In this paper I will address St Maximus the Confessor’s concept of the gnomic will, including (1) what he means by the term; (2) how does it differ from natural will; (3) the historical development of his usage of the term; (4) whether Christ has a gnomic will; and (5) what are its implications to deification.
Gnomic Will – Definition and Distinction from Natural Will
According to St Maximus, especially in his later writings, there is an important distinction between natural will and “gnomic” will, distinction which has come to play an important role in Orthodox Christology. The distinction is that there is a natural will, rooted in nature, and a gnomic will, rooted in the personal exercise of the natural will.
There are two natural wills in Christ, as He unites two natures; he has two natural wills (pertaining respectively to his human and divine natures), since natural will is a property of nature. On the other hand, the gnomic will is an aspect of the (fallen) human hypostasis, whereas the Person of Christ is not a human hypostasis, but a divine hypostasis. Therefore, human hypostases after the Fall have a gnomic will along with their natural will. The nature of the distinction is that between a natural and a deliberative will. One may start by asking, what is natural will according to St Maximus? He argues that it is the power that longs for what is natural to the nature. He says,
For [the divine Fathers] think that [the natural will] is the natural appetency of the flesh endowed with a rational soul, and not the longing of the mind of a particular man moved by an opinion, that possesses the natural power of the desire for being, and is naturally moved and shaped by the Word towards the fulfilment of the economy. And this they wisely call the will, without which the human nature cannot be. For the natural will is ‘the power that longs for what is natural’ and contains all the properties that are essentially attached to the nature. In accordance with this to be disposed by nature to will is always rooted in the willing nature.
With this definition of natural will, St Maximus then makes a further distinction between the will rooted in the nature, and the exercise of that will, which is rooted in the person, the ὑπόστασις. The will rooted in nature is the capacity, whereas the exercise is a hypostatic function. The natural will is the “movement of longing” which “best characterizes a nature as rational;” it is the “movement of desire constituted as the most proper and primary property of every rational nature.” Without Christ’s natural will, the hypostatic union would not have obtained, in the sense that the Logos would not have united a true, complete human nature to himself. If Christ did not have a natural will, he would not fulfil the hypostatic union with flesh, endowed by nature with a rational soul and intellect.
In Christ, the natural will is rooted in his concrete human nature, not an abstract human nature (as some modern philosophers of religion, who reject dyothelitism, haver argued). It can be illustrated, e.g., by the nature’s capacity to speak, whereas the exercise of speaking, and how to speak, belongs to the hypostasis, the person who wishes. In the unique case of Christ, therefore, the will is rooted in this human nature, whereas the personal exercise of the will belongs to the Divine Person. St Maximus says,
For to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same thing, as it is not the same thing to be disposed by nature to speak and to speak. . . . 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. If then to be disposed by nature to will and to will are not the same (for the one, I said, belongs to the essence, while the other exists at the wish of the one who wills), then the Incarnate Word possesses as a human being the natural disposition to will, and this is moved and shaped by his divine will.
Therefore, the relation between gnomic and natural will entails that as the nature wills, so the person chooses, accepting or rejecting that which the nature wills; and this freedom of choice is a result of imperfection and limitation of our true freedom. A perfect nature has no need of choice, for it knows naturally what is good. Human nature (other than Christ’s), on the other hand, as a result of the Fall, are wounded and enhypostasized in human persons who need to make choices between options as they deliberate between what they might consider the good. in Our deliberation indicates the imperfection of fallen human nature and the loss of the divine likeness.
The gnomic will then is a mode of the employment of the natural will, a process involving several psychological elements – involving doubt, uncertainty, hesitation, and deliberation. The gnomic will is in this way related to human sin as the means by which sin comes about. As Maximus says, “the mode of willing, . . . in other words, to will to walk or to will not to walk . . . or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the rational principles in beings – is a mode of the use of the will . . . and as such it exists only in the person using it.”
Maximus’ Progressive Usage of the Term
According to Polycarp Sherwood’s account of Maximus’ historical use of γνώμη, there was a progression in how he used the term. His first use is on the Ep. 6 on the soul, in which Maximus uses it in the sense of disposition, διάθεσις. In the Centuries on Love, the term is used both as a synonym for opinion (δόξα), in the sense of disagreement, as well as the will to be conformed to God; as an example of the latter, he says that “God alone is good by nature, only the imitator of God is good through conformity of the will (γνώμη). As Sherwood writes, “in this sentence the whole of the spiritual life is placed in the imitation of God and the means for doing it are likewise indicated, conformity of our γνώμη with God.”
In the limited sense of the process of willing, and the accompanying deliberations, Maximus did use he terms προαίρεσις and γνώμη with reference to Jesus (e.g., in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer he had openly ascribed to Christ the possession of a gnomic will perfectly fixed on the Good)  as he even equates “prohairetic”(προαιρετικόν) and “gnomic” (γνωμικόν) will; but when he more clearly described such process in fallen human beings, γνώμη acquired a stricter sense that could not be used of Christ. Sherwood argues that as late as 642 Maximus said (in the Letter to Marinus the Deacon) that in Christ there is no opposition, even between the γνώμη and the natural will; and that it is only after 643 that γνώμη came to signify sinful mutability and rebellion against nature – and thereby its existence to be denied in Christ. In the Ambigua, the concept is used to indicate a self-determination which needs to be surpassed in order to attain the imitation of God in His fixity in the good.
By then, γνώμη came to be understood as a certain willing (θέλησις) by which one adheres to a perceived good, a disposition on the appetitive deliberation. It is an election (προαίρεσις), a judgment between options that implies uncertainty about the good; it includes ignorance of the thing sought and an uncertainty as to the results of the things chosen. When Maximus learned that some Monothelites were willing to concede two natural wills in Christ as long as they were united and controlled in one single will which they called ‘gnomic’ (γνωμικόν), he strictly denied that Christ has a gnomic will.
Maximus now defines gnomic willing is the deliberative inclining of the will beset by ignorance and doubt, an unnaturally-functioning will, which is pulled in opposite directions: “the gnomic wills of fallen human beings, being unable to choose the good freely, are tossed about by the choices that present themselves, under the sway of sin and the passions;” Only the incarnate Lord, whose human existence is liberated and divinized by the hypostatic presence of his divine being, is free of the oppressive distortion that Maximus now calls γνώμη. He says, “the holy fathers who spoke of the free choice proper to the humanity of Christ were referring to the appetitive power proper to nature by essence, in other words, our natural faculty of will or free choice, which exists in the Incarnate God by [His] appropriation [of human nature].”
St Maximus then argued that gnomic willing cannot exist in Christ in any way, for “the process of formulating an intention (γνώμη) as a necessary stage in coming to a decision and acting on it, is not part of the ‘mode of existence’ of a divine Person at all” because gnomic willing depends upon the loss of the knowledge of the Good, which is not possible in the divine Persons.
In this way, Jesus “does not deliberate in ignorance, doubt, and inner conflict about the good” like we do, but he makes righteous choices, and experiences hunger, thirst, and the fear of death, naturally and with perfect freedom, naturally and always choosing good over evil. Thus the “newly redefined γνώμη becomes a fixed term in later Greek Christian tradition for the sort of enslaved willing that Christ became human in order to liberate and divinize.”
As a result of Maximus’ later precise definitions, and his influence, this concept was eventually canonized:
The Dogmatic Statement of the Sixth Ecumenical Council distinguishes between “gnomic” and “natural will” and teaches that in Christ, there is the natural human will and not the gnomic one . . . as there are in Christ two natural energies and two natural wills of the two natures, united without division, or separation, or confusion, or change . . . the Council condemns as heresy the idea that there is in Christ a gnomic will, inasmuch as Christ as Logos was never forced to evaluate between two possible energies and to exercise his opinion and judgment as if he were not certain about the truth or his action . . . Having the essence of God as the theosis of his human nature, and God’s natural and eternal glory as natural glory of his human nature, which became, on account of the exchange of properties (communicatio idiomatum), i.e. the hypostatic union, source of the natural energies of God, he had a natural, created will as all human beings, but not a gnomic one.
Therefore, the general usage of the term and the concept became more exact after the Sixth Council; St. Maximus had been more ambiguous in his earlier writings, as he was developing new, technical vocabulary, and struggling to find adequate terms for that part of the will which concerns the person exclusively. Some have argued that he never achieved a final, unambiguous meaning for the terms.
Gnomic Will and the Trinity
Maximus rejected both a gnomic will attributed to Christ’s human nature, capable of choosing between opposite courses of action, as Nestorius had argued (which would make Him a mere man); and also a gnomic will in Christ as hypostatic, for “if free choice is a of the hypostasis of Christ [as the heterodox argued], then by virtue of this will, they cut Him off from the Father and Holy Spirit, making Him different [from them] in will and thought.” Following the Chalcedonian definition, Maximus required a certain asymmetry in the hypostatic union in Christ, since the divine hypostasis of the Son divinized the enhypostized human nature, and so a “natural” human will could be deified, not a gnomic will prone to vacillation.
The distinction between natural will and the hypostatic usage of will become important for Trinitarian theology. In his Disputation with Pyrrho, when Maximus argues that if Christ has two natures, then he must also have two natural wills and operations (energies), Pyrrhus objects, arguing that this would entail two willing subjects (two θέλοντας). Maximus then denies that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between natural wills and willing agents, since there are three Persons but only one will in the Trinity. Hypostases always exercise natural wills; and yet, having two natures in Christ does not entail that there are two persons; if a will introduced a person and each person had his own will, then there would be either one person in the Trinity, because of the one will, or three wills because of the three persons. If these wills were natural, we would have three Gods, whereas if they were ‘gnomic’, there would be an internal opposition in the Trinity.
The denial of the gnomic will to the three divine Hypostases, like the denial that the natural will is hypostatic, is seen in that “three hypostatic wills, or more accurately, three gnomic wills, would mean that there were three Gods.”
Modes of Willing and the Fall
Maximus denies that Christ has a gnomic will because, although being a function of the person, it is a will that deliberates and disagrees: The gnomic will operates in us because our wills are not entirely submissive and in conformity to the divine will. As such, it acts with reference to sin, and therefore Christ does not and could not have gnomic wills:
The Fathers . . . openly confessed the difference between two natural, but not gnomic, wills in Christ. They did not however say that there was any difference of gnomic wills in Christ, lest they proclaim him double minded and double-willed, and fighting against himself, so to speak, in the discord of his thoughts, and therefore double-personed. For they 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, which occurs by the introduction of an opposing quantity, thus making them numerically different, and shows the opposition of our gnomic will to God.
For Maximus, what is distinctive about being human is self-determination (autexousios kinesis), the “unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes,” as that is an expression of the image of God; as such, in the natural (unfallen) state, this self-determination is ordered toward God as nature finds its fulfillment in turning to Him as the source of their being. However, after the Fall, and the corruption of human nature, human beings no longer know what they want, and seek fulfillment in things other than God, being no longer aware of their true good. Other apparent goods now attract them and as a result, they need to deliberate and consider.
With respect to the relation between the natural disposition or appetite and the perceived goods, a parallel between Aristotle and Maximus becomes apparent. In his work On the Soul (III:10) Aristotle says, “the object of appetite always produces movement, but this may be either the real or the apparent to some real or assumed good;” and Maximus says, “So then gnome is nothing else than an act of willing in a particular way, in relation good.” Maximus calls this willing in accordance with an “opinion, or intention, or inclination . . . Such gnomic willing is our way or mode of willing, it is the only way in which we can express our natural will, but it is a frustrating and confusing business.” The gnomic will is the inclination away from the purpose of God for his creation, and therefore it can become radically separated from the natural will.
It is important to emphasize that Maximus did not deny gnomic will in Christ because he considered gnomic will to be inherent in the human hypostasis. On the contrary, the gnomic will (more exactly in his later writings) is a result of the Fall, and Christ came to heal our whole beings, including our fallen gnomic wills, so we may be oriented to will in conformity to God.
The Process of Willing and Deification
Maximus argues that the saint wills the good as a human hypostasis purified and divinized by Christ. In Christ, the will is rooted in nature, which is the natural disposition of the will, is deified by the divine will, and thus always in accord with it:
What deifies and what is deified are certainly two . . . What deifies and what is deified are then related, and if they are related, they are certainly brought together . . . The Saviour therefore possesses as a human being a natural will, which is shaped, but not opposed, by his divine will. For nothing that is natural can be opposed to God in any way, not even in inclination, for a personal division would appear, if it were natural, and the Creator would be to blame, for having made something that was at odds with itself by nature.
In the process of willing, Maximus outlines four distinctions: The willing subject, ὁ θέλων; the will itself (τὸ θέλημα, ἡ θέλησις, τὸ θέλειν) as a faculty, capacity, or activity that belongs to nature; the manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν), particularly in the moral sense; and the aim or object of one’s willing (τὸ θελητόν). For example, since two willing subjects can will the same object, and whereas the will is internal to the willer, and the object external, two willing subjects can will the same thing without sharing the same nature. Similarly, the manner in which one wills (τὸ πῶς θέλειν) in righteousness or sinfulness does not belong to the willing subject by nature alone, but to the particular way (τρόπος) in which each individual (ὑπόστασις) exercises it.
The ways in which we each make our choices and motivations, a process that starts with desire and is fulfilled in the deliberative process, can differ considerably, even though all humans share the same natural capacity of willing, and “whatever is rational by nature has rational desire as a natural capacity, which is called the ‘will’ of the noetic soul . . . when we will, we search and consider and deliberate and judge and are inclined toward and make a choice and move toward and use [things].”
It is our process of willing which Christ heals in the process of deification given to us by our mystical union with Him. St Maximus uses the concept of gnome to refer to universal fragmentation in creation which does not remain at the level of the individual. As a concept, “gnome is the principle which divides the one humanity. In general, gnome is associated with free will, opinion, deliberation, inclination, individual attitude, and so on. In its negative role, we could name it ‘the individualistic will’.” St Maximus gives this example,
Should anyone, who is wealthy enough to do so, ignore those in need, he clearly proves to have cast them away from himself and cast himself from God, since he has ignored the nature on account of his gnome, or rather, since he has ruined the good things which belong to his nature. This applies to those who deliberately (γνωμικώς) have preferred cruelty to charity and who have judged their kin and compatriot to be of less value than money and who yearning after gold have blocked the way from God to enter themselves.
Acting according to one’s gnome is unnatural and reveals the distortion and severance of one’s nature; as Maximus says: “evil by nature is scattering, unsteady, multiform and dividing. For since good unifies and holds together what has been divided, clearly then evil divides and corrupts what is united.” The human natural will is distinct from the divine, but does not oppose it; it is the gnomic will which opposes the divine will when it moves against the logos of nature, and which conforms to the divine will when we, will by our gnomic will whatever God wills. The gnomic will is a form of actualization of the human natural will that is marked by sinfulness. Sin, not nature, is the cause of our rebellion against God, but Christ was free from both sin and rebellion against God; the natural human will of Christ did not oppose the divine will because it was fully deified from the moment of the Incarnation and because it was moved and modelled by the divinity of the Logos. 
Quoting the philosopher Iris Murdoch in her work of moral philosophy (who asks, “are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive, we shall be sure of acting rightly?”) Andrew Louth concludes that “this is a good way of formulating the approach of Byzantine ascetic theology, not least the approach of Maximus. And Maximus’ ascetic theology is . . . closely bound up with his dogmatic theology.” The communion with Christ in the ascetic life is the remedy to cure the gnome, “the sharp cutting edge which cuts whatever it touches . . . Only if we rise above our ‘individualistic wills’, can we hope to achieve restoration and unification of humanity both at the personal and the universal level.”
The power of the will can determine our union or separation from God, as St Maximus says, “Just as evil is the privation of good and ignorance that of knowledge, so is nonbeing the privation of being . . . Privations of the former depend on the will of creatures; privation of the latter depends on the will of the Creator;” and, “Whether the rational and intelligent being has eternal being or nonbeing lies in the will of the one who created all good things. Whether it be good or bad by choice lies in the will of the creatures.” St Maximus believed that the affirmation of a human will in Christ was soteriologically vital since anything less would compromise the full humanity of the Word made flesh and thus render the incarnation a delusion unable to dissolve the divisions introduced by the transgression of Adam and restore human nature to its proper place in the cosmos.
The healing of the gnomic will is a fundamental aspect of Maximus’ understanding of the ascetic Christian life: “the purpose is to bring it back home, to unite it with nature. Uniting the gnome with nature brings about also the unification of humanity as a whole: it means giving up one’s individual desires for the benefit of one’s neighbour, in other words, loving them as oneself.” The sacraments also convey the grace of God to assist the ascetic life. Baptism, for example, implants a grace that will continue to unfold itself in the penitent and fruit-bearing life of the believer:
Baptism, he indicates, actually entails two dimensions, two births in one. On the one hand it implants, through the believer’s faith, the fully potential grace of adoption in the Spirit; on the other hand, it begins the actualization of that grace which must grow and continue through the believer’s active assimilation to God. The latter, he observes, involves the conversion of free choice (προαίρεσις) and of the gnomic will (γνώμη) as well as the acquisition of a knowledge based on and enriched by our spiritual experience (πείρα). Clearly for Maximus, the baptismal vocation reveals a synergy of the Holy Spirit and the will of the graced Christian, yet he strongly emphasizes the burden on the believer to discipline the will, to stabilize personal inclination, since the Spirit does not compel an unwilling gnome nor baptism nullify its freedom.
Uniting the gnomic will with the natural will, reaching the likeness of God and ultimately deification, are different aspects of one and the same reality.
For this reason anyone who by chaste thinking and noble sagacity has been able to put an end to this deviation from nature has shown mercy above all to himself, because he has rendered his gnome to be in one accord with nature and because he by gnome has advanced to God for the sake of nature.
Christ could thus be truly the savior of humanity because in Him there could never be any contradiction between natural will and gnomic will. Through the hypostatic union, His human will, precisely because it always conforms itself to the divine, also performs the “natural movement” of human nature. The doctrine of “deification” in Maximus is based upon the fundamental patristic presupposition that communion with God does not diminish or destroy humanity but makes it fully human.
The exercise of our power of choice makes a fundamental difference in our union with God. The Theotokos, as a paradigm, had freedom of will either to turn towards or away from God; she was not merely a passive receptacle of God’s favor, but at the Annunciation she is given a choice: and exercising her free will, a gnomic will which is capable of turning away as well as of accepting God’s decision, the Virgin responds, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.”  God’s work in the deification of human nature, by making us partakers of the divine nature, and our personal, hypostatic cooperation in choosing to redirect ourselves to God through his grace, work together (albeit asymmetrically, since we respond to God’s grace) for the healing of our will.
We have an active appropriation of freedom, which, though stunted by the Fall, has been renewed through baptism and comes to fruition in virtuous choices. We willingly surrender to the conforming of our inclinations and choices, by grace, to the “natural will” that is already predisposed toward God. The very purpose of the incarnation, says Maximus, is to draw us to Christ and his deifying love, so that the ultimate, transfigured state of the cosmos would be characterized by no “gnomic” variance within the universe of individual created beings.
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Beeley, Christopher A. “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus.” Papers Presented at the Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2015, 2017, pp. 167–179.
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Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, pp. 127–148.
Farrell, Joseph P., Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press South Canan, Pennsylvania 1989.
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Louth, Andrew. Maximus the Confessor. Routledge, 1996.
St Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Trans. Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken (New York: SVS Press, 2003).
St Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Classics of Christian Spirituality (New Jersey: George Berthold, 1985).
Meyendorff, John. “Christology in the Fifth Century,” Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (New York: SVS Press, 1987)
Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979)
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970
Romanides, John. An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics. University of Thessaloniki, 2004.
Sherwood, Polycarp. St Maximus the Confessor. Longmans, 1956
Törönen, Melchisedec. Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor. Oxford Univ Pr, 2007.
 Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 191.
 Ibid., 192
 Ibid., 193-196.
 Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered p.48. “Some recent philosophical theologians, believing that possession of two wills implies two persons rather than two natures in one person, argue that an abstract-nature view of Christ’ human nature is preferable to a concrete-nature view, despite the fact that it seems Monothelite . . . for instance, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, ch. 30.”
 Louth, 192; emphasis mine.
 Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 125.
 Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor, 123.
 St Maximus, Disputations with Pyrrhus, PG91:292D-293A.
 Sherwood, St Maximus the Confessor, 58-63.
 Ibid., 59.
 Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 36.
 Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity,” 46.
 Beeley, “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus,” 8.
 Ibid., 61.
 Beeley, 9.
 TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.
 Louth, 59
 Beeley, 10.
 Romanides, An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics, 71.
 Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. 121-122.
 TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.
 Beeley, 4, citing Disputatio cum Pyrrho, PG 91.288-353.
 Bathrellos, Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor, 84
 Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 144-145.
 St Maximus, Opusc. 26:277C
 Farrell, 102.
 Louth, 59.
 Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor, 113.
 This, of course, has generated questions of how exactly Christ can heal our gnomic wills which He does not have (which is beyond the scope of this paper).
 Beeley, 12.
 This is also followed by St John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.22.
 Beeley 5-6.
 Törönen, 181.
 Ep. 3 (PG 91), 409B.
 Qu. Thal. 16: 47–52 (CCSG 7), 107.
 Bathrellos, 85
 Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 54.
 Louth, 60.
 Törönen, 181.
 St Maximus, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, III. 29; IV. 13.
 Törönen, 182
 Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 40-41.
 Törönen, 182
 Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 38-39.
 Cunningham, Mary B. “‘All-Holy Infant’: Byzantine and Western Views on the Conception of the Virgin Mary.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1–2, 2006, p. 147.
 Blowers 46, citing Ad Thal. 6, Amb. 7 and Ep. 2.