Gnomic will, the idea that man has a will that constantly wavers between good and evil, is an idea taught by Saint Maximus the Confessor. It is not very complicated, but it has been incredibly misunderstood either due to ignorance or people overly complicating it. In this article, we will briefly review what gnomic will is strictly from the writings of Saint Maximus, particularly in Disputation with Pyrrhus, Opuscala et Theologica Polemicum, and Questions of Thallsius.
The term “gnomic will” is chiefly found in Maximus’ Disputation with Pyrrhus. For this reason, we will review this book first, using the translation and footnotes of Oxford-PHD Joseph P. Farrell. We will cover comments on the term in their entirety. This same article can be viewed in video format here:
The first discussion of the term begins around paragraph 75 over a dispute concerning how Christ having “one will” merely means that the will of His divine and human natures are united:
75. Maximus: If this [one will] be conceded to the Severans [miaphysites], then, taking advantage of this concession will say, not unreasonably, “We do not say ‘one nature’ from an evil disposition or cunning, but because we wish, just as you do by the expression ‘one will,’ to manifest the Supreme Union.”…They who say there is only one will agree with them both in thought and speech! Nevertheless, this “one will”–what do they choose to call it?…
76. Pyrrhus: They say that this is a gnomic [will].
77. M(aximus): So, if it be a gnomic will, it is derived from a prior gnomie, and if be so received, then that gnomie, as the original from which it is derives is an essence.
78. P(yrrhus): The gnomie is not an essence.
79. M: If it be not an essence, then it must be a quality. So, a quality is discovered that hath its existence from another quality, which is impossible. What then do they now say the gnomie is?
80. P: The gnomie is nothing else than the very thing Cyril defined as “the mode of life.”
81. M: Dost thou maintain that a good or evil mode of life is by choice or not?
82. P: By choice, obviously.
83. M: Do we choose for ourselves, voluntarily and deliberately?…
84. P: Obviously, voluntarily and deliberately.
85. M: So then, the gnomie is nothing else than an act of willing in a particular way, in relation to some assumed good. [Footnote 50: “Real or assumed good”: The conception is referred to at much greater length in Opusculum Theologicum et Polemicum…The Term was used exclusively for the created human mode of willing which always implies a hesitation before courses of action which, as a result of the Dialectic of Oppositions introduced at the Fall, always appears, not as distinct and equally good alternatives, but as a “more” or “less” good.]
86. P: I would regard this as the correct interpretation of the Patristic definition.
There is a lot in the preceding, but in short Maximus is correcting an incorrect definition of “gnomic will.” The miaphysites (and monothelites) call God’s one will “gnomic will,” which Maximus then demonstrates is irrational as gnomic will “is nothing else than an act of willing in a particular way, in relation to some assumed good.” Pyrrhus concedes that this is “the correct interpretation of the Patristic definition.”
So, now we have a definition of what gnomic will is. The question is, what is “willing…in relation to some assumed good?” Is this a good or bad thing? Is this natural to man?
We can already see in the footnote that assumed goods pertain to “the Dialectic of Oppositions” which occur to man only after the Fall. Footnote 90 explicitly states, “For St. Maximus the Fall of man is precisely a Fall into a Dialectic of Oppositions.” This literally means that human will is always conflicting with God’s in the “gnomic mode.” According to Farrell, this is a central presupposition of both Nestorianism (which is why they posit Christ had a separate human and divine hypostasis) and Miaphysitism (which is why they posit Christ only had a divine or single divine-human will).*
Howevery, if one goes by Maximus, the Dialectic of Oppositions can exist after the Fall. Therefore, it is unnatural. Otherwise, man’s will was impaired in choosing the good before the Fall, which is an absurd proposition. Maximus continues in Par 87:
M: …it is not possible to say that this [appropriated human will, (by Jesus)] is a gnomic will, for how is it possible for a will to proceed from a will? [Footnote 51: That is, if the the will is hypostatic, how can a particular mode of willing (the human and gnomic) come from another mode of willing (the divine)?] Thus, those who say that there is a gnomie in Christ, as this inquiry is demonstrating, are maintaining that He is a mere man, deliberating in a manner like unto us, having ignorance, doubt and opposition, since one only deliberates about something with which is doubtful…By nature we have an appetite simply for what by nature is good, but we gain experience of the goal in a particular way, through inquiry and counsel. Because of this, then, gnomic will is fitly ascribed to us, being a mode of employment [of the will], and not a principle of nature, otherwise nature [itself] would change innumerable times. But the humanity of Christ does not simply subsist similar to us, but divinely…It is thus not possible to say that Christ had a gnomic will. For the same had being itself, subsisting divinely, and thus naturally hath an inclination to the good and drawing away from evil…Isaiah said the same thing: ‘Before the Child knew or advanced in evil, He chose the good,’ because he also said ‘before the child knows good and to refuse evil, He chose the good.’ [Is 7:15 LXX] For what the word ‘before’ indicates that He had by nature what is good, not inquiring and deliberating as we do, but because He subsisted divinely by virtue of His very being.
The preceding is a mouthful, but it is simply saying the following: Gnomic will is a deviation from “a principle of nature.” What is natural for man is to subsist divinely. Christ’s humanity is deified, so this enabled His will to be correct so that even before He had human wisdom which grows with age (Is 7:15), He still did not deliberate or exhibit gnomic will.
From the preceding, we can infer that men who are saved by Christ (i.e. attain to Theosis) are deified and hence lose gnomic willing and attain to a natural, prelapsarian will. However, even this is a misnomer, because even though the prelapsarian will lacked the “Dialectic of Oppositions” or constant deliberation between perceived goods, it was not deified either. Hence, the prelapsarian will of Adam and Eve was not properly “gnomic” because it was not a deviation from nature, but neither was it properly what the natural human will is meant to be because they had not yet attained to divinization via obedience to God. Adam and Eve’s will before the Fall would better be described as a blank slate. This is how Maximus covers the topic in his Questions of Thallasius, which we will cover in a bit.
As the conversation continues, Maximus concedes that the term “gnomie” itself has various meanings different than the one he is using presently. (Par 97) The book then concerns itself with disproving monothelitism, only briefly returning to the topic of gnomic will in Par 152 where he complains about a Patriarch of Constantinople:
M: …And at yet another time he admitteth the opinion of those who say that it [Christ’s will] is “freely choosing” and gnomic, and is thus [not content] to make the Lord simply a mere man, but a mutable and sinful man as well. Why? Because the gnomie is a judgement concerning opposing things, an inquiry into things still unknown, and a choice between uncertain things. [Footnote 92: Having established that the gnomic will is the mode of willing proper to the created human hypostasis, St. Maximus then demonstrates that the attribution of a gnomic will to Christ would imply the existence of a human hypostasis to Him, thus making Him a “mere man.”]
The preceding simply states that if Jesus Christ had gnomic will, the following two false ideas would be true: He would have a human and divine hypostasis because gnomic will can only belong to a human hypostasis. This is obviously Nestorianism. Further, He would be sinful, as gnomic will pertains only to the postlapsarian condition.
There is another important tidbit here. Maximus calls gnomic will “freely choosing.” We shall see that “free choice” is a euphemism he uses elsewhere and it is important for us to understand that it pertains to gnomic will.
Much of the preceding analysis appears reliant upon footnotes, but in fact we can back all of the preceding up with Maximus’ treatment of the topic in his Questions of Thallasius.
In his response to Question 21, Maximus teaches that when the Devil tried to tempt Jesus he presumed He would be like Adam, who was apparently not moved by the “inclination of his will” before the Fall. The preceding is a euphemism for gnomic will. Due to gnomic will not existing, choosing sin apart from deception was impossible. This is why Satan had to pose an external assault of passion (of some natural good) in the attempt of “form[ing] an image in His mind of an unnatural passion” thereby re-creating the Fall in Jesus Himself.
[I]n the passibility of Adam [i.e. after the fall from incorruption], on account of sin, that the wicked demons conducted their invisible operations concealed under the law of contingent human nature. Thus it was only to be expected that, on account of the flesh, they beheld Adam’s passible nature in God the Savior, and thought that, in this contingent state, He was necessarily a mere man subject to the law of nature, but not moved by the inclination of his will. [i.e. No gnomic will] They therefore assailed Him, hoping that they might prevail even upon Him, through His natural passibility, to form an image in His mind [i.e. an exterior assault of passion which is then willingly accepted and thereby becomes an interior assault of passion] of an unnatural passion and act on it as they would… He is God and Master and by nature free from all passions. Instead, He provoked, by means of our temptations, the wicked power, thwarting it by His own attack, and putting to death the very power that expected to thwart Him just as it had thwarted Adam in the beginning. (21.4)
In Opusculum Theologicum et Polemicum, Maximus states even more succinctly, using the term “free choice:”
Christ’s human nature does not, like us, move according to free choice…but having received its being by virtue of its union with God the Word, it possesses an unwavering movement…it possesses the natural appetitive movement of its free choice in a condition of natural stability. (Opuscala 1)
The preceding is important, because it teaches that prelapsarian human flesh does not lack gnomic will merely by virtue of it being part of a united-with-the-divine (or divinized as it pertains to the saints) hypostasis as Maximus asserts in Disputation with Pyrrhus. As we can see, the state of movement by the will’s inclination simply does not exist in prelapsarian flesh. All prelapsarian flesh exhibits “natural stability.”
In Question 42, Maximus makes clear that Adam before the Fall had “free choice” but subsequent to the Fall it was corrupted and became gnomic will:
Because Adam’s natural power of free choice was corrupted first, it corrupted nature together with itself, losing the grace of impassibility. And thus the fall of free choice from the good toward evil became the first and blameworthy sin. (42.2)
The preceding is important, because it shows that Adam authentically had free will. How else would he have chosen sin? However, the free will/choice that chose sin was fundamentally different than the free will/choice which proceeded after it. Hence, free will itself experienced a “fall” of its own. In fact, this is the Fall. Maximus in passing refers to this in his scholia to Question 61:
Pleasure and pain, he says, were not created together with the nature of the flesh. Instead, the transgression conceived both the former, resulting in the corruption of free choice, and the latter, resulting in the condemnation and dissolution of nature, so that pleasure would bring about the soul’s voluntary death through sin. (61, Scholia 1)
The difference between Adam and Jesus when it pertains to the will is not so much what they lacked, as they both lacked gnomic will, but what Jesus had–a deified nous (or in layman’s English a “deified mind.”) Hence, Jesus could not be deceived no matter how much deprivation and pain He allowed His corruptible mortal flesh to the experience.
To the contrary, Adam could be deceived even though his will was always inclined towards natural goods. It was not deified so that as a default it would always cooperate with God’s will. Hence, lacking both wisdom and a deified nous, he could be deceived unlike Jesus Christ (who unlike Adam before knowing both good and evil always chose the good).
This does not mean that Adam was so ignorant that his will did not experience an extremely profound Fall. While we may consider our fallen will to be highly rational and capable of great wisdom, this would pale in comparison to the capacity of Adam’s will. This is why Maximus, in teaching an allegorical view of the Book of Jonah in Question 64, when teaching about the Fall describes the corruption of the will as follows:
…human life was submerged in temptations; and which was encompassed by the final abyss, that is, imprisoned by the complete ignorance of the intellect, and overwhelmed by the great weight of evil pressing down on its power of reason…[I]nasmuch as human nature was receptive to their deception and evil, it initially entered into these clefts. But later, nature itself became their very basis, on account of its most wicked disposition, possessing, like eternal bars, innate attachments to material things, which do not permit the mind to be free from the darkness of ignorance, and so prevent it from beholding the light of true knowledge. (64.6)
Conclusion. To restate the preceding in few words, we may summarize Maximus’ teachings on gnomic will as follows:
- Gnomic will is “willing…in relation to some assumed good.”
- The assuming of good, instead of the knowing of good, makes it possible to choose evil in the place of good. For example, people think it is good to acquire wealth, to be vain, or any number of sins. This way of thinking did not precede the Fall.
- When the Word became incarnate, He only had a single hypostasis which united the divine and human natures. For this reason, even before Jesus grew in human wisdom, His human will always willed what the divine will desired and, in fact, it was not possible for Jesus’s human will to will contrary to His divine will. Hence, it was impossible for gnomic will to exist.
- Yet, Adam likewise had a will which exhibited “natural stability” and no “willing…in relation to some assumed good.” In fact, the moment he did will in relation to an assumed good, “the fall of free choice” occurred and free will was henceforth “corrupted.”
While some may take issue with the preceding because they presume Adam had to bite the fruit to complete the original sin, according to Maximus the “image” merely had to enter Adam’s mind of doing such for the Fall to occur. Hence, gnomic willing unintentionally occurred due to deceit and its occurrence for the first time literally caused the Fall itself.
People’s failure to differentiate between Adam’s will before the Fall and Adam’s will causing, and proceeding after, the Fall has caused all the confusion as to how to properly understand gnomic will.
We can conclude that there is gnomic will/corrupted free choice after the Fall, a blank-slate and uncorrupted free choice before the Fall, and in Christ a deified free choice.
*According to Farrell, the solution that Nestorianism and Miaphysitism pose to solve the problem of the Fallen will is to posit that Christ’s divine will makes all the decisions in opposition to a human will which is naturally opposed to the divine (Nestorianism posits this occurred through an agreement of sorts which borders on Adoptionism while Miaphysitism posits that the divine will called all the shots.) The problem with the preceding is that this makes the pelapsarian will already “fallen” and opposed to God’s as a default. Maximus’ solution to the problem is the teaching of Orthodoxy: naturally the human will seeks cooperation with God and all that is good. Hence, there can be a true human will and divine will in Jesus Christ without one negating the other–they exist in perfect harmony.
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