This post is part of the series Church History

Other posts in this series:

  1. A History of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church – Introduction (Story Series – Ep1)
  2. History of the Catholic Church – The Council of Jerusalem held by the Apostles (Story Series Ep2)
  3. History of the Catholic Church – The First Council of Nicaea (Story Series Ep3)

New Face of Old Heresy

Sixth Ecumenical Council

Pyrrhus and St. Maximus the Confessor

About the year 645 AD, Emperor Constans II deposed Pyrrhus, Patriarch of Constantinople from his see. Pyrrhus fled to Alexandria and there met with Maximus, a monk. The Eastern end of the Roman empire was at this time embroiled in controversy with an error against the orthodox faith. This error, that Christ had no human will, but that the functions this faculty of His Soul was performed by His Divine Nature, is called Monothelism (Greek for One Will).

Pyrrhus, as well as the emperor, was a supporter of this new doctrine. Maximus on his part was unshaken in his Catholic Faith. News came to Maximus about the presence of the fugitive patriarch in Alexandria. Being a learned theologian himself, and zealous for the Faith, he engaged Pyrrhus, perhaps he could win him over again to the true faith.

Maximus opened the conversation by affirming that in Christ there were two natures – human and divine – united but not confused in the one Divine Person of the Second of the Blessed Trinity.

“If Christ is one”, said Pyrrhus, “He should only will as one person, and, consequently, he has but one will.”

“Tell me, Pyrrhus”, replied Maximus, “Christ is certainly only one, but He is, at the same time, both God and man. If, then, he is true God and true man, He must will as God and as man in two different manners, though but one person all the time. For as He is of two natures, He must certainly will and operate according to two natures, for neither of these natures are devoid of will, nor devoid of operation.”

Pyrrhus raised other difficulties but confounded himself asserting that there must be as many wills as there are persons. Maximus showed him, needlessly, how this incontrovertibly concludes that there must be three distinct wills in the God owing to the Three Divine Persons. It is clear however that there is only one Will in God. The Patriarch was later convinced and promised to retract his errors at the feet of the Bishop of Rome.

Rise of the “One Will” Error

Monothelitism had its rise in Sergius, predecessor of Pyrrhus. He with the aid of the Emperor Heraclius, in a bid to unite the Monophysites and the Catholics, birthed the error of One Will. Sergius wrote a letter to Pope Honorius about the matter. The Pope misunderstanding his letter, replied with an imposition of silence on the controversy over one will or two wills, stating that in Christ there was one will (in the sense that there was no conflict between His flesh and His Spirit). The pope’s use of the phrase “one will” and his taking the error lightly was ill-fated.

Honorius died. Severinus, John IV, Theodore succeeded him in the Apostolic See. These last two condemned the error and certain edicts of the emperor imposing silence on the controversy. Martin came after Theodore and in a Roman Synod held at the Lateran Basilica, condemned the error. Emperor Constans II was pontifex of the East at this time. A persecution erupted by the Constans II against all who engaged against the error. Pope St. Martin was captured, imprisoned, publicly treated with ignominy, and exiled to an island struck by famine wherein he died. Maximus – St. Maximus the Confessor – died during this persecution as well.

“It is Peter Who Speaks Through Agatho”

Pope Vitalian succeeded St. Martin and after him, Pope Agatho. It was Agatho who summoned the council wherein the error received universal condemnation.
Pope St. Agatho was, in his handling of the controversy, another Pope St. Leo the Great. He instructed the council on the exact manner of their proceedings and passed judgment before the fathers even gathered. Represented by his legates at Constantinople, Pope Agatho did not grant a right of discussion of the matter. The bishops were only gathered to anathematize all whom he anathematized, and to subscribe to the Dogmatic Epistle he had written.

The Council held its first session on November 7, 680 under the presidency of the Emperor Constantine IV. After eighteen sessions, it closed September 16, 681. All the bishops except Macarius, patriarch of Constantinople, gave assent to the judgment of Pope Agatho, amid cries of “It is Peter who speaks through Agatho”. The synod condemned Macarius, and deposed him.

Pope Honorius and the Council

Something rather strange happened during the course of the council. Pope Honorius was on the list of those anathematised. Never had such happened in the history of the Roman See, that its bishop wavered from the Unsullied Purity of the Faith. Pope Agatho did not list him among those to be anathematised, in fact John IV, Theodore and Martin before him, had written against those, slanderers, who attributed heresy to Pope Honorius.

Pope St. Agatho died before the close of the council. His successor, Leo II, in confirmed the decrees. He did not withdraw the name of Pope Honorius. He however stated unequivocally that the council condemned Pope Honorius, not as a heretic, but for his negligence in repressing error. Honorius was condemned for favouring the heresy, even though negatively.

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