Three Objections to Dyothelitism: 1

November 14, 2013

Awhile ago a Protestant friend asked me about the doctrine of dyothelitism (that Jesus Christ has two natural wills, one human and one divine). Because he is the kind of Protestant who wants to remain loyal to the Councils and Fathers, he wished to agree with St. Maximus the Confessor’s dyothelitism. At the same time, he felt drawn to monothelitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one will, that his will is properly located in his person, and that the will is not fundamentally part of either of his natures).

Here are his objections, which I have rephrased and expanded on below:

1. Argument from the Gospels: When the Gospels speak of the contrast between “my will” and “thy will” in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane and the Bread of Life Discourse, they seem to suggest a contrast between the single will of the person of Christ and the single will of the person of the Father. This is because the wills are spoken of (a) possessively, (b) singularly, and (c) as having very different objects. If Christ can be spoken of as possessing a will, having a singular will, or having a different object of will from the Father, we have exegetical reason to think that Christ has only one will.

2. Nestorian dilemma: Either there is (a) something deeply counterintuitive about saying that one person has two wills or (b) an implicit Nestorianism in the dyothelite position. Intuitively, the will is what performs intentional actions. But then if there are two things in Christ that perform actions, this seems to mean that Christ is composed out of two separate agents or persons, each acting independently and with its own personal purposes. But this is (roughly, in a somewhat caricatured way) the Nestorian position: Christ is two separate persons one human and one divine, and He is not one divine person. Either we must deny the intuitive claim that two things which perform intentional actions imply the existence of two persons, or we must admit that dyothelitism implies Nestorianism.

3. Inductive support: Based on induction, it is likely that all persons have only one will. Why? We do not have any examples of a single person with two wills. All our examples of persons are the same: one person is matched to one will. Where there are two wills at work, there are two persons. Where there is one will operating, there is one person. Thus, it is improbable that any person could have two wills.

The first two objections remind me of Evangelical philosophers like William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland who use these arguments in favor of monothelitism (Craig and Moreland are unlike my friend, for they seem to deny that tradition has any significant weight in these matters). There is also a lot of similarity to the arguments that the monothelite bishop Pyrrhus made in dialog with the champion of dyothelitism, St. Maximus the Confessor. Setting aside concerns about how to understand the authority of tradition in Protestant theology, each argument deserves a reply. In the rest of this post I reply to the first argument (and in later posts I will deal with the other 2). Though some of this is review for seasoned readers of this blog, I thought it might be helpful nonetheless. Read the rest of this entry »

Hart’s Strategies and his Interpretation of St. Gregory of Nyssa in “The Myth of Schism”

April 11, 2012

I recently read David Bently Hart’s article “The Myth of a Schism”. Much that he says is true, and it was all very strategically-argued. But I cannot agree with everything he says, nor do I think that he employs his strategies in a way that is completely fair.

Hart seems to be trying to set the conversation about reunion between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church by eliminating certain people from the category of “acceptable voices of Catholic or Orthodox theology”. If such people are not in that category, then their opposition to certain kinds of reunion is inconsequential.

He then presents a picture of the extreme Catholic and the extreme Orthodox. These pictures are rightly silly, of course, and that helps get his point across. Hart gets us to laugh “Hah! No sane Catholic would believe that the celibacy of priests is Apostolic!” or “That’s silly for an Orthodox person to think the schism started in the 8th century.” Admittedly he’s correct; such people exist, and their voices are not relevant to the question of reunion. But I got the impression (perhaps this is actually his intent, perhaps not) that on his view, those who are much more conservative than he is automatically fall into the “extreme Orthodox” category and should therefore be disregarded as irrelevant to questions of reunion. Some of the things he says about Lossky’s writings suggest this. It looks like Hart ironically caricatures some of the very writers and viewpoints that he claims are caricaturing the West and presenting a too-narrow understanding of Orthodox theology. His boldness may leave the reader with a false sense of security about the issues. In fact, many of the arguments he brings up have already been answered in the literature for some time now. The (real or imagined) suggestion that people who are more conservative than he is should be disregarded seems false, and Hart uses some mistaken arguments to support this idea. I suspect there are several examples of this inaccurate argumentation in the paper, but am satisfied if readers go away with the impression that there is at least one important error. Below I will argue that there is a problem in Hart’s paper that is significant and misleading: his analysis of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods” as supporting something like the filioque. Read the rest of this entry »

Prayers to Saints in the Pre-Nicene Era

July 29, 2011

It is commonly claimed that the practice of praying to departed saints and to angels is a late development in Christianity, probably post-dating the Council of Nicea. In this post, I will try to argue that prayers to departed saints were relatively common in the pre-Nicene Church. There are 5 to 8 clear post-Apostolic references from at least 3 locations. Some of the references come from official Christian teachers. The earliest reference may be first or second century, and many of the second and third century writers’ beliefs probably reflect the customs of even earlier times. Read the rest of this entry »

Apostolic Succession (4): St. Clement of Rome

May 19, 2010


A significant challenge to the historical case for the Apostolic succession of the Trifold ministry is that St. Clement of Rome teaches (1 Clement 44) a succession of only two tiers of ministry. The only offices that are described as continuing after the Apostolic age are “bishops and deacons”. But when he speaks of “bishops”, Clement means local ministers of the second tier—what we now call elders—not monarchical rulers who can rule one or more congregations and have the exclusive power to ordain. It seems like St. Clement’s apostolic succession is a succession of presbyter-bishops much as Presbyterians understand ministry, not monarchical bishops as Episcopalians (whether Roman, Orthodox, or Anglo-Catholic) understand the ministry. To answer this objection, I will quote from Felix Cirlot’s Apostolic Succession: Is It True? Cirlot argues that there are three tiers of ministry referred to in 1 Clement 44, not just two, and that succession is traced through the highest tier of ministry. Read the rest of this entry »

Apostolic Succession (3): The Didache

May 8, 2010


A common objection to the Apostolic Succession of the trifold ministry goes like this. If the Apostles had instituted the trifold ministry, then we would expect that every text in the Apostolic Fathers would reflect this belief. These writers were, after all, closest to the Apostles in time and in the transmission of teaching. Instead, we find a mixture of texts saying different and inconsistent things about ministry and succession, which undercuts the idea that this would be an Apostolic teaching. For now I would like to focus on the arguments of some authors based on the Didache, which may be the most primitive text among the Apostolic Fathers, reserving St. Clement of Rome and others for later. I will argue that evidence from the Didache against primitive monarchical episcopacy and Apostolic Succesion is inconclusive, and that there is a trifold ministry and ecclesial succession, though the ministers have different names than in Ignatius, and the mechanism of succession is not explained in detail or explicitly connected to the Apostles. Read the rest of this entry »

Apostolic Succession (2): Presbyterian Ordination?

January 27, 2010

Felix Cirlot argues in Apostolic Succession: Is It True? that there are no clear cases in primitive Christianity of Presbyterian ordination. Instead, every instance of ordination in the first few hundred years of Christianity fits into the hypothesis that only the third tier of ministry can ordain; in other words, only monarchical bishops and Apostles can appoint new officers in the Church. Each example, says Cirlot, fits one of three categories. The first category of texts is those that teach ordination by monarchical bishops and Apostles, but do not state or imply that only bishops and Apostles can ordain. There are many clear cases of appointment and ordination of new officers in the Church by someone in the third tier of ministry (an Apostle or a monarchical bishop). Numerous biblical texts can be offered that involve Apostolic ordination, and perhaps even texts that teach monarchical bishops can ordain (though that will not be the subject of this post). Early in the post-Apostolic era we see St. Clement of Rome attesting to the practice of appointment (presumably by the laying on of hands, as was the scriptural practice) by monarchical bishops (circa 90 AD). St. Irenaeus supplements this testimony (writing circa 180 AD, though his views in Against Heresies probably represent his beliefs at an earlier age, closer to 160 AD). And at the beginning of the third century, Tertullian speaks of the ordination of bishops by Apostles.

The second category is texts that state or imply only bishops and Apostles can ordain. Early in Church history we have writers like St. Clement of Alexandria (at around 190 AD) that imply an exclusive ordination by bishops and Apostles. Additionally, there is St. Hippolytus who in his On the Apostolic Tradition (around 217 AD) explicitly states that only bishops can ordain. It is noteworthy that as a liturgical and theological conservative, Hippolytus’ views probably did not change much over the course of twenty years; so we have attestation of exclusive ordination by bishops that stretches back to before the end of the second century. This evidence will be treated in more detail in a later post.

The third category of texts is those that are consistent with the idea that only bishops and Apostles can ordain. Though some have argued that the canons of the Council of Ancyra, or a quotation from Jerome about the presbyterate in Alexandria, or numerous other patristic citations show that members of the second tier of ordination had the power to ordain, it is not so. These citations, upon examination, either fail to establish the intended point, or ironically show an implicit belief that only the bishop ordains.

But there is one last refuge for proponents of Presbyterianism about church government: 1 Timothy 4:14. Read the rest of this entry »

Apostolic Succession (1): Presbyter = Bishop?

November 20, 2009

The common view among many of the Reformers and biblical scholars ancient and modern is that the titles of office “presbyter” and “bishop” have identical referents in Scripture. Put simply, every presbyter is a bishop, and every bishop is a presbyter. Calvin asserts this in his commentary on Acts:

Concerning the word overseer or bishop, we must briefly note this, that Paul calleth all the elders of Ephesus by this name, as well one as other. Whence we gather, that according to the use of the Scripture bishops differ nothing from elders. But that it came to pass through vice and corruption, that those who were chief in every city began to be called bishops. I call it corruption, not because it is evil that some one man should be chief in every college or company; but because this boldness is intolerable, when men, by wresting the names of the Scripture unto their custom, doubt not to change the tongue of the Holy Ghost.

Commentary on Acts 20:28-32

Similarly, in his “Essay on the Christian Ministry” Joseph Lightfoot states that “It has been shown that in the apostolic writings the two [titles, presbyter and bishop] are only different designations of one and the same office.” (pg. 192)

In Chapter XIX of Apostolic Succesion: Is It True? Felix Cirlot offers arguments against the standard view that the titles of office “presbyter” and “bishop” are words exclusively both designating the second order of ministry in the New Testament and early post-Apostolic Church. The implications of this for debates between Presbyterians and Episcopalians are significant, undercutting a main argument for the non-existence of a third and highest order of ministry in the Church through which alone office can be transmitted.


342. One of the most perplexing questions hindering a solution of the history of the origin of the monarchical Episcopate is the relation of the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” in pre-Ignatian sources. Read the rest of this entry »

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