Saint Maximos on the Divisions of Nature (via Louth)

For Maximus (the Confessor c. 580 – 662), while it is only as a result of Christ’s incarnation and paschal victory that it is at all possible for the consequences of the fall to be reversed, for each of us this victory must be assimilated personally, and that is achieved by the way of asceticism.

In one of his so-called Ambigua, meditations on difficulties in the works of (mostly) St Gregory the Theologian (329/30-389/90), Maximos discusses what later came to be called the “divisions of nature:”

– the division of created nature from the uncreated God;
– within creation, the division between visible and invisible;
– within the visible creation, that between heaven and earth;
– within the earthly creation, that between paradise and the inhabited world;
– within the inhabited world, that between male and female.

The purpose of humankind is to mediate between these divisions and to serve as a “bond of creation” forming a rich harmony from the diversity of nature.

This purpose was frustrated by the fall, and these divisions have become fault lines, exposing the alienation and unrelatedness of fallen humankind.

So, for instance, the division closest to us, that between the sexes, meant to provide the profoundest human experience of union, has become a potent cause of separation and alienation, of brokenness and pain.

Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, has overcome these divisions, and the way of asceticism enables us to make his victory our own.

Asceticism, then, has not just a personal goal, but a cosmic one; the healing it effects reaches not simply into the brokenness of our individual hearts and our personal relationships, but, in a way difficult to understand, out into the very cosmos itself.

– Andrew Louth, “”Beauty will save the world”: the formation of Byzantine spirituality.”
Theology Today 61, no. 1 (April 2004): 67-77.

Karl Rahner on Asceticism and Hearing the Word

If we love matter more than the spirit, we will adore it as the absolute, as our god. If we center the understanding of our nature around the vital urge, we will – to speak metaphysically with St. Paul – make our bellies into our god.

The truths that all people admit, those of mathematics for instance, are not demonstrated more certainly or more strictly than those of a metaphysics of God. But they are admitted by all only because they belong to our surface (that of numbers and space) and thus can never contradict the basic option contained in our understanding of being as determined by the way we freely love.

Metaphysical knowledge can be demonstrated in a stricter and more consequent way, because our innermost being always necessarily co-affirms it. But what is thus co-affirmed can become the object of explicit knowledge only to the extent that this knowledge fits in the structure of the love for which one has opted in one’s concrete conduct.

That fact that it is possible clearly to establish for a scoundrel a mathematical truth, but not a proof of God’s existence, demonstrates neither the strength of the former not the weakness of the latter. It only goes to show the extent to which a demonstration needs one’s personal commitment.

Ascetics may be understood in the sense of a readiness to criticize one’s order of love and to evaluate it in the light of the remainder of this order as it subsists in everybody and to organize it ever anew and more correctly in the growing light of true insight. In that sense it constitutes an intrinsic component of the philosophy of the real person. This truth has practically been totally overlooked in the philosophical activities of the later centuries, with results we know only too well.

Only one who, in spirit, lives in temples and cloisters, can be a philosopher.

To be human is to be that being who stands in free love before the God of a possible revelation, to listen for God’s word or God’s silence to the extent that we open up in free love for this message of the word or the silence of God.

We hear this possible message of the free God when we have not, on account of wrongly directed love, narrowed the absolute horizon of our openness for being as such, when we have not, in this way, made it impossible for the word of God to say what it might please God to say, to tell us under what guise God wishes to encounter us.

These considerations are but an attempt to understand philosophically what the Lord has said, “Whoever does the truth comes to the light.”

– Karl Rahner, Hearer of the Word, pp. 88-89.

Cut Off the Thought, and You Will Cut Off Everything – St. Theophan the Recluse on the Struggle with the Passions

(A summary of The Path to Salvation – A Summary of Spritual Transformation, Chapter 7.)

St. Theophan emphasizes the role of thoughts and ascetic effort in the battle against the passions, trusting in Christ’s grace and help, who strengthens us. The three main spheres in which the passions attack are the body, the soul (the mental part), and the sensual part. The sources are the world, the flesh, and the devil. The dominant form in which the enemy appears in us is thought.

The Fathers list the passionate attacks as flowing from thoughts, contemplation, delight in it, desire, passion, attraction, resolve, and then the deed. Sin begins with the resolve, and all preliminary acts can be defined as thought.

Since the passions generated by the three different sources do not have any particular characteristic related to their source, the battle should concentrate on the thought: cut off the thought, and you will cut off everything, he says.

From the heart, the center of life, sin penetrates the soul and body and eventually into all external relationships. Therefore, first of all, one must remodel his behavior, arrange his time with useful occupations, and bind the senses (especially eyes, hearing, and tongue). We must employ two guards: soberness (inwardly) and good discernment (outwardly).

There are different ways in which thoughts come into the mind (subtle, crude, sudden, long-lasting, etc.), and one needs to guard against them before they enter the heart, with discernment. There are bodily thoughts, soul-related thoughts, and spiritual thoughts.

The result of the warfare can be a mind free of thoughts, a heart free of passions, and a will free of tendencies. This is the state of passionless, achieved with an active warring against the passions – uprooting, extinguishing, and removing them by opposite activity.

Mental warfare alone casts passions out of the consciousness, but contrary actions are needed to crush the head of the sleeping serpent. The aim of the passions is the “love of pleasure, possessiveness and high-mindedness.” Or, to put it into Biblical language, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

Therefore, we must be strict with ourselves, cultivating the virtues of chastity, poverty, and obedience. A guide is necessary – if possible, an experienced elder, and at all times, Christ Himself. Sorrows are also allowed providentially by God for our benefit, and we must exercise faith to receive all He sends or allows. Ultimately, guarding the heart is the “science of soberness.”

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: Creation and Fall

God created all things by his free will, and all things exist outside of his nature. God became the Creator when he wished to become so; creation is not eternal, and there is no necessity in its coming into being. God transcends creation, and he is infinitely good, and so he gives rise to created things and created beings. The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are distinct from creation, since the former are eternal, proceeding from the very substance of God. Creation, on the other hand, is the work and result of the free will of God, and so it is not coeternal with God. When creation comes into being, nothing is added to the being of God. Creation is also contingent, since its existence is not necessary, and it depends entirely on the will of God. Any necessity existing in creation is whatever God imposes it to be.

God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and created man (Adam and then Eve) in His own image (with intellect), and in his likeness, which required growth in obedience. God created man in His own image, meaning that He gave him a portion of the power of the Word, i.e., rational power. God made man in his likeness for the purpose of incorruption. Creation is the work of the Trinity – the Father is the “creator of heaven and earth;” the Holy Spirit is the Lord, “the creator of life,” and the Son is the one “through whom all things were made.” The Father creates through the Son in the Holy Spirit. There are three Persons, but one nature, and therefore one will by which the three Persons freely choose to create out of love. The Father is the primordial cause of everything that has been made, the Son is the operative cause, and the Holy Spirit is the perfective cause.

Creation is effected by the Father through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. St Athanasius says that “The renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word Who created the world it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation: the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.”  God bestowed grace on man which other creatures lacked, namely, the impress of his own image, which St Athanasius defines as a share in the reasonable being of the very Word himself, becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even though in a limited degree. Man was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason he reflected the very Word himself. Adam and Eve were created with a perfect human nature, and having spent some time in his primordial state learning obedience to God, in order to grow in the knowledge of him, man choose to disobey God.

God creates as a free and personal God, bringing all things into existence by his will, in his wisdom – and the λογοι of all things are contained in this will and wisdom; in this way, the Christian tradition maintains an aspect of pagan thought, viz., our created universe is an image of eternal realities. For St Maximos the Confessor, when God creates man, he communicates to him four of his own properties: being, eternity, goodness and wisdom.[1] As the image of God, man is created as a microcosm, uniting, in his hypostatic existence, the intelligible and sensible aspects of creation.

Angels were created as spiritual beings, whereas animals and other non-human creatures are bodily creatures with the breath of life. Man, as spiritual and bodily, unites all in himself, and he is given the task to continue to effect that unity; as a Priest, he is to bring himself and all creation as a sacrificial offering to God. St Maximos the Confessor lists five polarities which overcome in the very being of man as a microcosm: God and creation, the intelligible and the sensible, heaven and earth, paradise and the world, man and woman. Adam ultimately failed to keep these polarities united, but the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, reunites them.

Man is not an autonomous being, but his true humanity is realized only in God – as such, he possesses divine qualities.[2] Man is created to grow in his participation in the divine life; this participation is a gift, but it is also a task to be accomplished by free human effort. This polarity between gift and task reflects the concepts of image and likeness, where the latter implies a dynamic progress in cooperation, or synergy, between the divine will and the human choice – as St Paul says, a progress from “glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), as man is always an open being. Man was created as a hylomorphic unit of body and soul, and death – the separation between the two – is unnatural because it was not part of creation (at least of man).

The Fathers speak of body and soul, but also of the nous, the aspect of the human spirit (or heart, or soul) that connects directly with God. It is the ability man possesses to transcend himself in order to participate in God – and it can be either clear, in the case of creation (and those who are being redeemed in ascetic effort) or dimmed, as it is after the Fall.

Man is created in communion with God, and it is in this communion, as part of his natural state, that man can have a direct knowledge and experience of God. It is this state of friendship with God which was man’s state before the Fall. However, evil entered the world through the will, and evil is not an essence, but a condition or a deprivation of the good. Diadochus of Photike says that “good exists while evil does not exist, or rather it exists only at the moment in which it is practiced.”[3]

The very desire to taste bodily of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the first sin, a disease of the will, i.e., the wrong exercise of free will. Man was naturally disposed to the knowledge and love of God, but in creation, sin originated in the spiritual world, in the will of fallen angels; it was through that alien persuasion that man assented to the suggestion and attraction of an illusory goal (which was the beginning of the gnomic will in man) and consented to disobedience and evil in his desire and choice. As St Maximos says, “evil is the irrational movement of natural powers toward something other than their proper goal, based on n erroneous judgment. By ‘goal’ I mean the Cause of beings, which all things naturally desire.”[4]

St Maximos the Confessor argues that the creation of visible things was called the tree of the knowledge of good an evil because of its spiritual power to nourish the mind, and the natural power to charm the senses – and yet also having the poewr to pervert the mind. In other words, when spiritually contemplated, creation offers the knowledge of the good, while when it is received bodily it offers the knowledge of evil, i.e., it becomes a “teacher of passions,” leading men to forget about divine things.[5]

As St Palamas says, our ancestors had the responsibility never to forget God, and to become accomplished in the habit of contemplation; but experience of things pleasant to the sense is of no profit to those who are still imperfect (as Adam and Eve were still growing in obedience in wisdom into the likeness of God). In their imperfection, they were easily displaced toward good or towards its opposite.[6]

It is for this reason that God temporarily forbade man to partake of it, thereby delaying his participation in it, so that, through participation in grace, man might first know God; and afterwards, by partaking of grace, “add impassibility and immutability to the immortality given to him by grace . . .  become God through divinization . . .  examine with God the creations of God, and acquire knowledge of them, not as man but as god.”[7] Had man shown himself obedient over a period of time, he would have begun to be habituated to the good, and it would have been more difficult for the the Fall to take place.

Choosing to desire and to disobey, the original unity of man was broken, and human nature was “cut up into myriad parts, and we who are of one and the same nature devour each other like wild animals.”[8] The direct experience of God man had in creation is lost through a dimmed nous, and replaced by participation in sensile realities; like irrational beasts, sustaining the physical nature of the body, and straying from the intelligible beauty and splendor of divine perfection, man worships the creature rather than the Creator. Instead of persevering in effort and choosing to persist and advance in his participation in things which were good but less sensible, man preferred rather to choose enjoyment sensible things more easily grasped.

Nature was created lush and beautiful, corresponding to the beauty of the intelligible realities, and so  it constituted a further temptation for man to enjoy what was at hand rather than what demanded to know and enjoy.  Looking towards heaven, he rejoiced at what he had seen, loving the Creator who granted him the enjoyment of eternal life, who rested upon him the pleasures of paradise. God gave him mastery like that of the angels, and an existence like that of the archangels, and made him a hearer of the heavenly voice; but he was soon satiated with everything and became somehow insolent in his repletion, preferring the delight appearing before the eyes of the flesh to intelligible beauty and placing a full belly above spiritual enjoyments.[9]

The Fall brings about self-love, which is the beginning of the passions, and pride, or arrogance, is the ultimate realization of self-love. In redemption, the whole purpose of the Christian life is the overcoming of self-love.

There are also moral and metaphysical implications of this, as self-love takes hold because we are no longer perceiving God in creation, and the sensible world becomes a veil to the things of God. As a consequence, we end up with a dialectic, with the two poles of self-love: pain and pleasure. Ignorance of self and ignorance of others renders our self in pieces, since in self-love we end up loving and worshipping our bodies, which are the things that remains visible to us. We become oriented to physical things and replace God with the world through the senses, which is the knowledge of evil.

In his love, God manifests himself through a body and then draws our attention to higher things. For this purpose the incorruptible and immaterial Word of God takes a body of our own kind, albeit pure. By offering unto death this body, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, He puts away death from all His peers. The Word made man in the beginning, and the same Word now redeems man.


[1] St Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, III.25.

[2] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, p. 139.

[3] Ascetic Treatise III, quoted in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 128.

[4] To Thalassius, : On Various Questions 1.2.12.

[5] To Thalassius, Introduction.

[6] One Hundred and Fifty Chapters 50.1-7, quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God vol. II. pg. 164.

[7] Ibid., 1.2.18

[8] Ibid., 1.2.15

[9] Staniloae, p. 165.

St Antony and His Encounters with Demons (from St. Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, c. 360AD)

In this paper I will analyze St. Athanasios’ Life of Saint Antony, particularly with regards to the element of demonology and spiritual warfare in the work. The Vita addresses many different topics and can be assessed from different perspectives – e.g., Antony’s physical journey as it mirrors the spiritual journey, a historical record of the development of monasticism, the problem of heretics and schismatics and how to deal with them, etc. I will not concentrate on these issues, but, after a brief historical background, I will address Antony’s encounter with the demons, and how that relates to his journey and to Scriptural data. Then, after addressing Antony’s most striking encounter with demons (involving physical injuries and a theodicy), I will analyze, from the text, (1) the demonic tactics and approaches, (2), the Christian response in faith and praxis, and (3) theological issues related to the topic as they are found in the Vita.

Historical Context

The monastic movement was in many ways a continuation of the tendencies already established in the Christian communities, where baptism was understood as entrance upon a life marked by renunciation of the present order of things and the entire dedication to the new order manifested in the resurrection of Christ. The martyrs were the ultimate model of dedication to Christ – who, like him, fought against the powers of evil and triumphed over them through death. Like Christ, they counted the world and its values as things to be spurned, even to the loss of their own lives, for the sake of the kingdom of God.

From early on, the churches had known their ascetics who sought to imitate Christ and his martyrs, seeking the fullness of Christian life in the full renunciation of the attachments of this world. They renounced family, the pursuit and possessions of riches, committed to sexual continence, fasting, prayer and the study of Scripture. Many consciously appropriated the old Hellenistic ideal of the philosophical life, detached from worldly distractions, and directed towards contemplation and the habituation into virtue.

Although giving continuation to such tendencies present in Christian asceticism, the monastic movement also developed in its own particular way. While the former had been present more in the urban centers (since it was there that Christianity initially grew), the monastic movement was mostly a phenomenon seen among the peasantry, who initially sought retreat in the deserts of northern Africa for their ascetic practices. The monastic movement included initially a search for solitude; some sought such isolation primarily for their spiritual development, others for other ulterior motives, such as evasion from debt, tax collectors, family, etc.

This isolation created problems for the ecclesiastical structure of the Church, since those who sought the desert were not, at least in practice, under the supervision and authority of their bishops. This became even more problematic when the populace would revere them and seek them out in the desert for their spiritual guidance and advice. This problem was resolved only as the leaders of the churches themselves became sponsors, organizers, and eventually products of this movement.

One of the earliest and most influential monastic leaders was Antony of Egypt (251-356). Athanasius wrote his biography, Life of Antony, and the bishop’s fame and authority provided the base for the wide dissemination of this work and the consequent spread of Antony’s fame. One of the most influential writings of Western literature, the Confessions of St Augustine, has its central turning point when he is led to repentance and conversion after hearing his friends’ reports of St Antony – his life, asceticism, resolve, and holiness.

Antony was a native of Egypt, of Coptic ancestry and language, born about 250. At about 20, he walked into a church and heard the words of Mat. 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He was seized by those words, sold his parental inheritance, and took up the life of a hermit at the edge of his village, under the tutelage of an older ascetic. He eventually moved farther into the desert and spent twenty years in the solitude of a ruined fort near the coast of the Red Sea.

The struggle of the martyrs, in his particular experience, took the form of fighting against the demonic powers in their very dwelling place, the desert. He was able to overcome them through constant work, fasting, vigil, prayer, and the recitation of the Scriptures. When St Antony emerged from his retreat, he was not only perceived as a hero, but also a holy man, one who represented human nature restored to its proper glory. He healed the sick, reconciled enemies, and by word and deed taught the wisdom he had learned. As others started gathering around him, a loose community of hermits appeared under his tutelage. At the opening of the fourth century, other such leaders and communities appeared in North Africa. By the time Antony died in 356, there were probably thousands of ascetics who had sought life in the desert.

With the growth in numbers of those seeking the ascetic life, a new communal form of monastic practice appeared in Upper (southern) Egypt under the leadership and inspiration of Pachomius (ca. 290-346). He organized a monastic community in Tabbenisi in around 320, where members lived a strictly common life (κοινός βίος, Latin “cenobite”) following a common schedule of work, prayer, and meditation. In time, there developed a number of such monastic centers which supported themselves by their work and were directed to mutual assistance and encouragement. Antony’s eremitical monasticism and Pachomius’ coenobitism coexisted and spread.

In some places the ascetic practice was developed into more radical forms. In Syria, Simeon the Elder (390-459) spent thirty years of his life living at the top of a pillar, where he prayed and preached to the pilgrims who came to visit him. Others followed this practice, and they were objects of popular reverence and devotion. Simeon himself was appealed to by the imperial authorities for assistance in settling the controversies surrounding the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

In Cappadocia and Pontus, and later in Asia Minor generally, coenobitism became the rule. Basil of Caesarea promoted such monastic communities as means to develop the “philosophical life” and the love of God and of neighbor. Monks were to practice charity toward their neighbors as well as to submit to the leader of the community, called the abbot. Basil also encouraged monasteries to situate themselves on the edges of the cities, so as to be able to offer instruction, example, medical services, hospitality, and care for the populace and the needy.

The growth of these communities eventually required the development of written rules to regulate monastic life. Monasticism also received its intellectual framework from the tradition of Platonist theology which stemmed from Clement of Alexandria and Origen, emphasizing the soul’s progress from the beginning of its life in Christ at baptism to the fruition of that life in contemplative knowledge of God. Evagrius Ponticus (346-399) was instrumental in establishing this framework in Egypt.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony was translated into Latin and became influential in the West. Martin of Tours (ca. 335-397), who had been abbot of a community, became the bishop of Tours and brought his way of life with him there. In Gaul, John Cassian (ca. 360-435), a disciple of Evagrius Ponticus, founded a community in Marseilles. Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, works designed to acquaint Western ascetics with the Egyptian tradition of monasticism, became foundational documents for Western monasticism. Other communities developed in Spain, Italy, and other areas, and by the fifth and sixth centuries there was a multiplication of formal rules for individual monasteries (Jerome translated Pachomius’ rule into Latin).

Beginning of Struggle

St. Athanasios writes, “for simply to remember Antony is a great profit and assistance for me also . . .  you will want to emulate his purpose, for Antony’s way of life provide monks with sufficient picture for ascetic practice.”[1] Athanasios describes Antony as an Egyptian by heritage, of good family possessing considerable wealth, even Christians who reared him in Faith. In infancy he was brought up with his parents, and from childhood to his early adult life, Antony preferred the home life, being obedient to his parents, after whose death he was left alone with one little sister when he was about eighteen or twenty, and on him the care both of home and sister rested. Athanasios relates that it within six months after the death of his parents, as he went into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior, sold their possessions and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what great a hope was laid up for them in heaven.

Pondering over these things he entered the church when the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you will have a treasure in heaven.” Antony, St. Athanasios says, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers, reserving a little for his sister’s sake. Later, having committed his sister to a convent to be brought up, he devoted himself “outside his house” (perhaps in the outskirts of the village) to discipline and training. In the adjacent village, there was an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him. Antony worked manually, having heard, “he who is idle let him not eat,” and he was constant in prayer.

Antony is described as one being loved by all and learning from the virtues he observed in others, such as freedom from anger, lovingkindness, study, endurance, fasting, sleeping on the ground, meekness, piety towards Christ and mutual love. At this point, St Athanasios introduces the early conflicts with the demons, which would last for the rest of Antony’s life. Athanasios writes, “The devil, who despises and envies good, could not bear seeing such a purpose in a youth.”[2] First, he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxation of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue.

It is of notice that the beginning of this spiritual conflict, which would take on many different forms later, begins here in the realm primarily of the mind; Demons were not yet attacking Antony visibly or even physically, as they did later, but the contest began to take place in the realm of this thoughts and feelings, the “intellectual part of the soul,” a more subtle way in which it is not easy do discern whether the events of one’s mental and emotional life are simply the natural movements of a fallen nature and will, or whether they are related in some way to outside spiritual activity. Perhaps Antony would describe this demonic attack later in hindsight, after his more explicit experiences, and that is what St Athanasios is relating here.

Antony fortified his resolve by prayer and fasting – a very early example of a wholistic asceticism, where physical training functions as medicine for intellectual and emotional temptations – and he considered the threat of the fire of judgment. Also, St Athanasios mentions that “working with Antony as the Lord . . . It is not I, but the grace of God which is in me.” Here Athanasios provides (as he does throughout the vita) a theological context for the story. Antony struggled in asceticism and overcame the attacks of the demons, but not by his own strength alone, but by the grace of God. It is the presence and favor of God that allows Antony to struggle in the first place, and ultimately to succeed.

Unsuccessful in his intellectual warfare, the “dragon” begins a less subtle and more visual approach; he “altered himself” and appeared as a “black boy” to Antony, revealing himself as “the spirit of fornication.” It is unclear why the question of a particular race would be featured in the visible manifestation of the devil, particularly as this is taken place in Egypt, where black boys would have been very common; Athanasios does not expound on that either. At any rate, Antony uses the physical blackness to evoke a metaphorical interpretation in his response: “You then, are much to be despised, for you are black of mind, and like a powerless child . . .  The Lord is my helper, and I shall look upon my enemies.” This invocation of Scripture (Psalm 22 (23)) features another central concept in Antony’s struggle against spiritual forces, in imitation of Christ who used Scripture in answer to Satan’s temptations in the desert. Antony quotes a passage and skips a few verses to emphasize the part that mentions “look upon,” so as to present a pointed Scriptural basis for the particular event (looking at the enemy who manifested itself visually). Once again, Athanasios provides the theological explanation, also with a quotation from Scripture, saying that “this was Antony’s first struggle against the devil, or rather this victory was the Savior’s work in Antony, ‘Who condemned sin in the flesh that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit’” (Romans 8:3-4).[3]

Athanasios therefore continues to provide a more systematized theological explanation of the devil and his tactics, as well as Antony’s solution. He says that (1) Antony learned from the Scriptures that the devices of the devil are many, that (2) the demon loves sin, and that (3) the body plays a central role in the struggle, but not exclusively; therefore, Antony zealously continued the discipline, reckoning that though the devil had not been able to deceive his heart by bodily pleasure, he would endeavor to ensnare him by other means; and so he planned to accustom himself to a severer mode of life.

Athanasios lists some of the key elements of his ascetic struggle: He kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; he ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink was only water only. He ate no meat and drank no wine. He slept on a mat sometimes, but most of the time on the bare ground. He would not anoint himself with oil but sought to weaken the body in order to strengthen the soul, saying “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Most importantly, Antony had a long-term plan for his ascetic struggle, since he considered that progress in virtue and retirement from the world ought not to be measured by time, but by desire and fixity of purpose. In this way he did not dwell in the past, but day by day, as if he were at the beginning of his discipline, mindful of passages such as “ Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before” (Phil. 3:14) and the life of Elijah (e.g., “the Lord lives before whose presence I stand today,” 1 Kings 18:15); from that prophet, says Athanasios, Antony sought to see his own life as in a mirror.[4]

Intense Warfare

We see now in the narrative a new, escalating level of demonic attack opposing Antony. What had started as mental and emotional suggestions, and later progressed to visual attacks (whether they were visions or appearances), now becomes physical attacks inflicted by the spiritual beings. This in itself seems counter intuitive, because it raises the question of how non-physical, spiritual beings can manipulate the physical world so as to cause physical pain. Since the time of Antony, this kind of attack is related in the lives of many saints,[5] but the early account here does not present a philosophical explanation of how the process works, but merely that it happened.

As part of his increasingly strict training and self-discipline, Antony departed for the tombs which at a distance from the village. He asked one of his friends to bring him bread at certain intervals of several days and to depart and shut the door on Antony, who remained within alone. Athanasios explains that the enemy was afraid that Antony’s influence would grow in the desert, so he came one night with a multitude of demons and cut Antony with stripes so severely that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. The torture was so severe, the account explains, that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused Antony such torment.

However, once again God intervenes; Athanasios calls it the “providence of God” that the next day his friend came bringing him the loaves, opened the door and saw him lying on the ground as though dead. He lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village; the villagers thought Antony was dead, but at about midnight he came to himself and arose. Antony then proceeded to ask his friend to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.[6] The attack had been physical, severe, and left Antony half dead. We can infer that the narrative is presented with the implied wonder that this would evoke; and yet, there is no explicit reaction as to how this could happen, if this was unheard of before, or anything of the sort. Rather, the narrative brings its focus to the providential care of God (leaving the question open as to how or why He permitted this, to be answered later) and, most of all, to Antony’s astonishing resolve and purpose, as he, before having time to recover, asks to be brought back into the nightmare he had just barely escaped. Antony was taken back but he could no longer stand up because of his injuries, so he prayed as he laid down, shouting to the demon, Here I am, I do not flee from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). The enemy, marveling at his resolve, called his minions and told them how Antony could not be won either by lust or blows, so another tactic was needed.

At this point in the narrative, as with many others, one gets a sense that the particular details, reasons, conversations, explanations, vindications, theological context of events receive a certain hand from Athanasios, who puts the story in its proper context as a paradigm for monasticism, general spiritual life, ascetic struggle, spiritual warfare, God’s grace, etc. This does not detract from the truth of the Vita (and certainly it does not diminish the dynamism of the narrative), but rather augment it. The demons then go back to the attack in the tombs, so in the night they shook the place as in an earthquake, and the spiritual beings seemed to enter through the four walls, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.

This is yet another feature and escalation of the demonic activity: they now appear as hideous creatures and/or wild beasts ready to devour, tormenting by shock and awe, fear, and terror. The place, Athanasios tells, was filled with (the forms of) lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach; the apparitions were dreadful. Antony felt the pain of his wounds, but he decided to mock them, saying that if there had been any power in them, it would have sufficed for only one of them to come and destroy him. He challenged them to attack and consummate, or else, if they were unable, to leave him alone.

God’s Appearance and Theodicy

Once again, Athanasios reminds the reader that the Lord was no forgetful of Antony’s wrestling but was at hand to help him. Looking up, Antony saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again intact. Here we have perhaps the most memorable conversation in the vita, which is familiar to many people who have heard of St Antony even if they have had not the chance to read the account. Recognizing God’s entering on the stage, so to speak, in the climax of a hellish battle of movie-like proportions, and causing the demons and the pain to instantly disappear, Antony candidly asks the God whom he served, “Where were you? Why did not come at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ God spoke to him and said, I was here, Antony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.[7] Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that it seemed as though he had more power in his body now than formerly. He was then about thirty-five years old.

This is reminiscent of a curious passage in the book of Job, as found only in the Septuagint. For readers of the Masoretic text in its many translations, it is notorious that God never gave Job an answer to his perplexing questions. Rather, God answered by changing Job in a theophanic encounter, while asking Job the rhetorical questions of “where were you, Job, when I created?” In other words, who can scrutinize the purposes of God, or, in the words of St Paul, “who are you, man, to answer back to God? . . . Does not the potter have power over the clay?” (Rom. 9:20-21). However, in the text of the Septuagint, which was mostly used by the early Church, and certainly by St Athanasios, there is a passage in Job that does not appear in the Masoretic text, and which does provide a similar answer to Job as to what we read here in the interaction between Antony and God. In chapter 40, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” However, in the LXX, the text is different; it says, “Do not set aside my judgment: and do you think that I have dealt with you in any other way, other than that you might be manifested to be righteous?”[8]

As God told Job that He allowed his suffering so that he could be vindicated as a righteous man, as an example to generations to come, of faith, perseverance, struggle, and the grace of God, so too, here, God tells Antony the same thing: “I waited to watch your struggle, and since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.” The encounter with the demons not only vindicates Antony’s faith, courage, strength, and perseverance – and the attending grace of God – but it also serves a model for those who will take upon a life of discipline, devotion, and askesis. Athanasios says that the inroad and manifestation of the evil spirits is filled with confusion, with sounds and cries which cause fear in the heart, tumult and confusion of thought, dejection, hatred towards them who live a life of discipline, indifference, grief, remembrance of kinsfolk and fear of death, desire of evil things, disregard of virtue and unsettled habits. However, says Athanasios, in one’s perseverance and through the grace of God, one’s fear is immediately taken away and in place of it comes joy unspeakable, cheerfulness, courage, renewed strength, calmness of thought, boldness and love toward God. Therefore, one ought to be of good courage and say one’s prayers to God.[9]

Now the narrative takes on a new chapter, as it includes a new “exodus” in Antony’s life. He had left home for the outskirts of the village; later he left for the desert, and the tombs; now he leaves for the mountain. On his way, the enemy puts real gold on the path before him, but Antony is not swayed. Eventually he finds a deserted fortress beyond the river and remains there, alone, receiving loaves of bread twice a year. Later he would go to what he called the “inner mountain.”

Tactics

There are several ways in which the demons whom Antony encountered are described as to the manner they engaged in spiritual warfare and harassment. For example, even the people outside of Antony’s cell could hear crowds within clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying, “Go from what is ours. What do you want in the desert? You cannot withstand our attack.” As Antony explained to his friends, the demons make their seeming onslaughts against those who are cowardly. Sign yourselves therefore with the cross, he exhorted them, and depart boldly, and let these make sport for themselves.[10]

When they see all Christians, and monks especially, making progress, they attack by temptation and place hindrances like evil thoughts. They attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. They pretend to prophesy and foretell the future, and to show themselves as having immense height and breadth.[11] They are deceptive and liars, and that which appears in them is no true light, but they are rather the preludes and likenesses of the fire prepared for them, who attempt to terrify men with those flames in which they themselves will be burned. They appear, but in a moment disappear again, hurting none of the faithful, but bringing with them the likeness of that fire which is about to receive themselves.[12]

They wake up the faithful to prayers, and at times they assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, but they do this that they may carry off the simple to despair; and that they may say the discipline is useless, and make men loathe the solitary life as a trouble and burden.[13] They confuse, they confound and deceive the simple. They laugh madly, and whistle; but if no heed is paid to them they weep and lament.[14] Their appearance is filled with confusion, with sounds, trying to arise fear in the heart, tumult and confusion of thought, dejection, hatred towards them who live a life of discipline, indifference, grief, remembrance of family (particularly for monks) and fear of death, and desire of evil things, with disregard of virtue and unsettled habits.[15]

Antony relates that often they would beat him with stripes, and he repeated again and again, “Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ,” and at this they started beating one another.[16] Once demons possessed an animal and appeared in a hybrid way. He saw a beast like a man to the thighs but having legs and feet like those of a donkey. Antony crossed himself and said, “If you are sent against me, behold I am here.” But the beast together with his evil spirits fled, so that, through his speed, he fell and died. And the death of the beast was the fall of the demons.[17]

Christian Response

There are also several places in which Antony describes the appropriate response to the attacks and tactics described above. We ought to fear God only, despise the demons, and not be afraid of them. The more they attack, the more we intensify our discipline against them, for a good life and faith in God is a great weapon, for they fear the fasting, sleeplessness, prayers, meekness, quietness, contempt of money and vainglory, humility, love of the poor, alms, freedom from anger, and most of all, piety towards Christ.[18] To keep the faith and observe the commandments delivers from judgment and from demons.[19]

We ought never to be fearful or despondent, but always remember that the Lord is with us, and so they cannot hurt us. They come to us in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us. If they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over anyone, they are turned backwards.[20]

Ascetic struggle also features prominently not only for one’s progress but also for a defense against demons. Antony taught that a man ought to give all his time to his soul rather than his body (while caring for bodily necessities) to seek its profit, that it might not be dragged down by the pleasures of the body, but, on the contrary, the body might be in subjection to the soul.[21] To this end, he gave very specific advice. Keep yourselves from filthy thoughts and fleshly pleasures, he says, pray continually; avoid vain-glory sing psalms before sleep and on awaking, hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture, be mindful of the works of the saints. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, try your own selves and prove your own selves, daily taking note of your actions. If you have sinned, cease from it. If we record our thoughts as though we are about to tell them to one another, we shall the more easily keep ourselves free from vile thoughts through shame lest they should be known.[22]

Antony counselled his monks (and all of us) not to grow idle in their labors, nor to become faint in their training, but to live as though dying daily. Guard the soul from foul thoughts, eagerly to imitate the Saints, and to have nothing to do with schismatics, for you know their wicked and profane character (here we see perhaps the hand of Athanasios clarifying theological matters). Observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and of which you have often been put in mind by me, he said in the counsels he gave before his death.[23]

Theological Issues

            The first and most obvious theological aspect to be seen in the Vita is the description of the origin of demons, particularly as this is a very early writing, which indicates the state of a more systematic approach to spiritual doctrine. Already in the 4th century, Antony (no doubt with editorial help of the great Athanasios) has a doctrine of creation which explains the existence of demons without compromising the goodness of God in his will to create. There are no traces of, say, Origenism, Gnosticism, Manicheism (which is explicitly rejected as heretical in the text), or any other dualistic system. Antony states that the demons have not been created as they are now, for God made nothing evil, but even they have been made good. Having fallen, however, from the heavenly wisdom, they were cast to the earth. They deceived the Greeks with their displays, while out of envy of us Christians they move all things in their desire to hinder us from entry into the heavens; in order that we should not ascend there.

Here we see not only an account of the angelic fall in which such creatures, by their envy and free will, were cast out from the presence of God to inhabit the created realm, but also their hatred of God being exacted also in their hatred for men, as the creatures of God. They deceived the pagans, they seek to deceive Christians, and ultimately, out of envy, to keep all from communion with God in heaven. Spiritual discernment, he says, will allow one to distinguish their traits and even judge between more or less evil demons, and to what kind of specialization, so to speak, they each devote themselves (Antony clearly understood them as individuals with particular assignments or preferences), and how each of them can be overturned and expelled.[24]

Another remarkable theological feature is the early understanding that the coming of the Lord had cosmic consequences not limited to the redemption of mankind. Antony says that since the Lord visited earth the enemy is fallen, and his powers weakened. He can do nothing, and yet, still like a tyrant, he did not bear his fall quietly, but threatened, though his threats were words only. They are immaterial, not being restricted with bodies like we have (although they are able to affect the physical realm and even injure one physically, as we have seen). Because they have no bodies, we cannot escape them by hiding of locking them outside of the door. They haunt all places, they are in the air, ever seeking evil and ready to injure. They cannot repent, they cannot be amended; nothing is so much sought after by them as wounding them that love virtue and fear God. But since they have no power to effect anything, they do nothing but threaten.[25]

They have no foreknowledge of things that have not yet occurred, for God is the only one who “knows all things before their birth.” They can only report what they see, even if unhindered by space or travel; in other words, they can tell things they have seen in the past or in the present to which one does not have access, and thereby lie, seeking to manipulate events and people.[26] They are also able to possess people, as seen in the Gospels. Antony relates that one time, Martinian, a military officer, came and asked concerning his daughter afflicted with an evil spirit. Antony had decided to be in seclusion, but when Martinian continued for a long while knocking at the door, and asking him to come out and pray to God for his child, Antony looked out from above and said, “Man, why are you calling me? I also am a man as you. If you believe on Christ whom I serve, go, and according as you believe, pray to God, and it shall come to pass.”  Martinian departed, believing, and calling upon Christ, and he received his daughter cleansed from the devil.[27]

Finally, the Vita includes descriptions of the demons as powers of the air who desire to attack and hinder souls who are departing from this life. A full discussion of the issue of “Toll Houses,” as put into contemporary theological discourse (particularly in Orthodoxy) is far beyond the scope of this paper. Here I seek only to present Antony’s words in the section that describes elements related to the topic.

Antony describes how once he was caught up in the spirit, standing and seeing himself, outside of the body; and he was led in the air by certain beings, angels in the context. Demons stood in the air and wished to hinder him from passing through, but when the angels opposed them, they demanded whether he was not accountable to them. The angels responded, “The Lord hath wiped out the sins from his birth, but from the time he became a monk, and devoted himself to God, it is permitted you to make a reckoning.” When they accused him and could not convict him, his way was free and unhindered.[28] Theologically it is evident that (1) the demons opposed his ascent in the spiritual realm as they did in the earthly realm; (2) there is a difference (Sacramental? Mystical?) between his life before becoming a monk and after, with regards to his accountability for sins; and (3) this is given in a vision, so Antony could relate to others during his life, as a teaching and warning.

He describes how he was astonished when he saw the opponents against whom we wrestle, and what efforts are needed to pass through the air because they fight and to attempt to hinder those who pass through. He grounds this theologically by citing St. Paul, who speaks of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), against whom we ought to “take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:11).

In another vision, “one from above” called Antony and commanded him to look up. As he did so, he “beheld one standing and reaching to the clouds, tall, hideous, and fearful, and others ascending as though they were winged. And the figure stretched forth his hands, and some of those who were ascending were stayed by him, while others flew above, and having escaped heavenward, were borne aloft free from care. At such, therefore, the giant gnashed his teeth, but rejoiced over those who fell back.”[29] Antony understood that this was the “passing of souls,” and that the tall being who stood was the enemy who envies the faithful. And those whom he caught and stopped from passing through are accountable to him, while those whom he was unable to hold as they passed upwards had not been subservient to him. Again, theologically, the implication is that the demonic forces were able to hinder those who served them. There is no discussion of guilt being weighed over against good deeds, but a more wholistic view in which how this life is lived will carry implications after death, when the spiritual curtain will be removed, so to speak. The result of these accounts, naturally, is an exhortation for purity of life” “having seen this . . .  he struggled the more daily to advance towards those things which were above.” Antony believed that relating these accounts would be beneficial for his monks, that they might learn that discipline bears good fruit.

Conclusion

            St. Athanasios’ account of the Life of St. Antony is rich with theological, ethical, and monastic teaching. The theological content itself encompasses many areas, especially as intended to counteract heretics and their teachings (noticeably as it has an Athanasian flavor to it). This paper outlined one of these areas, viz., demonology, which, while not the first account in early Christianity, is still very early, and therefore tremendously influential, especially as it relates to practical issues of faith, trust in God, the providence of God, theodicy, and the connection between the ethical and the spiritual life of all Christians.


[1] St. Athanasios, The Life and Affairs of Holy Father Anthony (Written and dispatched to the monks abroad), Introduction.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Most recently, in the memoirs of St Joseph the Hesychast.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Μὴ ἀποποιοῦ μου τὸ κρίμα. οἴει δέ με ἄλλως σοι κεχρηματικέναι ἢ ἵνα ἀναφανῇς δίκαιος; (Job 40:8)

[9] Ibid., 36.

[10] Ibid., 13

[11] Ibid., 23

[12] Ibid, 24.

[13] Ibid., 25

[14] Ibid., 26

[15] Ibid., 36

[16] Ibid., 40

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Ibid., 30.

[19] Ibid., 33.

[20] Ibid., 42.

[21] Ibid., 45.

[22] Ibid., 55.

[23] Ibid., 89.

[24] Ibid., 22.

[25] Ibid., 28.

[26] Ibid., 31.

[27] Ibid., 48.

[28] Ibid., 65.

[29] Ibid., 66.

Δύο Κόρες του Θεού – Luke 8:41-56 – A Short Sermon Delivered in Greek and English

Αγαπητοί εν Χριστώ αδελφοί, το σημερινό ευαγγελικό ανάγνωσμα αναφέρεται σε δύο θυγατέρες του Θεού, μία μικρή και μία ενήλικη. Έπειτα από δώδεκα χρόνια ταλαιπωρίας και οι δύο συναντούν τον Ιησού Χριστό, ο οποίος, ως Κύριος της ζωής, τους αγγίζει, τους θεραπεύει και τους επαναφέρει στη ζωή.

Ενώπιον του μεγαλύτερου πόνου που μπορεί να βιώσει ένας γονιός – τον θάνατο του ίδιου του παιδιού του – ο Ιάειρος ξεπερνάει τον φόβο του και αναζητά τη συμπόνια και τη δύναμη του Χριστού. Έρχεται στον Ιησού, πέφτει στα πόδια Του και Τον παρακαλεί για βοήθεια.

Η ελπίδα του για τη θεραπεία της δωδεκάχρονης μοναχοκόρης του («η μονογενής» λέει το ιερό κείμενο) ήταν μεγαλύτερη από τον φόβο του. Πίστευε ότι ο Ιησούς μπορούσε να σώσει την κόρη του και την πίστη του αυτή επιβράβευσε ο Υιός του Θεού.

Στο ανάγνωσμα όμως αναφέρεται και μια άλλη κόρη  του Θεού, που δώδεκα χρόνια βασανιζόταν από ροή αίματος. Αρρώστησε δηλαδή, όταν γεννήθηκε η κόρη του Ιαείρου. Και αυτήν δεν μπορούσαν να τη θεραπεύσουν οι γιατροί: “ἰατροῖς προσαναλώσασα ὅλον τὸν βίον οὐκ ἴσχυσεν ἀπ’ οὐδενὸς θεραπευθῆναι.” Είχε ξοδέψει όλα της τα χρήματα, αλλά γιατρειά δεν είδε.

Όπως ο Ιάειρος, έτσι και αυτή η γυναίκα απλώνει με πίστη το χέρι της, και αγγίζει την άκρη του ιματίου του Χριστού. Όλα τα άλλα απέτυχαν. Μόνο Αυτός μένει ως τελευταία ελπίδα της.

Ο Κύριος βλέπει τη μεγάλη της πίστη και ανταποκρίνεται με συμπόνοια. «Ποιος Με άγγιξε;», ρωτάει. Ρωτάει όχι γιατί δε γνωρίζει—όλα τα γνωρίζει ως Παντοδύναμος Θεός—, αλλά για να εξάρει την πίστη της και να την προβάλει σαν πρότυπο μίμησης για όλους εμάς.

«Θυγάτηρ, ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέ σε, πορεύου εἰς εἰρήνην». «Κόρη μου, η πίστη σου σε έσωσε, πήγαινε και έχε ειρήνη στην ψυχή σου».

Την ίδια στιγμή που ο Ιησούς θεραπεύει τη γυναίκα, έρχονται αγγελιοφόροι και φέρνουν τα θλιβερά μαντάτα ότι η κόρη του Ιάειρου είναι πλέον νεκρή. Αλλά ο Ιάειρος έχει εξίσου δυνατή πίστη όπως και η πρώην αιμορροούσα και επιμένει να έρθει ο Ιησούς μαζί του. Και ο Ιησούς επιβραβεύει και τη δική του πίστη: «Μη φοβάστε, μόνο πιστέψτε και θα σωθεί.» Και ο Κύριος ανασταίνει το νεκρό κορίτσι.

Τελικά, το σημερινό ανάγνωσμα – δύο κόρες, δύο ασθένειες, δύο θεραπείες – μας διδάσκει ότι η ισχυρή πίστη φέρνει σωτηρία και ζωή. «Μόνο πιστέψτε» και ο Χριστός θα φέρει τη σωτηρία.

Η πίστη είναι το αντίθετο του φόβου, αδελφοί. «Μη φοβάστε», προτρέπει όλους μας σήμερα ο Κύριος. Γιατί με την Ανάστασή Του ο θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας πατάει, νικά, εξουδετερώνει τον θανάτο.

Το δωδεκάχρονο κορίτσι έγινε τύπος Χριστού, αφού, όπως και Αυτός, αναστήθηκε από τους νεκρούς. Η δε αιμορροούσα έγινε τύπος ολόκληρης της ανθρωπότητας, που αιμορραγεί μέχρι θανάτου εξαιτίας της πτώσης των Πρωτοπλάστων, αλλά και της καθημερινής πτώσης καθενός μας ανεξαιρέτως, αλλά τελικά αποκαθίσταται η υγεία και η ζωή της από τον Κύριο.

Αγαπητοί αδελφοί, και οι δύο γυναίκες σώθηκαν με την πίστη: η μία με τη δική της πίστη, η άλλη με τις προσευχές και την πίστη του πατέρα της. Κι εμείς είμαστε γιοι και κόρες του Χριστού. Κι εμείς λοιπόν με την πίστη και με τη βοήθεια και τις πρεσβείες των Αγίων σωζόμαστε, όταν αναζητούμε τον Κύριο. Αρκεί να μη φοβηθούμε, αλλά να εμπιστευθούμε τον Αναστάντα εκ νεκρών, που πάντα μας αγαπά, πάντα απαντά στην κραυγή μας για βοήθεια, ακόμη και στις πιο σκοτεινές στιγμές μας. Αυτώ η δόξα και το κράτος εις τους αιώνας των αιώνων. Αμήν.


This week’s Gospel reading tells of two daughters, two children of God, one a child, one an adult. After 12 years in their respective lives, they both encounter Jesus Who, as the Christ, the Author and Restorer of life, touches them, heals them, and brings them back to life. The first is a twelve-year-old girl, whose father, Jairus, is described as “a ruler of the synagogue.” This means that he was not a priest but the administrator of the local synagogue. Jairus was a Jew who was not yet a follower of Jesus. Undoubtedly, he had heard of “Jesus of Nazareth, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all . . . for God was with Him.” (Acts 10:38).

The Jewish authorities were rejecting Jesus, and they were Jairus’ superiors and employers; and yet, in the midst of the greatest pain a parent can encounter – the death of one’s own child – Jairus overcomes fear and seeks the compassion and power of Christ, not afraid of the repercussions this might have had. Jairus comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him for help. The hope of having his daughter – his only daughter (μονογενής) – healed was greater than any fear, and worth any potential losses in his life and career. Jairus’ pain gave the occasion for great faith in the time of desperation; he believed Jesus could save his daughter, and his faith was rewarded by the Son of God. Jesus recognizes his faith and has compassion – so he responds to the call and starts making his way to Jairus’ home.

On the other side of this narrative diptych, or rather, as a sub narrative encompassed by Jairus and his daughter, there is another daughter of God. Like Jairus’ young daughter, this older daughter remains nameless; and yet, when Jairus’ daughter was born, this woman became ill in a way that made her ceremonially unclean, according to Jewish law, unable to worship in the temple; and so she began, to slowly die. Neither the child or the woman could be saved by the physicians. We are told that “for twelve years she had spent all her living upon physicians and could not be healed by anyone.”

As Jairus did not consider the repercussions and took a leap of faith to reach out to Jesus, so this woman does the same. She boldly takes a leap of faith and reaches out to Jesus, touching the hem of his garment because of her great faith in time of desperation.

The Lord notices great faith, and again he always responds in a personal and compassionate way. He stops to attend to the one who placed all her faith and hope in him. “Who was it that touched me?” he says. He asked not because he did not know, but to honor her faith. All denied, and Peter said, Master, everyone is touching you, there is a crowd pressing on you as you walk. But Jesus said, Someone special, with great faith, touched me. This was not a mere rubbing of shoulders with the multitude. This was someone who believed in Him for eternal life, and who placed all her hopes in him: and God the Son instantaneously heals her the minute she touches him, because of her faith. “I perceive that power has gone forth from me,” he says; and when the embarrassed woman realized God was calling her, she came trembling, and fell down before him.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She was his daughter, and Christ saved her through her faith. St Ephraim the Syrian says, “Faith is the means by which anyone now may enter the family of Jesus, and peace is the crown of victory she receives because of her faith.” As an ancient hymn of the Church said, “Then a woman, weak and timid, touched his sacred garment’s hem: instant was his blessed healing, and the pallor left her cheek, as the hemorrhage she had suffered through so many years was stopped.”

At the same time Jesus heals the woman, messengers came to Jairus with the word that the his daughter had died. Jairus was there with Jesus, he had witnessed the healing; but the messengers said to him, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” And yet the same faith that the woman had to “trouble the Teacher” in the face of hopelessness, Jairus also had, and he wanted Jesus to still go with him. “Do not fear,” Jesus said, “only believe, and she shall be well.” Literally, “only believe and she will be saved”(καὶ σωθήσεται).

The entire passage – both daughters, both sicknesses, both resurrections – hinged upon this: unwavering faith resulting in new life. Only believe, and salvation will come from Christ. And this faith is the opposite of fear; “Do not fear,” Jesus said. The Lord said that many times to his beloved ones. When the disciples were in a storm, afraid they were going to sink, they saw Jesus walking on water towards them in the middle of the night, and they thought it was a ghost. immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Mat 14:26). When Jesus was transfigured before his disciples, they fell on the floor with their faces down, and Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Mat. 17:7). When Jesus appeared to his disciples, risen from the dead, they took hold of His feet and worshiped him, and he said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to my brethren (Mat 28:9-10).

As the woman with the flow of blood, out of faith, had overcome her fear and touched his garment, so now Jesus tells Jairus not to fear. Therefore, with faith, Jairus accompanied Jesus to the house, and the Lord came to the child. “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” In Christ, death is defeated, as he destroyed death by death. In Christ, death is like momentary sleeping; as Jesus later said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” (John 11:11). As St Paul said, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Cor 15:51).” As the woman had touched Jesus, now Jesus touches the child: “taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise!” As with Lazarus, to whom Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!” so the Word of God, who is the Son of God, speaks, and life is created out of nothing, as well as out of death. Immediately her spirit returned, and she rose (ἀνέστη) from the dead.

The child became a type of Christ, risen from the dead, as the woman with the flow of blood became also a type of humanity, bleeding unto death after the Fall, and restored to health and life by the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Both daughters were saved by faith – one, by her own faith, the other, by the prayers and faith of others –  in that case, her father. We are also the sons and daughters of Christ, who, by our faith, and by the faith and prayers of the Saints in heaven and on earth, the Church, are touched by the Lord and restored unto life. All it takes is for us not to be afraid, but only believe in Him who rose from the dead. The Lord loves us and always responds to our cry for help, even as we face the darkest of situations.

On the Foundations and Principles of Orthodox Theology: Scripture and Tradition.

In the context of American Christianity, often the question arises as to what constitutes the foundation and authority for doctrine and life. Is it Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura)? Is it Scripture as interpreted by a confession, or by Calvin, Luther, pastor Bob, or the Spirit moving in me? Or something else? How does one understand the words of God and what constitutes a regulatory principle of Christian doctrine and practice? What is source and the task of theology?

Scripture and Tradition

The source of Orthodox theology is Scripture interpreted in the milieu of Tradition, and its task is the preservation and proclamation of the Truth revealed by God. For the early theologians, God was the ultimate author of revelation, but he had committed it to his apostles who were eyewitnesses of the incarnate Word, and they passed it to the Church. Hence, when asked where the authentic faith was to be found, their answer was clear and unequivocal – it is contained two overlapping authorities: the Church’s continuous tradition of teaching, and Scripture. By tradition the fathers usually meant doctrine which the Lord or his apostles committed to the Church, irrespective of whether it was handed down orally or in documents.

St Athanasius, for example, refers to tradition as that teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which the Lord bestowed, the apostles proclaimed, and the fathers safeguarded: “Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith . . . which the Lord gave (έδωκεν), the Apostles preached (έκήρυξαν), and the Fathers preserved (έφύλαξαν). Upon this the Church is founded” (Ad Serap., I. 28). The passage is highly characteristic of St. Athanasius. The verb έδωκεν (he gave) is related to the term παράδοσις (a giving over, handing down), and so the single foundation (θεμέλιον) of the Church is composed of the tradition – παράδοσις – from Christ, the διδασκαλία (teaching) by the Apostles, and πίστις (faith) of the Catholic Church.

The early Church did not regard the apostolic testimony as confined to written documents. The testimony stood prior to the documents, and the latter were revered because they enshrined the former. The faith of the Church included the common body of facts and doctrines, the Church’s preaching, or proclamation, the liturgical actions, and the catechetical instruction. Especially the Liturgy and the catechesis were viewed as the “pattern of teaching” (Rom. 6:17). For the early Church, Scripture was part of tradition, and Scripture and the rest of tradition were complementary authorities –  media different in form but coincident in content. As St Irenaeus argues, tradition is that which is handed down by the blessed Apostles and preserved by the succession of witnesses (more specifically, presbyters).

The Vincentian Rule

In the middle of the fifth century Vincent of Lerins expressed a universally applicable rule for how to distinguish the truths and Faith of the Church from the heretical falsehoods. Vincent argued that both the authority of the divine law (the Scriptures) and the tradition of the Church were the sources of doctrine. This is not a two-source model, as he considered the Scriptures to be sufficient in themselves; but since Scripture is susceptible to a variety of interpretations, it is necessary to use the “norm of ecclesiastical and Catholic opinion,” to be identified as “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ad omnibus creditum est).” As Vincent argued,

We shall conform to the principle of universality if we confess as alone true the faith professed by the entire Church throughout the world; to that of antiquity if we deviate in no particular from the tenets manifestly shared by our godly predecessors and the fathers; and equally to that of consent if, relying on former ages, we make our own the definitions and opinions of all, of at any rate the majority of, bishops and elders.[1]

It is noticeable that, while a useful concise rule can be used (everywhere, always and by all), this needs several qualifications. First, it is often difficult to define those terms individually. As the very existence of heretics made clear, there was often divergence of opinion, so what truths can be said to be believed “everywhere”? Would that be a majority of places, and if so only an overwhelming majority, or a simple majority? The same can be asked about “always” and “by all.” Vincent suggests that the decisions of a general council are to be preferred, and in the absence of such, one should collate and examine the views of representative Fathers, especially those in different times and places who have remained faithful to the Church. Councils can perfect and polish traditional formulae and concepts, to express “old doctrines in new terms,” allowing for an organic development analogous to the growth of a human body from infancy to age, provided this does not result in the least alteration to the original significance of the doctrine.[2]

In this way, tradition is Scripture rightly understood, to the end that there will be, as St Paul says, no divisions in the Church, that its members be of the same mind (Παρακαλῶ . . . ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε πάντες καὶ μὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑμῖν σχίσματα ἦτε δὲ κατηρτισμένοι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νοῒ καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ γνώμῃ, 1 Cor 1:10). This mind of the Church is contingent upon the work of the Holy Spirit who lives and works in and through the Body of Christ, in its individual members.

Scripture Rightly Understood

For Florovsky, tradition is Scripture rightly understood. This of course requires exegesis, and since Scripture was written in the Church, by the Church, and according to the ecclesiastical faith and practice which already belonged to the Church before the Scriptures were written, it was only in the Church, within the community of right faith, that Scripture could be adequately understood and correctly interpreted. Scripture has a quality that bears a certain analogy to the hypostatic union. As the divine and human natures are united (without confusion, without change, without division, without separation) in the person of Christ, so in a similar way, the human and the divine elements of Scripture are joined.

The Holy Spirit inspires the writing of the record and witness of the work of Christ (and the Trinity), and the inspired human beings write those documents in their own words, from their own perspectives and styles, from their own experiences (primary theology) and research (secondary theology). This becomes part of the fabric of the Church “of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church then is the community, animated by the Holy Spirit, the living God, and thus becomes the pillar and ground of truth, rooted in the apostolic preaching and teaching witnessed by the Scriptures. This is received and lived by faith, as Florovsky says, a faith that was not an arbitrary and subjective insight of individuals, but rooted in the Apostolic kerygma, authenticated by it, and embodied in the rule of faith received and professed in baptism.

In this way, Scripture is, in a sense, born in the Church, canonized by the Church, and interpreted by the Church. This of course requires application of the Vincentian rule in order to define the Church, and the apostolic tradition to regulate the entire organic development. Heretics were in the Church and yet, as St Irenaeus illustrates, distorting the meaning of the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, by re-arranging the stones, as it were, originally made as a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels, on another pattern, so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. The Apostolic Tradition of faith was the indispensable guide in the understanding of Scripture and the ultimate authority of right interpretation. The Church was not an external authority, judging over the Scriptures as if the latter had an independent existence, but rather the keeper and guardian of that Divine truth which was stored and deposited in the Scriptures.[3]

Horizontal and Vertical

For Lossky, tradition involves the meeting of the horizontal line of the historical reality and the vertical line of the work of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit makes the historical reality relevant, as it receives the divine work and manifestation. Tradition consists of both the visible and verbal transmission of teachings, rules, institutions, and rites (the “horizontal” line, in the sense of the human synergy) and an invisible and actual communication of grace and of sanctification (the “vertical” line); he argues that is necessary to distinguish what is transmitted (the oral and written traditions) and the unique mode of transmission, i.e., the Holy Spirit. Yet again, in an analogy with a Chalcedonian rule, these two principles cannot be separated, as every transmission of a truth of faith implies a communication of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Lossky argues that Church alone possesses the Tradition, i.e., the knowledge in the Holy Spirit of the Incarnate Word. The Church, after having established the canon of Scripture, preserves it in the Tradition in a dynamic way empowered and purified by the Holy Spirit. As St Basil makes the distinction between dogma (the silent safeguarding of the mysteries, or sacramental life of the Church) and kerygma (proclamation which includes doctrinal definitions, the official prescription of an observance, a canonical act, or public prayers of the Church) the revealed truth is not a dead letter but a living Word: it can be attained only in the Church, through initiation by the sacraments into the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints (Col 1:26). The horizontal line of the traditions received from the mouth of the Lord and transmitted by the apostles and their successors crosses with the vertical, with Tradition— the communication of the Holy Spirit.[4]

The Work of the Spirit

For Fr Dumitru Staniloae, even though supernatural revelation, in a sense, came to its close in Christ (since he fulfilled the plan of redemption and deification), this revelation is still active with a dynamic character, as Christ communicates it through the Holy Spirit in dialogue with the Church. This does not mean that new or further revelations are given, but there is “a prophetic dynamism, a kind of prophecy in motion, the action of revelation to the time of its final goal is entailed in that prophetic dynamism which finds expression in and through the Church.” The task of Orthodox theology, then, through the Holy Spirit to put into effect the revelation fulfilled in Christ, to make Christ effective as the embodiment of integral revelation.[5]

Holy Scripture is a witness to the work of the Spirit that was produced in those who listened to Christ’s words or to the words the Apostles spoke about Christ after his ascension into heaven, based on his sayings and deeds, and in this way the Spirit makes the words of Scripture real in the community of the Church. Tradition gives a permanent reality to the dialogue of the Church with Christ. Scripture is divinely inspired, and so the unchanged meanings received from the Apostles must be preserved but also deepened; Scripture requires a tradition preserving and making use in its continuous effectiveness of that integral revelation fulfilled in Christ. Scripture has an intrinsic dynamism, and the task of Orthodox theology is to make its content known, applied, and lived in an ever-greater depth.

Tradition is the body of ecclesiastical experience and its transmission, as the apostolic explanation of the content of Scripture includes the application of the content of Scripture and the transmission of its content into the lives of human beings through the founding of the Church. As Staniloae argues, “tradition has two meanings: a) the totality of the various ways by which Christ passes over into the reality of human lives under the form of the Church and all his works of sanctification and preaching; b) the transmission of these ways from generation to generation.”[6] As Andrew Louth has argued, Orthodox theology in the approach of Fr Staniloae is centered in the tradition of the most influential Fathers of the Church who interpreted Scripture in the mind of the Church and whose teachings were received by the Church as normative, as a consensus patrum:

If one looks at the Greek Fathers who are central to Fr. Dumitru — Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril, Denys, Maximos, Symeon, and Gregory Palamas — a familiar pattern emerges: for these are the Fathers central to the “Neo-Patristic” synthesis that was so dear to Fr. Georges Florovsky . . .  the same Fathers to whom Vladimir Lossky had constant recourse . . . This places Fr. Dumitru and his understanding of Orthodox theology among some of the Orthodox theologians whose names are most familiar in the West. He is not marginal, he is not even simply a bridge between East and West, or between Russian and Greek Orthodoxy: he is at the center of what many would regard as the liveliest and most original movement in modern Orthodox thought.  . . .  His real sources are Orthodox. This means, predominantly the Fathers . . . But it also includes the lived liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church.[7]

Scripture as Tradition

The sources of Orthodox theology, then, in one sense, are the Scriptures and tradition; in a more exact sense, Scripture as part of the Tradition that births it, encompasses it, canonizes it, interprets it, and transmits it in the life, faith, and praxis of the Church as the Body of Christ in whom the Holy Spirit indwells and rests. As Meyendorff argues, “Scripture, while complete in itself, presupposes Tradition, not as an addition, but as the milieu in which it becomes understandable and meaningful.”[8] This nature and task of Orthodox theology is this continuous preservation and transmission of the deposited faith operated and guided by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. As Florovsky states, the whole conception of the Church (e.g., in St. Irenaeus) was at once “charismatic” and “institutional,” as the tradition was not just a transmission of inherited doctrines, in a “Judaic manner,” but rather the continuous life in the truth as Scriptures becomes alive.[9]


[1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 50.

[2] Ibid., 50-51.

[3] Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church.” In vol. 1 of The Collected Works: Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1987, p. 77.

[4] Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions.” In In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood: SVS Press, 1985, pp. 145-147

[5] Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), 34-37.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Andrew Louth, “The Orthodox Dogmatic Theology of Dumitru Staniloae” in   (Oxford: The Center for Romanian Studies, 2002), pp. 53-55.

[8] John Meyendorff, Living Tradition – Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Press, 1978), p. 16.

[9] Florovsky, pp. 78-80.

St Gregory of Nyssa on the Beatitudes

Who among those present is a disciple of the Word, and sufficiently so to ascend with Him from the low ground-from superficial and ignoble thoughts to the spiritual mountain of sublime contemplation?

This mountain leaves behind all shadows-cast by the rising hills of wickedness; on the contrary, it is lit up on all sides by the rays of the true light, and from its summit all things that remain invisible to those imprisoned in the cave may be seen in the pure air of truth

Now the Word of God Himself, who calls blessed those who have ascended with Him, specifies the nature and number of the things that are contemplated from this height.

He points them out, as it were, with His finger; here the Kingdom of Heaven, there the inheritance of the earth that is above, then mercy, justice, consolation, kinship with the God of all creation, and the fruit of persecution, that is, to become a friend of God.

And whatever other things there may be visible, the Word points them out with His finger from the summit of the mountain, so that hope may contemplate them from the height of the peak.

Therefore if a man has attached himself to the heaviness of matter, it is impossible for him to become light. Since, then, we ought to tend to the things above, let us become poor in the things that drag us down, so that we may sojourn in the upper regions.

Therefore we must first know what really is the true good, and then, with this in mind, consider human nature. For only thus can we attain to the mourning that is called blessed.

If a man has been able to perceive the true good, and then realizes the poverty of human nature, he will certainly think the soul in distress. For he will consider that the present life is spent in sorrow, because it is removed from this true good.

Therefore I would say that the Word does not call blessed the sorrow itself, but rather the realization of the good that produces this state of sorrow, which is due to the fact that the object of the desire is absent from our life. After this we have to ask what is this light which, in this lIfe, does not shine into this cave of our human nature.

Man, who once lived in the delights of Paradise, has been transplanted into this unhealthy and wearisome place, where his life, once accustomed to impassibility, became instead subject to passion and corruption. Thus the creature that had once been without a master and in full possession of his free will, is now dominated by so many great evils that we can hardly count all our tyrants.

For as soon as any of our innate passions is allowed to dominate, it becomes the master of the person it has enslaved. It occupies the castle of the soul like a tyrant, and afflicts the obedient lord through his own subjects. It uses our thoughts as its servants who carry out what seems good to it.

For the whole array of passions, wrath and fear, cowardice and impudence, depression as well as pleasure, hatred, strife and merciless cruelty, envy as well as flattery, brutality together with brooding over injuries-they all are so many despotic masters who make the soul a slave in theIr territory as If It was a prisoner of war.

If one were to add to this also the physical sufferings that are insolubly bound up with our nature.

We can see something similar in the animals. Their natural situation is indeed pitiable; for what is more to be regretted than the lack of reason? Yet they have no sense of theIr misfortune; on the contrary, their life, too, affords a certain pleasure.

The horse prances, the bull kicks up dust, and the boar makes his bristles stand up. The puppies play and the calves leap; in short, in every animal there are certain signs by which they show pleasure.

Yet, if they knew anything of the gift of reason, they would not spend their dumb and miserable life in pleasure.

It is the same with those men who do not know the good things of which our nature has been deprived, and who therefore spend their present life in the pursuit of pleasure.

It follows from this that people who enjoy the present things do not look for better ones. But if a man does not seek, he will not find what comes only to those who seek. For this reason the Word calls mourning blessed.

Since then there are two spheres of life, and life is considered in a double way, according to the diversity of these two spheres, thus there is also a twofold joy, the one belonging to this life, the other to the life that is presented to our hope.

Therefore we should think it blessed to reserve our share of joy for the truly good things in eternal life, and to fulfil the duty of sorrow in this short and transitory life. We should not think it a loss to be deprived of some of the pleasant things of this life, but rather to lose the better things for the sake of enjoying the others.

If therefore it is blissful to have the unending and everlasting joy in eternity, human nature is bound also to taste of the opposite. Then it will no longer be difficult to see the meaning of the passage, why those who mourn now are blessed, because they shall be comforted in the world without end.

-St Gregory of Nyssa, Sermons on the Beatitudes (1-3, excerpts)

The Concept of the Gnomic Will in St Maximus the Confessor – A Brief Investigation

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 it is a mode (tropos, a manner, or way) of willing apropos to fallen humanity, in that it involves deliberation, either based on ignorance or sinful inclination.

Because it is a tropos, it is associated with the individual, or hypostasis; as opposed to logos, a definition or part of nature. 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] Without Christ’s natural will, He would not have been fully human, 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).[4] 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.[5]

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, is wounded and human persons need to make choices between options as they deliberate between what they might consider the good. Our deliberation indicates the imperfection of fallen human nature and the loss of the divine likeness.[6]

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.[7]  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.”[8]

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.[9] 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.”[10]

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) [11] as he even equates “prohairetic”(προαιρετικόν) and “gnomic” (γνωμικόν) will;[12] but when he more clearly described such process in fallen human beings, γνώμη acquired a stricter sense that could not be used of Christ.[13] 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.[14] 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 as 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.[15] 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].”[16]

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”[17] 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.”[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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 (gnomic will is never a part of nature, even in fallen human beings, because it is not a faculty but a mode. If it were a faculty, then the principle “what is not assumed is not healed” would come into play, and Maximus’ Christology would have to admit such in Christ); 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.”[21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.”[24]

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.[25]

For Maximus, what is distinctive about being human is self-determination (autexousios kinesis), the “unhindered willing of a rational soul towards whatever it wishes,”[26] 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.”[27] 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.”[28] 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.[29]

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.[31] 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.[32]

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).[33] 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.[34]

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. He heals our nature (and our natural will, e.g. freeing it from fear of death), and thereby frees us to heal our process of willing, with His grace. 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’.”[35] 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.[36]

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.”[37] 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 cooperate with God’s grace. 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. [38]

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?”)[39] 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.”[40] 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.”[41]

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.”[42] 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.”[43] 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.[44]

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.[45]

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.[46]

The exercise of our exousia, our self-determination, 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 between two goods (remaining chaste or becoming a mother): and she chose both. Exercising her free 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.” [47] 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 synergistically, 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.[48]

Works Cited

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

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.

Blowers, Paul. “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity.”

Crisp, Oliver D. Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2007.

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.

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1976)

Louth, Andrew. Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007

Louth, Andrew. St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. Oxford University Press, 2002.

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.


[1] Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 191.

[2] Ibid., 192

[3] Ibid., 193-196.

[4] 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.”

[5] Louth, 192; emphasis mine.

[6] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 125.

[7] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor, 123.

[8] St Maximus, Disputations with Pyrrhus, PG91:292D-293A.

[9] Sherwood, St Maximus the Confessor, 58-63.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 36.

[12] Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity,” 46.

[13] Beeley, “Natural and Gnomic Willing in Maximus Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus,” 8.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Beeley, 9.

[16] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[17] Louth, 59

[18] Beeley, 10.

[19] Romanides, An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics, 71.

[20] Farrell, Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. 121-122.

[21] TheoPol l, PG 91:29B-C.

[22] Beeley, 4, citing Disputatio cum Pyrrho, PG 91.288-353.

[23] Bathrellos, Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor, 84

[24] Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 144-145.

[25] Ibid.,196

[26] St Maximus, Opusc. 26:277C

[27] Farrell, 102.

[28] Louth, 59.

[29] Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St Maximus the Confessor, 113.

[31] Beeley, 12.

[32] Louth,193

[33] This is also followed by St John of Damascus in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.22.

[34] Beeley 5-6.

[35] Törönen, 181.

[36] Ep. 3 (PG 91), 409B.

[37] Qu. Thal. 16: 47–52 (CCSG 7), 107.

[38] Bathrellos, 85

[39] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 54.

[40] Louth, 60.

[41] Törönen, 181.

[42] St Maximus, Four Hundred Chapters on Love, III. 29; IV. 13.

[43] Törönen, 182

[44] Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 40-41.

[45] Törönen, 182

[46] Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 38-39.

[47] 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.

[48] Blowers 46, citing Ad Thal. 6, Amb. 7 and Ep. 2.

The Second Adam and the New Eve

Adam was tempted in the garden, and was sent to the wilderness

Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, and later entered the garden

Adam failed to guard the garden

Jesus sent Satan away from his presence

Adam failed to keep the word and the commandments

Jesus defeated Satan through the word

Adam caused the garden, the temple, to be defiled

Jesus cleansed the temple

Adam said, my will, not God’s be done

Jesus said, not my will, but your will be done

Adam and Israel demanded the food that they craved

Jesus, being hungry, told Satan, man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God

Israel was called out of Egypt and failed

Jesus was called out of Egypt and succeeded

Jesus is the New Israel

Jesus is the New Temple

Mary is the New Eve

The cosmos is the New Promised Land