The Prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in the Monothelite Controversy

The Prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in the Monothelite Controversy

Gethsemane by Adriaen van de Velde, 1665

In this article, originally published in French in the Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur (1982), François-Marie Léthel shows how the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane factored into the monothelite controversy. Léthel first focuses on the monothelite interpretation of Christ’s apparent refusal of the Chalice, and the monothelite idea of opposition. Léthel argues that this opposition can only occur in Christ on an infra-moral level. Then he focuses on the interpretation by Maximus the Confessor of the acceptance of the Chalice and how it demonstrates not only two wills in Christ, but two wills acting in complete harmony (συμφυΐα).


The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane holds an exceptional place among the Scriptures factoring into the monothelite controversy. When one considers how this gospel text has been interpreted, first by monothelitism, and later by Maximus the Confessor, one reaches, it seems to me, a central viewpoint from which one can see the true Christological issue in the controversy. This is all the more necessary since this controversy was very unclear: its coherence appears, above all, from a political rather than a theological point of view.1When one considers, however, the interpretation of the prayer of Christ in agony, one finds a profound coherence, this time properly theological.

Our point of view on the controversy is thus very specific, very limited. In order to make it appear as clear as possible in this brief exposition, we have our point of departure given by the gospels, which present the same fundamental elements in the three synoptics. The prayer of Jesus consists of two parts: the first expresses the refusal, and the second the acceptance of the Chalice, the symbol of the Passion. Moreover, in this prayer, two wills are mentioned, that of Christ, and that of his Father.2

Before seeing how these elements—the two wills, the refusal, and the acceptance—have been interpreted in the controversy, an important remark needs to be made. The will of the Father, of whose will the gospel text speaks, is identical with that of Christ as God. The numerical unity of the divine will, common to the Three Persons, is clearly affirmed from the end of the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century.3 Similarly, the hypostatic unity in Christ is plainly obvious: Christ is “one of the Trinity.” He has the same divine will as the Father and the Holy Spirit, the same benevolent will with regard to men.4 The reality of this divine will of Christ, the fact that it is the principle of salvation and divinization of humanity, all of this is truly out of the question in the monothelite controversy. By contrast, what is in question is only the human will of Christ. The problem of two wills is more exactly a problem of the second will.

Our exposition will focus on the two parts of the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane: the refusal and the acceptance. We will see first how monothelitism posed the problem of this human will in considering it in the refusal of the Chalice; then we will see how Maximus resolved this problem in considering the same human will but in the acceptance of the Chalice.

I. The Problem: The human will considered in the refusal of the Chalice
One could say that the great merit of the monothelitism of the seventh century, and most especially that of the Patriarch, Sergius of Constantinople, is to have posed with exceptional force and clarity a problem that had been latent in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the preceding centuries, the problem is precisely that of the second will of Christ, the human will.

Now, the most remarkable thing about monothelitism is that this problem is posed, first of all, from a moral point of view: by way of hypothesis, the human will of Christ is fundamentally considered in his attitude with respect to the divine will. It is this moral point of view that requires a solution to the problem on the ontological level, namely the judgment concerning the existence of this human will of Christ. Concretely, in monothelitism, the negation of the human will of Christ on the ontological level is rendered necessary by the hypothesis that it is situated on the moral level. The key term that characterizes this hypothesis is opposition,5 that is to say, opposition of the human will in relation to the divine will.

This hypothesis of two contrary wills is one of the great constants of monothelitism, and probably the point where all its force is concentrated. This is a surprisingly difficult point to understand, because this hypothesis appears particularly arbitrary to us today. But precisely when one considers the relation that exists between this theme of the opposition of wills, and the interpretation of the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, all then becomes clear. The human will that is envisaged by hypothesis is what is expressed in the first part of the prayer: the refusal of the Chalice. Here, it must be recognized that monothelitism benefits from solid patristic support. In a general way, when the Fathers of the preceding centuries had spoken of the human will of Christ, it was only in relation to the refusal of the Chalice, which obviously emanates from the humanity.6

Now, as long as this refusal is interpreted on an infra-moral level, which is the more frequent manner according to the Fathers, there is no longer any difficulty. In this case, even if the word “will” is employed, it refers rather to a “natural movement” of “the flesh that fears death.” From these perspectives, the refusal of the Chalice no longer poses any problem. It confirms the truth of the Incarnation.7

The problem arises when the refusal of the Chalice is interpreted on a moral level, that of the will properly so called, because then this will seems opposed to the divine will. This interpretation had already been evoked by St. Gregory Nazianzen in his fourth theological oration. The words of Jesus would seem “to express the language … of a man of our kind, considering that the human will does not always follow the divine will, but more often it resists it, and fights against it.”8 Gregory, however, hardly stops at this hypothesis; he rejected it quickly, without doubt, a little too quickly. It ought to be observed that the text of Gregory is one of the major pieces of the patristic witness employed in the monothelite controversy.

In fact, this hypothesis that puts the refusal of the Chalice on the moral level would not find its complete formation until 633 in the Psephos of the Patriarch Sergius. Moving from the hypothesis of the two operations to that of the two wills, Sergius wrote:

… We confess that two wills behave in a contrary manner in relation to each other, as if on the one hand, God the Word had desired to accomplish the saving Passion, and on the other hand, the humanity in him had resisted his will in being opposed in him.9

This way of framing the problem invincibly requires negation of the human will and, thus, the affirmation of a single will, even if this latter expression does not figure in the Psephos. This appears in a glaring manner in the famous response of Pope Honorius to Sergius. The letter of Honorius clearly shows his reaction with respect to the Psephos; it is fitting to cite some characteristic passages that show the determining role of the moral point of view:

… We confess a single will of our Lord Jesus Christ, because our nature has clearly been taken up by the divinity, and it has been taken in a state of innocence, as it was before the fall … there was not in the Savior a different or opposing will … and when the Holy Scripture said, “I have not come in order to do my will, but to do that of the Father who sent me” (Jn 5:30), and: “not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mk 14:36), it does not speak in this way in order to express a different will …10

One observes in this text the confusion between different will and contrary will: if the human will is denied, it is because he must, at all costs, deny the opposition. Sergius had succeeded perfectly since he had led the pope to formulate monothelitism explicitly: “a single will of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The result of all of this is the official monothelite document, the imperial Ekthesis of 638. Sergius, who wrote it, repeats the essence of his Psephos, but inserts the monothelite affirmation of Honorius, and insists on the particularly impious character of dyothelitism:

… How is it possible that those who confess the orthodox faith, and who glorify one only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God, admit in him two contrary wills? Thenceforth, following in all things and on this point the holy Fathers, we confess one single will of Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God …11

The rigorous sequence of these documents of the first type, the Psephos, the letter of Honorius, and the Ekthesis, manifest the coherence and the strength of this moral monothelitism.12 One could say, if one permits me the expression, that the hypothesis of the two contrary wills is the theological “scarecrow” used by monothelitism from one end of the controversy to the other.13

It remains to show how, in these perspectives, the refusal of the Chalice must be finally interpreted. If it really comes from the humanity of Christ, there could be no true human will, but only a “natural movement of the flesh” on the infra-moral level. It is this classic interpretation that Sergius falls back on in the Psephos and the Ekthesis. If, on the contrary, the refusal is still considered as a true human will on the moral level, in this case, it could only really come from a sinful man. It is, indeed, from a human will, but it only pertains to Christ by appropriation as sin. It is this theory of appropriation that finally imposes itself in monothelitism.14

II. The Solution: The human will considered in the acceptance of the Chalice
In order to refute moral monothelitism, it was necessary that Maximus put in plain light the harmony of the human will with the divine will in Christ. And the Gospel text that reveals this harmony most clearly is precisely the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. But then, Maximus concentrates his attention on the second part of this prayer that no longer expresses refusal, but acceptance of the Chalice, the assent to the will of the Father. The central affirmation of Maximus, which one finds in four of the opuscula, written between 641 and 646, is that this assent is the expression of the human will of Christ.15 This human will is thus beheld on the moral level, in a free act, in a “rational decision of acceptance.”16

Initially, Maximus had begun by approving the Psephos, as Honorius had done, and just about the same time as him! But, progressively, between 634 and 640, we see him affirming that Christ had a human will. What conditions this affirmation is the application of the logos-tropos distinction to the human will. It becomes possible to distinguish the notions of otherness, and of opposition, previously confused. The opposition of the human will with respect to the divine will does not pertain to its logos, that is to say its essential reality, but only to a certain tropos, that is to say a personal mode of this human will according to sinful man. But that this human will is other than the divine will, which pertains to its essential reality, to its logos. Therefore, the hypothesis of two wills does not necessarily impose opposition. And since Christ is perfectly holy, and without sin, all opposition of his human will, in relation to the divine will, is excluded a priori.17

That said, it always remains difficult to see, in the acceptance of the Chalice, the harmony of the human will with the divine. One understands this difficulty more when one thinks of the extreme ambiguity of the expression “one will” in the seventh century. Thus, when one speaks of one will of the Three Divine Persons, it refers to a numeric unity, while when one speaks of “one will of God and of the saints,”18 it refers to a moral union of many numerically distinct wills. As long as these two senses are not clearly distinguished, all harmony of will between Christ and his Father, in the Gospel will be spontaneously perceived as expressing the identity of the divine will between the Son and his Father. This helps one again to understand the force of monothelitism and why, in theory, the human will of Christ can only appear there when it seems contrary to the divine will.

If such an opposition is unacceptable, paradoxically, it makes it delicate to situate a moral union in Christ: such a union between humanity and divinity spontaneously evokes Nestorianism! But the great merit of Maximus is precisely his bringing to light this moral union, but without undermining either the union according to hypostasis, or the unity of the common divine will of the Father and of the Son. The human will is not only united with the divine will on the ontological level by the hypostatic union; it is also united with it in the moral order of freedom. So, from the moment when he sees the harmony of the human will with the divine will in the acceptance of the Chalice, Maximus sheds light on this new level of union, and one could say that he brings forth here a new dimension of Christology. The humanity of Christ is fully valued, from a dynamic point of view, in its historic reality. The harmony of the human will with the divine will is concretely inscribed in the earthly life of Jesus, in his perfect obedience to the Father, obedience unto death, even death on a Cross. In Gethsemane, the union of two wills reveals itself in an interpersonal relation, the relation of the Son with his Father, such as it has been lived humanly, according to a free will. Obedience designates exactly this fully human attitude of the Son with regard to his Father, in the order of freedom!

Therefore, in his new theological exegesis of the prayer of Jesus, Maximus opposes the monothelite hypothesis of two contrary wills, with the affirmation of two wills united in a complete harmony (συμφυΐα); he opposes the hypothesis of “two subjects willing opposite things,”19 with the affirmation of a unique subject willing divinely and humanly the same thing, that is, the accomplishment of the Passion for our salvation. What is new in these grand affirmations, which would be canonized at the Lateran Council in 649,20 is what concerned the human will and its soteriological role. In order to express the sense of this free act, of the consent of Jesus in Gethsemane, one must say—and this will be our final point—that our salvation has been willed humanly by a divine Person.

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I would like to express my deep gratitude to Sean Robertson and Drs. Christine Myers and Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., whose
comments and recommendations proved invaluable in producing
a smoother and more accurate translation, and most
especially to Père Léthel for his work on the Confessor
and for granting me permission to seek publication of this translation.


About the Translator
Kevin Clarke, a PhD Candidate at Ave Maria University, is studying biblical theology and plans to write his dissertation on Maximus the Confessor’s Christological exegesis. He has edited and introduced a book for CUA Press on the Fathers of the Church and the capital vices, which will be published before Lent 2018. He taught Biblical Greek at John Paul Catholic University and high school in Southern California after getting his master’s in theology at Franciscan University.

  1. This theological incoherence is something glaring in the succession of official Christological positions: first, one operation (the Pact of Union of Alexandria); then, neither one, nor two, operations but one will (the Psephos and the Ekthesis); later, neither one nor two wills (the Typos); and finally, one and two wills, one and two operations, which is the height of absurdity! In the course of his trial, Maximus did not fail to denounce the attitude of those people who, each time, had condemned themselves (cf. Relatio Motionis, PG 90, 120 D). In the properly monothelite phase, the theological incoherence appears also in the multiplicity of arguments, indefensible arguments, incompatible among themselves, invoked in favor of a single will, and sometimes even contradictory (cf. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 329 C–332 A). It is this purely ideological monothelitism that we have designated as “common monothelitism or propaganda.” Cf., our book, Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ : La liberté humaine du Fils de Dieu et son importance sotériologique mises en lumière par Saint Maxime Confesseur, Théologie Historique 52, Éditions Beauchesne, Paris (1979), 26–28.
  2. Translator’s note: All italics reflect Léthel’s emphases.
  3. The affirmation of the unique will as a property of the hypostasis, and not of the nature, is thus perfectly indefensible in Christology, because it would imply three wills in the Trinity. When it appeared in the controversy, it had a purely ideological character (cf. Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ, 28 n. 14, 38 n. 25).
  4. That is ἡ εὐδοκία. As God, Christ is εὐδοκῶν (PG 91, 301 D) or συνευδοκῶν (PG 91, 68 D).
  5. Translator’s note: When Léthel speaks of contrariété in this context, he seems to have in mind the Greek term ἐναντιώσις, and so I have chosen the word “opposition.” Cf. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 292A.
  6. Cf. Marcel Doucet, La Dispute de Maxime le Confesseur avec Pyrrhus (Ph.D. dissertation, Institut d’études médiévales: Université de Montreal 1972), 147–148.
  7. Doucet, ibid., 241. The author has studied the patristic commentaries on the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in a remarkable way (cf. our summary, Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ, 40 n. 27).
  8. Or. 30.12, PG 36, 117 C. (Translator’s addendum: Cf. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, tr. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham, Popular Patristics Series, Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (2002), 102–103.)
  9. Mansi XI, 533 C.
  10. Greek and Latin text in Konrad Kirch, Enchiridion fontium Historiae Ecclesiasticae antiquae (Herder 1947), nn. 1058–59.
  11. Kirch, op. cit., nn. 1071–73.
  12. This expression, “moral monothelitism,” seems to us to describe in a more exact manner what we have called “Byzantine monothelitism” (Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ, 26).
  13. One finds again this spectrum of contrariety in the Dispute with Pyrrhus (PG 91, 292 A) and in the trial of Maximus at Bizya (PG 90, 152 D). The number two applies to the natures of Christ; it cannot be applied to the wills, at the risk of introducing contrariety!
  14. On these two successive interpretations, cf. Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ, 44–54.
  15. Opusc. 6, composed around 641 (PG 91, 65 A–68 D); Opusc. 7, around 642 (80 C–81 B); Opusc. 16, after 643 (196 C–197 A); Opusc. 3, around 645-646 (48 BD). (Translator’s addendum: A complete translation of the Opuscula are yet lacking in English. Opuscula 3 and 7 were translated by Andrew Louth in his volume, Maximus the Confessor, Routledge: New York (1996). Opusculum 6 by Blowers and Wilken in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Select Writings by Maximus the Confessor, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press (2003). The Opuscula have been translated into French: Opuscules Théologiques et Polémiques, introduction par J.-C. Larchet, traduction et notes par Emmanuel Ponsoye, Sagesses chrétiennes, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris (1998).)
  16. Doucet. op. cit. 148.
  17. On these steps of Maximus’s path, cf. Théologie de l’Agonie du Christ, 59–77.
  18. Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG 91, 292 B.
  19. In the Psephos and the Ekthesis.
  20. Denzinger, 500 and 510. These admirable formulations had been developed in the first large commentary on the prayer of Jesus, Opusculum 6 of Maximus (PG 91, 68D).

 François-Marie Léthel

About François-Marie Léthel
Reverend Professor François-Marie Lethel was born in Paris in 1948 and entered the Order of Discalced Carmelites in 1967. He was ordained priest in 1975. After completing his Licentiate in Philosophy, he obtained a Licentiate in Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris, presenting a thesis on St. Maximus the Confessor, under the direction of Fr. Marie-Joseph Le Guillou, OP. He then obtained his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Friburg (Switzerland) in 1989, under the direction of Fr. Christoph Schönborn, OP.

Since 1982, he lives in Rome and teaches Dogmatic and Spiritual Theology at the Teresianum. He was appointed Consultant to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints by Pope John Paul II in 2004, and Secretary to the Pontifical Academy of Theology by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Among his many works are those on the theology of the saints, including the Lenten spiritual exercises he was asked to preach to Pope Benedict in 2011, called “The Light of Christ in the Heart of the Church: John Paul II and the Theology of the Saints”, subsequently collected by the Vatican Publishing House.

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