Imagine you were facing an inquisition and, on pain of torture, mutilation, and exile, they asked you to answer the following question correctly: ‘How many ‘wills’ does Jesus have – one or two?’ Apart from thinking you’d stumbled into a Monty Python sketch, what else might go through your mind? Is that even a question? Isn’t the answer obvious? Is it a trick question? But you’re being pressed now for the correct answer – one or two? And they’re serious. So what’s your answer?
I’m guessing, if you’ve never studied theology, you’re going with one. One will. Jesus had God’s will didn’t he? He always did what the Father wanted him to do, and anyway, he was God, even though he was a man, and it makes no sense to say that he had two, so we’ll go with one. I’m saying one – one will. Am I right?
Well, if you’d given that answer to your inquisitors in Constantinople in 662 AD they’d have slapped you on the back, given you a commendation and a piece of cake and sent you on your way. You were right. Phew! That was lucky.
Only if you’d given that answer in Constantinople in 681 AD, less than 20 years later, you’d have been………..wrong. The answer was two – and it still is.
What? How and why did that happen?
This did actually happen. An elderly monk called Maximus faced a trial where he was told that if he didn’t agree with the emperor’s ruling that Jesus only had one will (a divine will), that he and his disciples would be exiled. He couldn’t agree. Maximus believed that as the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human will. He was exiled to Thrace in 655 and told to keep his subversive ideas quiet, except he didn’t. He was hauled back in 661 and cross-examined. He dug his heels in. Jesus Christ had two wills. As a punishment, he had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off so he could no longer speak or write his dreadful heresy. He was exiled again and died soon after on August 13th, 662. Shocking, hey?
What’s more shocking is that less than 20 years later, a council was called, and they changed their minds! Maximus was right after all. Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human one – and so it stands. No wonder he was made a saint.
There were politics involved. Of course there were politics. This time between the East and the West, the Roman and the Byzantine church, and Maximus was on the wrong side of the political divide. But it wasn’t just that. In amongst the political wranglings this was a row about who God is in Christ, and how he saves us. This is why Maximus dug his heels in, and why he was prepared to lose his precious tongue and his precious hand – all for the sake of an idea.
What is it about Christian doctrine, what we believe about God and why, that becomes a matter of life and death – literally? This is a fascinating question. In following posts, I’ll explain why Maximus was prepared to die for his idea. I’ll look at why the idea of Jesus having two wills wasn’t and still isn’t a dry and fusty academic debate, and why the Eastern church made a decision in the end that this was, in fact, the correct answer.