Dr. Adam G. Cooper – St. Maximos the Confessor on the Ground of Papal Primacy & Infallibility



“Any question of opposition between various ranks is therefore done away with, since they are seen to be arranged by divine reason (the Logos) and are related to the entire economies of cosmic and salvific order. Consequently the alleged ‘disobedience’ of the Apostle, concludes Maximus, is in fact


a guardian of the good order (εὐταξίας  ϕυλακή) which arranges and governs all sacred matters, and which keeps each person from falling away from his own abode and foundati on (μονῆς καὶ ίδρύσεως). It also teaches clearly that the ranks of the Church which the Spirit has fittingly assigned (τοὺς καλῷς ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος διωρισμένους τῆς ἐκκλησίας βαθμούς) are not to be confused with one another [Q.Thal 29].


I do not think it too great a leap to move to the contended question in Maximus’ theology of the status of the Church of Rome. On this point we must ask whether the external, charismatic hierarchy which as we have seen guards and preserves the Church’s ordered harmony extends to a ranking of different episcopal sees. If for Maximus such an order is essential to each member’s harmonious preservation in the whole body – if there is no opposition, but rather a necessary correlation between ordered ranks in the Church and the Church’s fundamental unity – then we might expect to find that he reckons entirely acceptable the extension to one particular church of a divinely-given rank of preeminence over the others. This whole subject has been studied extensively by Larchet, who refutes and clarifies some of the lofty claims made by Dominicans Alain Riou and Juan-Miguel Garrigues. Larchet rightly rejects any appraisal of Maximus as a virtual protochampion of a fully developed medieval version of papal primacy. He argues that Maximus’ defence of Popes Honorius (625-638) [Opusc. 20] and Theodore I (642-649) [Opusc. 10] stems primarily from his conviction that their language was capable of admitting an orthodox interpretation and indeed, we might add, despite weaknesses in their choice of words, was intended to do so. But what of the unambiguous exaltation extended to the Roman See in the two incomplete texts that survive as Opuscula 11 and 12? Larchet has pointed out that the second of these texts, both of which are no more than extracts preserved by the 9th century librarian and member of the papal curia Anastasius (d. ca. 878), extant only in Latin and of potentially dubious authenticity. Even so, ‘[s]etting aside questions of textual authenticity and accuracy of translation from the Greek original,’ he writes,


one notes first of all that Maximus does not establish strictly speaking an equivalence between the Catholic Church and the See of Rome, but… affirms the recognition that the Church of Rome, engaged in the controversy to defend the orthodox faith, represents that faith in a way the Church of Constantinople, fallen in heresy, does not. And it is only to the degree that the Church of Rome confesses the orthodox faith that she may be considered the universal Church.


The authenticity of the second text, Opuscula 11, while more commonly accepted, can neither be regarded as entirely free from doubt. It is generally thought to have been penned by Maximus in Rome soon after the Lateran synod in 649. Before we hear from Larchet, let us place before our eyes the whole of the disputed passage:


For the very ends of the earth and those in every part of the world who purely and rightly confess the Lord look directly to the most holy Church of the Romans and its confession and faith as though it were a sun of unfailing light, expecting from it the illuminating splendour of the Fathers and the sacred dogmas, just as the divinely-inspired and sacred six synods (ἅγιαι ἕξ σύνοδοι) have purely and piously decreed, declaring most expressly the symbol of faith. For ever since the incarnate Word of God came down to us, all the churches of Christians everywhere have held that greatest Church there (αὐτόθι) to be their sole base and foundation (μόνην κρηπῖδα καὶ θεμέλιον), since on the one hand, it is in no way overcome by the gates of Hades, according to the very promise of the Saviour (Mt 16:18-19), but holds the keys of the orthodox confession and faith in him and opens the only true and real religion to those who approach with godliness, and on the other hand, it shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks unrighteousness against the Most High. For that which was founded and built by the creator and master of the universe himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, and his disciples and apostles, and following them the holy fathers and teachers and martyrs consecrated by their own words and deeds, and by their agony and sweat, suffering and bloodshed, and finally by their violent death for the catholic and apostolic Church of us who believe in him, they strive to destroy through two words (διἀ δύο ρημάτωνz) [uttered] without effort and without death — O the patience and forbearance of God! — and to annul the great ever-radiant and ever-lauded mystery of the orthodox worship of Christians.


According to Larchet, who provisionally accepts Maxirnian authorship, what the Confessor has to say in this text `s’explique cependant en grande partie par les circonstances historiques et celles de sa propre vie. …’ In other words, Maximus’ `enthousiasme’ here is coloured by the fact that as a political refugee he had found protection and support in the western empire generally and in the Church of Rome in particular when she alone was confessing the true faith against the Monotheletist policy endorsed by the Imperium. In Larchet’s words, the eminence with which the Confessor regards the Roman See ‘chiefly relies on the fact that she has confessed the orthodox faith and defended it against heresies.’


A closer reading of the text however reveals that according to its author’s own explicitly theological reasoning, the eminence of the Church of Rome for its confession of faith is not independent of its pre-eminence on the basis of the promise of Christ – of which Rome is the primary and representative recipient. The locative adverb ‘αὐτόθι’ (here; there; in this or that specific place) indicating Rome is immediately linked to Christ’s promise of the inviolability of the Church against the gates of Hades and the conferral of the keys to Peter (Mt 16:18-19). We can only presume that in the author’s way of thinking, the Church in Rome holds these keys for no other reason than what was accepted universally as the Petrine connection to Rome, a connection first made explicit by Irenaeus [Haer. 3.3.2], referred to at the Council of Sardica (ca. 343) [canon 3], by Leo I (440-461) and exploited from very early on through the establishment of a shrine at the Apostle’s tomb and its promotion as a holy place for pilgrimage. Upon his concession to Maximus in the dispute in Carthage in July of 645, Pyrrhus drew precisely that connection when he expressed his desire ‘to be deemed worthy first of venerating the shrines of the Apostles – or rather those of the chiefs (κορυϕαίων) of the Apostles themselves [Peter and Paul], and then of seeing the face of the most-holy Pope.’ According to Opusculum 11 then, Rome’s pre-eminence is not seen exclusively to be conditional upon the orthodoxy of its confession, but is also bound up with the promise of Christ, his bestowal of the keys to the Church in the person of Peter, and the succession of Peter’s episcopacy located in Rome.


Thus there can be no question about the essential meaning of the text, nor does its ecclesiology necessarily furnish any real doubts about Maxirnian authorship. For Maximus, Peter is ‘the all-holy, the great foundation (κρηπίς) of the Church.’ [Q.Thal 27] His is the ‘reverent confession, against which the wicked mouths of the heretics, gaping like the gates of hell, never prevail.’ [Ep. 13] It appears that Maximus also accepts communion with the Roman See as a critical factor, properly inseparable from ‘the right confession of the faith’, in the realization of the unity of the Church. When, according to the record of the debate which took place in August 656 while Maximus was in exile in Bizya, Bishop Theodosius, imperial and patriarchal legate, proffers superficial acceptance of Maximus’ position and offers to confirm it in writing, Maximus directs him and his associates — ‘that is, the Emperor and Patriarch and the synod convoked by him’ – instead to ‘send a written account to this effect to Rome as the canon stipulates.’ His summary recommendation is that the Emperor and the Patriarch themselves forward to the Pope of Rome ‘an exhortatory dispatch’ and ‘a conciliar petition’ respectively so that, ‘if indeed you are found to be turning to the way of the Church on account of your right confession of the faith, you may be reconciled….’




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