By Dominic Cassella/National Catholic Register
In the Eastern Christian tradition, January is filled with the feast days of some of the Church’s mightiest theologians and ascetics. Jan. 1 is the feast of St. Basil the Great, Jan. 10 is the feast of his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Jan. 25 is the feast of his close friend, St. Gregory the Theologian.
During this month, we also celebrate the feasts of St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Clement, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Macarios, St Antony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes.
However, of all the saints we commemorate in this month of heavy-hitting defenders of orthodoxy, I want to consider one of the saints who has received an increase of scholarly attention these past few years: St. Maximos (Maximus) the Confessor.
We believe he was born into an aristocratic family, received an excellent education and succeeded in public life. However, in his pursuit of holiness, he abandoned the world for the monastic life and became an abbot for a monastery near Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
When Persians later conquered the region where he lived, Maximos fled to Carthage in Africa and spent his time setting the doctrines of his predecessors — notably St. Gregory the Theologian and Pseudo-Dionysius — into an explicit framework of Aristotelian logic.
During his time in Carthage, the Monothelite heresy developed and spread throughout the empire. The idea behind the Christological heresy was that Jesus Christ, who was both God and man, had only “one will,” which was divine, and no human will. It was by the “one will” that the heretical sect of the Monothelites attempted to account for the unity of Jesus Christ — essentially locating the “personhood” of Christ in the will.
The heresy was so prominent that even the Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople, and later Maximos’ close friend Pyrrhus, adopted the heresy and taught it. At some point, Pyrrhus agreed to debate Maximos on the topic, which resulted in Pyrrhus’ humble admittance of defeat and the correction of his error.
Maximos then traveled to Rome and, after witnessing the election of Pope Martin I, worked with more than 100 bishops to establish the Lateran Council of 649, which condemned the heresy of Monothelitism.
Maximos’ vehement defense of the truth about the Incarnation eventually led him to be arrested alongside Pope Martin I in 653. He was tried by a secular court and convicted. He had his tongue cut out so that he could no longer speak, and his right hand was cut off so that he could no longer write.
Maximos died in 662 in exile in what is modern-day Georgia. But both Maximos and Pope Martin I were vindicated by the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680-681, which proclaimed the truth of Christ’s possession of both a human and divine will.
While Maximos’ life serves as an example to us all who strive to defend the Truth in our age, his writings and his project of bringing philosophy and theology together are notably impressive. In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI called Maximos “the great Greek doctor of the Church.” This high praise, of course, is because of Maximos’ clear defense of the two natures of Christ.
One aspect of Maximos’ defense that I find most interesting is when he diverged from the teachings of Aristotle in a way that, centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas would not.
For years, the pro-life movement has seen dishonest characters invoke Thomas Aquinas’ notion of delayed hominization as proof that the child in the womb is not a human being. Setting aside the fact that the theory of delayed hominization is a theory that is pre-ultrasound, the idea is basically that first, what is conceived is a vegetative thing that has no sensory capabilities or reason. This thing in a vegetative state grows into another thing that now has sensation, and at some point, after the substance within the womb has sufficiently developed, a human soul is infused by God into the womb.
In the Summa Theologiae, tertia pars, question 33, Thomas Aquinas tells us that delayed hominization is true of other men but not of Jesus Christ. He says this for two reasons. The first is because of the person’s divine power, basically forcing the body assumed not to need the process of delayed hominization. Second, Aquinas thinks it is unbecoming for Christ to take on a body not yet formed, and if the conception took place at the vegetative or sensitive states without being united to the Word, the whole of the conception could not be said to have been assumed.
In contrast, Maximos first refused to accept the theory of delayed hominization as put forth by Aristotle and later accepted by Aquinas for philosophical reasons. Second, if delayed hominization were true, Maximos argues that Christ underwent the processes if he is to have actually taken on the fullness of human nature.
In his Ambiguum 42, Maximos argues that “if you were to assure us that the embryo has a soul which possesses merely the faculty of nutrition and growth, then on your terms the body that receives nourishment and grows will obviously be the body of a kind of plant and not, as it seems to me, that of a human being.” To which he concludes by expressing his being puzzled at the notion of a man being the father of a plant, even if only for a time.
He goes on to make the same point about the “sensorial state” in the delayed hominization theory, saying, “On your terms, a man will not by nature be the father of another man in the latter’s initial constitution, but rather of a plant, as I have already said, or of some terrestrial animal, and what could be more absurd or deranged than this?”
The argument gets increasingly heated, and Maximos claims that if you cannot say that the embryo at the moment of conception possesses a human soul, why say it has a human soul after “40 days, or even after nine months of pregnancy, nor indeed even after birth.”
Following this, Maximos agrees with Aquinas that if the theory of delayed hominization is true, to say such of the incarnate Lord would seem utterly bizarre: “The Word did not assume a rational soul through the medium of inanimate flesh, neither did he assume a body utterly devoid of soul, nor a soul devoid of intellect and reason, but he ineffably united himself, according to hypostasis, a perfect (i.e., complete) human nature lacking nothing, consisting of a rational soul and body.”
Maximos the Confessor, living 600 years after Jesus Christ and 600 years before Thomas Aquinas, developed an understanding of the Incarnation and conception of Christ that is wonderfully advanced and coherent. His stance against the theory of delayed hominization, especially in relation to Christ’s conception, challenged the conventions of his day and highlighted the humanity of the embryo from its earliest stages. Maximos’ teachings offer a compelling perspective, urging us to recognize the inherent dignity and humanity of the unborn, providing an enduring moral compass for those championing the sanctity of life. His legacy not only shapes theological discourse but also stands as a beacon of courage and conviction in defending the vulnerable.