Maximus the Confessor (580–662) was one of the fathers of the Eastern Church. He didn’t start out as a theologian, though; he started out as an aide to the Byzantine emperor. That’s a cool job. But he left that and entered the monastery to begin studying philosophy and theology. He became a gifted philosopher and theologian. He is known as Maximus the Confessor. In the Greek Orthodox Church, a confessor is someone who was persecuted and who suffered for the faith but was not martyred. He is also known as Maximus the Theologian. It was his theology and his defense of Orthodox theology that led to his suffering.

In the 600s, ricocheting through the church was the Monothelite controversy. Now, there is a word you don’t hear every day. Monothelite means “one will.” It’s two Greek words: mono, meaning “one” and thelos, meaning “the will.” Monothelites held a false view that Jesus had one will—not a separate divine will, not a separate and distinct human will, but one will. The Monothelite controversy was weakening the creed that came down to the church from Chalcedon, which stated that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. He was those two true natures conjoined in one person. The Monothelites affirmed that He was two natures in one person, but they quickly said He had one will. And of course, that is a weakening of the doctrine of the person of Christ. Maximus jumped right in to defend the Dyothelite view, that is, Jesus had two wills.

The problem was that Constantinople, the emperor and the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, had adopted the Monothelite position. So Maximus the Confessor was on the outs. He was tried at a council and found to be a heretic, even though he was defending orthodoxy. And to keep him from writing and speaking his so-called heretical views, they damaged his right hand and his tongue. So he is known as Maximus the Confessor. Eventually, a council vindicated Maximus’s position, and the church pulled back from the heresy of the Monothelites and affirmed once again fully and truly the Chalcedonian creed.

Another big word associated with Maximus the Confessor is apophatic. The apophatic tradition comes to us from the early church fathers. It means that the only things we can say about God are negative statements, because God is so immense that He is beyond measure. So we can’t say anything positive about Him. We can only say what God is not. He dwells in light inaccessible, and so how can we fully understand Him?

But what Maximus wants us to realize is that we can know God through what He has created and how He has revealed Himself in this world—and especially in Christ. At one point, Maximus says that as we gaze upon the universe, which is God’s handiwork, we receive from God “comprehensive knowledge of his providence and judgment.” So as we understand God working in this world, we can understand who God is. And as we see Christ, we can understand God.