St Maximos the Confessor Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice; Second Century


[Reminder: Next Session on 2/8/19 at noon]


In this passage, St. Maximos talks about the attainment of divine knowledge. As usual, he elucidates the meaning and experience of this divine knowledge through a series of contrasts and guides us through a progression from the external to the internal—from definitions and clarifications of the nature of divine knowledge, to the process of acquiring it, to the actual experience and its implications that transcend words.

First, St. Maximos confronts us with the paradoxical relationship between truth, “divine knowledge” and virtue,  “the struggles for truth on the part of those who desire it.” It is the sequence between the two that reflects intention and, ultimately, defines outcomes.

It is only by leading a life of virtue for the sake of truth, rather than glory, that we will achieve divine knowledge…” because virtue exists for the sake of truth, but truth does not exist for the sake of virtue. Thus, he who practices virtue for the sake of truth is not wounded by the arrows of self-esteem…

Conversely, attempting to pursue the truth directly and only practicing virtue for the sake of appearance or mere compliance, can lead to vainglory and conceit.

…but he who pursues truth for the sake of virtue does harbor the conceit which self-esteem generates.

Thus, Maximos enters more deeply into the participatory nature of knowledge and its dependence on our relationship with God.

We simply cannot get to divine knowledge and illumination by skipping virtue. Most importantly, we cannot achieve it on the strength of our own will alone but only through the grace of God.

We can’t will the truth. God may reveal it to us if we live a life of virtue without expectations.

A man who endures the labors of virtue for the sake of such knowledge is not vainglorious, because he knows that truth cannot be grasped naturally through human effort. For it is not in the nature of things for what is primary to be circumscribed by what is secondary.

Taking us to an even deeper level, St. Maximos now gives us another set of antitheses through which to contemplate the meaning of divine knowledge: surface vs. substance, theory vs. action, visible vs. invisible.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is empty and only gets us to the “image,” rather than the reality and experience of truth.


 He who seeks only the outward form of knowledge, that is, knowledge which is merely theoretical, and pursues the semblance of virtue that is, a merely theoretical morality, is puffed up, Judaic-wise, with the images of truth.

Without God-given, divine knowledge we are doomed to only see:…”the letter, the outward appearance of things, and the senses, all of which possess quantitative distinctions and are the negation of unity.”

Unable to discern the underlying principles of created things, we are subjects to passions—greed, envy, lust, despondency, boredom, fear—as we mistake the surface for substance; the tools as ends unto themselves.

Through divine knowledge man…does not view the ritual of the Law with his senses alone, but noetically penetrates every visible symbol and thoroughly assimilates the divine principle which is hidden in each, finds God in the Law. For rightly he uses his intellect to grope among the material forms of the Law, as among litter, in the hope of finding hidden somewhere in its body that pearl or principle which utterly escapes the senses (cf. Matt. 13:45-46).

Delving even beyond contrasts, St. Maximos now takes us to the realm of theosis, beyond words.

Nature alone is created and thus limited. Without God’s grace, our perception is limited to “the nature of visible things to what [our] senses alone can observe, and it cannot by itself lead to divine knowledge.” With God’s grace, our intellect is restored to its divine purpose and “searches after the essence which lies within every creature, [and] also finds God. For from the manifest magnificence of created beings he learns what is the Cause of their being.”

Divine knowledge is not simply the acquisition of information or wisdom but the agent of regeneration and transformation. It returns us to the image of God and restores our capabilities to their original purpose. This is why Maximos alludes to terms such as “blindness” and “forgetfulness,” not simply “ignorance,” to describe a state without divine knowledge.

But if a man compounds the letter of the Law, the outward appearance of visible things, and his own senses with each other, he is ‘so short-sighted as to be blind’ (2 Pet. 1:9), sick through his ignorance of the Cause of created beings.

And he quotes Peter:

2 Peter 1:9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.


Without the attainment of divine knowledge, and a driving longing for it, we are doomed to a life of blindness and forgetfulness, trapped at the surface and never venturing to the true essence of things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s