St Maximus the Confessor: Champion of Constantinople III

In this season of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, there is one who perhaps has gone unnoticed. His feast day is not usually celebrated throughout the Churches, at least in America. However, he is indeed the Champion of the 6th Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople, 680 AD. This man is none other than St Maximus the Confessor. 

St Maximus was born around 580 AD to Christian parents and was very well educated. In the year 638, the Emperor Heraclius and Patriarch Sergius issued an edict, called the Exposition of Faith which mandated that everyone accept the teaching of Christ having two natures but one will. St Maximus was a staunch opponent to such a heretical teaching. The root of this heresy originated from the Monophysite heresy which was settled at both the 4th Ecumenical Council (451 AD) and the 5th Ecumenical Council (553 AD). 

Monophysitism claimed that the divine nature of Christ swallowed up His human nature.  Miaphysitism which was a similar heresy to Monophysitism, taught that the person of Jesus Christ was from two natures (εκ δύο φυσεών), divine and human. After His Incarnation, there was a synthesis of the two natures, making one incarnate nature. The Orthodox Church on the other hand, known as the Dyophysites or Chalcedonians, taught that Christ was one hypostasis (υπόστασις), thus one entity in two natures (εν δύο φυσεών), divine and human. Jesus Christ is both fully God (divine) and fully human, 

In the 7th Century, the heresy of Monophysitism and Miaphysitism resurfaced, focusing instead on the energy and will of Christ. This heretical belief was that Christ had only one energy (ενεργία) and one will (θέλημα), both being divine. These heresies, known as Monoenergism and Monotheletism downplayed the humanity of Christ and were a great dilemma because three of the patriarchal thrones, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria were dominated by their adherents. 

In 649 AD, a local council of the Church of Rome called the Lateran Council convened. It was organized by Maximus the Confessor and Pope Theodore. This Council was the first attempt to address Monotheletism. Maximus wisely disputed the heresy of Monotheletism, and rightly defended that since Christ having two natures, would also have two wills, divine and human. The human will being obedient to the divine will but not by coercion but rather freely. God gave humanity two gifts, life and free will. The Incarnate Christ was fully man while at the same time fully God. 

If Christ did not voluntarily submit His human will to His divine will, then how could He have been fully human? For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For us His flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of His flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as He Himself says: “I came down from heaven, not that I might do my own will but the will of the Father which sent Me!” where He calls His own will the will of His flesh, inasmuch as His flesh was also His own (Definition of Faith-6th Ecumenical Council).

Shortly after the Lateran Council, both St Maximus and Pope Martin were arrested and taken to Constantinople for violating the Exposition of Faith. Maximus endured torture and his right hand was severed. Even his tongue was cut out from his mouth. St Maximus died in 662 AD, several years before the 6th Ecumenical Council. Yet, his teachings were presented at that Council, posthumously making him the Champion of Constantinople III. The 6th Ecumenical Council is called Constantinople III because it was the third Ecumenical Council to be held there. Both Monotheletism and Monoenergism were condemned as heresies at the 6th Ecumenical Council. 

The following is part of the Definition of Faith of that Council: in Him are two natural wills and two natural operations without division, without fusion, without change and without separation according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary to one another (God forbid!)…but His human will follows, and not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to His divine and omnipotent will…For as His most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature , so also His human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved…We glorify two natural operations…in the same Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine operation [or action]and a human operation[or action]…For we will not admit one natural operation in God and in the creature…believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity, and after the incarnation our true God we say that His two natures shone forth in His one hypostasis [or person] in which He both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings…Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations concurring most fitly in Him for the salvation of the human race. 

Monoenergism actually preceded Monotheletism and was upheld by the Emperor Heraclius. The strong opponent to this heresy was Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem. Eventually the former abandoned this erred teaching and pursued Monotheletism instead.

Monoenergism taught that Christ had only one will which was divine. Opponents of Monoenergism rightly upheld that Christ has two energies, divine and human, the same way He has two natures and two wills. The energies of Christ are the ways He reveals Himself to us, both as God and as Man. Conversely, the energies enable us to experience Him. If Christ has only a divine energy then how could He possibly have revealed His humanity to us? Thus, the Incarnate Christ is “of one essence” (ομοούσιος) with mankind. If this was not so, would our salvation be possible? 

It is important to understand the oneness of Christ, that He is one person in two natures. The thought of Christ expressing both divine and human energy seems difficult to conceive. Nevertheless, from as early as the 2nd Century with St Ignatius of Antioch, this concept has been developed. He is believed to have conceived the Christological term, communicatio idiomatum which is Latin for communication of properties. It maintains the view of the unity of Christ’s person. It became more developed after both the 4th and 5th Ecumenical Councils which dealt with Christological controversy.

The concept analyzes the interaction of human and divine attributes and experiences in the person of Christ. St Ignatius spoke of the “suffering of God.” What that means is: as man Christ was crucified on the Cross, as God He forgave His executioners. Another example: As man He wept for Lazarus when he died and as God He raised him from the tomb on the fourth day. In both examples, the one person Jesus Christ exhibits both divine and human activity. Communicatio idiomatum supports the doctrine of Christ having both two wills and two energies.

St Maximus is called the Confessor, just like several other saints because He confessed the faith and opposed heresy yet did not experience martyrdom. Although he was brutally mutilated, he was not executed. Nevertheless, Maximus is held in high regard and venerated as a Saint of the Orthodox Church.

O devout Father Maximus, you proclaimed that the Master Christ, who for pity's sake, as He willed, became a man, is intellectually perceived in two wills and energies. Thus, you stopped the gateless mouths of defiled men who argued that the incarnate Lord had but one will and energy; for they had been infected by the devil, the arch-inventor of wickedness. (Sticheron from Festal Vespers)

O St Maximus, intercede for us before Christ our God!

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.


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