Three Objections to Dyothelitism: 1

Awhile ago a Protestant friend asked me about the doctrine of dyothelitism (that Jesus Christ has two natural wills, one human and one divine). Because he is the kind of Protestant who wants to remain loyal to the Councils and Fathers, he wished to agree with St. Maximus the Confessor’s dyothelitism. At the same time, he felt drawn to monothelitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one will, that his will is properly located in his person, and that the will is not fundamentally part of either of his natures).

Here are his objections, which I have rephrased and expanded on below:

1. Argument from the Gospels: When the Gospels speak of the contrast between “my will” and “thy will” in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane and the Bread of Life Discourse, they seem to suggest a contrast between the single will of the person of Christ and the single will of the person of the Father. This is because the wills are spoken of (a) possessively, (b) singularly, and (c) as having very different objects. If Christ can be spoken of as possessing a will, having a singular will, or having a different object of will from the Father, we have exegetical reason to think that Christ has only one will.

2. Nestorian dilemma: Either there is (a) something deeply counterintuitive about saying that one person has two wills or (b) an implicit Nestorianism in the dyothelite position. Intuitively, the will is what performs intentional actions. But then if there are two things in Christ that perform actions, this seems to mean that Christ is composed out of two separate agents or persons, each acting independently and with its own personal purposes. But this is (roughly, in a somewhat caricatured way) the Nestorian position: Christ is two separate persons one human and one divine, and He is not one divine person. Either we must deny the intuitive claim that two things which perform intentional actions imply the existence of two persons, or we must admit that dyothelitism implies Nestorianism.

3. Inductive support: Based on induction, it is likely that all persons have only one will. Why? We do not have any examples of a single person with two wills. All our examples of persons are the same: one person is matched to one will. Where there are two wills at work, there are two persons. Where there is one will operating, there is one person. Thus, it is improbable that any person could have two wills.

The first two objections remind me of Evangelical philosophers like William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland who use these arguments in favor of monothelitism (Craig and Moreland are unlike my friend, for they seem to deny that tradition has any significant weight in these matters). There is also a lot of similarity to the arguments that the monothelite bishop Pyrrhus made in dialog with the champion of dyothelitism, St. Maximus the Confessor. Setting aside concerns about how to understand the authority of tradition in Protestant theology, each argument deserves a reply. In the rest of this post I reply to the first argument (and in later posts I will deal with the other 2). Though some of this is review for seasoned readers of this blog, I thought it might be helpful nonetheless.

1. Reply to the argument from the Gospels

The passages in contention are the accounts of Gethsemane, and the Bread of Life Discourse. The surface grammar of these two sets of passages initially seems to overwhelmingly suggest monothelitism (one will in Christ; will is connected to person, not nature). We can distinguish three arguments for monothelitism here. (a) If we just think about the phrasing of “my will” in contrast to “thy will” it is possessive (suggesting will is properly possessed by a person). (b) The wording is also singular; Christ does not speak of “my wills”, but of “my will”. (c) Furthermore, the wills seem to have different, and in fact opposing, objects: life and death. This appearance of opposition suggests that the two wills cannot be present in one divine Person. Although these three pieces of evidence suggest that monothelitism is taught in the Gospels, a second look shows that Christ here expresses the doctrine of dyothelitism (two wills, one in each nature).

Reply to (a): With respect to possessive terms like “my” and “mine”, it is important to consider a parallel case here. In John 6 Christ speaks of “my flesh”. The fact that He uses the word “my” does not, however, imply that flesh is properly personal. Flesh is natural (the word for “flesh” can mean either the body or human nature, or various other things). Thus, an argument from possessive terms alone is not sufficient to demonstrate that “my will” implies this will is personal.

Reply to (b): To see the distinction between two wills in Christ, we must find a way to tie each will spoken of (“my will” and “thy will”) to Christ, since at face value “thy will” is proper to the Father, not Christ. If Christ can be shown to have both “my will” and “thy will”, then this will be sufficient to show He has two wills. Then, if it can be shown that each will is tied to one of his natures, dyothelitism will be established.

His human will is expressed by saying (Luke 22) “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me”. This is a request to live and avoid the cross. And because it is a request, it shows He is in fact willing to live and avoid the cross. The phrase “not my will” also supports that what is expressed by “remove this cup” is an act of will (not just a desire). Because He wills to avoid the cross, this shows us that Christ is experiencing the fear of death—something that only humans are subject to. Thus, the phrase “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” combined with “not my will” shows that Christ is referring to a will which He has, but which is subject to fear of death—in other words, a human will.

His divine will is expressed by the fact that He says “Not my will, but your will be done”. This implies that Christ willed the same thing as the Father (“your will be done”) and also willed something different from the Father (“not my will”).

Jesus also says “I came down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). This verse emphasizes that Jesus willed to accept the cross prior to taking flesh (“I came down from heaven to do [and thus do willingly, not involuntarily] the will of Him who sent Me”). And if Jesus actively willed to accept the cross prior to the Incarnation, then He willed divinely. This by itself is compatible with saying that Christ has here performed just one act of will, and that it is a personal action. However, at the same time, He distinguishes this first act of will from a second which He calls “my own will”. While traditional Christology and Trinitarian theology would claim that the Father and Son can both call the divine will “mine” because they share it by common nature, in this context “my own” implies a distinction. Furthermore, this will has a different object (the Father’s will is “not my own will”) and therefore is not a divine will. Both acts of will are present in Christ simultaneously. Each act has a different object (one object is included in the divine will, the other object is not included in the divine will); therefore there is a distinct faculty for each act of will.

Reply to (c): If Christ has both “my will” and “thy will”, why do these two wills appear to be in conflict? This apparent tension is not what we would expect if Christ is a divine person. On the one hand, his human will has a natural drive towards life. Thus He is subject to fear of death, and wills humanly to live and avoid the cross. On the other hand, He has divinely willed to be “slain before the foundation of the world”. This apparent conflict between a divine will and a human will suggests that Christ is choosing to sin with his human will, which conflicts with the Scriptural teaching that He never sinned (and that He is incapable of sin, because He is a divine person). The burden of the dyothelite position is to give a coherent account of how both of these distinct wills with their distinct objects can belong to Christ without this implying opposition between the two wills or sin within his human will.

Many theologians in the West (who have attempted to affirm dyothelitism) have regarded “my will” as merely an expression of desire in temptation, not of willful choice. These theologians see Christ’s divine will as subordinating or determining his human will to accept the cross and overcome temptation. But this does not do justice to St. Luke’s odd word choice of “thelēma” (will, not just desire) in the phrase “not my will” (nor, ironically, is the strategy of these Western theologians in line with dyothelitism itself).

The way St. Maximus interprets the passage is along the following lines. The two wills of Christ are not opposed. Instead, they are distinct without opposition (just like his divine and human natures, which may appear opposed on first glance, but are not). Christ is willing two distinct but equal goods. The salvation of the world via Christ’s death and the preservation of his life are different goals. But they are not ultimately in conflict, so long as Christ eventually would consent to the cross (fulfilling the purpose of salvation) and then be resurrected (fulfilling the purpose of life).

Thus, the dyothelite can give the following coherent account of what happens in Gethsemene: before He finishes his final prayer in Gethsemane, Christ at first wills humanly the good of life by means of avoiding the cross, while He simultaneously divinely wills the good of salvation by means of the passion. Then in completing his final prayer, He brings his human will into conformity with the divine will, choosing to ascend the cross and resurrect in the flesh. He still wills the good of preserving life, but through a different means (resurrection, not avoiding death). On St. Maximus’ view, Christ’s human will is free. Thus, his divine will does not causally determine his human will to choose the cross. Rather, his divine *Person* freely consents and chooses with his human will. His human will is brought *freely into submission* with his divine will, but his human will is *not subordinated* to his divine will by causal determination. Also, it is important to realize that because Christ is a divine person, He is incapable of willing anything less than good choices. He cannot sin; thus his freedom is a choice not between good and evil, but between a multiplicity of equal goods. So in the Garden, Christ is not struggling with how to overcome the temptation that arises when one deliberates over which action leads to the highest good. Instead, the agony of Christ in Gethsemane arises as He chooses which of two goods to will at various times.

This account shows that one can affirm what the Gospels say about Christ’s will, and still maintain He has two wills which are not opposed to each other. [1]

Stay tuned for replies to the second and third objections…

[1] I am indebted throughout to the work of Demetrios Batrellos and J. P. Farrell.


  1. Reblogged this on Microcosmology and commented:
    Michael Garten over at Energetic Procession goes back over the perennial question of willing in Christ, this time considering three objections to the dyothelite position (i.e. that Christ had a human and divine will, not a divine will alone) asserted by St Maximus the Confessor and upheld by the sixth ecumenical council: 1) that the Gospel implies one will, not two; 2) that asserting two wills implies Nestorianism–Christ being two persons, not one; and 3) by induction, we often see person and will to be identical, assuming they are one and the same agent–how is it different in Christ? In this first post out of three, Mr Garten addresses point #1, considering current Protestant positions put forward in support of the objection, followed by a look at St Maximus’ response to the problem from the vantage point of the Gospel.


  2. It’s worth noting, in support of your conclusions, that Hebrews 5 reaches the same conclusion regarding the temptation in the garden you do: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared…” That is, in the garden, He willed salvation from death, *and received* salvation from death.


  3. Based on induction, it is likely that all persons have only one will. Why? We do not have any examples of a single person with two wills. All our examples of persons are the same: one person is matched to one will.

    Sorry to skip ahead to your next post, but isn’t Romans 7 a contradiction to this? Is not even our own intuitive subjective experience a denial of this? At any given point in time, can there not be several competing desires (expressions of the personal will or wills?) in a single person? Further, can these not as easily be inherently good desires as well as evil ones? Istm, given that we live in a fallen world, not even all inherently good desires can be realized fully without compromising others until the consummation of all things. Are we not always having to struggle to discern which of our desires to subordinate to others?


  4. You guys have very in-depth arguments on this page. I hope you can help me out. I am having trouble finding the Trinity in the Bible at all. In fact, the Bible doesn’t seem to support the doctrine of the Trinity at all. How do you guys argue for the Trinity from Scripture?


  5. Karen,

    There is a distinction between the faculty of the will and the faculty of appetite, and between acts of will and desires. The faculty of will is the natural power by means of which acts of will are voluntarily performed. The faculty of appetite is the natural power by which desires are produced. Desires and acts of will differ in several ways. Desires are passive in a way that acts of will are not. This is because desires are produced by events of various kinds, whereas acts of will are produced by a person’s use of the power of will. Thus we cannot be responsible for them in the same way: we are directly responsible for acts of will, but only indirectly responsible for the desires we have (if we choose to be in situations where desires arise). Also, desires are not decisions or commitments in the same way that acts of will are. To desire something is not to express alignment with it; to will something is to align with it and decide in favor of it.

    Because of these distinctions, the fact that an individual human person may have conflicting desires in the soul does not provide an example of a single person with two wills. When St. Maximus speaks of two wills, he means two faculties or powers of will, each of which performs separate activities of willing.

    You are right, it seems true that there can easily be multiple inherently good desires that conflict in some way or another. And according to Orthodox theology, human persons do constantly struggle to discern which desires should be given priority. But these struggles are very different than the struggle by a single person regarding how to perform two different acts of will, each by means of a totally different power of will, with each act having a totally different object of will.


  6. Philosophical Inquirer,

    The Scriptures teach the existence of one God, and the existence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So I guess I’m curious which part of the doctrine of the Trinity you don’t find in Scripture. Are you looking for evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person, not a force? Are you looking for evidence that the Son or the Spirit is fully divine, as opposed to a lesser divinity?


  7. Philosophicalenquirerp,

    Your queries are off topic for this post, which is why they receive no attention.

    In sum, if you aren’t persuaded by the patristic arguments from scripture and tradition, then there is no much we can add. Second, what one sees in the bible is in part determined by one’s philosophical assumptions. If you can’t see something others see, then its possible that you have different assumptions that shape your interpretation. The question is, what are those assumptions and can they be justified?

    In any case, if you have a question that is on topic for this post, ask away. If not, then refrain from posting off topic questions.


  8. Wow! I can’t believe how angry that response was. I was trying to ask a genuine question about God and I am treated worse than any atheists I’ve interacted with. I apologize for writing anything on your site.


  9. Phil, The response was not angry. I simply did a few things. First I explained why no one responded to you in a substantial way. They view your question as off topic and as a possible troll. Second, I corralled your remarks to the topic of this post. That was all. I think you have read into my direct response emotion that simply wasn’t there. So it’d be helpful to take a step back.


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