Historical and Doctrinal Context of the Development of Maximus the Confessor’s Thought (in Polish with English summary), written by Bogna Kosmulska, 2014


in Scrinium

This modest but dense book was edited as a revision of the PhD thesis by the author defended at the University of Warsaw in 2013. It is remarkable in several aspects, for both Maximus studies in general and still young but rapidly growing Polish school of patrology. Like the most of recent Polish patrological studies, it is dedicated to the early Byzantine period, but, unlike most of them, it is focused more on l’histoire des idées than the bio-bibliography of a given patristic author within the context of social and/or ecclesiastical history.


The book is clearly philosophically oriented (and, respectively, author’s thesis was defended at the Institute of Philosophy of the University), whereas “the Polish style” in patrology which is more familiar to us is rather “historically oriented”.1 Of course, it is easier to deal with l’histoire des idées when you have in background knowledge of social and especially Church history; therefore, the development of Polish patrology follows the most natural path. Among the Polish historians of Church and society of the relevant epoch, Marek Jankowiak recently became known with his studies of Monotheletism; Kosmulska, of course, paid to them proper attention.


The basic constructive principle of Kosmulska’s research seems to be following: she traces the history of research of several chosen doctrinal problems in Maximus, paying a great attention to his intellectual and monastic/confessional network and thus comes to conclusions concerning both these problems per se and Maximus’s biography.


The history of Maximus studies is a self-standing object of interest for her. Despite – or grace to – a very limited room for historiographical sketches within a relatively small book, the author managed to provide a balanced and representative account, which becomes a more and more rare thing in English-language reviews of Maximus studies. Kosmulska’s historiography does not limit itself to the first chapter (“Ponowne odkrycie Maksymowej myśli w XX wieku” [“The Rediscovery of Maximus’s Thought in the Twentieth Century”], pp. 29-41) but, more or less, is continued throughout the book. She takes into account important observations of East European theologians, such as Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-1993), and has a first-hand knowledge of some literature in Russian (but, unfortunately, without knowing most important recent Russian-language publications by Grigory Benevich and his co-authors; some of them, though, appeared after 2013)2. Kosmulska clearly appreciates very much Jean-Claude Larchet’s life-long work on Maximus’s theology but, judging from the sparsity of her references, is hardly enthusiastic about the Maximus scholarship inspired by the “personalist” theology of John Zizioulas (whose name she does not mention at all, as if he is merely one of the legion of theologians who said something about Maximus), regardless of its growing popularity in the English-speaking world.


In the second chapter (“Dzedzictwo Maksymowe w Bizancjum” [“Maximus’s Legacy in Byzantium”], pp. 43-74), Kosmulska touches, among others, upon such understudied topics as the renaissance of Maximus’s influence under the Komnenoi, with a special attention to the use of Maximus’s ideas against Proclus by the most authoritative Byzantine Father of the twelfth century Nicholaos of Methone (s. paragraph with a revealing title “Podstawowe motywy Maksymowej metafizyki” [“The Basic Motives of Maximus’s Metaphysics”], pp. 52-58, where she argues that, in the collision between the legacies of Proclus and Maximus, there were, besides the opposition between Christianity and Paganism, a collision between two kinds of Neoplatonism). The paragraph dedicated to the usage of Maximus’s ideas and texts in the fourteenth-century Hesychast controversy (pp. 59-72) contains both detailed review of historiography and author’s own analysis. She concludes, not without reason, that Gregory Palamas’s “reinterpretation” of Maximus’s theology, albeit legitimated, was somewhat one-sided, with “mystical” rethinking of more “philosophical” parts of Maximus’s teaching on the logoi of God. I would endorse this conclusion. Indeed, the so-called “Palamite synthesis” has not exhausted the richness of Maximus’s theological and philosophical legacy and has never attained Maximus’s combination of logical preciosity with logical clarity.


The second part of the book entitled “Twórczość Maksyma na tle jego żywota” (“Maximus’s Theological Activity against the Background of His Life”), pp. 75-177, is the main part of the study. Here, Kosmulska reveals herself as a researcher with original methodology and with a sharp eye – thus demonstrating that some progress in this field is still possible even without working with little-known sources in Georgian and Syriac.3 I will briefly enumerate some peculiar points of her analysis.


She approves and elaborates the recent reinterpretation of Maximus’s epistles 6 and 7 by Grigory Benevich (pp. 104-111). Pace the established view inaugurated by Polycarp Sherwood, both Benevich and Kosmulska consider these letters and the parallel places in the Ambigua ad Iohannem as pieces of polemics with a kind of anti-Origenism and not of Origenism itself, namely, with a view that God is accessible through a corporeal vision. Kosmulska seconds Benevich’s formula that Maximus was trying to pass between Scylla of Origenism and Charybdis of the radical anti-Origenism.


Kosmulska’s analysis of the Palestinian milieu of Maximus led her to the radical conclusion formulated in the title of one paragraph (pp. 117-119): “Maksym mnichem ‘sabaickiej’ wspólnoty monastycznej – weryfikacja hipotezy S. Brocka” [“Maximus as a Monk of the ‘Sabaitic’ Monastic Community: a Verification of the Hypothesis by Sebastian Brock”].


I am not in position to evaluate decisively the audacious hypothesis to which is dedicated section 3 of the same chapter: “Luka w opisie drogi żiciowej Wyznawcy – Aleksandria (?)” (“A Gap in the Description of the Route of the Confessor according to the Lives: Alexandria (?),” pp. 121-161). Be this as it may, Kosmulska’s analysis of both intellectual and biographical links between Maximus and the Alexandrinian intellectual milieu is useful.


The last section 4 of the same chapter, “Afryka jako miejsce spotkania chrześcjańskiego Wschodu i Zachodu” (“Africa as a Place of Meeting between Christian East and West,” pp. 163-177) provides two more hypotheses or, at least, ideas to be kept in mind: possible contacts between Maximus and representatives of the school of Nisibis exiled to Africa (thus providing an explanation of some obscure places in the Syriac Life of Maximus) and possible Augustinian influence on Maximus’s teaching on two wills in Christ.


As a whole, Kosmulska’s book is an achievement of Polish patrology, which could be very profitable to those who do not read Polish. Its up-to-dated English translation is certainly desirable.


1 With some exceptions, however, such as a series of papers dedicated to the doctrine of Maximus the Confessor by Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska, one of the most direct predecessors of our author in Poland, whose works are referred to where appropriate.


2 Cf. my detailed review in Russian: В. Лурье, “Максим Исповедник и его китайская логика. Мысли по поводу новых публикаций Г.И. Беневича и соавторов [Maximus the Confessor and His Chinese Logic: Thoughts about New Publications by Grigory I. Benevich and Co-authors],” Волшебная гора [The Magic Mountain], 17 (2016), pp. 468-478. However, Kosmulska takes into account two papers by Benevich in English.


3 She partially discusses the difficulties in defining of Maximus’s intellectual milieux and even dedicates a whole paragraph to the “Trudności z określeniem Maksymowego wykształcenia” [“The Difficulties in Defining of Maximus’s Education,” pp. 111-117]. In fact, such difficulties are much worse. We still have no good knowledge of Origenist, Chalcedonian pre-Monothelete, and Monothelete traditions available during the lifetime of Maximus (the situation with the Monophysite and Nestorian traditions is perhaps a little better). Their variety was certainly greater than it is acknowledged in the modern reference works and by Kosmulska herself. For instance, she does not mention the document shedding some light on the schism between two kinds of Origenism, “Isochrist” and “Protoctist”: M. van Esbroeck, “L’homélie de Pierre de Jérusalem et la fin de l’origénisme palestinien en 551,” OCP, 51 (1985), pp. 33-59. As to the variability of the sixth- and seventh-century Chalcedonism, one could consult a series of papers by Dirk Krausmüller (some of them are already referred to by Kosmulska).

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