Man in Creation: The Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor

The theology of creation and salvation in Orthodox
Christianity upholds the centrality and kingship of
mankind while simultaneously embracing a cosmological
vision that is largely absent in western Christendom. A
common characteristic of all creation is corruption and
death, and yet we are told that God is not the author of
death (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-14), and that all of
creation awaits its redemption through the revealing of
the saints (Romans 8:19-22), when all of heaven and earth
will be united to God (Ephesians 1:9-10). Within this
framework, St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) is
recognized as a theological and spiritual giant by the
Orthodox Church. In his two troparia he is hailed as an
“enlightener of the universe” and a
“herald of the faith.”

Although best remembered for his stance against the
Monothelite heresy, St. Maximus also masterfully
harmonized the works of his philosophical and theological
predecessors, correcting where need be, into a complex web
in which cosmology, anthropology, Christology,
soteriology, and eschatology
are presented in one harmonious vision in which creation
reflects the glory of God, and man is charged with the
task of raising all of creation to union with the Godhead.
Enabled by the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, the
reciprocity of love between God and man is set forth as
the path to this union in the spiritual universe of St.
Maximus. As Lars Thunberg states, “His system of
theology was in fact a spiritual vision of the
cosmos, of human life within that
cosmos, and therefore of the economy of
salvation
, the salvific interplay between the human
and the divine.[1]” For St. Maximus, salvation is
much broader than a rescue from sin and death, a Divine
undoing of man’s mistake, but points to
God’s eternal plan for mankind, regardless of the
Fall. The Son of God was to be incarnate whether man
had sinned or not, precisely to call man, and through
his priestly lordship over the cosmos, all of creation
into a deific union in the life of the Trinity.

St. Gregory of Nyssa
St. Gregory of Nyssa
Much of St. Maximus’
cosmology was developed in opposition to the
cosmology of the third century theologian Origen,
which remained popular in certain monastic circles,
especially through the influence of the fourth
century monastic and avid student of Origen, Evagrius
Ponticus. In the Origenist system the material world
exists as a result of the fall of pre-existent souls
or intellects which grew satiated in their
contemplation of God, and thus fell into the created
order. Conversely, for St. Maximus, the material
creation itself is an intended good creation of God,
and the body and soul of man came into existence
simultaneously as a cohesive unit. In a series of
digressions in his Ambiguum 42, he explains
that man is a complete species, with a necessary
relation of body and soul which continues even after
death (1321D-1324B); that the soul does not preexist
the body (1325D-1336B); and that the body does not
preexist the soul (1336C-1345C). In this point he is
preceded by St. Gregory of Nyssa, and followed by St.
John of Damascus,[2] and is in harmony with the general
Patristic dictum that the creative act of each day was
manifested instantaneously. The Confessor explains that
the nature of the body and the nature of the soul form,
according to the will of God, the composite nature of
man, manifested in one human hypostasis.[3]

As Vladimir Lossky demonstrates, there is no singular
Patristic definition of what precisely in man is defined
as the image of God.[4] Considering the cohesion of the
double-nature of man, for St. Irenaeus, St. Gregory of
Nyssa, and St. Gregory Palamas both body and soul make
up the image of God in man. For others it is found in
the lordship of man over creation; his spiritual
nature; his mind (νοῦς); his
immortality; or his ability to know God and share in
His divine life, etc. For St. Maximus, the image of God
in man is connected to the mind and reason
(λόγος). Quoting St.
Gregory the Theologian, he writes: “’Then
we shall know as we are known’ (1 Cor. 13:12),
when we mingle our god-formed mind and divine reason to
what is properly its own and the image returns to the
archetype for which it now longs.”[5] However, as Thunberg demonstrates, it
is the νοῦς which is most
closely related to the image of God for St. Maximus,
and thus fallen man has, through turning from the
“leadership of reason,” replaced the image
of God with that of irrational animals, while the
renewed man in Christ is characterized by a
γνῶσις attained
through the νοῦς. The image of
God in man is known through charity which subordinates
man’s freedom to the creative will of God
(λόγος), which is the
reasonable principle whereby man’s life
ought to be oriented.[6]

Closely linked to the image of God is this freedom of man,
which is seen as a sign of the image in man, a shadow of
the Divine Archetype, to be used to draw ever nearer to
God. St. Maximus states: “If man is the image of the
divine nature and if the divine nature is free, so is the
image.”[7] Finally, although not included in the
image of God in man for St. Maximus, the body is
closely related to its destined realization. As man is
a composite of body and soul, the body too is called to
submission to the Divine Logos, and through dominion
over the irrational part of himself, divinity is
mediated also to the body which thus participates in
the attainment to the likeness of God.[8]

With the unity of man in both composition and purpose
firmly established, we can begin to look at man’s
central position in St. Maximus’ cosmology, in which
the fate of the entire cosmos is tied to that of man. As
Torstein Theodor Tollefsen writes in his The
Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the
Confessor:
“[man] is created just for this
purpose: to actualize the created potential of his being
to achieve a fully realized community between all
creatures and their Creator.”[9] In his vision of this task, man is
described by St. Maximus as a microcosm (ό
μικρὸς
κόσμος) because man
is composed of both body and soul—both physical
and spiritual, sensible and intelligible natures, he is
thus the creation in miniature, as creation also
consists of both physical and spiritual realities. In
this he is following upon the Cappadocian
Fathers, and Nemesius of Edessa. Man occupies a
“middle” position in creation, straddling
the division between the material world that we inhabit
and the spiritual world of the angelic powers.

Conversely, if man is a
microcosm, then for St. Maximus the universe
is a makranthropos—a man distended,
and so the universe can be contemplated as a man. St.
Maximus states in his work The Church’s
Mystagogy
that “the whole world, made up
of visible and invisible things, is man and
conversely that man made up of body and soul is a
world … intelligible things display the meaning of
the soul, as the soul does that of intelligible
things, and that sensible things display the place of
the body as the body does that of sensible
things.”[10] As body and soul constitutes but one
man, so the visible and invisible aspects of the
universe constitute but one cosmos. As Lars Thunberg
explains, this relationship between man and the
universe does not remain static, but takes on a dynamic
element—“the duality should be transformed
into a unity, unthreatened by dissolution. This task of
unification is attributed to man as microcosm and
mediator.”[11] For St. Maximus, the fact that man is
a microcosm suggests and naturally leads to this
vocation as mediator, in which man
“[recapitulates] in himself the elements of the
entire world, in his body and in his
soul.”[12] Ambiguum 41, as well as
chapters 5 and 7 of The Church’s
Mystagogy
is relevant for the outlining of this
active role of mediating. This role of mediation and
unification, of uniting diversity, with all diversity
preserved, is a consequence of man’s bearing the
image of God, and of man’s personal relationship
with God.

St. Maximus writes of five dualities or divisions in which
man participates by his being, and is called to overcome
in the deification process: created and uncreated,
intelligible and sensible, heaven and earth, paradise and
universe, male and female.[13] Fr. John Meyendorff succinctly
explains how man was intended to mediate between these
divisions:

Originally, man was called to overcome the sexual
opposition by “impassibility,” and to unite
through holiness the universe and paradise, thus
making one single and new earth. He was then to
unite earth and heaven by virtue, in order to make
one single, tangible creation, to unify the
tangible and intelligible worlds by acquiring
angelic gnosis, so that creation might no longer be
divided between those who know and those who do not
know God. Finally, man was to reunite by love
the created and the uncreated, so that in His love for
creation, God might become all in all.
[14]

“Impassibility” here refers to the Patristic
teaching that virginity reigned in the pre-lapsarian
world, and to St. Maximus’ teaching that even the
distinction between sexes only exists because God foreknew
the fall of man, and that man would thus need a means of
procreation. So to abide in virginity would overcome the
gender distinction. For St. Maximus, this mediating work
explains why man was created last, for it is man and man
alone as a natural link who is called to unify the
polarities in creation and offer them to God. As Dragos
Bahrim notes, man is not a mediator simply in his
ontological makeup as body and soul, but man is called to
mediate specifically in his soul by vocation. To incline
towards God and mediate between the divisions of creation
is the guiding principle of man, his
λόγος
φύσεωσ. This idea of
the logoi is central to Maximian theology. He
states: “the logoi, firmly fixed, preexist
in God, in accordance with which all things are and have
become and abide, ever drawing near through natural motion
to their purposed logoi.”[15] Thus the logoi are like a
blueprint, identified with the thoughts and wills of
God for each distinct creature.

However, as we have seen, being in the image of God, man
possesses freedom, and thus he may live in accordance
with, or contrary to his logos physeos. For St.
Maximus, drawing upon many theologians before him, this
points to man’s
τρόπος
ὐπάρξεως—his
mode of existence. He writes, “all innovation is
manifested in relation to the mode
(τρόπος) of the thing
innovated, not its natural principle
(λόγος). The principle,
if it undergoes innovation, corrupts the nature, as the
nature in that case does not maintain inviolate the
principle according to which it exists.”[16] Thus, man’s logos of
existing as body and soul, and his vocation of turning
towards God remains constant, but his tropos
is variable according to his willful decisions.

This leads to St. Maximus’ famous triad,
Being-Well-being-Ever-being.[17] Being and Ever-Being pertain to the
image of God in man, while Well-being, or conversely
Ill-being, pertain to the likeness of God to which man
is called. Simply by existing man obviously possesses
Being, and as the soul is immortal and all bodies will
be resurrected by virtue of Christ’ resurrection,
he too possesses Ever-being. However, according to the
choices man makes through his free will, he attains
either Well-being, that is—a life in Christ, or
Ill-being—a life apart from God. He who achieves
Well-being through a holy mode of existence
accomplishes man’s call to the likeness of God,
and thus will enjoy Ever-well-being, while he who
neglects the commandments of the Lord through his mode
of existence will suffer Ever-ill-being. Adam and
Eve transgressed against the image of God within
them and their logos physeos, and chose a
tropos hyparxeos of disobedience, whereby
Paradise was closed to man until the Incarnate Logos
again opened the doors to us. Thus, St. Maximus writes
that man is given Being at birth, Well-being at
Baptism, and Ever-being at the bodily
resurrection.[18]

As man turned from the Lord, and ate of the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil, he was unable to fulfill his
vocation as mediator of all creation. Meant to rule over
creation in a relationship of love, Adam instead gave
himself over to his senses and became dominated by
creation and his passions, thus preventing the intended
relationships between God and man, and man and creation.
Thus the only true man to ever live, the Incarnate Logos
Christ our Lord mediated the divisions of creation, which
man is again free to effect in his own life. Fr. John
Meyendorff again explains:

By his virginal birth, Christ overcomes the opposition
of the sexes—“In Christ,” says Paul,
“there is neither male nor female” (Gal.
3:28). By his death and resurrection, Christ destroys
the separation that existed since the fall
between paradise and the universe. “Today you shall
be with me in Paradise,” says Christ to
the good thief (Lk 23:43)—giving to the human race
access to the forbidden garden, coming back
himself on earth after his resurrection, and showing that
in himself paradise and the universe are
henceforth one. By his ascension he unites heaven and
earth through the exaltation of the human
body, co-natural and consubstantial with ours, which he
had assumed. By going beyond the angelic
orders with his human soul and body, he restores the
unity between the worlds of sense and of
mind, and establishes the harmony of the whole
creation. Finally, as man, he accomplishes in
all truth the true human destiny that he himself
had predetermined as God, and from which man
had turned: he unites man to God.
[19]

The fate of all creation is tied to that of mankind, its
high priest and mediator, and thus in this turning from
God, the entire cosmos was turned from God. St. Maximus
writes, “in the beginning sin seduced Adam and
persuaded him to transgress God’s commandment … thus
condemning our whole human nature to death and, via
humanity, pressing the nature of (all) created beings
toward mortal extinction.”[20] Through Adam’s sin the original
beauty of creation was tarnished, but through our Lord
Jesus Christ all is and will be restored.

Igumen Damascene (Christensen), abbot of St. Herman's Monastery, Platina, CA
Igumen Damascene (Christensen), abbot of St. Herman’s Monastery, Platina, CA
In his essay “Created in
Incorruption,”[21] Fr.
Damascene of St. Herman’s Monastery in
Platina, CA gives a detailed synopsis of the Patristic
doctrine of pre-lapsarian creation, and the effects of
the fall on mankind and the cosmos, and he draws
heavily from St. Maximus. As Fr. Damascene relays,
regarding man’s physical condition before the
Fall, St. Maximus teaches that Adam and Eve were wholly
without sexual relations and passions;[22] partook of imperishable fruits but
produced no bodily waste;[23] were impervious to cold and heat and
all the elements;[24] were free of all bodily infirmities
and injuries;[25] and thus they were immortal, of
another temperament “held together by qualities
that are simple and without strife. For reason of this
temperament was the first man naked, not as one
fleshless or bodiless, but as one not having the
temperament which makes the flesh denser, mortal, and
tough.”[26] In speaking of bodily temperaments,
St. Maximus is again combating Origenism which taught
that man was fleshless and bodiless before the
Fall.[27] For the Fathers, man’s body was
indeed somehow less physical, and more
spiritualized, but it was still indeed a body of flesh,
just as the risen Christ possessed a body, and yet
could hide His identity and pass through doors.

Fr. Damascene further relates the teachings of St. Maximus
on the condition of man’s mind before the Fall.
According to St. Maximus, man suffered neither from
forgetfulness nor ignorance, and his mind was not
“impressed by the imagination”[28] which, as we know in our condition,
acts as a barrier between man and God and prevents man
from seeing clearly into the cosmos—from
contemplating the logoi of the creation around
him. It is through contemplating these traces of
God’s glory in all of creation that we are able
to raise our nous to God, and thus the wall of
the imagination is a barrier to contemplation of God.

In Ambiguum 45 he further states that man was
free of the “deceitful passions of the
imagination,” and had no need for arts and skills or
the study of nature which he rose above in his
wisdom.[29] Furthermore, an important point for
St. Maximus is that “When God created human
nature, He did not create sensible pleasure and pain
along with it; rather, He furnished it with a certain
spiritual capacity for pleasure, a pleasure whereby
human beings would be able to enjoy God
ineffably.”[30] Clearly man was meant for a reality
that is wholly other than our experience of corruption,
pain, worldly pleasure, and death.

However, as we have said, Adam and Eve sinned and
“Through sin, this cosmos became a place of death
and corruption.”[31] In seeking his nourishment apart from
God, man darkened the image of God within himself and
handed all of creation over to death, which takes us as
“his food.”[32] For St. Maximus, the garments of skin
which Adam and Eve were clothed in by God indicate the
susceptibility to pain and corruption that immediately
befell them. Furthermore, the deceit of the devil,
driven by his self-love which for St. Maximus is the
root of all evil, fractured human nature in its
tropos hyparxeos into a myriad of opinions and
illusions. Through this man discovers all the vices and
drives them into his nature as a law. Especially man
discovers three principle vices: ignorance, tyranny,
and self-love. In short, the Fall – the sin of
Adam, the deceit of the devil, drives man from his
natural contemplation of God to a life governed by the
sensible pleasures of the world which eventually drives
him into the grave.

As we have seen, the Fall was a perversion of man’s
capacity for spiritual pleasure into a hedonistic search
for sensible pleasures, which introduces pain into the
life of man and the cosmos. This dialectic of pleasure and
pain is important for St. Maximus. He writes, “When
God created human nature, He did not create sensible
pleasure and pain along with it … but … the first man,
by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual
capacity—the natural desire of the mind for
God—on sensible things,”[33] and “Every forbidden pleasure
has come to be through passions aroused through the
senses … For desire added to sensual feeling changes
into pleasure, giving it a shape, and sensual
feeling.”[34] Through this redirection of desire,
man became akin to the animals and uses his
intellectual capacities for the satisfaction of base
sensual, self-loving desires and lusts. Conversely,
God, in His great love for mankind, introduced the rule
of pain into our lives as a “punitive and
purgative counter-force into fallen man’s
life.”[35] Of course, pain ultimately leads to
death, and viewed in a soteriological context, it is
seen as a gift from God that brings an end to our
destructive, sinful, and pleasure-seeking lives.
However, in our fallen state we often only seek harder
to find pleasure and avoid pain.

As we have seen, St. Maximus taught that the virginal life
reigned in the Garden before the sin of Adam and Eve.
Thus, the introduction of sexual passions and especially
the rule of sexual procreation is a foremost sign of the
law of pleasure and pain. Sexual intercourse is a result
of sensible pleasure, and gives rise to birth through
pain. In a play on words, St. Maximus teaches that
Adam’s coming into existence
(γένεσισ) was
perverted by the Fall into the law of conception and birth
(γέννησισ)—an
imprisonment from which we can escape only by the birth
(γέννησισ) of
Christ. As Fr. John Meyendorff stated, Christ overcame the
opposition of the sexes through His virginal birth, and
furthermore, He broke the law of pleasure by being born
without pleasure, and He broke the law of pain by His
painless birth, as well as His voluntary and sinless
passion and death which transformed the law of death
“from a judgment of death because of sin, into
judgment upon sin.”[36] St. Maximus writes forcefully and
extensively on this:

After the transgression pleasure naturally
preconditioned the births of all human beings, and no
one at all was by nature free from birth subject to
the passion associated with this pleasure; rather
everyone was requited with sufferings, and
subsequent death, as the natural punishment. The
way to freedom was hard for all who were
tyrannized by unrighteous pleasure and naturally subject
to just suffering and to the thoroughly just
death accompanying them. In order for unrighteous
pleasure, and the thoroughly just death which is its
consequence, to be abolished (seeing as
suffering humanity has been so pitiably torn asunder
by them, with human beings deriving the
beginning of their existence from the corruption
associated with pleasure, and coming to the end
of their life in the corruption of death), and in
order for suffering human nature to be set right,
it was necessary for an unjust and likewise
uncaused suffering and death to be conceived—a
death “unjust” in the sense that
it by no means followed a life given to passions, and
“uncaused” in the
sense
that it was in no way preceded by
pleasure
.[37]

This unjust and uncaused suffering and death is clearly
that of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ overcame the law of pleasure and pain that ruled
over mankind from the time of the Fall, He mediated the
divisions that man was called to in his microcosmic
vocation, and He offered Himself and all of creation back
to the Father. However, He did not accomplish this merely
in our place, but He rather made it possible for us to
once again fulfill our vocation of ascending to God, and
bringing the entire cosmos with us. And if self-love is
the foremost vice, then true love, of God and others and
all creation, is the highest virtue, and thereby we
accomplish our God-given tasks. Love possesses and
fulfills all the other virtues—faith, hope,
humility, meekness, gentleness, mercy, self-control,
patience, long-suffering, kindness, peace, joy, etc.
Through love man inclines his will to that of God, and
thus human nature is no longer at variance with its
logos. By love, in Jesus Christ, the fracturing
of human nature is overcome, and harmony between God and
man is established. According to the Confessor, it is only
through love that man is shown to be truly in the image of
God, for God is Love.[38] Through the Incarnation, God
initiated a reciprocity of love between God and man
that leads to the destruction of egoism and the
deification of man.

One final point is to be made: for St. Maximus, the
greatest experience of love and the journey to deification
happens precisely within in the Church, specifically
within the worship of the Divine Liturgy. As we have seen,
man was initially intended to unite heaven and earth by
virtue, to unify the tangible and intelligible worlds by
acquiring angelic gnosis, and to reunite by

love the created and the uncreated.[39] He states that in the Liturgy, the
Christian soul moves towards experiential theology of
God, acquiring intelligence equal to that of the
angels, able to contemplate the tri-unity of the divine
Godhead, for “the Church is not an ecclesiastical
institution distributing divine grace, but truly a
Mystical Body that represents symbolically the whole
divine-human mystery, the whole mystery of God’s
good counsel, and the economy of
salvation.”[40] In his Mystagogia, he
describes the Church as a figure of God, as an image of
the world, the Church as man and man as the Church, and
the Church as an image of the human soul – a
series of contemplations in which the various layers of
man’s vocation and soteriology unfold, but as is
true for the entire Church, for St. Maximus the
celebration of the Eucharist is the very center of our
entire lives, the movement in which all things are
unified towards God. He states, “… as a
consummation of everything the distribution of the
mystery takes place. It transforms in itself and
renders those who participate worthily, through grace
and participation, similar to the Good which is this
Cause … In this way they may both be and be called
gods through the gift of grace, since God as whole
fills them entirely.”[41] God is Love, and He offered Himself
wholly in His incarnated life, and so through His Body
of the Church and Her worship, man finds his purpose
and the fulfillment of his vocation.

Orthodox theology is cosmological. Man is at the very
center of creation and theology, but He brings the
entirety of creation with him. Charged with the task of
unifying the multiplicity and divisions of creation and
offering it back to God, man instead chose to seek a life
of sensible pleasure apart from the nourishment and
commandments of God. In doing so we lost Paradise and the
blessed life free of corruption, and we plunged into an
existence ruled by the laws of pleasure and pain
ultimately culminating in death for the entire cosmos.
However, in the ultimate act of love, God the Word became
Incarnate and dwelt among us, fulfilling the roles that
Adam had laid aside. Through the kenotic love of Christ we
can once again take up our true life and ascend ever
closer to the divine life of the Trinity, which the
regenerated man accomplishes through love in the worship
of the Church. St. Maximus the Confessor is a luminary of
this theological vision in his writings and in his life.
By the grace of God may this divine plan be fulfilled
through us in the Holy Church.

* * *

Works Cited

—BAHRIM, Dragos. “The Anthropic Cosmology of St
Maximus the Confessor.” Journal for
Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and
Science
3 (2008): 11-37.
.

—Hieromonk Damascene. “Created in Incorruption:
The Orthodox Patristic Understanding of Man and the
Cosmos in Their Original, Fallen, and Redeemed
States.” The Orthodox Word
44.258-259 (2008): 9-99.

—Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the
Eastern Church
. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary, 1976.

—Meyendorff, John. Christ in Eastern Christian
Thought
. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary, 1987.

—Sherwood, Polycarp. The Earlier Ambigua of
Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Refutation of

Origenism. Romae: Orbis Catholicus,
1955.

—St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of
Man.

—St. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox
Faith.

—St. Maximus the Confessor. Ad Thalassium.
Patrologia Graecae, vol. 90.

—St. Maximus the Confessor. Ambigua.
Patrologia Graecae, vol. 91.

—St. Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogy.
Patrologia Graecae, vol. 91

—St. Maximus the Confessor. On the Cosmic
Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St.

Maximus the Confessor. Trans. Paul M.
Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. Crestwood,
NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2003.

—St. Maximus the Confessor. “The Church’s
Mystagogy.” Maximus Confessor: Selected
Writings
. Trans.George C. Berthold. New York:
Paulist, 1985.

—St. Nicodemus. A Handbook of Spiritual
Counsel
. Trans. Peter A. Chamberas. New York:
Paulist, 1989

—Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: the Vision
of St. Maximus the Confessor
. Crestwood, NY: St.
Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985

—Thunberg, Lars. Microcosm and Mediator: the
Theological Anthropology of Maximus the

Confessor. 2nd ed. Chicago: Open Court
Pub., 1995.

—Tollefsen, Torstein. The Christocentric
Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor
. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 2008.
Christocentric-Cosmology-of-St-Maximus-the-Confessor.

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