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“The Church as New Creation”: Chapter 1 of the Mystagogy of St Maximos the Confessor

Fr Maximos Constas

Written around the year 630, St Maximos’s Mystagogy was intended for a cultivated Christian audience. The first part of the work, chapters 1-7, sets forth the theological and philosophical foundations that inform the Confessor’s ecclesiological vision of the Church as the vital nexus of cosmology, anthropology, the Incarnation, and the liturgical movement of all creation toward deification in Christ. As has often been pointed out, the Mystagogy marks the first time in the history of Christian thought that the Church and the Eucharistic synaxis became the focus of sustained and systematic theological reflection.

San Marco Dome, Pappas Patristic Institute

The Unifying Activity of God

With this third installment* in a series of essays on the Mystagogy, we have arrived at chapter 1, the title of which is: “How and in what manner the Church is a figure and image of God.” As becomes clear in the first sentence, Maximos’s aim in this chapter is not to develop a general analogy between the Church and God, but rather to describe how God and the Church share the same power and activity of unification. Thus, the power of God to unify the parts of creation is continuous with the Church’s ability to unify the members of its body, making the Church a “new creation” (cf. Rev 21:5; 2 Cor 5:17). Far from being merely an elegant metaphor, Maximos’s analogy rests on an ontological description of the world in which logic, metaphysics, and theology are all intertwined.

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

In the initial act of creation, God brings all things into existence, gathers them together, and unites them, not only to one another, but also to himself. The created order is thus the manifestation of a wise and providential divine power that brings all things into an unconfused identity of movement and substance. The metaphysical key here is the notion of causality, in which the power of the divine cause abides in its effects and the effects in their cause. And since all things have one and the same cause, this means that they are also united with each other. Maximos binds together the multiform elements of creation through a realist approach to universals and particulars in which the two are united through a robust ontological interdependence.

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

For the Confessor, universals are not mere mental abstractions extrapolated from an aggregate of particular entities, but have a real if dependent existence. Maximos articulates this internal arrangement of created being in terms of wholes and parts as well as genera and species. For example, a natural group of organisms has an invariant, generalized or idealized genus (such as “animal”) shared by all members of the group, so that each species (such as “lions,” followed by successive sub-species) shares the essence of the genus, and each individual in the species shares the essence of the species, so that the genus is systematically subdivided into specific types and sub-types.[1] What is important here is that Maximos holds that universals depend on particulars for their existence, which means they have no existence outside their localization in concrete, particular entities. Consequently, both universals and particulars, wholes and parts, are mutually dependent on each other.

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

But Maximos reaches down to an even deeper level than the genera of species, and grounds creaturely ontology on being itself, in which all creatures participate. In this way, the fullness of being exists undivided in individuals, which is to say that nature is not divided by the individuals who participate in it. Being (or substance), extending through a process of increasing differentiation, is propelled by the power of motion.[2] Though beings may be highly diverse in their forms and structures, and though their motions may become highly specified and individualized, they are all essentially derived from the same inborn generic power to move. This common generic motion is an “existential impetus” given to them by God, so that nature as a whole forms a single dynamic process. To be, in a very real sense, means to be set in motion by God.[3]

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

The result is that all creatures are united without confusion in their unique relation to God as their cause. This relation does not violate their natures or destroy them, but raises them up from being simple parts into a greater whole.[4] Not unlike individual cells that have their cause or higher principle in the organisms of which they are parts, and the organisms within their species, and species in their relations among themselves, the entire universe has its unifying cause in something beyond itself. The cause itself, however, does not have a cause over and above it, since it infinitely transcends all created causes and “for all infinity is infinitely beyond all things an infinite number of times.”[5]

The Unifying Activity of the Church

Having presented God’s unifying activity manifested in the ontological structures immanent within creation, Maximos proceeds to show how this same activity is manifested on a new level in the Church:

The Church of God brings about the same things in the same manner as God does in creation, just as an image relates to its archetype. For numerous are the men, women, and children who are distinct from one another in race, class, nation, language, occupation, age, manners, customs and pursuits, and who are divided from one another in their achievements, skills, and position, yet in the Church they are all reborn and recreated by the Spirit,[6] who freely gives them in equal measure one divine form and designation, namely, to have both their being and their name from Christ. Through faith, this one, simple, indivisible and undivided condition[7] does not allow the many differences between them to be known by virtue of their universal relation (ἀναφορά) and union in the Church. No one is separated from the community because everyone has grown together and been joined to one another according to the one, simple, and undivided grace and power of faith.[8] For it says that “the heart and soul of all was one” (cf. Acts 4:32), just as a body is composed of different members but is and is seen to be one, and this body is truly worthy of Christ himself, “who is our head” (cf. Col 1:18), and thus “there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all” (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).[9]

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

In this passage, Maximos describes the Church as giving new birth to its members who come from the world in all their natural, cultural, and social diversity. The “rebirth” and the “re-creation” that brings about their transformation is the sacrament of baptism, and in particular the gift of the Holy Spirit, who bestows upon them “one divine form and designation.” As Maximos makes clear, this “divine form” (θεία μορφή) is the form of Christ himself, given by the Spirit who, as it were, broods over the baptismal waters of a new creation, shaping the form of Christ on the formless face of the soul (cf. Gen 1:2). Together with the form of Christ, the members also receive his “designation” or “name” (προσηγορία), the divine name that reveals their new existence in Christ. Here we may note parenthetically that Maximos has anticipated the later theology of the icon, which required that every icon bear the form and name of its archetype.[10]

With their new mode of being in Christ, the members of the Church become the spiritual members of Christ’s body, their individual differences being overcome through their “universal relation and union in the Church.” Here, the word “relation” translates the Greek word ἀναφορά, which signifies a “rising up” or a “carrying back.” In English translations of the Mystagogy, this instance of ἀναφορά is typically rendered as “reference,” in the sense of reporting or referring something back to a standard. However, ἀναφορά is also the technical term for the offering and consecration of the gifts in the Divine Liturgy, when, that is, things that are earthly and created are transformed and become the body and blood of Christ. In the context of a work like the Mystagogy, it would be difficult to ignore the profound liturgical significance of this word, which Maximos regularly uses to describe the return of all things to their source in God.[11]

The New Creation

If the different parts of the created world are held together in the unity of the whole and in their bond with God as their cause, the members of the Church are held together in the unity of faith, which is a gift of grace bestowed upon them through baptism in the Holy Spirit. In this way, the physical laws operating in creation are paralleled in the spiritual law, the reality of grace, operating in the new creation of the Church. The “whole” which gives the faithful their common form and shape, and of which they are the parts, is the body of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who through his incarnation became the head of the body of the Church.[12] Human beings, who were formerly divided by what St Maximos calls “an almost infinite number of differences,” are united to one another through the Spirit in Christ, who incorporates them into himself, in the name of the same cause, the same wise and providential power of goodness, by which all things in creation are directed and held together in a unified existence of love.

San Marco Dome, Creation, Pappas Patristic Institute

It follows, then, that Christ’s work in the Church is not different from God’s work in creation, but he rather perfects the work of creation in the Church. God’s work of uniting all things to himself in creation is brought to completion in Christ through the same activity that now unites the faithful in a new creation, a new heaven and earth, manifested through the grace of the Spirit in the Church.

Note: For this post, we have used images from the early thirteenth-century Dome of the Creation in the narthex of the church of San Marco, in Venice, Italy. The individual scenes in the Dome were copied from a fifth- or sixth-century Greek illuminated manuscript of the Book of Genesis, probably produced in Alexandria, Egypt. The manuscript was presented to Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and subsequently came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) (after whom it is now known as “The Cotton Genesis”). Unfortunately, the manuscript was badly damaged in a fire in 1731. The heat left the manuscript partly burned and charred and caused many of the pages to shrink, though enough survives to attest to the manuscript’s landmark importance in the history of late-antique book illumination. Cotton’s vast collection of manuscripts was eventually given to the British Museum, which now houses the remains of the Cotton Genesis. Maximos the Confessor most probably spent a period of time in Alexandria in the company of high-ranking city officials, and thus it is not entirely unlikely that he saw the manuscript in question, and therefore the original versions of the images pictured here.

To be continued …

Saint Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy, Pappas Patristic Institute

* Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

[1] Maximos, Amb. 10.89 (DOML 1:289-91). The Greek musical system reflects a common scale of divisions, in which the central octave is divided into two principal parts, each spanning a fourth, and separated by a tone; see Andrew Barker, Greek Musical Writing: Harmonic and Acoustic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 11; and note Maximos’s musical metaphor in chap. 5 of the Mystagogy.

[2] Following the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible, “motion” here is not locomotion from one place to another, but an intelligible motion signifying the highest form of causation; on which, see Stephen E. Gersh, ΚΙΝΗΣΙΣ ΑΚΙΝΗΤΟΣ. A Study of Spiritual Motion in the Philosophy of Proclus (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973); and Sotiris Mitralexis, Ever-Moving Repose: A Contemporary Reading of Maximus the Confessor’s Theory of Time (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 93-124.

[3] Here I am helped by Sebastian Mateiescu’s excellent study, “The Doctrine of Immanent Realism in Maximus the Confessor,” in Platonism and Christian Thought in Late Antiquity, ed. Panagiotis G. Pavlos et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 201-219. See also Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, “A Metaphysics of Holomerism,” in Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher, ed. Sotiris Mitralexis et al. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 24-24; and Christophe Erismann, “Maximus the Confessor on the Logical Dimension of the Structure of Reality,” in The Architecture of the Cosmos. St Maximus the Confessor: New Perspectives, ed. Antonie Lévy et al. (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society, 2015), 51-69. See also Verity Harte, Plato on Parts and Wholes: The Metaphysics of Structure (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

[4] The language used to describe the union of diverse elements in creation is formally and often literally that of the Council of Chalcedon, since Maximos’s cosmology is largely determined by Christology and soteriology, though space does not permit an investigation of these themes.

[5] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 63.9; cf. ibid. 60.3.

[6] ἀναγεννωμένων τε καὶ ἀναδημιουργουμένων τῷ Πνεύματι.

[7] σχέσις.

[8] συμπεφυκότων ἀλλήλοις καὶ συνημμένων κατὰ τὴν μίαν ἁπλῆν τε καὶ ἀδιαίρετον τῆς πίστεως χάριν καὶ δύναμιν.

[9] Mystagogy 1 (slightly paraphrased).

[10] See, for example, Theodore the Studite, Antirrheticus I.9; II.17 (PG 99:340A; 361BD). In Amb. 21.15, Maximos contends that “the Gospel possesses the image (εἰκών) of true things, and through this image those who choose the life of the Gospel will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even perhaps, become the Lord himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (DOML 1:445).

[12] This is the great theme of consubstantiality that Nikolaos Loudovikos has rightly highlighted in the thought of St Maximos; see his Church in the Making: An Apophatic Ecclesiology of Consubstantiality, translated by Norman Russell (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), 43-60.


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