The Two Wills of Christ

In addition to reaffirming the resolutions of Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), and Constantinople II (553), the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople III (680) confirmed that Jesus Christ has both human and divine wills (Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds, 225):

And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For just as his flesh is said to be and is flesh of the Word of God, so too the natural will of his flesh is said to and does belong to the Word of God.

That Jesus’ human will exists along side His divine will profoundly reiterates, reinforces, and extends Gregory of Nazianzus’ understanding that “the unassumed is the unhealed” (Nazianzus, “First Letter,” 158). That is to say, our defective and corrupted human will is not healable unless the incarnation of the Logos assumed all of humanity, including human will. Ergo, Christ must have possessed a human will. Until Constantinople III, however, there was no definitive orthodox statement of faith that proclaimed the existence of both human and divine wills in our Saviour.

Although unnamed in the resolution determined at Constantinople III, Maximus the Confessor had a significant part to play in the articulation and defence of the doctrine of two wills of Jesus. Perhaps the most famous of Maximus’ works on this topic is Opusculum 6: On the Two Wills of Christ in the Agony of Gethsemane. In spite of its short length, Opusculum 6 tremendously impacted the Church’s understanding of Christ’s human will by probing the very difficult moment in Gethsemane where it appears – at first glance – as though Jesus lacks full divinity. It is the mandate of this blog post to thoroughly exegete, by way of overview and analysis, Opusculum 6 in order to better understand the doctrine of the two wills and to have a clearer grasp of how the bishops at Constantinople III may have arrived at their conclusion of who Christ is.

The foundational scriptural passage for Opusculum 6 is Matthew 26:39, “Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me, yet let not what I will, but what you will prevail.” It is from Maximus’ exegesis of this passage that we receive, in this work, a doctrine of the two wills of Jesus Christ.

Maximus begins by refuting perceived resistance by Jesus to the will of God the Father (Maximus, “Opusculum 6,” 173):

Is it a matter of resistance or courage, of agreement or disagreement? Certainly no one of a right mind will dispute that it is a matter neither of contention nor cowardice but of perfect harmony and concurrence.

Maximus argues that what appears to be resistance, let this cup pass from me, is more appropriately understood as courage. Although Jesus may not desire to take the cup of crucifixion, ultimately He does will to endure it. To actively will in opposition to His innate desire is a demonstration of courage not resistance, of agreement not disagreement. Maximus is quick to illuminate that Jesus wilfully surrenders to the will of the Father, yet let not what I will, but what you will prevail. The primary will of Jesus in this passage, therefore, is to do the will of the Father. The negation, let not what I will, is secondary to fulfilling the will of the Father, but [let] what you will prevail, thus demonstrating harmony and concurrence between the will of Jesus and the will of the Father.

Upon establishing that the will of Jesus is in harmony and concurrence with the will of the Father, Maximus (“Opusculum 6,” 174) inquires, “Who then do you understand as the subject?” In other words, who is Jesus? Maximus (“Opusculum 6,” 174) asks, Is He “a man who is just like us or the man we consider in the role of Saviour?” That is, is He entirely and solely human, which is considered heresy, or is He both entirely human and entirely divine, as orthodoxy decrees? Maximus explores each possibility.

Relying heavily on Gregory of Nazianzus, Maximus (“Opusculum 6,” 174) declares that he cannot be a human like us:

If it is from the man who is just like us, then our teacher Gregory errs when he declares, ‘…seeing as the human will does not always follow God but so often resists and contends with him.’ For if it follows God, it is not resisting him, and if it is resisting him, it is not following him.

His point is that if we acknowledge that Jesus’ will is in line with the will of God the Father, then the subject is not, in most likely terms, a human like us. For, according to Maximus, a human like us would “resist and contend” with the will of God. It seems as though Maximus may be exaggerating Gregory’s intention in that Gregory has not indicated, in this phrase, that the human will alwaysresists and contends with God. A broader contextual understanding of Gregory’s purpose would help us to assess Maximus’ exegesis here. Nevertheless, it is clear in this Opusculum that Maximus is leveraging this line from Gregory in order to demonstrate that a human like us would resist the will of God in this instance.

The other option is that Jesus is not a human like us, but a human “we consider as Saviour” (“Opusculum 6,” 174):

If, however, you understand the subject of the phrase, Let not what I will, but what you will prevail, to be not the man just like us but the man we consider as Saviour, then you have confessed the ultimate concurrence of his human will with the divine will, which is both his and the Father’s.

Maximus is careful in how he phrases Jesus’ divine identity. By rendering this identity, the man we consider as Saviour, he encompasses both the human and divine natures, for to be Saviour Jesus must, being fully divine, assume all of humanity. And, since the man we consider as Saviour is divine, His will absolutely agrees with the will of the Father. In addition, as a human being, His human will must agree with His divine will, which is “both his and the Father’s.”

To this point Maximus has acknowledged that Jesus is the Logos, that as the Logos Jesus’ divine will is One with the Father, and that as a human being Jesus’ human will agrees with His and the Father’s divine will. Maximus then argues that Jesus must have two wills (“Opusculum 6,” 174):

…you have demonstrated that with the duality of his natures there are two wills and two operations respective to the two natures, and that he admits of no opposition between them, even though he maintains all the while the difference between the two natures from which, in which, and which he is by nature.

Established orthodoxy at this time proclaimed that Jesus is of two natures, divine and human. These two natures, however, both belong to the Logos so that there is only one hypostasis, or subjectivity, to Christ (For more on the hypostatic union of Christ, see McGuckin, Saint Cyril, 212-16). Maximus incorporates this understanding of orthodoxy to explain why Jesus has two wills. He asserts that just as there are two natures in the one person of Jesus there must be two wills. Otherwise, Jesus does not possess a full and truly human nature; remembering that what is unassumed is unhealed. However, just as the creed (Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds, 181) states that Logos is “in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation… [and] at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union,” the human and divine wills of Jesus have no opposition between them. The human will has been “assumed within the mode of the hypostatic union” (“Opusculum 6,” n174). Jesus, therefore, exists from two natures, a truly Cyrillian understanding, in two natures, a classically Chalcedonian definition, and actually istwo natures, a term authentic to Maximus (“Opusculum 6,” n174). And, since Jesus is two natures, He is also of two wills.

Following these assertions, Maximus explores the potential objection that the negation, not what I will, comes neither from a human just like us nor from the human we consider in the role of Saviour, but rather from the eternal divinity of the Only-Begotten (i.e. from the divine nature of Jesus, rather than His human nature). However, he dismisses this objection as absurd (“Opusculum 6,” 175):

For it is impossible for the negation to apply to both things: the Only-Begotten’s willing something for himself separately from the Father and that which is willed [by God] itself. Otherwise, since the Father and the Son always share a common will, negation would be negation of what is willed by God, namely, our salvation – and we know that is what God wills by his very nature.

In short, the will of the Only-Begotten cannot negate the will of the Father because the two wills are eternally One and the same. Therefore, Maximus is articulating that the negation, not what I will, cannot come from the divine nature and will of Jesus. It can only come from His human nature and will. Otherwise, God would be negating against Himself, which is illogical and impossible. The negation, however, does belongs to Jesus and, since His divine will cannot negate the will of the Father we can conclude that (1) Jesus must have a human will that is capable of negating the will of God, and (2) Jesus, therefore, has two wills just as he is two natures.

To further prove this point Maximus argues that if the negation belonged to the Only-Begotten, then it would cease to be a negation at all because a negation of God is not actually a negation, but rather an expression of His will (“Opusculum 6,” 175):

…it is obvious that if you opt to apply it to the Son willing something for himself, in order to affirm the common will between Father and Son, you are not repudiating what is willed, namely, the declining of the cup, but you are in fact ascribing that declining to their common and eternal divinity, to which you have also referred the exercise of will in the negating.

The Son cannot negate against the Father. Since they have a common will, anything the Son wills for Himself is an expression of the common divine will. Since salvation requires Jesus to take the cup and since God wills salvation, the negation cannot come from Jesus’ divine nature. The conclusion, therefore, that we have laboured so arduously for, is that the negation comes from Jesus’ human will, thus proving that it does actually exist.

Maximus has demonstrated that Jesus is two natures, and that accordingly he has two wills. He has also meticulously conveyed that the negation, not what I will, proceeds from Jesus’ human nature and will, not his divine nature and will. He has expressed, by exegesis, that the human and divine wills are never in opposition. We will now investigate a fuller explanation of this truth.

Maximus’ first step is to call on established rules of orthodoxy to demonstrate that Jesus’ human and divine wills are in perfect harmony (“Opusculum 6,” 176):

…clearly the negation here – Not what I will – absolutely precludes opposition and instead demonstrates harmony between the human will of the Saviour and the divine will shared by him and his Father, given that the Logos assumed our nature in its entirety and deified his human will in the assumption.

This statement requires very little expounding since it calls on the orthodox doctrine established in the first five Ecumenical Councils. It is absolutely crucial, however, to acknowledge this pillar of the faith in order for him to make his second step.

Having accepted the rules of orthodoxy, Maximus exegetes this prayer of Jesus as His human will rising to meet His divine will in perfect accordance (“Opusculum 6,” 176):

It follows, then, that having become like us for our sake, he was calling on his God and Father in a human manner when he said, Let not what I will, but what you will prevail, inasmuch as, being God by nature, he also in his humanity has, as his human volition, the fulfillment of the will of the Father.

Clearly Jesus’ divine will was One and the same as the will of the Father. What we see here, however, is not the activity of His divine will, but rather the activity of His human will. At this moment Jesus wills, as a human being, to fulfill the will of the Father and in so doing He perfectly heals humanity of a corrupt will that has consistently forsaken the will of God since the Fall of Adam.

Maximus has developed this idea further in Ad Thalassium 21: On Christ’s Conquest of the Human Passions where he writes that in the incarnation Jesus assumed the original human condition so that He could fully restore humanity by deifying our entire nature (“Ad Thalassium 21,” 111):

Taking on the original condition of Adam as he was in the beginning, he was sinless but not incorruptible, and he assumed, from the procreative process introduced into human nature as a consequence of sin, only the liability to passions, not the sin itself… Clearly he won the victory over [the evil powers] for our sake, not for his own; and it was for us that he became a man and, in his goodness, inaugurated a complete restoration… He submitted to [the human condition] so that, by experiencing our temptations, he might provoke the evil power and thwart its attack, putting to death the very power that expected to seduce him just as it had Adam in the beginning.

The moment of negation by Jesus’ human will in Gethsemane is the supreme example of Christ’s victory. Unlike Adam in Eden, Jesus’ human will maintained unity with the will of God, thus defeating the evil powers that had corrupted Adam in the beginning. Where Adam had failed, Christ was victorious, both mements unfolding in a garden.

In order to restore humanity it is essential that His victory was not just won through His divine nature but also through His human nature (“Opusculum 6,” 176):

This is why, considering both of the natures from which, in which, and of which his person was, he is acknowledged as able both to will and to effect our salvation. As God, he approved that salvation along with the Father and the Holy Spirit; as man, he became for the sake of that salvation obedient to his Father unto death, even death on a cross(Philippians 2:8). He accomplished this great feat of the economy of salvation for our sake through the mystery of his incarnation.

If Jesus does not have a human will then we are still corrupted and in our sins. However, since Christ’s human nature became obedient to the will of the Father unto death, even death on a cross, human nature has been transformed from within and deified.

This deification was enacted first in the incarnation and is now available through Christ’s obedient sacrifice for all believers. As Maximus writes (“Ambiguum 7,” 51-52):

…the Son subjects to the Father those who freely accept subjection (1 Corinthians 15:28). This subjection will be voluntary, and through it the last enemy, death, will be destroyed. That which is in our power, our free will, through which the power of corruption entered into us, will surrender voluntarily to God and will have mastery of itself because it had been taught to refrain from willing anything other than what God wills. As our Saviour himself said, taking what is ours into himself, Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matthew 26:39).

Clearly Jesus’ victory becomes our own. Although the human will of the first Adam forsook the divine will, leading to sin and death, the human will of the second Adam – namely Jesus Christ – was obedient to the divine will, thus restoring humanity from sin and giving eternal life.

In a few short pages Maximus has comprehensively demonstrated that Jesus has two wills. In a natural cohesion of Christology and soteriology, he even goes so far as to illustrate that our salvation depends on it. The Council of Constantinople III resolved once and for all any orthodox debate concerning the two wills of Christ by crafting a resolution that reads almost as if it were penned by Maximus himself. Even so, in his lifetime Maximus had his tongue ripped out, his writing hand chopped off, and was sent into exile so that he could no longer confess his faith. There may be no reference to his name in the resolution at Constantinople III, but nevertheless the Church owes him much gratitude for suffering torture and exile so that we might better grasp who Jesus Christ is. May we all seek to glorify God as much.

Works Cited

Pelikan, Jaroslav and Valerie Hotchkiss (eds.) Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition: Volume One. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus. “First Letter to Cledonius ,” In On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, 155-166. Edited by John Behr. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002.

Maximus the Confessor. “Ad Thalassium 21: On Christ’s Conquest of the Human Passions.” In On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 109-114. Edited by John Behr. Translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.

———- “Ambiguum 7: On the Beginning and End of Rational Creatures ,” In On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 45-74. Edited by John Behr. Translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.

———- “Opusculum 6: On the Two Wills of Christ in the Agony of Gethsemane.” In On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 173-76. Edited by John Behr. Translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.

McGuckin, John. Saint Cyril of Alexandria an the Christological Controversy. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

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