad Thalassium, Maximus’s replies to the questions that Thalassius had sent about difficult passages in Scripture and patristic writings. This work gives a whole history of patristic thinking on matters such as the Incarnation because Maximus often goes back to works from the third and fourth centuries.

"Maximus is very useful because he is the highpoint of the Greek tradition. He brought together all the knowledge of the Fathers up to that point."

All the Church Fathers are worth reading for their witness to the faith and tradition of the Church. You have already mentioned some reasons for reading Maximus in particular, such as his insistence on charity. Are there any other reasons why we should read him in particular?Maximus is very useful because he is the highpoint of the Greek tradition. He brought together all the knowledge of the Fathers up to that point. He went over their main struggles and tried to address the problems that had since arisen within theology and the reception of their writings. Hence, he is often called the synthesiser of the Greek tradition. He brings together ideas from Origen, the Cappadocians, Pseudo-Dionysius, and others. He tries to iron out the wrinkles and come up with something that is going to work. 

At the same time, he had a strong influence on the Western tradition because he was translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena, the Irishman who worked at the court of Charles the Bald in Francia, during the ninth century. John was an astute translator of Maximus. A Roman papal librarian tried to emulate John Scotus by presenting his own translation of some of Maximus's works, including a summary of the Mystagogia, a commentary on the Byzantine liturgy. However, the Roman translations are not as well-known because they are less theologically informed than John’s. Still, Maximus was brought to the West during the ninth century. 

Maximus is often associated with the fight against Monoenergism, the doctrine that the God-man has just one rather than two sources of activity, and Monothelitism, the doctrine that Jesus has just one rather than two wills. These were repackaged versions of Monophysitism, the doctrine that Christ has only one nature, the divine, or that his divinity basically absorbs his human nature. Can you explain the theological and political motivations for this ongoing support of Monophysitism, notwithstanding the Council of Chalcedon (451)?
This is not an easy question. Maximus’s main contribution to seventh-century theology was in Christology (logos, i.e. discourse or study about Christ): what we can say about Jesus, his nature, and his will. Monotheletism is the doctrine—as I would call it, though others believe it does not deserve that name—that Christ’s one, divine will somehow subsumed his human natural will and God's will into one package. This doctrine was formulated as a response to the split between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian churches: Chalcedonian churches were in favour of that council’s doctrine that there were two natures in Christ and its rejection of the one nature formula or Monophysitism. The non-Chalcedonian churches felt that the two nature formula fell short of what Cyril of Alexandria meant when he talked about God becoming Incarnate in the Word. They later split into the so-called Nestorians and those who opposed Nestorius. These were all anti-Chalcedonians. 

Gradually, by the seventh-century, it had become clear that the Byzantine Empire would not be able to withstand the Persian and Muslim invaders unless there were some theological solution that unified the Church across the empire. The empire would be stronger internally if the churches could all agree on one creed. The Emperor Constans II and Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, came up with a solution. They stated that there were two natures in Christ, but only one energy and one will. By ‘energy’, they meant an operating force that launches one into action, whereas the will determines what one does when acting. 

This was one approach to reconciling the human and divine natures of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Chalcedon was a live issue because of its political implications. By splitting the churches, it was weakening the empire weak and exposing it to invasion. 

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First up, you have chosen Andrew Louth’s introduction to St. Maximus, which contains some of the saint’s writings. What makes this a good introduction?
It contains passages from a range of Maximus's main works in a good translation and, at the beginning, offers a fine introduction to Maximus's life and times. Fr. Louth gives an excellent account of the Neo-Chalcedonianism of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. It was a of refinement of fifth-century Chalcedonianism (451). Justinian was trying to tweak it so that he could bring the Syriac and the Palestinian churches under the same umbrella as the church in Constantinople, while reconciling himself with the popes in Rome. Fr. Louth sets the scene for the disputes that Maximus, in the middle of the seventh century, was trying to settle in his works and in his outspokenness against the Empire and the Court of Constantinople.

"For Maximus, the earthly liturgy is a reflection of the contemporaneous celestial liturgy. Moreover, the liturgy is crucial because it underpins the cosmic unity or mystery."

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