Saint Maximus’ Questions of Thalassius is a dense work where the erudite saint, via a hyper-allegorical interpretation of Scripture, tries to lay out the groundwork for a salvific spiritual life. In short, he discerns that attachments to material realities leading to imagination (which takes us away from the inimitable God beyond description) as well as love of pleasure and loathing of pain, are distractions for the Christian who’s chief desire is to attain to the dispassionate life of God.
In reflecting upon this, Maximus unpacks what Jesus Christ’s human nature is like as this helps us understand what really is human nature before the Fall–an important topic due to the Christological disputes of the day. Because of this doctrines of anthropology, gnomic and free will, original sin, soteriology, the atonement, and more are unpacked throughout the book. Part I can be read here.
As follows are quotations from Maximus at length. I offer a brief synopsis of my own thoughts on topics that may be hard to ascertain without reading the book in its entirety. These thoughts of mine are obviously secondary in nature to the teaching of the saint.
Saint Maximus’ theory of the atonement can be summarized in layman’s terms as Jesus clicking “reset” on the Fall. The Fall brought passions and gnomic will in man. Jesus lived dispassionately and had a rightly directed, divinized human will. Temptations, comprised of external assaults of passion (as internal assaults are not possible in the prelapsarian state, cf Damascene, Exposition, Book 3, Chap 20), were internalized and created the Fall with Adam; but with Jesus they were deflected and evaporated, making victory over the devil possible in the flesh. The Fall brought corruption and death due to sin. Jesus Christ could neither corrupt nor die apart from His human will, voluntarily assuming the consequences of death without the sin which requires the consequences. This, in effect, canceled corruption and death for those joined to Jesus Christ–because those who have no choice but to corrupt and die are in union with One who willing corrupted and died, thereby resetting the necessity of death.
In even simpler terms, the Fall is like a cannon firing a shell that kills all men. Jesus by dying, in effect, took the shell and put it back into the cannon, undoing the cannon’s work and destroying it. So, the atonement is not so much of paying a debt owed to justice, but rather the undoing of a law of nature similar to Newton’s first law (whatever is in motion must stay in motion). Once the law is undone, then its result is no longer necessary.
[T]he Lord allowed them to launch a second attack against Him [i.e. the Passion], and to place before Him the one remaining experience of temptations, namely, those which arise through pain and sufferings. His aim was to pour out completely, through Himself, the corrupting poison of their wickedness, consuming it like fire, and to obliterate it totally from human nature. And He did this by utterly “stripping off the principalities and authorities” at the time of His death on the cross, remaining unconquerable in His sufferings, and appearing formidable in the face of death, thereby extracting from our nature the passibility associated with pain. (21.6)
In order to bring about the abolition of this most unrighteous pleasure and the truly just sufferings that follow from it—by which suffering man had been so mercilessly torn asunder, having the beginning of his birth in the corruption associated with pleasure, and the end of his life in the corruption associated with death—as well as the restoration of suffering human nature, it was necessary that an unjust and likewise uncaused suffering and death be devised: a death “unjust” in the sense that it by no means followed a life given to the passions, and “uncaused” in the sense that it was in no way preceded by pleasure…the human race would again be freed of pleasure and pain, and human nature would recover its good inheritance unsullied by any indication of subjection to birth and corruption (61.4)
This is why the Word of God, who is perfect God by nature, became perfect man, being composed just like us by nature of an intellectual soul and a passible body, except without sin. His birth in time from a woman was not preceded in any way by the pleasure derived from the transgression, but in His love for mankind He accepted the pain resulting from unrighteous pleasure, which is the end of nature, so that by suffering unjustly He might destroy the principle of birth that tyrannized nature because of unrighteous pleasure. In the case of the Lord, this principle was not a debt requiring the payment of death, as was the case with other human beings, but rather His death was something opposed to and which surpassed that principle, so that through death He might obliterate the just end of nature, which did not have illegitimate desire as the cause of its existence, and which was justly punished by death. (61.5)
He willingly submitted to the condemnation of nature in its passibility, and he made that very passibility a weapon for the destruction of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin, that is, for the destruction of pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. And He did this because the rule of sin and death had established themselves in our condition of passibility, along with the tyranny of sin associated with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain, for the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature subsists within our passibility…For by giving our nature impassibility through His Passion, relief through His sufferings, and eternal life through His death, He restored our nature, renewing its capacities by means of what was negated in His own flesh. (61.6)
[O]ur Lord, having become man, and having created for our nature a new beginning of birth through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted the death through suffering that was justly imposed on Adam, but which in Him was completely unjust—since it did not have as the principle of its beginning the unrighteous pleasure that arose from the disobedience of the forefather—destroyed both of these two extremes (I mean the beginning and the end) of human birth according to Adam, neither of which was brought into being by God. To all those who were mystically reborn of Him in the Spirit, He granted freedom from liability to those extremes, since they no longer possessed the pleasure associated with birth that came from Adam, but only the pain that, on account of Adam, remains active within them and produces death, not as a debt owed for sin, but according to the economy of salvation, as a natural condition that counteracts sin. For when death does not have pleasure as a mother bringing it to birth—a pleasure which death by its very nature punishes—it obviously becomes the father of eternal life. Just as Adam’s life of pleasure is the mother of death and corruption, so too the death of the Lord, which came about for he sake of Adam, and which was free of the pleasure associated with Adam, is the progenitor of eternal life… the Word of God appeared to us through the flesh and became perfect man but without sin, and in the flesh of Adam willingly bore only the punishment of Adam’s nature (61.8)
[D]eath, which came about because of the transgression, was ruling powerfully over all of human nature, having as the basis of its rule the pleasure that set in motion the whole process of natural generation, which was the reason why death was imposed on our nature. But the Lord, when He became man without any unrighteous pleasure (because of which the just condemnation of death was imposed on our nature) preceding His birth in the flesh, and when He naturally willed to undergo death itself in the passibility of His human nature—obviously through the suffering of His Passion—He converted the use of death, so that henceforth in Him death would no longer be a condemnation of nature, but clearly only of sin. That is, it was not possible for death to be the condemnation of nature in one whose birth was not based on pleasure…Christ human nature has recovered a birth free of pleasure. Thus, just as in Adam, sin based on pleasure condemned our nature to corruption…For it was on account of this birth that death, like a debt owed by everyone, necessarily accompanied our condemnation…[Christ] willingly submits to the death caused by sin in order to destroy sin. (61.10)
The pain and death of the Lord…should be seen as a mean beneficial for the destruction of the extremes, inasmuch as His birth was free from pleasure, and the death of His divine flesh (which came about for our sake) was pure of the life of passions. According to this way of coming into being and of birth, He voluntarily endured death for our sakes, so that He might destroy our birth from pleasure, and our death from a life of passions, Himself appearing in the middle. (61, Scholia 5)
Thus God, who gave existence to the generation of nature, voluntarily took upon Himself the curse to which nature had been condemned, by which I mean death. And the curse that was also living within me on account of my free choice for sin, He slew and put to death by His own death on the cross. Thus the curse and death of my sin became the curse of my God, which prevented the transgression from progressing and producing the fruits of unrighteousness, but instead, in accordance with the commandment and divine righteousness, became a blessing and life without end. (62.8)
In addition, the Lord placed His flesh around the fishhook of His divinity as a lure to deceive the devil, so that the insatiable, intelligible dragon would swallow it (since by nature the flesh is easily overcome) and thus be caught on the fishhook of the divinity, and, by virtue of the holy flesh of the Word that He took from us, would vomit out the whole of human nature that he had already consumed. The Lord’s aim was that, just as the devil had formerly swallowed human beings by luring them with the prospect of divinity, so too the devil himself might now be lured by the covering of humanity and subsequently vomit out his human prey, which had been deceived by the expectation of divinity, with the devil himself being deceived by his expectation of devouring humanity. (64.20)
He is our atonement, for, having become like us, He dismissed in Himself the charges against us, and by the gift of grace in the Spirit, He divinized our nature which had sinned. And He is the “Feast of Tents,” for He is the fixity of our immutability in the Good according to a habitual state that imitates God, and the bond holding together our transformation unto immortality… Instead, we recognize not only the mortification of the passions—when we slay them “with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”—as spiritual sacrifices, but also the voluntary offering of the whole movement of our carnal existence. (65.24)
Atonement is the symbol of the reconciliation of God to human beings through the Incarnation, because, having voluntarily assumed the condemnation of the one condemned, He abolished the enmity that had been established against him. (65, Scholia 34)
Maximus believed the Scriptures to be inerrant, inspired in every jot and tittle, and hyper-allegorical. He accused literalistic interpretations to be “Jewish” and found that when the Scriptures had apparent contradictions or odd details, these were clues to get into the allegorical sense of what was written.
Anyone, he says, who has seen the spirit of Scripture separated from figures, and the logoi of creation separated from their outward forms by means of his intellect alone, freed from the activity of sensation, has found God. (32, Scholian 1)
The “bucket” used for drawing out the water is learning about the Divine Word acquired through written letters, which the Lord did not require, since he is the Word Himself, and He does not give this knowledge to the faithful through learning and study, but to those who are worthy He grants a measure of the ever-flowing wisdom of spiritual grace. For like the bucket, that is, ordinary learning, the soul receives but the smallest part of knowledge, letting go of the whole, which no mind can grasp; whereas the knowledge that comes from grace possesses, without study, the whole of wisdom that man can possibly contain. (41, Scholia 1)
I am astonished and amazed at how Uzziah, though he was king of Judah, according to the literal account, had “vine-dressers on Mount Carmel,” which did not belong to the kingdom of Judah, but rather to the kingdom of Israel, during whose reign the city of the kingdom of Israel was built. But apparently the text has mixed into the web of the literal account something that has no existence whatsoever, thereby rousing our sluggish minds to an investigation of the truth. (48.11)
[T]he Holy Spirit has written nothing that is unsuitable or to no purpose, even if we are unable to grasp it, for all things were written mystically and suitably for the sake of human salvation. (55.32)
[T]hings signified in Scripture, according to the possibilities inherent in the Hebrew language, in fact have multiple meanings, which is exactly what we find here in this passage. (64.3)
But let us also, as did the great “David,” remove “Saul” from the entire territory of Israel, that is, from the earthly and corporeal institution of the law, or the manner of Jewish observance, or the more corporeal and superficial understanding of the whole of Scripture based solely on the written word…we have rejected the plainly carnal mode of Scripture (65.28)
[W]hoever apprehends the law in a corporeal manner does not nourish his soul by the virtues; and whoever does not apply himself to the principles of being does not honorably focus his intellect on the multiform wisdom of God. (65, Scholia 19)
Heaven and Eternal Damnation
Based on what Maximus argues in this book alone, it appears he affirms eternal damnation. He not only refers to an “eternal sentence” (Question 11), but offers a rationale as to how damnation works. The damned suffer “owing to the antipathy of their will to the intention of God” and “fall away from the whole of divine goodness, according to the manifest intimacy of their will with ill-being.” (Question 61) No indication of repentance is indicated and one may infer repentance is not possible as Maximus sees this as a state that exists after the judgement. For the state to change would require a judgement after the last one.
What will happen to them on the terrible Day of Judgment is something known only to the Just Judge. He will determine the just and deserved recompense for everyone, assigning a form of punishment equal to the degree of wickedness, and, consistent with His good decrees, will render with justice the eternal sentence. (11.3)
God…according to a unique, infinitely powerful intention of His goodness, will contain all angels and human beings, both the good ones and the evil ones. Not all of them, however, will participate equally in God…Those, on the other hand, who in all things did not maintain the disposition of their will in equilibrium with nature, and who in fact scattered the principles of nature in relation to the whole principle of well-being, shall owing to the antipathy of their will to the intention of God—fall away from the whole of divine goodness, according to the manifest intimacy of their will with ill-being…[A]ccording to the principle of eternal well-being, He will contain only, and in a special way, holy angels and holy human beings, leaving those who are not such as these to receive eternal ill-being as the fruit of the disposition of their will. (61, Scholia 16)
Implicit Energy-Essence Distinction
God is clearly portrayed as unknowable. Union with God is explicitly “unmediated” (Question 33) via the Holy Spirit (Question 63). Yet, “God in His essence cannot be the object of human knowledge” (Question 50) and the “energy of the Spirit” (Question 63) is what gives a person sanctification–and implicitly Theosis. Inferring an energy-essence distinction in Maximus is no stretch–it is entirely justified by what he states in this book.
When the intellect has passed beyond the substance of intelligible realities, it becomes ignorant, for it is drawing near to God who according to essence is beyond both knowledge and intellection. (1, Scholia 4).
In taking hold of unmediated union with God, the intellect is completely at rest from the natural power of knowing and being known. (33, Scholia 3)
He does not give us…the logoi of His divinity, which transcend intellection, since they are equally and infinitely remote from every created nature, because the nature of beings possesses no state or condition on the basis of which it might be able to receive them. (35.2; cf 35.5)
God in His essence cannot be the object of human knowledge, so too neither can His word be fully comprehended by us. (50, Scholia 1)
For in the manner of a lamp that dissolves the darkness, every energy of the Spirit is of a nature to expel and drive away the manifold manifestation of sin. (63.7)
The Holy Spirit brings about purification for those who, through fear and piety and knowledge, have become worthy of the purity of the virtues. The Spirit bestows illumination concerning the genesis of beings and the principles of their existence to those who, through strength, will, and understanding, have become worthy of His light. The Spirit grants perfection through the most brilliant, simple, and complete wisdom to those who are worthy of divinization, and without any intermediary it completely leads them upward toward the Cause of beings they know God by knowing themselves, there being no kind of intermediary separating them from God, for between wisdom and God there is no intermediary. They will, moreover, possess unchanging immutability, since they will have passed through all the intermediaries (in which there was once a danger of erring with respect to knowledge); and in ineffable, unspeakable silence, and in a manner beyond knowledge that is unutterable and inconceivable, they will be led up by grace to that summit which is infinite and for all infinity is infinitely beyond all things an infinite number of times. (63.8-9)
God is proclaimed solely by perfect silence, and rendered present by surpassing and absolute unknowing. (65.20)
Relics and Saints
The following passage is interesting simply because Maximus resolves how those immortal by grace still naturally die. Further, he notes that Saint Paul’s relics were miracle working due to the faith of those who sought after them.
Saint Paul’s holiness active and effective in them through their faith…And when Paul fell by the sword, this was also the determination of grace. For Saint Paul was not immortal by nature, even if, by grace, he was able to work miracles. If, on the one hand, he was by nature immortal, then we would be justified in seeking the reason why, contrary to nature, he fell to the sword. But since he remained mortal by nature even after his sanctification, it is not necessary to seek the reason why the divine Apostle passed from life not in this manner but in some other. (37.2)
Trinitarian Theology and Divine Simplicity
According to Maximus, the significance of proceeding through the Son is that it reveals an “unity and identity of essence.” In other words, the way we can perceive that the Spirit is of the same essence as the Father and Son, is that His existence is through the Son. Maximus accuses those who differentiate between the Persons through any other category of thought other than hypostasis are polythesists, as interpersonal differences make the Persons who they are.
The preceding is similar to Saint Augustine’s arguments in On the Trinity. Also like Augustine, Maximus makes a passing reference to God being “simple.” (Question 62, cf Augustine’s City of God, Book XI, Chap 10 and On the Trinity, Book 6, Chaps 4 and 6) The idea is not fleshed out enough to draw any conclusions, though it is likely he had some acquaintance with the ideas of Augustine as he gives an interpretation of his Pneumotology in the Letter of Marinus.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out that Maximus views the Holy Spirit as imminent and literally in all of creation. This likely connects to the energy-essence distinction that Maximus was drawing (covered earlier in this article.)
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.” (2.2)
The Holy Spirit is absent from no being, and especially not from those that in any way partake of reason. For the Spirit contains the knowledge of each being, inasmuch as He is God and the Spirit of God, providentially permeating all things with His power. (15.2)
[T]he three All-Holy Hypostases, mystically signifying the mode of subsistence of the all-holy…the impious, it is exposing, it seems to me, their blameworthy opinion concerning the divinity, since they think that the difference in properties belongs to nature and not hypostasis, and this is clearly how the error of polytheism arises among those who hold this view of divinity. (28.5)
Whoever, he says, asserts with respect to God that the difference of properties is natural rather than hypostatic, is not inspired by God but is a polytheist, since he subscribes to the notion that the Divine admits of being numbered in terms of the properties of essences, not in hypostases. (28, Scholia 2)
[O]ur Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son and Word of God, who with respect to Himself is by nature simple, and exists, and will remain forever; with respect to me, however, He became composite according to hypostasis, in a manner that only He knows, through the assumption of flesh having soul and intellect. (62.3)
For just as the Holy Spirit by nature and according to essence exists of God the Father, so too by nature and according to essence is the Spirit of the Son, insofar as the Spirit proceeds essentially from the Father ineffably through the begotten Son, giving its own proper energies, like lamps, to the lampstand—that is, to the Church. For in the manner of a lamp that dissolves the darkness, every energy of the Spirit is of a nature to expel and drive away the manifold manifestation of sin. (63.7)
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