St Gregory the Theologian and St Maximus the Confessor:
The Shaping of Tradition
The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine
ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF MAURICE WILES
Edited by SARAH COAKLEY and DAVID A. PAILIN
One of St Maximus the Confessor's most important works is his Liber ambiguorum, as it is usually referred to in the title given it by its first, and for the most part only, translator, the ninth-century John Scotus Eriugena -- his Book of Difficulties (for the Greek behind Eriugena's ambiguum is aporia, perplexity or difficulty). It is, in fact, as is generally known, not a single work, but consists of two parts: Ambigua 6-71 are a discussion of a string of difficult passages from the writings of St Gregory of Nazianzus that had been raised with Maximus by John, Archbishop of Cyzicus, to whom Maximus' replies are addressed. Polycarp Sherwood dates these to 628-30, during Maximus' earlier African sojourn; Sherwood's work on these 'Earlier Ambigua', as he calls them, is indispensable (it is, incidentally, only these earlier Ambigua that Eriugena translated). Ambigua 1-5 are addressed to a certain Thomas, described as 'the sanctified servant of God, spiritual father and teacher': the first four discuss difficult passages in Gregory, like the earlier Ambigua, the last a difficult passage in Denys the Areopagite's fourth letter (the letter that contains the famous phrase about Christ's 'divine-human energy'; Maximus' discussion in this difficulty includes a long analysis of this phrase). Sherwood dates these slightly later, to 634 or shortly after, just as the Monothelete controversy (at this stage I suppose 'monenergic' would be better) was getting under way. How and when these two parts were put together to form the Book of Difficulties is the subject of much controversy: it does not look as if there will be any definitive answer until we have a proper critical edition of all Maximus' works.
But the Book of Difficulties is one of the most important of Maximus' works. Some of the discussions of difficult passages are very extensive and constitute virtual treatises in their own right: Ambiguum 7 is a massive refutation of Origenism; according to Sherwood, 'it is here that one finds, perhaps alone in all Greek patristic literature, a refutation of Origenist error with a full understanding of the master' ( Sherwood 1952: 32); Ambiguum 10 is even longer (fifty columns of Greek in the Migne edition) and is a sustained meditation on the Transfiguration of our Lord. For the most part, the Ambigua have been used as a quarry for the teaching of the Confessor, and it is certainly true that most of the central topics of Maximus' theology -- his doctrine of deification, his doctrine of double creation, the importance for him of the ordered triad generation-change-rest, much of the detail of his anthropology -- are discussed in the course of his responses to these 'difficulties'.
Much less has been done on a rather different question raised by these works, and that is the light they shed on the relationship between St Gregory the Theologian and St Maximus the Confessor. All the difficulties, save one, are raised by passages in the works of Gregory Nazianzen. This suggests to me that Maximus' relationship to Gregory is, in some respects, ambiguous (to use the word with its usual meaning) or double-edged. The Book of Difficulties is often cited as evidence for the influence of Cappadocian thought on Maximus the Confessor, but it is equally, and perhaps more obviously, evidence for the difficulties Maximus had with his Cappadocian heritage, and in particular with the heritage of St Gregory Nazianzen. As we look at the relationship between these two theologians, as evidenced in this collection of difficulties, what we are seeing is something about the nature of tradition or, perhaps more exactly, something about the shaping of tradition, something about how Gregory is received by Maximus as a part of tradition, indeed a mouthpiece of tradition. To use language that Professor Wiles has made familiar, we are looking at the making of doctrine, and a making which is also a remaking.
begin with, one might ask: why Gregory? And this can be answered at two levels.
First, what kind of evidence is there for discussion of Gregory that might lead
to someone sending Maximus a collection of 'difficulties' to clear up? There
is, in truth, not a lot of evidence, but there is one very valuable piece of
evidence in the letters of Varsanuphios and John -- the Great Old Man and the
Other Old Man of the
That is one level: Gregory was discussed because Origenist monks sought to make capital out of him. But there is another level. According to Gregory the Presbyter, the author of a life of Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory was 'the only one to be called theologian after the evangelist John'. 3 Gregory the Presbyter was writing in the sixth or seventh century: either a little before Maximus, or contemporary with him. The presbyter's words suggest that by his time Gregory Nazianzen had acquired a kind of pre-eminent authority among the Greek Fathers: he was the theologian, to be ranked with the evangelist John, also the theologian. So in authority he seemed to stand alongside the scriptural writers themselves (in the writings of Denys the Areopagite, at the beginning of the sixth century, theologos meant exclusively a scriptural author). But the real evidence for this is to be found in Maximus himself. For Maximus, what Gregory says is unquestionable, virtually infallible. The twenty-first Difficulty is caused by the fact that in the Second Theological Oration Gregory refers to John the Evangelist as the 'forerunner'. It does not occur to Maximus that Gregory, in the midst of his flights of rhetoric, might have forgotten for a moment to whom he was referring and thus confused the two Johns. No, what Gregory has said must stand, and Maximus is obliged to develop a complex explanation of how John the Evangelist, too, can be called 'the forerunner of the Word, the great voice of the Truth' (though I think it is worth noting in passing that the ingenuity demanded of Maximus here is not unrewarded: as he tries to show how the Evangelist, too, can be called 'the forerunner' he produces an understanding of the gospel as having a spiritual interpretation that would delight the heart of Cardinal de Lubac, who finds something similar among the Latins: 4 that just as the law is a preparation for the Incarnation and the proclamation of the Gospel at the First Coming, so the Gospel is a preparation for those who are led through it to Christ, the Word in spirit, and are gathered up in the world to come according to his Second Coming, which leads into an elaborate analysis of the stoicheiosis -- both preparation and composition -- of the spiritual cosmos). Or again, the sixth difficulty is concerned with what the distinction can possibly be between kataspasthai and katechesthai -- to pull down and to hold down -- which Gregory seems to use synonymously in his sermon on the love of the poor. We would be tempted, I think, to say that they simply are synonyms, that Gregory's rhetoric demanded a certain expansiveness here. But not Maximus: there must be a difference. Gregory would not have wasted a word by using it to say something he had said already.
For Maximus Gregory is the theologian, the 'great and wonderful teacher'. Just as for Denys, the writings of the 'theologians' -the Holy Scriptures -- are to be understood within a tradition of interpretation, or -- earlier still -- for Clement of Alexandria, the utterances of the Teacher, the Word himself, are captured and laid bare by the tissue of patient explanation he explores in his Stromateis, so for Maximus the writings of Gregory are a source of truth, handed down by tradition, and interpreted by repeated meditation within that tradition. The Book of Difficulties is not just evidence for Maximus' attempts to come to terms with an authority become traditional, they also bear witness to a tradition of interpretation. Eight times (seven times in the earlier, once in the later Ambigua) Maximus appeals to the authority of a certain 'old man' ( geron), a 'blessed old man', or 'the frequently mentioned great and wise old man'. He is anonymous, his authority is not just the authority of one who was Maximus' mentor, but the anonymous authority of tradition. It is for that reason, I suspect, that he is deliberately anonymous, for it certainly seems that Maximus is referring to an identifiable individual (that is, I think, implied by the last phrase quoted above: someone 'frequently mentioned') and Polycarp Sherwood may well be right in guessing that it refers to Sophronius, whom Maximus had known in Africa and who became Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634 and led the early resistance to the Monothelete heresy ( Sherwood 1955: 9). Whoever he was, this 'old man' is a living witness to tradition as Maximus has received it and, to judge from the tenor of his remarks, one who naturally expressed his understanding of tradition in language redolent of the Areopagite. Mention of the Areopagite reminds one of Denys' own relationship to his revered mentor Hierotheos, a relationship which seems to have combined something of both Maximus' relationship to his geron and his relationship to Gregory the Theologian. Apart from appearing in the Difficulties, this 'old man' appears in Maximus' book on the Ascetic Life and in his Mystagogia.
What did Maximus make of Gregory as he discussed the difficulties raised by his writings? Maximus' responses vary considerably. As we have seen, some are virtual treatises, while others are no more than scholia. So we find Maximus explaining what is meant by 'critical sweat', a medical term used metaphorically by Gregory in one of his sermons (Amb. 43); in another place he gives a definition of grammatical terms -- symbasa and parasymbasa -- that Gregory had used without explanation (Amb. 69); Ambiguum 70 deals with a real textual obscurity in Gregory's panegyric on Basil, which Maximus attempts to solve by putting the phrase in the context of the argument of the sermon. A whole series of difficulties supplement the allegorical explanations of people associated with the Passion of Christ that Gregory had already given in his second Easter Sermon (Amb. 52-9). In these responses, Maximus is simply helping the reader to understand Gregory more intelligently. In terms of the distinction George Steiner has made between the different kinds of difficulty encountered when reading (Steiner 1978: 18-47), Maximus is here dealing with 'contingent' difficulties in Gregory's sermons.
Other difficulties we might call -- to continue with Steiner's taxonomy -- 'tactical' difficulties. What I mean by this (developing rather freely Steiner's own explanation of his taxonomy) is difficulties caused by the shift in interpretative framework between Gregory's time and Maximus'. The doctrinal issues of Gregory's day were largely concerned with trinitarian and christological problems: in these contexts Gregory's language is careful. In Maximus' day, the doctrinal issues were much more provoked by the debate caused by Evagrianism (the Monothelete controversy developed after Maximus had written his Difficulties): read in that context, some of Gregory's language seemed somewhat careless. It is sometimes careless because he uses an expression -- for instance moira theou, part of God -- that Evagrians could pick on as support for ideas regarded as heretical by the orthodox. In this case (discussed in Amb. 7) the idea that we are 'part of God' was being used to support the notion of the pre-existence of the human soul; Maximus responds by developing his notion of God's logoi in creation (an idea that would not have been foreign to Evagrius, but which is developed by Maximus in a way that owes a lot more to Denys). But Gregory's language sometimes seems careless to Maximus (i.e. constitutes a difficulty) because it ignores what for Maximus is an accepted pattern of thinking (often itself due to Evagrius). An example of this is the difficulty dealt with in Ambiguum 10. Here Maximus has to deal with a passage in Gregory's panegyric on St Athanasius where he speaks of those who ascend to kinship with God and are assimilated to the most pure light through 'reason and contemplation'. Here the problem is that Gregory has said nothing about praktike, the active struggle against temptation that in the Evagrian scheme is the absolute bedrock of monastic or Christian progress. Here Maximus is an Evagrian, and Gregory must be interpreted as an Evagrian. It is not difficult: Gregory has not denied the place of praktike, he has simply concentrated on the role of contemplation, and he has spoken of passing beyond 'cloud', which Maximus is able to interpret as alluding to the stage of praktike. Maximus' difficulty with Gregory here produces a profound discussion of the Christian life that we are grateful to have for its own sake, however little it seems to be needed for making Gregory's words acceptable. Here, as often, the point is that Gregory's words -- or thought -- are not systematic, whereas Maximus' thoughts, for all their episodic expression, have in the background a pretty clearly worked-out system.
What this suggests to me is that an underlying difficulty, behind all the difficulties, is what Steiner calls 'modal' difficulty. What Steiner means by that is the difficulty we encounter in reading a poem (say), when, even after we have done all our homework, looked up all the unfamiliar words and worked out all the allusions and metaphors, we still find that the poem refuses to 'speak' to us. We are not looking for what the poem has to say, we are not responsive to its meaning. There is a difference of 'register'. I think this 'modal difficulty' is often there as Maximus seeks to respond to difficulties raised by Gregory. For he is reading Gregory, whereas Gregory wrote his sermons to be delivered, to be listened to.
was a rhetor by training, one of the most accomplished amongst the Fathers of
the Church: one of his sermons would be an oratorical performance,
particularly brilliant displays of rhetorical mastery would be applauded by his
congregation. The aim of the rhetor was, by a display of verbal wizardry, to
persuade, to induce a sense of achieved insight. A story told by Jerome, who
met and was deeply impressed by Gregory in
Nevertheless, Maximus is interested in knowing things, in understanding: the influence of Aristotle is found not just in the dry analytical quality, on occasions, of his prose (which often draws on Aristotle, through the medium of his Neoplatonic commentators), but in Maximus' tireless patience as he seeks to understand. It is this, I think, that makes Maximus' difficulty with Gregory at root what I have called 'modal' difficulty. For Maximus, to use words and concepts to understand is not a matter of rhetorical persuasion but of philosophical understanding. But this does not mean, as it might with us, that Maximus simply finds that Gregory leaves him cold -- offering him a mode of understanding that is not his. It means rather that if Maximus is to find his mode of understanding in Gregory, he has to work for it. Gregory's rhetorical flights have to be nailed down.
What I am trying to do by drawing out the different forms of difficulty that Maximus finds with Gregory is to suggest that there is no easy answer to the question of the nature of Gregory's influence on Maximus. Gregory speaks to Maximus over a gulf that can be indicated in various ways: the gulf between a learned lay culture and a monastic culture (that Maximus may have spanned in his own life, if the Greek life is right in suggesting that he had risen high in the imperial civil service before becoming a monk), the gulf separating the fourth from the seventh century, the gulf separating the rhetor from the philosopher. Gregory's voice crosses this gulf not least because it is a voice that has been conceded authority, which means, in part, that it is a voice that had shaped the culture of the hearer, the culture of Maximus and his monastic contemporaries.
But can we say anything to answer what may once have seemed a simple enough question: how Cappadocian is Maximus, how much does he owe to the Cappadocians? It is usually said that the Evagrian or the Dionysian heritage is much more important to Maximus than the Cappadocian, and that seems to me to be broadly true. It is easy to give an indication of how this manifests itself in the Book of Difficulties. All the difficulties but one are concerned with passages from Gregory's works: and in all these cases where the explanation advances beyond the merely 'contingent', what Maximus almost invariably does is to interpret Gregory in Evagrian or Dionysian categories or language. In the one difficulty drawn from the Corpus Areopagiticum (Amb. 5), Maximus' explanation seems to me to be nothing more than a Dionysian paraphrase. The Dionysian language is, as it were, Maximus' own language: Gregorian rhetoric is not.
There are, however, two areas where we might press this question somewhat harder, and these areas are Christology and Trinitarian theology. In both these areas the Cappadocian Fathers -- and St Gregory Nazianzen in particular -- shaped decisively the dogmatic language of the Church.
The principal Difficulties to raise Christological issues are to be found, not in the earlier Difficulties, but in the later ones: Difficulties 2-5 all raise Christological issues, though the fifth is occasioned by a passage from Denys, not Gregory. 5 What we have in these three difficulties raised by passages from Gregory is really a paraphrase of Gregory's condensed and oxymoronic language. At first sight it is difficult to see anything other than useful paraphrase. But these passages are meant to be difficulties, and Maximus' responses are meant to clear up problems raised by these passages. If we ask why they are difficult, it quickly becomes clear that it is because they make statements that, while relatively unproblematic in the categories of Gregory's thought, are problematic within another Christological tradition, that of Maximus. And that tradition is what Meyendorff has called 'Cyrilline Chalcedonianism' (what used to be dubbed 'Neo-Chalcedonianism'). Take Difficulty 2: the passage from Gregory that is causing difficulty is this: 'And, in a word, what is exalted is to be ascribed to the Godhead, to that nature which is superior to sufferings and the body, what is lowly is to be ascribed to the composite that for your sake emptied himself and took flesh and -- it is no worse to say -- became a man.' In Gregory's Third Theological Oration this is his response to the Arian argument that one who is God cannot be said to hunger, sleep, fear, and so Christ cannot be God: it ushers in Gregory's brilliant oxymoronic celebration of the Incarnate One as a coincidence of opposites. What makes it a difficulty for Maximus and other Cyrilline Chalcedonians is the way it suggests a separation between the divine and human attributes of Christ, that might imply something like two subjects in Christ (though I do not think that Gregory suggests that at all), and certainly seems to keep suffering away from the Godhead. Maximus' response is a paraphrase of Gregory that emphasizes the unity of subject in Christ and, in particular, expressly justifies theopaschite language by using, and repeating, an expression from Gregory's Fourth Theological Oration -- 'God passible'. 6 In the fourth Difficulty, Maximus is similarly concerned to justify theopaschite language: 'therefore he was also truly a suffering God, and the very same was truly a wonderworking man, because also there was a true hypostasis of true natures according to an ineffable union' (1045A). I would suggest then that Maximus is not happy with Cappadocian Christological language and 'corrects' it with a theopaschite emphasis more typical of the Cyrilline tradition.
In the case of Trinitarian theology there are two difficulties I want to look at, both of which discuss the same passage from Gregory's sermons. The Difficulties are no. 23, from the earlier set, and no. 1, from the later. Both are concerned with the passage from the Third Theological Oration which runs thus: 'Therefore, the monad, having moved from the beginning towards the dyad, rests in the triad.' The difficulty this poses for Maximus is the way Gregory seems to speak of movement in God. Difficulty 23 -- the earlier one -- starts off by proving that God cannot be said to move. His conclusion is uncompromising: 'If therefore what is without cause is certainly without motion, then the divine is without motion, as having no cause of being at all, but being rather the cause of all beings.' Maximus then discusses the way in which something that causes movement (or change) might be said itself to be moved (or changed), even though in reality it is motionless (or changeless): for example, light makes it possible for eyes to see, it might be said to move sight to vision, and might be spoken of as being moved, though properly it occasions movement, rather than being moved itself. Maximus then invokes Denys and his discussion of how God can be called desire (eros) and love (agape), and summarizes the Areopagite's teaching in these terms: 'as desire and love the Divine is moved, as desired and loved the Divine moves towards itself everything that is capable of desire and love.' Maximus is now in a position to interpret Gregory's statement:
The monad, moved from the beginning towards the dyad, rests in the triad': it is moved in the mind that is receptive of this, whether it be angelic or human, and through it and in it makes inquiries about it, and to speak more plainly, it teaches the mind, to begin with, the thought about the monad, lest separation be introduced into the first cause, and immediately leads it on to receive its divine and ineffable fecundity, saying secretly and hiddenly to it that it must not think that it is in any way barren, this good of reason and wisdom and sanctifying power, of consubstantial and enhypostatic beings, lest the Divine be taken to be composite of these, as of things accidental, and not believed to be these eternally. The Godhead is therefore said to be moved as the source of the inquiry as to the way it exists. (1260D)
For Maximus the movement spoken of by Gregory is really a movement in the mind -- whether angelic or human -- that seeks to understand God; such a mind passes from the thought of unity and rests in that of the triad. Difficulty 1 discusses this same passage, together with another similar passage from elsewhere in Gregory's work, in very similar terms. In this difficulty Maximus ventures further in explaining the language of monad and triad:
There is therefore no explanation of the transcendent cause of beings, but rather a setting out of pious thought concerning it, if it is said that the Godhead is monad but not dyad, triad but not multitude, as being without beginning, bodiless and free from rivalry. For the monad is truly monad; for it is not the beginning of beings alongside it, by expansion and contraction, so that it is naturally poured out leading to multitude, but it is the enhypostatic reality of the consubstantial Triad. And the triad is truly triad, not made up of perishable number (for it is not a composition of monads, so that it suffers division), but is the real existence of a trihypostatic monad. For the triad is truly the monad, for it is so, and the monad is truly the triad, for thus it exists. There is then one Godhead, in monadic being and triadic existence. (1036BC)
Such analysis of the language of monad and triad is not characteristic of Gregory, for whom the language of monad and triad is an occasionally used rhetorical antithesis; 7 it seems to me that it is suggested rather by some of Denys' trinitanian discussion. 8 Maximus then goes on to make the same point as in Ambiguum 23, that movement in God means movement in the mind contemplating God.
There seem to be two points about Maximus' engagement with the trinitarian thought of Gregory. First, he reaches for Denys as he tries to understand it; and secondly, his understanding of movement in God is really quite different from Gregory's. Gregory is clearly thinking of something within the divine being itself: a kind of eternal movement, and if eternal then beyond any experience we might have of movement. 9 Maximus' understanding is explicitly subjective: movement in this context really refers to something going on in the mind of one who seeks to understand the Trinity.
This discussion of the relationship between Gregory the Theologian and Maximus the Confessor shows that even the formation of Orthodox tradition is not an unproblematic matter. It would be difficult to find two such revered pillars of Orthodoxy as Gregory and Maximus. But if Gregory is to be seen as part of the making of classical patristic doctrine, then what Maximus is doing in refining what I suppose would be called the Byzantine theological tradition must be seen as some kind of remaking of doctrine. For interpretation is a necessary part of receiving tradition and understanding it: interpretation encounters difficulties such as we have explored, and difficulties cannot be resolved simply by repeating the deliverances of tradition. Maximus' remaking of doctrine involves some rethinking. Engagement with tradition is, however, more than a matter for the intellect. In concentrating on Maximus' Book of Difficulties it is intellectual difficulties of one sort or another that we have mainly encountered. In Steiner's taxonomy of difficulty there is one category not so far mentioned: that is what he calls 'ontological difficulty'. 'Ontological' difficulty is a difficulty in reading that calls in question what it is to read at all ( Steiner's examples are the poems of Mallarmé or Celan). 10 This category is not perhaps particularly illuminating for trying to understand Maximus' reading of Gregory, but it might be relevant were we to look at the way in which phrases and expressions of Gregory's sermons have fertilized the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For transposed into that context they suggest a very different kind of reading, and it may be that it is there -- in the liturgical poetry of the Church -- that Gregory the rhetor most truly becomes St Gregory the Theologian.
Cyril of Scythopolis records a similar appeal to Gregory Nazianzen: see his Life of Cyriacus cited in Norris 1991: 103.
So Suidas, Lexicon, s.v. 'Origines' (ed. A. Adler ( Leipzig, 1928-38), iii. 619).
Cited in G. W. H. Lampe (ed.), A Patristic Greek Lexicon ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961-8), s.v. 'theologos'.
See his Exégèe médiévale, in Théologie, Études Publiées sons la Direction de la Faculté de Théologie S.J. de Lyon-Fourvière,41-2, 59 ( Paris, 1959-64).
Amb. 41, though on a christological passage from Gregory's sermons, is really much wider in scope.
That Maximus is consciously alluding to Gregory's use of the term theos pathetos seems to be clear, since the first time he uses it he quotes the whole phrase: 'God passible to overcome sin' ( Orat. 30. 1).
In the Orations Gregory only seems to use monad and triad antithetically at 20. 2 and 23. 8 (the two passages discussed by Maximus in Amb. 1) and 25. 17. Such language occurs, too, in his carmina, but his usual way of referring to the Trinity is to use triad alone.
See, in particular, Divine Names, 13. 3. It seems to me very likely that Denys has taken the juxtaposition of monad and triad from the passages in Gregory cited above. But what was an occasional theme in Gregory becomes something more settled in Denys, if we can rely on his few discussions of the Trinity, and it is Denys' settled use of the antithesis that Maximus reflects.
The next sentence after the one commented on by Maximus reads: 'In a serene, non-temporal, incorporeal way, the Father is parent of the "offspring" and originator of the "emanation". . .' ( Wickham's translation in Norris 1991). This as a comment on the phrase about monad moving to triad must mean that there is some kind of 'serene, non-temporal, incorporeal' movement in the Godhead itself.
It is interesting in this context to note that Henri-Irenée Marrou's positive revaluation of Augustine in his Retractatio published in 1949 also draws on the example of Mallarmé: see Marrou 1958: 649 ('saint Augustin nous invite à retrouver clans l'Écriture une conception mallarméenne de la poésie').
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