Practical Retrieval: How Maximus the Confessor Helped My Sermon Prep

A while back, I took an interest in the theology of Maximus the Confessor. I primarily became interested in him because he represents a theological capstone to Nicene-Constantinopolitan theology, and I want to keep sharpening and improving my own Christology as a pastor. If I wanted to understand Christology well, based on the developments that took place up through the six ecumenical councils, I decided there was no better place to go than the writings of Maximus the Confessor.

Studying Maximus throws you head-first into the Monothelite/Dyothelite controversy. To put it simply, the question is, did the incarnate person Jesus – the incarnate Christ with two natures – have one will or two wills? The Monothelites argued that Christ has one will because he is one person. Prima facie, this is a very intuitive position. And yet the Dyothelites (Maximus being an outspoken representative) said that the Monothelites assume that a will must be proper to a person; but actually a will must be proper to a nature. One important theological reason for this is that if a will is proper to a person, then the triune God would by implication have three wills because there are three persons in the godhead. And yet three wills would necessarily introduce disjunction and difference into the ad intra relations with the persons of the godhead, strongly implying a form of tritheism. And yet we know that God is united in his essence, and he has one will.

Because God has one will and is not a tri-theistic being, a will must be appropriate to a nature rather than a person. The person only has a will because of the possession of a nature. The Dyothelite position was that since Christ has two natures he therefore has two wills – a natural divine will, and a natural human will. Maximus argued that we can see the divine will and human will in the life and ministry of Jesus (for example in John 5:21 and in Hebrews 10:7-9). Maximus especially appealed to Matthew 26:39 and 42, where Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Sometime after the torture and death of Maximus, Dyothelite theology became the official position of the church catholic at the 6th ecumenical council.

At nearly the same time I became interested in the Monothelite/Dyothelite controversy, I began to draw near to Matthew 26:36-46 in the course of my own lectio continua preaching. In this well-known passage Christ prays to the Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Knowing that Maximus appealed to this passage in his arguments against the Monothelites, I decided to preach this passage with a focus on this topic of the wills of Jesus. Obviously making this sort of doctrinal subject relevant, interesting, and not confusing to a congregation would be a great challenge. Nevertheless, I decided to point out that the incarnate man, Jesus, states that he has a distinct will from the Father here. My initial plan (in fact, my first draft) of how to preach this included an emphasis on noticing that Jesus’ will is not in accord with God’s will initially, and that only after prayer does he return and say, “If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” My plan was to emphasize that part of our own work in prayer is in seeking to conform our will to God’s will, following the example of Jesus. I now know this would have been a classic example of preaching the right sermon from the wrong text. Maximus illumined this for me.

After more reading from Maximus I realized that preaching this way would have involved making a grave error. While Jesus in his prayer recognizes that his own will is not identical with that of the Father’s will, he also never rejects the Father’s will, and always lives in conformity to it, nor does he have a natural opposition to the Father’s will.

Maximus says that we must be absolutely clear: “His will in no way contradicts God, since it has been completely deified.”

Maximus is using an eastern mode of expression here when he speaks of Christ’s will as being “deified.” While the term “deified” seems initially very loaded (and I don’t personally prefer it), in reality he is using it in the same way we in the western tradition would speak of Christ’s human nature being sanctified. For example, Calvin: “we make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall” (Institutes 2.13.4). As Donald Macleod says, “This became the standard way of explaining the Lord’s sinlessness” (The Person of Christ, 40). Even here, Calvin is following Augustine (On the Merits of Sin and Forgiveness, 2.24.38) and Aquinas.

Because in the incarnation Christ’s human nature is not mixed with the divine, the sanctification of his human nature is a way of accounting for the holiness of Christ’s human nature without mixing or confusing his divine and human natures. This is what is behind Maximus’ statement and helps us to understand Maximus rightly.

Maximus is saying that because the will of Christ (as part of his human nature) is holy, the will which belongs to that nature does not desire contrary to what he knows pleases God. Sometimes this discussion takes place around the idea of “habitual grace.” I think Maximus is saying, in essence, that Christ had a habitual grace because of his sanctified human nature, and because of that never willed what was contrary to God.

This lack of opposition between the two wills of Christ takes us to Opusulum 64, where Maximus, speaking of the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is asking whether Jesus’ will here is in harmony with God or resisting God? My own initial instinct during sermon preparation was that Jesus seems resistant to the will of God. He seems to be saying that his will is not the same as the Father’s will. I saw no problem with this, since it is his human will, and not his divine will that is opposed to God. However, such an error would have driven a wedge between the two natures of Christ and set one in opposition to the other.

Maximus says that in the Garden Jesus prays as the Savior, and because of this, what actually happens is “concurrence” between the human will and divine will, “which is both his and the Father’s.” He insists that there is

[no] opposition between them, even though he maintains all the while the difference between the two natures from which, in which, and which he is by nature… It follows, then, that having become like us for our sake, he was calling on his God and Father in a human manner…when he said, Let not what I will, but what you will prevail, inasmuch as, being God by nature, he also in his humanity has, as his human volition, the fulfillment of the will of the Father. This is why, considering both of the natures from which, in which, and of which his person was, he is acknowledged as able both to will and to effect our salvation. As God, he approved that salvation along with the Father and the Holy Spirit; as man, he became for the sake of that salvation obedient to his Father unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He accomplished this great feat of the economy of salvation for our sake through the mystery of his incarnation. (Confessor, Saint Maximus . On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 168. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.)

As I reflected on Maximus’ argument, I began to see the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane illumined in light of what must be the case: while Jesus recognizes the pain of what is coming, in a human sense he fears what comes, but always loves the plan of rescuing sinners by his death. In this prayer he fears the path, but never disagrees with that path or of the destination.

In the garden, Christ is indeed in agony, but not because his human will differs from the divine will, but actually because his will is the same as the Father’s. Only because his will is in accord with the Father’s will can he actually experience this fear. He fears what is ahead humanly speaking, but never wills contrary to God. Nevertheless, he distinguishes his human will from the divine will and confesses that he fears what is ahead, even as he loves the divine will and especially the work it has directed.

Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, initially seems to be saying that Christ’s human will was different from the divine will. Yet he also indicates that Christ’s will only “appears to be contrary to the will of God.” Rather than arguing that Christ’s will differs from the Father’s here, Calvin instead speaks in a way that sounds remarkably like Maximus’ doctrine of the concurrence of the two wills:

Christ, amidst the utmost vehemence of grief or fear, restrained himself within proper bounds. Nay more, as musical sounds, though various and differing from each other, are so far from being discordant, that they produce sweet melody and fine harmony; so in Christ there was a remarkable example of adaptation between the two wills, the will of God and the will of man, so that they differed from each other without any conflict or opposition (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 26:39).

I suppose I’d like to hold this out as an object lesson for ministers. If we are not reading widely and with great curiosity in church history, we may find ourselves in the pulpit spreading well-intended but nonetheless serious untruths that would otherwise be easy to fall into. We may undermine the very work of Christ whom we preach.

While I am extremely supportive of recent moves toward theological retrieval from church history, I do not believe we ought to pursue said retrieval simply for its own sake. Nor should we do so simply so that we can put a feather in our cap and claim that we as the Reformed are more catholic than the Roman or Greek churches. Instead, we ought to practice retrieval because the church in history really is our church, and because there is real health and help for us to be found in the writings of those who came before.

Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.