Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Christ’s Two Wills

St. Maximus, the monastic mystic and eminent controversialist of orthodoxy against the Monothelites, earned his title “the Confessor” because he died in exile for his heroic confession. In his defense of the orthodox faith against an heretical emperor and supine ecclesiastics, he continued the work of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Sophronius (whom he considered his master), and did much to lay the foundations of the Third Council of Constantinople.

The circumstances behind Maximus’ profession were a terrible instance of Byzantine political religiosity. In an effort to mend fences with the Monophysites and thus restore unity within the Eastern Empire, the impious Sergius, Patriarch of Maximus’ native Constantinople, authored a compromise position, which agreed with the orthodox that there were two natures in Christ, but denied that there were two wills or operations in the Incarnate Word. It amounted to a more subtle Monophysitism (without satisfying the stricter Monophysites), as it mutilated Christ’s human nature.

St. Maximus’ arguments against the “one operation” were both scriptural and patristic. From Holy Scripture, “Among many arguments, he pointed to the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed, ‘not my will but thine be done.’ Here the human will of Jesus shows its full integrity by freely conforming its will to the divine will.”[1]

The heretics, who postulated that such a formulation necessarily implied two opposed wills, advanced a straw man argument by accusing their adversaries of faith in a Christ who was in interior conflict. But, as is the case with many heretics who deny free will (e.g., Calvinists), the Monothelites fell into the false assumption that a free will (or, in this case, a distinct human will) necessarily implies a limitation of the divine will. Such is not the case, for the human will is never freer, never more dignified and integral, than when it cooperates with the divine will: “Here the human will of Jesus shows its full integrity by freely conforming its will to the divine will.”[2]

In defending the complete humanity of Our Lord, St. Maximus is building on the earlier work of St. Gregory the Theologian, whose writings he had studied deeply. In what had become a shibboleth of orthodoxy by the time of St. Maximus, the great Cappadocian declared, against the Apollinarianists, that “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” St. Gregory was speaking of a human soul, but everything integral to such a soul (intellect and will) can be defended by the same argument. If the human will was not assumed in the Incarnation, it has not been healed of its malice contracted in the fall. But, in fact, it was healed, when Jesus “was obedient onto death.”[3]

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon had defined, against the Monophysites, that “We confess that the one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation.”[4] These “four adverbs” were extended and applied by St. Maximus to the human will and human operations of Our Lord.

Thus maintaining the integrity of the human nature, St. Maximus was advancing that Christ was “of (from) two natures, as St. Cyril [of Alexandria] says, and that he is in two natures, as [Pope] St. Leo [the Great] says; and that the two natures [are] Christ. More precisely, he says that in Jesus we see the two natures ‘from which, in which, and which is the Christ’ (Epistle 15, PG 91, 573 A).”[5] In other words, without the two natures, there is no Christ, no “anointed one”; for the humanity is “anointed” and the divinity “anoints,” thus giving us the integral “Christ.”

St. Maximus built on St. Athanasius’ fire-iron metaphor, by which the saintly Patriarch of Alexandria defended Christ’s divinity. The Confessor turned the iron into a burning sword, by which device, he artfully showed that the properties and operations proper to both fire and sword are perfectly united: “each acts as itself within and as the one sword. The one sword both burns and cuts.”[6]

It would behoove us to look at the acts of Constantinople III to see the authoritative dogmatic fruits of St. Maximus’ labor. That council applied the “four adverbs” of Chalcedon to the will and operation of the Incarnate Logos: “And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action, which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. … For in the same way that his all holy and blameless animate flesh was not destroyed in being made divine but remained in its own limit and category, so his human will as well was not destroyed by being made divine, but rather was preserved…”[7]

The last sentence of this excerpt touches upon the notion of deification or divinization, the common patristic doctrine that man is “made God” by grace. By the activity of the one “mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”[8] men are “made partakers of the divine nature.”[9] This mediation of Christ is absolutely dependant on the real integrity of His two natures. To vitiate the divinity would make the agent (Christ) inadequate to the task of divinizing, since it is a communication of the divine nature to man. This truth is powerfully asserted by St. Athanasius: “He became man so that we might be made God.”[10] On the other hand, to accomplish this task, Christ must be true man. Gregory of Nazianzen has already been citied to this effect: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”

The patristic teaching on deification (or theosis, as it is called in the Eastern Churches), explicit in the writings of St. Maximus and the Council of Constantinople, is also fully incorporated into St. Thomas’ rich theology of grace. In his Summa Theologiae, he cites St. Augustine in a turn of phrase similar to that of St. Athanasius’ just referenced: “The full participation of the Divinity… is the true bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity, for Augustine says in a sermon: ‘God was made man, that man might be made God.'”[11]

All of this shows the great utility of St. Maximus’ confession. His greatness consisted in holding up Christ as the “Perfect Man,” the very archetype of divinized man: “As the proponent of orthodoxy [St. Maximus] maintains the full sense of Christ as our example precisely as the Eternal Son who has assumed a human nature. Instead of making him more human in order to be easier to follow or tilting the scale to his divinity to assure his worth in following, he shows how the fullest expression of human nature occurs in the Person of Christ when the human nature is most perfectly conformed to the divine nature.”[12] In so doing, he presents Christ as the example for His followers.

This allows us to introduce St. Thomas’ Christology. As the “Fullest expression of human nature,” Our Lord is both our teacher and our exemplar. A great doctor himself, St. Thomas presents Christ to us as “the first and chief teacher [doctor] of the faith.”[13] As the teacher par excellence, Our Lord does in the most excellent way what all great teachers do, He teaches by example: “The correspondence of teaching and example is important to grasp: Christ teaches us by giving us his example. This combination is evident from the Gospel of John: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (Jn 13:13-15). Good teachers teach by the example of their lives. As St. Thomas says in his commentary on this passage from John, ‘examples move more than words’ (Commentary on John, chap 13, lecture 3; cf. 1-2, q. 34, a. 1).”[14]

It is worth noting that, according to Father Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., St. Thomas relies heavily on the Christology of St. John of Damascus, the great collator of Byzantine theology. According to Father Roch Kereszty, O. Citst., the Damascene, in turn, relied heavily on St. Maximus, himself a synthesizer of the earlier Eastern Fathers. Thus standing on the shoulders of giants, the eclectic Aquinas presents the sacred humanity of Christ as the “joined instrument” of Christ’s divinity, through which the Logos teaches man: “St. Thomas notes that human beings must be led by the hand (manuductio) from sensible things to the knowledge of divine things. First among these sensible things is the humanity of Christ, which as an example stirs up our devotion. Because Christ is God, moreover, his teaching justifies us and makes us sharers in the divine life.”[15]

The Divine Master’s teaching is of a much deeper nature than that of any other teacher. Dr. Dauphinais speaks of a two-fold exemplarity in Our Lord: a “moral exemplarity,” which is what we usually mean when we speak of someone as an example, and an “ontological exemplarity,” or an example of “being.” In other words, Jesus teaches us not only what to do but who to be: another himself, a[n adopted] child of God. In the brief discussion of theosis, we have already covered the deeper of these two realities, the ontological exemplarity, so we move on to Christ as a moral example.

As Teacher of the New Law, Jesus is the New Moses. Far excelling the “ministration of death,”[16] the New Law chiefly consists in the grace of the Holy Ghost and, secondarily, in the written law of the Gospel, which is summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord, therefore, shows us how to live as one in whom the Spirit dwells and how to live the Beatitudes and the two-fold precept of Charity as illustrated in the Sermon on the Mount. As our teacher and example, He tells us, as God told Moses, “Look and make [yourself] according to the pattern that was shewn thee in the mount [of the Beatitudes].”[17]

All of the mysteries of our Lord’s life – joyful, sorrowful, and glorious – teach us with this moral-ontological exemplarity.

More than our exemplar – and much deeper still – the New Moses can do what the “weak and needy elements”[18] of the Old Law could not: He, as God, can effect this transformation by sending us the Holy Ghost, whose grace, as we said, is the essence of the New Law. In other words, Christ not only teaches us to be sons of God theoretically and practically, morally and ontologically; he also teaches us by communicating His Spirit to us: “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. … For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”[19]

Returning to the exemplarity of Christ as shown in the Garden of Gethsemane – an important proof of the two wills for St. Maximus – we see that St. Thomas takes up the question “Was there any contrariety of wills in Christ?” in the Summa. After citing the definition of Constantinople III, which shows that the “two natural wills” are “not in opposition,” St. Thomas probes into the mystery and concludes that “The agony in Christ was not in the rational soul, in as far as it implies a struggle in the will arising from a diversity of motives… Nevertheless, there was an agony in Christ as regards the sensitive part [of the soul], inasmuch as it implied a dread of coming trial, as Damascene says.”[20]

Summarizing St. Thomas’ teaching, Dr. Dauphinais comments on perfect conformity of Christ’s two wills as manifested in the Garden of Olives:

“An important example of the conformity of human and divine in Christ is shown in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he was crucified. Sometimes Christ’s agony is depicted as the breakdown of this conformity, but in fact the contrary is the case. Since the contemplative union of his human intellect with his divine intellect was unbroken, his ability to suffer intense sorrow – even agony – at Gethsemane was greatly intensified. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ knew, far more than we ever could, what it means for humankind to reject his love. Likewise, his human will, while fully submitting to his divine will, fully experienced the natural human aversion to death.”[21]


Aquinas, Thomas, St., Summa Theologiae, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003. Online, available at:

Chapman, John, “St. Maximus of Constantinople” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition by K. Knight, 2003. Online, available from:

Dauphinais, Michael, and Levering, Matthew, Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970.

Kereszty, Roch A., O. Cist., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Chrisology. Staten Island: The Society of St. Paul, 2003.

Torrell, Jean-Pierre, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2, Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

[1] Class notes: “Lesson 6: Controversies and Creeds: Chalcedon and Beyond,”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phil. 2:7.

[4] Cited in Class notes, Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, online at St. Michael’s Depot,

[8] 1 Tim. 2:5.

[9] 2 Pet. 1:4.

[10] Athanasius, St., Treatise on the Incarnation of the Word, in William A Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970) p. 322. Elsewhere St. Athanasius uses this notion as an apologetic against the Arians. The doctrine of theosis being common to heretics and orthodox alike, the saint was appealing to the common doctrine to show the inadequacy of a non-divine agent of divinization.

[11] Aquinas, Thomas, St., Summa Theologiae, IIIa Q. 1, A. 2, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003)

[12] Class notes, Ibid., emphasis mine.

[13] Summa Theologiae, IIIa Q. 7, A. 7.,

[14] Dauphinais, Michael, and Levering, Matthew, Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), p 81.

[15] Ibid.

[16] 2 Cor. 3:7.

[17] Exodus 25:40; Heb. 8:5.

[18] Gal. 4:9.

[19] Rom. 8:9,14.

[20] Summa Theologiae, IIIa Q. 18, A. 6.,

[21] Dauphinais, op. cit., 88.