The Son with two wills

In my last article on EFS, I began to talk about something called the Third Council of Constantinople.  You may be forgiven for not having heard of it even if you are well read in Church history and doctrine. It does not have the same prominence as some of the other Councils such as Chalcedon and Nicaea have. However, it is important because that’s where some detailed attention is paid to the person and natures of Jesus.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the view of the church over many centuries has been that we talk about God having one will which is associated with his nature and Christ having two wills because he has two natures.

When we talk about the will of God, it is important to have a little background here.  Contemporary psychological concepts of personality were not in play.  However, what the early church wanted to emphasise was that

  • There was one God not three
  • That The Trinity was not merely the coming together of three independent beings into a social Trinity. Rather, they really were of the one substance.
  • However, they also wanted to be clear that the persons did subsist. They were not mere modes of the one being. However, the distinctions were specific to their names, Father, Son and Spirit and what those names entailed.

We will come back to that side of the debate later. However, what I want to do in this article is to take us to the third Council of Constantinople.  You will recall from the previous article that this Council was attempting to resolve the tension between two competing positions. Monophelitism is the view that the Son has one will.  Dyophelitism is the view that the Son has two wills resulting from his two natures, human and divine. At Constantinople the Dyophelitism position won out.

It is worth taking a look at what Constantinople says on the subject: After some preamble setting the historical context of the council, the declaration from it states that it

“professes our lord Jesus Christ our true God, one of the holy Trinity, which is of one same being and is the source of life, to be 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 the holy Spirit and the virgin Mary”[1]

Here, the authors are re-affirming the position from Chalcedon that Christ has two natures and that he is both fully human and fully divine at the same time. They then move on to discuss the question of wills. Their aim here is to protect that first statement.  The important point being that for Jesus to be fully human, it is not simply enough for him to have a body but must also have a “rational soul” as well.  As Hodge explains:

“To deny Christ a human will, was to deny that He had a human nature, or was truly a man. Besides, it precluded the possibility of his having been tempted, and therefore contradicted the Scriptures, and separated Him so far from his people that He could not sympathize with them in their temptations.”[2]

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 19300-19302). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This was important for a couple of reasons.

First of all, historically, there had been some attempts to describe Jesus’ incarnation in terms of the logos inhabiting a human body so that the logos or divine nature provided the spirit/soul bit of Christ.[3]  Additionally, various heretics had sought to deny that Jesus was truly human but simply a spirit being appearing in human form or inhabiting a human body.  Those sorts of ideas influenced Islam too which would over the next few centuries become a significant issue for Christendom.

So the Council states

“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.”

I want you to notice two things here. First that the Council leaves no provision for the possibility that the Son has just the one will. That simply is not possible because it would imply that either he was only truly of one nature or that the natures has become mixed together to form a completely different hybrid nature.

However, notice too that there can be no question that the wills are in competition. There is no confusion of the natures but also no separation. Rather, the human will is always and without “resisting or struggling” subordinated to his divine will.  This reminds us again that The Son does not lose anything in terms of his divine nature when he comes in the incarnation but rather takes to himself a human nature. 

This means that the two natures remain distinct but we are not meant to think of people engaging with the Son either through his human nature or through his divine nature. Rather, when the disciples and opponents of Jesus spoke to him and heard him teach, it was the person Jesus in his entirety.

Bavinck is helpful in getting us to think through how the two natures and two wills relate.  He writes:

“…tough each nature in Christ remains itself and the communication of the divine attributes to the human nature must not be conceived realistically, yet the divine nature completely permeates and sets aglow the human nature as heat does iron, and makes it participatory in the divine glory, wisdom and power.”[4]

This is important as it pushes us to think carefully about what happens when Jesus prays in the Garden. Again, I think it encourages us to be cautious about us implying in anyway that this was just about the human Jesus struggling with the crucifixion. However, we perceive that prayer working, we need to recognise that it was a whole person response.

Returning to the text from Constantinople III, we further read:

“we say that he has two natures [naturas] shining forth in his one subsistence[subsistentia] 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.”[5]

Again, the authors wish to emphasise that Christ is one person with two natures. The point here is that it is the specific nature that does things in line with its nature. In other words, I think that what we are seeing here is clarification that when Jesus eats food, touches things, sleeps etc that this is a real, physical human act and not the divine nature mimicking those things. When Jesus speaks, it is with a human voice, it is not that the logos animates his mouth and vocal chords. Similarly, when Jesus does miracles, it is not merely that the human bit of him has learnt and been enabled to do those things, they properly belong to the divine nature.

So, however we understand John 5 and Matthew 26, it is important that we understand those passages as pointing us to the one person Christ who has two natures.


[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (kindle location 19300).

[3] Known as Apollionarianism. See Hodge, (Kindle 19220)

[4] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 256.