Gregory of Nyssa and a “Community of Wills”?

In Against Eunomius I.1.34 (NPNF 5), Gregory says this regarding the Father and Son sharing in one nature:

So also the Father and Son are one, the community of nature and the community of will running, in them, into one. But if the Son had been joined in wish only to the Father, and divided from Him in His nature, how is it that we find Him testifying to His oneness with the Father, when all the time He was sundered from Him in the point most proper to Him of all?

At first glance this sounds problematic from the standpoint of proponents of dyothelite Christology and, correspondingly, one will in the Godhead. A phrase like “community of wills,” along with the analogy Gregory uses right before this of two men agreeing with one another, could be taken to mean that Nyssen is here implicitly affirming multiple divine wills. This is, in fact, just the kind of passage that twentieth-century social Trinitarians might point to in favor of their understanding of “person,” and in fact the Cappadocians are employed frequently in support of their position. But there are clear reasons to reject a “social Trinitarian” reading of Gregory, at least in this particular passage.

1. Elsewhere in Nyssen, as well as in other pro-Nicenes, God is one in every way. The *only* distinction that exists in the Godhead is the means of subsistence in the essence, i.e. the eternal relations of origin that distinguish the persons. Nyssen previously in “Against Eunomius” has spoken repeatedly of the fact that God is one in every conceivable way – power, authority, command, goodness, justice, glory, etc. The only way that the persons are distinguished is via eternal relations of origin (see e.g. I.1.22).

2. The context clearly affirms one will. Nyssen speaks immediately prior to this passage about God’s will in the singular. Again, this is in accord with the way Nyssen speaks elsewhere about God’s simple unity.

3. The analogy with the two men agreeing is not intended to be one to one correspondence. Nyssen makes this quite clear throughout his works on the Trinity, including “Against Eunomius.” We should not take his analogy here as anything more than that – analogous. Nyssen consistently affirms a healthy dose of apophaticism and the analogical nature of language elsewhere.

4. The syntax of the sentence makes clear that Gregory does not mean multiple wills in the Godhead. Here it is in Greek:

καὶ ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ὁ υἱὸς ἕν εἰσι, τῆς κατὰ τὴν φύσιν καὶ τὴν προαίρεσιν κοινωνίας εἰς τὸ ἓν συνδραμούσης

Note both clauses. The first clause has two singular nouns (“father” and “son”) taking a plural verb to describe them (“are”), but the predicate noun is singular. The plural persons of Father and Son are one. Of course, this is no different than Jesus’ affirmation in John 17. What about the second clause, the more troubling one for our purposes? To begin with, this is an explanatory clause about how Father and Son are one, as indicated by the κατὰ preposition. So Nyssen is at the very least not contradicting his previous statement, but expanding on it. When we look at this expansion of his explanation about God’s oneness, we find two singular nouns – “nature” and “will” – in the middle of a genitive absolute clause – τῆς … κοινωνίας. In other words, whatever “community” means here, it is defined according to (κατὰ) both nature and will. (I am dependent on Seumas Macdonald for insights into the syntax of this sentence). Nyssen is certainly not positing a “community of natures” in the way a “community of wills” would have to be taken for trithelitism. In fact, all that Nyssen really seems to mean here is that, while distinct in their personhood, Father and Son are one in essence and volition.

This, by the way, is the problem with “proof-texting” the Fathers. If one simply presses CTRL-F for “will,” several passages like this will pop up. If we read them cursorily and out of context, they seem to support a social Trinitarian view of the divine persons. But on further inspection, that could not be further from the truth.

HT: Seumas Macdonald and Ryan Clevenger for help with accessing the Greek of this passage.

Some Serious Questions About The Trinity

I posted these on Twitter earlier, but I think I’ll leave them here in a more permanent place.

We all need to ask some very serious questions at this point, it appears (although there are 2000 years of work addressing these already…).

  1. Are we now willing, given ERAS/EFS/ESS, to assert three wills in the Godhead? How does “submission and authority” occur in the life of God if not via distinct wills, one for each person?
  2. If yes to #1, are we now willing to either a) deny inseparable operations or b) so alter it that it is a matter of unity in agreement, not unity in action?
  3. If yes to #1, are we willing to so alter the doctrine of God that unity of essence does not equal unity of will?
  4. If yes to #1, are we now willing to posit monothelitism, the Apollinarian position that posits that the Son’s will in Garden is his divine will struggling  with and ultimatley submitting to the Father’s divine will?
  5. If yes to #4, are we willing to assert not only that there are three wills in Godhead but that, in the Garden, they are struggling with one another?

These questions are not merely speculative, only for theo-nerds, and application-less for the layperson. These questions are *vital.* For example, regarding the doctrine of salvation: if we assert monothelitism (Christ’s incarnate will is only his divine will) instead of dyothelitism (the incarnate Christ has two wills, human & divine) we lose the clear connection between Christ’s redemptive obedience and his healing of our *human* wills, returning them to obedience.

Think of your own heart: do you obey readily? Not in your flesh you don’t. Traditional Trinitarian and Christological doctrine says there is one will in the Godhead, two in Christ – human and divine. The *human* will of Jesus obeys *for us* and thereby redeems our own wills. You can obey because Christ, the second Adam, obeyed *in his humanity by his human will* and now restores your *human* will through his Spirit.

Another applicational point – when you contemplate God, who are you contemplating? An accurate portrait or a distortion? If God has one will, but you posit three, you are not contemplating God rightly. Vice versa, if God has three wills, but I posit one, I am not contemplating God rightly. That is no laughing matter, nor is it merely a third order question.

Let’s be very clear about what’s at stake in this debate – a right understanding of Christ’s salvific work and a right contemplation of God.