Two Wills of Christ: The Christology of St. Maximus the Confessor in Opuscula 3 and 6

  1. Introduction

Maximus the Confessor made significant contributions to Dyothelite Christology amidst the animosity of imperial Monothelitism.  He maintained his convictions in the loss of his freedom, his writing hand, his tongue, and eventually his life.  Here, I explore two writings which refer to the prayer of Jesus at Gethsemane in which Maximus develops the understanding of the two wills in Christ, human and divine.  These little works are the Opuscula 6 and 3.  In his thought, the Chalcedonian character is evident and Maximus brings new insight to the tradition.  First, I provide the historical context.


  1. Historical Background and Overview

Throughout the historical development of Christology, the Church Fathers and their opponents struggled together to define the undefinable – the Mystery of the Incarnation, the incomprehensible fact of the Word made flesh, this person called Jesus the Christ.  In this process of clarification, heterodox views played an important role of articulating what would eventually be determined as untrue.  Up to the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., the orthodox understanding of Christ was forced to be made more precise in the face of essentially two opposing views:  Arianism[1] and Docetism.  Arianism denied Christ’s full divinity in that he was a created being having a similar but different substance to the Father; Docetism held that Christ was fully God and only appeared to be human.  In 325 at the Council of Nicea, Arianism was condemned and Christ was defined as homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father: “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.”[2]  Although Nicea affirmed Christ’s full divinity, it did not rule out the possibility of drift towards Docetism.  Sometime following the synod of Alexandria (362), the bishop of Laodicea, Apollinarus, put forward his view of the Logos ensarkos, that the Word enfleshed replaced the (spiritual) soul of Jesus thus denying the existence of the human soul (spirit) in Christ.  Against this view Gregory of Nazianzus insisted that Christ must be fully human, “For what was not assumed was not cured.  But whatever has been united to God is saved.”[3]  And yet Christ also remained fully divine:  “He remained what he was, and assumed what he was not.”[4]  With this theological grounding Apollinarianism was officially condemned in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, and Christ was affirmed as both fully divine and fully human:  “The Son and the Word of God did not replace the rational and spiritual soul in his body but rather assumed our soul (i.e., a rational and spiritual one) without sin and saved it.”[5]

Now up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. there were essentially two opposing views regarding the nature of Christ as fully divine and fully human:  Nestorianism and Eutychianism (or Monophysitism).  Nestorius belonged to the Antiochene school, represented by Theodore of Mopsuetia, which made a clear distinction between the human and divine natures and saw two subjects in Christ:  the Logos and Jesus.  Nestorius taught that Mary “was not the mother of God but only the mother of Christ (khristotokos) to whom the person of the Word of God had united himself.  This amounted to affirming in Christ two persons, one divine and one human.”[6]  Cyril of Alexandria argued for a single hypostasis (corresponding with the Logos) in which the divine and human natures were united – the hypostatic union.  In 431 at the Council of Ephesus, Nestorianism was condemned as represented in the second letter of Cyril to Nestorius:  “The Word, having united to himself according to the hypostasis (kath’ hupostasin) the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man.  …  Though the natures which are brought together into a true unity are distinct, from both there results one Christ and one Son.”[7]  On the other side away from orthodoxy was the view that in Christ the human and divine are united into one nature.  In opposing Nestorianism, Abbot Eutyches taught that the human nature of Jesus was absorbed into the divine nature of the Son resulting in one new nature.  This new heresy of Monophysitism was opposed in the Tome of Leo I (449) but then later approved at the “Robber” Synod of Ephesus in August 449.  Finally at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 Monophysitism was officially condemned.  In Christ, two natures are united in one person.  As the text of Chalcedon says:

We confess that the one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.  The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosôpon) and one hypostasis.  He is not split or divided into two persons, but he is one and the same Only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.[8]

It seems that this Council would have laid Christological issues to rest, but it only provided a new paradigm to continue the task of thinking more precisely of Christ.  As Basil Studer writes, “The faith of Chalcedon must in fact be regarded not only as the final point of a long development, but also as the starting point for fresh Christological discussions.”[9]

Monophysitism got the upper hand again around 500 with the help of political power and the strictly Cyrilline Christology of Severus of Antioch.[10]  In 512, a neo-Chalcedonian faith began to be accepted.  At the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 it was made explicit that the one person (hypostasis) of the Lord Jesus Christ is the divine Word:  “[We] confess that the Word of God has been united to the flesh according to the hypostasis and that, therefore, there is but one hypostasis or person … our Lord Jesus Christ.”[11]  The divine Son is the one subject, thus everything of the divine and human nature in Christ is to be predicated upon the divine person.

Now, given that Christ is two natures united in one person, what is the nature of this hypostatic union?  Are there one or two energies (activities), and are there one or two wills in Christ?  By 631 Monenergism (one activity) had become Imperial orthodoxy and was successful in healing divisions.  Sophronius in Alexandria, who later became Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634, protested against Monenergism in 633 proposing two activities per two natures of Christ.  In response Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, issued the Psephos forbidding talk of one of two activities but allowed simply one divine subject in Christ, and excluded two contrary wills in Christ.[12]  Sergius communicated the union achieved in Alexandria to Pope Honorius, who replied with a “confession of ‘the one will of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”[13]  Then in 638 Emperor Heraclius issued the Ecthesis (drafted by Sergius) advancing Monothelitism (one will in Christ) by imperial edict.  This transferred the Monophysite viewpoint to the level of will and threatened the possibility of human freedom in Jesus, and consequently also of human freedom in people in relation to God.

St. Maximus the Confessor enters the fray here in the seventh century.  The Christology of Maximus is dedicated to the opposition of Monenergism and Monothelitism.  Born in 580 in Constantinople, Maximus became first secretary at the court of Emperor Heraclius by his early thirties; but he left this a few years later to become a monk at Chrysopolis and later Cyzicus.  In 626, escaping the approaching Persian army, he fled south to North Africa where he had developed a relationship with Sophronius (who would leave the area in 633).[14]  Maximus participated in the Lateran council in Rome in 649 which condemned Monenergism and Monothelitism.  This condemnation was made final at the Third Council of Constantinople of 680-1:

We likewise proclaim in him … two natural volitions or wills and two natural actions, without division, without change, without separation, without confusion.  The two natural wills are not – by no means – opposed to each other … but his human will is compliant, it does not resist or oppose but rather submits to his divine and almighty will.  For as the wise Athanasius says, it was necessary that the will of the flesh move itself, but also that it be submitted to the divine will.[15]

Unfortunately before Dyothelite orthodoxy had been vindicated in 681, the imperial Monothelite view held sway.  When Maximus returned to Constantinople, he was tried and exiled in 655, tried and exiled two more times, had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off, and died in custody at Lazica in 662.  For this suffering Maximus is given the title “the Confessor.”[16]

  1. Ousia & Hypostasis

The inherited problem of comprehending the union of two natures in one person required a fresh metaphysical understanding if it were to be solved.  In Cosmic Liturgy, Hans Urs von Balthasar describes the erroneous approaches of Eutyches and Nestorius which sought to articulate this synthesis of natures.  The crux of the problem was an unperceived dimension of being in their Christology and theological anthropology.  Bathasar writes,

It was not simply that Eutyches had united the natures “too much” and Nestorius “too little”, but that they divided them and united them in the wrong way; they did not understand in what unity really consisted.  Their mistake was to look for the synthesis on the level of nature itself and then to describe it as a synthesis of natural powers (Nestorius) or as a natural union (Eutyches).  A solution to the problem was impossible as long as one was unable to recognize any other dimension of being than that of “nature” or “essence”.[17]

In order to uncover this other dimension of being which was to be acknowledged, we will first see what Maximus means by the terms ousia and hypostasis.

Balthasar explains that Maximus uses the term ousia (ouvsi,a) as “essence” in two senses.  In the first sense it is the highest ontological category and “includes under itself all species and individuals”[18] with the exception of God who stands above ousia.  In the second sense ousia refers to individual nature, virtually a synonym of physis (nature).  Though it is individual (rather than universal) it is still generic; that is, it “is never identical with its own individuality” nor is it a way of “being-on-one’s-own”.[19]

The term hypostasis (u`po,stasij) first of all is a synonym of prosopon (person).  Balthasar writes, “In its root meaning, and even in the created realm, ‘hypostasis’ is an essence’s (ousia’s) ‘being-for-itself’ ….  So it answers to the question ‘Who?’ … in a broad sense; it is the indicator and affirmation of a subject, an ‘I’.”[20]  In The Byzantine Christ, Demetrios Bathrellos explains that hypostasis is an essence with idioms; “the humanity of Christ had its own distinctive, particular idioms.”[21]  Also Balthasar says that hypostasis connotes “having” or “a way of being the possessor of essential being.  This relationship is the reason that it is, on the one hand, ‘impossible to think of a hypostasis without nature’ and that no nature, on the other hand, can simply coincide with its hypostasis.”[22]  Balthasar concludes that this first use of the term hypostasis has both of these aspects:  an essence’s being-for-itself and an act of possessing being.  He writes, “The hypostasis can only be described by approaching it from two directions, which mutually complement each other:  from that of nature … and from that of the act of coming to possess this nature.  Maximus puts both definitions alongside each other.”[23]  Secondly, in the technical use of the term, hypostasis still had the connotation of the original meaning as “existence” or “subsistence”.  Here in this use hypostasis is a term of pure ontology.  This meaning is “‘being-for-oneself’ or ‘being-on-one’s-own’:  the mysterious point at which all the essential characteristics of a thing are concentrated and bound together,”[24] writes Balthasar.

Now how do these definitions of the terms ousia and hypostasis relate to the union of two natures in one person?  First it is helpful to remember the Chalcedonian context in which these terms apply.  Bathrellos puts it, “The union between divinity and humanity in Christ is called union according to hypostasis (e`,nwsij kaqV u`po,stasin), [and] signifies the union of two (different) essences that remain distinct in one hypostasis.”[25]  The hypostatic union is not a union of persons and is therefore distinct from “relative union (scetikh. e`,nwsij) which is the union of two persons through their unity of willed object and their mutual loving disposition.”[26]  Thus, even though there are two natural wills in Christ, the union is not a relative union of persons.  Clearly then, natural will belongs to nature rather than person or hypostasis.  And it is evident that union belongs on two levels:  on one level, that of nature or the physical, and another, that of the metaphysical.  Here is the other dimension of being which needed to be understood.  The hypostatic union involves a synthesis on the metaphysical level.  Balthasar describes it this way:  “Maximus’ explanation of man’s composite character rests on the constant parallel between ‘physical’ synthesis (body and soul) and ‘metaphysical’ synthesis (the individual being and the generic nature).”[27]  But the hypostatic union can not be described on level of essence alone; it must involve the level of existence.  In order to define the hypostasis, as Balthasar writes, “one must attempt to express the synthesis of two modes of existence (tro,poj th/j u`pa,rxewj) in the single mode of the hypostasis – one must attempt to form a ‘synthetic hypostasis’.”[28]

  1. Logos and Tropos

Along with ‘mode of existence’ (tro,poj u`pa,rxewj), Maximus uses the term ‘logos of nature’ (lo,goj th/j fu,sewj) to describe the hypostasis.  Maximus understands this terminology differently from the Cappadocians who used tro,poj th/j u`pa,rxewj in a trinitarian context; Maximus applies the term to Christology and theological anthropology.  In his Introduction, Andrew Louth writes that for Maximus “person is contrasted to nature:  it is concerned with the way we are (the mode, or tropos), not what we are (principle, or logos).”[29]  In The Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor, Torstein Tollefsen writes, “The being of the hypostasis is to be understood in the tension between the lo,goj th/j fu,sewj and the tro,poj u`pa,rxewj, which are often simply called lo,goj and tro,poj.  We could say that the logos is the principle of the nature of the hypostasis.”[30]  Tollefsen believes that tropos (tro,poj) for Maximus should be “taken as shorthand for the expression ‘the mode of existence in an hypostasis’…  [and it] denotes any concrete modification of a being.”[31]  The logos is the center of personhood – the particular being of each person – and each person’s personhood has its logos from God.[32]  In the uniqueness of Christ, the center of his personhood is the divine Son.  Tollefsen writes, “While human hypostases have their principles in the logoi, the humanity of Christ has its principle in the Logos Himself:  the Logos acts as logos of Jesus’ humanity.”[33]

The idea that personhood is a modification of the principle (logos) as a result of the way (tropos) or mode of existence can be applied in the argument against Monenergism and Monothelitism.  Louth notes that both will and activity are ambiguous terms:  “Both activity and will can refer either to a process – acting, willing – or to the result – the act done, the deed willed.”[34]  Maximus uses this ambiguity in his rejection of Monothelitism by distinguishing between the natural and personal level.  When activity and will refer to processes, they belong to the natural level.[35]  But when they refer to the result, “activity and will are an expression of the personal, [and] they express the particular way or mode (tropos) in which a nature moves in relation to other natures,”[36] writes Louth.  There are two processes at the natural level, and one result at the personal level predicated upon the one the divine Logos.  Thus the synthesis of two modes of existence in one hypostasis is possible in this way.  Again, approaching the hypostasis (‘who’) from the direction of nature (‘what’) there are two processes.  And approaching the hypostasis (‘who’) from the direction of the act of possessing nature (‘how’) there is one result.

  1. Opusculum 6

Written later in his career around 641, Opusculum 6 is considered by François-Marie Léthel to be the most important writing of Maximus in its opposition to the Monothelitism of Sergius since it presents the definitive solution.[37]  The major reversal of Maximus is to link the acceptance of the Passion in the prayer on Gethsemane to the human will of Christ.[38]  Here in this Opusculum Maximus expounds Matthew 26:39 (where Christ prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will”) and so demonstrates the crucial role of the Bible in his Christology.  Bathrellos writes that his Christology “was not the result of philosophical speculation, but of a scripturally based effort to defend the correct understanding of the mystery of incarnation and find the proper volitional terminology whereby to express it.”[39]

The question for Maximus is:  which will of the subject in the phrase not what I will is being negated?  The will of this subject is required to be negated since it wants something in opposition to the will of the Father.  There are three possible answers:  it is the will of Jesus not in the role of Savior but in the role of a man “who is just like us”; or, it is the divine will of Christ (as per Gregory of Nazianzus); or, it is the human will of Christ our Savior who is not just like us.  Maximus rules out the first two and argues for the third, thus proving that there are two wills in Christ.  In doing so Maximus needed to challenge the traditional interpretation of Gregory of Nazianzus (in his trinitarian polemic against the Arians), exploited by the Monothelites, and assert that this prayer is connected to the human will peculiar to divine Son.  Paul Blowers notes that Gregory (in his Oration 30.12) correctly understood the subject in Jn 6:38 (“for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”) to be the divine Son; and this verse is an affirmation that Christ’s divine will is not separate or contrary to the Father’s.[40]  Gregory also applied this reasoning to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane.  But for Maximus, the prayer, “Let not what I will, but what you will prevail,” is a negation of his human will as Savior, a man who is not just like us.

First Maximus addresses the possibility that this prayer is a negation of Jesus’ human will in the role of a man just like us.  If this were so, the human will would resist and contend with God (citing Gregory).  Perhaps this is indicated by the first half of the prayer – if possible, let this cup pass.  However the latter half of the prayer – not what I will – shows that it must be a human will which is not just like ours, but instead is “of perfect harmony and concurrence.”  Now since Christ is “like us in all things except sin,”[41] his human will does not oppose his divine will but rather submits to it.  Furthermore, this negated will cannot be the divine will because the divine will is “both his and his Father’s.”  It follows that there are two wills and two activities in Christ where no opposition is admitted between them.  And so Maximus writes,

If, however, you understand the subject of the phrase Let not what I will, but what you will prevail to be not the man just like us but the man we consider as Savior, then you have confessed the ultimate concurrence of his human will with the divine will, which is both his and his Father’s; and you have demonstrated that with the duality of his natures there are two wills (qelh,seij) and two operations (evnergei,ai) respective to the two natures, and that he admits of no opposition between them, even though he maintains all the while the difference between the two natures from which, in which, and which he is by nature.[42]

Because no christological statement can be incongruous with trinitarian understanding, Maximus next argues against the point of view that not what I will is a negation of Christ’s divine will.  In Cosmic Liturgy, Balthasar aptly states,

In the midst of the complexities of the christological debate, Maximus always took his refuge in trinitarian theology.  Against the argument of Sergius, who argued from an understanding of Christ’s personal unity to the strict unity of his personal activity and will, Maximus repeatedly countered with an appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity:  Sergius’ thesis leads to three wills in God.  …  The Logos, having once become human, still remains, as Logos, one of the three who are God, and therefore a proposition in Christology may not contradict a proposition about the Trinity.[43]

From a trinitarian viewpoint, the divine will in Christ is not in opposition with the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, it is impossible to allow any possibility of difference between Christ’s divine will and the Father’s.  If the negation was of Christ’s divine will, and since the divine will excludes willing something separately from the Father, then the will to decline the cup of the Passion must refer to the will of Christ and the Father.  Declining the cup would be a negation of willing our salvation, which we know the Father does will, therefore the will to decline the cup must not belong to Christ’s divine will.  It follows that it was the human will in Jesus that came into agreement with the Father’s will.

Lastly, Maximus argues that the prayer is a negation of his human will as Savior, a man who is not just like us.  Now if Christ was in the role of a “man just like us” then his human will would resist and oppose God’s will.  But the negation of his human will shows not opposition but harmony.  Therefore Christ’s human will is not just like ours.  The divine Son assumed all what it is to be human except sin, meaning for Maximus that his human will was deified in the assumption.  As Maximus writes, “Clearly the negation here – Not what I will – absolutely precludes opposition and instead demonstrated harmony between the human will of the Savior and the divine will shared by him and his Father, given that the Logos assumed our nature in its entirety and deified his human will in the assumption.”[44]

In having become like us, Christ here in this prayer “was calling on his God and Father in a human manner.”[45]  This is necessary because the divine will of Christ did not overpower the human will; instead human freedom remains, and Christ fulfilled God’s will in his humanity as well.  According to Maximus, writes Balthasar, the ultimate center of freedom of the human person, the will, “is, at its root, a freedom of human nature itself.”[46]  Thus the concept of a “freedom of nature” is crucial:  “to act and to achieve reality is the work of nature; it is only in the manner, the ‘how’ of realization that the hypostatic comes into its own.”[47]  In his Disputation with Pyrrhus, Maximus points out that, without human freedom, “Christ’s human nature is simply an extrinsic instrument.”  Balthasar highlights the significance of this argument:  “Here, then – and only here! – the most dangerous tendency of patristic Christology is defeated:  the logos-sarx (Word-flesh) model, which sees the Word expressing himself in a vital, personal way through the instrument (organon) of flesh that he controls and enlivens, bypassing or simply overwhelming the rational soul.”[48]  Christ’s human ability to will remains a genuine human ability.  Thus Maximus writes, “He also in his humanity has, as his human volition, the fulfillment of the will of the Father.”[49]  Léthel underscores the importance of this.  She writes, “Obedience to the Father is important because it shows that the agreement between the two wills of the Son is lived in his relationship to the Father, and not in a relationship between himself as man and himself as God.”[50]

By stating that Christ accepted the cup in his humanity and his divinity, Maximus is also asserting that the work of salvation was done in his humanity as well as his divinity.  Both wills, then, willed our salvation together in harmony as each existed in a relationship of obedience to the Father.  “This is why, considering both of the natures from which, in which, and of which his person was, he is acknowledged as able both to will and to effect our salvation,”[51] writes Maximus.  At the Trial of Maximus, he also defended the complete functioning of both Christ’s humanity and divinity with the words, “Our Lord and God by nature both wills and works our salvation according to each of the natures from which he is, in which he is, as well as which he is.”[52]  The human will of Christ is natural and free, fully participating in the willing of our salvation.  The fact that Christ freely willed our salvation in his humanity, demonstrates the most perfect act of human freedom.  As Léthel writes,

It is a question, in effect, of the willing of our salvation that Maximus comes to discover … the free act par excellence of the human will of Christ.  Maximus does not then affirm a will of nature, as opposed to the free will, but a human will distinguished from the divine will.  ‘Through nature’, in this context, simply signifies ‘divine’ and ‘human’.  The human will that Christ has for our salvation reveals itself then at Gethesemane in the supreme engagement of its human freedom.[53]

Now Maximus is able to describe the roles of the human and divine wills in Christ as they pertain to our salvation:  “As God, he approved that salvation along with the Father and the Holy Spirit; as man, he became for the sake of that salvation obedient to his Father unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8).”[54]

  1. Opusculum 3: Natural and Gnomic Willing

To explain the difference between Christ’s human will and that of the rest of humanity, and to understand what Maximus means for Christ’s human will to have been deified, we must turn to the discussion of the distinction between natural and gnomic willing.  According to Louth, gnomic willing is willing “in accordance with an opinion, or intention, or inclination (the Greek word for all these is gnômê).”[55]  And Bathrellos writes, “Gnômê is a disposition of the appetite towards what deliberation has shown to be the most appropriate thing to choose;”[56] it is not related to created hypostasis “because gnômê relates rather to human fallen hypostasis.”[57]  Furthermore Polycarp Sherwood writes that gnomic acts “imply ignorance, indecision, mutability … [and] these acts are of the person or hypostasis, not therefore directly of the nature.”[58]  Strictly speaking, then, gnômê does not belong to human nature, and thus it is not required as a part of being fully human.

Appealing to the Fathers, Maximus makes it clear that Christ did have two natural wills, but he did not have two gnomic wills.  Maximus agrees with the Fathers that the two “essential and natural laws and principles”[59] united in Christ (without confusion or division) are “rightly” called wills.  But Christ’s human will was without gnomic willing; it was only natural.  In the rest of humanity, as fallen beings, the human mode of willing is gnomic willing, in which we deliberate and consider.  “The result of the Fall is not that natures are distorted in themselves, but rather that natures are misused:  the Fall exists at the level not of logos, but of tropos,”[60] writes Louth.  In his discussion of Ambigua 42, Brian Daley makes a similar point that for Maximus “renewal (kainotomi,a) … is primarily a renewal of the ‘mode’ of our being, rather than of the formal structure or logos of its nature.”[61]  Human gnomic willing may be reordered by grace.  In his discussion of Opusculum 4, which dates from the late 630s, Daley describes Maximus’ view of the redemption of Christ as the reordering of the way we use our nature.  He writes,

The Word of God renewed and saved our nature, Maximus says, by reordering not the functioning of our nature in itself, but the way we use it.  This means not only that God empowers our wills to choose his will, free of the passionate inclinations that put us at war with him; it also means that he has begun to reform the very way in which we come to live out our natural identity and potential.[62]

In the case of Christ though, being without human gnomic willing, his way or mode of existing does not misuse his nature; rather, his human natural will is ordered with the divine will.  Christ “became perfectly and completely human, but by a new and divine way of birth, and so – as a result of that birth – he now acts with a divinely oriented human will,”[63] writes Daley.

Louth comments on a potential problem with the absence of gnomic willing in Christ’s human will:  Christ’s human freewill.  He writes, “The idea that Christ did not deliberate (which is what is meant by not having a ‘gnomic will’) seems very strange, since deliberating between different choices is what we are accustomed to think that freewill is all about.”[64]  But in fact, gnomic willing involves the lack of freedom – sin.  If the absence of gnomic willing in Christ’s human will is consistent with Chalcedonian Christology (where Christ is in all ways human except sin), then gnomic willing must be involved in the notion of sin.  Louth writes, “Deliberation is what we fall back on when our vision is clouded or confused:  it is a measure of our lack of freedom, not the signal exercise of freedom.”[65]  Therefore Christ, in perfect freedom, being without sin, had an accurate and clear vision of the right choice.  He did not deliberate, yet it remains nevertheless that Christ freely chose in his humanity as well as in his divinity.

Written in 645 or 646, Opusculum 3 is one of the last extant works of Maximus.  It is an extract from chapter 51 of a large work, On Energies and Wills, which no longer survives.  It is addressed to the priest Marinus who was only a deacon in Cyprus at the time Maximus wrote Opusculum 7 (ca. 642).  This latter opusculum deals mostly with the argument against Monergism; and Opusculum 3 provides Maximus’ thought on the distinction between natural and gnomic wills.  By the time of writing Opusculum 3, Maximus came to deny even one gnomic will in Christ, but in earlier writings it is only clear that he did not have two gnomic wills.  Sherwood writes in his Introduction, “In the tome to Marinus the Deacon [Opusculum 7], which I have reason to date about 642, he denies explicitly that there is any opposition in Christ, not even of and of the things that pertain to it; for in Christ it concords with the lo,goj of nature.”[66]  Shortly after 643 in Opusculum 16, Maximus makes the denial of gnomic will (gnw,mh) to Christ final because of its connection “with mutability, with sin, with rebellion against nature.”[67]  In Opusculum 3, Maximus notes that the Fathers confessed two natural wills but no difference in gnomic wills in Christ, since Christ is without sin.  He writes, “[The Fathers] knew that it was only this difference of gnomic wills that introduced into our lives sin and our separation from God.  For evil consists in nothing else than this difference of our gnomic will from the divine will.”[68]

But does the absence of gnomic willing mean that Christ’s human will was not fully human?  Jaroslav Pelikan points out the necessity of Christ’s total humanity in his Introduction to his selections of Maximus, “For, on the basis of the ancient patristic principle that whatever was not assumed in the Incarnation was not healed in the Redemption, the absence of a truly human will in Jesus Christ would have meant that … the human will of sinful humanity would not have been saved.”[69]  In Opusculum 3, Maximus teaches that the Logos moved and shaped the natural will (“the natural appetency of the flesh endowed with a rational soul”)[70] in a natural way.  The natural will “possesses the natural power of the desire for being”[71]; whereas gnomic willing (“the longing of the mind of a particular [person] moved by an opinion”)[72] does not.  Maximus makes it clear that gnomic willing is not essential to nature since “all the properties that are essentially attached to the nature”[73] are contained by the natural will.  Therefore the capacity to will and the essence of willing is rooted in nature, whereas the intention (gnômê) shapes desire, longing, or wish.  That is to say, the natural will (as a capacity) belongs to nature and gnomic willing (as a way or manner) belongs to the hypostasis.  As Maximus writes, “So being able to speak always belongs to the nature, but how you speak belongs to the hypostasis.  So it is with being disposed by nature to will and willing.”[74]  It seems that Maximus is saying that in fallen human beings the gnômê moves the natural disposition to will, but in Christ the divine will exists rather than the gnômê to move the natural will.  He writes, “The Incarnate Word possesses as a human being the natural disposition to will, and this is moved and shaped by his divine will.”  And in this way Christ’s natural will is deified, having been united with the divine will of the Logos rather than the inclination (gnômê) to sin.

In his article “Not My Will but Yours be done”, Ivor Davidson explains that the absence of a gnomic will in Christ does not threaten the authenticity and fullness of his humanity.  Christ has two natural wills, divine and human:  “a ‘natural’ divine will reflective of the good pleasure of the God whose Son he is, and a ‘natural’ human will, proper to the humanity he assumes and individuates in his specific fleshly existence.”[75]  But in Christ the absence of gnomic willing is necessary in precluding a union of two persons.  As Davidson puts it,

If Christ does not have a ‘natural’ human will, he is not authentically human. At the same time, if a ‘gnomic’ will is present in him as a kind of filter through which the movement of his ‘natural’ human will is forced to operate, the incarnation represents the union of two persons, one divine and one (fallen) human, rather than the creating and personalizing of fleshly reality by the action of divinity.[76]

Furthermore, the absence of gnômê nonetheless allows for total human willing to genuinely occur in Christ.  Christ must exist within a condition of utter humanity that he might redeem this condition, and he himself must be free of the conditions of sin.  He still experiences the full force of temptation and the weaknesses common to humanity, but his manner of existing is not clouded by the considerations of a gnomic will.[77]  And so Davidson writes,

For the Saviour to lack gnome does not mean that he is missing some essential component of humanness, but that he is free from the twistedness of the human condition as it is experienced by sinners, who cannot discern properly what goodness is but are subject to the confusion of a moral existence that is not what it is intended to be.[78]

Maximus then applies this line of thinking to the prayer at Gethsemane.  The prayer of Jesus, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, demonstrates the human natural will to avoid death; and the prayer, nevertheless, not mine, but your will be done, proves that the divine will shaped the human natural will.  Again, as in Opusculum 6, Maximus upholds the entire harmonious operation of both Christ’s humanity and divinity explaining, “For the Incarnation is an effective demonstration of both nature and the economy.”[79]  And consistent with Chalcedonian Christology, the hypostatic union united the divine and human natural wills without any change or confusion.  Therefore, writes Maximus, “the will did not need to be rendered idle or made active in accordance with the same will: that would be absurd, since the Son’s will is by nature the same as the Father’s.  The Savior therefore possesses as a human being a natural will, which is shaped, but not opposed, by his divine will.”[80]  The defied human will is shaped in a natural way without being overwhelmed or bypassed and so remains free.

In his articleWilling is Not Choosing”, Ian McFarland discusses this particular way (tropos) that Christ’s human will is shaped and moved in freedom.  He notes three differences between Christ’s way of existing and a fallen gnomic way.  “First, the deified will is permanently fixed on God’s will, in contrast to the inherent mutability of gnomic willing.”[81]  Second, due to this different orientation, the deified will avoids deliberation and consideration.[82]  And third, “the freedom of the deified will consists in the Godgiven capacity to will that which is beyond but – crucially for Maximus – not against nature.”[83]  In contrast, the freedom of gnomic willing includes either willing with or against nature (which is sin), but not beyond.

  1. Conclusion

We have seen from an historical overview that the mystery of the Word made flesh was comprehended as fully and truly both human and divine.  From a soteriological viewpoint Christ must be fully human, and from a trinitarian viewpoint he must be fully divine.  Christ is not two persons nor is he one nature, but two natures united in one person.  In this union the natures are not confused, changed, divided in half, or separated.  And the Christology necessary to work out the unity of two natures in one person defined a deeper theological anthropology.  In the historical context of the Monothelite controversy, Maximus contributes significantly to Christology as confirmed at the Third Council of Constantinople.

In coming to a new metaphysical understanding of dimension of being, Maximus brings deeper insight to the patristic terms ousia, hypostasis, and tropos.  Human natural will belongs to nature, not hypostasis.  Christ’s hypostasis has its principle in the divine Logos, and one hypostasis in Christ expresses the synthesis of two ways or modes of existence.  Both human and divine willing occur in Christ at the level of nature and refer to process; but at the level of personhood they occur as modes (tropos) and refer to the one result.

Maximus provides the definitive solution to Monothelitism in Opusculum 6.  The prayer at Gethsemane demonstrates that in Christ there is a human will and a divine will which remain distinct, yet between which he allows no opposition.  With this view, Maximus’ Christology maintains integrity with trinitarian theology.  The will which wished to decline the cup of the Passion could not be the divine will, but only the human will of Christ.  Yet this human will is without resistance and opposition to God found in the rest of humanity – it is deified and yet it remains fully free, a genuine human will.  Therefore Christ was able to truly will salvation in obedience to the Father both in his humanity and his divinity.

Maximus explains Christ’s unique and deified human will with the distinction of natural and gnomic willing in Opusculum 3.  Natural willing is of nature, but gnomic relates rather to human fallen hypostasis.  Christ is without gnomic willing and acts with a human will oriented to the divine will – he acts without sin.  The absence of gnomic willing in Christ does not infer the lack of freedom but its supreme presence – the lack of sin.  Nor does the absence of gnomic willing imply that Christ was not fully human, since the essence of willing is rooted in nature.  Gnômê is a way of shaping and moving the disposition of the will; it answers ‘how’ one wills.  Christ demonstrated a new manner of existence free from human fallenness.

The Christology of Maximus has a clear Chalcedonian character.  In his Dyothelite thought he diligently maintained complete and true human and divine natures in one person.  By understanding that will is of nature, he provided the framework where the human and divine wills in Christ may be fully functional without confusion, change or opposition.  And in doing so, he demonstrated the truth of the confession that Christ is like us in all things except sin.  As it was confessed at Chalcedon,

Following therefore the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man composed of rational soul and body, the same one in being (homoousios) with the Father as to his divinity and one in being with us as to the humanity, like unto us in all things but sin.[84]



Bathrellos, Demetrios. The Byzantine Christ : Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Daley, Brian E. “Nature and the ‘Mode of Union’: Late Patristic Models for the Personal Unity of Christ.” In The Incarnation : An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Edited by S. T. Davis, D. Kendall and G. O’Collins. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 164-196.

Davidson, Ivor J. “‘Not My Will but Yours be done’: The Ontological Dynamics of Incarnational Intention.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, no. 2 (April 2005): 178-204.

Ettlinger, Gérard H. Jesus, Christ & Savior. Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1987.

Ford, David, and Mike Higton. Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Léthel, François Marie. Théologie De l’Agonie Du Christ : La Liberté Humaine Du Fils De Dieu Et Son Importance Sotériologique Mises En Lumière Par Saint Maxime Le Confesseur. Paris: Beauchesne, 1979.

McFarland, Ian A. “‘Willing is Not Choosing’: Some Anthropological Implications of Dyothelite Christology.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no. 1 (January 2007): 3-23.

Maximus. Maximus Confessor : Selected Writings. Translated by George C. Berthold. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

_______. Maximus the Confessor. Translated by Andrew Louth. London ; New York: Routledge, 1996.

_______. On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ : Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor. Translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.

_______.  St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life; The Four Centuries on Charity.  Translated by Polycarp Sherwood. Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955.

Need, Stephen W. Truly Divine and Truly Human : The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. London; Peabody, Mass.: Spck; Hendrickson, 2008.

Neuner, Josef, and Jacques Dupuis, eds. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. 7th ed. New York: Alba House, 2001.

Studer, Basil, and Andrew Louth. Trinity and Incarnation : The Faith of the Early Church. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1993.

Tollefsen, Torstein. The Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Cosmic Liturgy : The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003.

[1] Views more extreme than Arianism were Ebionism (Jesus was entirely human) and Adoptionism, which held that Christ was simply a human who was “adopted” by God.

[2] Council of Nicaea in David Ford and Mike Higton, Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 88.

[3] Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101 in Gérard H. Ettlinger, Jesus, Christ & Savior (Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1987), 116.

[4] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29 in Ettlinger, 119.

[5] Tome of Damascus (382) in Josef Neuner and Jacques Dupuis, eds. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. 7th ed. (New York: Alba House, 2001), 219.

[6] Neuner and Dupuis, 220.

[7] Cyril of Alexandria, Second Letter of Cyril of Alexandria to Nestorius in Neuner and Dupuis, 221.

[8] Council of Chalcedon in Neuner and Dupuis, 228.

[9] Basil Studer and Andrew Louth, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1993), 218.

[10] Studer and Louth, 225-6.

[11] Second General Council of Constantinople in Neuner and Dupuis, 233.

[12] Andrew Louth, “Introduction” in  Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (London; New York: Routledge, 1996), 14.

[13] Louth, 15.

[14] Louth, 4-5.

[15] Third General Council of Constantinople in Neuner and Dupuis, 246.

[16] Paul M. Blowers, “Introduction” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ : Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 15.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 210.

[18] Balthasar, 216.

[19] Balthasar, 217.

[20] Balthasar, 223.

[21] Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 103.

[22] Balthasar, 223.

[23] Balthasar, 225.

[24] Balthasar, 225.

[25] Bathrellos, 104.

[26] Bathrellos, 104.

[27] Balthasar, 244.

[28] Balthasar, 245.

[29] Louth, 59.

[30] Torstein Tollefsen, The Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008), 165.

[31] Tollefsen, 167.

[32] Tollefsen, 171.

[33] Tollefsen, 172-3.

[34] Louth, 56.

[35] Louth, 57.

[36] Louth, 57.

[37] François Marie Léthel, Théologie De l’Agonie Du Christ : La Liberté Humaine Du Fils De Dieu Et Son Importance Sotériologique Mises En Lumière Par Saint Maxime Le Confesseur, (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), 86.

[38] Léthel, 92.

[39] Bathrellos, 119.

[40] Blowers, 173 n.2.

[41] Council of Chalcedon in Ettlinger, 209.

[42] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 174.  This last phrase, “from which, in which, and which he is by nature” (evx w-n kai. evn ai-j te, kai. a[per h-n o` auvto.j katav fu,sin,) Blowers notes to be an important description of Christ’s hypostasis.  It is “not only composed from and in the two natures, divine and human, but also exist[s] as those two natures.” Blowers, 174 n.3.

[43] Balthasar, 213.

[44] Maximus, Cosmic Mystery, 176.

[45] Maximus, Cosmic Mystery, 176.

[46] Balthasar, 227.

[47] Balthasar, 227.

[48] Balthasar, 228.

[49] Maximus, Cosmic Mystery, 176.

[50] Léthel, 99.  Translation mine.

[51] Maximus, Cosmic Mystery, 176.

[52] Maximus, “The Trial of Maximus” in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold, (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 23.

[53] Léthel, 98. Translation mine.

[54] Maximus, Cosmic Mystery, 176.

[55] Louth, 61.

[56] Bathrellos, 149.

[57] Bathrellos, 156.

[58] Polycarp Sherwood, “Introduction” in St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life; The Four Centuries on Charity, trans. Polycarp Sherwood, (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955), 62.

[59] Maximus, “Opuscule 3” in Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (London ; New York: Routledge, 1996), 193.

[60] Louth, 57.

[61] Brian E. Daley, “Nature and the ‘Mode of Union’: Late Patristic Models for the Personal Unity of Christ,” in The Incarnation : An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, eds. S. T. Davis, D. Kendall and G. O’Collins (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 187.  On the implications of this for personal transformation he writes, “The mystery of renewal, then – redemption from sin and restoration to the fullness of the image of God, for which humanity was originally created – must be, in Maximus’ view, a fundamental transformation of the way we exist, which leaves intact the inner character of what we have been made to be.”  Daley, 188.

[62] Daley, 189.

[63] Daley, 189.

[64] Louth, 62.

[65] Louth, 62.

[66] Sherwood, 60.

[67] Sherwood, 60.

[68] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 197.

[69] Jaroslav Pelikan, “Introduction” in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, 4.

[70] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 193.

[71] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 193.

[72] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 193.

[73] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 193.

[74] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 193.

[75] Ivor J. Davidson, “‘Not My Will but Yours be done’: The Ontological Dynamics of Incarnational Intention,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, no. 2 (April 2005): 193.

[76] Davidson, 193.

[77] Davidson, 194.

[78] Davidson, 195.

[79] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 194.

[80] Maximus, “Opuscule 3”, 194.

[81] Ian A. McFarland, “‘Willing is Not Choosing’: Some Anthropological Implications of Dyothelite Christology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no. 1 (January 2007): 15.

[82] McFarland, 15.

[83] McFarland, 15.

[84] Council of Chalcedon in Neuner and Dupuis, 227.

2 thoughts on “Two Wills of Christ: The Christology of St. Maximus the Confessor in Opuscula 3 and 6

Leave a Reply to Aerald Janzen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s