Maximus the Confessor's Summation of Early Patristic Thought


Although Maximus the Confessor wrote in the seventh century A.D., his theology in many respects epitomizes and crystallizes the core movements of early patristic thought. If I may adapt a metaphor from G.K. Chesterton: just as spatial distance, viewing a scene from miles away, can provide a fuller view of a mountain or cityscape, in a similar way, temporal distance may provide a more complete perception into the essence of an idea.[1] It is Maximus’s distance from earlier Christian writers that enables his theology to develop the central themes of patristic theology while at the same time chipping away from its edifice many inessential elements.

Foremost among the theological themes emphasized by Maximus is the doctrine of deification: the participation of humans in God’s nature via grace. Building off of his predecessors—such as Origen, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa—Maximus envisions deification as the telos, not only of mankind but also, indirectly, of the entire cosmos. In the Ambigua, Maximus associates human deification with the successful integration and offering of all creation—its metaphysical polarities notwithstanding—to the Creator. Yet, due to the human condition after original sin, the only avenue for deification is the one paved by Christ the God-man, who offers all of creation back to the Father through his sacrifice on the cross. In his Mystagogy, Maximus identifies the Mass, the Holy Liturgy of the Church, with Christ’s perfect prayer to the Father and therefore also with the locus of human deification, in which God’s union with mankind—and, consequently, creation as a whole—is realized.


Underlying Maximus’s theology is his philosophy of nature, particularly the belief presented in the Ambigua that all existing things are “marked by five divisions (διαίρεσις).[2] The first division is between uncreated nature (i.e., the Godhead) and created natures. Although there is no single nature shared by all created things, the numerous essences of the cosmos are unified by their common source of existence in God. The second division, which applies to creation, is between the intelligible and the sensible or, in other words, the immaterial and the material.

Material reality is further divided into the heavens and the earth; the latter itself comprises the distinction between paradise and the inhabited world. Maximus locates the final division within human nature, namely, between man and woman, a distinction that he does not think existed prior to the fall. While this last notion strikes our modern, scientific ears as bizarre, it would be a mistake to let this oddity prevent us from following the trajectory of Maximus’s thought.

While we know today that the material elements of our bodies were forged in the stars of the heavens, and that evolutionary history dramatically illustrates the human continuity with material creation, none of this knowledge would alter Maximus’s conviction that the human person is not reducible to an aggregate of diverse material elements. Rather, the human person is a microcosm, a miniature image of the cosmos, who synthesizes cosmic disparities within his unified and unique substance.[3] Maximus insists that we are microcosms, not simply because we are conglomerations of material elements, but instead because each human is a body-soul composite. This unity of body and soul bridges the material and immaterial, the intelligible and sensible.

Moreover, for Maximus, being a microcosm is more than a circumstance of nature; it is also a vocation and a duty. Although humans symbolically encompass the entirety of existence in their nature’s intrinsic constitution, God has appointed humans as representatives over creation and entrusted them with the task of leading the cosmos into union with their Creator. According to Maximus, humans appeared last on the scene of creation so that by “mediating between the universal extremes through his parts, and unifying through himself things that by nature are separated from each other by a great distance,” the human person might “[gather] up all things to God…[bringing about] the union of all things in God, in whom there is no division.”[4]

At the final stage of cosmic synthesis, humans would become deified, enjoying communion with God and participating in his divine attributes.[5] In deification, writes Maximus, humans become “everything that God is, without however identity in essence.”[6] God and humans, joined by love, would interpenetrate one another in a perichoresis (περιχορήσις), a dance, in which “the whole man wholly pervades the whole God.”[7] At least, that is how things were supposed to go. As we know, original sin derailed this process. Maximus says that instead of “[uniting] what was divided, [humans] divided what was united.”[8] The first humans failed their mission, leaving both humanity and the entire cosmos more fractured than before.

Alienated from God, humans became unable to unite the world to the Creator. God’s solution to the augmented division of the cosmos was not to annihilate creation altogether but to heal it from within. Thus,

“God became man” in order to save lost man, and . . . united through Himself the natural fissures running through the general nature of the universe . . . to fulfill the great purpose of God the Father, recapitulating all things, both in heaven and on earth, in Himself, in whom they also had been created.[9]

These final words from Maximus paraphrase Ephesians 1:10, which highlights that Christ’s redemptive work, while carried out principally for the sake of humans, has effects that extend also to the entirety of creation. On behalf of mankind, the perfect and divine Son reconciled in a true human nature the five divisions of creation as well as the further division introduced by sin.

Yet, if Jesus Christ successfully reconciled the cosmos to God (cf. 2 Cor 5:19), why do we still experience the tangible division and alienation characteristic of human existence? In short, individuals must still appropriate, through faith, Christ’s once and for all victory. As Maximus illustrates in his Mystagogy, the human person’s appropriation of Christ’s redemption and triumph primarily occurs within the Holy Liturgy of the Eucharist, which completes the purpose of the Incarnation by deifying humans. God became man, and even became food for man, so that man might become god.


In his Mystagogy, Maximus situates deification within the climax of the Mass: the consecration and reception of the Eucharist. Maximus intentionally patterns the Mystagogy according to Pseudo-Dionysius’s Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, an influence apparent in the former’s conviction that earthly realities symbolize spiritual realities because both share a Creator. Chapters 1-7 of the Mystagogy indicate the parallels between realities such as God, the Church, human person, and Scripture. Chapters 8-21 compare the various elements of the Mass with the spiritual realities that they signify. Finally, chapters 22-24 elucidate the stages of the soul’s spiritual progress as it is symbolized in the Mass’ different parts.

The first comparison Maximus makes in the Mystagogy is between God’s unifying activity and that of the Church,

For as God made all things by his infinite power and brought them into existence, so now he sustains them and draws them together…All things have been united with all things without confusion according to the one, irreducible relationship and protection of the only beginning and cause (§1).[10]

God unites all of the universe’s diverse creatures, whether material or immaterial, not by eliminating their differences but precisely by causing such distinct natures, and above all, by being their sole cause of existence. In a similar way, the Church imitates God by uniting persons of various appearances, dispositions, and backgrounds insofar as they each “put on Christ” (Rom 13:14). Maximus puts it thus:

The holy Church of God works the same things and in the same way as God does around us, as an image relates to its archetype. For from among men, women, and children, nearly boundless in number, who are many in race and class and nation . . . those who are in the holy Church and are regenerated by her and are recreated by the Spirit—to all he gives equally and grants freely one divine form and designation, that is to be and to be called from Christ(§1).[11]

Just as diverse Christians constitute one unified ecclesial body, so too, analogously, do God’s many creatures compose a unified body in which differences among members complement rather than repel one another. The unity of diverse people in the Church is not a merely ontological fact; rather, the union stems from love, and not natural human love, but the love of God in the Holy Spirit, which is given to mankind (Rom 5:5).

The Church’s unifying activity is especially realized in the Mass, in which Christians share Christ’s perfect offering to the Father, are bound to the Lord in the Eucharist, and participate in his reconciliation of creation. Chapters 8-21 of the Mystagogy note the spiritual realities signified by each significant stage of the Mass’s liturgy. For example, Maximus writes that, at the beginning of Mass, “the first entrance of the high priest into the holy Church during the sacred synaxis bears the representation and image of the first coming of the Son of God, Christ our Savior, who came in the flesh into this world” (§8).[12] He continues to make parallels between earthly realities and truths of the Faith for subsequent elements of the Mass, for example:

The spiritual kiss of peace, which is addressed to all people, prefigures and portrays in advance the unanimity, agreement, and identity in rationality (λογικήν) that we shall all possess toward one another . . . and it is through this identity that the worthy receive kinship with God the Word (§17).[13]

Curiously, once Maximus comes to the anaphora, he describes the “imparting of the mystery”—his reverent, albeit circuitous term for the sacrament of the Eucharist—without comparing it to any symbolized spiritual reality. The reason for this lies in Maximus’s awareness that, in the Eucharist—where Christ is sacramentally present precisely through the signs of what was once bread and wine—the sign and the signified, the symbol and the reality, the earthly and the heavenly converge, “The mystery [of the Eucharist] transforms those who partake in a worthy manner into itself and, by grace and participation, renders them similar to the one who is good as the cause of everything that is good” (§21, emphasis added).[14]

In other words, the Eucharist transforms those who worthily receive it into itself, that is, into Jesus Christ, who is God made man. Those who are so transformed not only share in Christ’s work of cosmic reconciliation but they also achieve the perichoresis, the interpenetration with the divine, for which they were created: “[Those who receive this mystery] are able to be called gods by adoption according to grace, because the whole God fills the whole of them with himself and leaves nothing in them empty from his presence” (§21).[15]

Elsewhere in the Mystagogy, Maximus suggests that deified Christians reintegrate some of their interior dispersion due to sin and thereby imitate divine simplicity: “[Christians at Mass] are deified by grace and made like the undivided identity [God] by participation” (§13).[16] In all of his references to deification, Maximus insists that Christians are divinized by grace, that is, by God’s unforced love; thus, any theurgy or ritual manipulation of the divine is absolutely excluded. By participating in the Mass and receiving the Eucharist, Christians share in the perfect accord of love between Christ and his Father and are thereby truly flooded with God’s love and divinity; yet, this event of deification, like the reconciliation of the cosmos, is the presence of a reality that must be anticipated until the consummation of all things.


Christ is even now actively uniting all of creation to the Father, correcting humanity’s primal deviation; we ourselves are part of this unfinished work of reconciliation. We march toward the completion of the cosmic synthesis by sharing in the unifying love that the Son has for the Father. In the Mass, each person’s cross becomes the same tree that Christ offered himself on, an identity between Christ and the soul realized and strengthened by the reception of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the human person is deified by the all-pervasive love of God, and the divisions within himself are led, by grace, asymptotically closer to an image of divine simplicity. But the deification of the Christian does not occur in an individualistic vacuum.

As Norman Russell writes, “In the last analysis deification is not a private mystical experience, the result of a self-centered cultivation of the soul’s development in isolation from other people. Deification is the fruit of love, and that is something that precludes the neglect of one’s neighbor.”[17] Moreover, fellow humans are not the only ones affected by the Christian’s deification in the Liturgy.

During the Mass, material elements such as bread and wine are not annihilated by God but changed into the body and blood of Christ, a foretaste of the cosmos’s exalted destiny. What will we find on the other side of creation’s groans for the day when all things are subjected to the Son, the Son to the Father, and God is all in all (Rom 8:22; 1 Cor 15:28)? We will know only Christ, into whose image the Spirit will form us, from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 9.

[2] Maximus the Confessor, “Ambigua 41,” On Difficulties in the Church Fathers, vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 103.

[3] Ibid., 105.

[4] Maximus “Ambigua 41,” 105; modified.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 111; emphasis added.

[10] Maximus the Confessor, On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy, transl. Jonathan J. Armstrong (Yonkers: New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019), 51–52.

[11] Ibid., 53.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 78.

[14] Ibid., 80.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 76.

[17] Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 273.

Featured Image: Christ Acheiropoietos, 12th-century Novgorod icon from the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jean-Paul Juge

Jean-Paul Juge recently completed his MA in Theology at the University of Dallas and is currently applying to doctoral programs in theology.

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