The Subtle Heresy of William Lane Craig and Why It Matters

This is another rather lengthy post, whereby I seek to clarify the orthodox Christological position of dyothelitism against the heretical position of monothelitism that’s espoused by analytic philosopher, William Lane Craig. To do so, we will look first to Maximus Confessor and the Third Council of Constantinople, and then assess Craig’s position in light of the orthodox position derived from the former. Finally, I will articulate the ecumenical consensus of the orthodox position and why it matters.

Maximus the Confessor and the Third Council of Constantinople

St. Maximus the Confessor

Maximus Confessor was a revered theologian and saint of the Church—venerated in both the East and the West. He wrote hymns, Biblical commentaries, and even a biography of the Virgin Mary. However, he is most known for his Christological writings that draw from Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nazianzus in order to defend the Orthodox Christological position that appears in the Creed of Chalcedon. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Chalcedon had discerned that Jesus Christ was indeed fully God and fully man, and that he had two natures, one human and one divine.

An implication from Chalcedon that had bleed into the period that followed was a dispute over whether or not Christ had two natures and one will (monothelitism) or two natures and two wills (dyothelitism). Maximus vigorously defended the truth of dyothelitism. For Maximus this wasn’t any small matter; it had serious implications. If Christ did not have both a human will and a divine will, then depending on which was emphasized, he will either become less than fully human or less than fully divine. Therefore, Maximus bodly proclaimed in the face of imperial threats and ecclesial punishments that his Lord had two natures, two wills, was fully human, and fully divine; this is what the Church had passed down to him, which he had confirmed in his reading of Scripture. Maximus believed the Bible and the tradition were clear: dyothelitism was crucial for maintaining a Chalcedonian Christology.

The price that was paid by Maximus was no small sum. Back before the passive aggressive jabs laced within AAR panels, or candid extrapolations of intellectual adversaries in the footnotes of one’s work, there were violent and permanent consequences for confessing your position against the powers that be. Maximus is known as “the confessor” because he defended his orthodoxy to the end. He had his tongue ripped from his mouth so that he could not speak of his Christological convictions, and he had right arm (the arm that he wrote with) removed so that he could not write any more texts that would elaborate the Biblical support for dyothelitism. He was then exiled to a small village where he died presumably alone and without voice.

As fate would have it, Maximus’ writings vindicated him after his death, as his position of dyothelitism was established as orthodoxy at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 CE. It was the sixth ecumenical council that had been gathered to sort out theological debates threatening the unity of the Church. In other words, this council represented the Church proper before the great schism, and therefore its conclusion were not just the discernment of one particular denomination or tradition. For all intents and purposes, this council stands in the lineage of the tradition; and therefore, it is much more difficult to dismiss one of the positions of this council and remain an orthodox Christian.

William Lane Craig and Monothelitism

William Lane Craig

Dr. William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist who is well-known for his work in defending theism against atheism, using rigorous analytic philosophical argumentation. Dr. Craig is revered by many people as a devote defender of evangelical faith against arguments proposed by the New Atheists, et al. While it is obvious that Craig has done a lot to instill the Christian faith into others, it is important to note that the particular kind of Christian faith that he argues for is a distinct product of modernity and rejects many key tenants of the historic Christian faith that’s found in various affirmations of classical theism. On top of that, Craig is also a defender of an ancient heresy, monothelitism—the very heresy that Maximus went to his grave in order to oppose.

Back in 2008, on his blog, Reasonable Faith, Dr. Craig is asked to clarify his position on monothelitism. The subscriber who wrote in to Craig, voiced some concern over this position, writing, “[m]y question is, are you not concerned that some evangelicals consider you as heretic for your belief on monotheletism? Since I am more convinced of your explanation, I do not want to be considered as a heretic too for taking this stance.” Hence, not only is Craig propagating a heretical position, but he’s spreading this heresy to vulnerable followers like a contagion. Even the more unfortunate is Craig’s response (the entirety of this interaction can be found here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/monotheletism).

Craig begins his reply with the following paragraph:

“No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture. While one disagrees with the promulgations of an Ecumenical Council only with great hesitancy, nonetheless, since we do not regard these as invested with divine authority, we are open to the possibility that they have erred in places. It seems to me that in condemning Monotheletism as incompatible with Christian belief the Church did overstep its bounds.”

Citing Scripture as the trump card to defend his heretical position, Craig then fails to cite even one Biblical text in the rest of his response. He doesn’t look to Scriptures such as Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:42, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (NRSV); or even more obvious is Luke’s account of this same incident, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NRSV). I agree that Scripture outweighs even ecumenical councils, but I do not know of any ecumenical councils that have contradicted Scripture. Moreover, if one is going to make that claim, then it seems fitting for he or she to offer at least one Scriptural citation or scholarly exegesis. Despite that, there is one way to defend monothelitism in light of the above Biblical texts, but it will lead to an even deeper heresy.

One could say that Christ, with only one will, was asking that not his will be done but that God the Father’s will be done. And on the surface, that seems to work. However, it implies that God the Son and God the Father have two differing wills—or at the very least that God the Son’s divine will is withered by his incarnation. This first implication is theological problematic for it leads one to begin drifting toward a view of disunity in the Godhead, which Craig clearly would seek to avoid. On the other hand, if his incarnation has depleted the divine will, then that whole doctrine is in jeopardy because it implies that Christ would be some kind of blend of humanity and divinity, not the fullness of God incarnated in the fullness of a man. However, I cannot fairly assess what Craig would make of this text because, once again, he fails to cite it or any other Biblical passages.

The only positive argument that Craig provides for monothelitism is that it is the only one that’s logically coherent. This of course is not a Biblical argument, but merely a deferral to reason, which those of us in the Wesleyan tradition know is already a methodological error since Scripture is the primary (and sole) authority of our quadrilateral.

Craig writes:

“By contrast, it seems to me almost obvious that the will is a faculty of a person. It is persons who have free will and exercise it to choose this or that. If Christ’s human nature had its own proper will so that Christ had literally two wills, as the Council affirmed, then there would be two persons, one human and one divine. But that is the heresy known as Nestorianism, which divides Christ’s person into two. I cannot understand how Christ’s human nature could have a will of its own, distinct from the will of the Second Person of the Trinity, and not be a person.”

He further states:

“In the chapter on the incarnation in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I provide a possible model of the incarnation according to which the human nature of Christ becomes complete through its union with the Second Person of the Trinity. Because there is only one person in Christ, there is but one faculty of will, and that faculty serves both the humanity and deity of Christ, exercising itself through both the human nature and the divine nature. So Christ has two complete natures but a single will, just as–and because–he is a single person.”[1]

For Craig, then, to affirm that Christ has two wills is to affirm that he is two persons indwelling one body, which would in fact be heretical. However, his proposal lacks any evidence for the claim that having a will is intrinsic to personhood to the extent that to be a person is to have a distinct will. This too seems to lead Craig into dangerous Trinitarian implications—in fact, the same ones as above. For how can there be one will in the Godhead if there are three persons and being a distinct person implies having a distinct will and vice versa? Would each person of the Trinity have a unique will? And then, in what sense does the Trinity remain one God and not collapse into a form of tritheism?

It seems that Craig’s logical defense of monothelitism is rendered the same as the hypothetical exegesis offered above; namely, that there are unique wills for each person of the Godhead and at best, in the garden of Gethsemane, we see a Son who merely surrenders his will over to the will of the Father. This scene, if taken without the fact that the Son has both a human and divine will, results in the implication that the Son and Father do not share the same eternal will prior to or during the incarnation. It seems difficult to imagine someone being able to hold onto a proper understanding of the Trinity while upholding Craig’s position of monothelitism without it all collapsing in on each other. Moreover, coupling this with his rejection of divine simplicity, it seems untenable that Craig can maintain a God who isn’t a composite of many wills, hierarchies, persons, and natures.

Dyothelitism

Lest this entire presentation hinge negatively upon what it stands against (monothelitism), it is crucial to briefly elaborate on what affirming dyothelitism means and why any of this debate matters.

Unlike Craig, Maximus believed that in order for Christ to be fully human, he indeed had to have a human will, and in order for Christ to be fully divine, he indeed had to have the divine will. Notice I did not say “a divine will,” for there are not multiple divine wills, but only one. God the Son, who was incarnate in Christ doesn’t have a will distinct from the Father or Spirit, but shares in the one eternal divine will, which permeates from the essence of the one God. Hence, the divine will is present in the Son for it permeates from the divine nature which the Son shares with the Father and Spirit; and since the Son is present in Christ, for he is incarnate in Christ, it follows that the divine will permeates from the divine nature which is incarnated in Jesus Christ. Hence, Christ is fully God—fully divine. So the divine nature then is fully present in Christ, but in what sense is he fully human? Some Christians claimed that the divine nature, and with it the divine will, merely resided in a human body that was otherwise void of a human mind or faculty of will. This position was condemned as a heresy known as Apollinarianism. The incarnation is not making the claim that God the Son resided within a human vessel so that the mind of God replaced the human mind in the body of Jesus. Instead, God the Son truly did become human. He had a human mind that surrendered itself fully to the divine will.

When Christ prays for the cup to pass from him in the garden scene of Luke 22 and Matthew 26, or when Jesus states in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (NRSV), these texts only make sense if we locate the human will and the divine will coexisting in one flesh. These two wills do coexist in Christ “without division or confusion.” In these Biblical passages, we see that there is a human will which submits to the divine will in the one man, Jesus. John of Damascus interprets these texts in the following way: “when He begged to be spared death, He did so naturally, with His divine will willing and permitting, and He was in agony and afraid. Then, when His divine will willed that His human will choose death, the passion was freely accepted.” John continues, “the Lord’s soul was freely moved to will, but it freely willed those things which His divine will willed.”[2] Hence, we see the human will of Christ submitting to the divine will. We see a God-man whose divine will wills something in which his human will freely accepts.

Following John of Damascus’ exegesis of Gethsemane, there’s an ecumenical consensus on the doctrine of dyothelitism, which Dr. Craig rejects. Drawing on the arguments made by Maximus Confessor, the Third Council of Constantinople affirms that in Christ we see his “human will following, and not resisting or opposing, but rather subject to his divine and all-powerful will.”[3] With some Wesleyan flavor, Thomas C. Oden likewise affirms, “[T]he divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way by grace) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”[4] And Vladimir Lossky summarizes, “[T]he two wills proper to the two natures are different, but He who wills is one.”[5] Hence, almost every tradition of the Christian faith agrees that Christ has two wills, and does so without diminishing the truth that Christ is one person.

To affirm dyothelitism is not to suggest that Jesus is speaking as God one moment and as human the next, as if there were two sons, one divine and one human. Instead, in the incarnation, divinity has assumed humanity in such a way that in the one person of Jesus Christ, we see the full revelation of God. This truth is what prompted Gregory of Nazianzus to say, “both are God, that which is assumed, and that which was assumed; two Natures meeting in One, not two Sons.”[6] Thus, Christ has two wills operating in one person, two natures coexisting in one flesh, without distinction or confusion.

Why It Matters

Craig is right to suggest that turning his back, not only on an ecumenical council’s discernment, but also on the vast majority of the rest of Christendom, merits “great hesitancy.” But this isn’t just a difference on some abstract topic. Gregory of Nazianzus says, “[W]hat has not been assumed has not been healed.” If Christ did not assume a human mind or a human will, then his human nature and flesh has done very little for us. Only by Christ assuming our very nature, sharing in the fullness of what makes us human (including our human will), has he redeemed us, and invited us to enter into the mystery of divinity through him. Our will is the very aspect of our nature that needed to be assumed and healed by him the most, for we had become soaked in sin by our willful disobedience. By assuming a human nature not only did Christ die to set us free, but he accomplished what we failed to do: to fully surrender our will freely over to the divine will of the Triune God. The subtle heresy of monothelitism nearly scoffs at the healing offered in Christ’s incarnation and rules by reason alone what it is that God the Son has and has not assumed by taking on our flesh. It is important that we affirm the doctrine of dyothelitism, and I prayerfully hope Dr. Craig and his followers discern the Scriptures and come to uphold the doctrines of the Christian faith. For my fellow Wesleyans out there, this is a sterling example of what happens when a theologian deploys reason at the expense of Scripture.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Once again, to be fair, I have not read Craig’s book. But assuming he cites a hefty amount of Scripture in it, still it seems he ought to be more careful in merely toting out condensed answers without one iota of Biblical support.

[2] John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, 318.

[3] Third Council of Constantinople.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity p. 315.

[5] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 146.

[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 37.2.

Author: Toy Adams

Toy Adams is a pastor in Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

14 thoughts on “The Subtle Heresy of William Lane Craig and Why It Matters”

  1. WLC, as you quoted, says that Christ has 2 natures (divine and human) and one will. I am not sure how this proves that He doesn’t think Jesus is fully divine and full human – in fact, it would suggest otherwise.
    I follow WLC for his philosophy and historical Jesus stuff. I wouldnt consider him a “theologian” – he has an educated opinion, that’s about it.
    Mind you… people also think Joyce Mayer is a theologian and bible scholar (in reality she is just the christian version of Oprah).

    1. Thanks for engaging Geoff. I’ll try to answer your questions.

      See above why not having a human will can lend itself to a less than fully human Christ.

      Craig adhering to the heresy of monothelitism doesn’t lend itself to suggest “the opposite” because, like I argue above, it’s a well-defended, Biblical, ecumenical doctrine of the Church.

      Finally, I believe the fact that Craig is not a theologian is indeed part of the problem.

      Have a good day,

      Toy

      1. I think the point I was trying to make is your argument doesn’t use any evidence that might support your premise. There is no mention of which will Craig believes in, or anything really. Also, the verse you first quote actually supports Craig, but suggesting that Jesus wants to supersede his OWN will (his human will) to do the will of the Father, who is not himself, but another manifestation of the divine will.

        As I say, I understand the theological problem, and I agree with your sentiment (although I wouldn’t use such strong words as heresy), but I just don’t think you have showed evidence of his error, and you haven’t proven that even if he is in error, why he is in error.

        At least, I fail to see it.

        1. I promise it’s in the post. But let me try to re-state it more deductively.

          Reason Craig holds a heretical position:

          1. The Third Council of Constantinople condemned monothelitism as a heresy.
          2. Craig believes in monothelitism.
          3. Therefore, Craig is guilty of the heresy of monothelitism.

          As a note: I’m using the word heresy as defined by the ecumenical councils of the early Church., whose understanding of Christ’s two wills, Craig rejects.

          1. I understand your logic, but I feel that before you call someone a heretic, you at least need to demonstrate it.Even the quote that seems to be a confession, Craig doesnt actually “confess” he just says that going against the tradition positions is not something done lightly. Yes, he probably believes it, but I cant see where you demonstrate it. There is not enough information to understand what he means at all.
            Also, understanding the nature of “will” is largely philosophical and less theological. In which case I would suggest that if Craig thinks there are logical issues with having 2 wills, then it is worth investigating.
            FWIW, I am currently reading through a series on developments in theology/philosophy from Augustine to Luther. The whole nature of Christ/Trinity thing is fascinating, and one thing I have discovered is that the councils were not always correct.

          2. Geoff, I’m unsure how this is being miscommunicated. Craig did confess that he believes Christ only has one will and that statement is a heresy.

            Craig writes, “Because there is only one person in Christ, there is but one faculty of will….So Christ has two complete natures but a single will”.

            That is as explicit as can be said that Christ has one will. The doctrine that is being discussed in his response is monthelitism, which is the doctrine Christ has one will. Hence what I said above:

            1. Craig affirms monothelitism.
            2. The Third Council of Constantinople condemned monothelitism as a heresy.
            3. Therefore, Craig is guilty of the heresy of monothelitism.

  2. “Subtle Heresy” is an interesting term. Seems like it is like, either a heresy, or not a heresy. “Subtle” implies to me, that it is something so obscure, that only theologians would want to argue about. Like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. So, I googled “Subtle Heresy”, and found that the term is used quite a bit. But, I have to admit that the scriptures referenced seems to show two wills.

    My heresy would say two wills. Only because I find the OT God and the NT God so different. Yeah – I know, Trinity, three separate, but one – thing. But JUST maybe, that explains the difference. Divine will and human will are separate. But maybe Father’s divine will is different than Jesus’s “sum-total” Divine and Human Wills. Father’s Will is divine only, so maybe he is lacking the forgiveness thing, that Jesus seems to display in the NT.

    “Subtle heresy” implies “not so important” heresy.

    1. Gary, I appreciate you commenting.

      First, I find it strange that you equate “subtle” with not important. Subtle is not a synonym of “unimportant”. In fact, it’s just the opposite. “Subtle” in my context of its use merely means that the heresy is something that was cleverly inserted into a larger framework that has surprisingly gone unnoticed (cf: he affirmed it since 2008). Subtle doesn’t denote an evaluation of the word its describing, but rather the method or means of what is being described.

      Second, I agree that something is either heresy or not heresy for something cannot be both heresy and not heresy. However, it seems explicit in my post that Craig’s position re: Christ’s human will not existing is heresy. No where do I leave room to speculate that he has not committed heresy. He had. By describing the heresy he has committed as “subtle” once again isn’t to down-play the stark reality that he has endorsed a heretical position, but rather to describe the manner by which he has done so as being clever and what seems like nearly hidden in his larger work. It is a significant heresy.

      Third, I’m unsure what you mean by “my heresy would be that Christ has two wills” since, as stated above, that is no a heresy. It’s a heresy to say that Christ has only one will. However, I would want to point out that the assertion of Christ and the Father having distinct wills is theologically problematic and needs careful articulation in light of the doctrine of the Trinity.
      Thanks for engagging. Have a good week!

      -Toy

  3. By saying “my heresy would be that Christ has two wills”, I meant that most would consider my explanation to be heresy. That is, OT and NT God appears to be on different wavelengths.

    If Jesus has two wills, and the Father has one will, then obviously they both have distinct wills, unique to Them, and not the same 🙁

    1. About “subtle” – at my age, I ignore anything subtle. It’s like driving a car in Italy. It’s the big stuff that kills you.

      1. So, look at it this way:
        There is one God, and He has one will. The Father, Son, and Spirit are coeternally, coequally God. Therefore each person of God have one and same divine will that is shared among by each of them as God.

        Jesus Christ has the divine will–the same divine will as the Father and the Spirit. However, Jesus also has a human will which is not shared with the Father, Son, or Spirit–which is distinct from the divine will, but never in opposition to it. Jesus’ human will fully submits to the divine will that is also in him and shared with the Father and Spirit.

        Therefore, Jesus’ human will is not the same as the the divine will shared among the persons. Hence Jesus has two wills. That is not heresy. His divine will is the same as the Godhead’s but his human is distinctly human.

        1. Well, as they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Or two. Just not at the same instance in time (divine, that is). Or, “Where there’s a will, there’s The Way.”

          Hebrews 10:9 “then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.”

  4. “No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture.”

    I’ve never read a more arrogant statement. The following statement is old and worth repeating: we gave up one pope and ended up with thousands of them.

    Thank you Toy Adams for this excellent blog post. The above comments prove another old statement worth repeating: no Protestant can be a heretic as we set the bar of scripture where we please.

  5. Mr. Adams,

    Dr. Craig believes that heresy, but I would hesitate to say that he’s guilty of it. Catholics distinguish among material heresy, formal heresy, and subjective formal heresy. A material heretic believes a heresy when he doesn’t know that it’s one. Though a formal heretic knows that he believes one when he’s not to blame for believing it. A subjective formal is one who deserves blame for knowingly believing a one. Dr. Craig is clearly a formal heretic. Is he a subjective formal one? I don’t know because I can’t judge his intentions.

    Now, the divine simplicity doctrine says that God has no parts. We distinguish conceptually among God’s omni-properties. But if omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence, and so forth were different properties, God would have parts and wouldn’t be simple. The distinctions among those properties are conceptual and analogical because people need to think conceptually, analytically, and analogically. So, while Prof. Edward Feser describes God, he says that in God, there’s something like what we call “knowledge,” something like what we call “power,” and something like what we call “goodness.” Each of those words signifies the same object, God, because God’s essence is his existence. If the words for the omni-properties stand for exactly the same object, each omni-property does imply each of the others.

    Dr. Craig’s “God” concept implies that the divine simplicity is false. So that concept also implies that God has one or more parts. But I agree with St. Thomas Aquinas when he teaches that any composite, i.e., any object composed of parts, needs a cause. If St. Thomas is right, Dr. Craig’s “God” concept implies a self-contradiction. On the one hand, Craig says that God is the uncaused cause. On the other hand, since he denies that God is simple in the way we’re talking about, he implies that God has parts, So God can’t both have parts and not have them at the same time. If each object with parts needs a cause, and if God has parts, he can’t be the uncaused cause. In that case, he can’t be the greatest conceivable being, since his cause would need to be at least as great as he.

    Suppose that God does have a cause who is at least as great as he. Then if that cause has parts, he or it will need a cause, too, and Dr. Craig’s “God” concept implies a vicious infinite regress. If it does that, his Kalam Cosmological Argument will fail, too, because its first premise will be false. If causes had regressed infinitely and viciously, the universe wouldn’t have begun to exist. Again, in other posts, I’ve explained why the universe still needs a cause, even if it has always existed. The only other possibility I know of is that the universe’s existence is a brute fact. But if I say that its existence is a brute fact, my statement isn’t a causal explanation. It implies that universe is uncaused. What’s more, if the universe’s existence has no explanation, period, there is no way, even in principle, to discover that its existence is a brute fact. If there were a way to discover that its existence is a brute fact, there would be a way to explain something that has no explanation of any kind. The universe’s existence can’t have and not have an explanation at the same time.

    So what’s my point? It’s that we still need the classical theist’s God because, without him, there would be no causes and no effects. But everyone knows that here in the universe we find both.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.