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The Theology of the Ancient Creeds Part 5: Christology after Chalcedon

  • Greg Uttinger,
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The Second Council of Constantinople
The Council of Chalcedon did not rid the church of Christological error. Neither Antioch nor Alexandria was satisfied with the decision of the Council. The theologians at Antioch pressed the distinction of Christ's natures and tended to favor Nestorianism. Those at Alexandria insisted on the unity of His Person and favored Monophysite thinking. Rome, not given to the subtleties of Greek thought, stayed clear of much of the debate and usually came down on the side of orthodoxy. The patriarchs of Constantinople were sometimes orthodox, often Monophysite; the same was true of the emperors.

With Nestorius openly condemned, theologians favorable to his position took refuge in the writings of three men who had shared his perspective. These were Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had been Nestorius's teacher, and Theodoret and Ibas, two of his friends. Each had passed under the scrutiny of Chalcedon but ultimately escaped its condemnation. Now their spiritual heirs tried to make out that the Council had actually approved their works.

The Monophysites struck at this neo-Nestorian position through the emperor. They moved Justinian, who himself was orthodox and devout, to condemn Theodore and certain writings of Theodoret and Ibas. The Monophysites hoped to appear the champions of orthodoxy and ultimately to find a way of reconciling the language of Chalcedon with their own position. But Justinian's decree stirred up more controversy than it settled. Finally, in hopes of restoring unity to the church and the empire, he convened a fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople in 553.

In a series of fourteen anathemas, the Second Council of Constantinople rejected the new Nestorianism, approved the expression "hypostatic union" (VIII), and confessed that "our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God" (X). It even sanctioned the Alexandrian phrase "one incarnate nature of God the Word" (VIII), but it did so in a context that rejected any confusion of the human and divine in Christ:

For in saying that the only-begotten Word was united by hypostasis [personally] we do not mean that there was a mutual confusion of natures, but rather we understand that the Word was united to the flesh, each [nature] remaining what it was.1

The Council clarified the intent of Chalcedon and, in terms of those clarifications, anathematized the writings of men long dead and, in the case of Theodore, the man himself. While many then and since would have had the Council leave the dead to God, the bishops at Constantinople recognized no neutral harbors for the enemies of the Faith, not even death. The gospel was at stake, and the Council chose loyalty to Christ over civility to the deceased.

The Monothelite Heresy
The Second Council of Constantinople shut the door on full-fledged Monophysitism, but the demand for a fusion of the human and the divine reared its head again in Monotheletism. The Greek word thelema refers to the will or volition, though it was also used "… in a broader sense, as including the instincts, appetites, desires, and affections, with their corresponding aversions."2 The Monothelites argued that Christ had only one will (mono thelema).

The logic of the Monothelite position was simple. To exist as one Person, Christ must have exactly one will. Two wills in Christ would demand two persons and lead back to the Nestorian heresy. Christ's human will, then, must either have been absorbed into His divine will or His two wills must have been fused together to form some sort of commixture.

The Christ of Scripture
But the Christ of Scripture is not the Christ of Monothelite logic, as the orthodox knew. For Scripture contrasts the human will of our Lord with the will of the Father: Jesus said, "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:39). During His years at Nazareth, He was "subject" to Mary and Joseph, two sinful and fallible human beings (Luke 2:51).

But the clearest revelation of Christ's human will took place in Gethsemane. There, in His humanity, Christ had to come to terms with the cross and all that it meant. Notice how our Lord's words change through the three passages below.

And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matt. 26:39) He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. (Matt. 26:42)
Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it? (John 18:11)

The writer of Hebrews tells us that, "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). Jesus never turned aside from His Father's will, but in Gethsemane He yielded up His own human will. He actively embraced obedience to His Father at great cost to Himself. In this, He set the pattern for our own sanctification.

The Third Council of Constantinople
The Monothelite controversy raged from 633 to 680. The emperors Heraclius and Constans II worked for reconciliation and peace, but in terms of compromise and enforced silence. Constans' zeal for peace led him even to depose, imprison, and exile Pope Martin I, who had led the battle against Montheletism in the West. But Constans was murdered in a bath in Syracuse, and the Arab conquests of Syria and Egypt left Rome more politically significant than Antioch and Alexandria. So in 680 Constantine IV, in concert with Pope Agatho, summoned the sixth ecumenical council, the Third Council of Constantinople. The emperor presided in person, but Agatho exercised decisive influence through a letter addressed to Constantine.
Pope Agatho wrote:

But when we make a confession concerning one of the same three Persons of that Holy Trinity, of the Son of God, or God the Word, and of the mystery of his adorable dispensation according to the flesh, we assert that all things are double in the one and the same our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ according to the Evangelical tradition, that is to say, we confess his two natures, to wit the divine and the human, of which and in which he, even after the wonderful and inseparable union, subsists. And we confess that each of his natures has its own natural propriety, and that the divine has all things that are divine, without any sin. And we recognize that each one (of the two natures) of the one and the same incarnated, that is, humanated (humanati) Word of God is in him unconfusedly, inseparably and unchangeably, intelligence alone discerning a unity, to avoid the error of confusion. For we equally detest the blasphemy of division and of commixture. For when we confess two natures and two natural wills, and two natural operations in our one Lord Jesus Christ, we do not assert that they are contrary or opposed one to the other (as those who err from the path of truth and accuse the apostolic tradition of doing. Far be this impiety from the hearts of the faithful!), nor as though separated (per se separated) in two persons or subsistences, but we say that as the same our Lord Jesus Christ has two natures so also he has two natural wills and operations, to wit, the divine and the human: the divine will and operation he has in common with the coessential Father from all eternity: the human, he has received from us, taken with our nature in time. This is the apostolic and evangelic tradition, which the spiritual mother of your most felicitous empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, holds.3

In language reflecting Agatho's letter, the Council pronounced belief in two wills to be orthodoxy. The Definition of the Council read in part:

…We likewise declare that in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. 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, as he himself says: "I came down from heaven not that I might do mine own will but the will of the Father which sent me!" where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own . . ..
Preserving therefore the inconfusedness and indivisibility, we make briefly this whole confession, 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 subsistence in which he both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of his economic conversation, and that not in appearance only but in very deed, and this by reason of the difference of nature which must be recognized in the same Person, for although joined together yet each nature wills and does the things proper to it and that indivisibly and inconfusedly. Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in him for the salvation of the human race.4

The Issue at Stake
It would be easy to minimize the work of the sixth ecumenical council. The issues seem esoteric and the psychology involved, speculative. Certainly few Christians today have heard of the Council or its work. Does any of this really matter?

What Constantinople dealt with was the mixing of the human and divine in the will of Jesus Christ, our Head and Example. If in Christ the will of man became commingled or lost in the will of God, would not this mean that the believer's union with Christ is deification? Would not this fusion of wills set the pattern of sanctification for all Christians? Neander writes:

At least, many among the Monothelites supposed the final result of the perfect development of the divine life in believers would be in them, as in the case of Christ, a total absorption of the human will in God's will; so that in all, there would be a subjective, as well as objective identity of will, — which, consistently carried out, would lead to the pantheistic notion of an entire absorption of all individuality of existence in the one original spirit.5

There are two ways to understand the words "I want God's will to be mine." The first would be something like, "I want to obey God. I want to conform my choices to the precepts of His law." The second would be, "I want a fusion of my own will with God's so that my choices are divine. I will no longer act or will, but God will act and will through me and for me." The first is the attitude of faith; the second, of Satanic pride. Nonetheless, during the past two centuries, the second has often passed for the high road to sanctification. I abandon my will, my self, so that Christ can live His life through me. I "let go, and let God." The words "not I, but Christ in me" are torn out of context and made a banner for the most presumptuous and yet irresponsible kind of mysticism. For once my will has been replaced by God's, I am responsible for nothing and yet every act I perform is divine.

The Third Council of Constantinople raised a roadblock against such nonsense. If even in the incarnate Son of God the human will and divine will remain distinct, we must confess that our own wills will never be anything but human. Sanctification is not deification, but growth in grace. We are shut up to the pattern of Gethsemane: death to self-will and active obedience to the commandments of God.

Finally, we should remember the time frame of the Monothelite controversy — the mid-600s. During this half-century, the armies of Islam swept out of Arabia and stormed through Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was theological cause and effect at work here, of course: mystics fare poorly against men with swords. But we must not understand this in terms of a deistic framework: the Lord actively judges in the affairs of men and in particular in the affairs of His church (Heb. 10:30). God prunes His olive tree and discards the unbelieving branches (Rom. 11:16-22). As the 600s drew to a close, God pruned His church most severely, and many who confessed a false "Christ" were swept away by a monotheism that recognized no Christ at all. With Islam again at our gates, we of the 21st Century need to take history's lessons seriously.


1. John Leith, Creeds of the Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973), 49. The bracketed expressions appear in Leith.

2. Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975 reprint), 110.

3. Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979 reprint), 330f.

4. Ibid., 345f.

5. Augustus Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church, vol. III (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1855), 183 cited in Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1972), 146.

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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