The Two Wills of Christ (Part 1): Ideas to die for

This is the second post in a series. For part one click here.

The Two Wills of Christ

In his trial Maximus was asked about the implications of him believing he was right and others wrong, ‘Will you alone be saved and all others be lost?’

He answered like this, ‘The three young men who did not adore the idol when all others adored it did not condemn anyone. They did not attend to what belonged to others but attended to this, that they not lapse from true worship. … Thus it is with me as well; may God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I alone am saved. But I prefer to die rather than to have on my conscience that I in any way at all have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.’[1]

Prefer to die? For what?

Jaroslav Pelican wrote this about Maximus, ‘It was the genius of Maximus Confessor that, in a measure that has been granted only to a few, he was fully bilingual … speaking both the language of spirituality and the language of theology with equal fluency.’[2]

Perhaps bilingualism is not quite the right word. It is more like being aware that you are seeing through a pair of glasses the lenses of which are a theological understanding of the world, and the tint of which is the pastoral impact that that this theological understanding has. You can’t think something about God without it changing the way that you see the world, see other people, see yourself. Maximus wasn’t only concerned with the ‘truth’ for which he was prepared to suffer and die if necessary. The reason that he cared so deeply about this discussion of one will or two, was because he felt that in amongst the politics and the need to silence opposition for the sake of unity, something essential about the story of salvation, and the worship and transformation that flows from that had been lost.

What has this passion to do with the two wills of Christ?

This probably still sounds so like an abstract philosophical debate, and to be honest, it’s going to sound worse before it sounds better, so stick with the jargon to follow Maximus’s logic and to get to the solution at the end!

The Debate

The debate in the 7th C was over whether Christ had one activity (energeia) or two and one will (thelema) or two. So the two opposing positions have been named ‘monoenergism’ and ‘monothelitism’ in the one will camp and ‘dyothelitism’ in the two will camp.

Monothelites argued that Jesus had only one divine will on account of the fact that he was only one person. Although this sounds more comfortable, how well does it explain the following passages from scripture?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:7-10
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.
Luke 22:42
My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.
John 4:34
For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but to do the will of him who sent me.
John 6:38

If Jesus is God, why does it sound as if Jesus is somehow following the orders of his Father, and having to bring his own will into line with God’s? Sounds like a puzzle that needs to be solved.

The Natural Will and the Gnomic Will

Maximus saw the ability to will as essential to human nature, but he divided his understanding of willing into two categories. He believed that human beings had been created specifically for the purpose of doing the will of God, and that this is actually the most natural thing for us to do – to conform to God’s desires for us – willingly. He also believed that rather than making human beings passive puppets, this gave humanity the most freedom and would be the best condition for our flourishing. If our natural will was functioning, we would be oriented toward God and not away from him.

The gnomic will or gnome (meaning inclination or intention) is really a different way of willing, not a different type of will. It means that we have moments of choosing. There isn’t a seamless process between our natural wills and God’s will. We desire, we deliberate, and we make a judgement. This is potentially hazardous! In these moments, we can choose something other than God’s will, and we do. It is this that leads us into sinful acts. Because of doubt and ignorance we make decisions against God and so the gnome is linked to sin.

Today we think that choice is essential to what it means to be free. Maximus believed that the only real freedom for humanity was freely and naturally conforming to the will of God.

You can probably see where this is going in relation to Jesus who was without sin. Maximus proposed that Jesus had a natural human will, not a gnomic will. There were no obstacles to his willing what the Father willed in his human willing. He did, nevertheless, know human willing. But why two – the divine and the human?

The Two Natures and the Two Wills

Maximus argued that Jesus Christ had two wills that were linked with his two natures: one divine and one human.

In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the council ruled that Jesus had two natures (divine and human) and that these two natures existed in his one person ‘without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation’. This meant that we could speak of him as both fully human and fully divine at one at the same time.

[The reason this was so important is because this secured Jesus’ identity as the one and only Saviour on the grounds that he is the one and only Mediator between God and humanity. There was and is no other God-man.

Irenaeus had written hundreds of years earlier, ‘If a human being had not overcome the enemy of humanity, the enemy would not have been rightly overcome. On the other side, if it had not been God to give us salvation, we would not have received it permanently.’

(Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 3.18.7)]

If the will is essential to the human nature, then Jesus had a human will and divine one. This was the link that Maximus made and this goes some way to explaining the scriptures cited above, but I will explain this in more detail in the next post.

I’ll just finish on one thought about what this idea means for human beings. Gregory of Nazianzus, hundreds of years earlier had come up with a phrase, ‘What is unassumed is unhealed.’ Quite simply, if there was an aspect of our human nature that had not been taken up into the Godhead in the Son, it would remain unhealed, and unredeemed.

It was essential, therefore, for Maximus that the human will was healed and redeemed in Christ.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at proposals for how this might have worked and then spell out a bit about what that might mean for us as human beings.

To read further, click HERE.

I am indebted to Ian A. McFarland’s essay “The Theology of the Will” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, edited by Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, 516-532. Oxford: OUP, 2015.

[1] From the Introduction by Jaroslav Pelican in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (NY: Paulist, 1985), 11.

[2] Ibid., 22-23.


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