St Maximos the Confessor on Christ's Relationship to Human Sin

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Fr. Maximos Constas


(This is the second of a four-part essay on the question of Christ's 'repentance'. To read the entire essay, click here.)


The distinction established in the fourth century by Gregory the Theologian was taken up by various Church Fathers and given elaborate development in the seventh century by Maximos the Confessor, to whom we may now turn.


In his response to an exegetical question concerning 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him to be sin who knew no sin”), Maximos begins by addressing the fall of Adam, which he differentiates into two distinct moments, suggesting that, with Adam’s transgression, two falls took place. The first fall was Adam’s freely chosen rejection of good for evil. The second, which came about as a result of the first, was the alteration of human nature from incorruptibility to corruption. The first fall, the Confessor says, was blameworthy, but the second was blameless:


Because Adam’s natural power of free choice was corrupted first, it corrupted nature together with itself, losing the grace of impassibility. And thus, the fall of free choice from the good toward evil became the first and blameworthy sin. The second sin, which came about as a result of the first, was the blameless alteration of nature from incorruptibility to corruption. Thus, two sins came about in the forefather through his transgression of the divine commandment: the first was blameworthy, but the second was blameless, having been caused by the first. The first was a sin of free choice, which voluntarily abandoned the good, but the second was of nature, which involuntarily and as a consequence of free choice lost its immortality.[1]


It is clear that there are two senses of “sin” that are operative here, namely, the sin of Adam and the sin of human nature, which latter is not sin properly speaking but rather the state of nature resulting from sin, which is marked by passibility, corruption, and death. It is called “sin” by metonymy because in itself it is involuntary and blameless. A contemporary scholion on this passage explains that: “The sin of nature is death, through which we are taken from existence against our will. The sin of free choice, on the other hand, is the choosing of things that are contrary to nature, by which we willingly fall away from well-being.”[2]


It follows that Maximos understands the fall as taking place on two intertwined but nonetheless distinct levels, namely, human self-determination and human nature, and this is the key to understanding his doctrine of the Incarnation. In response to another exegetical question (Colossians 2:15: “He stripped off the principalities and authorities”), Maximos argues that the Word assumed human nature in a correspondingly differentiated way, combining specific features of pre- and postlapsarian nature. On the one hand, the Word assumed the sinlessness (τὸ ἀναμάρτητον) of Adam’s original creation, and on the other the passibility (τὸ παθητόν) introduced into human nature through the fall and biological reproduction. In both cases, Maximos adds a critical qualification: whereas the Word assumed the sinlessness of Adam, he did not assume his incorruptibility (ἀφθαρσία); and whereas he assumed human passibility (through the blameless passions), he did not assume sin: “In order to rescue human nature, the Word of God, when he became perfect man out of love for mankind, assumed the sinlessness—but not the incorruption—of Adam’s constitution according to his creaturely origin (γένεσις). He also assumed the passibility—but not the sin—from the birth (γέννησις) that was subsequently introduced into human nature.”[3]


In another passage, Maximos brings these anthropological and Christological considerations to bear on Christ’s work of redemption:


Christ is the “curse” that God the Father sent forth “upon the face of the whole earth” (Zech 5:3), which in reality is the curse of the true curse. Adam’s primal disobedience ushered in the curse through transgression, preventing the commandment from bearing fruits of righteousness, through which creation would have received the blessing. In response, he who by nature is the Blessing of God the Father placed himself under the curse of Adam, becoming a curse upon the curse in order to oppose sin and cast down disobedience … and at the same time to render creation barren of its growth in sin. For according to the divine Apostle, he who freed me from my curse and “took away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) became for my sake a sin and a curse (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). For I was subject to two curses: the one was the fruit of my own free will, that is, sin, through which the soul’s fecundity for virtue fell to earth; the other was death, to which nature was justly condemned on account of my free will, pushing nature by necessity, and against its own wishes, to that place where the movement of my own free choice had sown it by the inclination of my free will.[4]


Once again, there are two senses of sin operative here, the blameless “sin of nature,” that is, corruptibility, and the personal sin of individual free choice, which Maximos refers to as “my sin,” designating what is personal and voluntary, and it is this latter sense of sin that is absent in Christ, whose human will was always united to God. The repeated use of the phrase “my sin” is how the Confessor differentiates Christ’s sinless nature from human sin: “The Lord did not know my sin, that is, the turning away of my free will; he did not assume my sin, neither did he become my sin, but he became sin because of me, that is, he assumed the corruption of nature which came about through the turning away of my free choice.”[5] In a related passage using the plural “our sins,” Maximos discusses the same question in an exegesis of the biblical king Zerubbabel, which he calls a “mystical contemplation,” indicating that this is a matter of profound significance:


Let us now turn to another mystical contemplation, which presents us with the original truth of the biblical text. The true and new Zerubbabel, who is announced figuratively through the old one, is our Lord and God Jesus Christ, who, in the confusion of our nature,[6] was conceived, formed in the womb, born, and became perfect man according to nature, so that by separating our nature from confusion he might lead it back to himself. For he did not become a captive together with us, neither was he dragged away into the captivity of the passions, “for he committed no sin, neither was there any guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22; Is 53:9). Instead, he was born among captives as if he were also a captive, and he was “reckoned among transgressors” (Mk 15:28; Is 53:12), “assuming the likeness of the flesh of sin and concerning sin” (Rom 8:3). He was in the “likeness of the flesh of sin,” for whereas by nature he is impassible God, he deemed it worthy in his plan of salvation to become a naturally passible human being, without suffering any change in his divinity. And this was “concerning sin” inasmuch as he was led to death on account of our sins, and “for the sake of our sins he suffered, and on account of our sins he was wounded, and bruised on account of our iniquities, so that by his bruises we might be healed” (cf. Is 53:4-5).[7]


In Maximos’s understanding of the incarnation, the either/or dilemma of “fallen” or “unfallen” human nature gives way to a much more complex model, to which we may now add one more layer of complexity. In his later Christological writings, Maximos introduced a new concept into his understanding of Christ’s work of redemption, namely, the notion of “appropriation” (οἰκείωσις), which he took from Gregory the Theologian. Like Gregory, Maximos endeavored to show that while Christ cannot be the bearer of a sinful nature, he can be the bearer or carrier of sin. In a work written not long after he was drawn into the Monothelite controversy, Maximos notes that because sin is not an essential element of human nature, it cannot be ascribed to the human nature of Christ. The only way that non-essential items can be predicated of him is “by means of his compassionate appropriation (οἰκειώσει μόνον δι᾽ οἶκτον), for he is the head of the entire body, just like a doctor facing the sufferings of the sick, so that he might heal our wounds through the power of his embodiment.”[8]


Maximos has more to say about the nature of Christological “appropriation,” but at this point it will be helpful to turn to John of Damascus, who developed Maximos’s ideas in the great Christological synthesis which comprises the whole of book III of his On the Orthodox Faith. John includes an entire section on οἰκείωσις, which incorporates extensive verbatim citations from Maximos, along with some elements that are new.


(This is the second of a four-part essay. To read the essay in its entirety, click here.)

 

[1] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42.2, translated by Maximos Constas, Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 241-42.

[2] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42, scholion 1 (Constas, 244).

[3] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 21.4 (Constas, 145).

[4] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 62.7 (Constas, 454-55).

[5] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 42.3 (Constas 242-43).

[6] Maximos had previously noted that the name Zerubbabel means “rising out of confusion” or “rising in confusion” (Responses to Thalassios 54.2-3) (Constas, 333-34).

[7] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 54.14 (Constas, 340-41).

[8] Maximos the Confessor, Opusculum 29 (PG 91:237B), dated to 641; compare id., Opusculum 19 (PG 91:220), dated to post-ca. 643 and perhaps 645; id., Opusculum 9 (PG 91:128A), dated to late 645 and possibly later; and id., Disputation with Pyrrhus (PG 91:304AB), dated to 645; and see the remarks of François-Marie Léthel, Théologie de l’agonie du Christ. La liberté humaine du Fils de Dieu et son importance sotériologique mises en lumière par saint Maxime le Confesseur (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), 50-51.