The Sixth Council of the Church

Peter Groves on Constantinople III, 680–1

One might be forgiven for thinking that the problems and controversies surrounding the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were laid to rest after the Council of Chalcedon in AD451. Students of patristics often find that their syllabus fails to take them into the sixth century, let alone the seventh. But the dissatisfaction which many Christians felt with the Chalecedonian definition that Christ was one person in two natures has remained in some quarters even to this day. The Third Council of Constantinople was quite unlike its predecessors in that it was not called at a crisis point to resolve a new and pressing question. In fact, the controversy which it sought to settle was an old one by the time it met – almost all of the important figures in that controversy were dead before 680. It is also interesting for the desperate political and military situation which surrounded both debate and definition. For both these reasons, what follows is much more a history of earlier argument than of conciliar agreement.

The Unity of Christ

Such argument was centred, as in preceding centuries, upon the unity of Christ himself: when the Saviour was described in the gospels as struggling with his fate in the Garden, or as seeming to deliberate over a course of action, what was going on? Was this the action of God incarnate, fully in accordance with the will of the Father? Or were there in Christ two centres of activity and will? If the latter, what could have prevented the two opposing one another and the one person of Christ being subject to a division more thoroughgoing than anything Nestorius had argued for.

The world of the seventh century was very different from that ruled by all-conquering Rome into which Christianity was born. The empire of the West was largely gone, and the rule of the Emperor in Constantinople was far from secure. The christological arguments of the seventh-century church were conducted with the Empire under almost constant military threat, and the urgency with which its rulers sought unity amongst Christians was as much provoked by the necessity of facing a common foe together, as by the desire to act upon Christ’s prayer for unity in John’s gospel. It was just such an attempt to bring theological opponents together which gave to what we now call the ‘monothelite controversy’ (from the Greek for ‘one will’).


The emperor Heraclius (610–641) spent most of his reign engaged in defence of his empire. His long war against the Persian Chosroes II left both their empires weakened and vulnerable to a new and ultimately superior enemy, the Arab armies which over-ran the Persian empire and so much of new Rome’s Eastern and North African territories in the thirty or so years after the prophet Mohammed’s death in 632. Chosroes had sought to exploit Christian differences by offering protection to Monophysite leaders, those who still asserted, in defiance of Chalcedon, that the divine person Jesus Christ had one nature, not two. Heraclius and Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, sensibly tried to bring the Monophysites and Chalcedonians closer together, and thought they had found a way of doing so with a doctrine now called ‘Monenergism’. They affirmed the two natures taught by Chalcedon, but also asserted that there was in the divine person of Jesus Christ only one activity or ‘energy’. One adherent to this compromise was Cyrus of Phasis, who was elected Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria in 631, and set about trying to convert Egyptian Monophysites to his view. (They seem to have accepted it as a concession on the part of Chalcedonians). However, an agreement which Cyrus declared and published was read by a Palestinian monk called Sophronius, who maintained that it was heretical and tried to persuade the Patriarch of the same. Sergius declared that neither language of one nor two activities in Christ should be used, but also wanted to publicize and celebrate the agreement reached in Alexandria: this he did in a letter to Pope Honorius I. Sophronius was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634, and, whilst not contradicting Sergius, continued to refute monenergism. The specific arguments which would lead, almost fifty years later, to the Third Council of Constantinople, were now in full swing.


Behind these arguments lie, in part, the writings of one of the Church’s most influential and most mysterious figures. He is known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius (or Pseudo-Denys) the Areopagite, because his writings were attributed to the disciple of Paul mentioned after the apostle’s speech to the men of Athens in Acts 17.34. Thought to have been a Syrian monk writing at the beginning of the sixth century, he was credited with apostolic authority as early as 533, and his influence upon later theology is huge. Dionysius’s Fourth Letter speaks of the incarnation, and in particular seeks to defend the unity of Christ by stating that ‘it was not by virtue of being God that he did divine things, nor by virtue of being human that he did human things, but rather, by the fact of being God-made-man he accomplished something new in our midst – the activity of the God-man.’ This last phrase, sometimes translated ‘theandric activity’, was the key for defenders of monenergism, not least because they read it and quoted it as saying ‘one theandric activity’. Our texts of Pseudo-Dionysius come to us through a sixth-century pro-Chalcedonian editor, John of Scythopolis. It is quite possible, therefore, that the phrase was ‘tidied up’ better to fit with the doctrine of the two natures, and the monenergists might well have been quoting correctly.

Shrinking Empire

Sergius took things further. The Pope had replied to his earlier letter congratulating the brokers of the Alexandrian agreement, and confessing, further, not just the one ‘activity’ but also the one ‘will’ of Christ: the monenergist cause became the monothelite cause, and was set down in an imperial edict of 638, drafted by Sergius and signed by Heraclius: the ecthesis. Honorius died in the same year, before he had the chance to accept or oppose the edict, but his second letter to Sophronius suggests he was far from certain as to his own position. Successive popes incurred imperial wrath by resisting the teaching of the ecthesis, but the empire soon had to revert its attention to things military. Damascus had fallen to the Arabs in 635; Sophronius himself surrendered Jerusalem in 638, Alexandria would fall in 642, by which time Heraclius was dead. A struggle over imperial succession ended with the accession of his grandson, Constans II. Gradually Byzantine naval power was diminishing, and the Mediterranean shoreline was disappearing from the empire’s grasp. Not only did the need for ever stronger defence occupy the empire, but the strongholds of differing Christian theological viewpoints were gradually being swallowed up by their Islamic conquerors.

Maximus the Confessor

One refugee from earlier conflict was Maximus, called the Confessor, a monk who seems to have fled to North Africa to escape the Persian wars of the late 620s. Maximus’ own writings display his closeness to Sophronius, whom he saw as mentor and spiritual father, and whose monastery he must have shared at some time (exactly when is not clear). Maximus’ rejection of the monothelite position is crucial not least because of his encounter in 645 with Pyrrhus, who had been Sergius’ successor as Patriarch of Constantinople. Pyrrhus was a victim of the power struggle which followed Heraclius’ death and fled to North Africa. His debate with Maximus in Carthage led to his renouncing monothelitism and siding with Pope Theodore against Constans II, whose renewed attempts to suppress debate on the matter reached a head with his Typos of 648. Theodore’s successor, Martin I, summoned a Lateran Synod in October 649 at which over a hundred bishops were present, along with Maximus himself. This synod’s assertion that Christ had two wills, divine and human, led to the pope being forcibly brought to Constantinople to answer to the emperor. He was banished to the Crimea, where he died. Maximus himself was tried and, exiled more than once, finally died in the Caucasus in 662.

Maximus, though dead almost twenty years, is the theologian whose teaching triumphed most fully in Constantinople in 681. His treatises against monothelitism reject it by distinguishing different senses in which the word ‘will’ can be used. To begin with, it can refer to the capacity to act freely, that aspect of human nature whereby we as agents are not coerced. Or it can refer to the result of the act of willing itself. If the latter is the case, the monothelites’ fear that the unity of Christ’s person might be threatened by attributing to him two wills is understandable: the danger was ending up with a schizophrenic Christ who was at once freely willing himself in two contrary directions. Maximus observes that a natural disposition to will is simply part of Christ’s humanity. To say that he is truly a human being is to assert that he has a natural human will. However, there is another capacity to will which fallen humanity possesses, and that we might call willing according to inclination or opinion.

Gnomic Will

To will, according to Aristotle, is simply to recognize something as good. However, fallen humanity is no longer able to recognize the perfect goodness of God as the sole object of its will. It deliberates, and is attracted to that which it thinks is good (perhaps for selfish reasons) and hence is swayed by inclination. This will Maximus calls ‘gnomic will’ from the Greek gnome – inclination or intention. The human will of Christ belongs to his human nature, the divine will to his divine nature, but any gnomic will – being drawn by inclination – would belong to the human person. By contrast the one divine person of Christ had no such will, because he was never lacking in any knowledge of what was good: ultimate goodness – divinity – was always present to him. The natural human will of Christ was always shaped and ordered by the divine will, thus preventing the type of opposition which the monothelites were so concerned to avoid.


Constans II was assassinated in 668. It was not until 678, that his son, Constantine IV, found himself secure enough to seek a resolution to the by now very old controversy. The renewed friendship between papacy and empire had helped Constantine to the throne, and he was anxious to maintain it. Pope Agatho responded to imperial overtures by convening local synods and consulting bishops before drafting a letter in repudiation of monothelitism signed by one hundred and twenty five bishops. The letter was taken by papal legates to Constantinople. They arrived in the autumn of 680 and on November 7 of that year that which we now call the Sixth Ecumenical Council began.

The Patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, Macarius and George respectively, declared in defence of monothelitism that their teaching had accorded with that of the Fathers and earlier councils. But the legates from Rome objected that the texts they cited were distorted and in one case (that of a letter from Menas of Constantinople to Pope Vigilius, to which Sergius had frequently appealed) demonstrated them to be fraudulent. Macarius of Antioch was stubborn in his defence that Christ had only one will: to say anything else would be Nestorian, he maintained. But session by session, he was losing the battle. His authoritative texts were dismissed as his own creations and he was finally put on trial before the council and condemned. Most of the huge cast of characters in the monothelite controversy were now up for anathematization, it seemed. Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter – all of whom had been Patriarchs of Constantinople in the seventy years before the council – were anathematized. So too was Pope Honorius I, who had unwisely affirmed the existence of only one will in Christ.


The Council’s last session was in September 681. Its definition of faith states ‘in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, incontrovertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary to one another 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.’

Readers may be forgiven for finding the monothelite controversy somewhat obscure (though it involves two giants of Christian theology in Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor). But its importance shouldn’t be downplayed. Chalcedon was not an end, and christology is always an essential activity of the Church. The question of whether Christ had both a divine and a human will is fundamental because for Christianity to teach a doctrine of incarnation, it must teach that the person of Christ was fully, and not nearly, human.


Peter Groves is Chaplain and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford.

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