The Concept of the Gnomic Will in St. Maximus the Confessor

Theological students (and, apparently, especially converts) sometimes tend to act if they are omniscient when it comes to theological matters. Yet, this last semester in my Church History class, as we were going over the monothelite controversy1 it became quite apparent that no one really knew what St. Maximus’ doctrine of the gnomic will was. Some suggested that it was an additional will acquired at the fall (it’s not), others – rather most – remained silent, likely to avoid espousing heresy. Me, being one of those omniscient theological students (and, even worse, a convert!) decided to read multiple books on St. Maximus’ theology and even had my girlfriend buy me On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ for my name-day present. This blog post is a rather modest attempt to explain what the gnomic will in its most basic form. I profess that I am by no means an expert on Maximus, having only read a few monographs and some direct sources, but I do believe it is enough to flesh out the concept for others to understand at a rudimentary level.

In his works, St. Maximus uses a variety of words interchangeably and inconsistently, a style that can make his work quite difficult to weave through (Bathrellos 120).2 However, this cannot be solely attributed to the saint as Maximus discovered, for example, “that the term ‘gnomie’ has many different meanings in the Holy Scriptures and in the Holy Fathers” which called for careful discernment to identify the multiple nuances.3 However, in his Disputation with Pyrrhus, Maximus articulates a distinction between the will as a faculty of nature, and the mode of willing which relates to the hypostasis:

“The will and the mode of willing are not the same, just as the power of sight and the mode of perception are not the same. Will, like sight, is of nature. All things which have identical nature have identical abilities. But the mode of willing, like the mode of perception – in other words, to will to walk or to will not to walk, and the perception of the right hand or of the left, or of up or down, or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the rational principles in beings – is only a mode of the use of a power, of the employment of will and of perception. And the same distinction may be applied to other things as well. These things demonstrate that have, by nature, the will to eat or not to eat, to walk or not to walk. But these negatives are not applicable to the will as such, but only to the particular mode of willing.”4

The distinction is absolutely vital, for if the natural will is located in the hypostasis as the monothelists believed, then either the one will of God implied Sabellianism since there would only be one hypostasis, or that the three persons of the Trinity implied that there were three different wills:

“For if one suggests that a ‘willer’ is implied in the notion of the will, then by the exact inversion of this principle of reasoning, a will is implied in the notion of a ‘willer.’ Thus, will you say that because of the one will of the superessential Godhead there is only one hypostasis, as did Sabellius, or that because there are three hypostases there are also three wills, and because of this, three natures as well, since the canons and definitions of the Fathers say that the distinction of wills implies a distinction of natures? So said Arius!”5

With the distinction between the natural will and the mode of willing, we can now begin to understand the gnomic will. The gnomic will is “one sub-category within the much larger category of ‘the mode of willing’” which relates to “a mode of willing, but is so ‘in relation to some real or assumed good.’” Farrell’s quotation from Maximus, that the gnomic will relates to “some real or assumed good,” means that “the gnomic will is a form of actualization of the human natural will that is marked by sinfulness,” since our deliberation means we are subject to “ignorance…to mutability, to the possibility of committing evil deeds, to passions and to actual sinfulness,” all realities that pertain to fallen human hypostases.6 Thus, Christ lacks a gnomic will since his hypostasis is that of the second member of the Trinity, the Logos. While one might claim this diminishes Christ’s humanity, it does not, “for gnome does not pertain to the logos of nature (λόγος φύσεως) but is a mode of use (τρόπος χρήσεως) through which we gain experience of the ways in which the good is achieved.”7 Thus, Maximus says, “the humanity of Christ does not simply subsist [in a manner] similar to us, but divinely, for He who appeared in the flesh for our sakes was God. It is thus not possible to say that Christ had a gnomic will.”8

Icon of Saint MaximusIt should be noted that the gnomic will pertains to fallen human hypostases and not the human hypostasis as such.9 This means that the saints in heaven whose wills are deified (just as Christ’s was even during his ministry) will still maintain their free-choice despite the fact they will no longer be able to sin.10 For those whose wills have been deified, there still exists differing options, but each and every choice is good. There will be no more deliberating over what is right, examining our options, weighing the consequences, being uncertain about the outcome, etc., rather the saints choose from a variety of equally good options in which the outcome is already known. The saints “wills will move in different ways, and they will vary in regard to their mode of moving (τῷ τῆς κινήσεως τρόπῳ). The saints in heaven will have a (sinless) mode of willing.”11 Thus Maximus avoids the trap of multiple falls that Origen fell into, while preserving the God-given faculty of free-will.12

1Monothelitism is the heresy that claimed Christ only had one will (though there are many permutations of the basic theological point). St. Maximus’ and St. Sophronios’ dyothelitism was upheld as Orthodox by the decisions of the sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III) in 681 A.D. For a general overview of the controversy see Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60-98; Joseph P. Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989), 67-84; John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Devisions, The Church in History vol. II (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 333-73.
2For example, the word θέλειν means ‘will’ when used in Disputatio 292B, D and 293 A, but means ‘the mode of willing’ in Opusc. 3, 48A. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 120, n. 113.
3St. Maxmimus the Confessor, The Disputation With Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor, Joseph P. Farrell trans., (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990), 34. I have taken some of the Jacobean language Farrell uses for his translation and substituted it with modern english usage instead, i.e. ‘does’ instead of ‘doth’.
4Ibid. 10-11.
5Ibid. 5-6. Farrell’s footnote is also worth quoting: “Because our Lord exhibited a will distinct from the Father at Gethsemane, Arius maintained that He was only the highest of creatures. In doing so, Arius accepts the principle that the faculty of will and its operations are rooted in nature, but he denies that there are two natures in Christ. He thus confesses his own type of Monotheletism.” See also Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 130.
6Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 132-33.
7Ibid. 157.
8Disputation, 32. Brackets are Farrell’s.
9Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 156.
10Farrell, Free Choice, 111-15. It should be noted that Bathrellos disagrees with Farrel on point, saying that “Farrell…has…misinterpreted this passage by arguing that for Maximus, proairesis belongs to human nature, and that the saints in heaven will have a proairesis which will not be moved by the ‘things in the middle’…for Maximus, the saints in heaven will not have a proairesis but only an active intellectual desire (ὄρεξις ἐνεργὴς νοερὰ: Opusc. I, 24C).” Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 159. Bathrellos on page 149 says that “Proairesis relates to deliberation (βουλὴ or βούλευσις), which is a searching appetite (ὄρεξις ζητητική).”
11Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 159. Italics are Bathrellos’s.
12Farrell, Free Choice, 90.

Bathrellos, D. The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Farrell, J. P. Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor. South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989.

_________, trans. The Disputation with Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor. South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990.

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