Maximus the Confessor and The Two Wills of Christ

At the beginning of the seventh century, the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Jesus had two natures, human and divine, indivisible but distinct, was still not universally accepted. Even if the Council had specified that the expression “two natures” doesn’t mean that Jesus is “parted or divided into two persons,”[1] many took it this way. It was a cause of disunity, and emperor after emperor tried hard to come to a compromise.

            In 633, the Byzantine Patriarch Sergius came up with a convenient solution: if the expression “two natures” suggests a division, let’s say that Jesus had only one energy. This wording could emphasize the unity without disturbing the formula of Chalcedon.

            Sergius tested his theory on other bishops who didn’t see anything alarming. In fact, the Patriarch of Alexandria announced an upcoming feast to celebrate this agreement.

            There was, however, one dissenting voice. Sophronius, an elderly and well-respected monk (later patriarch of Jerusalem) said that “one energy” sounded too much like “one nature.”

            The idea was dropped, but Sergius didn’t give up trying. He proposed the expression “one will.” After all, he thought, we can’t say that Jesus the man wanted one thing and Jesus God’s Son wanted another. The solution seemed perfect.

            Once again, most bishops went along with the proposal. This time the dissent came from another monk who had doubts and decided to study the Scriptures on the subject. His name was Maximus.

Maximus’s Life

            Born in Palestine in 580, Maximus had spent some youthful years serving as secretary of Emperor Heraclius, until he felt a calling to be a monk. He joined a monastery in Chrysopolis (today’s Scutari), where he later became an abbot, then moved to a monastery in Cizicus, on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara.

            As the conquering Persian armies moved toward Constantinople, they approached the Sea of Marmara. Fearing for their lives, Maximus and other monks fled the monastery and traveled to Crete, Cyprus, and Alexandria before settling in Carthage.

            Maximus was about 53 when Sergius wrote his new proposal. While studying the Scriptures, he became particularly intrigued by Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Until then, the church had taken these words as hypothetical, assuming that Jesus’ will would not disagree with that of his Father.

            Maximus believed that Jesus really meant what he said, and that his human will would have much preferred escaping the torment of the cross. A man without an autonomous will is not a full man. Today, we would call him an automaton, a pre-programmed being. To save humanity, Jesus had to be fully man, in body and soul, which included the will.

            While Maximus was pondering these thoughts, the Islamic threat on the empire was becoming increasingly real. Realizing the need for a united empire, Emperor Heraclius decided to put a stop to theological squabbles by moving forward with Sergius’s proposal. Once again, he didn’t receive much opposition. Even the Roman Pope Honorius accepted the new formula (while the following popes disagreed).

            Maximus traveled to Rome in 645, where he conferred with Pope Theodore I. In agreement with Maximus, Theodore responded to the emperor’s proposal by breaking off communion with the patriarch of Constantinople. This move enraged Heraclius’s successor, Constans, who decided to go a step further. Since arguing back and forth was apparently getting nowhere, he issued a decree known as the Typos, which forbade “any discussion of one will or one energy, two wills or two energies, which might lead to future controversies, fight or brawl.”[2]

            Theodore died before the Typos reached Rome, but his successor, Martin I, convened a council where he issued a full condemnation of the document and the doctrine of one single will of Christ (known as Monothelitism). Being held without the emperor’s approval, the council was seen as an act of treason.

            Martin was arrested and taken under guard to Constantinople, where he was tried and condemned. After stripping him of his pallium in front of a mocking crowd, the imperial guards led chained Martin to prison. He was finally exiled in Crimea, where he died in 655 from cold and starvation.

Maximus’s Trial and Death

            Maximus, now 75, was also arrested, together with two of his friends (both named Anastasius). At first, the emperor sent a bishop to offer him money and honors in exchange for his recantation. When Maximus refused, he and his friends were brought to trial in Constantinople. Maximus defended himself by declaring that Constans, as a layman, didn’t have the authority to dictate what the church should teach. The imperial official brought up the example of Melchisedek, who was both king and priest (Genesis 14:17), but Maximus replied Melchisedek was a very unique character in biblical history.

            Ultimately, Maximus was condemned and exiled in Bizye (modern Vize), in the lower Balkans. The exile could not stop him, and he continued to write against Monothelitism. In 662, he was brought back to trial. This time, as punishment for his stubbornness, he was flogged and his tongue and his right hand (the instruments he had used to defend his position) were amputated. He died soon afterwards, at age 82, while exiled in Lazica, Georgia. Because of his persistent witness, he is remembered as Maximus the Confessor.

            In 680, less than twenty years after Maximus’s death, Constans’s son, Constantine IV, summoned a new ecumenical council at Constantinople, which condemned Monothelitism and confessed “two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in [Christ] for the salvation of the human race.”[3] The wording of the Acts of the Council displays Maximus’s reflections and writings.


            Humanly speaking, it’s easy to understand why an emperor with a hostile army at his gates didn’t take much time to consider whether Jesus had one or two wills. In reality, as Maximus pointed out, the emperor was not responsible for making an official decision on the issue. But for a monk like Maximus who had the duty of teaching the Scriptures to others, it was a matter of utter importance.

            Why else would a man be willing to sacrifice – literally – life and limbs for what may seem a theological detail, a technicality which had escaped the attention of most bishops, including the Roman pope? Maximus was willing because we can worship and place our trust only in the Christ who is revealed in Scriptures. We can’t make our own version, no matter how convenient it might be.

            Besides, any neat, expedient, and simplistic explanation of the Godhead and his redeeming work invariably implies a reduction of God’s sovereignty, otherness, and inscrutability. It creates a predictable Bible, depriving us of the wonders of passages like Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane and preventing us from basking in their mysteries (in this particular passage, the depths of Christ’s obedience, the intensity of his love for us, and the bewildering “new energy of one who lived in a new way.”[4])

            To Maximus, Christ showed us “a wholly new way of being human.”[5] But this was only possible because He was fully human, with a human will that could live in harmony with the divine one. And Maximus, who had experienced the comfort of that truth, couldn’t possibly allow it to be obliterated.

[1] Dogmatic Definition of the Council of Chalcedon,

[2] Concilium Lateranense a. 649 celebratum, 208, ll. 19-23, quoted in Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II, Ravenna's Autocephaly and the Panel of the Privileges in St. Apollinare in Classe: A Reappraisal,”

[3] Acts of the Council of Constantinople (680-681), Session XVIII., L. and C., Concilia, Tom. VI., col. 1019,

[4] Patrologia Graeca 91:1057d, as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale University Press, 2003, 131.

[5] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr