THINK THIS, NOT THAT #6: Monothelitism. Say THAT With Your Mouth Full!

Oh, the confusion!

Last time in “Think This, Not That,” I talked about the Council of Chalcedon, at which the Church ironed out the controversy over the “Three Chapters” and Nestorianism (which wrongly claimed that Jesus had two distinct subsistences).

In the seventh century, one of the biggest theological crises looming at the Council of Constantinople III (680-681 A.D.) was the spread of monothelitism.

Say what? Well, that’s “mono” (as in “one”) and “thelitism” (as in theanthropic will—as in, God’s/man’s will combined, with God’s will sort of superceding man’s will and topping it out and bringing it into alliance with His own perfect will).

So, got it?

*     *     *     *    *

Monothelitism developed as a response to monophysitism.  (Extra credit for all these big words in a single sentence!)

The monophysites had claimed, back in the fifth century, that Christ had only one nature—he was altogether divine, and not human.  “No!” shouted the 7th century monothelites.  “Christ had two natural wills and two natural operations, without division, conversion, separation or confusion.”

But the Church again said “No”—the monothelite doctrine diminished the full nature of Christ’s humanity.  Rather, Jesus is at the same time both fully God and fully man.

This is what the Church teaches to the present day.

*     *     *     *     *

That major crisis resolved, the Council made quick work of the other issues before them:

  • They easily approved the first five ecumenical councils.
  • They reaffirmed the Nicene and “Niceno-Constantinopolitan” creeds.
  • Followers of monothelitism were “anathematized” (that is, a ban was pronounced by
    ecclesiastical authority, and accompanied by excommunication).  Among those whose work was denounced were Sergius and his successors in Constantinople; the former pope
    Honorius; and Macarius, patriarch of Antioch.

The posthumous anathematization of Pope Honorius has been held by some Protestants as proof against the Catholic teaching of papal infallibility.  This is a common misunderstanding:  Actually, papal infallibility is not a guarantee that popes will not make mistakes or even that they will not sin. It is simply a gift of the Holy Spirit whereby popes cannot err when definitively proclaiming doctrine on matters of faith and morals.  Since Honorius was not speaking “ex cathedra” (from the chair, officially) in his letter to Sergius, he was writing his opinion only privately and was protected from spreading the error of monothelitism throughout the Church.

 

Earlier Posts In This Series:

Think This, Not That #5:  Knock-Down, Drag-Out Fights Over Jesus

Think This, Not That #4:  Who Do People Say That I Am?  Ephesus Explains Christ’s Dual Nature

Think This, Not That #3:  Is the Holy Spirit Really God?  The Trinity, As Defined in Constantinople I

Think This, Not That #2:  Was Jesus Created?  Answers from Nicaea

 Think This, Not That:  Wrestling for Truth–The Great Councils of the Church

The Arrogance of Brevity:  Speeding Through the Councils

 

  • Matthias

    “Christ had two natural wills and two natural operations, without division, conversion, separation or confusion.” Wouldn’t this be the orthodox position (not the monothelite)?

    I would suggest that monothelitism was actually a development of the monophysite position in an attempt to bring its adherents more in line with orthodox doctrine (but not ultimately succeeding). The monothelites were willing to admit two natures in Christ but NOT two wills. Some of the Byzantine emperors supported the monothelite position in an attempt to reunify the Church (and for political reasons) after the schisms following Chalcedon while St. Maximus the Confessor was the champion against this heresy. If Christ did not have a human will (along with His divine will), how could He be fully human? The Church confirmed Maximus’ teaching at Constantinople III.

    • TKH

      I agree with youo Matthias.

  • TaylorKH

    Your statement as follows is written such that it suggests an inaccuracy which you did not intend:
    ” ‘No!’ shouted the 7th century monothelites. ‘Christ had two natural wills and two natural operations, without division, conversion, separation or confusion.’”
    It was not the monothelites who were calling for two wills/operations. The monothelites were simply wrong in that they claimed two natures but with one WILL (“theandric operation”). However, the way your words are written suggests that the Church condemned its own position and the monothelites supported the Church’s actual position.

    Here is what Constantinople III defined (and what the Church teaches today): “And so we proclaim two natural wills in Him, and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, unfusedly according to the doctrine of the holy Father, and two natural wills not contrary, God forbid, according as impious heretics have asserted, but the human will following and not resisting or hestitating, but rather even submitting to His divine and omnipotent will…” [Denzinger 291]

    Here’s a better expression of the actual heresies:
    Monophysitism: heresy of 5th and 6th century that taught there was one nature in Christ – Divine
    Monthelitism: heresy of 7th century that taught Christ in two natures, but with only one will.

  • Dixibehr

    \\The monophysites had claimed, back in the fifth century, that Christ had only one nature—he was altogether divine, and not human. “No!” shouted the 7th century monothelites. “Christ had two natural wills and two natural operations, without division, conversion, separation or confusion.”\\

    Both of these statements are wrong.

    First, NOBODY is a monophysite in the sense condemned at Chalcedon–if there were ever any to start with. The non-Chalcedonian churches (Copt, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Syrian) prefer the word “miaphysite”–used by St. Cyril of Alexandria–to say that the one nature of the incarnate Logos is divine AND human.

    Second, “monothelite” means ONE will, not two wills.

    You should do your homework better.

  • Dixibehr

    Here is an excerpt of the prayer the Priest says in the Coptic Divine Liturgy before receiving Communion. It is capable of a totally Orthodox Chalcedonian interpretation:

    “I believe, I believe,
    I believe and confess to the last breath;
    that this is the Life-giving Body that
    Your Only-Begotten Son, our Lord, God
    and Savior Jesus Christ took from our
    lady, the lady of us all, the holy Mother
    of God, Saint Mary.
    He made It One with His divinity without
    mingling, without confusion, and
    without alteration.”

    Make of this what you will.

  • Dixibehr

    \\Oh, the confusion!
    Last time in “Think This, Not That,” I talked about the Council of Chalcedon, at which the Church ironed out the controversy over the “Three Chapters” and Nestorianism (which wrongly claimed that Jesus had two distinct subsistences).\\

    You’re still confused, Kathy.

    The Council of Chalcedon was called to deal with the MONOPHYSITE controversy.

    The Council of Ephesus, held earlier, was called to deal with the NESTORIAN controversy. The essence of this heresy was in refusing to call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” or Mother of God.

    FWIW, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (wrongly called Nestorian) and Blessed John Paul signed a declaration of common Christology, agreeing that “Theotokos/Mother of God” and the Assyrian “Mother of Christ our God” meant the same thing.

  • mrteachersir

    Honorius’ condemnation was the result of a grave mistake. In his letter to Sergius, he supposedly (as the letter is, from what I’ve gathered, not extant) replied that what we know as the orthodox position AND what we know as the heterdox position could both be used. He didn’t attempt to consult or solve the dilemma, and his inaction allowed the monothelite heresy to spread. He was not protected from allowing heresy to spread: he was an indirect contributor to its spread. Second-hand accounts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council recount a vicious condemnation of Honorius–by the legates of Rome, under orders from the pope–despite the concession granted by bishops of the East to let Honorius pass.

  • Whatever

    I read the two letters to Sergius III. They are not heretical. St. Robert Bellarmine vindicates Pope Honorius from all error, and mentions that the Greeks falsified the council documents as well as Leo II’s letter. St. Maximus the Confessor and Pope John IV vindicate him as well. It is an urban myth that the church accepts the anathematization of Honorius. The debate is not over on that point.

  • Pingback: London EF Mass Demons Mystical Tradition Monothelitism | Big Pulpit


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