Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I.
Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume II (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 29), ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2014; hardback; pp. 400; R.R.P. US$29.95, 19.95 [pounds sterling], 23.50 [euro]; ISBN 9780674730830.
The Eastern Church of the seventh century reinterpreted Greek philosophy in novel ways as it dealt with various heresies and developments in theology. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in the writings of Maximos 'the Confessor', who had his tongue cut out for continuing to teach a dyothelite Christology at odds with the imperially acclaimed Monothelite position. This two-volume set by Nicholas Constas is the first English translation of some of the most important writings of Maximos. It is well presented and sure to attract attention because of the significance of the ideas discussed.
Some of Maximos s most philosophical works were written in reply to questions he received about the writings of earlier Church Fathers. His 'Ambigua' were written over a number of years in response to these questions and provide explanations of somewhat unclear wording in the writings of St Gregory the Theologian. They often use a mix of Neoplatonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics to explain these issues which were not dry, abstract topics but central to the then-current debates on Christology. This work thus provides rich insights into how Gregory was received and reinterpreted in the context of the debates of the seventh century. It also presents the creative thinking of Maximos that in turn became foundational for Eastern theology.
Constas introduces the work of Maximos admirably, clearly explaining in his Introduction key concepts in Maximoss thought as well as the nuances of specific Greek theological terminology. His endnotes on various words and phrases are clear and relevant and are well chosen. This makes some complex ideas accessible to modern readers who are unfamiliar with Greek theological metaphysics. The translation is fresh and consistent, and is in clear English yet retaining the flavour of the original. This shows that much thought was put into this work and Constas is to be commended.
Aristotelian categories and concepts were frequent in both Gregory and Maximoss thought and this translation captures these terms and mindsets well. Gregory often discussed ideas such as monad, dyad, moved, causing to move, and so on, and Maximos explained the meaning of these clearly. He also showed how Gregory was not a cause of alarm for any seventh-century Christian who was suspicious of imported non-Christian ideas, and how a correct application of Greek philosophy created clarity in Christian theology.
Much of Gregory's work was clearly related to his times and the current theological debates and the same is true of Maximos. The Confessor shows how Gregory was answering specific issues and thus how his words should not be misunderstood. Indeed, when properly understood, the teaching of Gregory becomes relevant to seventh-century heresies. For example, Maximos s discussion of how the two natures in Christ should be contemplated is clear and relevant to current Eastern Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox debates. His explanation of when Christ should be seen as a single hypostasis or as two united natures overcomes several long-standing debated issues. Maximos creatively interpreted Gregory while remaining faithful to his position. In this he showed great intelligence yet integrity.
Not all of Maximoss comments, however, were on controversial points or on contemplative theology, as he frequently referred to ascetic practices, the virtues, and the importance of crucifying the flesh. He discussed self-mortification in relation to the theology of Christs incarnation and avoided any dry, abstracted thought. For both Gregory and Maximos, real theology was a lived practice, and this translation brings this out consistently well.
One example is in Ambiguum 42, where there is an extensive consideration of how Christ assumed the pre-Fall Adamic human nature. The incarnation raised many questions for theologians, and Maximos builds on Gregorys teaching to distance Orthodoxy from various errors. Maximos shows that Christ's humanity did not suffer passion and was not liable to sin. He emphasises at the same time that Jesus was truly human and the wearer of real human flesh. His distinction between a nature subject to sin, but not dominated by it, is precise and well argued, and so it is understandable that his theology became so central to medieval Orthodox thinking.
At points, Maximos uses allegorical interpretations to explain the hidden meanings of various passages, for example, showing that something signifies reason or the passions. Yet his explanations never taught any new ideas and instead creatively used stories to point to accepted doctrines. In this, he was different from more Origenist allegorical interpreters and showed himself both practical yet traditional.
One important aspect of this translation is that it sheds further light on the early seventh-century Church's approach to Greek philosophy during the time of the beginnings of Islam. Early Islamic scholars dealt with some of the issues discussed in this work over the succeeding two centuries so these volumes provide an important source text for understanding some aspects of Al-Kindi, al-Ash'ari, and others. By the time the reader is finished with Maximos, concepts like the will, natures, species, genus, and causation will be well understood. How these metaphysical ideas were applied in the early medieval period by both Christians and Muslims is at the root of later Western philosophical development. Many ideas in Aquinas and Anselm cannot be fully appreciated without understanding this historic development.
Maximos's thought is critical in Orthodox theological development, and is again taking a prominent place especially in the light of recent Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox discussions on historic differences and possible reunion. Constas's translation and presentation of this critical text is of a very high standard and is thus timely and essential. His volumes will be of great interest to any historian of medieval theology or anyone interested in developments in Orthodox theology and possible church reunion.
JOHN D'ALTON, Monash University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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