Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.48

Antoine Lévy​, Pauli Annala, Olli Hallamaa, Tuomo Lankila (ed.), The Architecture of the Cosmos: St. Maximus the Confessor. New perspectives. Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, 69.   Helsinki:  Luther-Agricola-Society, 2015.  Pp. 355.  ISBN 9789519047782.  €36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ken Parry, Macquarie University (

[The reviewer apologies for the delay in delivering this review.]

In 1961 Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) published his Kosmische Liturgie: Das Weltbild Maximus des Bekenners (English translation by Brian Daley 2003), a revised edition of a work originally published in 1941. This was followed in 1965 by Lars Thunberg (1928-2007) with his no less seminal work Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. Both books were milestones in Maximian studies and did much to bring Maximus the Confessor to the attention of scholars and the wider public. Since then translations and works devoted to Maximus have increased exponentially. 2015 saw the publication of The Oxford Handbook to Maximus the Confessor edited by Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, offering a synthetic approach to the author’s work.1 I think we can safely say that Maximus’ time has finally arrived, but that not every question relating to him has been answered.

There are 14 papers in this volume, many by leading scholars of Maximus, published in the wake of a conference held at Helsinki in 2013. As it is impossible to do justice to all the papers in this short review, I will list the different chapter headings under which the authors are grouped, and then select 5 to discuss in detail. I apologise to those contributors whose papers I have not chosen; it is no reflection on the quality of their work but a reflection of my own interests and the word limit.

Chapter One: Contextualization; papers by Peter van Deun and Christian Boudignon.
Chapter Two: Philosophical Approaches; papers by Christophe Erismann, Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Valery V. Petroff, Gregory Benevich, and Pascal Mueller-Jourdan.
Chapter Three: Theological Approaches; papers by Antoine Lévy, Nikolaos Loudovikos, Vladimir Cvetković, István Perczel, and Pauli Annala.
Chapter Four: Modern Approaches; Alexei V. Nesteruk.

I have selected from Chapter Two: Philosophical Approaches, papers by Christophe Erismann, Torstein Theodore Tollefsen, and Grigory Benevich.

Christophe Erismann’s paper, entitled ‘Maximus the Confessor on logical dimensions of the structure of reality’, offers the reader some notable insights into Maximus’ application of logic, and in doing so applies with some legitimacy the unfamiliar term ‘Christian logic’. He examines the three modes of being of universals exemplified by Porphyry in his Isagoge, and commented on by Ammonius of Alexandria. He then proceeds to show how this exemplification of universals is to be recognised in Maximus’ writings. The Christian adaptation of the Aristotelian theory of categories, mediated via Porphyry and Ammonius, provided necessary definitions for theological reflection on a range of issues, including ontology. An important but perennial question was: do universal entities have existence apart from their individual realisation? The answer that was formulated by Maximus was that universals do not exist independently of their instantiation in individuals. Individuals of the same species share the same essence but differ in their hypostases or accidental properties. Maximus agrees with Aristotle in positing that universals are ontologically dependent on particulars, and confirms this by stating that the particular has in itself the entire universal. This reflects Aristotle’s position in the Categories where he says substance does not admit of more or less. However, the term that came to represent this position in Neochalcedonian theology was that of enhypostaton, the indwelling of the universal in the individual. The concept of enhypostaton represents a mode of being not found in the Categories.

Torstein Theodore Tollefsen’s paper is called ‘The Concept of the Universal in the Philosophy of St Maximus’. This deals with the ‘Christian philosophy’ of Maximus and continues the theme of the status of universals introduced by Erismann above. Tollefsen characterises Maximus’ understanding of universals by coining the term holomerism, a combination of the Greek for ‘whole’ and ‘part’. He notes that Christian authors appropriated much Neoplatonic vocabulary and in doing so developed a distinctively Christian understanding of being. An investigation into the richness of Ambiguum 10 leads him to the topic of providence, the main theme of Benevich’s paper below. In his discussion of Maximus’s ontology, Tollefsen brings out the cohesive interconnectivity of wholes and parts, universals and particulars, as indicative of the divine arrangement of the cosmos. This shows the indivisible relationship between universals and particulars, so that if particulars cease to exist, universals will perish. The Logos is the binding agent that holds these relationships together while retaining the distinctiveness of each part. Thus, Maximus ascribes to particulars a high degree of ontological meaning that reflects the goodness and providential order divinely gifted to creation. Tollefsen rightly sees this as an original development based on both Platonic and Aristotelian elements, a development with links to late antique philosophical culture. What Maximus does is to rework this culture and invest it with a soteriological dimension that is ultimately Christocentric.

Grigory Benevich titles his contribution ‘Maximus Confessor’s teaching on God’s Providence’.2 He begins with an outline of his comparative study of providence from Plato to Maximus published in Russian in 2013. He follows this with an exposition of Maximus’ teaching on the topic and shows how he moved from Origen, Evagrius of Pontus, and Nemesius of Emesa through Pseudo-Dionysius to his own position. Evagrius’ discussion on providence and judgement is taken up by Maximus in the process of offering a Christian alternative to that of the Platonists. Divine judgement is not to be understood only as moral judgement, or as reward or punishment, but as an act of ontological distinctiveness pertaining to individuals and species preserving the uniqueness of each. He further suggests that Maximus does not develop a theodicy as such, but if this is the case, then it may require rethinking what defines a theodicy in the first place. The Confessor’s account of evil as a parhypostasis is in the mode of Proclus via Pseudo-Dionysius. In his assessment of Nemesius’ On the Nature of Man, Benevich does not raise the question of the work’s reception as Maximus appears to be the first to cite it. It was transmitted in the manuscript tradition under the name of Gregory of Nyssa and it has been suggested that it has connections with sixth-century Origenism.3

From Chapter Three: Theological Approaches, I have selected papers by Vladimir Cvetković and István Perczel.

The first of these by Cvetković, on ‘The Mystery of Christ as Revived Logos Theology’, examines the question whether in Maximus the incarnation is foreordained from the beginning as part of the divine plan for creation. If this is so, then it would have happened irrespective of the fall. Particularly relevant to the discussion is Ad Thalassium 60, in which Maximus discusses the idea that the incarnation was foreknown by the Trinity as part of the divine economy of salvation. The preordained incarnation is not simply a Maximian theologumenon, but a doctrine known to earlier fathers, for example, Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Naturally such a doctrine poses several ‘what ifs’, e.g.: what if Adam had not been disobedient, how then would the preordained incarnation have played out? Cvetković argues that Maximus returned to the earlier Logos theology and adapted it to his own ends, with the emphasis this time on hypostases and their differentiations. But although this may look like a revival in some respects, Neochalcedonian thought had largely formulated its reappraisal of the Mysterium Christi by Maximus’ time. What the Confessor did was to reinvigorate the centrality of the incarnation as the divine guarantee of human godlikeness. Cvetković concludes his paper with an exposition of the theme of the preordained incarnation as found in the Mystagogy, Maximus’ commentary on the liturgy.

István Perczel’s paper entitled ‘St Maximus on the Lord’s Prayer: An Inquiry into his relationship to the Origenist tradition’, is the longest contribution to the volume. He begins by stating his aim and anticipating his conclusion that the line between heresy and orthodoxy is far from clear when it comes to investigating sixth-century Origenism. Given the historical condemnation of so-called ‘Origenism’, the question of defining it raises problems. The sixth-century Origenist monks of Palestine, whom Perczel calls Christian Platonists, were accused of being ‘Isochrists’, that is, claiming to be equal with Christ. Perczel looks at the Greek and Syriac lives of the Confessor, the one giving him a Constantinopolitan origin and the other a Palestinian one. He comes out in favour of the latter because it supports his argument in relation to his discussion of Palestinian Origenism. He also makes a case for including John Moschus and Sophronius of Jerusalem in his reassessment of Palestinian Origenism. Perczel reminds his readers that he has discussed the question of Origenism on other occasions, most notably in relation to Pseudo-Dionysius.4 His re-evaluation of the term to mean a school of Christian philosophy on a par with the Neoplatonist schools of philosophy is one that deserves attention.

Perczel proceeds to give an interpretation of Maximus’ text On the Lord’s Prayer in light of the sources alleging his Origenism. This leads him to discern a radical doctrine of theosis that does not envisage a quantitative difference between divinity and humanity. In doing so he applies the Aristotelian category of substance that does not admit of more or less, a category noted by Erismann in his paper. He takes this substantial transformation to have a connection with the claim of the Isochrists, and to be consistent with a christology that proposes a symmetrical relationship between incarnation and deification. What Christ is by nature, humanity becomes by adoption, only such an adoption does not eradicate the difference in nature between them. However, there is a term missing from Perczel’s discussion of Maximus’ theory of deification and that is perichoresis, which signifies a complete reciprocity of the natures in Christ as well as in the faithful.

Perczel’s paper is a necessary corrective to the acceptance of the condemnation of Origenism by Justinian, the church councils, and subsequent traditions. It has become apparent that the doctrine of apokatastasis, for example, need not be viewed as ‘Origenist’ as such; it was adhered to in one form or another by several ‘mainstream’ patristic authors. 5 Undoubtedly our categories of heresy and orthodoxy need to be questioned when our knowledge of events changes or improves. One may not be convinced by every aspect of Perczel’s argument, but it is certainly one we should engage with. The issue of Origenism in relation to Maximian thought must surely, as our author puts it, ‘be one of the most fascinating intellectual enterprises in the history of Christianity’.

The overall impression left by this volume of papers is that the more we examine the writings of Maximus the more we need to explore the formidable depth of thought behind his cosmic vision. The Architecture of the Cosmos is highly commended to those seeking the latest scholarly insights into Maximus and his contribution to Christian intellectual history. It is a notable achievement and the organisers of the original conference must be congratulated on conceiving the event in the first place. ​


1.   Readers should also consult the extensive entry on Maximus by Peter van Deun and others in C. G. Conticello, La Théologie Byzantine et sa Tradition I/1(VIe -VIIe s.). Turnhout, 2015, 375-514.
2.   See my, 'Fate, Free Choice, and Divine Providence, From the Neoplatonists to John of Damascus', in A. Kaldellis and N. Siniossoglou (eds), The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium. Cambridge (forthcoming 2017).
3.   P. F. Beatrice, ‘Origen in Nemesius’ Treatise On the Nature Man,’ in G. Heidle and R. Somos (eds), Origeniana Nona: Origen and the religious practice of his time; papers of the 9th International Origen Congress, Pécs, Hungary, 29 August - 2 September 2005. Louvain, 2009, 505-532.
4.   See his, ‘Pseudo-Dionysius and Palestinian Origenism’, in J. Patrich (ed.), The Sabaite Heritage in the Orthodox Church from the Fifth Century to the Present. Leuven, 2001, 261-282.
5.   I. E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Leiden, 2013. ​

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