Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein!

Warning: If you have read this regrettable piece from Owen Strachan, you must be aware that what follows below is the New Scholasticism that he warns us about.

The orthodox view of God’s will insists that God has one ad intra will. All three persons share the same will: “The will of the Father and the Son is one, and their operation is inseparable” (Augustine). There are not three wills in God but one will because God is one (una essentia). That is to say, the will of God is identical with the divine essence. If there is more than one ad intra necessary will then there is more than one divine essence or divine simplicity will come under attack.

The incarnation, however, means that Christ, having two natures, has two wills: a divine will and a human will. This is orthodoxy, as opposed to “those ancient heretics, who were called Monothelites, because they imagined that the will of Christ was but one and simple” (Calvin).

The Definition of Faith of the Sixth Ecumenical Council says: “And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will.”

This statement from the Sixth Ecumenical Council proves that we may speak of Christ’s human will being subject to his divine will. Michael Ovey seems to want to depart from this standard truth when he writes: “But obviously one has to ask if the Son is really obedient in his humanity when he is simply carrying out what he himself wills in his deity. Obedience suggests submission to the will of another, not oneself.”

What is obvious to him is, apparently, not so obvious to the Sixth Ecumenical Council and countless others in the Christian tradition.

As far as the Reformed tradition goes, we may say that Christ performed his work as Mediator in and by his human nature. This had to be the case if he was to be our substitute. His obedience had to be true human obedience. Although the person of Christ, considered as the God-man, mediated on our behalf, “yet his human nature was that wherein he discharged the duties of his office and the ‘principium quod’ of all his mediatory actings” (John Owen).

Christ had to obey and submit to the Father, according to the actings of his human will. If he did not, he was not truly human and we would not be saved by the righteousness of another.

Reformed theologians have argued that because the will of God is one, and only one, the external acts of the Triune God are undivided. This is a basic rule. But they also acknowledged, in the realm of God’s ad extra works, that the revelation of the will of God “is peculiarly and in a way of eminency from the Father” (Owen).

When Christ is wrestling in the Garden of Gethsemane we are to understand the dynamics of the relationship between the Father and the Son in this way:

  1. Christ is struggling according to his human will, for the divine will cannot struggle.
  2. Christ is struggling to do the will of the Father.
  3. Therefore there are two wills held out to us: the ad extra will of the Father and the human will of Christ, the God-man.
  4. Based upon the well-known maxim, going back to Augustine, opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (the external works of the Trinity are undivided), the divine ad extra will of the Father is necessarily the same will as the Son and Spirit: “if it were possible that three men might see by the same eye, the act of seeing would be but one, and it would be equally the act of all three” (Owen).
  5. The fact that God subsists in three persons means, however, that we can affirm that external works are distinctly appropriated, terminating upon one of the three persons according to the manner of the work (terminus operationis).
  6. This relationship between the Father and the Son, which is expressed in the Son doing the will of the Father, is therefore considered not as an ad intra necessary act, but with respect to free and voluntary acts.
  7. Hence the Son is wrestling, according to his human nature, to do the will of God the Father. The will of God the Father is necessarily the will of the triune God because God is One!

Based upon all that I have read from the Reformed tradition, this model, and not the novelty proposed by Michael Ovey, is the orthodox and common way of understanding Christ doing the will of the Father.

This model is much to be preferred because it keeps in balance that:

  1. God has one will, which has been the orthodox view of God.
  2. Christ has two wills, which has been the orthodox view of Christ.

Now, Michael Ovey thinks this “risks creating a division in the person of the Son.” Does affirming that Christ has two wills do that? Of course, Ovey will want to argue that he believes Christ has two wills, but then the way his piece reads would lead to multiple wills in the Godhead. Again, this brings us back to one of our chief concerns with “eternal submissionists”: they want to bring submission into God’s ad intra necessary will towards himself, but to do that they have to bring in another will.

If God’s will is identical with his essence then how can there be subordination or submission if God is simple?

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Simplicity is jettisoned in favor of making sure the Son is ontologically submissive to the Father, which is a massive price to pay. – Mark_Jones_PCA

Distinguishing Christ’s human will from the divine will is basic orthodoxy. Ovey, however, says that such a “division” (i.e., two wills) in the person of the Son is “redolent of Nestorianism.” First, that is simply wrong. Second, I don’t think Ovey has demonstrated that he understands Nestorianism by making this claim.

Ovey adds:

“Further, we may ask why the Son’s obedience avails for more than one human person. The response of the Synod of Dort (2nd head, article 4) to the question of the infinite value of Christ’s work was that he is a person of infinite value. But one wonders whether on Liam’s view the person of the Son is not so separated from the human obedience that the appeal to the infinite value of the person of the Son is no longer possible.”

And that’s all of it. He doesn’t develop or justify such a suggestion. It’s just out there, hanging in mid air, with nothing to hold on to. Quite frankly, it is astonishing.

Perhaps I can fill in how this all works according to our tradition.

Reformed theologians have spoken of the “communication of properties” (communicatio idiomatum), which also includes the “communication of operations” (communicatio operationum), since the terms taken together reflect the person doing the work. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes these concepts in the following manner:

“Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature” (8.7).

In other words, the divine Logos does not act through the human nature as his instrument; rather, the God-man acts according to both natures.

Christ did his opera authoritatis or magisterii, his works of authority from his Godhead; but his opera ministerii, his works of ministry, came from his manhood. However, since his natures are united in one person, his acts and operations from his two principles are conjoined in one mediation. This point of doctrine was a source of contention between the Reformed orthodox and various Roman Catholic writers – the Roman Catholics held that Christ performed all his acts of mediation only as man. By limiting Christ’s mediation to his humanity, the Roman Catholics found support for the idea of a sacerdotal priesthood. The implication was that since Christ mediated only as a human being, then another human could mediate as well, both before and after the incarnation.

The issues at stake between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic theologians, particularly the Italian Jesuit, Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) were hotly debated.

Bellarmine distinguished in the following manner: “the principium quod, the principle or beginning which did the works of mediatorship, was not God alone, nor man alone, but both together, viz. God-man; but the principium quo, the principle or beginning whereby these works were done of the mediator, was his humane nature, not his divine (Francis Roberts).

By anchoring the natures of Christ in the unity of the person, Reformed theologians refused to speak of Christ’s mediatorial work as simply the work of a human. Christ obeyed (singular person) according to his human nature (i.e., he subjected his human will to the will of God). The worth of his work is infinite because the person is the one acting, not the nature in the abstract. Natures don’t do anything in the abstract. Persons act. Christ did the will of God, according to his human nature. If this is Nestorian then the whole Reformed tradition is guilty of Nestorianism.

So Ovey makes a very big deal out of a well-known Reformed commonplace.

We’re dealing with serious issues here. This isn’t a debate about a point of theology that never found its way into the ecumenical creeds. We’re debating the very substance of our Christian faith.

It is easy to play “Rodney King” during theological debate: “Why can’t we all just get along?” But the Scriptures and Church History don’t really give us that option when significant truths are under attack. We are to be gracious and fair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be strong and firm in attacking falsehood.

Exegesis on the fly that goes against the basic truths of our tradition should not be commended simply because the Bible was engaged. The texts under question have been seriously engaged for hundreds of years by men who spoke and wrote in several languages. Maybe a bit of humility is needed before we play the “I wrestle with the Bible” card?

Hence in Part 3 I will discuss this naïve Biblicism that was, historically speaking, the driving force behind several serious theological errors and heresies.

Mark Jones

Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver Church (PCA) since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He lectures at various seminaries around the world and is currently writing a book titled, "God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God" (Crossway, 2017) and "Faith, Hope, and Love" (Crossway, 2017).

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