The Two Wills of Christ Part 3

This is the fourth post in a series. For part one click here, part two click here, and part three click here.

The Two Wills of Christ: Ideas to Die For (Part 3)

‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ Hebrews 2:14-18

‘Will the reason not become abundantly clear to anyone who reflects on it? As I have said, the Son came, or rather was made man, in order to reconstitute our condition within himself; first of all in his own holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life. This was why he himself became the first one to be born of the Holy Spirit (I mean of course after the flesh) so that he could trace a path for grace to come to us. He wanted us to have the intellectual regeneration and spiritual assimilation to himself, who is the true and natural Son, so that we too might be able to call God our Father, and so remain free of corruption as no longer owning our first father, that is Adam, in whom we were corrupted,’[1] – Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

I hope that I’ve explained in previous posts how the two wills of Christ a) gives us a better understanding of how salvation works through the God-man, and b) works in harmony with the ruling at the Council of Chalcedon regarding the two natures of Christ.

To recap: The Council ruled that the two natures are joined in the one person of Christ ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation: the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved.’

Maximus argues that just as the two natures of Christ exist distinctly but in harmony in the one person, so with the two wills.

Although it’s dangerous to speculate on the inner life of Christ (and I do so with caution), it’s also important that we attempt to make sense of the story of salvation as it’s been handed down to us. In addition to this, I think that there are rich truths about the nature of God and about the nature of our lives in him in this strange question of the two wills of Christ that are there to be mined.

A Non-Competitive Model

The picture we have is of one person, and this person is Jesus of Nazareth. It is irrefutable that this person is a human person in a human body. He was born, breathed, ate, grew, suffered, died. This one person is also the divine Son, the second person of the Trinity. This one person is the one subject of all the actions of Christ. So the two natures, and the two wills, are harmonized into one, but (see above) ‘the characteristic property of each…being preserved.’

One of our problems in understanding this is that we assume that in order for one nature to function, the other must diminish or ‘give way’. If God is in control, I can’t be. If I’m in control, no-one else can be.

How about we see the two natures of Christ functioning in one person in what is sometimes described as a ‘non-competitive’ fashion?

It is not that God ceases to function when assuming the human nature and acting in the human nature in Christ. In fact, it is the opposite, but this requires thinking in a different way about what happens to our humanity when God engages us.

What if there was a way for God’s will to fill my willing in a way that means that my will is not negated (I am still able to will of my own accord), but so that my life flourishes into its full potential? What if God’s will behind and in my will is an empowering and enriching force, shaping my will so that I am capable of far more than in my own capacity, but it is still me and still my capacity? What if I can only really be free if that happens? What if that is God’s ultimate will for all humanity?

How does that sound? Not too bad.

What’s the flip side though?

What if insisting on our own self-determination and ‘free will’ ultimately leads to the destruction of ourselves and of others in the end?

This offends us because submission is offensive, but it is precisely the pattern of life we see in Jesus Christ.

Remember the sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel:

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).

This dynamic, I want to suggest, is not just the means of our salvation, the offering up of the Son of his own accord for our sakes, but the pattern of the Christian life. (See Phil 2:1-11 which describes both in Christ.)

So in Jesus Christ, for the first time, a human willing is brought into perfect harmony with the will of God.

How might this work?

There are various explanations of how these two wills harmonize in Christ. The Western Church might speak of ‘grace’ and the Eastern Church of ‘energy’ and ‘energies’. I would say that both these categories could come under the overarching work of the Spirit.

In Christ, we see God the Son submitted to a frail, limited, human life, and yet this human life is first brought about in Mary’s womb, and then empowered, baptized, shaped, comforted, and even driven, by the Spirit.

The reason that the two wills debate is so fascinating is that even though the union of divine and human natures is effected in Mary’s womb (the hypostatic union), and thus the human nature is perfected, this is only the beginning of the human life of Christ. He then lives a life, which to all intents and purposes, looks like a life that any human being might have lived. The perfecting of the human nature in the hypostatic union is also the beginning of the journey of growth, of intimacy with the Father, of empowerment, of temptation, of knowledge, of obedience, of submission to death, and of eternal and resurrected life that takes place over the course of Christ’s life.

The human nature is at once perfected and being perfected through loving obedience in the power of the Spirit, and this is the pattern of living that becomes attainable for all humanity in Christ and the Spirit. It’s possible.

Cyril talks about the incarnation as ‘a new rootstock, a new beginning’. It is the promise of the gospel and what Paul describes in Romans 8.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17).

A Final Point

Although we read of the actions of God in the NT in the Father, Son, and Spirit, they are all the actions of the one God in his one will. The Son assumes the human nature and God as Father, Son, and Spirit acts upon the human nature of the Son to perfect humanity, first in him, and as a promise for us.

Imagine the reality that when God himself takes on a human nature it is with the sole purpose of saving humanity from destruction and re-creating it in all its glory and beauty.

Imagine that when God wills from and through a human nature, given the choice, he chooses to act solely and sacrificially for us.

[1] Cyril of Alexandria. On the Unity of Christ. Translated by John Anthony McGuckin. NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995, 62.


The Two Wills of Christ (Part 2): More ideas to die for

This is the third post in a series. For part one click here, and part two click here.

The Two Wills of Christ: Ideas to Die For (Part 2)

In this post, I’ll explain a bit more about how Maximus saw the two wills functioning in the one person of Christ.

Some of the problems with this idea could be:

  • Did it mean that Jesus had a will that was potentially in conflict with the Father?
  • Was there tension between the Son and the Father? How would that work if there was?
  • If what is unassumed is unhealed then should Jesus have assumed a corrupt will? Wouldn’t that make him sinful?
  • If he had a divine will as well, wouldn’t the divine will just have triumphed all the time anyway, making the human will effectively redundant?

You’re probably realizing that the fine line we’re trying to tread is a way of expressing that Jesus really did live a fully human existence while at the same time being God.

If he was God, then it makes no sense to imply that he wouldn’t have done what God would have done all the time, without even thinking about it so to speak!

On the other hand, we have this biblical testimony that we saw in the last post about the Son learning obedience, doing what the Father sends him to do, submitting to the will of the Father, and finally, seemingly wracked with pain and suffering in the garden of Gethsemane in the throes of bringing his ‘will’ into line with the Father’s.

If we accept, with Maximus, that this biblical testimony is best explained by two wills, how did they work together?

Jesus has a ‘natural’ will.

Maximus posits that Jesus only had a ‘natural’ human willing – a will that was oriented towards God, a will that was predisposed to conform to the will of the Father. Remember, gnome or the gnomic will is only a way of willing, not a type of will. According to Maximus, human beings sin because they deliberate and choose and then choose wrongly. The most ‘natural’ way of being human for Maximus was not to have endless choices and freedom to do the wrong thing, or to sin, but to be free to choose to follow God’s will. Hence, Jesus didn’t need to have a gnomic will to be fully human.

So in one sense, Jesus never ‘chose’ wrongly because he was freely and willingly obedient as the incarnate Son. He took on a human will, inhabited a human existence, and lived the first full and free life putting into practice everything that the Father willed.

Maximus explained Jesus’ torture in the garden not as tension or possible disobedience, but as a sign of the power of the natural will that wants, above all, to live, but instead submitted to death for our sakes. In this sense, he submits his natural will to something counter-intuitive for our sakes – the greatest sacrifice.

Next question…

If Jesus also had a divine will, wouldn’t it simply have just trumped his human will all the time anyway, so was his human will really functioning?

Here’s the difference between our worldview and Maximus’s worldview. We intuit that if someone, let’s say God, has some power over us to make us do what we want, then we are not free. Losing our freedom of choice means that we’ve lost everything – we’re puppets.

Maximus believed having our wills formed by God’s will was the ultimate in human freedom. He believed that Jesus’ human will was ‘deified’ by being in union with the divine, but that rather than annulling the function of the will, we could understand this as the perfection of human existence. If we were going to try and describe it we could say Jesus wills both divinely and humanly at once, in harmony, and that this is the ultimate goal for a human being.

The point is that to conform our wills to God’s is not to kill off the essence of our being, but precisely the opposite – to bring it to life. We live in a world where to be self-determining is the ultimate goal – that is freedom. Maximus believed in a world where to be self-determining will be what will kill us off in the end. The gnomic will, given its free reign, would destroy us. Jesus didn’t need to assume a gnomic will, simply a human will. As Ivor Davidson puts it, the story of Jesus’ two wills tells us that ‘He heals the human wills of those whose natural willing is bedevilled by the frustrations of gnome.’[1]

So why the commitment unto death?

There are two strands of thought here in relation to the two wills that I want to bring out, and the first is the inextricable link between the story of the two wills and the gospel.

Jesus the God-man and the Only Saviour

Maximus answered in his trial, ‘our Lord and God by nature both wills and works our salvation according to each of the natures from which he is, in which he is, as well as which he is.’

The first strand is the work of salvation that Maximus believed could only have been brought about by the fully human and fully divine person, Jesus. He achieves salvation for us by living the obedient life we couldn’t live, dying a death on our behalf, and triumphing over that death in the resurrection. The obedience of the human will is the key to this story of salvation. Paul describes the power and the effectiveness of the obedient life and death of Christ in contrast to Adam. One sows death, the other life.

Salvation is given to humanity through the Son who works both in his human and his divine nature. This goes back to the idea of Jesus as the Mediator, able to save because he is God, and able to save us because he is man. Everything that we are has been taken up into God, through the incarnation, healed, saved, and redeemed. The will of God found a corresponding ‘yes’ in the will of man, perfected and perfecting in the person of Christ.

This is what could not be compromised, according to Maximus. If Jesus only has one divine will, we lose our connection with our Saviour and he loses his connection with us. The two wills of Christ demonstrates the depth of love that God has for us, that he should become truly one with us. It proves that what has been assumed has been healed. But importantly, in a mysterious way that we can’t understand, it is the means by which this salvation occurs.

So for Maximus, this was the heart of the gospel.

In 680/81, less than 20 years after Maximus died, the Third Council of Constantinople condemned monoenergism and monothelitism as heretical and defined Jesus Christ has having two energies and two wills.

It was agreed.

Jesus our Pattern

The spin-offs from this story are vast in terms of what it means for us. What Maximus clings on to at all costs is also a way of understanding that Jesus lived this life in the manner that we ourselves live it in order to bring about this redemption. In the next post I’ll explain how the two wills of Christ and the role of the Spirit in his earthly life act as a pattern for our own lives.

To read further, click HERE.

[1] Davidson, Ivor, “ ‘Not My Will but Yours Be Done’: The Ontological Dynamics of Incarnational Intention.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7/2 (2005): 178-204, 195.



Schizophrenic Jesus?

Schizophrenic Jesus?

Imagine you were facing an inquisition and, on pain of torture, mutilation, and exile, they asked you to answer the following question correctly: ‘How many ‘wills’ does Jesus have – one or two?’ Apart from thinking you’d stumbled into a Monty Python sketch, what else might go through your mind? Is that even a question? Isn’t the answer obvious? Is it a trick question? But you’re being pressed now for the correct answer – one or two? And they’re serious. So what’s your answer?

I’m guessing, if you’ve never studied theology, you’re going with one. One will. Jesus had God’s will didn’t he? He always did what the Father wanted him to do, and anyway, he was God, even though he was a man, and it makes no sense to say that he had two, so we’ll go with one. I’m saying one – one will. Am I right?

Well, if you’d given that answer to your inquisitors in Constantinople in 662 AD they’d have slapped you on the back, given you a commendation and a piece of cake and sent you on your way. You were right. Phew! That was lucky.

Only if you’d given that answer in Constantinople in 681 AD, less than 20 years later, you’d have been………..wrong. The answer was two – and it still is.

What? How and why did that happen?

This did actually happen. An elderly monk called Maximus faced a trial where he was told that if he didn’t agree with the emperor’s ruling that Jesus only had one will (a divine will), that he and his disciples would be exiled. He couldn’t agree. Maximus believed that as the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human will. He was exiled to Thrace in 655 and told to keep his subversive ideas quiet, except he didn’t. He was hauled back in 661 and cross-examined. He dug his heels in. Jesus Christ had two wills. As a punishment, he had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off so he could no longer speak or write his dreadful heresy. He was exiled again and died soon after on August 13th, 662. Shocking, hey?

What’s more shocking is that less than 20 years later, a council was called, and they changed their minds! Maximus was right after all. Jesus Christ had two wills – a divine will and a human one – and so it stands. No wonder he was made a saint.

There were politics involved. Of course there were politics. This time between the East and the West, the Roman and the Byzantine church, and Maximus was on the wrong side of the political divide. But it wasn’t just that. In amongst the political wranglings this was a row about who God is in Christ, and how he saves us. This is why Maximus dug his heels in, and why he was prepared to lose his precious tongue and his precious hand – all for the sake of an idea.

What is it about Christian doctrine, what we believe about God and why, that becomes a matter of life and death – literally? This is a fascinating question. In following posts, I’ll explain why Maximus was prepared to die for his idea. I’ll look at why the idea of Jesus having two wills wasn’t and still isn’t a dry and fusty academic debate, and why the Eastern church made a decision in the end that this was, in fact, the correct answer.

To read further, click HERE.

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