In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
There is a reason why little children are greatest in the kingdom of God. They grasp in simple faith what adults stumble over through logic and reason. Consider, for example, the person and nature of Jesus. Ask a child, “Who is the Baby in the manger?” and they’ll tell you, “The Baby is God.” Ask human reason, and the more deeply it probes, the more likely it is to be wrong.
Monothelitism is an error of human reason. Emerging in the 7th century, it was a compromise teaching that was meant to gloss over a doctrinal difference regarding the person of Jesus Christ. Some rightly taught that Jesus is fully God and fully man in the same person. Others believed that only the divine nature was present. Monothelitism correctly taught the two distinct but inseparable natures in Christ, but then went off the tracks by saying that the two natures had only one will, hence the name: Mono (“one”) thelitism (“will”).
That may seem like a small point that only theologians would quibble over, but Satan’s attacks are seldom done on a straight line. The devil is more effective by planting doctrinal land mines out of plain sight. Ultimately, every attack on doctrine is an attack on the Gospel itself. Satan’s objective is to undermine what Jesus has done for lost mankind.
Monothelites taught that Jesus did not really face the same temptations that we face. Since the divine will was greater than the human will, they argued, He was predestined to succeed and could not sin. In effect, Jesus merely went through the motions, because He was incapable of sinning anyway. That may seem reasonable, but it is not biblical. It minimizes His work of keeping the Law in our place and contradicts (among others) these words of Scripture, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) With only a single will, fully controlled by God, the wilderness temptations (and all others in His life on earth) were not real temptations at all.
The Bible refutes Monothelitism with simple and clear passages. Jesus explained, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38) In Gethsemane, far from “going through the motions,” Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow. Three times He prayed in desperation, “Not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Clearly, Jesus had both a divine and a human will.
Luther taught that there is a place for logic and reason, as long as they are subservient to the Word. After all, the Bible says, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh. . . .” (1 Timothy 3:16) The Person of Jesus, like the Gospel itself, is a mystery that has to be revealed. When Peter made the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus explained, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) Human reason disregards the “mystery of godliness” and imposes human limitations on God and His work of saving us.
Monothelitism was rejected at the Third Council of Constantinople in A.D. 680. The doctrine of the Nature and Person of Christ is carefully and correctly expressed in the Formula of Concord of the Lutheran Confessions, where Scripture, not reason, prevails.
James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.