Mike Ovey on The Will of the Father and The Son

I have been looking at the Eternal Functional Subordination debate over a series of posts. We started with a brief look at a couple of Bible passages and it is my plan to to return to them in a little more detail towards the end before making some practical application.

We then saw that central to the debate was the question about “wills” does God have one will belonging to his nature or three belonging to the persons? Similarly, does the Son have one will belonging to his person or two belonging to his natures?

With that in mind, one of they key authors in this subject is Mike Ovey, who in his last publication prior to his untimely death in 2017 wrote “Your Will Be Done.”[1] As well as a detailed  engagement with the church fathers and particularly with Hilary of Poitiers,  Ovey particularly engaged with the question of wills.

His primary concern at this point is that:

“Arguments to the effect that the Son does not obey, or only obeys in the Incarnation, both fail to deal with the Gethsemane prayer at the exegetical level and risk dividing the person unity of the Son.”[2]

Mike then goes on to summarise the conclusions of Chalcedon as follows:

“Jesus is fully human and fully divine and yet fully one, unified person.  This ruled ou various unorthodox positions to the effect that he was not fully and always divine (adoptionism), that he was not fully human (Docetism and Apollinarianism), that he was a composite of deity and humanity but not fully either Eutychianism) and that he was not a fully unified person, but divided (Nestorianism).[3]

This is important because it spells out exactly the dangers that both sides oft his debate wish to avoid regarding Christology. So, proponents of EFS are concerned that opponents risk dividing the person of Christ so that in effect there is one physical interface but behind it, two distinct entities so that any point, the eye witnesses might have been interacting with divine Jesus or human Jesus. Meanwhile, opponents of EFS as well as being concerned about the danger of Arianism are also seeking to prevent a slippage into Eutychianism.

If Jesus is fully human, it is important to recognise that this includes mind and therefore will but he is also divine so must include the mind and will of God within his person. The question is about how these might come together without confusing the natures and without creating a kind of split personality.[4]

Ovey affirms the position argued by Maximus The Confessor and affirmed at Constantinople III that Jesus has a divine will and a human will. [5]

“This was required because will at this point is being defined as an attribute of substance/nature not an attribute of Person.  If one defines ‘will’ in this way as an attribute f substance/nature, then it follows as the night follows day that one must assert two wills, otherwise one or other nature, or both, will lack something that properly belongs to it, namely ‘will’ defined in this sense. There are two wills in Jesus the Son, a human will, arising, so to speak in his human nature and a divine will arising in his divine nature.”[6]

Ovey then goes on to argue that the Dyothelitism position in fact gives problems both for those who argue for the Son submitting and also for the egalitarian position.

 “ it makes no sense to talk of subordination, because one talks of subordination to another’s will. But in this case, there is no’other’ will at the divine level: just one.  As such, surely one has to say that obedience is simply the wrong category.”[7]

However

“One might also say that an egalitarian case where the two Persons are related by agreement rather than obedience is equally open to this objection: agreement presupposes the will of another with which one agrees and here there is no such other will.” [8]

The problem at this stage is that we now lack language to describe the distinction between the persons, whilst unity is protected, distinction is put at risk and nor is equality particularly well defended.

In the case of the Person and natures of Christ, the reason why some early thinkers argues for a him having a single will at the level of person (Monothelitism) was the concern that the two wills in Christ would be in opposition to one another.  Maximus recognised that you could not have the wills in conflict but did not see this as a necessary consequence of his position. [9]

“It was precisely the unity of the Person of the Son that guaranteed that the two natural wills would not be in conflict. One person cannot ultimately will inconsistently with himself or herself, even if that person has two ways in which ‘will’ may be exercised.”[10]

This is important because we are now opening up the possibility of distinguishing the different ways in which we talk about will:

“The meaning of the term ‘will’ for which the dyothelites were contending was that of the faculty ‘in virtue of which one is able to will or act’. As such, it belongs in the category of the nature of an entity.  This stands in distinction from ‘will’ as ‘the actualisation of these faculties in willing or acting, or even the results, the object willed or the work done’. One might say that the latter category relates more to what ‘I’ do with my natural faculty of will.”[11]

It is clear therefore, that Ovey is arguing a position that is firmly within the outcomes and decisions of Nicaea, Chalcedon and Constantinople III. It seems that critics, in a commendable but ultimately unnecessary desire to defend the one nature of the Godhead have not spotted that others are seeking to help us think through the other side of what we believe about the Trinity. We believe that there is one God but we also believe that he subsists in three persons.[12]


[1] Michael J Ovey, Your will be done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (Oxford. Latimer Trust, 2016).

[2] Ovey, Your will be done, 101.

[3] Ovey, Your will be done, 101.

[4] Ovey, Your will be done, 102.

[5] Ovey, Your will be done, 102.

[6] Ovey, Your will be done, 103.

[7] Ovey, Your will be done, 103.

[8] Ovey, Your will be done, 103.

[9] Ovey, Your will be done, 103.

[10] Ovey, Your will be done, 104.

[11] Ovey, Your will be done, 104. 

[12] An example of a clumsy review that simply fails to get and engage with this point was written by Duncan Boyd on the Banner of Truth website. See https://banneroftruth.org/uk/resources/articles/2018/son-god-eternally-subordinate-father/

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