St. Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios
Fr. Maximos Constas, Translator
Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2018
St. Maximos the Confessor is one of the most difficult and yet most rewarding patristic writers to read. As St. Photios the Great once indicated, he can be subtle and difficult to understand. This is because most of his writings are not meant for theological novices. He engages, criticizes, and develops the theological tradition which was handed down to him, answering questions which arise as a result of that tradition. He expects his readers to know the basics of that tradition and to be in agreement with it, making it rare for him to explain that tradition and establish its principles in detail before providing his unique theological contemplations. While this is true for most of Maximos’ writings, this is especially true for the answers to the sixty-five scriptural questions given to him by his friend, St. Thalassios.
Fr. Maximos Constas has done a fine job of not only translating Maximos’ text, but also of introducing the text and giving readers unfamiliar with Maximos’ theological premises the foundation that they need to understand his responses. Likewise, he has done a tremendous service by offering the scholia which went with the text. He explains that the two go together, with Maximos writing at least some of the scholia and the whole being seen and used together by later writers, such as those who edited his works for the Philokalia. The scholia can be very useful, as they provide a kind of engaged summary of what Maximos wrote, complementing the main text by making it more accessible. However, as is mentioned in various footnotes, sometimes the scholia differ with what Maximos wrote in the main text, making it sometimes difficult to trust all that is found in the scholia.
As Constas states, the context of the questions is important for our understanding of the answers given. Thalassios has asked about the relevance of various scriptural passages for those engaged in an active ascetic life. The concern throughout the text is to find the practical application for scriptural passages which seem to have little to no bearing on the daily lives of monks. Maximos writes as a spiritual advisor, believing that the meaning and value of Scripture lies not in the letter of history, but in the various meanings intended by the author which lay beyond the letter of the text. He believes that if we are too overly concerned with historical events, and so ask questions about historical concerns, we will be diverted away from the intention behind Scripture. Historical events, as they are written in Scripture, have value, but Scripture is not intended to be a history book, dealing with past events which have no bearing on our lives today. As it is not a history book, it does not follow that all the descriptions provided are accurate historical representations of the events described. We should read Scripture for the divine truths which can be found in the midst of history. For Maximos, this often means that we should seek after allegorical or spiritual readings of Scripture, following a hermeneutical paradigm which was common in his era but which many modern readers of Scripture feel uncomfortable pursuing.
Key to Maximos’ thought is his ascetic engagement with the bodily passions or desires; he believes these passions lead us to pursue material pleasure while ignoring our spiritual needs. After humanity fell into sin, he states that we have become overly attached to material things, finding and taking pleasure in our engagement with them and suffering pain and sorrow as a consequence of our pursuit of such pleasure. Inordinate pleasure leads to some sort of suffering as its lasting effect. Such passions need to be overcome with discipline. We must redirect our desires away from mere material being and back towards God. The birth of Jesus disrupted the causality established in the fall by having the God-man take up and experience suffering without its corresponding inordinate pleasure. Disconnecting suffering from its source, He can reorder creation through His death and resurrection, redirecting it back to God.
As a result of his ascetic concern, many of Maximos’ answers reflect and explain the meaning of Scripture as it relates to our own struggle against the passions so that we can overcome them and join ourselves in Christ. He sees Scripture giving us many allegories which represent this battle against our inordinate desires and the victory that we can have, thanks to Jesus. Those not used to this kind of exegesis might think such interpretations tend to be arbitrary; however, because Maximos uses a lived and thriving tradition to engage Scripture, it can be said to be far from arbitrary. The methods he uses in his analysis—such as looking to the meaning of various names and using those meanings to indicate spiritual principles—is a traditional method borrowed from his predecessors. He does not make arbitrary interpretations which suit his goal. This can be seen in the way Constas provides insight into Maximos’ sources in the footnotes, indicating those sources and ideas which Maximos was likely reflecting upon and using as he wrote his answers to Thalassios.
In his difficult, long, and important text Maximos provides impressive theological insight. To properly do his work justice, one will have to reread his ideas several times to grasp all his nuances and receive the full benefit of his spiritual guidance. Nonetheless, it is probably best to read the work once as a whole in order to get a general overview of his thought, which then will make subsequent reading of various questions and answers easier to grasp. It certainly is not a book which is meant to be read once and quickly tossed aside.
Despite how invaluable the text is, there is one serious issue which shows itself especially at the end of the book, a defect which cannot be glossed over and ignored: anti-Semitism. Maximos equates Jewish interpretations of Scripture with an overly literal interpretation of the text (showing ignorance of those Jewish commentators who were not so literal in their reading). When he rejects one, he rejects the other, saying that the Jews misunderstood the intention of Scripture, which is why they did not understand and follow Jesus. As a consequence, Maximos slowly says more and more against the Jews until he no longer relies upon a mild anti-Semitism but truly denigrates them in an unseemly fashion, such as when he writes, “And this is true, even if the envious Jewish people—those ungrateful, graceless misanthropes, who are hostile to all philanthropy, and who are thus pained by the salvation of mankind, and so dare to fight against the goodness of God—grind their teeth, renounce life, and make the salvation of the Gentiles in Christ a cause for mourning” (508).
As with many other saints, such as St. John Chrysostom, we can recognize Maximos’ greatness and the value of his writings, but also see him gravely influenced by beliefs and attitudes which were common in his day and which we should reject and even criticize. We should not hide ourselves from these flaws, but rather recognize them so that we can overcome them and not be tempted to fall back into them as we study the past. Indeed, to ignore such defects will only allow them to come back and haunt us in the future. Likewise, to ignore the wisdom of someone who fell into some grave error will prevent us from learning what they got right. We need to correct and purify what we receive in the tradition without ignoring or expunging its mistakes. Likewise, knowing that saints were human with human failings should give us relief knowing that our failings, our evil thoughts, our evil actions which others will be able to discern in us, will not necessarily hinder our salvation. Grace perfects nature before it lifts it up and deifies it. Holiness is from God.
St. Maximos’ Responses to Thalassios is a major patristic work which has long been neglected in English. Thanks to the Fathers of the Church series published by the Catholic University of America Press, those wanting to seek after and engage the wisdom of Maximos can do so as never before; but they must come prepared, expecting difficulties as they read the text. They must be willing to consider how they could apply what Maximos wrote to their own lives.
This is not an easy task, but one which is bound to be fruitful.
Henry Karlson is an independent Byzantine Catholic scholar who holds an MA in Theology from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He blogs at A Little Bit of Nothing on the Patheos website. See his summary of his The Eschatological Judgment of Christ: The Hope of Universal Salvation and the Fear of Eternal Perdition in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
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