Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Christology of the Sixth Ecumenical Council - Tackling Monothelitism

In Saint John's Gospel, we find Christ stating that He has given His disciples a share in God's glory, and the opportunity of union with Him (John 17:22-23). Saint Paul also tells us that Christ shares in our poverty, that we may share in the riches of His divinity (2 Cor 8:9). In order for us to truly unite with God, sharing in His glory, it follows that we must be deified. Saint Athanasius famously summed up the purpose of the Incarnation, by writing 'God became human that we might be made god.' If this theosis (complete union with God) is possible, Jesus Christ must therefore be both fully God, and fully man. Only God, the Creator of all, can save humanity; and to participate in and with Him in communion, He must also be truly human. 

Each heresy faced by the Church undermines some part of this essential affirmation. Each holy council defends this truth; and the Sixth council is no exception. In this instance, the Church was faced with monothelitism - the idea that Jesus has only one will. Scripture alone makes it abundantly clear that our Saviour indeed has distinct wills - both a human and a divine (John 6:38, Luke 22:42). Monothelitism was an attempt to make a compromise with the Monophysites. The heresy claimed that although Christ had two natures, He nevertheless acted as God alone; not as a human. In other words, His divine nature made all the decisions and His human nature simply carried these decisions out. 

The Sixth Ecumenical Council thus had to affirm that Christ has two natures with two activities. As God, He works miracles, Rises from the dead and ascends into Heaven; and as Man, performs ordinary acts of daily life. The important point, is that each nature exercises its own free will. Each has a specific task to perform, and they do so without working against each other. Of course, the two distinct natures (and related to them, activities) are united in the one divine Person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

One might argue that the Council, in order to anathemise the heresy, yet incorporate monothelitists back into the Church, offered a position that was 'merely monothelitist' in disguise. Before we make a concluding reply to this claim, let us analyse the context of the Council, the people involved, and its affirmations:

Sergius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople between 610-638, created a Christological formula in order to please both the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. ( See  ) He insists, in his 'Ecthesis,' that the Lord has two natures incarnated within a single will. Although Emperor Heraclius (who had been supported by Sergius in the past) was hesitant to sign off Sergius' work, he eventually approved it in 638; thus defining monothelitism as the official, imperial doctrine of the Christian faith. This of course sparked great controversy, before, and following its official implementation. Sergius in fact passed away in 638, however at the time of the Ecumenical Council, Macarius I (Patriarch of Antioch from 656-681) represented the monotheletist position. He was condemned, with the rejection of the heresy being widely accepted by the Church's universal hierarchy, and a letter was read on behalf of Pope Agatho asserting the Church's traditional belief that Christ has two wills; divine and human.

This was not a sudden change in position by the Church; quite the contrary. This had been a brewing issue within theological circles, and the Sixth Ecumenical Council can be seen as the culmination of the clear, Orthodox, affirmation of doctrine. We are able to see a number of examples of Hierarchs within the Church declaring themselves in opposition to the heretical ecthesis, and in particular the monothelestic writings of Pope Honorius, whose teachings were anathemised. The Bishops of Cyprus, independent of any Patriarch, held a synod on the 29th May 643, against the ecthesis - leading to their release of a letter sharing their concern on the matter. Similarly, in 646, the Bishops of Africa held a council, with the primates of Numidia, Byzacene and Mauritania sending a joint complaint to Pope Theodore of Rome. So, with the clear, divinely inspired, desire to overthrow such ideas, the Council took place under the reign of Saint Constantine the New in 680. As we have already highlighted, the Council's main affirmation was that Christ has both a divine will, and a human will; thus the heresy of monothelitism denies the human will, and nature of the Lord. The Council states that 'Jesus Christ possesses two energies and two wills' but 'the human will is in subjection to his divine and all-powerful will.' This is where one might question whether or not this undermines Christ's human nature, as monothelitism does. It is important to note that this subjection of the human will to His divine will is a willing subjection; it voluntarily follows the divine will. Thus, in no way does this affirmation undermine the human will; but rather clarifies the two, and explains the relation between them. 

To conclude, the Sixth Ecumenical Council confirms that the doctrine of Christ's two natures and wills is indeed 'in accordance with the true faith and with the Apostolic teachings' as written in its declaration, and therefore monothelitism must not be accepted and should be condemned by the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church - the body of our Lord and Saviour. Claims about the Council's affirmation being merely monothelitism in disguise are simply invalid; as the Church makes its doctrine abundantly clear regarding the two wills, following the belief in Jesus Christ's two natures. 

Main Sources:
 - Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997) 
 - Catholic Encyclopedia

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