Friday, January 20, 2012

Am I a Heretic?

Am I a heretic? I suppose it depends upon who you ask. For example, the Roman Catholic church considers a number of my views to be heretical (i.e. sola fide, sola scriptura). I am quite sure that if I think about it for a few minutes I could give examples of others who feel the same way about my beliefs. Of course most Protestants have a different outlook on such things. Even though conservative Protestants differ on some important issues even those who strongly disagree with me on certain points would generally not consider me to be a heretic.

Heresy is a strong accusation and it is one that should not be taken lightly. I was therefore surprised when a brother recently asserted that I hold to a heretical view of the incarnation. I asked on what basis the charge was made since I have always affirmed the Chalcedonian definition which historically both Catholics and Protestants accept. I would assume based on this that I would be considered orthodox in the widest possible understanding of the term. The brother explained that in my article Unhelpful Answers: Two Wills in Christ, which I posted back in September 2010, I argued for a heretical view. He said that my view was specifically rejected as heretical by the 6th Ecumenical Council in 681.

My primary concern of course is to submit to the teaching of the word regardless of the judgments of particular councils. Like most Protestants, however, I do accept the teaching of those first 7 “ecumenical” councils as having great importance and authority. If I were directly contradicting the consensus of the early church then a cautious re-examination of my position by the Scripture in light of what those early teachers said is in order. As the Apostle tells us, we are to examine all things and hold only to that which is good. That I misunderstood something was entirely possible particularly with regard to such a complex topic as the incarnation. So, I decided to look into it further.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council (a.k.a. the 3rd council of Constantinople) met for 18 sessions in Constantinople from November 7th 680 to September 16th 681. It was not originally intended as an ecumenical council but “everybody” showed up so it is counted as one. The council was primarily concerned with examining a theological position known as monothelitism. An element of the teaching of the monothelitists was that there was only one will in Christ. In my article I also argue that there is only one will in Christ. After examining the subject and the arguments of the monothelitists the council indeed determined that the view that there is only one will in Christ is heretical and that the traditional teaching of the Church was that Christ had two wills, one divine and one human. His human will was seen to be in submission to the perfect divine will at all times.

It seems that on the face of it there isn’t much question that my position in the September article is in fact in direct contradiction to the assertion of this council. Things, however, are not quite that simple. One of the concerns of the council was that the monothelitists view was that the human nature of Christ was subsumed within His divine nature. Christ therefore had only one will because His divine nature had so dominated His human nature that only the divine nature was volitional. It is not clear that any of the monothelitists actually taught this but that is part of what the council was responding to in the charges. In any case, that is certainly not my position. More importantly there is a difference in the way that the council is defining “will” and the way I was using the term.

The council spent a great deal of time in their response focusing on Luke 22:42 which records the words of Christ as He was praying before His crucifixion. Jesus said “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” This verse seems to be the major factor in the council’s response. They explained that since the will of the Second Person of the Trinity has to be in perfect harmony with that of the Father and since there is clearly a difference between the will of the Father and Jesus in this verse then Jesus must have two wills. One divine will that is in perfect harmony with the Father and a human will that is in perfect submission to the divine will though still distinct. They see this verse as a demonstration of both the distinction and the submission of the human and divine wills.

The council seems to be using the term “will” to refer to consciousness and desire. If that is the case then I do not disagree with them. It is clear that Christ had a dual consciousness. I do not have space here to develop why I think this is the case but you can find a fuller treatment of the topic in the DBTJ  HERE. My definition of the will is linked with the exercise of a choice. In my use of the term the “will” is just the mind choosing. The mind will always choose according to the strongest desire acting on it at the moment of decision. In the Luke verse I think that Jesus is using the word “will” in the common sense of “desire” rather than in a technical sense. He is simply saying that His human desire was to not undergo torture and yet His greater desire was to submit to the Father’s desire.

The way that I used the term “will” in my article is necessarily connected to the moment of choice. My point was that there could not be dual decisions that Christ resolved to act upon. As I said, natures do not choose people do. There may have been various desires associated with His dual consciousness but because His greatest desire was to glorify and submit to God I believe there could not be two wills in Christ.

It is possible that I am wrong in my view of the relationship of the natures of Jesus to His will. The theology of the incarnation can be particularly complex and I certainly do not think that I have it all figured out. I also do not think, however, that my view is actually contrary to the view given by the 6th council even though their words seem to clearly reject my view. The discussion they offer on the perfect submission of the human will to the divine will was instructive. If I understand their use of “will” to mean “desire” then this idea of perfect submission is admittedly an improvement upon my statement in the article that the two natures were in perfect harmony. I will be more careful about how I explain that in the future. Though my language contradicts theirs I am confident based upon reading the existing documents related to their decision that if those council members were to examine me they would find my view to be orthodox.

The more important question is if my view is biblical. I believe it is, but if not I pray that the Lord would instruct me more perfectly. 

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