“I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We say this every Sunday in the Nicene Creed and it is one of the key distinctives of Christian eschatological hope. Belief in a future bodily resurrection is something we share in common with Judaism and Islam and almost nobody else. The idea would have been alien, even detestable, to the Greek and Roman world into which Christianity was born. In much of the Evangelical culture I grew up in, the importance of the resurrection was sidelined for an abstract and generic notion of the afterlife. Many of my friends weren’t even aware that the Bible taught a bodily resurrection. Sadly, I have found that the situation is not much better among Catholic laity. In reaction to this, some theologians, especially in the Protestant world, have sought to recover the doctrine of the resurrection by pitting it against ideas like the soul and against any Christian Platonism.
Yet, as we have seen, St. Maximus the Confessor affirms the pursuit of spiritual goods over bodily ones. According to him, love demands that we pursue God in seeming rejection of the body. At the same time, he clearly affirms the resurrection of the body and the real possibility of actualizing resurrection life in the present?
So, what then, does he understand the resurrection to be? If bodies are part of our future deified life, what will they be like, and how does virtue manifest that future reality in the present? According to Maximus, the ultimate reality of the deified Christian will be one in which body and soul come to manifest the glory of God. In deification, he says, “God wholly embraces the soul along with the body that is connatural to it, and, in a way that is appropriate to each, assimilates both to Himself, so that He might be wholly manifested throughout the whole of the soul without restriction.”1 The body will thus be part of the future deified life of believers, through which Christ, according to Maximus, “brings about immutability of soul and incorruptibility of body through the identification of the will with what is naturally good.” In that state “the body will become like the soul . . . in dignity and glory, for the unique divine power will manifest itself in all things in a vivid and active presence proportioned to each one.” The body will, in other words, be brought into an incorruptibility in subjection to the rationality of the soul, which again, is the soul’s capacity to understand the purposes of God and to manifest unifying love. When the body is rationalized it is brought under the control of the soul and this rationalization manifests itself in the good use of the things given by God (food, wealth, etc).
In our current life, when loving virtue manifests the promises of faith, body and soul are joined together and the Christian becomes a bodily image of God in the present age. Maximus says “The one who has joined the body to the soul through virtue and knowledge has become a lyre and a flute and a temple. A lyre, firstly, because he beautifully maintains the harmony of the virtues; next, a flute because through the divine experience he receives the Spirit’s inspiration; finally, a temple because through the purity of his mind he has become the Word’s dwelling place.”2
Indeed, Maximus even speaks of virtue as a kind of incarnation of the Word. Maximus tells us that “[w]e are said to be the body of Christ according to the Scripture . . . because the corruption of sin is shaken off in a likeness to the Lord’s flesh.”3 Love, manifest in the body, enfleshes the Word by making active the purposes of God. Maximus further describes the incarnational relationship between virtue and deification in terms of the saints being “clothed (so far as humanly possible) in the whole image of the heavenly man” such that they both “drew to themselves the manifestation of God” and were “drawn to God and united to Him” by love.4 As Maximian scholar Adam Cooper has said, “The demonstrative, theophanic character of this reciprocity [between the incarnational manifestation of God and deification] is deeply significant, for it confirms for Maximus’ monastic readers that that most contingent and mutable object of creation—the human body—when ennobled by deification, has been selected by God in his own good counsel as the primary means of his self‐demonstration in the cosmos, and thus the high point of creation’s access to him.”5
Maximus sees a prime example of this sort of deification in Melchizedek, who through his virtuous submission to God became so identified with God’s life that he could be understood as “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” due to the manifestation of God’s eternity in him.6 Melchizedek therefore became “an image of Christ God [Χριστοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ] and His unutterable mysteries” and so a “manifestation of the Beautiful.” This discussion of Melchizedek illustrates Joshua Lollar’s observation that Maximus sees in the saints of God a kind of reversal of the Platonic understanding of the relationship between beauty and the divine. Whereas the beautiful body is for Plato “the starting point for . . . ascent, it is for Maximus the result of the exercise of the virtues, which themselves manifest the assimilation of the flesh to God and thus make the body into a revelation of the divine.”7 In Melchizedek and in all the saints, we see that the body is not left behind but deeply incorporated into the ascent to God.
The body’s subjection to the soul in virtue, therefore, allows it to prefigure the state in which it will attain a dignity similar to that of the soul (that is rational, or properly loving). The human being thereby involves the present body in the soul’s capacity to image God. Through the right use of our bodies “we establish the body—rendered rational (λελογισμένον) by the virtues—as a messenger of the soul,” which is itself “a herald of God.”8 The soul of the virtuous person thus realizes in the here and now the body’s destiny in the resurrection.
We are all called to be like the saints whose bodies manifest hope in the present, and above all to be like Christ in His Passion and Resurrection. St. Maximus shows us that the call to pursue virtue is not a call to follow an arbitrary list of rules. It is not even merely, as the virtue ethicists would teach us, a call to live in a way that is more fully human. Rather, the life of virtue, crowned with grace, actually makes present in this age the life of the world to come.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 21,” in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, vol. 1, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), “Ambiguum 21,” 435; PG 91:1249C
- Maximus the Confessor, “Chapters on Knowledge,” in Maximus Confessor, trans. George C. Berthold (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 170; II.100.
- ibid. 165–66; II.84.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 10,” 165; PG 91:1113B.
- Adam G. Cooper, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 100.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 10,” 219; PG 91:1141AB.
- Joshua Lollar, “To See into the Life of Things: The Contemplation of Nature in Maximus the Confessor and His Predecessors” (PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2011), 291.
- “Expositio orationis dominicae,” CCSG 23:62-63, quoted in Cooper, Body in St. Maximus, 240.
This post is Part 4 of a special 6 part series. It is drawn from the public presentation of my Master’s thesis given at Regent College in 2015. I will be putting up one post per day through Maundy Thursday. Read parts 1, 2, and 3.