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

Georges Florovsky on the Death and Resurrection of Christ: our Nature and our Will.

Death is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26), a catastrophe for man. In what way, then, can it be considered good?

The mystery of the Christian faith is life through death. In the Incarnation, the Christ assumes human nature and human life, and by his death assumes human death and heals it. By the voluntary act of his will, he bears the sin of the world, taking it up, and by his death he fulfills the purpose of the Incarnation.

The Cross is the symbol of Love Divine, the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. The death of our Lord was the victory over death and mortality. In our death, human nature becomes unstable in the separation of body and its vital power, the soul; it is only saved from this corruption by the power of the indwelling Word. Our deep tragedy, our catastrophe, is turned into an eucatastrophe (I am using here a C. S. Lewis term, not Florovsky), a means of healing, that we may be refashioned again through resurrection, sound, free from passions, pure and without and admixture of evil – a healing of soul and body.

In this way, death is not an evil, but a benefit, a healing process, a medicine, a fiery tempering, as the resurrection of Christ accomplishes our resurrection, to be fulfilled in the general quickening when the last enemy shall be abolished, death. It will be a restoration of the union of man with God. Death is vanquished not by the Incarnation, but by the voluntary death of the Incarnate Life. He passed through death and quickened death itself, abolished its power; the grave now becomes a life-giving source of our resurrection, a bed of hope for believers.

Redemption is not just the forgiveness of sins, it is not just man’s reconciliation with God. Redemption is the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. And the ultimate victory is wrought, not by sufferings or endurance, but by death and resurrection. We enter here into the ontological depth of human existence.

The death of Our Lord was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, nor merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice.”

If Christ’s death on the Cross saves us, then how do we understand the role of human will in our salvation?

The Resurrection is accomplished by Christ in order to redeem and resurrect human nature, not only His but of all human beings. In His death and resurrection our nature is healed, but we must make a distinction between the healing of the nature and the healing of the will.

Nature is healed with a certain compulsion because of the objective and final act of Christ in his omnipotent and invincible grace; but the will of mankind can only by healed in its free conversion, by a free and spontaneous response of love and adoration. The will of man can only be healed in freedom, in obedience of love, in self-consecration and self-dedication.

The Kingdom of Heaven and union with Christ are given to those who desire, who love and long for them. The Resurrection is common to all, but blessedness will be given only to some, who are in the path of renunciation, of mortification, of self-sacrifice and self-oblation: one has to die in order to live in Christ, personally and freely associating himself with Him. In faith and love, one takes up his cross and follows him in love.

This is the ontological law of spiritual existence; repentance is required, and only to the faithful believer the general resurrection is the resurrection unto life. To others, it will be a resurrection to judgment, a tragedy of human freedom, because by the obstinate will hardened against God, the fire of God’s love will become a burning fire of judgment.

All beings will be restored to the integrity of their nature, but the apprehension of the Good will belong to those whose will is determined towards God. The work of Christ raises our nature, but the work of the Spirit does not produce an undesired resolve, but transforms a chosen purpose, through synergy an cooperation, into theosis. This is also supported by the baptismal grace, transforming the will (which is the seat of sin), which is also strengthened by the medicine of immortality of the Body and Blood of Christ.

– Georges Florovsky, Redemption

Dumitru Staniloae on the Christology of the Synods

Father Staniloae states that the Church has made two fundamental affirmations concerning Christology with reference to our salvation: first, that Christ is fully God and fully man; second, that Christ is one single being. The Church has used person or hypostasis to refer to this unity, and natures to refer to the godhead and manhood united in Christ.

 In the Formula of Union of 433, it was stated that there was a “union of two natures,” “one Christ, one Son, one Lord,” a “union without confusion,” and that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God. In the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the first draft of the Definition had the words ἐκ δύο φύσεων, whereas the final draft had the words ἐν δύο φύσεσιν.

The Old Eastern Churches did not accept the formula “in two natures” (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν); therefore, subsequently the Church sought to explain such expression. One explanation equated ἐν δύο φύσεσιν with ἐκ δύο φύσεων as equivalent. The final text says that ἕνα και τον αὐτον Χριστόν, Υἱόν, Κύριον, Μονογενῆ, ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως γνωριζόμενον· – that is to say, γνωριζόμενον refers to Christ, Son, Lord, Only Begotten. Christ is known/recognized in two natures, not the two natures themselves known/recognized as existing in themselves.

The oneness of the Person is recognized. Consequently, Christ is a Person in two natures and of two natures, while the natures do not lose their distinction. Similarly, the Council of 553 (5th), in its 13th anathema, states that if anyone uses ἐκ δύο φύσεων to mean a confusion of natures and one ousia, and not according to the original understanding of the Fathers, i.e., as referring to the hypostatic union, let him be anathema.

 Similarly, Leontius of Byzantium’s doctrine of enhypostasis stated that it is the divine hypostasis of the Logos who gives existence to the human nature, which He takes from the Blessed Virgin. This emphasizes the oneness of the Person as the ontological basis of the humanhood. Justinian adopted this and agreed with Severus of Antioch in affirming that in Christ’s single hypostasis the two natures are not two realities but exist only in word and thought, i.e., thought alone conceives one nature separate from the other or from the oneness of the Person.

In reality, the two natures form one hypostatic whole – and yet the godhead and the manhood persist without confusion in Christ. Non-Chalcedonians (NC) objected to using numbers as it implies division; but the NC affirmed one nature, confusing the two natures. They answer that they speak of a “composite nature,” which the Orthodox rejected because this would imply two mutually dependent natures to form the unity; the NC also deny this, affirming three distinct oneness: of the godhead, of the manhood, and of the unit formed. Fr. Staniloae affirms that this ultimate puts the Orthodox and the NC in converging Christologies.

The 6th Ecumenical Council affirmed that the human nature continues in its human ontological status, and that it is the vehicle for manifesting the divine hypostasis. It affirmed two wills and two activities in Christ’s two natures, as they are dynamic. The human activities are penetrated by the godhead of his hypostasis, and the divine activities have a subject with a human nature. Thus God moves manhood to act and it reveals the godhead; Christ suffered voluntarily as God, and worked miracles humanly. This is done in one hypostasis.

The implication, as the 6th Ecumenical Council stated, is that there are two natural wills and activities and two unopposed wills (the human following the divine) and the body is the Word’s as the body’s nature will is the Words – i.e., the whole man, body, soul, will, activities, is deified by being united in One Person, one divine hypostasis, the Logos, with the divine essence. Christ is fully God and fully man, and one single being. Deified human will (and the whole human being) is not abolished but preserved, each sharing each other’s activities.

Fr Staniloae argues that the 5th, 6th, and 7th Ecumenical Councils brought the Orthodox and the NC nearer, in a common witness, moving in converging lines.


Vladimir Lossky on the Economy of the Son – Incarnation, Death and Resurrection for our Salvation.

Vladimir Lossky argues that the way to deification, the original plan for man, is impossible until human nature triumphs over sin and death. For fallen humanity, the way of union is the way of salvation (from death and from sin, its root). There is a triple barrier that separates us from God – death, sin and nature.

This barrier can only be broken through by God in the inverse order, beginning with the union of the separated natures in his Incarnation, through the destruction of sin by his death, and ending with the victory over death by his Resurrection.

The union of the two natures has been determined in the eternal counsel of God, and so deification is the final end for which the world has been created out of nothing. The incarnation is not a matter of necessity, but of the free will of God, a mystery of divine love in which the divine will works in relation to the human will, condescending to human freedom and coordinating in His providence His actions with the acts of created beings, thereby governing the universe without doing violence to human freedom.

In the person of the Virgin, humanity has given its consent to the Word become flesh, and thus in the one and the same act the Word assumed human nature, gave its existence, and deified it. The humanity received its being from the Divine hypostasis, and it was subjected voluntarily to the condition of our fallen nature, in the sense of assuming the consequences of sin, without sinning.

Finite and infinite are united in Him; the hypostasis of the Logos remains God while it becomes flesh – the deity does not become humanity, nor is humanity transformed into deity, but both are united in one hypostasis. He is perfect in deity and in humanity, consubstantial with God and with us respectively in the two natures which are unmixed, unchanged, indivisible, inseparable – the properties of each nature remaining while united in one Person or hypostasis.

In the Person of the Son the common will of the Trinity is done. The kenotic will of the Son penetrates the flesh and gives to in an ineffable faculty of penetrating the Divinity. The body is united to God, and the humanity of Christ is a deified nature that is permeated by the divine energies from the moment of the Incarnation – like iron penetrated by fire, becoming fire, though remaining iron by nature.

Each nature acts according to its own properties (“it is not the human nature that raises Lazarus, nor the divine power that shed tears before his tomb,” says St John of Damascus). He who wills is One, in whom the two wills – divine and human – are united. Christ does not have a gnomic will, which deliberates between choices, as we do, because he has no need of it; but the humanity of Christ always wills divinely, in accordance with the divine will. His body experienced hunger and thirst, his soul grieved, his spirit prayed, and the two natural wills never entered into conflict.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the human will reacted against death, unnatural to it, but as the divine will wished, the human will voluntarily conformed to the divine will and accepted the Passion. The human will continually renounced what naturally belonged to it, and, in a continual humiliation, accepted what is contrary to incorrupt and deified humanity.

The Transfiguration shows the humanity of the Word deified by the divine energies, revealing the divinity in the splendor of the Three Persons. In his Passion, “He who covers himself with light as with a garment, stood naked before the judges . . . He who suspended the earth upon the waters, is hung on the tree.” Man must be sanctified by the humanity of God, and God himself must deliver us by overcoming the tyrant through his own power. Christ bridges the gulf between God and man by leading him into the heart of his Person, healing all that belongs to man, particularly the will which was the source of his sin.

Thus the whole of our fallen nature (death included) have been transformed by the life-giving Cross, and the three stages of salvation – being (Incarnation), well-being (incorruptibility of the will) and eternal being (Resurrection) are fulfilled. Our salvation is then accomplished by the union of the two natures in the One Person, the natures remaining united while intact, as the divine and human wills and operations remain intact and in full harmony.

What is not assumed cannot be deified, and it is the One Divine Person of the Logos who assumes the full human nature to unite it to the divine nature as they remain unmixed, unchanged, indivisible, inseparable. What is deified in Christ is his human nature assumed in its fullness. A new nature, a restored Creature, appears in the world. A new body, free from sin and necessity, is made, and the way is open for us, as persons, to be united to God by the Holy Spirit as we are united in our natures to God in Christ. The work of Christ is consummated in the work of the Holy Spirit.

-Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, chapter 3 (“The Economy of the Son”).

Theosis, Humanness, Personhood and Race – a Brief Assessment.

A proper assessment of the issue of racism in general, and in particular in the Church, is fundamentally related to the question of what it means to be a human person. While there are many different approaches to the question of what it means to be human (in ethics, bioethics, sociology, politics, and economics), the Orthodox Church focuses on the Patristic tradition regarding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God.

According to contemporary definitions, racism is a “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group . . . a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”[1] Racist ideologies and practices depend on a definition of being human in which race is a fundamental determinant of human traits, and define differences that apply to individuals and groups as to a spectrum (e.g., from superior to inferior).

However, from a Christian (and particularly Orthodox) point of view, any definition of humanity, and of being fundamentally human, has absolutely no relation, fundamental or peripheral, inherent or accidental, with any issues related to biological race.

What does it mean, then, to be human, according to the Church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a person?[2] The Orthodox Tradition, while having no single canonical definition of what it means to be a human, has nonetheless identified several characteristics of humanness. They stem originally from the account from the book of Genesis;[3] briefly, the image relates to inherent human qualities that remain even if marred after humanity turned from God (in the original account); and likeness refers to those qualities that constitute the human goal from the beginning, and our present calling.

Here we can identify, with reference to the Patristic exposition, six major characteristics of what it means to be human, or to be a person, according to the image of God.[4] First, a person is unique and unrepeatable.[5] Each individual has a unique personality, history, self-expression, etc.[6]

Second, every person is free. Reflecting the image of the only true God, who is a free communion of Persons, each human being, each person, possesses and exercises the sum of their personal characteristics as they exercise their free will.[7] Third, all persons are on a path to continuous, infinite growth. As we are created by an infinite God as finite creatures to be in communion with God, our journey to communion with the infinite, is, always, infinite.

Fourth, we are created as the Body of Christ through Baptism and communion, and, as such, we are created for ecclesial communion.[8] Fifth, we are inherently creative beings, reflective of the God who created all things out of nothing (ex-nihilo) in beauty and creativity. Lastly, and ultimately, we are created freely by the love of God, and as human beings who fulfill ourselves in love, especially and ultimately in self-sacrificial love for God and one another – the highest form of our likeness to God.

In this way we are on the journey in the becoming like the True, the Good and the Beautiful, as we are transformed in our reason and cognition, in our memory and imagination, using our whole selves, including our body, emotions, and souls. The Orthodox Tradition has a maximal vision of humanity, one in which the Resurrection and Pentecost, both and respectively redeem, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, the human nature and the unique persons.[9]

As the analysis of the Orthodox Tradition on what it means to be human persons, created in the image of God, and called to fulfill his likeness, it is clear that race is entirely outside of the purview of what it means to be a human person.[10]

As to the goal of attaining to God’s likeness, a few points could be made about what it means to be called into  communion with God, into what the Church calls theosis (or, θέωσις). If persons are to share in God’s glory, they are to become by grace what God is by nature, i.e., we are to be deified.[11]

Deification involves not only the inward person but also the body, for human beings are hylomorphic beings, unities of body and soul, and Christ took upon himself full humanity in order to redeem the whole person. And yet, this has no reference to accidental modes of race, According to St Maximus, “our body is deified at the same time as our soul.” Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are to offer them as living sacrifices to God (1 Cor. 6:19, Rom. 12:1).[12]

The Incarnation, of course, is both the basis and means through which God redeems all of creation, including matter. Christ took flesh and thus the material order in him was united to God. From his Incarnation springs God’s cosmic redemption (not limited to any race) and the Orthodox doctrine of the deification of the body, its iconology, and indeed its view of the holiness and even sacramentality of the created order are firmly grounded on it.[13]

Metropolitan Kallistos lists six points that must be made in order to avoid misunderstandings concerning the doctrine of θέωσις: First, it must be clear that θέωσις is for every Christian without exception, regardless of race, culture, origin, age, tribe, tongue, or nation. The process of divinization begins in this life for all Christians, and not for a select few. However weak our attempts may be to follow Christ and keep his commandments, of using our will in making choices that conform to the grace of God, we are already in some degree deified.

Secondly, the process of deification does not mean that one becomes perfect or sinless in this life, or that one ceases to be conscious of sin[14]. Deification always presupposes a continual act of repentance, and the Jesus Prayer says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The doctrine of θέωσις is not mutually exclusive with a doctrine of ongoing penitence, but rather presupposes it.

Thirdly, θέωσις does not come about through some esoteric or magical technique. Rather, the process of deification, in which we cooperate with the grace of God, takes place in one’s life through the means God has appointed  to bring that about.[15] Therefore, fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a “social” process. The commandments are summed up in the love of God and the love of neighbor. These two are inseparable, for one cannot fulfill one without fulfilling the other. Only if one loves God – and therefore only if one loves his neighbor – can one be deified. As the Persons of the Trinity dwell in one another, so we must also dwell in our neighbors.

Fifthly, and consequently, θέωσις is practical because love of God and of our neighbors must be expressed in action. The process of θέωσις does not exclude mystical experience, but it certainly includes the service of love. This communion in love excludes all objectifications of the other, including of race, which is irrelevant both to the constitution of human persons, and to the process of being transformed into the likeness Christ, our prototype. In Him, there’s no Jew, nor Greek – even the constitutive characteristics of our individualities (e.g., male and female) are transcended in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

In our efforts, our synergia, we cooperate with the grace of God by conforming not only our minds and hearts to him, but also in imitating his love through actions. Deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments, for they are the means appointed by God for us to acquire the Holy Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.

[1] Merriam-Webster.

[2] In the Orthodox Tradition, “humanity” is considered  an abstract construct, denoting certain general characteristics that are shared by human persons. For example, that humans have a body, a soul, emotions, capability of thinking, etc.[2] Yet, this abstract construct, while helpful and even necessary, does not exist apart from concrete realities. In other words, one can refer to the concept of being human, but humanness does not exist apart from concrete individuals. If there were no living men and women in the universe, humanness would be a concept that does not refer to anything real, like, say, a unicorn.

[3] Which presents אָדָם, Ἀδάμ, man – or more precisely, humanity – as created in the image and  likeness of God.

[4] Anton Vrame, The Educating Icon, pp.67-80.

[5] As God is unique even beyond comparison to created things, there is also an analogous, irreducible quality among human beings who might share many – or even almost all (e.g., identical twins) – physical characteristics and yet are not identical persons to say the least.

[6] From a Christian perspective, each unique person is uniquely known by God, has received a “name which no one knows” but God, Rev. 19:12.

[7] This free will, moreover, is most fully exercised in relation to other persons, since no one can become fully human on his or her own; no person is a island

[8] This is expressed in askesis, in prayer, and in ministry – all three which care communal efforts.

[9] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp. 101-135.

[10] All human persons have a body of some sort, and those bodies have – to use philosophical categories – accidents which are not referent to their “humanness.” Some are tall some short, some have brown hair and/or skin, others are blonde; some have other kinds of bodily characteristics. From the previous discussion, it is clear that what constitutes the image and likeness of God is irrelevant to racial accidental qualities inhering in the human substance and in persons.

[11] As St Athanasius put it, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, that we might become god]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality. On the Incarnation, 54 –  Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν·

[12] Indeed, the doctrine of θέωσις, which informs a worldview of God suffusing human beings with his grace, in his energies, is also the framework for the understanding that God redeems not only human beings, but all of physical creation as well. Not only our human body but the whole of the material world will be eventually transfigured, for Christ came to make all things new, and God’s redemptive plan culminates in the establishment not only of a new heaven, but also a new earth. Creation is to be saved and glorified along with humans, and icons are the firstfruits of this redemption of matter

[13] As C. S. Lewis has famously stated in Mere Christianity, “God likes matter, He invented it.” Indeed, he also has redeemed it.

[14] It was St Paul who called himself the “chief of sinners,” for it is characteristic of great saints to have an acute awareness of their own limitations

[15] Metropolitan Kallistos lists six such means: Church (i.e., participating in the liturgy and in the life of the community); the regular reception of the sacraments; perseverance in prayer; the reading of the Gospels; the keeping of God’s commandments; and Christian service.

Fr. Maximos Constas on the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation

Seven days after his birth, Jesus was taken to the Temple to be circumcised (1 January). Thirty-two days later (2 February), he was brought back to the Temple to be presented there. Tomorrow thus marks the fortieth day since his birth, when we will reach the end of the great Nativity cycle that began on 15 November, which brought us to the cave in Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, and, tomorrow, into the very Temple of God.

The name of the feast, ὑπαπαντή, means “meeting” or “encounter,” which refers largely to the figure of Symeon, who had been told by God that he would not die until he saw the Christ. 

There is a pious tradition that Symeon was one of the Septuagint translators, and thus would have been something like three hundred years old when he met Christ. When he was a much younger man, he was given the book of Isaiah to translate, but doubted the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign (σημείον); Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.”

Because Symeon was unable to believe this, he was not permitted to depart from this world until he saw the prophecy’s fulfillment, which took place when the Mother of God brought Christ into the Temple and placed him in Symeon’s arms.

Embracing the child, Symeon proclaimed that the child is a sign – a σημείον – to be spoken against; that the child will create divisions; that ultimate choices will have to be made for or against Him. He declared the child to the “light of the Gentiles,” which further points to the struggle between light and darkness. And there is darkness in our world because there is darkness in our hearts – yet the child comes to us at a time of year when the days are lengthening, “because the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

In early icons of the Presentation, the Mother of God holds the child in her arms. In later icons, we see the child being held by Symeon. Images of Christ in the arms of his mother are like excerpts or details, like a close-up, taken from the iconography of the Presentation.

This means that when we look at icons of the Mother of God we are seeing her entering the Temple holding the child. This also means that we are seeing her from the perspective of Symeon, as if we were standing in the place of Symeon, and that she is offering the child to us.

The icon is not a picture to be looked at from a safe distance, but is rather something that beckons to us, reaches out to us, and seeks to engage us in an encounter with Christ. And when Symeon receives the child, it signals his death, because to receive Christ means to die, to die the death of your false self, with all its sins and passions.

Forty days have passed since Christmas. What is different about us? What is different about our lives? How do we enter the temple? Do we look to the Mother of God, who brings us the light? Are we waiting for Christ? Do we open the arms of our hearts and minds to him? Are we ready to receive him?

Who are you in this story?

V. Rev. Arch. Maximos Constas

Interim Dean Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Discern the Things that Matter – St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians

In the letter to the Philippians, given the circumstance of St Paul’s imprisonment and the persecution at Philippi, St Paul wants to encourage the congregation to learn how to find joy, which can only be done when one “discerns the things that [really] matter.”

He writes to them, it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may discern the things that matter (Καί τοῦτο προσεύχομαι ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καί μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ ἐν ἐπιγνώσει καί πάσῃ αἰσθήσει εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τά διαφέροντα (Phil. 1:9-10a).

Αἰσθήσει has the sense of perception, discernment; δοκιμάζω has the sense of test, to examine, to approve, and τὰ διαφέροντα are the things that make a difference, that surpass – as opposed to indifferent things, the αδιάφορα.

In Stoic philosophy, as an approach to moral and practical matters, there were categories using the verb διαφέρω as to levels of importance. One would ask, τι διαφέρει, what does it matter? The response would indicate either τα αδιάφορα, things that do not matter, or το διάφορον, things that are important, excellent, things that matter.

For St Paul, in his teaching the Philippians to find joy in the midst of adversity and discouragement, the only way that joy can overcome grief is when one focuses on the things that matter, the things that are not transitory. As he said elsewhere, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (μή σκοπούντων ἡμῶν τά βλεπόμενα ἀλλά τά μή βλεπόμενα τά γάρ βλεπόμενα πρόσκαιρα τά δέ μή βλεπόμενα αἰώνια (2 Cor. 4:18)).

A central concept in the letter to the Philippians is that of hope in the midst of suffering, particularly as St Paul was writing from prison (it is not clear where; he refers to the Praetorium but that can mean any provincial governor’s residence). Paul had received a gift from Philippi while opponents of the Church there were persecuting the Christians of the region (“do not be frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” 1:28-29). The Philippian Christians are, generally, discouraged from such persecution, and afraid that they might not see Paul again.

In response, Paul tells them that his imprisonment, in the good providence of God, has actually furthered the gospel, as his captors have heard it and others were encouraged to preach the gospel as well (1:12-18); consistent with his emphasis on the διαφέροντα, he tells them that to die is gain, since to depart and be with Christ is better than all things; and yet, that he is confident that he will still remain to complete his work, which includes serving them (1:19-26)

In this way, Paul writes them a letter in a known ancient format of “consolation.” This included the elements of

(1) a comparison between the αδιάφορα and the διαφέροντα;

(2) the advance of the things that matter;

(3) the emphasis that hardship enhances one’s reputation;

(4) the idea that bearing misfortune well makes one an example to others; and

(5) that joy comes to the one who is properly trained.

In this way, Paul is using a rhetorical technique used by the pagan Stoics, while reframing it and filling it with the content of the gospel.

As with 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s encouragement to them was that they ought to have confidence, for “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Paul was teaching them to suffer in a “philosophical way;” but with the content of the gospel, he can say, rejoice in the Lord (ἀδελφοί μου χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ, 3:1, χαίρετε ἐν Κυρίῳ πάντοτε πάλιν ἐρῶ χαίρετε, 4:4); since, whatever may befall him and them, ultimately, does not matter in comparison with what really matters: “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . .  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:7-11).

St Maximos on the ever-moving rest in God

Fall Evening at Seminary

In his Response to Thalassios on questions about Sacred Scripture, St Maximos the Confessor (580-662AD) addresses many passages, and here’s an excerpt of his interpretation on 1 Peter 1:10-11 – namely, how those who received inspired, divine revelation, still inquired and investigated as to what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was revealing in advance when He testified to the sufferings of Christ and the glory that would follow.

“The salvation of souls,” properly speaking, “is the aim of faith.”

The aim of faith is the true revelation of the object of one’s faith.

The true revelation of the object of one’s faith is the ineffable relation of mutual love with that object according to the measure of each one’s faith.

The relation of mutual love with the object of faith is the final return of the faithful to their own beginning.

The final return of the faithful to their own beginning is the fulfillment of every desire.

The fulfillment of desire is the ever-moving rest around the object of desire by those who desire it.

The ever-moving rest around the object of desire by those who desire it is the perpetual enjoyment of the object of desire unbroken by any interval.

Perpetual enjoyment of the object of desire unbroken by any interval is participation in divine realities that transcend nature.

Participation in divine realities that transcend nature is the likeness of the participants to the participable.

The likeness of participants to the participable is the actualized identity of the participants with the participable, which they receive through the likeness.

The actualized identity of participants with the participable received through the likeness is the divinization of those made worthy of it.

Divinization, to state the matter briefly, is the compass and limit of all times and ages, and of everything that exists within them.

The compass and limit of times and ages and of everything within them is the unity unbroken by any interval, among those who are being saved, of the true and proper beginning with the true and proper end.

The unity unbroken by any interval, among those being saved, of the true beginning with the true end, is the surpassing ecstasy of those who by nature are essentially measured by a beginning and an end.

The ecstasy of those who by nature are circumscribed by a beginning and an end is the immediate and infinite activity of God, which is all-powerful and transcends all power, and which is infinitely active among those made worthy to pass beyond—in a superior sense—the things of nature.

The immediate and infinite activity of God, which is infinitely active, and which is all-powerful and transcends all power, is the ineffable and beyond ineffable pleasure and joy of those who, in their union with God beyond all language and concepts, are the recipients of God’s activities—a joy which is absolutely impossible for intellect, reason, thoughts, or words, or anything else in the nature of created beings to capture or express.

St Gregory the Theologian and the Call to the Priesthood

St Gregory the Theologian – Second Oration (In Defense of His Flight to Pontus)

St Gregory of Nazianzus, known by the Orthodox Church as St. Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 AD), was the son of the Bishop of Nazianzus (Cappadocia).


St Gregory the Theologian (St Gregory Nazianzus) 329-390AD

               In this short article I will address the arguments and content of his St Gregory the Theologian’s Second Theological Oration, also known as his treatise on the priesthood. I will start, first, with the context of his life leading to his ordination as a priest; second, with the content of his writing concerning priesthood; third, with a summary of his main arguments related to the daunting tasks associated with the priesthood – namely, his two main arguments concerning the need virtue and knowledge; finally, I will assess the resolution of his arguments concerning the fear failure and the fear of disobedience, and the tensions inherent in his argument, both in light of his own context, as well as how it might be applied to those considering the call to priesthood in our own modern context.

Gregory was born at about 330 in south-western Cappadocia, in the neighborhood of Nazianzus, where his father Gregory was a bishop. Through the influence and example of his wife Nonna, Bishop Gregory converted to Christianity in 325, and his son Gregory was consecrated by his mother even before birth. He was sent to school of rhetoric at an early age in Caesarea and later studied in Palestine, Alexandria, and eventually Athens, after which he received baptism in Cappadocia at about 358. At that time he lived for a period in monastic retirement with St Basil in Pontus. St Gregory followed a classical course of studies and has been called “a humanist among the theologians of the fourth century, insofar as he preferred quiet contemplation and the union of ascetic piety and literary culture to the splendor of an active life and ecclesiastical position.” [1]

Gregory would have chosen this life of contemplation had not his father decided to consecrate him to the priesthood in 362, against Gregory’s will. Displeased and fearful with his sudden ordination, Gregory fled to Pontus for several months before eventually returning to his diocese in Nazianzus, when he wrote the oration known as the Second Oration, or the Apologeticus de Fuga. He was aware that “his behavior was tantamount to a canonical rejection of ordination within the very week of receiving it.” In this way, “He had not only weakened his claim to the office but had caused animosity . . . his sudden flight would have offended [his supporters] as much as his father, for he had clearly preferred the community of Basil to that of his . . . brethren at home.”[2]  Gregory eventually succeeded his father as the Bishop of Nazianzus in 374, but a year later he withdrew to Seleucia to lead a life of retirement and contemplation. This did not last long, as five years later the small Nicene minority in Constantinople called for his aid against the Arians after the death of Emperor Valens.[3]

It was in Constantinople that he preached his Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos, when Theodosius became emperor, called for the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, and appointed Gregory as the Bishop of the capital.  When the Macedonians and Alexandrians opposed his nomination, in frustration, Gregory delivered a farewell sermon and retired back to Nazianzus; after a successor was appointed to that see, he retired to his estate in Arianzum to pursue the life of solitude and contemplation he always desired, until his death in 389 or 390.[4] He left an immensely influential literary body, yet one composed not of dogmatic treatises, but solely of orations, poetry, and letters.

Gregory’s Second Oration is an apology for his flight from ordination and for his eventual acceptance of it; ultimately, it is also an articulation of the ideal of the priesthood. The text we possess might not have been written for delivery, or, at least, it is almost certainly a later revision of his speech.[5] He starts his defense by arguing that his flight was neither from inexperience or ignorance, nor from contempt for divine laws and ordinances; it was as a result, as he saw it, of his inadequacy for the pastoral ministry, which requires that the pastor surpasses the majority of the people in virtue and nearness to God (paragraph §3).[6]

Virtue and Knowledge

St. Gregory arguments focus on two main aspects: the need for virtue and discernment, and the need for knowledge of Scripture as the medicine to heal sous. First, he argues that priests should be, at minimum, those who surpass others in virtue, and  says that he is ashamed of those who “intrude” into the sacred offices without being “better than ordinary people; ” those who, “before becoming worthy to approach the temples, lay claim to the sanctuary,” i.e., whose practice in virtue and knowledge is average at best, so that they barely can be considered worthy to enter the Church, let alone minister in the sanctuary where are the Gifts and the priests (§8). St. Gregory did not consider himself qualified to rule a flock and to have authority over men, especially since, for priests, this entails a proportionate measure of dignity and risk – and failure can be disastrous because it would involve damage to the souls of many.

He argues that one cannot undertake the task to heal others while one is still not healed; one ought to be eminent in good.  “He should know no limits in goodness of spiritual progress” and ought not think “it a great gain to excel ordinary people” (§14). A priest must excel others in virtue especially because his rule is by influence of persuasion, so as to draw people at least to ordinary virtue by one’s evident extraordinary virtue (not by mere command). For St. Gregory, “the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, . . . in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host” (§22).

A physician of souls, like a Shepherd, must walk in the “King’s Highway” in perfect balance, incurring a great risk as one who is changed with the “illumination of others” – “and who is sufficient for these things?” (cf. 2 Cor. 2). Leading the flock in virtue might be the most difficult work of all, since it requires that the leader and teacher has submitted himself to God in love and obedience, so that he will be able to lead others to the same conformity. In one of his most memorable quotes, he says,

A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others: himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.” (§71).

A priest must also excel in knowledge, since the guiding of man, which relates to the soul and its eternal destiny, is the “science of sciences.” St. Gregory shifts the emphasis to “the first of our duties,” the knowledge and the instruction of the Word (§35); and yet, “we are at once wise teachers, of high estimation in Divine things, the first of scribes and lawyers; we ordain ourselves men of heaven and seek to be called Rabbi by men” (§49).

After mentioning the representatives of the Law and the Prophets (Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Samuel, David, the other prophets, etc.) as well as the apostles and their successors, St Gregory focuses on St Paul as a paradigm: “I set forth Paul as the witness to my assertions . . .  his labors, his watchings, his sufferings in hunger and thirst, . . .  With these thoughts I am occupied night and day: they waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up. (§52-71).

Reasons for the Flight

St. Gregory brings these considerations on virtue and knowledge, on ascetic practice and contemplation, and the seemingly insurmountable requirements, challenges, tasks, expectations, and dangers related to the priesthood, as a justification for his unwillingness to immediately accept his charge and for his flight. And yet at this point he cites his personal history – having been reared as a Christian, the son of godly parents, baptized, consecrated to God, highly educated, and trained in philosophical (theological) ascetical practice and contemplation:

I had been invited from my youth, if I may speak of what most men know not, and had been cast upon Him from the womb, and presented by the promise of my mother, afterwards confirmed in the hour of danger: . . . I gave as an offering my all to Him Who had won me and saved me, my property, my fame, my health, my very words . . . and the words of God were made sweet as honeycombs to me, and I cried after knowledge and lifted up my voice for wisdom. There was moreover the moderation of anger, the curbing of the tongue, the restraint of the eyes, the discipline of the belly, and the trampling under foot of the glory which clings to the earth. I speak foolishly, but it shall be said, in these pursuits I was perhaps not inferior to many. (§77)

These statements might raise the question of whether St Gregory was, in reality, trained in virtue and knowledge precisely in the way needful for the task of the priesthood, as he saw it. As he argued, one is required (a) not only to be cleansed of sin, but greatly surpass the average person in virtue; (b) to have the wisdom and discernment and to apply these in the diagnosis and healing of individuals and groups; (c) to surpass greatly others in the spiritual knowledge and application of Scripture; and (d) to have the wisdom and discernment in the instruction of others.

               It is arguable that St Gregory fulfills all these requirements. He was “invited from [his] youth . . . cast upon Him from the womb;” he was raised in the Faith, baptized after an oath of consecration after danger in the sea, as he traveled to study in Athens and cried out God when he thought the ship would sink.[7]  He was highly trained in virtue and knowledge, both in secular training (including the best available training in in the world at the time) and in the Church; he left all for a life of contemplation with St Basil. He was trained in the Scriptures in a way that greatly surpassed the average Christian; he practiced virtue in monastic ascetic practices, and he says, in a way reminiscent of St Paul (cf. Gal. 1:14), that he surpassed most men both in virtue and knowledge, – “I was perhaps not inferior to many.”

               By laying out, clearly and extensively, the seemingly impossible requirements for the office of the priesthood, and then, in a small paragraph, indicating that he might have actually fulfilled those requirements, St Gregory is not being self-contradictory. He is both stressing the great holiness of the office as well as modeling humility as a form of behavior. St Gregory lays out with wisdom, precision, and rhetorical beauty, all that one who would embody Christ as the Shepherd should be to his flock, especially considering the abuses and lowered standards he had observed. Becoming a priest is not for the average person, i.e., one who is average in virtue, knowledge, wisdom, discernment, ascetic practice, and ability to discern the complexities of governing and healing others. These are qualities and abilities which can be acquired through effort, contemplation, study, and time; but they need to be embodied to the greatest possible degree, according to one’s ability, in a priest. They are things that, in one’s personal level, should “waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up.”

               St Gregory upholds both the impossible task and the possibility of the accomplishing task through God – while emphasizing that such work of grace can only be possible to those who understand that they are called to climb a mountain into the very cloud of the presence of God. He laments that “there is not any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse, ‘As with the people so with the priest’” (§80-82). In this way, the oration is already a sobering call, a medicine to those who are sick and need healing from vice and blindness – and that includes readers of all times and ages. As he says, “before a man has, as far as possible, gained this superiority, and sufficiently purified his mind, and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls (§91-95).

Conclusion – Fear of Inadequacy vs. Fear of God

St Gregory introduces two reasons for his reconsideration and return: the fear of disobeying his parents and the fear of disobeying God. He reaffirms that “that we are far too low to perform the priest’s office before God,” yet, “someone else may perhaps refuse to acquit us on the charge of disobedience” (§111). There are then two fears that appear in his Oration: first, the fear of failure because of his unworthiness; this was the fear that held him back. Then the fear of disobedience (to his parents, and to God). This was the fear that brought him back. This becomes an instruction for the readers who would aspire to the work of ordained ministry, desire which is a good thing (εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ, 1 Tim. 3). The realization of such a daunting task should not be a source of despair, but of awe and commitment in the face of the immensity of the challenge and task.

Given the content of this oration, it would be important to emphasize that the internal, subjective calling of God in one’s life for the priesthood is only confirmed by the external call – in the case of St Gregory, the call to ordination by his father – and that is what caused Gregory to ultimately consider. To disobey the objective, tangible, historical, practical calling of his bishop was to disobey God. In other words, subjective states of desiring the priesthood are necessary but not sufficient (or, in the case of St Gregory, were not even present), but the external call of God through the bishop caused him to consider his duty and the attending responsibilities in virtue, wisdom, and discernment. As he puts it in closing, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience . . . now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. (§111)

Select Bibliography

Constas, Maximos. Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs (unpublished paper)

Greer, Rowan. Reflections on Priestly Authority. St. Luke’s Journal of Theology. March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2.

McGunkin, John. St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography.

Nazianzen, St Gregory, Select Orations, trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

Quasten, Johannes, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236


[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

[2] John McGunkin, St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography, p. 110.

[3] Quasten., 237.

[4] Ibid., 238.

[5] Rowan Greer, “Reflections on Priestly Authority.” St. Luke’s Journal of Theology (March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2), p. 103.

[6] St Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations” trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

[7] Maximos Constas, Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs, p. 5-6.