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Do you really believe that Jesus had two wills?” My friend’s pointed tone made clear what he thought about the matter: The notion that Jesus might have two wills is an odd, antiquated absurdity.

I didn’t want to appear like a country bumpkin to my theologically sophisticated friend. At the same time, I was aware that Saint Maximus lost both his tongue and his right hand to his tormenters for defending the alleged absurdity. So, I mustered up the courage and put my foot down: “Yes, of course he has two wills!”—betting on it that even if our discussion would make me look like a fool, the tradition would vindicate me.

I’ve never regretted my wager. I think I grasp more deeply now why the notion of Jesus having two wills makes him look schizophrenic to contemporary theological scholarship (and also why the church is right to stick with Maximus instead). Since the eighteenth century, three subsequent waves of historical Jesus quests have rolled over us, and their combined impact renders the notion of a two-willed Jesus implausible, to say the least.

Whatever their differences, the questers share a bunch of commonalities. First, they engage in “research.” Historical Jesus Research may appear intimidating—especially when capitalized. Simple believers (as well as many a theologian) hush themselves when faced with questers who claim their scholarly research is the final authority on who Jesus truly was (and thought himself to be).

Second, questers invariably operate with a dualism of sorts. To find out who Jesus really was or thought himself to be, we need to bracket the supernatural. That is to say, quests for the historical Jesus take into account nothing but historical cause and effect. Not that all questers are anti-supernaturalists. There’s a world of difference between John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright. But whatever their faith commitments, good questers bracket them. They are naturalistic, at least in methodology.

Third, questers claim to be historians, not theologians. This is more or less implied in the dualism I just described, but it is worth drawing special attention to it. When a quester insists on being a historian rather than a theologian (an all-too-common claim), I suspect he has several things in mind. Likely, he patterns his historical work on the hard sciences. Presumably, too, the Jesus of his quest speaks and acts strictly in line with first-century Jewish horizons. (Theological talk that takes its starting point from above—the Word taking flesh—quickly gets sidelined as being ahistorical and abstract.) Finally, the self-designation suggests that historians are in charge of theology. Christian questers demand from us (churchly believers) implicit faith in their historical scholarship and wish to have the church in tow. Really, they’re theologians (of a kind) disguised as historians.

Fourth—and this point takes us back to my opening paragraph—questers are monothelites. That is to say, every quester I know holds to the belief that Christ has only one will (monos meaning “one”; thelēma meaning “will”). This is pretty much a truism: The historical Jesus—as the product of the quester’s scientific labors—is the Jesus we arrive at by way of historical investigation. And since historians typically try to understand the words and deeds of historical figures, questers tend to be coy about the divine Word taking on human flesh.

It shouldn’t surprise us that questers don’t know what to do with the creedal language of Chalcedon (451). Even as conservative a historian as Wright admits that he finds the ancient terms of the debates (“divinity” and “humanity”) unhelpful. Regarding Jesus’s self-knowledge, he tells us not to think that Jesus sat back and said to himself, “Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!” Instead, suggests Wright, through much agony, prayer, and doubt, Jesus came to believe that “he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.”

By definition, questers cannot arrive at Chalcedon: They are monothelites, their historical investigation limited to the human Jesus—agonizing, praying, and questioning who he really was. By contrast, the Chalcedonian tradition, like the Scriptures themselves, confesses Christ’s divine nature (and hence his divine will) to be identical to that of the Father. The reason that the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (681) rejected monothelitism as out of line with Chalcedon is that a one-willed Jesus cannot possibly have two natures in any meaningful sense: Natures have wills. God’s is divine, ours is human. 

Questers, however, are not like monothelites of old. The monothelitism that Maximus squared off with in the seventh century claimed that Jesus’s one and only will is divine. By contrast, contemporary monothelites suggest that his one and only will is human. The difference isn’t hard to grasp. Ancient monothelites (being theologians more than historians) recognized Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. They had no doubt, therefore, about Jesus having a divine will. Did he also have a human will? Well, ancient monothelites were a little more cagey about acknowledging his true humanity. Contemporary monothelites investigate Jesus as a first-century Jewish person (who, according to some, did what only God can do). They have no doubt, therefore, about Jesus having a human will. Does he also have a divine will? Well, contemporary monothelites typically get cold feet when it comes to confessing his true divinity.

The Chalcedonian faith is predicated on two convictions. The first is this: Jesus is fully God and fully man—two integrally entire and complete natures. The eternal Word assumes humanity. Both are real. Neither can be denied. To both ancient and modern ears, this makes him appear like a split personality, and so the rationalism of both ancient and contemporary monothelitism chucks the notion of Jesus being truly God and truly man. The ancient sort, enamored of a divine savior, questioned the reality of his humanity. The contemporary kind, enthralled with a human savior, downplays his divinity.

The second Chalcedonian conviction is this: Jesus’s divinity and humanity are related asymmetrically. That is to say, the divine Word assumes human flesh. Human flesh does not assume the divine Word. Therefore, the person speaking and acting in the Gospels is the divine Word of God, who has assumed a human nature. Ancient monothelites were right at least in this: The Gospels bear witness, first and foremost, to the Word of God incarnate. For contemporary monothelites, by contrast, Jesus’s humanity is firmly in the driver’s seat. To the extent that we may say that Jesus is divine, this is at best a secondary claim, derived from the historical Jesus, the product of a scientific quest.

Maximus’s monothelite opponents only attacked the first Chalcedonian conviction. Today’s monothelites go further: They rule out both convictions. The reason that ancient as well as contemporary monothelites reject Chalcedon is that it’s hard to make rational sense of a person in whom two natures (and so two wills) coexist.

Maybe Maximus should have recanted. If only he would have acknowledged that Jesus’s one and only will is divine, he wouldn’t have had his tongue cut out and his hand chopped off. The problem, of course, is that we would have ended up with a less-than-human Jesus.

I don’t know that I have anything like Maximus’s dogged resolve (though perhaps the Spirit gives it to us only in the moment that we need it). But I’m convinced that where Chalcedon is brazenly challenged and the very notion of Jesus having a divine will treated as an antiquated oddity, we need Maximian resolve.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.

More on: Religion, Theology, Jesus

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