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Daniel C. from London asks:
When Jesus says to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt.26:39), how should we think of this relationships within the Trinity? Did the Son have a different desire or will from the Father?
We posed the question to John McKinley, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and author of Tempted for Us: Theological Models and the Practical Relevance of Christ's Impeccability and Temptation.
The theological term that Jesus possesses two wills, one divine and one human, is Dyothelitism. God the Father and God the Son are distinct persons, but they share the same divine will. The difference of Jesus' will from his Father's will in Gethsemane is his human will. By incarnation, God the Son took up a second way of living as a man. He now possesses two natures. Each nature is complete, including a will for each. I define “will” as the spiritual capacity for desires and choice in the exercise of personal agency. But remember, these are mysterious operations (desiring, choosing) of mysterious realities (persons, wills, Trinity) that may leave us continuing to wonder even after thinking it all through as best we can.
We will consider briefly Jesus' divine will, his human will, the situation of Gethsemane, and how this affects our thinking about the Trinity.
Jesus' Divine Will
Before the incarnation, the Son of God is a divine person with a divine will. By this will, the Son loves his Father (John 14:31), obeyed his Father to become incarnate (John 8:42), sent the Holy Spirit to those who believed in him (John 15:26), and, in the future, will hand over the kingdom to his Father (1 Cor 15:28). What we are calling Jesus' divine will should be understood as a mysterious personal operation of choice that he shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is one God, without division or separation. A shared use of desires and choice is the way the three persons of the Godhead love each other and fulfill personal inter-relationship as co-essential, co-equal, and inseparable persons.
Jesus' Human Will
Through the incarnation, the Son of God entered into a true human life, complete with a created human will. This will includes his desires, decision-making process, and choices as a man. For his mission in salvation, he had to have a true human will, since God cannot be tempted to sin (James 1:13). The temptation of Jesus through his human will was necessary for him to succeed where Adam failed, and to obey God as a man for our righteousness (Rom 5:12-19). His human will was operative when he was a child obeying his parents (Luke 2:51). As an adult, Jesus showed his human will by voluntarily submitting to the Holy Spirit's leading (Luke 4:1), and by submitting to instruction from the Father by the Spirit as to what to do (John 5:30; 15:10) and what to teach (John 7:16). This dependency is also why Jesus had to pray frequently. Other examples of his human choices were to love his people (John 13:1) and to submit voluntarily to his Father's plan that he surrender himself and go to the cross (John 10:17-18).
In Gethsemane, we can see that Jesus prays from within his life as a man, as a creature under God. He pleads to his Father because he is motivated by his natural human desires to avoid the pain of hell. He sees it, and he strongly desires to avoid it (Heb 5:7). Jesus is the Son of God embedded in a human struggle between obeying God and self-preservation. This is the culmination of many temptations to sin that Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:15-16 report: Jesus suffered because of his total solidarity with sinners. The development of his human will shows in Hebrews 5:8 that he learned obedience through his suffering, and thereby became perfect as our priest (Heb 2:10). Jesus is here leading his people to rescue them, struggling as they struggle, on our behalf, as the last Adam constructing a new humanity. Jesus is also wrestling authentically as our model, the demonstration of the painful path for them to follow him (Rom 8:17; 1 Peter 2:21-25). Jesus had to make the choice as a man to deny himself, surrender his desires for self-preservation, and embrace his God's call and will that he suffer hell. This is the same situation for the believer who follows Jesus. These things are impossible someone who possesses only a divine will.
Thinking about Trinity
The idea of two wills in Christ seems weird to us. We expect that true and real persons in the Godhead must have opposable wills, and one person cannot have more than one will. The unity and coherence of being one person who is divine and human, with two wills, may be understood by starting with the eternal, pre-incarnate life of the Son and the Trinity. The Son of God obeys his Father in all things, as shows in the voluntary response of becoming incarnate according to the Father's command (John 3:16; Gal 4:4). His obedience as the Son of Man, according to his human will, is an extension of his eternal obedience, that he has come to do his Father's will (John 6:38). His earthly obedience is a parallel of his divine response to become incarnate.
The Son's obedience to become a man is like other prior commitments that people make in life. People repent and surrender to God, enter marriage with another person, and commit to contracts. Each example has an initial, comprehensive commitment, followed by incremental choices to fulfill that pledge by daily choices. The Son's response to become incarnate and obey as a man does not remove the validity of his individual struggles and choices taken on a daily basis as a man. The Son of God chose as God to become a man, and, as a man, he chose to obey to the point of suffering hell for others (Phil 2:8). We can also point to the analogy of a human father and son who work together as boss and employee—they live in two modes of relationship that run parallel in the order of authority and submission. One mode is family, and the other mode is economic.
As difficult as this is for us to imagine, we are not alone since the church has strenuously considered this question at several points in the early centuries, culminating in the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681-682 (Constantinople III). Earlier councils had declared orthodoxy that Jesus has a human body and a human soul (Constantinople I, 381; Chalcedon, 451; Constantinople II, 553). The sixth council directly considered the alternate proposal of one will and operation in Christ (Monothelitism). As with all the ecumenical councils, political factors in the unraveling Roman Empire motivated the circumstances of calling a formal debate. In this case, politicians had earlier sought to heal divisions by theological formulas of unity. At the council, theological factors prevailed in a careful review and refutation of Monothelitism, and produced a consensus affirmation of Dyothelitism. Since then, Eastern and Western churches and theologians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) have repeatedly confirmed that consensus.
One major argument used at the council for Dyothelitism is the unity of the Trinity. If the will is a component or property of the three persons separately and individually (as Monothelitism held), then that meant three wills in God, with potential conflict that undermined the oneness of God. Instead of three wills, we can think of three mutually constitutive persons, inseparable in personal operation and sharing their existence as the one God, including one divine will. This is mysterious, and a deeper union than what humans, who possess distinct and opposable wills, can ever experience. The Trinity unveils a vision of deep harmony and union for our relationship of surrender to God, after Jesus' pattern as a man submitted to God. Only in this way, with a true, created human will like us, does Jesus fulfill humanity by a true trial of our existence (Rom 8:3). He is truly the firstborn of the new humanity who are just like him, body and soul.