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A Tour Guide of Maximus the Confessor

An Interview with Paul E. Blowers

It is a common experience for undergraduates to not know who their professors are. This is obviously the case for any freshman stepping onto campus, as they have never met their professors before. But even as they advance through their program, just who their professors are in their particular field of study can fly right over their heads. This was my (Zach Hollifield) experience when I was checking a book out at my seminary library and saw on the back the name of a professor I had taken a course with in my undergraduate program. While I already had great respect for this professor, it was only then, and not while on campus with him, that I discovered just who (in the realm of academia) this professor was. Not only was he a humble and incredibly intelligent scholar, (not to mention an exemplary Christian), but he was also an important and well-known voice in patristic studies particularly in regard to Maximus the Confessor.

I had thought he was just a wonderful professor, which he was. But who he was was lost on me. A shining star of patristic studies had stood before me and I had been blind to it. This experience was only compounded when the academic dean of my seminary walked up to me one day and asked me if I had attended the college I had and then proceeded to ask if I had any courses with this same professor because they were buddies from the patristic world. Oh undergraduate, Zach, how could you have been so blind!

That professor is none other than Dr. Paul M. Blowers, Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History in the Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University. Dr. Blowers is author of numerous books, most recently, Visions and Faces of the Tragic: The Mimesis of Tragedy and the Folly of Salvation in Early Christian Literature. Dr. Blowers has been gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions regarding his spectacular book on the seventh century Monk-Theologian-Martyr, Maximus the Confessor.

You have written numerous books and articles on Maximus the Confessor as well as translated with Robert Louis Wilken, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ for the St. Vladimir’s Press’s Popular Patristic Series. Where did your interest in Maximus begin and why did you feel this sort of particular work on Maximus was necessary?

My interest in Maximus began in seminary, when I became increasingly interested in Eastern (and Eastern Orthodox) Christianity precisely because I knew so little about it. I read a lot in the Greek and Byzantine Church Fathers, as well as in late Roman imperial history, and it ignited in me a desire to study early Christianity at an advanced level. When I did my doctoral work at Notre Dame, I was bound and determined to write on Maximus, who is in some respects the “Thomas Aquinas” of the East, his only competition in that respect being John of Damascus a century later. Maximus provided a magnificent and original synthesis of the Greek patristic theological tradition, while adding his own unique perspectives. I was drawn especially to the fact that Maximus’s theology revolves around his highly-developed Christology. Christology is the connecting tissue of his views on creation, human nature, salvation and deification, the Church, the spiritual life, eschatology, and much more. Maximus provided a magnificent and original synthesis of the Greek patristic theological tradition, while adding his own unique perspectives. Click To Tweet

I’m sure you’ve had students in the classroom who are less than enthusiastic to read patristic sources or see the importance of them; while your book is itself a testament to why one should, for those who are unfamiliar with or even hesitant to read the patristics, what encouragement would/do you offer them?

The “draw” of patristic writers, in my estimation, is first and foremost their unwavering devotion to the principle that theology is biblical interpretation, a relentless search for the breadth and depth of the scriptural revelation, centered especially on the great mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation (and death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, many patristic authors, even in their most sophisticated and highly technical discussions of theology, consistently retained a deep pastoral interest, a sense that the treasures of Scripture have to do with Christian life in its concreteness, and the vocation of all Christians to grow in the knowledge and love of God. There is not much space between theology and “spirituality” in patristic literature. These writers write for the church, not for academic guilds (although many of them thoroughly respected the traditions of the philosophical schools). I’ve found that some writers are naturally more compelling reading for seminary students than others. Students are drawn to early Christian theologians who have an eye on the “big picture” (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor) and on those who are particularly spiritual edifying for formation in ministry (esp. monastic authors like John Cassian, Ps-Macarius, Diadochus of Photiki, and others).

You write, “For Maximus, the Christian Gospel gave witness to a universe being transfigured, to an emerging cosmic and eschatological politeia embracing all of spiritual and material creation, of which Jesus Christ was both the pioneer and the perfecter in his incarnation.” And you close the book by saying that it is Maximus’ “Christocentric cosmic gospel” which is his legacy to the universal church. As I was reading I couldn’t help but think that Maximus’ cosmic rendering of the gospel carries tremendous import for contemporary evangelical squabbles over the “personal” vs “cosmic” nature of the gospel. If that is a right read, would you flesh out how Maximus’ rendering of the gospel could bring much-needed clarity to such debates?

You’re citing here my Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford University Press, 2016), but I’ve written on this in a number of articles on him too. Maximus’s Christocentric cosmology is one in which God has graced all creatures not only with existence itself, but with a “natural” freedom predisposed toward fulfilling the divine purposes for each and every being. Our freedom as individuals or persons is relative to our vocation of communion with all other creatures, not just fellow human beings but ALL creatures. For human beings, Christ has modeled the perfection of human nature through love and virtue, and yet the Logos (Word) of God indwells all created beings and in his providence he is calling us to a new relation, a new creation, in which each creature enjoys the fulfilment of God’s vision for it. The eschatological perfection and transfiguration of creation would be a condition in which all creation is the ekklesia, the cosmic church, performing its “cosmic liturgy” of praise in a common Christocentric identity that defies boundaries of race, nation, etc., but that also includes other created beings who testify to the majesty of the triune Creator. Maximus follows the consensus of patristic tradition that creation is destined not toward destruction but toward renewal and transformation. It’s a very hopeful vision of the future, although it is one sobered by Christian realism regarding the catastrophe of sin and the insemination of moral evil (and consequent death) in the world. Maximus’s vision of the cosmos and its future is still projected through the lens of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. There is not much space between theology and “spirituality” in patristic literature. Click To Tweet

Maximus’ “Cosmic Christology” emphasizes the reality of Christ’s “Flesh redeeming the world.” In Maximus’ mind, what does giving appropriate weight to Christ’s human nature “do” for the Christian? In other words, why does it matter that Christ’s flesh redeemed the world and not simply his divinity?

The continuity between divine creation and incarnation was well-established in Greek patristic theology long before Maximus came along. But he knew the (by his time) longstanding debates over the person of Christ, which took yet another turn in his own time in the mid-seventh century. Though he was altogether knowledgeable of the development of the Christological controversies, he refused to lose sight of a crucial insight of some of his early forbears like Irenaeus (2nd century) and Athanasius (4th century), that “flesh saves flesh.” Redemption was an “inside job,” a remediation of the degeneration of humanity under the weight of “the flesh” precisely by renewing and restoring and transforming the flesh—the “flesh” often being a byword for the whole condition of human materiality and corporeality (embodiment). The New Adam cured the Old Adam precisely by bringing a rejuvenating grace to “the flesh” in all its aspects, even our passible or affective (emotional) life, our sexual being, our whole sensate being. “What is not assumed is not healed,” wrote Gregory of Nazianzus, one of Maximus’s theological heroes. The incarnation of the Son is a “deep” incarnation: Christ was “tempted in every way like us save without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was “passible” but not “peccable,” knowing life in the flesh but not the capacity to sin. Maximus went so far as to say that the Son created his own uniquely deified human nature in the incarnation, in order that we too, by participation, could be deified. A wonderful read here is Adam Cooper’s book, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Sometimes popular-level preaching, teaching, and theology tends to emphasize the divine nature of Christ to such an extent as to overshadow Christ’s human nature. How can Maximus’ aid the pastor or Bible study leader or stay at home mother in giving appropriate weight to both the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ?

I would recommend focusing on how Maximus deals with Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He writes on that passage in more than one work, and is clearly fascinated by it. The story had raised the questions as to whether Christ had wavered in his obedience to the Father, and felt fear and trepidation at the specter of death. Did he shrink from his passion and death on the cross? We know how the story comes out, with him resolving to do the will of the Father, but the “vulnerability” of Jesus in this scene seemed to speak for itself. Ultimately Maximus argues that we need to distinguish here between Christ’s “natural” (but deified) human will, incapable of opposing the divine will of the Father, and his also natural human instincts, which proved that he was fully human. Christ’s fear of death was thoroughly natural and inculpable, but it is also true that in the composite (divine-human) person of Christ, that fear operated on a different level from ours, a thoroughly godly level, serving to enhance all the more Christ’s urgency to be obedient unto death. Of course that godly fear was to be recommended for all followers of Christ in facing suffering and death.

How does Maximus’ understanding of Christ’s cross and atonement relate to the classical paradigms (Christus Victor, substitution, exemplar)? Does it shore up weak-points, completely chart a new path, offer anything original?

This is far too massive a set of questions to answer here and I must defer you to chapter 7 of my book where I go into this in detail. There are multiple strands of interpretation operative in Maximus’s treatment of the atonement. From his predecessors, he certainly retained respect for the Christus Victor motif, and the idea that in the incarnation, passion, and cross, the “cosmic Christ” conquers evil and death once for all and saves the Father’s plan for creation. He even knows the sub-theme of the divine deception of the Devil, the flesh of Christ on the cross being a lure to the Devil to think he has him trapped, when in fact Christ invades Hades and beats the Devil at his own game, releasing all who are captive to death. “Substitution” is not a word he uses a lot, but he upholds the idea that only the Son of God was capable of accomplishing our salvation, being the New Adam who pioneers the way for all the rest of us. Maximus does speak of the “wondrous exchange” whereby the death of the innocent Christ brings about the unleashing of a whole new abundance of divine grace. Is Christ an “exemplar”? Yes indeed, though Maximus is far from the later medieval Western variation on this theme, as seen most vividly and substantively in Peter Abelard (12th century). The New Testament, after all, not only calls John the Baptist a forerunner, but so too Christ himself (Heb. 6:20), and is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 2:10; 12:2). The important thing is that Maximus, like many patristic authors, did not see the need to fixate upon a single “theory” of atonement and chose to dwell on all different aspects of this mystery since even the Scriptures give us different angles of approach to it.

Could you say a little here about why Maximus is such an appropriate confessor for all Christians but particularly the Church of the Global South/Majority World?

It’s good to remember that Maximus was an African (at least a North African) for a considerable period in his career, located for a long while in a monastery near Carthage (in what is now Tunisia). Most of sub-Saharan Africa was untouched by Christianity during his lifetime, but he would have been familiar with the native Berber and Punic peoples of North Africa, which in his time was ruled by the Byzantines. Africa and the larger Global South, where Christianity is now growing at its fastest rates, represents many Christian churches that are still coming into their own, building their Christian worldview, developing their own indigenous Christian theologies, appropriating the rich Christian tradition, and striving toward a glorious future in Christ. One of Maximus’s most penetrating statements is when he writes: “Always, and in all things, the Logos, who is God, desires to realize the mystery of his embodiment” (Ambiguum 7). In other words, the Logos has pledged his radical presence in all of creation, and, we can say, in all those parts and peoples of the world which have only relatively lately (in the long stream of Christian history) encountered the gospel and begun the work of developing their ecclesial life and contributing to the global mission of the Church. The Logos has pledged his radical presence in all of creation, and, we can say, in all those parts and peoples of the world which have only relatively lately... encountered the gospel. Click To Tweet

What guidance, encouragement, or warnings would you give to those who attempt to interact with Maximus’ thought?

Not all of Maximus’s writings are as accessible as others. Indeed, certain of them would need to be put aside until readers have really gotten their feet wet in his theology and its context. Maximus’s Greek is famously difficult, as he writes in long sentences and is endlessly qualifying what he wants to say as he aspires for theological insight. Fortunately, most (not all) of his works are available in English translations and new translations are still appearing. Most accessible for new readers are the spiritual and devotional works of his early career. A good place to begin is with his Chapters on Love, which are aphorisms on the nature of Christian love but also on the fuller aspects of the spiritual life. (Even here, though, one comes across a lot of the not-always-familiar terminology of early Christian asceticism). Another good text for getting one’s feet wet is his Dialogue on the Ascetic Life, a conversation between an elder monk and his disciple which journeys through the disciplines of the spiritual life with heavy quotation of supporting scriptural texts.

Finally, you have 14 grandchildren, surely one of them is named Maximus. If not, where do you think you went wrong?

We now have 15 grandchildren with number 16 on the way. None is named Maximus (there are only 5 boys and 10 girls). On the other hand, I have two close friends who have grandsons named Maximus, and one of my students who just graduated has a very young son named Maximus, specifically for the Confessor! So I’ll chalk that up as a victory!

Paul M. Blowers

Paul M. Blowers is the Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History. He is a scholar of patristics and early Christianity and has written also on the Stone-Campbell heritage. He is the author of Visions and Faces of the Tragic: The Mimesis of Tragedy and the Folly of Salvation in Early Christian Literature (2020), Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (2016), Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety (2012), and Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor (1991).

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