Monoenergism and Monothelitism (II): Course and End of the Controversy

As the Monothelite controversy intensified, a new religious factor entered the world: Islam. Born in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 622, by 647 it had conquered much of the Byzantine Empire. The East shrank in on itself, becoming a shadow of its former glory. The West, already in a process of decline itself, was temporarily illumined by the theological work of numerous Greek monks who had fled the Muslim conquests. One of these monks, Maximus, was destined to become the foremost player for orthodox Christology against Monothelitism.

The patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, who had been seeking reconciliation with the Monophysites (and thus, showed himself willing to accept Monophysitism’s logical consequence, Monothelitism), actively campaigned to get bishops both East and West on his side. In 636 he drew up his Ecthesis, which was meant to define the policy of the Church. As Leo Donald Davis explains:

After explaining the general doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it treated specifically the question of operations and wills in Christ. Every operation, divine or human, is ascribed solely to the Incarnate Word. But rather than numbering the operations, we should teach that there is but one Christ who works both divine and human effects…following the holy Fathers, we confess one will of our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God, for at no time did His rationally quickened flesh, separately and of its own impulse, and in opposition to the suggestion of the hypostatically united Word, exercise its natural activity, but it excercised that activity at the time and in the manner and measure in which the Word of God willed it.[1]

With the use of the phrase “one will,” the position known as Monothelitism was announced. Its result, like other views which the Church had already rejected in previous Christological debate, was to reduce the humanity of Christ to a mere appearance: “Granting the existence of a human nature, its activity is completely subordinate to that of the divine; the humanity in the power of the Word is merely a docile instrument which He uses and which is devoid of any initiative of its own.”[2] Nevertheless, the Ecthesis was imposed on the Church from the East. Monothelitism was so influential that it was even advocated by the bishop of Rome, Honorius (r. 625-638). Although he apparently did not actually understand the state of the questions being asked in the East, Honorius still subordinated will to nature in Christ and effectively made Christ less than fully human.

Against this seemingly “Docetic”[3] view of Christ a great champion, Maximus, arose. For Maximus, the old patristic principle that “what is not assumed [by Christ] is not redeemed” was determinative. Building on Chalcedon and subsequent clarifications of it against Monophysitism at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, he held that if Christ had two natures, a divine and a human, He must also have two wills, a divine and a human. These two natures and two wills are never at odds because they are perfectly united in the single divine Person. Christ, as fully God and fully man, unites both in cosmic redemption. As Maximus put it, “as man he accomplishes in all truth the true human destiny that he himself had predetermined as God, and from which man had turned: he unites man to God.”[4]

For forty years controversy intensified. Among other results of the feuding, the Eastern and Western Churches drifted even further apart. At a synod in the West in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 649, Monothelitism was condemned as being contrary to the first five General Councils. Popes after Honorius rejected Monothelitism as unorthodox, and came into increasing trouble with the emperor and the patriarchs in the East. By 678, matters were so pressing that the emperor called a General Council to resolve them. This Council convened on November 7, 680 in Constantinople–the third such assembly to meet in that city.

Debate at the Council seems to have been intense, involving at least one instance of Monothelite bishops, including the Bishop of Antioch, being accused of falsifying patristic evidence to support their views.[5] Interestingly, as with the Monophysites before them, the Monothelites maintained that they were the ones being faithful to Chalcedon, and that their opponents were “Nestorians” because they (allegedly) set up a separation between the divine and human in Christ. A major result of the conciliar debates was the condemnation of several prominent Monothelites by name, including Pope Honorius. Applying Chalcedon to the Monothelite heresy, the Council declared that in Christ there are “two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly.”[6] These two wills

are not contrary the one to the other…but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will….For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word.[7]

As with previous Christological developments, this one’s major concern was to defend the full humanity of Christ for the purpose that if Christ was not fully human, he could not fully redeem humans. Against the exaggerated Cyrillian-Monophysite reading of Christ’s deity, which always threatened to eclipse His humanity, the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned Monothelitism as a fundamental assault on the very possibility of salvation itself.


  1. The Seven Ecumenical Councils [325-787]: Their History and Theology [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983], pg. 267.
  2. Ibid., pg. 268.
  3. It will be remembered that Docetism was a very early heresy which said that Christ’s humanity, his fleshly life, was merely an appearance and not real.
  4. Ibid., pg. 273.
  5. Ibid., pp. 280-281.
  6. Ibid., pg. 283.
  7. Ibid.
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