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Monotheletism and the Sixth Ecumenical Council:
Further Clarification to the Christological Teaching of Chalcedon

Part I

Introductory Remarks

In the sixth century a great dispute arose within the Church, which resulted in the fathers having to affirm the full divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ by insisting, this time, on the reality of two wills – a divine and a human one in the incarnate Logos. Whereas several centuries before, the Council of Chalcedon, 451AD (which came to be known as the fourth Ecumenical Council) had clearly distinguished two natures in the person of Christ united 'without confusion, without change, without division and without separation [ajdiairevtw", ajtrevptw", ajmerivstw", ajsugcuvtw"]' , it had not explained the consequences of such a teaching, especially with regards to the willing process in the person of the historical Christ. Resulting from this, there arose a group of people within the Church who began teaching that Christ had only one will, claiming that His human will had been entirely swallowed up by the divine. This belief came to be known as 'Monothelitism' since, as the word suggests, it affirmed only one will in the person of Christ, teaching that only one single divine 'force' could safeguard the unity of the incarnate Son of God. However the fundamental issue that emerged was, could Christ have experienced the fullness of human life in an authentic way without a human will? It is to this most fundamental question that the fathers of the seventh century had to respond.

Defence of Dyothelite Christology

Discerning the inherent danger of the teaching of Monothelitism, since it ultimately denied the full humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Church would now have to defend the truth of the two wills and energies in Christ. Specifically the doctrine of the Church which upheld the reality of the two wills in Jesus Christ and consequently His fully humanity came to be known as 'Dyothelite' Christology - the term etymologically derived from the Greek words 'dyo' meaning 'two' and 'thelema' signifying 'will'. This dyothelite doctrine arose in order to do justice to the two aspects of Christ's incarnation – namely the unity of the person, but also in this case, the genuine distinction-in-unity of the two natures which had been proclaimed at Chalcedon but also witnessed to in the Scriptures. That is to say, the error of acknowledging only one will in Christ lay in its betrayal of former biblical and conciliar statements and definitions which had accepted both divine and human actions in Christ – according to His divinity and according to His humanity – both of which were harmonised in the person of Christ. And so we can see that the unity of the incarnate Logos, for the fathers, lay not in the concept of one single action but in the notion of personhood. For this reason, the doctrine of the two wills would not destroy the unity of the incarnate Son of God, but on the contrary would in fact uphold the gospel image of Christ.

It was at a council held in Constantinople during the years 680-1, subsequently becoming known as the sixth Ecumenical Council that the Church formerly condemned the Monothelite heresy. Very simply put, the council claimed that since Christ had two natures, He must also have had two wills – because the notions of 'will' and 'energy' were rightly considered to be traits of 'nature' and not of 'hypostasis' [i.e. personhood]. It did this especially so as to uphold the integrity of Christ's humanity, since a human nature without a human will would have jeopardised the integrity of that nature. Far from being fused together, the divine and human wills, just like the natures, could be distinguished, yet without separation or confusion. The definition of faith proclaimed at the sixth council reads as follows:

… in Him [Christ] are two natural wills and two natural operations without confusion, without change, without division and without separation according to the teaching of the holy fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary to one another…. but His human will follows, and not as resisting and reluctant, but rather preserved… We glorify two natural operations… in the same Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine action and a human action… for we will not admit one natural action in God and in the creature…. Believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity, and after the incarnation our true God we say that His two natures shone forth in His one hypostasis in which He both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings… wherefore we confess two wills and two actions concurring most fitly in Him for the salvation of the human race.

In proclaiming that Christ was perfectly divine and perfectly human united in one person, the definition of the sixth Ecumenical Council affirmed both a genuine human activity and will, but also a real divine activity and will in the incarnate Lord. According to the definition, the human will submitted to the divine will and so the two were not in contradiction or opposition. Accordingly, even though they did not act contrary to one another, the wills did not lose their proper natural characteristics and properties.

For the fathers of the seventh century, upholding the doctrine of the two wills in Christ had definitive soteriological implications. Far from being preoccupied with any abstract philosophical interest, the Church's concern to preserve two wills in Christ lay, in wanting to defend firstly the integral image of Christ as portrayed in the Scriptures and secondly the complete salvation of the human person. It was in that vein that they argued that if the incarnate Christ did not possess a human will then the salvation of the human person - of which the will was correctly considered to be one of its most basic and fundamental aspects - would have been rendered incomplete. That is to say, since humankind fell as a result of deciding contrary to God, then Christ had to assume a human will otherwise it would have been left unhealed, and therefore a basic aspect of humanity would have been left outside the realm of salvation in Christ. Consequently, discarding the human will in Christ not only led to a rejection of the full reality of Christ's human nature, but also to depriving the world of its complete salvation. Conversely, upholding two energies or wills in Christ, safeguarded the integrity of the theanthropic principle in Christ, and the salvation of the created world.

This dyothelite Christology proclaimed at the sixth Ecumenical Council was especially championed by St Maximus the Confessor (b. 580), a monk from Constantinople. Just before the seventh century, the city of Constantinople had seen a major reconstruction, the pinnacle of which had included the completion of the Great Church dedicated to Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia). It was into such a world that St Maximus was born, being of noble parents, receiving an excellent education, and becoming the first secretary to the Emperor Heraclius by the age of thirty. Soon after, however, he would renounce this position and enter monastic life. And during the last decades of his life he would have to struggle with Monothelitism – a struggle that would cost him his very life. In particular, for his insistence to confess Christ as He was witnessed to in the Scriptures, he was severely mutilated: his tongue and right hand were cut off so that he could not preach or write.

Indeed, unlike most within the Church who were willing to compromise their faith in order to bring the Monophysites back to the Church, St Maximus stood his ground and it was only after his death that the official Church came to exonerate him and affirm his Orthodoxy in 680. It is widely known, for example, that Pope Honorius and Patriarch Sergius had accepted the Monothelite compromise which had affirmed two natures but only one will, in order to secure an 'alleged' unity within the Church. To be sure therefore, it was St Maximus' theological outlook, which contributed creatively to the Church's understanding of the unity-in-distinction of the two natures and the two wills in the one person of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it would be no exaggeration to state that in his confrontation with Monothelitism, St Maximus was predominantly the first father of the Church to develop extensively an entire theology of the 'will', in agreement with the Christology of Chalcedon, understanding it as a fully-developed natural yet rational faculty.

The Church's concern to affirm two wills in the person of Christ had to do, as mentioned above, with upholding the two aspects of the mystery of Christ's incarnation, namely the unity of the person and the distinction of the two natures. Now, since the Church maintained two natures in Christ, it followed that each nature was to be attributed with its distinguishing common set of characteristics, which also included the ability of willing since the will was rightly thought to be a quality of nature. In its formulation of the Trinitarian doctrine, the Church had long established such a connection between nature and will. If the will were to be connected to the person – something which the Monothelites would do - then three persons in the Holy Trinity would imply three different wills, something which was outrightly rejected by the Church. And so, in precisely the same way that there was one essence or 'nature' in the Holy Trinity and therefore one common will, so too, two natures in Christ – a divine and a human one – implied two wills. Indeed if Christ was thought to have only a divine will, this would only recognise divine characteristics to the Son of God which would subsequently amount to a denial of His incarnation.

Biblical Foundations of the Notion of Will

Now a question which may arise in relation to the willing process in Christ, is why there was such a preoccupation, by the Church, with attributing to Christ both a divine and a human will. For the fathers, it was the biblical nature of the term 'qevlhsi"' which gave rise to its paramount significance for Christology in the seventh century. Indeed the Patristic tradition clearly discerned, as has been shown, both a divine will and a human one in the enfleshed Logos. That is ti say, even though the term 'will' was rare in ancient Greek literature, not enjoying any terminological status within the philosophical world – the more prevalent notions being 'boulhv' [deliberation], proaivresi"' [choice or decision] or 'o[rexi"' [appetite] - it was nevertheless employed by the Church in the seventh century precisely because it was used in the Gospels to express the volitional process, or the capacity of willing in Christ. In particular, in the New Testament there are over sixty references to the term 'will' which all point to its importance. Indeed, a presupposition for entry into the kingdom of heaven is often described in terms of obeying the will of God:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will [to; qevlhma] of my Father in heaven." (Mt 7:21).

Situated within the context of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus was talking about the righteousness of the kingdom, the verse, at first sight is understood to be underscoring the importance of the will for a human person's salvation. However, more specifically it reveals the deity of Christ not only because it refers to Jesus as 'Lord' – a title attributed specifically to Yahweh in the Old Testament – but also as it highlights that Jesus fully knew and shared in the divine will of His Father. Jesus Christ could not have possibly spoken about the importance of doing the will of the Father if He Himself did not know it in the first place. This detail, often gone unnoticed points to and verifies a divine will in Jesus.

Now, not only did Jesus know the will of His Father, but the very reason that He came into the world was to do His Father's will. Indeed all four Gospels specifically depict Christ's life in terms of doing the will of His Father:

'for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me' (Jn 6:38).

Clearly this passage understood Christ's earthly life not without reference to a human will, but specifically in terms of His human will adhering to that of His Father's. Furthermore, the implication is that this human will of the Son of God would be completing the work of God the Father throughout all moments of His earthly life. This was important for the fathers of the seventh century as it highlighted that Christ's human will was always in conformity to the divine will. That is to say, the divine and human wills were permanently and absolutely united, yet without confusion. Furthermore, there was never a moment where Christ deviated from doing the will of His Father since His human life was so radically in communion with the life of God. Not only was Christ's life understood in terms of doing His Father's will, but so was the life of each faithful member of the early Christian Church, as witnessed, for example in the Lord's prayer, 'your will be done' (Mt 6:10).

In the next issue of the Voice, we will continue our discussion on the reality of Christ's human will. This will then naturally put us in a better position to offer a more extensive theology of the will as it was understood in the sixth Ecumenical Council.

By Philip Kariatlis


1. Definition of Chalcedon


3. Exposition of Faith, The Sixth Ecumenical Council: The Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81 cited in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 225 & 227.

4. Cf St Maximus the Confessor Disputatio, 324B: "if Adam ate willingly, then the will is the first thing in us that became subject to passion. And since the will is the first thing in us that became subject to passion, if, according to them, the Word did not assume it along with the nature when He became incarnate, I have not become free from sin. And if have not become free from sin, I was not saved, since whatever is not assumed is not saved."

5. Also in the Gospel according to St John, the divine will of the Son of God is also affirmed, since the Son of God, "to whomever he wishes", "raises the dead and gives them life." (Jn 5:21).

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