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Hans Urs von Balthasar


From his book, Cosmic Liturgy, The Universe according to Maximus the Confessor.
Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.J., Ed. A Communio Book Ignatius Press, San Francisco

Chapter 3: A Thrice-Praised Unity

a. The Blighted Image

Pseudo-Dionysius had wrapped God in "holy veils" so impenetrable that the mystery of his rich inner life was almost entirely inaccessible to theological insight, however much he spoke of that mystery in liturgical terms, with a reverence that did not look for conceptual knowledge. He did this in full self-awareness, all the more so because his method of thought—inspired by Proclus—found triads everywhere, which powerfully invited the speculative mind to interpret them as traces, images, expressions of a triple mode of being at the heart of God. In contrast to the Western Christian Neoplatonism of Victorinus and Augustine, Greek thought found that the productive inner life of the three Persons withdrew more and more completely, not only from the human attempt to contemplate God in the things of the world, but also from mystical experience. While the West, trusting in the inferential ability of the created mind, dared to find the impress and the shadow of trinitarian life in all realms of the world, and later developed these traces in the rich orchestration of the Victorines' trinitarian mysticism, Eastern thought sank deeper and deeper into reverent silence before God as ultimate mystery.

Earlier, in the works of Origen and in pre-Nicene theology in general, the processions of the Divine Persons were conceived as an opening up, a condescension of God to the world: the Son, as the totality of ideas, contained in himself the possibility of multiple being; the Spirit, as "grace", could bring the world to fulfillment. Thus the great categories of being within the world—"existence", "life and rationality", "holiness"—could be interpreted as a directly perceptible reflection of the supreme Trinity. After the Council of Nicaea, which canonized the unity of God and the equality in rank of the Persons, this "way of
interpretation was much more difficult to walk. The Cappadocians developed their thought on the Trinity only in polemical works directed against Arianism; here, too, the concern was more for protecting the orthodox formulation of faith than for commenting on its theological or mystical importance. The important thing was to avoid all appearance of self-contradiction; the dogmatic language of tradition was like a precious vessel that must not be shattered, because it contained an unknown jewel. One looks in vain in the spiritual works of the two Gregories for a genuinely trinitarian mysticism (46). What happened in their thinking was that the Son and the Spirit were elevated to the level of the superessential simplicity of the Father's primordial being; the door of that being opened for an instant, to let them both in, and immediately shut again to guard the unsearchable mystery.

Evagrius fought passionately to keep the unity of the divine essence and the trinity of the Persons from being understood in a numerical sense: the three in God has nothing in common with the worldly number three. So he can again attribute to God the old name that Origen had reserved for the Father: "monad" and "henad", utter simplicity. This remains the approach of Pseudo-Dionysius. He knows that the inner life of God is one of eternal, virginal productivity, but he has not the slightest thought of peering curiously into the abyss. If faith did not know of it, nothing in the orderly structure of his hierarchies or in the structure of created spirit would betray, in his view, the traces of this mystery.

Here as everywhere, Maximus is heir to his past. He is heir to the Cappadocians, to Evagrius, to Pseudo-Dionysius; reaching back on his own beyond them all, he is heir also to Origen. A love for a theology that celebrates the inscrutable mystery liturgically is just as noticeable in his thought as in that of Pseudo-Dionysius, so it is not surprising to find in his work traces of the same tendency to remove the triune life of God from any sort of rational speculation. He quotes, in fact, Pseudo-Dionysius directly: "Even if the Godhead, which is exalted above all things, is spoken of in the liturgy as monad and triad, neither we nor any other being knows it as monad or triad; but in order that we might celebrate what is supremely one and what is divinely productive in it, in a way corresponding to the truth, we name that which is above every name with these titles"(47).

The clearest expression of this tendency is the fact that Maximus assigns the Trinity to negative theology, while he assumes that positive theology deals with the God of "salvation history", the God who rules the world by providence and judgment. In giving an allegorical interpretation of the Lord's Transfiguration on Tabor, he calls the radiance of his face a metaphor for apophatic theology, while that of his robes—along with the appearance of Moses (as "providence") and Elijah (as "judgment")—represents cataphatic theology. Referring to the first of these, he writes:

The radiance of the Lord's face [is an image] ... of negative, mystical theology; according to this approach, the blessed and holy Godhead is essentially and supremely ineffable, unknowable, elevated an infinite number of times beyond all infinity. It does not provide the beings below it with the least trace (ἴχνος: lit., footprint), with the cloudiest conception of itself, nor does it offer any being at all a notion—even a dark hint— of how it can be at once unity and trinity. For it is not for the creature to grasp the uncreated, nor for limited beings to embrace the unlimited in their thought (48).

Nonetheless, the Christian knows about God's triune being from divine revelation; it is not simply revealed as a "fact" to be believed, but it is revealed already in the "facts" that the incarnate Christ is the revelation of his Father and that the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from them both (49), is given to those who believe as the spirit who makes them holy and adopts them as children. The Christian, armed with those traditional trinitarian formulas that had been gained at such a price— "three Persons (hypostases, concrete individuals) in one essence", "a triple mode of existence (τρόπος τῆς ὑπάρξεως) in one being"—does not simply stand before a riddle that surpasses the "world's understanding or before what is simply that mystery's "way of appearing" in the world; rather, because the history of the triune God in the world, a history of salvation and sanctification, is the real restoration of the creature to the Father through the Son and the Spirit, the Christian finds himself truly "in" the Trinity. The Trinity "moves in the spirit that can make it its own, "whether angel or human—the spirit that searches through it and in it for what it really is "(50). And if this searching mind should attain to God, then it "shares not only in a unity with the holiness of the Trinity, but even in the unity that belongs to the Trinity in itself"(51).

It would be an anachronism, in dealing with a thinker like Maximus (or with any patristic or early scholastic writer), to try to make a distinction between philosophy and theology "when the subject is a thoughtful interpretation of God and the "world and their relationship to each other, as if to suggest that trinitarian issues are not connected to the purely philosophical problem of positive and negative theology (52). The fact that Maximus grounds both the natural law and the positive moral teaching of the Old Covenant in Jesus Christ, as Word-to-be-made-flesh (53), excludes such an approach, as does the way he always considers all the "philosophical" problems of the emergence and return of the world exclusively within the concrete, supernaturally grounded order of sin and redemption. In such a unified view of things, it would not be at all odd or inconsistent to expect to see traces and images of the Trinity in creatures, as part of the cataphatic stage of considering God's appearance, even if such affirmations should be retracted and denied later on, in the apophatic stage. Nevertheless, Maximus must have continued to be impressed by the intellectual restraint Pseudo-Dionysius had imposed upon himself. Other than a traditional and hasty reference to a triad in the structure of the soul (54), Maximus never speaks of any "vestiges of the Trinity" in other created beings at all. Just as hastily and incidentally, another traditional motif is mentioned in only one place (55): the conception, dear to Gregory Nazianzen, of the historical unfolding of our knowledge of the Trinity as a divinely planned pedagogical scheme (56). This notion, too, plays no real role in Maximus' unhistorical style of thought.

To understand correctly the other texts of Maximus we have to consider, one must always keep before one's eyes Pseudo-Dionysius' dialectic of affirmation and negation, but never an opposition between natural and supernatural knowledge of God. The God who "grants to those who love him to be, through grace, what he himself is by nature" does so "that he may be fully known, yet even in that knowledge remain the fully inconceivable one" (57); this assertion is confirmed by the Dionysian way of speaking of ecstatic knowledge of God, which —like that of Maximus here—does not refer to "philosophical", but to Christian knowledge. This formulation, however, stands in the way of any systematic explanation of the processions "within God (such as Western theology knows them, but which must not be implicitly projected onto Eastern theology, even as an unconscious presupposition). It is precisely the lack of a conceptual scheme for inner-trinitarian life —however much such a scheme may be, in the end, derived from the structure of created being—which prevents theological thought from following creaturely "images" any farther back than God's action in history: in other words, one is led from them to the God of revelation, but precisely not to God as he is in himself.

Only with this in mind can one make proper sense of statements such as that on Romans 1:18f, where Maximus interprets the "hidden reality of God", which is "seen by reason" in creation, first of all in terms of the eternal ideas that are "mysteriously hinted at" in creatures, then also (as Paul does) in terms of the qualities or attributes of God, "his eternal power and divinity". "In the being (existence) of things, we recognize, through faith, the true being of God"; in the articulation of essences and in their preservation, the divine wisdom; in their natural movement, his vitality. This Dionysian triad of being, wisdom, and life allows us, in Maximus' view, to gain a distant view of the triune God: not in such a way that Being would be allotted to the Father, Wisdom to the Son, or Life to the Spirit, but rather in a way that concentrates us on the Pauline concepts of the "eternal power and divinity" of God. It is, in fact, a marginal note in a strange hand that first brings to closure what Maximus doubtless intended to leave open, by connecting these concepts with the triad life-power-spirit (zoe, dynamis, pneuma) [58].

In the course of a great reduction of the five ways from the world to God (essence, motion, distinction, connection, affirmation) to three, then two, then one, the Dionysian triad of being, knowledge, and life once again makes a hurried appearance; it is suggested as a symbol of the Trinity (59) but then immediately disappears in favor of an increasingly strict emphasis on unity, where the person rapt in contemplation mirrors God's unity "like air communicating light". In the Mystagogia (chap. 5), where God's unity is presented as a goal to be approached through five syntheses or "syzygies", unity can be reached in one case under the revealing sign of the second Person and in another case under that of the third Person. One kind of unity is conformity to Christ through grace: the process by which man comes to be himself in the "place" of the hypostatic union—the coming-to-be, from the starting point of the Church, of the Jesus who already exists eternally in himself—and then the return, in Christ, of the image to its original, who is God (60). Another kind of unity is reached through syntheses on the "practical" side of the soul, in its perfection through the Holy Spirit and in the strenuous efforts that come to fulfillment in his grace (61) (corresponding to the christological way to unity mentioned above), in which, once again, everything ends in "divinization", and so in a unity that lies beyond intelligible being (62).

b. Hidden Fruitfulness

This God, of course, is the Christian God, not some empty and abstract, speculative unity; his mystery is pregnant with a life of ineffable fruitfulness.

In the first (mystical) encounter, God teaches the mind, in the embrace of unity, the reality of his own monadic existence, so that no separation from the first cause may be introduced; but God spurs it on to be receptive to his divine, hidden fruitfulness, as well, by whispering quietly and mysteriously to the mind that this Good can never be thought of without the fruit of the Logos and of Wisdom, the power that makes creatures holy—both of which share in his essence and abide personally in him (63).

This intrinsically fruitful God is not only the God of the highest goodness, as Plato conceived him, but the God of Christian love. Here erotic love and selfless charity rejoin each other at the highest level, as they do in Pseudo-Dionysius, and the generally indifferent but benevolent providence of ancient philosophy is transformed, almost automatically, to the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love (64) which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellowmen equally—the distinctively Christian form of love (agape), then, here distinctively understood as a sublimation of philosophical and contemplative desire—that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love (65). Only this makes it understandable why Maximus sees such a distance between the "narrow, imperfect, and almost insubstantial" Jewish image of God, which, in its emptiness, "approaches atheism", and the Christian God, who for the first time lets his fullness shine forth (66).

Salvation history is the appearance in time of a loving, triune God; that is why the Father and the Spirit both have a personal role in the Incarnation, even though only the Son has become human. The role of the Father is his "good pleasure", that of the Spirit his "cooperation", while the role of the Son is to "act in his own name". Nevertheless, Maximus immediately emphasizes that the Father as a whole was essentially present in the whole Son, as the Son worked the mystery of our redemption by becoming flesh; the Father did not himself become flesh but gave his approval to the Son's becoming flesh. And the Holy Spirit, as a whole, dwelt essentially in the whole Son, not becoming flesh himself but bringing about the mysterious Incarnation along with the Son (67).

The triune love appears in Christ; as the love of the God who is beyond intelligible being, however, it is not accessible to our thought in any other way than through the Dionysian dialectic.

In the Christian understanding of God, too, the Trinity cannot properly be the object of "scientific knowledge" (in the classical sense of Plato's ἐπιστήμη). For to be concerned with this mystery "is not [to seek] knowledge through explanations (αἰτιολογία) that begin with the superessential cause of all things so much as it is the presentation of the reasons we have in our imagination (δόξα) for praising that cause"(68). Doxa here is the Platonic opposite to causal explanation, since causality in God can never be obvious or accessible to our minds. Maximus knows and expressly states that "faith is true knowledge (γνῶσις ἀληθής) based on unprovable principles, because it is the testimony to things that lie beyond both theoretical and practical reason"(69). Nevertheless—in fact, for this reason—he refuses to distinguish between an "absolute" and a "relative" order in God, even though he knows that the Persons are distinct from one another. "The three are, in truth, one: for this is their being. And the one is, in truth, three: for this is their existence. For the one divine Mystery 'is' in a unitary way and 'subsists' in a threefold way"(70).

"This is hard for our understanding", Hegel says, for the basic principle of intelligibility—the abstract unity of number—is here denied. "One applies one's finite categories, counts one, two, three, mingles with one's ideas the unfortunate form of number. Yet number is not the point here"(71). Maximus speaks in the same vein: "Whether the Godhead, which is exalted above all things, is praised as Trinity or as Unity, it is still neither three nor one as we know those numbers in our experience "(72)."For the threeness is not in the oneness as an accident is in a substance", and "the oneness is not conceptually distinguished from the particular individuals contained within it as a universal or a genus’’. ‘’That which is completely identical with itself and without causal dependency is not mediated through relationship, like that of an effect to its cause"; "nor does the Three proceed out of the One, for the Trinity is unproduced and is revelatory of itself"(73). It is no less unacceptable, on the other hand, to think of God's unity as a "synthesis" of threeness (74). In this way, Maximus' trinitarian theology unfolds in long, seemingly dry, and unyielding formulas, which are really dogmatic litanies inspired by the spirit of liturgy; most of them are intended, in negative terms, to prevent misunderstanding, and in positive terms they simply repeat the complete identity of One and Three, as well as the complete integrity of the three divine individuals (hypostases) within the one divine nature (75). His preference is to emphasize the unity of the Persons in nature and activity and to say no more (76).

Even in the dogmatic tracts of his middle period, when the theology of the Incarnation kept forcing Maximus to turn to the mystery of God's threeness as a way of clarifying and delineating the mystery of Christ, he says no more. He does not go beyond what Gregory Nazianzen said; rather, he constantly ducks and parries, constantly draws a ring of silence around the bottomless depths of God. The only exception is when the Trisagion, the "Holy, holy, holy" of the liturgy on earth, compels him to allow himself a peek into heaven:

The threefold cry of "Holy!", sung by the whole faithful people in praise of God, hints in a mysterious way at the union that is to come, our equality with the bodiless intellectual powers; as a result of that union, the single race of men, joined with the powers above in the identity of eternal, tranquil movement around God, will spend its energies blessing and celebrating the threefold face of the single divine mystery, in a threefold canticle of praise (77).


46. The arguments of Hubert Merki, O.S.B. (Ὁμοίωσις Θεῷ [Rome, 1952], 172) have convinced me to abandon my earlier contention that the homily on Genesis 1:26 (PG 44, 1327-46) is a genuine work of Gregory of Nyssa: see my Présence et pensée (Paris, 1942), 139; (English translation, Presence and Thought [San Francisco, 1995], 169). The homily speaks of an "image of the Trinity" (τυπικὴ τριάς) in the three parts of the soul (sensual, emotional, rational), as well as in the soul's role as psyche, nous, and logos (1337A). But Merki remarks correctly, "Such an interpretation and application of the image-motif to the Trinity is not to be found anywhere, even by intimation, in all the genuine works of Gregory, even though he has many opportunities to do so" (175). The whole human person is image and likeness of the triune God—an image that had been darkened by sin and that is restored to its original brilliance when it is cleansed by the redemption. This motif is developed in a thoroughly Plotinian way, in that the unity of the created mind remains the leading theme. Cf. Roger Leys, S.J., L'Image de Dieu chez saint Grégoire de Nysse (Brussels, 1951).

47. DeDiv. Nom. 13, 3 (PG 3, 980D-981A), quoted by Maximus at Ambigua; PG 91, 188A.

48. Ambigua•, PG 91, 1168A.

49. Maximus uses and expressly defends the idea behind the Latin Filioque: Opuscula; PG 91, 136AB.

50. Ambigua; PG 91, 1260.

51. Ambigua; PG 91, 1196B.

52. This is how Sherwood tries to solve the problem: Maximus, Ascetic Life, and introduction 34, 37.

53. Quaestiones ad Thalassium 19; CCG 7, 119; PG 90, 308BC.

54. In the homily of Pseudo-Gregory of Nyssa we have already mentioned (above, n. 46), this structure is expressed as psyche, nous,and pneuma (PG 44, I337A); in Maximus (Ambigua; PG 91, 1196A) it is nous, logos,and pneuma, conceived as an "image of the archetype", to which, as far as possible, the creature should "conform itself". As a connecting link, Sherwood (Maximus, Ascetic Life, introduction, n. 170) mentions Pseudo-Eulogius of Alexandria (or Epiphanius II of Cyprus; see Theologische Quartalschrift 78 [1896]: 364). One should notice, also, that this mention of the triadic structure of the soul is made, not in the context of the development of this structure to its full realization, but in that of its rootedness in the unity of the Trinity; this is usually the case, when one is speaking of the creature's being made in the image of the triune God.

55. Ambigua; PG 91, 1261A.

56. Oral. 31, 25-27; PG 35, 160-64; Orat. 45, 12-13; (PG 35, 639); cf. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 46, 696-97); Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. 16, 24; PG 33, 953.

57. Opuscula; PG 91, 33D.

58. Quaestiones ad Thalassium 13; CCG 7, 97, 1-6; PG 90, 296CD.

59. Ambigua; PG 91, 1136BC.

60. Mystagogia 5; PG 91, 676BC.

61. Ibid.; PG 91, 677C.

62. Ibid.; PG 91, 680A-681B.

63. Ambigua; PG 91, 1260D.

64. Sherwood emphasizes this important point (Maximus, Ascetic Life, 29f.) Maximus is implacable in making this demand; in this respect he distinguishes himself from Evagrius, who expressly chooses a different direction (Praktikos; PG 40, 1252B).

65. Mystagogia I; PG 91, 664D-668B.

66. Exposition of the Lord's Prayer; CCG 23, 51, 414-54, 468; PG 90, 892A-893A.

67. Quaestiones ad Thalassium 60; CCG 22, 79, 100-105; PG 90, 624BC; cf. ibid. 63; CCG 22, 155, 167-157, 182; PG 90, 672C; also Exposition of the Lord's Prayer, CCG 23, 31, 87-32, 95; PG 90, 876CD.

68. Ambigua; PG 91, 10366; cf. 1364ΒC. John of Scythopolis takes note of the ambiguity in Pseudo-Dionysius over whether theology is or is not to be considered ἐπιστήμη: In De Div. Nom. 2; PG 4, 2I3CD.

69. Centuries on Knowledge 1, 9; PG 90, 1085CD; cf. Ambigua; PG 91, 1053; "undemonstrable knowledge" (ἀναπόδεικτος γνῶσις).

70. Ambigua; PG 91, 1036C.

71. Philosophie der Religion (1840), 2:234.

72. In De Div. Nom. 13; PG 4, 4I2C; Ambigua; PG 91, 1185C; 1188AB.

73. Exposition of the Lord's Prayer, CCG 23, 53, 446-54, 460; PG 90, 892CD.

74. Mystagogia, chap. 23; PG 91, 701A; cf. In De Div. Nom. 2; PG 4, 220C.

75. Centuries on Knowledge 2,1; PG 90, 1124D-1125C; Mystagogia 23; PG 91, 700C-701B; Exposition of the Lord's Prayer; CCG 23, 53, 446-54, 460; PG 90, 892CD.

76. Ambigua; PG 91, 1261B-1264B.

77. Mystagogia 19; PG 91, 696BC.

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