Sabbatical Study

Mon, 06/05/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

In my earlier post, I outlined my plans for a sabbatical next month. Part of the plan is for study. I said I'd explain what I plan to study.

In brief, I want to study two things, and they interrelate.

How many wills?

First, in the first centuries of the Christian church, there were discussions about how many "wills" there are in the Trinity, and how many "wills" the incarnate Jesus had. That's to say: Do God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit each have a will, or is there one divine will? Did Jesus have a single will, or two because he had two natures? To put the question another way: Is "will" located in person or nature?

The orthodox conclusion was that will is located in nature, so the incarnate Jesus has two wills, and the Triune God has one.

But it's an area of patristic thought on which I'm not as informed as I'd like to be. I'm not clear who the main parties were back when this was first debated, what the historical and political issues were, and therefore why the conclusion was reached or how it was formulated.

Eternal subordination?

Second, in 2016, Liam Goligher posted a couple of blog posts. Part 1. Part 2. He asked whether we are right to derive ordered relationships within the family and the church from the way the Father and the Son relate in eternity. All agree that Jesus, Son of God incarnate, submitted his will to God-the-Father-in-heaven. The question is whether we can map that back into eternity, before God the Son was incarnate.

This sparked a flurry of posts and counter-posts, with people taking both sides of the debate. Some of this merely proved that blog posting and social media are not the way to have serious theological debate, and that frequently you get more heat than light. But lots of useful thought came out as well.

At the time, and since, I've been too busy to engage with it all properly, and I'd like to.

What fascinates me is that this is a debate within the reformed community. Those who take different sides of the debate would agree with one another on almost everything else, and have a commitment to articulating their theological positions with great precision by distinguishing precisely what is and is not meant. In particular, they all remain complementarian; that's to say, they all believe that male-female relationships have a God-given order to them in the family and in the church. Yet they disagree on this precise point.

Not my will, but yours

These two topics become confluent in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39)

What exactly is the contrast between "my will" and "your will" in this prayer?

I shall look forward to getting my teeth into all this.

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Tom Watts's picture
Submitted by Tom Watts on

Great topic! You might be interested in reading this (basically my MTh thesis): 

Thomas A. Watts, "Two Wills in Christ? Contemporary Objections Considered in the Light of a Critical Examination of Maximus the Confessor's Disputation with Pyrrhus," Westminster Theological Journal 71.2 (Fall 2009): 455-487.

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

Thanks, Tom. I'll look forward to it - I'm sure Garry would have put me onto it anyway, and it'll certainly be in the LS library.

Tom Watts's picture
Submitted by Tom Watts on

I was talking to Garry recently about this very topic, including the Trinitarian side of things and MO's book. Garry supervised the original thesis.

A Stranger from Elea's picture

You know... to quote from Lawrence of Arabia: "A man can do what he wants, but he can't want what he wants. This is the stuff that decides what he wants." When Jesus had to visit the bathroom, are moderners suggesting that that was an example of "divine will"?

A Stranger from Elea's picture

The orthodox conclusion is common sense. It is insane to assume that God and the Holy Spirit have different wills. And then via "who are born out of God" God's children also have to partake in that will.

Man by nature has three wills as Plato suggested: The leader of the chariot (care), the good horse (heed) and the bad horse (lust as in old english, not modern english, there's a biopic on Henry Purcell that stresses the difference). All of these three can be taken over by the Holy Spirit, but usually it's care that is being taken over, heed sometimes, lust rarely.

If you don't like that division, you can also forget about it. It doesn't change the nature of the relation between the human and the divine will at all. Although if you're interested in a detailed description of the subject at hand, I'd argue to use it, because it greatly helps explaining the complexities of a man's will.

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