Christ the King – The Monothelite Controversy

What does it mean to say Christ is King? What does it mean to say we have to submit to Christ’s rule? We have a continuing form of monarchy in England, but most of us are far removed from a lived experience of kingship. For the first Christians and the gospel writers, this was very different.

2 Samuel 5:1-3, Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43

To proclaim Christ as King, as all the gospels do in their own ways was against the background of the Roman Empire, where Caesar was King. Caesar’s power was absolute. What mattered was Caesar’s will, not yours. Caesar proclaimed his will according to his vision for his empire. His rule did not take into account each individual person. The whole, was what mattered, not the parts. As in all human governance, there were some who benefited greatly from it, while others lost completely. If your interests aligned with his, you were lucky. Otherwise you’d be left out – you were either absorbed into his will or expelled. 

Is that what Christ’s rule is like? Would submitting to Christ’s kingship mean we lose all our freedom? And to lose our freedom, especially for us moderns is a very frightening prospect.  But Christ’s rule is of a different order. Christ, unlike Caesar, knows each and every one of us. We are created in his image. He does not impose his will on us from the outside. When we conform to his will, we become fully ourselves. His will sets us free. And the difference between the rule of Christ and the rule of man is well illustrated in one of the most painful doctrinal conflicts that would arise in the Church. 

In the sixth century, there would arise one of the last big conflicts on the natures of Christ, concerning the number of wills that Christ had. It came to be known as the monothelite (one will) controversy. Did Jesus have only one will – the divine will – or did he have two wills? A divine will and a human will? This dispute would pit a Pope, Martin I and a monk, Maximus the Confessor against the Byzantine Emperor, Constans II.  

It would take the Church about seven centuries to work out what we believe and not believe when we recite the words of the Creed. These questions were not of some arcane interest, for people cut off from the rest of the world. Precisely the opposite. When you fall in love with someone, you don’t get to know everything about them at once – it takes time to know a person; every person is a mystery which can’t be immediately exhausted. How much more so for Christ, who is true God and true man? It was because these Christians had encountered Christ and his salvation, they wanted to know more. Who was this person who had given them life? What does it mean to say Jesus is fully God and fully man? And they of course produced some passionate disputes across all sides because so much was at stake.

“An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane,” Carl Bloch, 1873 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Monothelite controversy centered on one incident in the gospels – which we call the agony in the garden. When Christ said ‘Not my will but thine be done’, what were the implications of this passage for the will of Christ? Did Christ have only one will – the will of the Son of God, the divine will, or did Christ have two wills – human and divine? The majority report at that time was that Christ could have only one will – because if he had a human will, they assumed it would have contradicted the divine will, refusing his suffering and would be in conflict. But the minority report, headed by Maximus, said that could not be the case. If Christ had only the divine will, he could not be fully human which would not help our salvation. But Christ’s will was not in conflict because to rebel against the dinvine will is the nature of sin – Christ, in his freedom fully accepted the divine will – and in his humanity would become fully what he already was in his divinity. 

At this time, the Persians were threatening Constantinople on the Eastern border. It was the rise of Islam. They had occupied Jerusalem already and carried off the true cross as booty. Now they were threatening the capital itself. Within the capital there were all kinds of divisions, many of them of a theological nature. The emperor wanted unity at all costs. The emperors were the ones who usually convened the councils to resolve theological disputes. But they also recognised generally, that the Fathers had the right to resolve them and not to impose on them. This however, was not always respected.

St Maximus the Confessor

Constans decided that he’d had enough of the debates and decided to adopt the majority position. He decreed that everyone had to believe that Christ had only one will. From a theological problem, it had become a game of deadly imperial politics.  The Pope opposed the edict of the emperor and wrote to him, along with Maximus who was the key theologian who formulated this. The Emperor’s response was swift. He sent his armies to arrest the Pope and imprisoned him, but not before parading him publicly in chains, stripping him of his papal garments and humiliating him. Martin would die imprisoned, of starvation and illness. Maximus would have a worse affair. The Emperor gave him another chance to recant his position. Maximus of course, refused.  The Emperor had Maximus’ right hand and tongue cut out to prevent him from teaching or writing and sent him into exile. He would be imprisoned. When he was about eighty-two, Maximus was again paraded publicly and beaten with rods. He would die of the torture soon after. Ironically, Maximus died defending the freedom of Christ’s humanity, against an Emperor who would take away his own.

Why does all this matter to us today on this feast? It matters because in Christ we see how perfectly humanity interacts with divinity. If Christ had only one will, it would mean that the divine will would somehow destroy or overpower humanity, extinguishing all human desires, just like Caesar. But God has created us, precisely that we might receive him, be united with him. That is our destiny. Christ, in his humanity, was completely free. In his humanity he had to become freely, what he already was in his divinity. He freely chose this without any conflict or confusion. When we understand this, we can know what truly constitutes happiness. Everything we do is a search for happiness. This happiness is full when we can choose what we were created to be. But we try to protect our freedom from everyone, including God. And in precisely that, we lose our freedom. We find our sins are too great for us. We find ourselves addicted to all kinds of things; we find ourselves at the mercy of other people. We are constantly conflicted. Divided in ourselves. We are unhappy. When we let Christ become our King, we become ourselves, we become free. Christ comes to take away nothing from us. Today, give Christ your will. And be set free. 

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