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Pauline Allen & Bronwen Neil

Introduction to Maximus the Confessor (Excerpt)

From: Maximus the Confessor and his Companions. Documents from Exile, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 8-30.
Published by the kind permission of the authors.

1. Genesis of the Monenergist and Monothelite Doctrines

In 616, in an attempt to shore up imperial authority in the wake of the Persian invasions of Syria, and with an invasion of Egypt imminent, Heraclius' cousin Nicetas achieved a tentative union between the Jacobite and Coptic churches of Syria and Egypt respectively (1). From around 616 or 617, Heraclius and the patriarch Sergius saw monenergism as a way to restore ecclesiastical unity throughout what was left of the empire: the assertion of a unique activity in Christ should appeal to the non-Chalcedonians, while the preservation of the affirmation of two natures would appease the Chalcedonians. The assertion of One will seemed to be a natural corollary to the assertion of a single activity. Our evidence for the early phase of the doctrines comes from Maximus' Dispute with Pyrrhus, which took place in Carthage in July 645 (2), the Proceedings of the Lateran Council (649) and Constantinople III (680/1), and the Vita Maximi (3). In 616—18 Sergius presented the monenergist doctrine in a letter to the non-Chalcedonian monk George Arsas of Alexandria, to the outrage of George's bishop John the Almsgiver, a fierce supporter of Chalcedon (4). Sergius asked George to supply him with texts supporting the doctrine (5).

The author of the Vita Maximi places the weight of blame on Athanasius, patriarch of the Jacobites in Antioch (593—631), claiming that he persuaded Heraclius that he would receive the Council of Chalcedon, if the emperor agreed to the doctrine of monenergism (6). Theodore of Pharan, a Chalcedonian, was consulted by Sergius and persuaded to approve the doctrine. In his letter to Theodore, Sergius cited a forged letter of Menas, patriarch of Constantinople (536-52) to Pope Vigilius (7). This Libellus, now lost, affirmed One activity and one will of the incarnate Word (8). Some of Theodore's subsequent writings on the subject have survived, including his Letter to Sergius ofArsinoë on the single activity, and a work called The interpretation of patristic texts, which boldly asserts that Christ's will in effect is one and it is divine(9). Sergius also wrote to Paul the Blind, leader of the non-Chalcedonians in Cyprus. Paul had met with Heraclius in Armenia (622-3) where the emperor made an unsuccessful attempt to convert him to monenergism (10). Paul was sent back to his archbishop Arcadius in Cyprus, with a decree forbidding talk of two activities after the union (11).

The compromise doctrine eventually found its most ready adherent in Cyrus of Phasis, in Lazica, who was contacted during Heraclius' campaign there against Persia in 626. Sergius wrote to Cyrus on the subject of a single activity in Christ in the same year, in answer to his objections to the doctrine (12) on the grounds that it was irreconcilable with Pope Leo's formula: 'Each form (i.e. nature) performs what is proper to it, in communion with the other' (agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est) (13). In his reply, Sergius cited the spurious Libellus of Menas, 'in which, in a similar way, he taught the doctrine of one will and one life-giving operation of the great God and Saviour our Lard Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:13)' (14). In regard to Leo's statement Sergius turned the usual interpretation around (15) by taking the nominative subject as an ablative: '(Christ) performs what is proper to him with each form, in communion with the other' (16). By this cunning manoeuvre Sergius made the pope's statement sound like an affirmation of monenergism. He continues: One ought to recognize it, because various teachers of the catholic church rose to the defence of this letter, and we know none of these to have said that the most holy Leo asserted two activities in this book' (17). Cyrus was impressed and duly converted. He was rewarded with election to the patriarchate of Alexandria in 631.


1. See D. Olster, 'Chalcedonian and Monophysite: the Union of 616', Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte 27 (1985), 93-108, on the factors which motivated the various factions involved in the reconciliation. This union had nothing to do with the development of the monenergist doctrine at the same time by Heraclius.

2. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91. 332b111-333b8.

3. Murphy-Sherwood, 172, also mention Maximus' letter to Marinus of Cyprus, of 645-6, on which see Sherwood, Date-List, 53-5, nos. 79-85.

4. Grumel, Regestes, no. 280 (ex. 279).

5. Murphy—Sherwood, 173.

6. Vita Maximi, PG 90. 76c14-77b2.

7. Grumel, Regestes, no. 281. See Murphy—Sherwood, I73f. for descriptions of Sergius' first four letters on the subject; a brief account of Cyrus' letter to Theodore of Pharan is given in Vita Maximi, PG 90. 77c7-d3.

8. As mentioned by Maximus in the Dispute with Pynhus, PG 91. 332b-c.

9. Extracts of both these texts are translated in Murphy-Sherwood, 350-2.

10. Murphy-Sherwood, 173 f.

11. ACO ser. 2, 2/2. 528. 4-10 (= Mansi 11. 525b) in the Letter of Sergius to Cyrus, quoted in the twelfth session of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (CPG 7604).

12. CPG 7610; Grumel, Regestes, no. 285, ACO ser. 2, 2/2.588, 7-592,4.

13. Leo made this statement in his Epist. n. 4 ad Flavianum, ACO 2. i. i, p. 14, lines 27-9.

14. CPG 7604, ACO ser. 2, 2/2. 528. 17-19.

15. That this is not what Leo intended is clear from the following words in his Tome: Verbo salicet opérante quod Verbi est, et came exsequente quod camis est.

16. He does the same in his second letter to Cyrus (CPG 7605), AGO ser. 2, i. 134-8, after the union in Alexandria, as E. Bellini notes in 'Maxime interprète de Pseudo-Denys l'Aréopagite', in Heinzer-Schönborn, Maximus Confessor, 40 and n. 15.

17. oportet earn scire, quod . . . diversi probabilium catholicae eccksiae doctorum ad iustam et veram adiiocationem praedutae epistulae adsunexemnt, et nullum honan scimus dixisse, quod in praesenti libra duos operationes Leo sanctissimus asseruisset. ACO ser. 2, 2/2. 531. 1-6. It should be noted, however, that the Greek edition does not mark ἑκατέρα μορφή as dative, either in this letter (528. 25) or in Sergius' second letter to Cyrus, ACO ser. 2, i. 138. i. It is, however, in the dative case in Maximus' citation of the phrase in the Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 352b5-6.

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