Lecture on monothelitism and the nature of the human will

“We come to the last of the great Christological heresies today: the seventh century heresy of monothelitism (to pronounce, accent second syllable). Like the other heresies we have studied, it was not set forth by obscure cranks but by Patriarchs of the Church – in fact, this is true in spades of monothelitism, which was advanced by no fewer than three major patriarchs: Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyrus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and Athanasius, the Patriarch of Antioch.

“Monothelitism takes the orthodox teaching of Christ’s hypostatic union for granted, and in fact cannot be brought into any direct contradiction with the great christian creeds. All monothelites agree that Christ is two complete natures, human and divine, in a single divine person. They simply say that there is only one divine will in Christ and no human will.

“Repress your desire to refute this opinion right away. The response to it is, to be sure, close enough at hand: i.e. there is no such thing as a complete human nature without a free will. This is the basic response to Monothelitism, and it does well enough to refute it, but it also fails to see just what is so attractive in Monothelitism, and just what is so important to see as wrong in it.

“Let me first give an argument for monothelitism:

If Christ has a human will in addition to his divine will, then he can actually choose and act to do both X and non-X.

But it is impossible to actually act and choose both X and not-X

“I stress this is a choice terminating in action, and since that action has to either happen or not,  the consequent is really impossible. We can’t set up a scenario where it would be possible for such a thing to happen.

“The response to this is, in all the literature that I read, that the argument fails to distinguish the power of will from the active exercise of the will. There is no reason whatsoever why two wills can’t will the same thing – friends do this all the time. True, there cannot be two active exercises of the will in Christ, but all the hypostatic union is positing is two powers of will.

“This response is fine, but the monothelite response gets to the heart of the matter. Let’s put it as an aporia where any two statements can be true, but not the remaining one:

a.) The human will is free

b.) A free will can choose to do something other than God’s will

c.) Christ’s will cannot choose to do something other than God’s will.

“The monothelite is simply taking (c.) from the argument that was raised against him, but this c. seems to be the weak part of the argument. Who can deny that the will is free, or that freedom means the ability to sin? Our very understanding of choice thus becomes implicated in our Christological ideas.

“As startling as it seems, however, we deny (b.). Here’s my claim the will sins not as free, but as defective. Here’s the argument:

God is both infallible judge and standard of goodness

The will deviates from the standard of goodness not as free, but as defective.

“We spoke about the minor premise when we discussed the Fourth Way. The major premise is a priori – since to be defective just means to deviate from a standard. A thing does not need to be rational to deviate from its standard (all sorts of non-rational things do so), and so there is nothing rational or free in simply deviating. True, we have special names for deviance in rational and free creatures (malice, sin, willfulness, vice, etc.) but they remain deviations, and thus corruptions of will as opposed to exercises of it.

“This complete division between a defective will and a free will is one of the things that Augustine was driving at in the climatic chapters of the climatic book of the Confessions. We do not do evil because we have an evil will, but because we have one will that wills imperfectly.

“But the Theory here has to flesh itself out in practice, and I find that it does. Consider your interior life when you are actually setting out to do something bad. You don’t, it seems to me, look at a set of “bad things” and “good things” and choose the one over the other, rather, there’s just one thing – the bad thing – that you talk yourself into forgetting or overlooking the evil of. You stop thinking about the thing as wrong, and just consider what you want in it. All evil is done in a mental oblivion or forgetfullness of the peculiar evil we are committing  – though an oblivion that we chose to induce in ourselves. Now in one sense this is the work of a free or rational will – we choose to render ourselves forgetful – but the act of the will is precisely to render the will defective, i.e. to deprive it of the very principle that it should act from. Evil is thus not so much the act of the free will, but the first act we commit after the will has ceased to be free.

“And so the Monothelite heresy points to a way in which we fundamentally misunderstand the human will; it points us to the crucial difference between a free will and a defective will. Both freedom and defectiveness are sorts of indetermination, but they are utterly opposite, and even contrary to another. If freedom is a perfection of the will, a will is less free to the extent that it is defective; it is more free to the extent that it is unable to deviate from a standard. At the limit of perfection, we find a being that is at once perfectly free and entirely unable to deviate from the standard in any way – indeed a being that is the standard. In the peculiar case of Christ, the sense of him being anable to sin is that his will was to strong and to perfect to do so.  We ultimately reject monothetism out of devotion to the manliness, the fortitude, and the intensity of focus and attention in the soul of Christ – a fortitude that we all strive to attain for ourselves as well.

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