St. Maximus the Confessor on the Will—Natural and Gnomic

by David Bradshaw, Ph.D.

My aim in this paper is to identify the distinctive contribution made by St. Maximus to the development of theories of the will. I will also offer some tentative comments regarding the contemporary value of his contribution, particularly as regards the question (as hotly debated today as it was in the Middle Ages) of how the will can be responsive to reason without being determined by reason.

Maximus’s teaching about the will was of course not undertaken for its own sake, but in response to monothelitism. The monothelite assertion of one thelēma and thelēsis in Christ was intended to safeguard his unity as an acting agent. Like the term ‘will’ in English, these terms are ambiguous in Greek; each can refer either to the faculty of will, the act of willing, or the determinate will (i.e., a fixed and settled purpose).

Although it is not always clear which of these the monothelites had in mind, they probably meant to include all three.1 The objection raised by Maximus centered on the difficulty such a view creates for attributing any active role to the humanity of Christ. Maximus pointed repeatedly to the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane—“Father, if you will, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will (thelēma) but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—as indicating that Christ had a distinctly human thelēma, and that this thelēma was capable of standing in tension (although not outright contradiction) to the divine will. In this verse thelēma no doubt refers to what I have labeled determinate will. Nonetheless, for such a difference to be possible Christ must also have possessed a distinctly human capacity for willing, and that is the point on which Maximus focused.2 As he saw it, the recognition of two distinct faculties of will is a necessary corollary to the Chalcedonian affirmation of Christ’s two distinct natures, divine and human, for without it such an affirmation would be empty.

Maximus defines this natural faculty of will as “a faculty desirous of what is in accordance with nature, which holds together all the attributes that belong essentially to a being’s nature.”3 Although natural will so defined would seem to belong to all living things, Maximus plainly is interested primarily in the form that it takes in rational beings. Hence he goes on to define it further as “a simple rational and vital desire,” and in the Disputation with Pyrrhus he offers a number of descriptions which presuppose reason, including that it is rational desire (logikē orexis), self-determination (to autexousion), and desiderative mind (nous orektikos).4 Will qua rational desire is the master faculty governing the entire process that leads to intentional action: “willingly (thelontes) we think, and wish, and search, and consider, and deliberate, and judge, and are inclined toward, and choose, and move toward, and use.”5 Elsewhere Maximus calls it “the primary innate power among physical characteristics and movements,” holding that by it alone we seek being, life, movement, thought, speech, perception, nourishment, sleep, rest, and all else that sustains nature.6

Rational wish (boulēsis) and choice (prohairēsis), which in classical thought are the primary acts of a volitional nature, are understood by Maximus as modes of thelēsis. The former is “imaginative desire both of things that are and are not up to us,” or equivalently, an act of will directed toward a particular object which may or may not be in our power.7 The latter is desire, following upon deliberation and judgment, specifically for an object within our power; it constitutes, as Maximus puts it, a combination of desire, deliberation, and judgment.8 This way of distinguishing boulēsis and prohairesis is largely Aristotelian and probably reached Maximus through Nemesius of Emesa.9 Maximus thus incorporates a great deal of the classical (and especially Aristotelian) analysis of volition under his own overarching category of thelēsis.

Another of Maximus’s innovations was to distinguish from the natural will what he calls the “gnomic will” (gnōmikon thelēma). Maximus explains the distinction between natural and gnomic will on analogy with that between the capacity to speak, which belongs to nature, and how one speaks, which belongs to hypostasis.10 He defines the gnomic will as “the self-chosen impulse and movement of reasoning toward one thing or another.”11 As this definition indicates, the gnomic will is not a faculty—which would be redundant, given the role already assigned to the natural will—but instead an act made possible by the natural will. The particular direction of the gnomic will is shaped by a person’s gnōmē, a fluid term which in this context would seem to mean character or inclination.12 Gnōmē arises when desire is oriented and established by judgment and deliberation, and it stands toward choice as a dispositional state (hexis) toward the corresponding act.13 In fact there would seem to be little difference between the gnomic will and prohairesis, both being names for the choice that issues from, and is shaped by, gnōmē.14

Maximus’s understanding of prohairesis as issuing from and being “shaped” by gnōmē (in the sense of disposition or character) raises an important question: is choice determined by character, or is character merely a precondition that (in the phrase of Leibniz) “inclines without necessitating”? In order to give point to this question it may help to notice a couple of historical precedents. Aristotle in a famous passage of the Nicomachean Ethics likens the formation of character to throwing a stone:

Once you have thrown a stone and let it go, you can no longer recall it, even though the power to throw it was yours, for the initiative was within you. Similarly, since an unjust or a self-indulgent man initially had the possibility not to become unjust or self-indulgent, he has acquired these traits voluntarily; but once he has acquired them it is no longer possible for him not to be what he is.15

In other words, although character may initially be formed through some sort of indeterministic process, once it is formed, choices follow from it of necessity.16 Such a view is a version of what I will call character-based determinism, the view that choices are determined by character. A more subtle form of such a view can be found in Augustine.17 On his view, it is not character as a whole that determines choice, but the strengths of one’s loves and desires. Thus in The City of God Augustine describes the soul as borne about by the preponderance of its loves much as a material body is borne about by its weight.18 Elsewhere he states even more directly, “it is necessary that we do whatever attracts us more.”19 This too is a form of character-based determinism, although it focuses on love and desire rather than character per se.

There are a number of signs that Maximus does not hold such a view. One is the definition of gnomic will cited earlier, “the self-chosen impulse and movement of reasoning toward one thing or another.” That the impulse is self-chosen (authairetos) seems to indicate a certain spontaneity that cannot be understood simply as a result of pre-existing factors.20 This impression is confirmed by an interesting analogy Maximus offers in the course of explicating the difference between choice that is in accordance with nature and that contrary to nature: choice, he says, is like a vote in relation to the preceding judgment, regardless of whether that judgment is correct.21 Here too there would seem to be a certain spontaneity in the act of choice that cannot be explained by preceding factors, just as a vote is not wholly explicable (although it is partially so) by the deliberation that precedes it.

Finally, and from a broader standpoint, there is the role Maximus gives to free choice in progress toward deification. In this context he uses gnōmē precisely to indicate the creature’s own contribution as distinct from that determined by God. Thus he writes in Ambigua 7 that “rational beings are in motion from the beginning naturally by reason of being, and toward the goal in accordance with gnōmē by reason of well-being.”22 Likewise in Ambigua 10 we read that, of the three logoi by which God has made all creatures—those of being, well-being, and eternal being—“the two on the extremes [i.e., being and eternal being] have God alone as cause, but the other is intermediate and depends on our own movement and gnōmē, and through itself makes the extremes what they are.” 23 In these passages gnōmē seems more likely to mean an act of choice rather than a disposition, but either way, it is plain that Maximus envisages a distinctive human contribution to the achievement of well-being, one that cannot be understood solely in terms of divine agency.24 Here too it would seem that human gnōmē includes a crucial element of spontaneity.

This means that, in contemporary terms, Maximus is closer to being a libertarian than a compatibilist, including a theological compatibilist. However, it would not be right to identify his view simply as libertarian, for it includes an element that contemporary libertarianism normally does not—namely, the fundamental structure contained in the three logoi of being, well-being, and eternal being. Because human choice always takes place within this structure it is never wholly de novo, but always a response to the invitation to deification present within God’s creative intent.

With that in mind, let us turn to the question of how Maximus understands the relationship of reason and will. The central difficulty this topic raises is that of how reason can be operative in choice without determining choice. Thomas Aquinas, for example, famously suggested that reason moves the will by presenting to it its final cause, “because the understood good is the object of the will, and moves it as an end.”25 It is natural to wonder, if this is so, whether the will is determined by the conclusions of reason; and, if it is so determined, whether it is truly free. It was presumably such worries that prompted the bishop of Paris to include, among the propositions condemned in 1277, the following: “That the will necessarily pursues what is firmly held by reason, and that it cannot abstain from that which reason dictates” (no. 163), and, “That if reason is rectified, the will is also rectified” (no. 166).26 The condemnation of these two propositions, as is well known, did much to contribute to the rise of late medieval voluntarism.

Yet if the will is not determined by reason, then how can we avoid positing it simply as a capacity for deciding arbitrarily among alternatives? Such a view leads to at least two significant worries. One is that it makes the acts of will arbitrary, and thus unintelligible. The other is that it makes them not truly free, for we normally think of someone as acting freely precisely when his reasons can be understood. If it turns out that free choice is instead simply a random process operating in the mind, then it would seem that we are at the mercy of that random process, rather than free agents. This was in essence the reply of the medieval intellectualists to the voluntarists, as it is the reply today of compatibilists to libertarians.

It is in light of this debate that I find Maximus’s treatment of free choice particularly intriguing. Maximus places choice in the sequence of mental operations after deliberation and judgment, so that it is informed by the operations of reason. Yet it is not determined by them, for, as I mentioned earlier, it operates like a “vote” in relation to the results of judgment; that is, the will takes these results into account while also deciding from within, through its own spontaneous movement, whether to accept them. This movement is not arbitrary, for it is an expression of the will’s intrinsic orientation toward goods that are in accordance with nature. Of course it does not follow that the choice itself is in accordance with nature—far from it!—but it is at least intelligible as an expression of this innate desire.

Granted, any form of spontaneity always leaves a further question of ‘why?’—in this case, why does the will express its innate desire in one way rather than another? I suspect that Maximus, if faced with this question, might refer us to his teaching regarding the divine logoi and the ultimate human destiny of deification. As destined for deification, human beings must be spontaneous originators of their own character; otherwise they would not share in that aspect of the divine nature that the Greek Fathers called to autexousion, self-determination. This does not render each choice in isolation fully intelligible, but it does render intelligible why our acts of seeking to understand choice reach a limit. We find in ourselves an image of the same mystery that we find in God. This is, if not understanding, then something far better.


The main body of the paper describes what I take to be the predominant line of Maximus’s thought on the will. Under the pressure of his debate with the monothelites, Maximus also offers a different and more restrictive understanding of three of the key terms—gnomic will, gnōmē, and prohairesis—that should also be noted. In the Disputation with Pyrrhus he defines gnōmē as “a sort of act of will (poia thelēsis) relative to some real or perceived good,” one that “judges between opposites, inquires about things unknown, and deliberates about that which is unclear.”27 Gnōmē here is not a disposition but instead an act much like boulēsis and prohairesis (or perhaps, given the breadth of the description, a way of naming the entire act of which boulēsis and prohairesis are stages). To attribute gnōmē in this sense to Christ would render him, according to Maximus, “a mere man, deliberating as we do, being ignorant and doubting, and possessing opposite tendencies,” and indeed would imply that he is sinful insofar as he lacks a clear knowledge of the good.28 Gnōmē and, a fortiori, gnomic will must therefore on no account be attributed to Christ. Elsewhere Maximus amplifies and extends this position, arguing that prohairesis too is of necessity a choice between good and evil, and so must be denied of Christ.29

It is important to note that these statements rest upon a different understanding of gnōmē and prohairesis than that which Maximus offers when he is defining these terms in a non-polemical way. Gnōmē as it is defined in Opuscula 1 is a standing inclination or state of character that has been formed through judgment and deliberation. Deliberation is, in turn, merely “desire that is inquisitive regarding some act that is up to us.”30 Granted that deliberation implies a state of uncertainty about what to do, it does not imply ignorance of the good, for the issue deliberated may be a choice among different paths all of which are good. Likewise prohairesis, understood simply as desire following upon deliberation and judgment, need not be a choice between good and evil but may instead be a choice among different goods. As Fr. Demetrios Bathrellos has noted, Maximus seems to have been motivated to deny gnomic will, gnōmē, and prohairesis to Christ by the fact that the monothelites had chosen these terms to describe Christ’s alleged single will, and Maximus wanted to deny them this possibility.31 Despite this act of polemical exuberance, he does not in fact seem to wish to deny to Christ prohairesis in the broader sense of a choice among goods, as would indeed be highly implausible given the exigencies of human existence.32 In particular, that Christ’s human will exercises prohairesis understood as a choice among goods is implied by Maximus’s exegesis of the prayer at Gethsemane: for Maximus this prayer exhibits a movement within Christ’s human will, one in which the human will, being “moved and shaped” by the divine will, comes to accept the good of the cup offered by the Father rather than the good of continuing earthly life.33

I would also add that, within a broader perspective, the attempt to limit prohairesis to choice between good and evil is decidedly eccentric. Earlier Fathers as authoritative as St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nyssa had found no difficulty in attributing prohairesis to God himself acting in his divine nature. Divine choice enters Athanasius’s Orations against the Arians in his response to the dilemma posed by the Arians regarding whether the Father begot the Son by will (boulēsis) or by necessity. In reply Athanasius posits an analogy: just as God is good neither by necessity nor by will, but by nature, so likewise He is Father of the Son neither by necessity nor by will, but by nature. Crucially, the reason that God is not good “by will” is that “to counsel and choose implies an inclination two ways,” so that if He is good by will, He could also not be good.34 This shows plainly enough that Athanasius understands the divine will as embracing the capacity for opposites. As regards creation, Basil in his Hexaemeron rejects the idea that God created the world “without choice (aprohairetōs), as the body is the cause of shadow and light the cause of brightness,” and Gregory in On the Soul and Resurrection similarly attributes creation to “the impulse of divine choice” (hē hormē tēs theias prohaireseōs).35 Similarly, in discussing the Trinity in his Great Catechism, Gregory observes that both the divine Logos and the Holy Spirit possess a faculty of choice (prohairetikēn dunamin) since no living thing is without choice (aprohaireton).36 In all of these texts there is plainly no suggestion that God chooses between good and evil, but only that he chooses among goods.

For all of these reasons, then, it would seem that Maximus’s denial of gnōmē, gnomic will, and prohairesis to Christ must be understood strictly within its polemical context. For our purpose here, that of understanding Maximus’s theory of the will as a contribution to philosophy, it is best to ignore such complications and to focus on those aspects of the theory that are not aimed solely at denying that Christ possesses a gnomic will.



[1] See discussion in Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 74-76 (Sergius), 80-82 (Pyrrhus).
[2] Maximus preferred for the sake of precision to refer to the determinate will as that which is willed, to thelēthen or thelēton. See Opuscula 1 PG 91 25A-B, 16 185D-188D, Disputation with Pyrrhus (= Opusc. 28) 292C-D.
[3] Maximus, Opusc. 1 12C. See also the similar definition, “the essential striving (ephesis) for things constitutive in accordance with nature” (14 153B), with 3 45D-48A and 16 185D for repetitions of the first definition, and 26 276C for a repetition of the second (where it is ascribed, along with several similar definitions, to Clement of Alexandria), along with a further minor variant at 26 280A.
[4] Opusc. 1 13C, Disp. 293B, 301C, 317C. The phrase orektikos nous may be drawn from Nicomachean Ethics VI.2 1139b4, where, however, it is offered as definition of choice (prohairesis) rather than of thelēsis.
[5] Disp. 293B-C (where I take it horōmen is a typo for hormōmen); see also the similar passage at Opusc. 1 21D-24A, which makes it clear that these are meant as sequential stages. This sequence was repeated with slight emendations by St. John of Damascus in De Fide Orthodoxa and was known in that form (via the Latin translation of the latter work) to the scholastics. For discussion see R.A. Gauthier, “Saint Maxime le Confesseur et la psychologie de l’acte humain,” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 21 (1954), 51-100; Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, Second Edition (Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1995), 219-26; Michael Frede, “John of Damascus on Free Will,” Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, ed. Katerina Ierodiakonou (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 63-95; Daniel Westberg, Right Practical Reason: Aristotle, Action, and Prudence in Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 126-35.
[6] Opusc. 16 196A.
[7] Opusc. 1 13B, 21D; cf. Disp. 317C.
[8] Opusc. 1 13A-B, 16B-C.
[9] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III.2 1111b19-26 and Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man 33. For discussion of Maximus’s use of Nemesius see Gauthier, “Saint Maxime,” 71-72; Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, 219-25.
[10] Opusc. 3 48A. See also Opusc. 3 53C and 16 192B-C, where the gnomic is definitive (aphoristikon) of person and hypostasis.
[11] Opusc. 14 153A-B, and equivalently, “the self-chosen impulse causing inclination toward one thing or another,” 16 192B. See also the definition at Opusc. 26 280A: “a sort of distinguishing movement and desire for things gathered together in respect to pleasure.” However, as John Madden points out, Opusc. 26 is probably not authentic, for it contains many definitions of which Maximus elsewhere shows no knowledge; see John D. Madden, “The Authenticity of Early Definitions of Will (Thelēsis),” Maximus Confessor, ed. Feliz Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1982), 61-79, at 63.
[12] Opusc. 3 48A. See also the similar definition in Opusc. 1 as “a dispositional desire (endiatheton orexin) for things up to us, from which there issues prohairesis; that is, a disposition for things up to us that have been deliberated upon with desire” (17C). For discussion of the different meanings of gnōmē in Maximus see Polycarp Sherwood, “Introduction,” St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity (New York: Newman Press, 1955), 58-63; Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, 213-18.
[13] Ibid. See also the definition offered by Gauthier, “Saint Maxime,” 80: “gnōmē is our character to the extent that we freely form it through our daily decisions.”
[14] There are further complexities in Maximus’s view of gnomē which I leave aside here for the sake of brevity; see the Appendix.
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III.5 1114a17-21, trans. Martin Ostwald (Library of Liberal Arts).
[16] More precisely, a person of fixed character may still choose among actions, but all will be within the appropriate range prescribed by his character.
[17] Whether Augustine held this view consistently I will not attempt to say, although a number of scholars have argued that he did. See T. Kermit Scott, Augustine: His Thought in Context (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 188-96; Katherin Rogers, “Augustine’s Compatibilism,” Religious Studies 40 (2004), 415-35, partly incorporated in her Anselm on Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 31-43; cf. Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (London: Victor Gollancz, 1961), 134-36, 162.
[18] Augustine, City of God XI.28.
[19] Augustine, Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians 49.
[20] The use of the term authairetos in this context is unusual, although not unprecedented. Athenagoras says that men and angels are self-choosing with respect to virtue and vice, authaireton kai tēn aretēn kai tēn kakian echontōn (Legatio 24.3), and Dionysius the Areopagite attributes to rational beings “self-directed self-determination,” hē authairetos autexousiotēs (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy II.3.3 400A). Among the definitions collected in Opuscula 26 is one attributed to Clement of Alexandria defining thelēsis as nous peri ti authairetōs kinoumenos (276C).
[21] Opusc. 1 29A.
[22] Ambigua 7 PG 91 1073C.
[23] Ambigua 10 1116B. I take it that in saying that the logos of well-being “makes the extremes what they are,” Maximus does not mean that it defines them—for he has just said that they have God alone as cause—but rather that it determines the degree of their actual historical embodiment. See further the description of the entry of the logoi of time into eternity at Ambigua 10 1164B-C, with my comments in “Time and Eternity in the Greek Fathers,” The Thomist 70 (2006), 311-66, at 348-51.
[24] See further on this point John Meyendorff, “Free Will (gnōmē) in Saint Maximus the Confessor” in The Ecumenical World of Orthodox Civilization, ed. Andrew Blane (Paris and the Hague: Mouton, 1974), 71-75, although Meyendorff overstates his case by translating gnōmē as ‘free will.’
[25] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, Q. 82, art. 4.
[26] The numbering is that of P. Mandonnet, Siger de Brabant et l’averroïsme latin au XIIIme siècle, 2me partie, Textes inédites, Second Edition (Louvain: Institut supérieur de philosophie de l’Université, 1908); the translation is by E.L. Fortin and P.D. O’Neill as printed in Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, eds., Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1977), 590.
[27] Disp. 308C, 329D.
[28] Ibid. 308D, 329D.
[29] Opusc. 1 28D-32B, 3 53C, 7 81D.
[30] Opusc. 1 16B.
[31] Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 151-52. As Bathrellos notes (150-51), in his works written before the monothelite controversy Maximus freely attributed gnōmē and prohairesis to Christ.
[32] See Bathrellos, Byzantine Christ, 151 n.302, 191.
[33] Opusc. 3 48C-49A, 6 65A-68D, Disp. 297A-300A; cf. the helpful discussion in Ian A. McFarland, “’Naturally and by Grace’: Maximus the Confessor on the Operation of the Will,” Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005), 410-33, at 424-26.
[34] Athanasius, Orations against the Arians III.62 (PG 26 453C; NPNF vol. 4, 428). See also the classic article by Fr. Georges Florovsky, “St. Athanasius’ Concept of Creation,” Studia Patristica 6 (1962), 36-57, reprinted in his Aspects of Church History (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1975), 39-62.
[35] Basil, Hexaemeron I.7 (PG 29 17C); Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection (PG 46 124B).
[36] Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism 1 (PG 45 13D), 2 (17B). “Living thing” here is zōion, a term that excludes plants. For further discussion of these and related passages, see my “Divine Freedom in the Greek Patristic Tradition,” Quaestiones Disputatae 2 (2011), 56-69.

David Bradshaw is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky and author of Aristotle East and West. This article is a shortened version of “St. Maximus the Confessor on the Will” in Knowing the Purpose of Creation through the Resurrection, ed. Bishop Maxim Vasiljević (Sebastian Press, 2013).

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25 Responses to St. Maximus the Confessor on the Will—Natural and Gnomic

  1. I must dig into him. Any suggestions where to start for a non-academic?


  2. Tom says:

    Thank you Dr. Bradshaw. A very helpful piece. I’ve enjoyed following your thoughts on this here and elsewhere. A few quick thoughts:

    (1) “This means that, in contemporary terms, Maximus is closer to being a libertarian than a compatibilist, including a theological compatibilist. However, it would not be right to identify his view simply as libertarian, for it includes an element that contemporary libertarianism normally does not—namely, the fundamental structure contained in the three logoi of being, well-being, and eternal being. Because human choice always takes place within this structure it is never wholly de novo, but always a response to the invitation to deification present within God’s creative intent.”

    I take this roughly to be the difference between libertarians who are not theists (voluntarists) and who thus have no transcendent reality in which to ground the human disposition for reason and choice, and libertarians who are theists and who thus have such a ground.

    (2) As far as how reason is operative in the exercise of will, wouldn’t the fact that we are not omniscient, that our perceptions are less than fully informed, i.e., that our choosing is done within the constraints of a certain ‘epistemic distance’ (necessary, in fact, for human becoming), account for our choosing awry? Having to resolve itself within such epistemic distance, the will is shaped (solidified?) the more its choices confirm the chooser in the experience of the ends chosen. So we ultimately become what we choose.

    (3) If we suppose Christ to have passed through all the stages of human development, “growing” in wisdom and stature, and also of “learning” obedience through what he suffered, I don’t know how to escape the conclusion that Christ’s human journey is irreducibly gnomic (in some sense at least, with respect to wisdom, stature, and obedience). In Christ human nature ‘became good’ (was made good) within the constraints of the same epistemic distance that defined its failure (finite human being, brain chemistry, societal influences, etc). I’m having a hard time imagining Christ’s human will to have never resolved itself through deliberation with respect to the good. It seems to me it is precisely this which is the quintessential moment we call human being, and yet it’s the one moment Jesus is supposed never to have faced. But the alternative (that the Incarnate One might have chosen evil) is equally inconceivable. So I’m stuck.

    (4) There’s a curious philosophical question regarding the principle of sufficient reason at play. If I face a choice between options which are equally ‘good’ and which equally satisfy some end, then there can be nothing in reason or character to incline me to any particular choice among the options. Would the choice not then be spontaneous (you use the word)? It wouldn’t be random in the sense of unmotivated, for motivation is present. But while there would be a motivation for choosing option A (it fulfills the good I desire), there wouldn’t be a motivation per se for choosing A “over B” (where B is an equally good choice that equally fulfills the good I desire). So the principle of sufficient reason would fail here. That doesn’t bother me, but it does concern some who believe there always has to be a sufficient reason that explains a choice in every particular and from every vantage point.

    I say all this in the context of human choice. Approaching the delicate question of the divine choice to create is beyond my pay grade, though I can’t help but try. I am intrigued and challenged by the belief (which I share) that creation is absolutely gratuitous. This at least means that creating and not-creating are equally indifferent to the Good which God is (as well as the fullness and beatitude which he is and which remains unimproved by creating). The principle of sufficient reason cannot explain the choice to create, a choice which then is (and I’m afraid to say it) spontaneous (not unmotivated per se, but spontaneous in the sense art is a meaningful expression of the artist but wholly unnecessary).



  3. Rob says:


    I think the version of psr your working with is Leibniz’s and its been rejected by many, most famously Gilson. I find it lacking as well. Leibniz’s version attempts to work forward rather than backward. Everything becomes an absolute necessity and this is what is at work behind his notoriously callous theodicy. But, of course, the principal of sufficient reason must not mean that at all. All it meant for most other thinkers before (though they never used the term psr) is that nothing could happen without reason. So when we make a choice it is not that our choice was necessarily what it was given A and B. It is simply that we could not have made a choice at all if we had not seen it has some good or fulfilling some desire. It is not that things happen necessarily given a happens or what have you. It’s simply that couldn’t have come about for no reason at all. This when we aka someone why they did something less than ideal, they can always give a reason if we, and really they, know it’s not a good one. And I think given from what you said at the end of your comment you’d probably agree that the non-Leibnizian (?) conception is a more cogent one. As for why God would create it seems to surely have something to do with the inherent generosity and sharing that takes place within the Trinitarian life. God’s act of creation is an extension an overflow and I think what we experience in love and play is our best hope to understand this. We’ve all had a moment of such contentment that we could have scarcely needed anything else and its that moment that we share most abundantly. It’s always going to be difficult to understand how comes to do these things– he’s certainly not deliberating or taking time as he doesn’t exist in time–but we make catch glimpses of it in our life, like artistic expression as you rightly point out. (By the way Chesterton is probably better than anyone on just what you’re talking about- he has an essay on the pickwick papers I think where he’s talking about artistic creation and its analogous to Creation and Orthodoxy touches on similar themes) But it will certainly always be mysterious regardless. Oh and I don’t know if I should say he’s equally indifferent. Doesn’t that kind of make God’s self-sufficiency sound like apathy? I mean I know you’re not thinking about it like that but makes it sound a bit off, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Rob: Oh and I don’t know if I should say he’s equally indifferent. Doesn’t that kind of make God’s self-sufficiency sound like apathy? I mean I know you’re not thinking about it like that but makes it sound a bit off, no?

      Tom: Sure, the word ‘indifferent’ on its own might suggest that. I’m thinking though of the relative value to God of creating over not creating. Creation’s absolute gratuity, as far as I can tell, just means there is no loss of value, no violation of the good, no failure to instantiate beauty in ‘not creating’ which ‘creating’ we are to view as the means of avoiding.



  4. Rob says:

    Also a little uncomfortable with trying to put the Augustine or even Aquinas in compatabilist/libertarian boxes. I fdon’t think Augustine denies the freedom of the will with the talk about desires. He’s pretty explicit that we have the power to shape our desires and given his uh particular vices this seems born out in his life. I mean otherwise he would have died still praying, “Make me holy but not yet.”


  5. Jeremiah says:

    Great introduction, clear and accessible. I must say that I’m not convinced by the attempt to find a place for spontaneity in St Maximus’ account. I think he locates the place that *we* would (in my mind rightly, depending on what we mean) want to find a place for it, and there does seem to be a gap there in Maximus’ picture, but I’m doubtful Maximus himself had anything like it in mind. The likening to a vote isn’t decisive. Bradshaw says “a vote is not wholly explicable (although it is partially so) by the deliberation that precedes it”, but I don’t think that’s plain at all, at least to an ancient person; it’s precisely what we’re wondering about. To have real clear evidence, we’d need some claim from St Maximus (or anyone roughly contemporary) that someone could form an explicit and accurate judgment about what ought to be done, or even about what they *think* ought to be done, and then freely doing the opposite. I see the same problem with the appeal to authairetos, the self-chosen. On the view that is supposed to be opposed, the self-chosen *just is* the thing that follows necessarily from one’s character or deliberation. The fact that he uses the word is insignificant unless we have an example where someone deliberates and judges one way and then freely acts another, and where this cannot be explained by some defect in his character. Does St Maximus ever discuss such examples?


  6. Note X Note says:

    Hmm? Ok. Free will.
    Offered to angels- fall /result.judgement
    Offered to humans-fall/
    result. mercy
    Offered to new creation in the resurrection… …..delayed judgement.🆘


    • Note X Note says:

      Whilst studying will, I stumbled through interesting territory. Starting with pars capere, meaning :take part. There seems to be a meaning lost here. I only know a bit Deutsch, but if someone knows other languages feel free to expound here. For Christ to participate in humanity meant, with this definition, to receive from human will or thought. He did receive oil for anointing, even gold from the wise men. But what did he take or what pars capere occurred even in suffering(and the like)? A donkey and colt? These were taken at the Fathers request as I understand.
      For the admitting to participate, a division needs to be executed. Much like when I say “a part of me wants to ——–” intentionally left blank. My thought was admitted to sin. So, the missing meaning in pars capere being “giving” part. Christ’s participation never divided between take and give (my inclination thus far ). It seemed only as “giving part as He willed” or participating through the Diety’s will. On the cross, between two accused capere He gave part.


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Of interest here is Ian McFarland’s essay “Willing is Not Choosing.”


    • Mike H says:

      Thanks for posting this link.

      In other words, the gnomic will is not a separate power alongside the natural will; it is simply a name for how willing takes place.” – p11

      “In this the way, the power of self-determination characteristic of gnomic willing turns out to be an index of the willer’s distance from God.” – p18

      Then there is an “abolition of gnomic distance from God by grace”. – p18

      “If I am saved, there will come a time when my willing will no longer be characterized by deliberation and decision; but I will not be any less human. On the contrary, Maximus’ contention that only then will my calling and destiny as a human being have been fulfilled.” – p21

      A few thoughts/questions that I had while reading this:

      1) It’s difficult for me to conceive of a human being as being truly human without them knowing some degree of doubt and deliberation. Perhaps that’s a lack of imagination on my part, and it seems to be the exact sort of thing that Maximus would disagree with.

      2) Since Maximus identifies the natural will as (I think) always willing it’s own good (however misconstrued “the good” might be), and God is able (and willing?) to eliminate ALL “distance”, would Maximus characterize grace as “irresistible”, though perhaps not in the sense that certain reformers use the term?

      3) If the fall of man is a product of the gnomic will (p 10) and the gnomic will is a product of “distance from God”, it follows that there was never a time within human history where epistemic distance was zero. So however the fall is conceived (and however prelapsarian humanity is characterized), it cannot be a fall from a place of zero epistemic distance, for such a thing couldn’t occur. Is that a correct understanding?


      • Tom says:

        Hi Mike. Are you directing your questions to somebody in particular?



        • Mike H says:

          Nah, just thinking out loud.


        • Mike H says:

          Would love to hear your thoughts on my questions Tom. You’ve had great comments on Maximus in the past.


          • Tom says:

            Just some thoughts.

            Re: (1). I don’t find it difficult to imagine myself doubtless with respect to love/good (i.e., incapable of deliberating with respect to the good—call it ‘compatibilistically’ good or irrevocably solidified in the good). I think we already have good examples of human beings who approximate such a thing, persons whose will and character are so thoroughly formed in some respect that sin is no longer a psychological possibility. Mother Theresa comes to mind.

            It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine ourselves exhaustively formed in will and character. 2Cor 3.18 (“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”) describes the process. 1Jo 3.1-3 also. But surely we will not cease to be truly human in such a fulfilled state.

            Re: (2). I don’t view the beatific vision (at work presently or in its final disclosure; 2Cor 3.18; 1Jo 3.1-3) as irresistible in the sense that term is used in popular soteriological debates. God doesn’t flood our perceptions with light that overwhelms us apart from our free cooperation (I don’t think). One freely chooses how one sees and what one sees, i.e., whether one sees/contemplates the truth of things in Christ or not. The more we freely embrace that vision of things, the more we are transformed by it (2Cor 3.18). To the extent the transformation follows naturally from such seeing, it’s irresistible (i.e., you can’t contemplate it and not be changed by it). But to the extent that we must choose to world-construct within the truth of this way of seeing things, it is not irresistible.

            Re: (3). I agree that there was never a time in humanity’s past when epistemic distance was zero. Sin isn’t possible in such a context. Deliberation unto sin can only get off the ground if we are able to rationally misrelate to ourselves and misrelate ourselves to our context. I don’t think the distance was ever so great that choosing the good was rendered impossible. We don’t want to say that either. There has to be enough distance to make both rightly relating and misrelating rational possibilities. But o be created and teleologically grounded means having to take the human journey in such terms.



          • Mike H says:

            Thanks Tom.

            (1) Yes, but I interpreted Maximus as making a stronger statement than “doubtless with respect to love/good” but rather an unqualified “doubtless”…….the “powers of deliberation and decision” being unnecessary in regards to anything at all.

            (3) Yes, I don’t see a fall from “perfection” here.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Regarding #1: As you observe, St Maximus would disagree, as your statement implies that Jesus was either not fully human (because he did not have a gnomic will) or that he was capable of sin (because he did have a gnomic will). Not even Torrance was willing to affirm the latter.


  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have two questions for Dr Bradshaw:

    1) Regarding St Maximus’s denial of the gnomic will of Jesus, do you see this denial is following necessarily from the ecumenical confession of our Lord’s sinlessness?

    2) Would it be correct to say that gnomic will is characteristic of historical existence?

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  9. David Bradshaw says:

    I’ll try to answer, though I feel keenly here that I am not a theologian!

    When you speak of M.’s denial of a gnomic will in Christ, I presume you mean the particular sense of gnome and gnomic will identified in the Appendix. M.’s key objection seems to be that gnome “judges between opposites, inquires about things unknown, and deliberates about that which is unclear”–i.e., that it only comes into play when an agent is ignorant about that which ought to be done. He presumes that it is unfitting to attribute such ignorance to Christ, and hence that Christ does not have gnomic will.

    It seems to me – speaking, perhaps, out of my own ignorance – that Christ could be sinless and still subject to such ignorance. All that’s required is that, when he is ignorant, he deliberates correctly and comes to the right conclusion. M.’s view seems to be motivated more by a commitment to Christ’s perfect knowledge rather than his sinlessness. However, we already know that there were limits on Christ’s knowledge (such as the day of the Second Coming), so I’m not sure why this commitment is necessary.

    Perhaps, too, M. thought that ignorance and the need for deliberation imply a capacity for sin. This is a tricky question. In a sense Christ *was* capable of sin — e.g., he clearly had the capacity (in the sense of physical ability) to deny the cup in Gethsemane. But he was incapable in another sense that we might call character-based capacity — i.e., given his fully-formed character, he could not do otherwise. I don’t think that ignorance and the need for deliberation are necessarily inconsistent with the incapacity to sin in this sense. The deliberation may simply bring out what is already implicit in the agent’s character.

    As to your second question, although I tend not to think that gnomic will should be denied to Christ, I also don’t think that denying it undermines or limits the reality of Christ’s historical existence. Christ could be both sinless and have perfect moral knowledge in the way assumed by M., and still be a fully historical being. He would just be highly unique. But then, we know that’s true already.

    I suppose how one comes down on these issues depends in part on how one conceives of the relationship between Christ’s human and divine wills. This is an area that M. left rather unclear, and different views of it have been taken. I comment on the issue briefly in my review of Fr. Bathrellos’s book, and I’d recommend that book to anyone who wishes to pursue the matter further.

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