Maximus the Confessor: Wax and Clay

Alright so Maximus the Confessor is this old-ass theologian – we’re talking church fathers, 7th century kinda guy. He’s a Confessor because he was tortured for the faith, but not actually killed – it’s like a consolation prize for not-quite-martyrs. Apparently Wikipedia says later on in the church when persecution became less rare they started giving out the Confessor title to people who just were chill or whatever, but Maximus wasn’t one of those. Man got his hand chopped off and his tongue pulled out for having the wrong opinions. Something about whether Jesus had one wills or two wills or two natures or something – I dunno man, some nonsense. And then twenty years later everyone decided that he was actually right, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t murder your theological opponents. Anyway he wrote some cool shit before the mutilation thing, and today we get to chat about it.

So the book we’re dealing with is Two Hundred Chapters on Theology. The chapters aren’t super long – they’re more like little aphorisms. This wax one is a good example:

“God is the sun of righteousness, as is written, shining His rays of goodness simply on everyone; but the soul by its natural capacity becomes in character either wax when God-loving or clay when matter-loving. Consequently, just as clay by nature is dried by the sun, yet wax is naturally softened, so also every matter-loving and world-loving soul, being admonished by God yet molding itself in character after clay, is hardened; and it thrusts itself, like Pharoah, toward destruction. But every God-loving soul is softened as wax, and letting in both the impressions and characteristics of divine traits, it becomes ‘by the Spirit the dwelling place of God’ (Eph 2:22).”

According to my footnotes, the Pharaoh thing was quite a regular staging ground for arguments about free will. It’s the Exodus thing – if you’re not familiar, when you read about the Ten Plagues in Exodus, we find a bunch of instances where we’re told that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and makes him not let the Israelites go. It seems a bit unfair, really – the Egyptians are out getting blasted by flies and shit, and God’s both creating all these bad things and mind-blocking their leader so that those things will continue to happen. Seems kinda shitty – hence the free will conversation. Did Pharaoh have his own free will during these moments? Could he have made a different decision, or was God actually just straight-up making him make bad choices?

The actual minutiae of Exodus makes for interesting reading here – in some instances, we are explicitly told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but at other times Pharaoh kinda makes his own decisions. So, for instance, in Exodus 7:3, God’s telling Moses what’s going to happen, and He explicitly says “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Then we’ve got 8:15, where Pharaoh seems agent of his own destiny: “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said.” In that instance, Pharaoh is the one doing the hardening. God sounds more like He was just telling the future. It doesn’t fully make sense, given that in 7:3 God was explicitly like ‘nah I’mma do it’, but that’s how 8:15 is written. Then again, in 7:22, we’ve got another alternative: “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said.” In that instance, it’s in the passive voice, meaning that the agent doing the hardening is unclear. We could argue that God was doing the hardening, citing 7:3, but that doesn’t resolve 8:15 – or any of the other verses where Pharaoh is depicted as the active self-destructive agent (8:32, 9:34). Even worse, 9:34 actually describes Pharaoh as agent and then also uses the passive voice for the same event, suggesting that it’s actually perfectly reasonable to read the passive voice as Pharaoh’s activity.

“And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants.
And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, neither would he let the children of Israel go; as the Lord had spoken by Moses.”

And then in the very next verse, 10:1, God texts Moses and is like “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart that I might show him my power,” even though that doesn’t align with literally the last thing that was said.

So there are a few options for understanding this. One is that you can argue that the text just doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense, which I think is an argument that deserves more consideration. Another option is to argue that Pharaoh’s decisions were not actually decisions, because God made him make those decisions, and so the text is basically just being obscure about the actual dynamics of choice. That is, even though we’re told Pharaoh was doing something, he actually wasn’t in reality, and it’s like a trick or something that God put into the text to confuse you. It’s the sort of thing Luther would say. One of the other options, of course, is the wax and clay argument that Maximus puts forwards.

According to Maximus, there are basically different types of people, who have different reactions to the divine rays of God’s truth. There are people who are like wax, and when God does a shimmy-shine on them, they get all melty and shit, and God can like imprint His character on them and make them good people. Then there are people who’re like clay, and they just harden and bake. I like how the whole metaphor kinda – like you fire clay in a kiln to harden it, right, so the God-as-sun image ties in nicely, because – anyway. In this reading, the Exodus thing ends up being a curious middle ground situation. When God says ‘I will harden his heart,’ that’s technically true, but it’s not necessarily God’s fault. What God is really saying (according to this reading) is that He’ll shine His rays of truth on Pharaoh in a genuine, good-faith effort to communicate His truth and goodness, but that Pharaoh, who is like clay, will refuse that truth and will harden in response. So it’s not that God’s doing anything bad, or infringing on Pharaoh’s free will in any sense. He’s communicated His goodness, and in response Pharaoh has hardened his shitbag heart. It’s less ‘I will make him do the bad thing’ and ‘I will reach out and try get him to chill but he’ll probably flip his shit.’

Now, you might not be entirely convinced that God is absolutely absolved of all responsibility in that reading. I imagine mileage will vary. But what’s interesting to me is the kinda collaborative middle ground that Maximus comes to. In his reading, we have this ability to respond to the truth that’s set in front of us. It’s not just that God plonks the Holy Spirit in us regardless of how we might feel about it, it’s that God communicates His truth and different people respond in different ways. Some accept it, and some don’t. Even if it’s down to assigned characteristics – that is, even if we’re given the character of either wax or clay before we’re born – there’s still this sense that our response to God has something to do with our individual identities. Some people are like this, and some people are like that, and your response to God will depend on which one you are. There’s an investment there in the psychological inner life of human beings that you don’t find in some of these other theologians. That’s pretty cool.

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