Who was Maximus the Confessor?
Maximus the Confessor also known as Maximus the Theologian and Maximus of Constantinople (580 – 662 A.D.) was a Christian monk, theologian, and scholar. In his early life, Maximus was a civil servant, and an aide to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. However, he gave up this life in the political sphere to enter into the monastic life. After moving to Carthage, Maximus studied several Neo-Platonist writers and became a prominent author. When one of his friends began espousing the Christological position known as Monothelitism, Maximus was drawn into the controversy, in which he supported the Chalcedonian position that Jesus had both a human and a divine will.
Maximus is venerated in both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity. His Christological positions eventually resulted in his torture and exile, soon after which he died. However, his theology was upheld by the Third Council of Constantinople and he was venerated as a saint soon after his death. His feast day is celebrated twice during the year: on 13 August and 21 January. His title of Confessor means that he suffered for the Christian faith, but was not directly martyred. His Life of the Virgin is thought to be the earliest complete biography of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Early life of Maximus
Very little is known about the details of Maximus' life prior to his involvement in the theological and political conflicts of the Monothelite controversy. Maximus was most likely born in Constantinople even though a biography written by his Maronite opponents has him born in Palestine. His position as the personal secretary to Heraclius has been taken as an indication that Maximus was born into Byzantine nobility.
For reasons unknown, Maximus left public life and took monastic vows at the monastery of Philippicus in Chrysopolis, a city across the Bosporus from Constantinople (later known as Scutari, the modern Turkish city of Üsküdar). Maximus was elevated to the position of abbot of the monastery. "Theology without practice is the theology of demons". When the Sassanid Empire conquered Anatolia, Maximus was forced to flee to a monastery near Carthage. It was there that he came under the tutelage of Saint Sophronius, and began studying the Christological writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
It was also during his stay in Carthage that Maximus began his career as a theological and spiritual writer. Maximus was also held in very high esteem by the exarchs Gregory, the eparch George and the population as a holy man, ostensibly becoming an influential unofficial political advisor and spiritual head in North Africa.
Involvement in Monothelite controversy
While Maximus was in Carthage, a controversy broke out regarding how to understand the interaction between the human and divine natures within the person of Jesus. This Christological debate was the latest development in disagreements that began following the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and were intensified following the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Monothelite position was developed as a compromise between the dyophysitists and the miaphysists, who believed dyophysitism is conceptually indistinguishable from Nestorianism. The Monothelites adhered to the Chalcedonian definition of the hypostatic union: that two natures, one divine and one human, were united in the person of Christ.
However, they went on to say that Christ had only a divine will and no human will (Monothelite is derived from the Greek for "one will"), which led some to charge them with Apollinarian monophysitism. The Monothelite position was promulgated by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople and by Maximus' friend and successor as the Abbot of Chrysopolis, Pyrrhus. Following the death of Sergius in 638, Pyrrhus succeeded him as Patriarch, but was shortly deposed due to political circumstances. During Pyrrhus' exile from Constantinople, Maximus and the deposed Patriarch held a public debate on the issue of Monothelitism. In the debate, which was held in the presence of many North African bishops, Maximus took the position that Jesus possessed both a human and a divine will.
The result of the debate was that Pyrrhus admitted the error of the Monothelite position, and Maximus accompanied him to Rome in 645. However, on the death of Emperor Heraclius and the ascension of Emperor Constans II, Pyrrhus returned to Constantinople and recanted of his acceptance of the Dyothelite ("two wills") position. Maximus may have remained in Rome, because he was present when the newly elected Pope Martin I convened the Lateran Council of 649 at the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The 105 bishops present condemned Monothelitism in the official acts of the synod, which some believe may have been written by Maximus. It was in Rome that Pope Martin and Maximus were arrested in 653 under orders from Constans II, who supported the Monothelite doctrine. Pope Martin was condemned without a trial, and died before he could be sent to the Imperial Capital.
Trial and exile
Maximus' refusal to accept Monothelitism caused him to be brought to the imperial capital of Constantinople to be tried as a heretic in 658. In Constantinople, the Monothelite position had gained the favor of both the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Maximus stood behind the Dyothelite position, and was sent back into exile for four more years. In 662, Maximus was placed on trial once more, and was once more convicted of heresy. Following the trial Maximus was tortured, having his tongue cut out, so he could no longer speak his rebellion and his right hand cut off, so that he could no longer write letters.
Maximus was then exiled to the Lazica or Colchis region of modern-day Georgia and was cast in the fortress of Schemarum, perhaps Muris-Tsikhe near the modern town of Tsageri. He died soon thereafter, on 13 August 662. The events of the trials of Maximus were recorded by Anastasius Bibliothecarius.
Along with Pope Martin I, Maximus was vindicated by the Third Council of Constantinople (the Sixth Ecumenical Council, 680–681), which declared that Christ possessed both a human and a divine will. With this declaration Monothelitism became heresy, and Maximus was posthumously declared innocent of all charges against him. Maximus is among those Christians who were venerated as saints shortly after their deaths. The vindication of Maximus' theological position made him extremely popular within a generation after his death, and his cause was aided by the accounts of miracles at his tomb. In the Roman Catholic Church the veneration of Maximus began prior to the foundation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Maximus is one of the last men to be recognized by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches as a Father of the Church.
As a student of Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus was one of many Christian theologians who preserved and interpreted the earlier Neo-Platonic philosophy, including the thought of such figures as Plotinus and Proclus. Maximus' work on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite was continued by John Scotus Erigena at the request of Charles the Bald.
The Platonic influence on Maximus' thought can be seen most clearly in his theological anthropology. Here, Maximus adopted the Platonic model of exitus-reditus (exit and return), teaching that humanity was made in the image of God, and the purpose of salvation is to restore us to unity with God. This emphasis on divinization or theosis helped secure Maximus' place in Eastern theology, as these concepts have always held an important place in Eastern Christianity. Christologically Maximus insisted on a strict dyophysitism, which can be seen as a corollary of the emphasis on theosis. In terms of salvation, humanity is intended to be fully united with God. This is possible for Maximus because God was first fully united with humanity in the incarnation.
If Christ did not become fully human (if, for example, he only had a divine and not a human will), then salvation was no longer possible, as humanity could not become fully divine. Furthermore in his works Maximus the Confessor argued the unconditionality of the divine incarnation. Regarding salvation, Maximus has been described as a proponent of apocatastasis or universal reconciliation, the idea that all rational souls will eventually be redeemed, like Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. While this claim has been disputed, others have argued that Maximus shared this belief in universal reconciliation with his most spiritually mature students.