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Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ: Clarity and Ambiguity

Blowers, Paul M.

For years I have been perplexed as to why Maximus the Confessor,
in his articulate christological formulations in the seventh century, ultimately decided that Jesus Christ, as fully human, had only a natural human will (θέλημα φυσική), and so forcefully ruled against the possibility that he also had a "gnomic" (or "deliberative") will (γνώμη) in the manner of fallen human beings. In the words of Maximus' own beloved predecessor, Gregory Nazianzen, "what is not assumed is not healed." Though not alone in this concern, I’ve made a regular pest of myself broaching this issue in numerous patristics conferences (most recently the 2011 Oxford Patristics Conference) anytime an essay on Maximus would even remotely touch on the matter. The answer I get represents a fairly hardened scholarly consensus. Accordingly, Maximus, in working out his understanding of the Chalcedonian definition, still required a certain asymmetry in the composite hypostasis of Christ, since it is the divine hypostasis of the Son who united with and divinized the humanity of Jesus. In this case only a "natural" human will could be truly deified, not a gnomic will prone to vacillation.

I agree with this consensus in general, and it has been strengthened all the more in an excellent recent study by Ian McFarland comparing Maximus’ doctrine of the will with that of Augustine. McFarland has cogently argued the plausibility of Maximus' denial of γνώμη in Christ as a function of his strong sense that "natural" human will, as modeled in Christ, is not antecedently "constrained" by the will of the divine Creator but a manifestation of the gracious stability of human will in concert with deifying divine grace. Indeed, Christ has effectively liberated human willing from the disastrous illusion of "autonomy" that characterizes human existence after the fall.


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Union Seminary Quarterly Review

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Union Theological Seminary
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September 15, 2015