Monothelitism: Know the Heretics

Did Jesus Have a Human Will?

After the Nicene (325) and Chalcedonian (451) declarations of classical, orthodox, dual-nature Christology, a stream of thought known as Monophysitism (the belief that there is only one nature in Christ) still existed, based on the ideas of Apollinarius. In the seventh century, there was a misguided attempt to reconcile the Monophysites with orthodox thought. This view proposed that “while Christ had two natures, he had only a single ‘activity’…or, better, only a single, divine will” (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church). This belief, known as Monothelitism, was proposed by Vigilius and unfortunately accepted by Honorius I (the Pope from 625-638). It was not until the Lateran Council in Rome in 649 and then later at the sixth ecumenical council at Constantinople in 680-681 that Monothelitism was condemned as heretical.

The Monothelitist View of Jesus

Monothelitism, most staunchly defended by Sergius I of Constantinople, is the teaching that Jesus Christ had only one will. After Chalcedon, the Monothelites were worried that those who posited two wills in Christ (Diothelitism) were guilty of edging ever-so-close to Nestorianism (the belief that there are two persons in Christ, as opposed to simply two natures). If Jesus had both a divine will and a human will, it is difficult, said the Monothelites, to see how he is not indeed two persons—a teaching condemned by Chalcedon. So the Monothelites argued that Jesus had no human will of his own, but was controlled by a divine will from above


The Fight for the Humanity of Jesus

During the period when Monothelitism was accepted by the church, many wondered whether the teaching remained faithful to the Chalcedonian formula. One theologian, however, stood against much opposition and eventually gave his life for the orthodox teaching of the New Testament as stated at Chalcedon. His name was Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662). According to Maximus, the Monothelite error provided (like Apollinarianism) a weak view of the human nature. If normal human persons have a rational will, then Christ too—if he is fully human—must have a rational will. He saw Chalcedon as rightly maintaining the scriptural balance of the divinity and humanity of Christ while allowing the mystical union of the human and divine to exist in Christ. Maximus was imprisoned and tortured for his view, and this punishment eventually led to his death.  Yet, his stand for orthodoxy in the face of intense opposition was later vindicated. According to the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Church in Constantinople (AD 680-681), there are two wills and two centers of action in Christ, but not two persons:

We likewise declare that in him [Christ] are two natural wills (dyo physika theleseis) and two natural operations (dyo physikas energeias) indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. (Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity)

Why Jesus’ Human Will Matters

While the primary relevance of this discussion concerns Christology, there is also practical relevance for the Christian life wrapped up in this nuanced debate. Namely, how are we to understand the activity of Jesus in the Gospels? “Did the Lord to whom and through whom Christians pray, pray himself?” (The Early Church)

If Jesus had only one divine/human will, he would seem to have no use for prayer. On the other hand, if Jesus had a truly and completely human will alongside of his divine will, prayer would take on a significant importance for the person of Christ. In the foreground, moreover, rings Gregory of Nazianzus’ maxim that that which he did not assume he did not redeem. Once again, if Jesus is the one eternal Son of the Father who for us and our salvation became man, then he must be fully man if he is to serve as the one mediator between God and men.