All of Jesus’s human life led him to this garden. As he knelt and prayed in Gethsemane, waiting in agony — with beads of sweat “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44) — here he made the Choice.
Countless decisions, big and small, brought him here, but only in the garden did he finalize the decision to go to the cross. Gethsemane marked his last and most distressing moments of deliberation. He chose to enter the garden, and he could have chosen to flee.
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,” he prayed. “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). There, on his knees, Jesus chose — with his human will, like ours, which naturally recoiled at the threat of pain and death — to embrace the one divine will of his Father, which was also his, as eternal Son.
When he rose from prayer (Luke 22:45), the decision was done, his fully human will in perfect synch and submission to the divine. Now, as Judas and the soldiers arrived, he would be acted upon: arrested, accused, tried, struck, flogged, and crucified.
Two Wills in Christ
For centuries, dyothelitism is the term the church has used to refer to the two wills of Christ — the one divine will he (eternally) shares as God, with his Father (and the Spirit), and a natural human will that is his by virtue of the incarnation and his taking on our full humanity. We speak of two wills in the one unique person of the God-man.
“Jesus has a human will, like us, with which he sympathizes, strengthens, and saves.”
In multiple places in John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to his human will in distinction from that of his Father, “the one who sent me.” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
Yet the place where Jesus’s distinctly human will stands out most is Gethsemane, in those final moments of Choice before he is taken and, humanly speaking, there is no turning back. Not only did Jesus teach his men to pray to his Father “your will be done” (Matthew 6:10), but in the garden, Christ himself prayed, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39), and then again, “your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). And in doing so, he embraced the divine will with his human volition.
Human All the Way?
The early church endured attacks against both Jesus’s deity (from Arians) and his full humanity (from Docetists and Apollinarians), questioning his fully human body, emotions, and mind. The battle for his human will came last and was the most sophisticated. The conflict, prompted by political intrigue, raged in the seventh century and led to a sixth ecumenical council in 680–681, the third at Constantinople. Obscure as the refined nature of the controversy may seem to us today, the debate between dyothelitism and the opposing view (monothelitism) still carries the theological significance it did more than twelve centuries ago, and warrants our attention, perhaps all the more in circles where it has been neglected or forgotten.
In contrast to monothelitism, which claims the divine will of the Son animates the human body and soul of Jesus, dyothelitism presses for the full, uncompromised humanity of Christ. We find two wills in the agony of Gethsemane in the one person of Christ. There is a human nature in him that desires the removal of the cup — that there be some other way, if possible, than the divine will. The question, then, is when Christ prays, “not my will, but yours, be done,” whose will is “my will,” and whose is “yours”?
When the question was freshly pressed on the church in the seventh century, the explanation that emerged as most compelling, and enduring, was that of Maximus the Confessor (born 580) — even though he did not live to see the triumph. At the time, dyothelitism was not politically expedient to the emperor Constans’s ambitions to reunite Christian regions against the threat of Islam. Maximus was arrested and exiled, and he died in exile eight years later at age 81. Seven years later, Constans was assassinated. Soon the imperial attitude changed, and twenty years after Maximus’s death, his theology carried the day at the ecumenical council.
It was Maximus, claims Demetrios Bathrellos, who “was really the first to point out in an unambiguous way that it is the Logos (the eternal Son) as a man who addressed the Father in Gethsemane. . . . [Maximus] emphasized the fact that in Gethsemane Christ decided as man to obey the divine will, and thus overcame the blameless human instinctive urge to avoid death” (The Byzantine Christ, 146–147).
In this way, we confess two wills in the unique divine-human God-man. As God, Jesus “wills by his divine will and as man obeys the divine will by his human will” (174). In Maximus’s own words, “The subject who says ‘let this cup pass from me’ and the subject who says ‘not as I will’ are one and the same.” So, writes Bathrellos, “[B]oth the desire to avoid death and the submission to the divine will of the Father have to do with the humanity of Christ and his human will” (147).
Why His Wills Matter
Obscure as the ancient debate may seem at first, one reason for its enduring relevance is our own humanity. We are human as they were human. And in particular, our wills are human, constrained by finitude. Humans like us have an interest (not just intellectually but very practically) in the question, Was Christ indeed “made like [us] in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17)? And is he able “to sympathize with our weaknesses [as] one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)?
“If Christ is not fully human, there is no great salvation for humans.”
Even more than sympathy, Is Christ truly able to save us? If he is not fully human, there is no great salvation for humans. As the famous maxim of Gregory of Nazianzus claims, that which Christ has not assumed, he has not healed. And not just healed eternally, but even in this life. What hope do we have of his reclaiming, sanctifying, and redeeming our own fallen, sinful human wills if the eternal Son has not descended to the full extent of our humanity, yet without sin? As Edward Oakes writes, “Since will is the very seat of sin, its fons et origo, we are still left in our plight if Christ did not have a human will” (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy, 162). Would Christ come in human flesh and blood, emotions and mind, and leave the human will, “the very seat of sin,” untaken, untouched, and unredeemed?
Also, a “trinitarian logic” informs and reinforces the two wills of Christ. According to Donald Fairbairn and Ryan Reeves, “Maximus argued that since in the Trinity there are three persons and one nature, and also one will, the will must be a function of the nature, not the person” (150). That is an important distinction: that the will, whether divine or human, is a function of the theological category “nature,” not “person.” Two wills in Christ (one human, one divine) correspond with one will in God. One will in Christ (divine only) would mean that the two wills in tension in Gethsemane would be between divine “persons” (Father and Son) rather than between “natures” (divine and human), challenging oneness in the Godhead, and thus revising not only orthodox Christology but also trinitarianism.
Yet, “even more significant,” notes Fairbairn and Reeves, is the “soteriological conviction that the unassumed is unhealed” (150). Human salvation in Christ is at stake in the human will of Christ, not only in his receiving in himself the penalty of our fallen wills (as we’ve seen), but also in his own obedience, as the God-man, to his Father. As man, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), and as man, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). “The many will be made righteous,” says Romans 5:19, “by the one man’s obedience” — a human obedience, by virtue of the incarnation, he could not have rendered apart from a human will.
Cult of Will
Not only does dyothelitism correlate best with God’s triune nature, our human nature, and the nature of the atonement, but in locating the will as a function of the “nature,” rather than the “person,” dyothelitism guards us against the modern “cult of will.” Oakes warns, “When personhood is identified without further ado with the will, then the cult of will in Friedrich Nietzsche and his postmodern successors inevitably follows” (164). Oakes points to Bathrellos’s “extremely thought-provoking observation that so many of the ethical outrages of today can be traced to the . . . error of identifying nature with person.” Says Bathrellos,
The tendency to identify personhood with nature or natural qualities and especially with the mind . . . seems to occur quite often in the history of human thought. It is remarkable that in our own day some philosophers of ethics give a definition of “person” based on mental and volitional capacities, and in doing so make it possible to justify, for example, abortion and even infanticide. (14)
However far-reaching the implications of Christ’s two wills, and full humanity, we as Christians are worshipers first and foremost. We declare, as the cardinal confession of our faith, “Jesus is Lord” — and when we do so, we submit to a Sovereign not only infinitely high above us as God but one who has drawn near as our own brother and friend, and went so low to serve and sacrifice himself for us. In addition to his divine will as God, Jesus has a human will, like us, with which he sympathizes, strengthens, and saves.