The Gethsemene God

In A.D. 451 the Council of Chalcedon solemnly defined the doctrine of the Incarnation:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

We note the critical assertion that the one person of Jesus Christ subsists in two natures, divine and human—without confusion, commixture, separation, or amalgamation. He who is consubstantial with the Father is simultaneously consubstantial with humanity. For purposes of preaching and catechesis, the dogma may be understood as a grammatical rule: to speak properly of Jesus, attribute to him both divine and human attributes. The dogma thus excludes dualistic construals that would imply two grammatical subjects and monistic construals that would qualify or disallow the predication of human or divine properties of the one Christ.

Once having confessed the divine and human natures of Christ, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone raised the question, Does Jesus possess a divine or human will? At first glance the question seems overly speculative. In 99% of their sermons, preachers never need to allude to it. There is simply Jesus teaching and praying and acting. The question comes alive, however, when the preacher needs to exposit biblical texts like Mark 14:36: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” If the divine Son is the speaker of this prayer, how do we interpret the apparent, albeit temporary, disunity between the Father and the Son? The Third Council of Constantinople gathered in 680-681 to consider the matter. During the course of their deliberations, the bishops deposed Patriarch Macarius of Antioch for teaching the Monothelite heresy. One of his supporters, priest Polychronius, claimed that he had had a vision in which a person of dazzling brightness and terrible majesty had told him that whosoever did not confess a single will and theandric operation was to be anathematized. Polychronius offered to prove the orthodoxy of Monothelitism by raising a man from the dead. He laid his profession of faith on the corpse and whispered into its ear. The corpse remained a corpse. The Council Fathers were not impressed and deposed the poor monk. In their final session the Council solemnly defined the catholic dogma of the dual wills of the incarnate God:

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, just as he says himself: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me, calling his own will that of his flesh, since his flesh too became his own. For in the same way that his all holy and blameless animate flesh was not destroyed in being made divine but remained in its own limit and category, so his human will as well was not destroyed by being made divine, but rather was preserved, according to the theologian Gregory, who says: “For his willing, when he is considered as saviour, is not in opposition to God, being made divine in its entirety.” …

Therefore, protecting on all sides the “no confusion” and “no division”, we announce the whole in these brief words: Believing our lord Jesus Christ, even after his incarnation, to be one of the holy Trinity and our true God, we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the difference of the natures being made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.

The faculty of volition, the Council declares, belongs to the category of nature, and since Christ subsists in two natures, he therefore possesses two wills. The hypostatic union does not annul the differences between the natures but brings them into the most intimate communion conceivable. While certain events in our Lord’s life may momentarily highlight their distinction, in concrete reality they are joined together in perfect harmony and concurrence. Jesus’ petition that the cup of suffering might be withheld reveals his very human fear of death, but does not demonstrate disagreement between the Son and Father. As St Maximus the Confessor states: “Therefore, in his natural capacity, the Saviour is distinguished as a human being, willing in a fleshly way the shrinking in the face of death together with the rest of the passions, showing the economy to be pure of fantasy, and redeeming the nature from the passions to which it has been condemned as a result of sin” (Opuscule 3).

The dogmatic point is clear enough, but I will not pretend to understand the mysterious synergism of the divine and human wills in Christ. If Christ only possessed a divine will, then his humanity would be a mere puppet of the Divine, and our Lord’s high priestly ministry, to which the Letter to the Hebrews gives such powerful witness, would be effectively discarded. A Monotheletic Christ may (arguably) be able to minister the things of God to man, but he cannot minister the things of man to God. If the divine Son has truly become inhominate in Jesus Christ, then he enjoys genuine human freedom and spontaneity in relation to his heavenly Father. Only if he possesses a human will can Jesus freely offer to God his prayers and tears and sufferings for our sake and on our behalf. Such is the Chalcedonian logic.

But though we may not be able to conceive the interaction of the divine and human wills in Christ, perhaps we can make some headway if we remember that the divine will is the joint will of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have found the analysis of Robert W. Jenson helpful:

If willing belongs to nature, then the Son’s divine will, according to Cappadocian trinitarianism, belongs to what Father, Son, and Spirit are together. But will as something three persons are together can only be understood as mutual harmony; thus Maximus’ statement of Christ’s divine will is that he “has one good pleasure with the Father and the Spirit.” Christ’s divine will is therefore not something he individually possesses; it is his participation in the triune life insofar as in the mutuality of Father, Son, and Spirit some things are freely chosen instead of others. Nor then is Christ’s divine willing his individual making of decisions: the Son in his own nature has no decisions to make about the Father’s will, for obeying the Father is identical with his subsistence as the Son.

On the other hand, as the Son is the human Jesus, he does, according to Maximus, have decisions to make about the Father’s will, decisively, about the Father’s command to suffer for his fellows. He assents to the Father’s command, in Gethsemane and throughout his life, and this assent is a true act of decision, indeed a painful decision. In his human nature, the Son wills our salvation “as having become obedient to the Father even unto death” [Maximus]. As our salvation is willed by God, it is willed jointly by the three persons; as it is willed individually by Christ, the choice is a human choice. With this insight, the Lord’s historical human life is fully acknowledged in its soteriological role for the first time in technical Christology. (Systematic Theology, I:135)

As with the Chalcedonian Definition, the Dyothelite dogma should be able to be formulated as a grammatical rule to govern preaching, yet it seems to be already included, by conciliar stipulation, in the Chalcedonian rule. Perhaps we might formulate the Dyothelite dogma soteriologically: proclaim salvation as the work of the God-Man narrated in the gospels. How does that sound?

If we find ourselves imagining Jesus as a comic book hero, the reason can usually be traced back to a defective understanding of divine transcendence. We commonly think of God as a kind of being different from other beings in specifiable ways. The hypostatic union of divine and human natures almost inevitably results in an overwhelming of Jesus’ human nature by his divine nature. Jesus becomes Superman. (The same problem underlies the old kenotic christologies, only in reverse.) But God and creatures do not occupy the same universe, physical, logical, or otherwise. God is the transcendent origin and ground of all universes. Hence he does not need to displace or alter his creatures in order to unite himself with them. When we contrast divine nature and creaturely natures, we are using “nature” analogically, not univocally. God does not have a determinate set of properties as we do. This is why our theological reflection properly begins with negative theology. Before we begin to speak of God in positive terms, we need to make clear his radical, inconceivable difference from all finite beings. The Church Fathers always insisted that the divine nature is incomprehensible. We do not know what the term “God” means. It’s not that we lack sufficient information, as if his incomprehensibility would disappear with a fuller revelation and we would finally be able to define deity. God will always exceed our grasp and surpass our concepts. God is Mystery, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Most of my readers have probably never heard of a collection of essays entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. It was published in 1977, the first year I began seminary. It caused quite a stir in Anglican circles. Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe wrote an incisive critique of the book, which was then followed by an exchange between McCabe and Maurice Wiles. McCabe makes the following provocative point: to confess Jesus as uncreated does not tell us anything about the man Jesus. That is to say, it does not tell us “that he is this kind of being rather than that. To be divine is not to be a kind of being, just as to be a creature is not to be a kind of being” (God Matters, p. 71). God is not a being; he is the Creator of beings. To belong to the species Homo sapiens, on the other hand, is to be a kind of being. When we state that Jesus is human, we specify what type of nature Jesus has. We can list his essential properties. But when we confess him as divine, we are taken into the Mystery that is God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).

The purpose of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, therefore, is not to tell us what the man Jesus must have been like when he walked the roads of Galilee. “The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information,’ writes McCabe, “it is pointing to a mystery in Jesus” (p. 58). The doctrine does not give us objective data about his life beyond what historical investigation might otherwise provide. It does not prejudge the question of whether God assumed fallen or unfallen humanity or predetermine the empirical consequences of the deification of human nature in Jesus Christ. It does not allow us to infer that Jesus must have known the Pythagorean theorem because the Chalcedonian Definition authorizes us to attribute to him omniscience or that he was invulnerable to injury (because of his immutability) or that he was able to fly (because of his omnipotence). Respected theologians of antiquity may have drawn such inferences, but these inferences do not in fact “have any logical connection to the incarnation” (p. 58). And here is where McCabe thinks the contributors of Myth of God Incarnate go off the rails. Whereas they evidently believe that the doctrine of the hypostatic union is only interesting if it tells us something about Jesus, for McCabe “it is interesting because, if true, it tells one something about God” (p. 71). The critics, in other words, are guilty of an elementary category mistake.

This category mistake is more common than we realize.  I know I’m guilty of it at least two or three times a day.

(Go to “When Did Jesus Decide to Die?”)

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5 Responses to The Gethsemene God

  1. hans peter says:

    Your blog has been an existential ‘blessing’ to me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Have you committed dittography in quoting “just as to be a creature is not to be a kind of being”?

    “The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information” seems false and/or incoherent, as does “it is interesting because, if true, it tells one something about God” insofar as that seems to be opposed to “the doctrine of the hypostatic union […] tells us something about Jesus”. How can it do one without doing the other, how can it ‘tell us something’ without “conveying information”? How is “pointing to a mystery” not “conveying information”? I found Maurice Wiles a disappointing Patristics lecturer, especially compared to Kallistos Ware and Andrew Louth, but this glimpse of McCabe is equally disappointing in its own way.

    If the “faculty of volition, [as] the Council declares, belongs to the category of nature, and since Christ subsists in two natures, he therefore possesses two wills”, how does human nature enhypostatized by human persons produce what are effectively distinct hypostatic wills (such that something other than the Fall of Man as we know it would have happened if Ish hadn’t followed Isha’s example), while Divine Nature, Enhypostatized, produces ‘the Son’s divine will, according to Cappadocian trinitarianism, belong[ing] to what Father, Son, and Spirit are together’? Where is the analogy? Is this not disanalogy?

    I’m so narrowly and ill-read, I don’t know if there was a Patristic discussion of such things, though, if I can think of it, it seems unlikely that subtle Greek-speaking and -thinking Fathers and heretics did not do so, too.

    I have read that there was something like a Patristic consensus that while ‘the Son [as] the human Jesus […] does, according to Maximus, have decisions to make about the Father’s will’, He could not in practice Humanly be tempted such that He could ever succumb to temptation – which also seems odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, David. Given that McCabe is an exceptionally bright fellow, let’s see if we can make sense of his statement that the doctrine of the Incarnation does not give us information about Jesus. The point I think he is making is that the Christian assertion that Jesus is divine—according to the Christian understanding of divinity—does not tell us anything specific about his historical and empirical being. It does not tell us whether he was handsome or ugly, whether he was physically strong or weak, whether he was good at sports, whether he was the smartest boy in synagogue school. It does not tell us whether he was immune to the common cold, invulnerable to injury, or any of the other stuff that we might expect of a divine being in a polytheistic universe. Jesus is not divine in the way that Zeus, Hera, or Hercules are divine, according to the mythological tales. Jesus is divine in the way that only the God of Israel is divine—as the transcendent origin, source, ground of all creaturely existents; that is to say, as the answer to the question “Why does the world exist instead of nothing?”

      Hence McCabe thinks that we have misunderstood the Chalcedonian Definition if we think it provides us “information” (in all the ways that we typically use the word) about the man Jesus. If we want to know what he was like, as a historical, biological, empirical being, we have to read the examine the historical and empirical evidence, just as we would for any other person of history.

      Of course, Christians also believe that Jesus is risen from the dead and is now present to the Church in ways that only God—the Christian God—can be present and active. But that takes us into a different kind of knowing:

      So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a ‘supernatural visitant’, but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman as we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is in this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence—rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists.

      The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he is divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those ‘who have faith in his name’. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitlyly in the conciliar pronouncements.

      Does any of this address your concern?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Hi, Fr. Aidan – thank you for the friendly, detailed response!

        But, I’m afraid it largely tends to compound my concern (with McCabe as his quotations and your explanations of them seem to present him/his thought)! It seems in danger (or worse) of constructing a fanciful ‘historical existence’ and even ‘creatureliness’. It seems to ‘divide the natures’, or promulgate some (quasi-?)’Nestorian’ ‘union’. I can’t see how “the Christian assertion that Jesus is divine—according to the Christian understanding of divinity—does not tell us anything specific about his historical and empirical being.” The ‘Theaner’ Jesus is not some kind of ahistorical and non-empirical being, but a unique historical and empirical being – it tells that, inescapably, if nothing else. And I cannot see how it does not have implications for “his historical and empirical being” with respect to His Enhypostatized Humanitas, whether we can certainly know what any of those implications are or not on the basis of examining and analyzing “the historical and empirical evidence, just as we would for any other [‘atheandric’] person of history”.

        It is interesting to discuss what the centurion’s ‘huios theou’/’theou huios’ mean in Sts. Matthew 27:54 and Mark 15:39, and whether, for example, he could have been thinking ‘Jesus is divine in the way that Hercules is divine, according to the mythological tales’, but it does not seem possible to exclude that it is an “insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he is divine,” – and that, without ‘the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, pronouncing on the divinity of Jesus’ in this instance (should these accurately record an actual utterance).


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