Maximus the Confessor

Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World

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Paul M. Blowers
Christian Theology in Context
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2016.
     368 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199673940.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The subtitle of Maximus the Confessor—Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World—aptly describes the scope of this monograph from Paul M. Blowers. In the first three parts and eight chapters, Blowers establishes Maximus the Confessor’s seventh century historical and social context, expounds the cosmic dimension of his theology, and examines Christ’s role in the transfiguration of creation. The final chapter and fourth part of the book considers Maximus’s reception in the East and West. This ambitious project offers a “thick description” of Maximus’s cosmic theology with attention to the internal consistency of his corpus, and the insistence that Maximus stood within inherited traditions while addressing live audiences and concerns.

The betwixt and between of Maximus’s background in part 1 includes the Byzantine Christian world during the rise of Islam, his stance in the dramatic monenergist-monothelete controversy, and the tensions between imperial power in Constantinople and ecclesial power in Rome. Blowers evaluates the merits the two surviving lives of Maximus: one is a Syriac account that depicts a humble birth in Palestine and the other is a Greek hagiographical account wherein Maximus is the virtuous son of Christian nobles in Constantinople. Despite the obscurity of certain details concerning Maximus’s life, his literary corpus evinces an ability to write in various genres, including sententiae, dialogues, scripture commentary, question-and-response, and theological and polemical works, including treatises, letters, definitions, florilegia, disputations, and summations. Blowers’s presentation of Maximus’s breadth and complexity as a monk, theologian, friend, ascetic, polemicist, and interpreter of scripture refutes prior one-dimensional portrayals.

Blowers is at his best when, in part 2, he articulates Maximus’s divine drama of redemption in which Christ—as creator and perfecter—is at work transfiguring all of creation. The revelation of Jesus Christ, and salvation in him, becomes the plot of scripture for Maximus. Humanity is a microcosm for the unity and integrity designed for all of creation with God because the logoi or rational principle of creatures have their beginning and end in the Logos. Following Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus depicts the perpetual progress toward communion between creator and creation through images of beauty and desire. In Blowers’s portrayal, consideration of the incarnation and defense of Chalcedon take on new resonance for Maximus in his defense of the dual wills of Christ. Blowers further explores the cosmic dimension of the church and its liturgy in drawing all of creation into the eschatological feast. Throughout parts 2 and 3, Blowers makes constant reference to Maximus’s use and critique of his theological tradition. Origen, Evagrius, the Cappodocians, and Dionysius the Areopogite find regular citation in the text and notes, and convey a sense that Maximus was engaged in constant conversation both with of his predecessors and with the issues of his day. Part 3 investigates Maximus’s theological anthropology with specific reference to the redemption of humanity’s moral and spiritual life in Christ. Maximus held that humanity plays a mediating role in the redemption of creation and is central to the drama of salvation. Empowered by the Logos, the logoi of human nature is liberated from slavery to self-love and redirects the soul’s desire to its telos as transfigured human beings. Blowers argues that Maximus’s concept of a perfectly virtuous gnomic will in Jesus, a precisely delineated term in this book, opens up new possibilities for the restoration of human nature. Cultivation of virtue in humanity, for Maximus, is participation in the divine Good; a participation in transformation and deification. A life conditioned to and perfected in virtue, with creativity and artistry, imitates Jesus’s exemplary performance in the theo-drama of the divine economy. The church becomes a school of virtue in which individual lives are directed back toward the giver of life in eschatological anticipation.

In part 3, Blowers explores the impact and reception of Maximus’s thought and work in the Western Christian tradition, the hesychast and Filioque controversies, Orthodox theology, contemporary retrievals, and ecological theology. Though not exhaustive, significant individuals and movements are treated critically and further scholarship is indicated in the notes. The lasting legacy of Maximus’s influence in so many corners of Christianity is further strengthened in the epilogue where Blowers contends that Maximus’s cosmic gospel was the outpouring of a life lived “out of sheer theological principles, without ulterior motives supervening” (333). In this depiction, Maximus lived into the reality of his own theology, a reality in which Christ was transforming the cosmos and inviting all of creation into “the politeia of Christ himself” (333).

Blowers’s own literary flourishes in these pages reveal both his joy in studying the life and work of Maximus but also hints at Maximus’s own flexibility as interpreter and playfulness as author, as seen in his poetic use of anastrophe. The book’s organization is well structured and the numerous sub-headings are extremely helpful when progressing through individual chapters. Readers may find the interrelated subject matter of parts 2 and 3 best read together rather than as standalone sections. This book is a significant contribution to the study of Maximus the Confessor, and reveals a coherence and nuance to his theology that provokes new questions and areas of research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kyle A. Schenkewitz is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Wartburg College.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul M. Blowers holds the Ph.D. in patristics and early Christian studies from the University of Notre Dame, and since 1989 has taught church history and historical theology at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he is currently the Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History. He is principally a scholar of Greek and Byzantine patristics, and particularly of the theology of Maximus the Confessor, but he has also taught broadly in the field of church history and Christian thought. He is a Past President of the North American Patristics Society and is currently an Associate Editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies. Author, editor, or translator of six books in early church history, he has published numerous journal articles.

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