Highlights from Oxford Patristics: Kallistos on Maximus

Many of the papers I went to at the Oxford Patristics Conference a few weeks ago were of high quality — Michele Salzman proving that Prosper was not Leo’s secretary — and thus could not have written the Tome; Bernard Green talking about Leo’s views on Baptism in Letter 16; Paul Parvis talking about water organs in Tertullian; Sara Parvis about the essentially positive view of women in Irenaeus; Samuel Rubenson on the formation and re-formations of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; and many others.

Not all, I think, will be of particular interest to my readers here.

Kallistos Ware’s paper on St. Maximus the Confessor will, I think; although I am growing hazy on details. The one thing that stood out most and has been flitting through my mind since +Kallistos gave the paper is his discussion of how St. Maximus envisaged our imitation of Christ.

This imitation is not simply a moral imitation as most of us, especially those of us who are fond of St. Thomas à Kempis, may tend to think. No, it goes deeper than that. Our imitation of Christ is, rather than moral, ontological.*

Our imitation of Christ is something that is rooted in our very being. By becoming sharers in His divine life through the sacraments and through prayer, through liturgy and through moral action, we become imitators of his very person. Our character changes accordingly.

I like this idea. It is kind of breathtaking. We are made more and more like him the more we approach him. Our imitation is not simple mimicry. It is a deep and powerful transformational activity that occurs within us. It is not a work that we do or achieve ourselves. Thus we are freed, even here, from works righteousness. It is Christ who transforms us into his imitators.

Thus we go beyond not only mimicry but virtue and morality as the marks of Christianity into something higher and more difficult to imagine, yet deeper, more penetrating.

If we go through imitatio Christi as an ontological reality, that means we are drawn to two things oft-forgotten in contemporary discourse:

  1. Holiness
  2. Deification (theosis)

*Ontological is the adjective derived from ontology the study of being (the -ology of on, ontos). OED for ontology: ‘The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence.’

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4 thoughts on “Highlights from Oxford Patristics: Kallistos on Maximus

    • Ryan,

      He did not go into the philosophical background of Maximus’ thought. From what I recall, the paper was more of an explication of Maximus’ teachings themselves.

      • Interesting nonetheless. After commenting I was thinking about it some more and I realized that much of the trinitarian theology I was exposed to growing up (at least, the reason people gave for “why the Trinity matters” [if they weren’t up on their satisfaction theories of atonement]) was that Christ’s humility is a moral example for us to follow. Nothing was ever said about Christ taking on our nature with the result that we can take on his (Athanasius and most everyone else). I agree, it is a breathtaking idea.

  1. It is somewhat lamentable that Christ’s incarnation as moral example tends to be the most emphasised aspect of that most glorious event in many Protestant circles. With a renewed interest in Patristics in various areas, I believe this is changing.

    Indeed, Christ ontologically identifying with humanity is breathtaking!

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