Note: All quotes from the disputation come from Joseph Farrell’s translation of the event in his work entitled The Disputation With Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor.
St. Maximus the Confessor is known for many things, especially his ardent defense of dyothelitism in the face of physical torture. Yet, many are not aware of his disputation with Pyrrhus, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who defended the Ecthesis of Patriarch Sergius, which taught Christ had only one will. In the debate, Maximus skillfully navigates the troubling waters of monothelitism and offers cogent responses to his interlocutor, Pyrrhus. I’d like to examine some of the highlights of this disputation and briefly offer some relevant commentary to contemporary theological discussions.
Pyrrhus begins the dispute by asking Maximus why he has chosen to accuse him of heresy. Maximus explains that his affirmation of the Ecthesis of Patriarch Sergius is heretical, because the patriarch affirmed monothelitism. Pyrrhus is perplexed by this response because he asserts if Christ is one hypostasis (person) then he should have only one will. This is a crucial point, because it shows Pyrrhus things the will is seated in the person and Maximus believes it is in the nature. So, from the outset, we see much of the debate hinges on where the agency of willing is seated.
Maximus responds by explaining the need to distinguish between different meanings in terms, otherwise, people end up talking past one another. Maximus goes on to assert since Christ has two natures then he must have two wills since the wills are “equal in number to the natures.” Pyrrhus responds with the objection that two wills necessitates two willers. Maximus chides this response as contrary to reason. It should be noted that here, and in other places, Maximus explicitly affirms the legitimacy of reason in theological disputes, to the chagrin of some who maintain reason has no place in matters of faith.
Maximus lays waste to Pyrrhus’ objection by explaining that if the premise that the will is seated in the hypostasis then this means either the Trinity has three wills, since there are three hypostases in the Trinity, or God is only one hypostasis, and this is Sabellianism. Pyrrhus skirts around the issue and retorts that two wills necessitates opposition. In other words, he believes if there are two wills then they must, in some way, be in opposition to each other. Maximus shows the folly of this view, because if we accept the premise that there are two wills and they must be in opposition to each other, then this opposition is either native to the natural will itself (and thus God is the author of the confusion) or the opposition stems from sin. Yet, Christ is sinless and he has two wills due to his two natures. Therefore, his two wills cannot be said to be in opposition to one another.
Pyrrhus asks Maximus to confirm that willing pertains to nature and Maximus agrees. Pyrrhus proceeds to set up a straw man through the use of equivocating terms. Maximus offers a gem of a response, noting how one must be careful to distinguish the meaning other terms, otherwise “error arises out of ambiguity.” This is very relevant to the modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dialogue, since the latter often criticizes the former for its use of distinctions in theological concepts and terminology. Maximus also explains Pyrrhus must not equivocate terms and offers a distinction between different kinds of wills.
Pyrrhus asserts if will pertains to nature then humans must not share the same nature because people have different wills. Maximus distinguishes between “the will and the mode of willing.” In other words, Humans share the ability to will, but what they will concerns the mode of willing, which can be different among humans. He, once again, shows Pyrrhus has an underdeveloped theology due to a lack of proper distinctions.
From the above, we observe many things that apply to today. One that stands out in particular is that Maximus rejects the position of those who prefer a primitive ambiguity in theological terminology over against the need for a developed and distinct terminology. We also observe Maximus’ constant appeal to arguments from reason in establishing theological positions. This is especially relevant to those today who merely cite authorities and reject the use of reason in forming one’s theology.