The seventh century is something of a forgotten epoch for most Protestants. But it is well worth knowing. The creative heart of its theology lay in the East — the Byzantine Empire, centered on Constantinople. Here the Christological controversies of the fifth century were still bubbling away. As a result of the councils of Chalcedon (451) and of Second Constantinople (553), the Eastern church and empire were bitterly divided between two great parties. These were the Chalcedonians, loyal to the orthodox creed of Chalcedon, that Christ is one person in two natures; and the Monophysites, numerous in Egypt and Syria, who held that the incarnate Christ has only one nature (a sort of synthesized divine-human nature).
The Byzantine Empire was to make one last attempt to heal the gaping rift between Chalcedonians and Monophysites. The initiative came from emperor Heraclius (610–641). He took his theological lead from patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, who suggested that Chalcedonians and Monophysites could unite around the formula of a “single energy” in Christ. When theologians spoke of “energy” (in Greek, energeia), they meant the action, activity, work, or operation that reveals a thing’s distinctive nature.
What has this to do with the quarrel between Chalcedonians and Monophysites? The controversy raged around the question of how Christ can be one person, if He has two natures. Chalcedonians distinguished between nature and person, arguing that Christ’s two natures dwell in each other without becoming confused with each other, united by Christ’s single divine person. Monophysites retorted that if Christ is only one person, this requires His two natures to become one. But energy was a third factor in the equation — something different from nature and person. If Chalcedonians and Monophysites could agree that Christ has only a single energy, perhaps both parties could accept this as the explanation of His oneness.
Sergius of Constantinople argued that energy belongs to person rather than to nature. Since Chalcedonians and Monophysites were agreed that Christ was one person, they could (Sergius suggested) see His two natures being united in the single energy of His person. Emperor Heraclius championed Sergius’ “single-energy” formula, and it met with some success. However, the reunion ran into serious trouble in Palestine. The Chalcedonian monks there opposed the single-energy formula with passion; they were led by the sharp-minded patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem. Sophronius argued that energy does not belong to person (as Sergius said), but to nature (as in the traditional understanding). Thus, there are in Christ two distinct energies, human and divine, revealing the two distinct natures of the Savior.
Sophronius’ opposition to the single-energy formula prompted Heraclius to enlist the support of Pope Honorius I.
It was the worst thing he could have done. Honorius plunged the quarrel into even stormier waters. Professing himself unhappy with all the talk about energies, he threw in the explosive suggestion that Christ has a single will rather than a single energy. Honorius thought that Chalcedonians and Monophysites could find common ground in confessing that the Savior’s two natures are united by His single divine will — which, of course, meant denying that Christ has a human will. Emperor Heraclius seized on this idea and, in 638, issued an official theological statement, the Ekthesis. It forbade all further mention of energies, and decreed that Christ had only a single divine will. This was to be the new orthodoxy. Those who supported the Ekthesis were known as mono theletes, from the Greek for “single will.”
The Monothelete position aroused mighty enemies among orthodox Chalcedonians. The mightiest was the Greek monk Maximus the Confessor (580–662), who maintained passionately that Christ has two wills, a human alongside a divine one. Why did he get so worked up about this? The answer actually lies in his concern for the doctrine of salvation. The human will, Maximus pointed out, is the source of sin, the very seat of our corruption that needs to be rescued and sanctified. Therefore, if there is to be salvation for our fallen wills, the Son of God must take up a human will into Himself in the incarnation. The only way our wills can become holy is by being conformed to the perfectly holy human will of Christ the God-man. But the Monotheletes were saying that Christ has no human will. Where, then, asked Maximus, does the sanctification of our sinful wills come from? It is essential to our salvation that God the Son took a human will.
It was not a good sign for the Monotheletes that they had raised up for themselves such an enemy as Maximus. He was a theologian of towering eminence; he ranks with Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, Cyril of Alexandria, and John of Damascus as one of the truly outstanding minds of the Eastern church.
When Heraclius died, his successor was his grandson Constans II (641–68) — a cruel dictator. Emperor Constans tried to quench the controversy by silencing all parties; his edict of 648, the Typos, prohibited all Byzantine citizens from ever again mentioning wills and energies in Christ, on pain of severe punishment. It amounted to an imperial command to the orthodox that they must tolerate heresy in the church, and some of the orthodox were not willing to obey.
One of them was the new pope, Martin I, who ascended the papal throne in July 649. Martin was a close ally of Maximus, and impressed everyone with his radiant holiness and deep learning. In October of that year, Martin summoned a Roman council that condemned Monotheletism and affirmed that Christ has both a human and a divine will. Maximus was present and played a leading part in this council. Martin then sent copies of the council’s decisions throughout the East and the West, together with a circular letter warning all faithful Christians against the dangerous heresy of the Monotheletes.
Such intrepid defiance of Emperor Constans sealed the fate of both Maximus and Martin. Byzantine troops seized them in 653, carried them off to Constantinople, and imprisoned them for a lengthy period in horrific conditions that shattered Martin’s already poor health. They were eventually put on trial for treason in 655. Martin was found guilty and sentenced to death; his papal robes were torn from him; he was flogged and dragged off to the dungeons. In an unexpected touch of mercy, Constans then softened Martin’s sentence to banishment. Worn out by his ordeal, the pope died six months later, a martyr for his faith in the full humanity of Christ.
The trial of Maximus was then held. Maximus had spearheaded the opposition to Monotheletism; Constans was determined to make a public spectacle of him. Day after day, the judges hurled accusations of treason and heresy at the elderly monk — he was now 74 years old. However, Maximus was unmoved, rejecting all the charges of treason and boldly denying that an emperor had any right to interfere in theological matters. Such conduct was the state laying unholy hands on the church’s independence. Constans was not impressed; Maximus was beaten and banished to the little town of Bizya in Thrace.
From Bizya, Maximus continued to speak and write against Monotheletism; so in 662, an enraged Constans put him on trial again. The judges pressed Maximus with the argument that everyone else in the Eastern church had submitted to the Typos. How dare he, a lone monk, defy the voice of the church? Was only Maximus in the right, and everyone else wrong? Did he think he alone was saved? Maximus’ response echoes down through the centuries: “May God grant that I do not condemn anyone, nor say that I alone am saved. But I prefer to die rather than violate my conscience by defecting from what I believe about God.”
This time Maximus’ punishment was more brutal: his tongue was ripped out and his right hand chopped off, that he might speak and write no more. He was then banished to the south-eastern coast of the Black Sea, where he died a few months later. It was for his unbending confession of faith amid these cruelties that the church
later hailed Maximus as “the Confessor.”
Constans was assassinated in 668. His son Constantine IV (668–85) turned out to be a very different kind of emperor from his father. Acting in harmony with the current pope, Agatho, who was a loyal disciple of Martin and Maximus, Constantine summoned the sixth of the ecumenical councils in November 680 — the Third Council of Constantinople. The council was a total triumph for the foes of Monotheletism, vindicating the belief in Christ’s full humanity for which Maximus and Martin had suffered. The council also named and condemned those who had taught the single-energy and single-will doctrine, especially patriarch Sergius of Constantinople and Pope Honorius, calling them instruments of Satan, heretics, and blasphemers. This condemnation of a heretical pope by an ecumenical council was later to be a favorite weapon of Protestants in their conflict with the papacy and its claims to infallibility.
The Third Council of Constantinople brought an end to the centuries of controversy about the relationship between the human and the divine in Christ. It was also the last of the ecumenical councils to receive recognition by all three of the branches of the professing church — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant.