Further Reflections on the Unity of the Divine Will

In my dissertation at Southern Seminary, I sought to provide a dogmatic defense of dyothelitism, the belief that the incarnate Christ possesses two wills–one divine and one human–against several contemporary monothelite (one-will) proposals. Though my thesis related principally to Christology, quite obviously this issue has massive implications for the doctrine of the Trinity as well (a point Mark Jones has recently driven home). I include a brief section of my dissertation here because I think it may be particularly relevant in light of the late Trinitarian dustup within evangelicalism.

One of the themes of this dissertation is the irreducibly dogmatic nature of the decision to be made between monothelitism and dyothelitism. No single biblical text or Christological theme can alone determine the matter. It is a systematic decision based on a variety of factors, including how much weight one gives to the ecumenical councils, how one understands the nature of Christ’s human nature, how one relates Christ’s volitional life to his soteriological task, and so forth. But perhaps the most pressing dogmatic decision to be made is trinitarian in nature: are we to understand the divine will as singular or plural? Is the Godhead monothelitic or trithelitic? This is simply another way of posing the more fundamental philosophical question involved in this debate: do wills belong to persons or natures? If wills belong to persons, then there are three wills in the Godhead, since there are three divine persons. But if wills belong to natures, then there can only be one divine will, since there is only one divine nature.[1]

. . . .

One other Trinitarian issue is worthy of comment. One of the most compelling theological arguments in favor of trinitarian trithelitism (three wills in the Godhead) is the desire to account for the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity. It seems that those who maintain, with the tradition, that the divine will is singular still need to explain how there can be real relations of love within a monothelitic Godhead. They would also need to explain how the divine missions are connected to the eternal relations of origin, why it is that the Son became incarnate and not the Father, and how the economy meaningfully reveals the immanent trinitarian relations.[2] More work needs to be done on these pressing issues, and only a few brief suggestions can be offered here.

First, contemporary theologians should avoid equivocation when comes to the trinitarian term “relation.” Relation does not equal relationship when it comes to the Trinitarian persons, just as person does not equal personality. Instead, the traditional understanding of “relation” is tied to the relations of personal origin, namely, unbegottenness, begottenness, and procession.[3] To distinguish the persons of the Trinity in terms of “relationships,” which require distinct personal wills, is to take a step away from Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Second, when it comes to the relationship between the economic and the immanent Trinity, perhaps we would do well to remember the Augustinian notion of the divine missions. For Augustine, the missions—the sending of the Son and the Spirit—are a part of the economy but they accurately reveal the eternal relations of the Godhead. The Son’s being-sent does not imply inferiority or subordination, but it does reveal the truth that he is from the Father from all eternity. Keith Johnson explains Augustine’s position,

In short, because sending merely reveals the generation of the Son, the Son is not in any way inferior to the Father. One of Augustine’s central insights is that the economic missions of the Son and the Spirit both reflect and reveal the natures of their eternal relation to the Father. The temporal sending of the Son reveals his eternal generation by the Father while the temporal sending of the Spirit from the Father and Son reveals his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. In this sense, the missions ultimately reveal the Father.[4]

So the taxis (order) of the economy reveals something that is true of the eternal relations, but not everything that obtains in one obtains in the other. The Son is eternally from the Father in his generation, and he is temporally from the Father in his being-sent. There is a fittingness to the sending of the Son, but this fittingness does not necessarily imply that the authority/submission structure that obtains in the economy should be read back into the immanent relations. Indeed, because of the doctrine of inseparable operations, we can speak of the Son as being involved in his “sending,” no less than the Father, a truth born out by several biblical texts (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6-7; Gal 2:20; John 10:18).[5] In sum, those who hold to a singular divine will can still explain the fittingness of the sending of the Son (and not the Father) without resorting to an eternal functional submission of one divine will to another.

Finally, one possible solution to the problem of relations in a monothelitic Godhead lies in a rare distinction drawn by some of the Reformed orthodox with regard to the divine will. Theologians such as Leonard van Rijssen distinguished the voluntas essentialis—that is, the singular will of the divine essence—from the voluntas personalis—that is, the necessary expression of the divine will in the ad intra eternal processions of the Godhead.[6] So there is only one divine will, but the three persons relate to it in distinct ways tied to their distinct personal properties. This distinction might provide a theological mechanism by which we can affirm both the singularity of the divine will and the reality of eternal relations of love in the immanent Trinity. In any event, it is clear that a theologian’s position on the monothelite-dyothelite debate has important entailments for his understanding of the volitional life of the Godhead.

[1]This assumes that there is at least an analogical relation between human and divine persons, an assumption buttressed by the Second Council of Constantinople’s application of Trinitarian categories to the incarnation. The person of Christ is none other than “one of the Holy Trinity.”

[2]Some of these concerns with the traditional view are expressed in Bruce A. Ware, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012),13-38.

[3]Steve Holmes has demonstrated that these and these alone are the traditional distinguishing properties of the divine persons. See Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, esp. the summary on pp. 144-146.

[4]Keith E. Johnson, “Trinitarian Agency and the Eternal Subordination of the Son: An Augustinian Perspective,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son, ed. Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 117.

[5]Ibid., 126.

[6]Richard A Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 3:453.


6 thoughts on “Further Reflections on the Unity of the Divine Will

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On Method | Secundum Scripturas

  2. Pingback: Blogstorms, digital teacups: New Calvinists and Nicene Trinitarianism « The Patrologist

  3. Pingback: A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation | Secundum Scripturas

  4. What do you think of Swain and Allen’s treatment of this issue in their article on the obedience of the eternal Son? Likewise, Swain deploys the point in his recent chapter on the covenant of redemption. Both works were probably not available when you wrote your dissertation.

  5. Pingback: An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate | Secundum Scripturas

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