Heresies never die. They just take on new forms from time to time.
Yesterday’s Arianism becomes today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ye olde Gnosticism gets recycled into the warmed-over Hegelianism that is still taught in many seminaries. It all goes around and around in a circle. Beware whenever someone says, “God is doing a new thing,” because 9 times out of 10 times what that really means is that human beings have put an old and long-broken thing into a shiny new package.
All the old heresies are still mucking about in one form or another, but which one is the most dominant in our day and age? There are certainly lots of candidates for the position. But the one that never seems to come up on anyone’s list is the one that I think is the sleeper victor. We live in an age dominated by Monothelitism.
For those of you who have misplaced your ancient heresy trading cards, Monothelitism was a 6th- and 7th-century heresy that was formally condemned at the third Council of Constantinople in 681. It is the teaching that Jesus Christ had only one will, a divine will. In this respect, Monothelitism is similar to its kissing cousin, Monophysitism, which taught that Jesus had only one nature. Monophysites believed that in the coming together of humanity and divinity in Jesus, the divine subsumed the human and effectively annihilated it.
Both Monophysitism and Monothelitism work on the principle that divinity and humanity are at some level incompatible, except in Monothelitism there is a subtle but important difference. Many 7th-century Monothelites accepted that Jesus was both human and divine. They were even willing to accept that his two natures, though united, could be talked about in distinct ways. What they were unwilling to yield was the idea that Jesus could have a human will at work within him that was in any sense free. Surely, whatever human will Jesus could have had would have been swallowed up in the union of humanity and divinity by the greater and more glorious will of God. In other words, Jesus could be both God and man in a theoretical way, when sitting still and doing nothing. But as soon as he began to act in the world, there could be only one cause.
The hardware may have been human but the software was exclusively divine.
Ultimately, Monothelitism works from a false notion of freedom. The assumption is that to be free means to be entirely without constraint. The Monothelites could not grasp how Jesus could have a human will that was not in competition with his divine will. There was no way, they believed, that the human will could want the same thing as the divine will, unless it was being coerced.
This is also the reigning notion of freedom in Western society today. Freedom is synonymous with a lack of restriction. It means having complete control. The person who must do the will of another — such as an employee or a child or a slave — is not free. The person who must conform to some kind of standard outside of himself, be it moral or social or simply aesthetic, is effectively in bondage.
“When you know that no boundaries exist, then you are truly free,” says the pop singer Pharell Williams.
Western Christians in the 21st century are as steeped in this understanding of freedom as anyone else. It lurks in the background of our minds when we think about God and how he intersects with our lives. If God is in some way exerting his will upon your life, it must be at the expense of your freedom.
This understanding leads to a host of costly errors. In some Christians, it produces a kind of shamanistic attitude in which every twist and turn of our lives must be assigned to God without our having to take responsibility for any of it. In others, it can create a rigid fundamentalism in which Christians feel that God’s will is something that must be enforced upon others. There is also a more liberalizing effect that takes place in some who would prefer, à la Jack Spong, to remove from God the capacity to have a personality at all, let alone a will, lest that will come into conflict with our deeply held desire to do our own thing. It can even lead to full-blown atheism, as Jean-Paul Sartre demonstrates in his famous syllogism, “If God exists I cannot be free; but I am free, therefore God does not exist.”
Notice that most of these errors arise even if those who hold them accept the notion that God and the world are not in competition with one another for space. The person who believes she has God in her heart certainly does not think that God had to displace part of her internal organs in order to get himself there, yet she may very well believe that he has to displace her capacity to choose for herself in order for him to direct and guide her life as a disciple.
Straight, party line Monophysitism is not required. God and humanity can peacefully coexist in Jesus, and they can peacefully coexist in this world, but only so long as God is a puppet master and we are his marionettes.
What is needed to correct this problem is a much fuller and deeper understanding of freedom. It is not our ability to make choices that makes us free. If that were so, the consumerism of our age would be the perfect vehicle for the attainment of freedom. We have 400 different ways of ordering a hamburger and 4,000 different shades of green in which we can buy a sweater, ergo we must be more free than our ancestors who were stuck with McDonalds and chartreuse. But this is not the case because choice and freedom, while related, are not the same thing.
Freedom means reaching our highest potential for doing what is good. This does not mean that we choose our own good. If I could, I would choose to be a starting center for the Washington Wizards, but as bad as the Wizards are they would still never pick me because I am too short and uncoordinated to be a professional basketball player. All the practice in the world will not change that fact. What I can do, however, is to exercise the good that has been given to me. If I were a fish, I would not be free outside of the water, no matter how much I might wish to choose the land. Yet in the water, I would be completely free because I would be living into the good that I was created for.
Regardless of our differences in other ways, all human beings have been made for the good of holiness. If we are fish, holiness is the water. If we are trains, holiness is the tracks. It is only in holiness that we are truly free. It is only when we grow so close to God that his light shines through us that we become what we actually are.
Yes, Jesus has a human will and a divine will. They are not in competition because Jesus is not a sinner. He wills for himself the good of holiness that God wills for each of us. There is nothing forced about it. In exercising his will in our lives, God does not rob us of our capacity to accept or reject his love. Rather, through the cross of Christ, he opens for us the way into the holiness that we were always meant to swim in.
This post was inspired by Bishop Robert Barron.