The Christological heresy of Monothelitism is a heretical teaching that holds Christ as having only one will as opposed to dyothelitism, the orthodox Christological doctrine that holds Christ as having both a divine will and a human will. Following the earlier Christological controversies related to monophysitism as formulated by Eutyches (d. 456), and miaphysitism as formulated by non-Chalcedonian followers of Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), the Eastern Roman Empire tried during the 7th century to promote monothelitism as a compromise in the hopes that it would be seen as a unifying doctrine that would reconcile divided Christian factions.
Due to the heated debates produced by the heresy of Arianism, the Church held the First Council of Nicaea and declared that Christ was both fully human and fully divine, being consubstantial with the Father. However, in arguing that he is both God and man, there now emerged a dispute over exactly how the human and divine natures of Christ actually exist within the person of Christ. This led to Nestorius declaring that Mary was only the mother of Christ’s human nature, thus dividing the man Jesus into two separate persons in what became known as the heresy of Nestorianism, which was condemned at the Council of Ephesus. In reaction to Nestorianism sprang the opposing heresy of Monophysitism, which declared that Christ had only one divine nature. Although Monophysitism was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon, the Church remained split over the ruling of the Council, which resulted in major schisms within the Church and, thus, the Empire. This internal division was dangerous for the Byzantine Empire, which was under constant threat from external enemies, especially as many of the areas most likely to be lost to the empire were the regions that were in favour of Monophysitism.
The Byzantine emperor Heraclius believed this new theological suggestion of Monothelitism , or a similar one in monoenergism (“one energy”), could be the unifying doctrine to reunite his empire. Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople was the driving force behind this doctrine, with the full blessing of Emperor Heraclius. With the successful conclusion to the Sassanid Persian War and the recovering of the Monophysite provinces of Syria and Egypt, Heraclius devoted more time to promoting the monothelite compromise. However, Sophronius of Jerusalem believed that there was something unsound in the doctrine. If Christ only had one divine will, then Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane would be a farce and his statement “not my will, but thy will be done” would be meaningless. He would find agreement in Pope Severinus (640), who condemned monothelitism as did his successor, Pope John IV (640–42). When news reached Heraclius of the Pope’s condemnation, he was already old and ill, and the news only hastened his death. Heraclius was succeeded by his young grandson Constans II (641–668), who would issue an imperial edict, the Type of Constans, which made it illegal to discuss in any manner Christ possessing either one or two wills or one or two energies. The debate continued, however, as the orthodox doctrine of dyothelitism was headed by Pope Martin I and a monk in Northern Africa named Maximus the Confessor. Pope Martin would hold a synod known as the Lateran Council of 649 which would condemn Monothelitism and would subsequently write a letter to Emperor Constans II to inform him of the council’s conclusions and to require him to condemn both the Monothelite doctrine and his own Type.
The Exarch (Lord) of Ravenna, Theodore Calliopas, with instructions from the Emperor to ensure that the Type was followed in Italy and to use whatever means necessary, seized Pope Martin and abducted him to Constantinople, where he was imprisoned and tortured before he was condemned for breaking the imperial commands and was then banished before he died from his treatment. The emperor continued to persecute any who spoke out against Monothelitism, including Maximus the Confessor and a number of his disciples. Maximus had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off to prevent him from speaking or writing anything in opposition to the emperor. After Constans II’s death in 668, the throne passed to his son Constantine IV, who asked the new pope, Pope Agatho, (678–681), to send delegates to an ecumenical council to be held at Constantinople. Pope Agatho agreed and the Third Council of Constantinople met from 680 to 681. With the exception of two individuals, it condemned the Monothelite doctrine as one that diminished the fullness of Christ’s humanity and asserted Dyothelitism to be the true doctrine, with Christ possessing “two natural wills and two natural energies, without division, alteration, separation or confusion”.
The Maronite Church, which was founded by a Syrian monk named Maro who died in the fifth century and was noted by Theodoret of Cyr (Religionis Historia, xvi), was once believed to have followed their Syrian neighbors in the Monothelite heresy. However, while Syria was divided by heresies, the monks of Blit-Marun remained invariably faithful to the cause of orthodoxy and maintained full communion with the wider Catholic Church, although it was isolated. The Maronite Church is considered an Eastern Catholic sui iuris (meaning “of one’s own right”) particular church and remains in full communion with the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church. The Maronite Rite (as opposed to the Latin Rite) is one of the Syrian rites, but has closely modeled itself after the Latin Rite so that it has no Schismatic rite of corresponding form and language, but is wholly united and Catholic. It continues to use the Liturgy of St. James for Mass, which utilizes the liturgical language of ancient Syriac or Aramaic so that the Mass is celebrated in the very language which Christ spoke while He was on earth.
- Papandrea, James L. (2016). The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. InterVarsity Press.
- Continuity and Change in Creed and Confessions, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press, 2013)
- Brauer, J. C., ed. (1971). Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
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