CHURCH FATHERS (64) – Ioannes Maxentius

– Anastasios

In our profiles of Church Fathers and important writers of the early Church, there are themes that are somehow recurrent. One of them is the fight against heresies. Today we never talk about this theme, we are very “politically correct,” but our ancestors in the faith thought that we should always strive to keep our faith pure as much as possible. Sometimes these fighters for the purity of the faith bordered on heretical ideas themselves. We saw it previously, when very pious and devout Christians, with the intent of defending the faith, were exposing ideas that at the end were not fully orthodox.

Today we talk of Ioannes Maxentius, an abbot living in the 6th century, leader of the Scythian monks. Matthew Joseph Pereira has devoted his PhD in studying the relationship between Ioannes Maxentius and this monks. This is what he said in the abstract of his thesis, presented in 2015 in Columbia University:  “By the middle of the fifth and into the sixth century, the Church Fathers emerged as a dual authority alongside the Scriptures (i.e., the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) serving as the repositories for theological reflection. In late antique Christianity, theologians routinely professed their devout faithfulness to the Church Fathers. Aligning with these persistent claims of fidelity, many standard historiographical narratives conclude that the sixth century was an unfortunate period of theological stagnation, marked by monolithic and linear commitment to the Church Fathers. Relying upon a close and contextual reading of the Latin writings of John Maxentius and the Scythian monks, ‘Reception, Interpretation and Doctrine’ intervenes by arguing that these monks reinscribed Cyril’s doctrine of divine suffering in the flesh and Augustine’s doctrine of divine grace and predestination into the canonical discourse of the church catholic (i.e., universal church), thereby legitimizing these troublesome doctrines through layered hermeneutical practices. The majority of ecclesiastical authorities (e.g., bishops and abbots) honored the legacies of Cyril and Augustine but rejected these two difficult teachings, whereas the Scythian monks reintegrated Cyril’s doctrine of divine suffering in the flesh and Augustine’s doctrine of divine grace and predestination into the canonical antecedents of the fourth and fifth centuries. Instead of perpetuating the assertion of monolithic traditionalism as the hallmark of late antique Christianity, this present study demonstrates that the Church Fathers were frequently reinterpreted, reframed and remembered throughout the canonizing movements of the sixth century.”

So, around the divine suffering in the flesh was the activity of these monks echoed in the writings and in the work of Joannes Maxentius. Charles Herbermann in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) affirmed about the monks: “These monks adapted the formula: ‘One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh’ to exclude Nestorianism and Monophysitism, and they sought to have the works of Faustus of Riez condemned as being tainted with Pelagianism. On both these points they met with opposition. John Maxentius presented an appeal to the papal legates than at Constantinople (Ep. ad legatos sedis apostolicae, P, G, LXXXVI, i, 75-86); but it failed to bring forth a favourable decision. Some of the monks (not Maxentius, however) proceeded, therefore, to Rome to lay the case before Pope Hormisdas. As the latter delayed his decision, they addressed themselves to some African bishops, banished to Sardinia, and St. Fulgentius, answering in the name of these prelates, warmly endorsed their cause (Fulg. ep., xvii in P.L., LXV, 451-93). Early in August, 520, the monks left Rome. Shortly after, 13 August, 520, Hormisdas addressed a letter to the African bishop, Possessor, then at Constantinople, in which he severely condemned the conduct of the Scythian monks, also declaring that the writings of Faustus were not received among the authoritative works of the Fathers and that the sound doctrine on grace was contained in the works of St. Augustine (Hormisdae ep., cxxiv in Thiel, p. 926). Maxentius assailed this letter in the strongest language as a document written by heretics and circulated under the pope’s name (Ad epistulam Hormisdae responsio, P, G, LXXXVI, i, 93-112). This is the last trace of the Scythian monks and their leader in history. The identification of John Maxentius with the priest John to whom Fulgentius addressed his De veritate praedestinationis etc and with the priest and archminandrite, John, to whom the African bishops sent their “Epistula synodica,” rests on a baseless assumption. Maxentius is also the author of: (1) two dialogues against the Nestorians ; (2) twelve anathematisms against the Nestorians ; (3) a treatise against the Acephali ( Monophysites ). As to the Professio de Christo, printed as a separate work, it is but a part of the Epistola ad legatos sedis apostolicae. His works, originally written in Latin, have reached us in a rather unsatisfactory condition. They were first published by Cochlæus (Basle and Hagenau, 1520), reprinted in P.G., LXXXVI, i, 75-158.”

We don’t have a lot of information about our writer, just enough to know his role in a very important theological controversy that will be resurfacing also centuries later.

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