I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.
In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the sixth council: the Third Council of Constantinople.
Setting & Purpose
The Third Council of Constantinople was convened by Emperor Constantine IV in an attempt to settle further differences between the Eastern and Western church in the way they understood the nature of Christ’s will and power. The council began on November 7, 680 in the Trullus, a great domed room in the imperial palace at Constantinople. Only 43 bishops were present, marking this as the smallest of the seven ecumenical councils.
Major Characters & Conflict
Constantine IV opened the council and presided over the first 11 of the 18 sessions (which would go on for 10 months). But unlike the councils before and after it, the Third Council of Constantinople did not have one or two men who dominated the proceedings.
The primary conflict in the council was regarding the two doctrines of monoenergism and monothelitism. Monoenergism arose not long after the Second Council of Constantinople as another attempt to reconcile the churches of the East and West. It was the belief that, though Christ may have had two distinct natures, there was but one energy operative in his person: the divine energy. Leo Davis describes the position like this: “Whatever was done by the Incarnate Word was done by Him as Creator and God, and that therefore all the things that were said of Him either as God or in a human way were the action of the divinity of the Word.”
Not long after the emergence of monoenergism, the discussion turned more toward discussions about Christ’s will in place of his energy. From this came monothelitism, the belief that Christ had only one will, namely his divine will, “for at no time did His rationally quickened flesh, separately and of its own impulse … exercise its natural activity, but it exercised that activity at the time and in the manner and measure in which the Word of God willed it.”
During the council, two patriarchs were accused of advocating the doctrines of monoenergism and monothelitism: George of Constantinople and Macarius of Antioch. In an attempt to bolster their belief that they were holding to the position of previous councils, Macarius presented extracts from the Fathers showing evidence for his positions. These documents were soon called into question as having been corrupted or twisted out of context. Alternate copies were found, demonstrating that this was exactly what had happened. In the face of this evidence, George changed his mind and embraced the orthodox position. Macarius, though, held his ground and was tried before the council for falsifying the writings of the Fathers. He was found guilty and deposed from his office.
One particularly bizarre event occurred at this Council. In one of the sessions after Macarius’ was deposed, one of his followers, a priest named Polychronius, claimed that he could raise a man from the dead and in this way prove monothelitism orthodox. A dead man was brought in, a profession of faith was laid on his chest, and Polychronius whispered in his ear. Not surprisingly, nothing happened, so Polychronius was quickly defrocked.
The Third Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the decisions of the first five councils and the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople I. The bishops also prepared and signed A Definition of Faith that explicitly condemned monoenergism and monothelitism as heretical, saying,
We … declare that in [Christ] are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as he himself says: “came down from heaven, not that I might do mine own will but the will of the Father which sent me!” where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own.
Once again, the church had clarified the nature of Christ as fully God and fully man, now extending that definition to include his nature, power, and will. And once again, the church had preserved orthodox, Trinitarian doctrine in the face of new assaults. For the time being there would be peace between the church of the East and West.