Monothelitism: The Very Idea

In any debate, on any topic, it’s important to understand the underlying concerns on either side. It can be easy to look at any given position and condemn it, but discerning exactly why someone would take that position takes a bit more care. This is all the more true when it comes to controversial or heated topics, and there is no more controversial and heated set of topics within Christian theology than that of heresies. There are a good deal of important heresies within the  history of Christianity, and it is as important to understand the underlying theological concerns as it is to roundly condemn them. Seldom is a heresy an explicit denial of a key tenet of the faith. Far more often is a heresy a subtle over-emphasis on one aspect of a doctrine that leads to major theological consequences later. The unrestricted and un-dialectical approach taken towards biblical doctrine is the hallmark of the early heresies. The emphasis of one biblical idea over another is all it takes. The real issue, we might say, is a kind of rationalization where a measure of paradox should be allowed. All the heresies in church history have this hallmark, not going off the rails completely but a slight emphasis where none should be had. While it is crucial to refute, rebut and rebuke heresies, there is a measure of charity with which they should be ‘read,’ as it were, because the underlying theological concerns can often serve as sharpening stones for orthodox doctrines.

Having said all of this, attention now will be turned to monothelitism and monothelites (MO from here on out for both), and the very idea of its viability for Protestants today. The claim that it is in fact viable is made by Jordan Wessling in Christology: Ancient and ModernHe gives a number of reasons why it is viable ranging from conciliar authority (which is his main target) to theological and philosophical objections based on the predicating of the will of either persons or natures. Before these, however, I want to clearly take note of the underlying theological concerns here: just why would someone want to be a MO? The central theological concern of MO is the unity of Christ. This is a serious enough concern, and no one would disagree with the unity of Christ being an important topic. Granting the legitimacy of the concern, however, I want to raise a few (what I take to be) serious objections to the viability of MO. I’ll do this by noting some of the problems for MO, briefly unpacking DY, explaining why DY is a better choice than MO, raising a few problems for DY, and concluding with some reflections on the extent to which theology informs philosophy in Christian thought.
MO argues for the unity of Christ rather simply: it predicates the will not of the nature, but of the person. This conclusion is supported by an appeal to free action:
 Monothelitism took its start from the position already affirmed at Ephesus in 431, that one should attribute “all the statements in the Gospels to the single person, the one incarnate hypostasis of the Logos.” Such a statement as “Not my will, but thine, be done” must therefore apply to the single hypostasis, and so “the will does not pertain to the nature, but to the hypostasis.” That which pertained to a nature was in every respect determined and necessary, not free, since it could not be anything other than what it was; but if the incarnation and other acts were acts of free will, they had to be acts of the hypostasis, not of the human nature. Consequently, “the divine will is the very will of Christ himself, and his will is single, namely, the divine.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, p. 70)
This is a simple and powerful argument, but on a moment’s reflection difficulties emerge: does this mean that there, for example, three wills in the Trinity? If so, how is this not, at best, social trinitarianism and at worst tritheism? It was just this objection that was picked up on by the MO opponents, who argued by Trinitarian lines that the will was properly predicated of nature, and not person:
In the Trinity there were three hypostases, but only one divine nature; otherwise there would be three Gods. There was also a single will and a single action. Thus will was an attribute of a nature and not of a hypostasis, natural and not hypostatic. Hence, the person of Christ, with a single hypostasis and two natures, had to have two wills, one for each nature. “Nature” was the general or universal, that which was shared by more than one, as for example “humanity,” which could also be called “human nature,” while “hypostasis” was particular. Some qualities pertained to the nature or the ousia of a being (for example, that man was rational) but others pertain to a particular hypostasis (for example that a specific man had an aquiline nose) in a real if imprecise sense, this could be applied also to the ousia and the hypostases in the Trinity. Clearly this argumentation was intending to prove that a contrary position on the two actions and will in Christ, by confusing what pertained to the nature and what pertained to hypostasis, this would lead to a similar and heretical confusion in trinitarian doctrine. (p. 72)
Another serious difficulty was admitted by the MO themselves: that on their scheme, there was no human will in Christ. This is a serious defect, because if what is unassumed is unhealed, and the human will isn’t assumed by Christ, then the human will isn’t healed by Christ, and surely this guts salvation. Jordan Wessling provides a bit of modern philosophical fleshing out of the idea of Christ having only one nature:

If the phrase concerns inclinations and desires, though, there is little cause to postulate to wills within Christ. Instead, all one needs to assume is that you Jesus had human desires that could in some sense pull him away from his divine mission, something every biblically faithful Christological model must accommodate in light of passages like Matthew 4:1-11 and Hebrews 4:16. Monothelites such as (J.P)Moreland and (William Lane) Craig try to make sense of these human desires acting on Jesus’s one will by crafting a model of the incarnation whereby Jesus (although strictly speaking has only one mind) possesses a “typical human consciousness” so that in his earthly ministry, “Jesus had to struggle against fear and temptation in order to align his will with that of his heavenly Father.” If something like Moreland and Craig’s model is acceptable, then monothelites can rephrase Gregory of Nyssa’s  construal of Jesus’s prayer by replacing “will” with “desire” and characterizing the prayer as follows: “Not what I as man [desire], but what thou and so I as God [desire].” Christology: Ancient and Modern, p. 155)

However, if on the ancient MO view problems slowly emerge, here they forcefully erupt. Aside from the problem of the lack of a human will being assumed, how is it even coherent to talk about things such as ‘desire’ and ‘will’ while separating them completely so that one can be eliminated? Surely desire and will are, at the very least, connected (however we cash these terms out). If one says that a desire pulled them away from anything, that means their will gave into it – and if the term ‘will’ is eliminated, then we are left affirming the will in everything but name only. Even on a charitable reading, this is quite shaky.


Having raised a few objections (along trinitarian, philosophical and soteriological grounds), attention will now be turned to DY and its advantages over MO. The Chalcedonian definition, of course, won out, in part by reformulating the language and doctrines of the will. On the victorious definition, Christ had two ‘natural wills’, that is, to each nature a will, and the actions done according to each will were called ‘natural actions,’ so that, according to a well-known maxim, Christ carried out divine actions in a bodily way, and human actions in a divine way. This definition was arrived at by largely Trinitarian roads, as the quote above shows, and allowed one to say that Christ was truly God and truly man, and that Gregory of Nyssa’s maxim (quoted by Maximus and elaborated on by John of Damascus) ‘the unassumed is the unhealed,’ was not violated. There is, as T.F. Torrance notes, a ‘duality in unity’ in the Chalcedonian condemnation of MO.Lurking within the condemnation, however, is the shadow of instrumentalism present in Cyril of Alexandria’s christology. Bruce McCormack points this out in Mapping Modern Theology:

But a problem emerges at the point at which we begin to consider the question of how the God-human acts and who it is that performs those acts. There is only one “person” that has been directly identified with the preexistent Logos. He it is who assumes human nature. He it is who continues (after the assumption) to act in and through it. Indeed, there is here, to use more modern terminology, but a single “subject” who acts through and upon the human “nature.” Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christology was affirmed in all of its most significant features by the bishops at Chalcedon, understood the human nature to be the “economic instrument” of the Logos.(p. 152)

Frances Young gives a keen explanation of Cyril on just this point:

What Cyril could not admit was a potentially independent being assumed by the Logos. The Logos had to be the only subject, his (impersonal) humanity having no independent existence but merely being the way of stating the conditions of the existence to which the Logos subjected himself. The Logos is for Cyril the only hypostasis, and that was what he intended to convery by his formula ‘hypostatic union.’ (From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 317)

And John McGuckin further fleshes this out:

“The human nature is, therefore, not conceived as an independently acting dynamic (a distinct person who self-activates) but as the manner of action of an independent and omnipotent power – that of the Logos; and to the Logos alone can be attributed the authorship of, and responsibility for, all its actions. This last principle is the flagship of Cyril’s hwole argument. There can only be one creative subject, one personal reality, in the incarnate Lord; and that subject is the divine Logos who has made a human nature his own.” (Saint Cyril and the Christological Controversy, p. 186 as quoted in Mapping Modern Theology, p. 152)

The latter quoted passage alludes to the enhypostatic distinction, where the human nature or humanity of Christ has no independent reality outside of its assumption. This is a key doctrine in christology, which as T.F. Torrance notes, holds together the once-and-for-all union of the two natures in the one person of Christ. If, however, this Cyrilline formulation is followed, it appears that a certain kind of instrumentalism also must be followed, which McCormack leads to some serious problems with Chalcedon:

It is, therefore, the Logos who “activates” the mind and will ascribed to the man Jesus. The logical question to ask here is this: How meaningful is the ascription to Christ of a full and complete human “nature” (including a human mind and will) if that “nature” cannot function as ours does…if the human nature of Christ was never allowed to function naturally, is not human nature suppressed and finally set aside? Surely even sinless obedience is self-activated. On the other hand, if we were to say that sinless obedience is self-activated, then the man Jesus looks less and less like the “instrument” of the Logos’s activity. And it looks more and more as if we are thinking of two “subjects” rather than just one. So how do we affirm the self-activating character of the man Jesus without giving rise to two subjects? (p. 153)

The answer to this problem McCormack sees in the doctrine of the natural wills, which ‘alters’ Cyril’s instrumental christology. This is DY: two wills, two natural wills, in Christ. Yet the problems solved by the doctrine of two wills raise their own problem, which hearkens to the original concern of MO: the unity of Christ. Schleiermacher identifies this problem astutely:

But if Christ has two wills, then the unity of the person is no more than apparent, even if we try to conserve it by saying that the two wills always will the same thing. For what this results in is only agreement, not unity; and, in fact, to answer the problem thus is always simply to return to the division of Christ. (The Christian Faith, p. 394 as quoted in Mapping Modern Theology, p. 155)

There is, then, a sort of dilemma. Surely MO has been rightly condemned, and any orthodox Christianity must affirm DY. However, by condemning MO, the doctrine of two wills appears to be, implicitly at any rate, committed to not resolving and not fully dealing with the problem of the unity of Christ which so vexed the MO. For my money, Karl Barth goes a good deal of the way towards, if not solving it outright, moving towards a solution. What’s interesting, at a bit of a meta-level, is that we have here a case where Christian dogma appears to demand a very specific kind of metaphysic regarding natures and wills. In order to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy, a specific stance on the will (that the will is predicated of persons, not of natures) must be affirmed. The negative corollary here appears to be this: that a denial of this philosophical doctrine cannot be consistent with Christian orthodoxy. Does Christian orthodoxy demand that only one stance on what most would say is a tangential issue is acceptable?

2 thoughts on “Monothelitism: The Very Idea

  1. cal May 21, 2016 / 3:59 pm

    Two thoughts on this:

    1) I think this is where Maximus must enter into the picture. His description that the ‘gnome’, the (in)decisive factor that finally affirms or denies the will’s posture, is the enhypostasized will. However, I think the heart of the controversy ends up causing Maximus to double back on his most interesting development. He initially affirms that Christ has a ‘gnome’, though purified. However, he eventually denies this, as the ‘gnome’ is “non-natural”, and a side-effect of sin, and thus Christ does not possess one as He is not subject to Adam’s corruption. I think this is unnecessary. If the ‘Gnome’ is the hypostasized will, then Christ has two wills and one ‘gnome’, though we might say that the ‘gnome’ is a creaturely distinctive vis. God’s simplicity. In this way, this is DY with the MO concern properly answered. Just as we say God has taken up created flesh, so God has taken up the creaturely ‘gnome’.

    2) This conversation makes me wonder how existential philosophy might enter into this. If we take the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, then I think there’s no problem of dehumanizing people through the instrumentalization of Humanity. The gap that is introduced between the Logos/Christ and Jesus is moot. Christ is Jesus, the Person, who instrumentalizes Human nature in an analogous, though infinitely qualitatively different, capacity as God “uses” (forgive the crudity) His divinity. In this, I wonder how John Zizoulas might add an interesting corrective. This preserves the wisdom and profundity of Chalcedon and escapes McCormack’s concerns. Instrumentality of Nature only matters if our Hypostasis loses its distinct, though by no means oppositional, place. Thus, an existential focus might highlight another duality, as Man is Body/Soul, he is also Physis/Hypostasis. But maybe that’s too far.

    2 cents,


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