Neo-Monoenergism: A Broadly Nicene Assessment

(this is a paper I wrote and presented to the Philosophical society at my Seminary many years ago)

In this paper I want to take issue with a Christology that has recently garnered some attention attracting adherents within Evangelical academia. For lack of a better term I am going to call this Christology Neo-monoenergism. I consider this to be a broad label which if investigated fully could probably include a wide range of current theological positions from social Trinitarians, Egalitarian church polity, to even soteriological Calvinists. In other words I think this belief has been very influential and widespread within evangelicalism and at least needs to be identified and understood. Neo-monoenergism, as I am defining it, means that in the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God who became Jesus Christ, there is only one activity of willing. I call this Neo because monoenergism was explicitly condemned at the council of Constantinople III in a slightly different form from this current theology. The current resurgence of monoenergist theology seeks to be within the limits of broadly construed Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. I contend that this is not possible and that Neo-monoenergism will, for each of its adherents, lead to at least one of the heresies condemned at the first five councils unless monoenergism is fundamentally redefined. In the first part I defend the thesis that the sixth council was consistent with Chalcedon and protected Cyrillian Christology from heretical interpretation. In the second part I will articulate Neo-monoenergism and finally show how it is inconsistent with broadly Nicene theology and will probably lead to the rebuilding of the heretical “wheel” unless what is meant by monoenergism is redefined or possibly Chalcedonian and Nicene categories are given up.

Part I: The Dyothelitism of Constantinople III

Christology is a complicated topic. There were seven councils dealing directly with Christology which are recognized as ecumenical. The theology of the later three is infallible for Rome or Constantinople/Moscow, but amongst Protestants it has differing reputations.1 This section will be irenic and not polemical. I am dealing with the sixth of these great councils, also known as the Third Council of Constantinople (ad 680-681). I will describe what the council actually said about the nature of the incarnation. Then I will explain the heresy of monothelitism which was the occasion for holding the council. Then I will explicate dyothelitism, and to a lesser extent dyoenergism, which were the dogmas established by the council.2

The Acts of Constantinople III

Any discussion of a church council should involve what was decided at the council in the very words of those present. There seem to be two things of primary importance stated directly in The Acts of the 6th Ecumenical Council (ad 680-681): the naming of heretical teachers and the true teaching of the church that Christ possesses two wills and two energies. The council clearly declares that monothelitism and monoenergism are heresy and undoubtedly affirms that dyothelitism and dyoenergism are orthodoxy.3 Then it goes on to posthumously anathematize several church teachers, the most important being Pope Honorius I (ad 625-638), who reputedly taught this doctrine.4 While every council is complicated, reading the acts of Constantinople III gives one the impression that the issue is very simple. Christ has two wills and that is that. Of course almost nothing in connection with Jesus Christ is that simple. There are many layers and complicated issues within the theology of this great council. One of the most vexing for the Roman Catholic tradition is the unchallenged and unqualified condemnation of a Petrine Bishop “who in everything agreed with them [heretics].”5 But first we need to understand the preceding theological developments and problems which led the church to this point.


This ecumenical gathering of teachers, just as each before them, did more than affirm mere metaphysics. The fathers at Constantinople III had soteriological dogma in mind.6 The issue of Christ having one or two wills seems very esoteric given the theological challenges of 21st century Christendom. But to these bishops and teachers of the church it was like asking the question: are humans really and truly saved by Jesus Christ? The defenders of monothelitism were under the impression that to affirm dyothelitism was to affirm Nestorianism and therefore to separate God and man in Christ to the point of unraveling the salvific work of the Hypostatic Union.7 The historic concern of the monothelite tradition was to maintain the synthesis of Cyril Patriarch of Alexandria (ad 412-444) who affirmed the unity of the incarnation in the person of Christ. Cyril’s theology prevailed at the council of Ephesus over the teachings of Nestorius by preserving “the deep substantial nature of the conjunction of God and man in Christ.”8 But in spite of his success, Cyril’s terminology could be confusing or ambiguous, specifically his use of the phrase “one incarnate nature.”9 But this phrase was not alone. The monothelite heresy which followed claimed the central tenets of Cyrillian Orthodox Christology as its foundation.10

The doctrinal edifice of Monoenergism was built upon three pillars: first, the recognition of the Cyrilline doctrine of ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’; second an acceptance of the theopaschite formula, that is, the statement that ‘one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh’; and finally, the ps.-Dionysian affirmation of ‘a new (or ‘single’) theandric activity’ in Christ after the union. Both the statements of Cyril and ps.-Dionysius the Aeropagite seemed, on a superficial reading, to endorse the existence of a single activity in Christ.11

This quotation shows how deeply interconnected Christology and soteriology seem to be. Each of the theological principles listed is primarily soteriological. “One incarnate nature” was Cyril’s way of emphasizing the deification of man through Christ.12 It was not a reference to one nature after the Hypostatic Union, an explicitly Eutychian idea, but the belief that “very God of very God” became incarnate. The divine nature was united to the human nature through Christ. And the same logic can be applied to both the theopaschite formula and talk of a theandric will. Because Christ is truly God and Christ has died therefore God has died. But that is not to say that God the Father or the divine essence were crucified. And a theandric will was simply a deified human will. So Christ would still be dyophysite and dyothelite but his human will is deified. Still it is not hard to see how the monophysite confusions were made consistently, or how indebted genuine Christian soteriology truly is to Cyril.13

But the irony of Constantinople III is that both the dyophysite Nestorians and monophysite Eutychians were monothelites.14 In the case of both they were under the impression that to have one will and energy was to preserve the union of natures.15 For the Monophysites this followed from their insistence on one nature, for their reading of Cyril was such that the one incarnate nature actually meant a new combined divine-human nature.16 And for them the concept of a theandric will meant a God-human composite will, not a deified will.

The reasons for Nestorian monothelitism are far more ambiguous and complicated. I think their main motivation came from the Nestorian desire to affirm one prosopon.17 But the fullest definition of Nestorianism is something more akin to one prosopon and two hypostases which is why the Nestorian heresy is usually described as belief in two persons in the incarnation due to the historical ambiguities between those Greek words, and how prosopon and hypostasis became synonyms eventually. Nestorianism recognizes that there must be a unity to the incarnation of some kind but that there must be a genuine duality as well. But rather than the duality merely being emphasized the duality came to be understood as two complete or independent dualities united by a prosopon, but the prosopon in question is not God the Son or even Jesus Christ but the conjunction of God the Son with Jesus Christ in two complete hypostases. 18 This is why Nestorius denied the term Theotokos as the virgin Mary’s liturgical title and opted for Christotokos instead and why he also denied the theopaschite formula. The human nature of Christ could not experience divinity and the divine nature of God the Son could not experience humanity so the prosoponic unity of these two independent natures must have been a unity of action or willing. And since willing seems intuitively to be personal as opposed to natural both the Eutychians and the Nestorians placed will in the person rather than nature.19 Here it is important to note Pope Leo’s (ad 391?-461) contribution to the discussion.

Since Leo’s Tome is an official part of the acts of the council of Chalcedon, all Christians who commit themselves to the actual teaching authority of Chalcedon are committed to Leo’s Tome as well.20 This is interesting because the Eastern Church will often remark that the Tome has problems, namely that it flirts with Nestorianism at worst and is ambiguous at best; even though they know it must be orthodox.21 In any case Pelikan shows that Leo’s phrasing of the natures doing things was essential for defeating monothelitism and paving the way for Constantinople III. As I’ve already admitted it seems appropriate to make “actions” or willing belong to person and not nature but the Christological problems with this intuition were at the center of the theology of the sixth council. According to Pelikan both heretical groups sought to reinterpret Leo’s language, in fact they completely altered it.22 They tried to read a single subject of action into the actions being performed.23 Leo’s theology was universally hated outside the churches that wanted to follow Chalcedon consistently.24

The actual phrasing that caused this trouble for the heretics was Leo’s claim that each “form” does the acts which belong to it.25 Pelikan explains:

Without any change in the spelling of the Latin and with at most a very slight change in the spelling of the Greek, Leo’s formula could be read to say that the incarnate Logos “does, by means of each form, the acts that belong to it, in communion with the other,” with the word “form” now in the ablative or instrumental dative. This was the interpretation of Leo set forth by Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, an advocate of “one action.” Yet if our transmitted texts are reliable, he elsewhere quoted the same passage correctly, ascribing the acting to each of the natures rather than to the single hypostasis of the Logos…26

This issue is not an irrelevant vestige of Chalcedon because Constantinople III directly cites Leo’s Tome as its proof and basis for dyoenergism. The exact passage is quoted that the heretics tried to manipulate as evidence for their view.27 The significance of this point cannot be overstated for Constantinople III. A direct connection to Pope Leo I showing that Christ had two wills means that dyothelitism was self-consciously in step with Chalcedonian dogma. It is not difficult to see how a will could be proper to nature.28 Which would make it like a metaphysical appendage, just as legs or lungs are something a body has but do not themselves make up a physical body. A will is something that can be accessed and utilized but it is not the center of action. In other words a person uses a will, but persons perform determinative and deliberative actions and the will is where those decisions are actualized. That is why we tend to think of and call ourselves agents or centers of action. So if anything were to be located in Christ’s person it would seem to be action. But Leo’s language prevents this conclusion! He has located action as well as will in each nature, because the natures are actually doing something not merely being utilized by the Hypostasis. Like my legs deciding to walk rather than my use of my legs to walk. If this is an accurate description of Leo’s theology then it would appear to be wholly unorthodox because of the conciliar distinction between person and nature, and seemingly lead to Nestorianism.29 Yet the theology of Chalcedon and Constantinople III, two anti-Nestorian councils, rests on Leo’s theology. It is therefore probable that agency and action are in fact different for conciliar Christology. Also the council of Chalcedon and Leo’s theology has to be read and understood in light of Cyril’s theology. For as Fairbairn argues Chalcedon was not a compromise between Cyril and Nestorius but was in fact a defense of Cyril’s theology.30 All of this makes a Nestorian interpretation of Leo, and therefore dyothelitism, highly incredulous.


According to O’Collins, “at the level of Christ’s will and ‘natural’ activities, the Council upheld the Chalcedonian balance between a ‘Nestorian’ separation and a ‘Eutychian’ blending.”31 And clearly it was necessary for this clarification to take place because the heresy in question was not as gross or violent as Apollinarism or Arianism. It was a subtler falsehood. This is evidenced by its widespread speculation in the orthodox churches.32 After Chalcedon it was clear to most of the church that Christ must have two natures. But was “will” proper to “nature”? This is why Collins says that it is a soteriological question.33 If the unassumed is the unhealed and part of human nature is a human will then Christ must have one if we are to be saved.

The concept of operation/activity or energy is less clear in the theological texts I have surveyed.34 But as has been shown it was important to Constantinople III, and apparently Pope Leo I. According to Pelikan, dyoenergism was a clear derivation from dyothelitism, which is strange considering two things. First, it is clearly an Aristotelian concept rather than a Biblical one.35 Second, if “action” comes after “willing” then why was there so much controversy over it being located in the person of Christ?36 In any case dyoenergism was seen as following from dyothelitism.

Conciliar Christology was defined by many things, but probably the most important of these was the principle of the unassumed being unhealed. So the sixth council affirms that Christ had to have two wills: one will shared with the other members of the trinity, and one will shared with human nature. The reason for this is quite simply that only God can save and in order for God to save something he must connect it to himself. That is essentially the first three councils in a nutshell. The argument against Arius:

  1. Only God could save us
  2. Christ has saved us
  3. Therefore he must be God.

And contra Apolinarius human nature can’t be healed unless all of it is healed, Christ has perfectly healed us therefore Apolinarius was wrong. So Christ must be fully God and fully man as explained at Chalcedon. The Sixth council was really about how God saves us by giving further clarification to the fourth ecumenical council. There are still questions which need to be answered and puzzles that need to be solved, but it seems clear that the council thought of itself as merely a continuation of the previous five ecumenical decisions, which includes the theologies of Cyril and Leo. Right or wrong Constantinople III thought it was representing the continual and unified soteriology and Christology of the Chalcedonian church. And so if the theologians of this council were correct then the current Neo-monoenergism is in serious trouble.

Part II: Neo-Monoenergism

If Christology is a complicated topic than the metaphysics of personhood is one of its major quagmires. Here I will attempt to exegete and respond exclusively to the excellent introductory Christology Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective.37 I believe that despite being an anthology with multiple contributors this work taken as a whole is a very good representation of Neo-monoenergism. I will focus primarily on DeWeese’s chapter which puts forth a well-articulated model of monothelite Christology that seeks to be within the bounds of broadly Nicene theology. I will argue that this attempt fails to be permissible for broadly Nicene Theology and then provide a possible correction that could save the theory through some form of redefinition.

Two things need to be stated outright before this discussion begins. The first is that I am coming from a drastically different understanding of the conciliar affirmations in question than a Neo-monoenergist. In the first section of this paper I defended that Constantinople III was intentionally keeping step with Chalcedon for this very reason. From this perspective linking one of the seven councils to the others is akin to linking all of them with each other in an unbroken if not always pristine chain. This probably seems controversial to most Evangelicals, particularly given the fact that the second council of Nicaea dogmatized not only Icons but their veneration, aside from the other far reaching ecclesiastical considerations the councils bring into view. But even if the councils are an internally consistent theological movement that doesn’t preclude evangelicalism from utilizing their theology and dissenting from it as well. Reformed theology was and is an internally consistent theological movement, which continues to be affective and utilized within Evangelicalism. The question before us is not whether the Dutch or the Greek churches are the true inheritors of the Gospel in all their idiosyncrasies. I simply want to understand if what is being espoused by the Neo-monoenergists is compatible with conciliar theology broadly speaking. But on my view a disagreement with the sixth council is a disagreement with the council of Nicaea et al. Of course for the Evangelical scripture is the final arbiter. So falling away from the conciliar tradition need not send us into a flurry. This is a worthy topic of discussion which embraces the “heretical imperative” to ask questions. If dyothelitism is Nestorian then we shouldn’t be dyothelites, not because of the inconsistency within Nicene theology but because Nestorius would not affirm that the Son of God died on the cross. The theopaschite formulate is a profound part of the Gospel which is clearly attested to in scripture.38 But I think the real problem with Neo-monoenergism isn’t that it might be wrong. The thing that concerns this paper is that the theologians in question seem to think they are still broadly Nicene Christians. This is the question that needs to be addressed with vigor.

The second thing which needs to be understood is that Neo-Monoenergism is using a fundamentally different understanding of person than the Conciliar Fathers were.39 This of course indicates that they could come to very different conclusions concerning the incarnation. The ancient view can be found in a famous section of Basil (ad 329?-379).40 Here the great theologian makes a very clear distinction between Hypostasis and Ousia. These are the two words which came to occupy technical positions of person and nature within conciliar theology.41 The whole basis of Nicene theology depends upon understanding this vital distinction. Basil explains that hypostasis has to do with individuality and particularity. It is one of the two words used in the Chalcedonian Definition for the philosophical concept of person, the other being prosopon. The best general translation of hypostasis is actually more along the lines of subsistence.42 In the New Testament hypostasis always means something more like substance rather than person. It denotes the frame or the things which stand under. It is my belief that this is why hypostasis rather than prosopon was used to denote the three members of the trinity in the Cappadocian tradition, and so I take this reinterpretation of the word to ultimately be something like substantive or subsistent particularity.43 Prosopon had weaker metaphysical connotations even though it was the more traditional word for person. And so hypostasis came to refer to the individuals or plurality in God. The Father is a hypostasis and so is the Son. But ousia (essence or nature) belongs to the general or natural characteristics. To allow for genuine monotheism and genuine plurality within God there must be a fundamental distinction between hypostasis and ousia. And so the person for Nicene theology is an almost irreducibly negative concept.44 A person is that which nature is not. It is a brute distinction between a who and a what. When asked who died on the cross Cyril can confidently say “God died on the cross.” Because the second person of the trinity is God but he is not identical with the divine nature or the Father. So patripassianism or a violation of God’s fundamental impassibility are avoided due to Basil’s person/nature distinction. When asked what died on the cross Basil can confidently answer “a human being” because the second person of the trinity is a man.

But the definition of person we find in Neo-monoenergism is much simpler than Basil while having the appearance of being more complex. I cannot say that all the theologians I am lumping into this broadly defined theology would accept the following definition but I will venture to use it anyway. “Personhood is constituted by a set of ultimate capacities of thought, belief, sensation, emotion, volition, desire, intentionality and so forth.”45 Likewise Richard Swinburne says, “As I shall use this word, a person is anyone who has all the facets of consciousness which men possess, whether a member of the human species or not.”46 Some will argue that Swinburne’s definition is considerably different than the previous one but I contend that both of them are doing the same thing: defining person as a nature or capacity of a particular degree or kind. In which case regardless of the differences between Swinburne and Rae/Moreland from Basil’s perspective they have both missed the boat completely.47 DeWeese does the same thing unfortunately.48 He attempts making a fundamental distinction between the one who has the qualities and the qualities being had but then goes on to locate qualities within the person that Basil would only attribute to nature, qualities like mind and will.49 Basil would consider this whole tendency a confusion of person with nature.

Critique of Neo-Monoenergism

The first problem with the monothelite model in question is that it is not a response to the sixth ecumenical council. It is in fact a self-conscious response to medieval scholastic Christology. Of course both Nicene theology and medieval theology profess dyothelitism but they do this within very different metaphysical categories. As it stands DeWeese’s critique of medieval Christology being Nestorian or at least having nestorianizing tendencies is very similar to the way that the Eastern tradition criticizes both Roman Catholic and Reformed Christology. They would also say, along with Basil, that person and nature have been confused to the point of reifying the natures in question which destroys the hypostatic union and drastically departs from Nicene theology. In other words so far as DeWeese criticizes Medieval Christology he seems to be well within the bounds of Nicene theology. Unfortunately medieval categories have affected his view of Nicene dyothelitism which is substantially different.50 For example here is a definition characteristic of medieval Christology proposed by DeWeese:

HP [human personhood]: An individual human nature N is such that for any time t at which N exists, either:

  1. N is a human person; or
  2. N is sustained by a divine person.”51

This is the primary reason that medieval Christology does struggle with Nestorianism. It has lost the person/nature distinction that is so prevalent in Nicene theology. To say that by definition a nature is a person is to have given up the Chalcedonian definition. Of course the above definition is not what DeWeese is advocating and he goes to great lengths to show why this definition and Medieval dyothelitism are problematic. But unfortunately he makes the same mistakes in subtler ways.

The roots of the problem can be found in Fairbairn’s chapter within the anthology. As was previously noted he argues very persuasively that the common depiction of Chalcedon found in 20th century theology as a compromise between Eutychianism and Nestorianism or between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools is simply false. Cyril’s theology was what was upheld at Chalcedon. But that’s almost where Fairbairn stops. He is willing to concede that the fifth ecumenical council with its further condemnations of Nestorianism was also a continuation of Cyril’s Christology but that is as far as he will go.52 Unfortunately based upon the evidence presented in the first half of this paper one cannot stop there. If Cyril is separated from Chalcedon then his theology can be easily coopted by the monophysites and as has been shown one of the keystones of that council was Leo’s Tome which endorses dyothelitism.53 In other words dyothelitism becomes invaluable for Cyrillian theology even prior to the sixth council.

But none of this should be surprising because even the first council of Nicaea was metaphysically and axiomatically dyothelite even if not explicitly so. This does not seem to be commonly known or at least the implications are not fully understood within the Neo-monoenergism camp. DeWeese tries to show that the dyothelitism espoused by Gregory of Nazianzus (ad 329-390?) will logically lead to a total disappearance of Christ’s alleged human will and human mind.54 Now that may be true and the passage by Gregory cited in this section of DeWeese’s chapter is difficult to understand from a later Nicene perspective. But the problem is that the very existence of dyothelite assumptions and metaphysics as early as Gregory the Theologian means that it is not historically connected to Nestorianism. And so reluctance to admit that the Sixth council is a legitimate continuation of Cyril’s theology and the continual assumption that dyothelitism is a later development are unwarranted.

The passage from Gregory in question comes from what is known as The Fourth Theological Oration. The translation cited in DeWeese’s chapter reads:

T1: “For [Christ’s] human will cannot be opposed to God, seeing that it is altogether taken into God.”

And here are two more translations of the same text:

T2: “For His Human Will cannot be opposed to God, seeing it is wholly deified.”55

T3: “His will is not in the least degree opposed to God, is totally dependent upon God.”56

The first translation, by Hardy, seems to demonstrate DeWeese’s point handily. The only way for Christ to avoid sinning is for the human will to be subsumed or disappear into the divine. But the second two translations do not demonstrate this point. The second translation is shamelessly Eastern Orthodox even though it ironically comes from the protestant edited Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) and the third translation does not seem very Eastern, in fact it could be construed as indicative of Medieval Christology, even though it was produced by the premiere Orthodox Seminary in the United States. Here Gregory is dealing with the very complicated issue of how the human will and the divine will relate to Christ’s impeccability and in particular the Gethsemane event. But that is only the immediate context. The broader context is the Arian controversy.57 And the Arians held to monothelitism.58 It should be clear by now that in point of fact all the heretics denounced at each of the seven councils were at the very least Christological monothelites.59 This point is very troubling for Neo-monoenergism.

Regardless T1 does seem to demonstrate one of DeWeese’s arguments against dyothelitism. He comes up with a very clever corollary axiom to Gregory’s famous “the unassumed is unhealed.” According to DeWeese the “unexemplified is not an example.”60 In other words if Christ does not will as a human then he is worthless for the Christian as savior and spiritual exemplar. This would seem to be a very damning critique of dyothelitism. But T2 and T3 even while different from each other indicate a more synergistic theology compatible with a healthy form of dyothelitism.

The precise meaning of this passage is even more complex and ultimately problematic for Neo-monoenergism because later on in this section it seems as if Gregory is actually arguing for some kind of monothelitism. He goes on to say: “The words there mean not that the Son has, but that he has not, a will of his own over against the Father’s…I cannot understand how a common property could only belong to one thing.”61 But if the Arians were monothelites and Gregory was a monothelite then what were they really arguing about?

Each side, being incapable of affirming two wills in Christ, came to diametrically opposite conclusions even though they shared the same starting principle [there could not be two wills in Christ]. However, one must not press the resemblances between St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the Arian party too far, even though they are agreed on a very important principle. For the Arians, the will of the Son which is other than the will of the Father is not a human will but the will of the preexistent, and created, Word. But for St. Gregory, this “other will” of the Son is formulated in terms of its being the human will. And this fact is not without its own significance for it means that “In the hypothesis of only one will of Christ, an hypothesis common in both Gregory and his adversaries, the affirmation of a human will necessarily entails the denial of a divine will in Christ.”62 [brackets mine]

Here Farrell ultimately argues that the problem for Gregory was not his belief in a natural will but rather his lack of understanding the difference between the law of non-contradiction and unopposed distinction.63 In other words if T2 is the best English approximation then there is no need for Gregory to conclude that there is only one will in Christ because a deified human will would never resist the divine will. But that is not to say that the deified human will would become metaphysically identical with the divine will for as Athanasius (ad 296?-373) argued against the Arians there are at least two kinds of unity to be had with God. The first is genuine ontological unity which only the members of the trinity possess and the second is harmonious unity of will and judgment which belongs to all created things that submit to God.64 Of course for Athanasius ontological unity also means that the Father and the Son possess the exact same divine will contra Arius. But the point is simply that a will which is not ontologically identical to God’s natural will need not contradict or oppose God’s natural will. As Farrell points out Gregory’s line of reasoning here appears almost Lutheran, as if the very existence of a natural human will would be completely predisposed to work against God.65 But the eternal Son of God has experienced a literal eternity of continuously perfect willing prior to his assumption of a human will. This means that the Son of God will enter the incarnation as a divine person who has been perfectly habituated from eternity past, as opposed to the first Adam who was in the process of being habituated when he trespassed God’s law concerning the tree in the garden. And so the supposed contradiction that Gregory thinks is occurring between the divine will and the human will of Christ can now be addressed. He thinks that because of what occurs in Gethsemane Christ’s “human will” really is working against the divine will.

But Maximus the Confessor (ad 580- 662) interprets the “temptation” in the Garden completely differently. Maximus argues that the divine and human wills active in the Garden are not willing opposed things but distinct yet harmonious things. Human nature should not want to die. But the Father is not willing that human nature should die, by willing the death of his Son he is actually willing the end of human death. And so the Son’s desire to not die is in perfect harmony with the Father’s willing the end of human death. This demonstrates how truly human Christ became because the most inhumane desire is suicide.66 In other words the initial hesitancy to go to the cross was not at all sinful but was a perfectly normal and right response for a fully exemplified and truly human nature.

But despite these philosophical gymnastics Gregory never concedes to the will being personal, which means that by implication he would still have been axiomatically compatible with dyothelitism. For Gregory is a Trinitarian monothelite whereas the Arians were Christological monothelites, the primary difference being where the single will is located. Either in the nature of the Trinity or the personalized nature of the created Son. In other words yet again we see that for Nicene theology the will is located in nature, not person. Which means that DeWeese’s claim that he is “stepping back towards the patristic consensus as articulated by Cyril and Chalcedon: anti-Arian, anti-Apollinarian, anti-Nestorian, and anti-Eutychian” is simply wrong.67 All four of the heretical groups mentioned here were monothelites. In other words DeWeese’s theology is not compatible with even broadly Nicene theology. The historical argumentation presented has undercut any attempt to show that Neo-monoenergism does not lead to one of those heresies.

Possible Solution

It seems as though there are at least two possibilities for the Neo-monoenergist who wants to maintain some kind of Chalcedonian stance. They can redefine broadly Nicene theology in a way that separates it from the historical realities we have been considering or they might consider redefining willing and activity as agency. The first option seems to have already crossed their minds since we are Evangelicals and do not accept any creed or council without Biblical warrant.68 This is similar to the approach that Muller takes:

“…the human nature being defined as within the divine-human person of the mediator. This paradigm, even more than the affirmation of impersonality, lifts the Reformed doctrine entirely out of the sphere of Nestorian and Eutychian problems, the determining factor in the definition of the person of Christ being no longer the ontological problem but the economy of salvation and, as with Calvin, the relation of finite to infinite in the work of salvation.69

But where Muller claims to see a rising above the Greek categories I see a very clear affirmation of at least one Greek category: Nestorianism. The first clue is the use of the phrase divine-human person. This seems to be an unintentional tip of the hat to Nestorius’ two hypostases united by one prosopon mentioned earlier. For Nicene theology the logos is an eternally existent divine person, who eternally originates from the Father. He has a divine nature and a human nature, but his person will always remain divine and uncreated. A human nature is by definition created. But a Nestorian could affirm that the prosopon of the mediator is human and divine because it is the conjunction of a divine and human nature. In other words reformed Christology probably just reinvented Nestorianism in some form. The difference between historic Nestorianism and Reformed Christology would be that the Reformed endorse dyothelitism.70 But the reformed also infamously endorse monergism. Of course that is not the same thing as monoenergism but the concepts are not disparately or thematically all that different. And without a genuine synergism between the human and divine energies in the incarnation the Gethsemane event makes little salvific sense. Much more could be said on this point for and against Reformed Christology, the point to be made is that often attempts to “rise” above our collective history end up simply repeating the past.

Another problem for this solution is that Evangelicals are committed to understanding scripture as it was intended within the historical context and authorial idiosyncrasies. How can we be so committed to the historical critical method of Biblical interpretation and not allow that same principle to form our historical and philosophical interests? If we use a word like Nestorian we need to be clear on what we mean. Do we mean the historic Nestorian theology or do we mean something like the belief that there are two persons in the economy of Christ? It is possible to analytically discuss Platonism without ever reading the Republic. But the discussion will not be about Plato, it will be about realist accounts of universals. But this seems like an impoverished way to learn and think. If that is what we mean when we discuss the councils, a theology separated from its time and place, then the Neo-monoenergists are not guilty of Nestorianism because they have explicitly said that they do not believe there are two persons in Christ, regardless of what else they may affirm. But that means they are likewise no longer in connection with Nicene theology either, because that was an historic theological movement. This would solve the problem in one sense, but compound it in another. Our theology would become ahistorical, we could be ahistorically Nicene.

What seems to me to be the best solution is for the Neo-monoenergists to simply allow for the fact that dyothelitism has to be affirmed in some sense if we are going to have a connection to the councils and just emphasize the importance of Christ’s person being a genuine agent. One agent in the incarnation as opposed to one will does not seem to be a problem for Nicene theology, it seems highly compatible with it. But that means DeWeese and the others will have to allow for some metaphysical possibilities they are not comfortable with at this point, namely the ability for the divine person to experience things qua human and qua divine.71 Or the Neo-monoenergist needs to simply give up his supposed connection to Nicene theology. Further lines of inquiry need to be the nature of monoenergism in general, the nature of Christ’s agency for Nicene theology, and how to make sense of these issues psychologically. The nature of consciousness and contemporary psychology seem to be two of the main issues driving the Neo-monoenergist camp.


Nicene theology seems to be in fundamental conflict with Neo-monoenergism. Given the historical connections between the seven ecumenical councils and the philosophical connections between the heresies condemned at those councils Neo-monoenergist theology seems to fall quite clearly on the heretical side. Of course for the Evangelical the councils are not the end of the line. Regardless it seems problematic to give up the councils completely. They have served the church well as guards against what the Neo-monoenergists are actually trying to avoid by advocating their theology, most specifically Nestorianism. Hopefully this reevaluation of the historical sources brings clarity to the issues involved and will give us a clear road map forward in this discussion.


1 Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy but this is also true of some Anglicans and Lutherans.
2 For much of this paper dyothelitism and dyoenergism as well as monothelitism and monoenergism will simply be equated with each other. The distinction between them is important and will be discussed but generally speaking they are so closely related as to be undifferentiated, at least from a historical Nicene perspective.
3 Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, eds., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, vol. 14 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 342.
4 Schaff and Wace, eds., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 343. See also Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787) Their History and Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 282.
5 Schaff and Wace, eds., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 352.
6 Gerald O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 197.
7 Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787) Their History and Theology, 280. This also seems to be the primary concern of Neo-monoenergism, which means that it is properly motivated even if ultimately wrong.
8 Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (vol. 1): From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), 2nd rev. ed., trans. John Bowden (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 477.
9 Andrew Louth, trans., The Early Church Fathers: Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge, 1996), 9.
10 And as we shall see later even earlier fathers whose theological arguments were entrenched in related but different issues. Nicene theology in the seven councils is a gradual unfolding and reestablishing of essentially the same axioms in light of different problems. Lack of clarity in otherwise Nicene fathers led to many of the heresies in question.
11 Allen, Pauline and Bronwen Neil, eds., Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3.
12 Daniel Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 128.
13 Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of St. Maximus the Confessor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 24-27.
14 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), vol. 2 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 64.
15 Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 75.
16 Allen and Neil, Maximus the Confessor and his Companions, 4.
17 O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus, 186.
18 Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (vol. 1), 505-507. It should become clear later how this has impacted both Medieval, Reformed, and Neo-Monoenergist Christology.
19 It is hard to see how the Eutychians did this. My conclusion is that they considered the will to be personal and hypostatic is due to the fact that they still maintain distinctions between the Father and the Son. So unless the Father is incarnated along with the Son they have to be monothelites. Of course this is part of the problem with Eutychian theology, even understood in its nuanced miaphysite formula, there seems to be confusion not just of the two natures in Christ but of what the incarnation actually consisted. Are the Father and Spirit just as equally incarnated as the Son? Does the divine nature die along with Christ on the cross? It has the exact opposite problems of the Nestorian ambiguities.
20 Teaching authority and simple intellectual adherence are completely different. The Neo-Monoenergists are generally not committed to the teaching authority of Chalcedon but they still wish to be Chalcedonian broadly.
21 This is an observation from my personal interaction with the Eastern Tradition. And the kickback against the Pope in question has more to do with Roman Catholic apologetics than it does with the East’s acceptance of Leo’s Tome. As we will see Leo is a fundamental pillar within the Eastern theological system, but while his Christology is clear and systematic they feel that Cyril’s theology is clearer in terms of soteriology. This is probably true but shows how indispensable a multiplicity of teachers within the church have always been. Because where Cyril is ambiguous Leo is not and vice versa. Where Leo could be misinterpreted Cyril could not.
22 Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, 65.
23 Allen and Neil, 10.
24 Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 32.
25 Schaff and Wace, eds., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 256.
26 Pelikan, 65.
27 Schaff and Wace, eds., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 342.
28 It is difficult for many current evangelicals, which is the basis of the occasion for the writing of this paper. It is not difficult for many other Christians, myself included, to think that will is natural rather than personal. I think my claim is substantiated by the fact that most Christians throughout history have been dyothelites, and so if they are/were wrong then it was/is an easy mistake to make.
29 Bathrellos, 37.
30 Sanders, Fred and Klaus Issler, eds., Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 82.
31 O’Collins, 197. This is not a compromise position as much as it is an understanding of what the heretics were right about. For as I have tried to demonstrate Cyril and Leo are neither Eutychian nor Nestorian.
32 Pelikan, 62.
33 O’Collins, 197.
34 Bulgakov seems to agree. The Lamb of God, 75.
35 This point is minor but usually extra biblical words like trinity or homoousios are used to defend what seem to be clearly biblical ideas or concepts, especially in the conciliar debates. But in this case it seems that what was generally understood by energia had to do directly with Aristotelian philosophy.
36 Pelikan, 63. Bulgakov disagrees that it was connected to Aristotle’s use of activity or energy, but David Bradshaw has argued a whole book opposing this point and Barthellos (cited above) agrees with Bradshaw. See David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
37 Sanders, Fred and Klaus Issler, eds., (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007).
38 The earliest preaching of the Apostles clearly attests to this. In Acts 3:15 Peter preaches to the Jews of Jerusalem that killing Jesus meant they killed the author of life. For Jewish theology the author of life could be none other than God himself.
39 Richard Muller argues that the ancient meaning of prosopon had nothing to do with modern psychological understandings of personhood. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1985), 226. But this is precisely how DeWeese argues and thinks about personhood, almost exclusively in terms of consciousness. Sanders and Issler, eds., Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, 137.
40 Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, eds., Basil: Letters and Selected Works, vol. 8 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 426-427. One of the reasons that Basil has to make this clear is that in the Nicene Creed hypostasis is virtually synonymous with substance or essence. Considering that the Arian heresy did not call into question the personhood of the members of the trinity but their ontological unity this does not seem very problematic.
41 O’Collins, 178-179.
42 Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 290.
43 Which I take to mean the same thing as person. A person is not a mere appearance or visage, a person is metaphysically weighty particularity or individuality.
44 But while it is a negative concept it cannot be mere particularity. The Nicene view of a person is similar to current substratum theories of metaphysical identity, but not exhaustively so. Because persons are individuum or particularities that are characterized with incommunicable relational properties for Nicene theology. For instance the Son cannot proceed, only the Spirit proceeds. And the Father cannot be begotten, only the Son is begotten. But this is still very different from being able to give a positive account of personality and also very different from a Thomistic account of persons merely being relations. Persons are in some sense unanalyzable for Nicene Theology. Bathrellos, 37.
45 Rae, Scott and J.P. Moreland, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 25.
46 Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 4.
47 Which is highly ironic for Swinburne since he is Eastern Orthodox.
48 Sanders and Issler, eds., 138.
49 Sanders and Issler, eds., 140.
50 And in all fairness Eastern theology has affected my view of these issues. I believe that since these are primarily Eastern councils and Eastern heresies the orthodox tradition has the deepest grasp of the seven ecumenical councils. Of course we must be careful to not read more than is warranted into Nicene theology from contemporary Eastern theologians. That is why I have tried to deal directly with the conciliar Fathers as much as possible. Palamism may be a totally unoriginal system which merely reaffirms the theology of St. Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa primarily, but then again it may not. This is just as bad as reading Augustine in light of Thomas, Anselm, or most problematically Calvin and Luther.
51 Sanders and Issler, eds., 126.
52 Sanders and Issler, eds., 82.
53 Grillmeier, 535.
54 Sanders and Issler, eds., 133.
55 Joseph P. Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor (South Canan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1989), 76.
56 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, trans. Frederick Williams, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 102.
57 Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor, 77.
58 Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, eds., Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, vol. 8 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 399-401. In this section Athanasius argues that there is only one activity in the divine nature, and since the Arians believed that Christ’s nature was different from the Fathers that would logically lead them to Christological monothelitism.
59 With the possible exception of Nicaea II, though I would argue Iconoclasm by logical implication falls under every prior heresy defeated before Nicaea II. This seems very strange to many Evangelicals but the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) has always been central to Christian theological discussion. And the use and veneration of Icons clearly falls under this principle. One of Athanasius’ primary arguments against the Arians was that they were liturgically inconsistent. They were still ascribing prayer to Jesus Christ, a form of worship that should be relegated only to God. Schaff and Wace, eds., Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, 400.
60 Sanders and Issler, eds., 151.
61 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, trans. Frederick Williams, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, 103.
62 Farrell, 77.
63 Farrell, 78.
64 Schaff and Wace, eds., Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, 399-401
65 Farrell, 77-78.
66 Farrell, 171-173.
67 Sanders and Issler, eds., 148.
68 Sanders and Issler, eds., 148.
69 Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 119-120.
70 Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 603.
71 Sanders and Issler, eds., 135.

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