One Will per Nature per Person: A Response to Peter Leithart

Over at his First Things blog, ironically (or fittingly?) adorned with an icon of the baptism of Christ from the Arian baptistry of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, Peter Leithart has a novel idea about the problem of the wills of Christ:

It is sometimes argued that the Christological formula of essence and person determines the way to understand person and essence in Trinitarian theology. The incarnate Son is a single person, the Person of the divine Son. But this Person exists in two natures. The church rejected monophysite Christologies; Jesus has two natures. And, the church rejected monothelite Christologies; Jesus has two wills.

On this paradigm, “will” must be an attribute of nature rather than Person. Otherwise, we’d be monothelites.

Applied to Triitarian [sic] theology, this means that God must have a single will, since He has only one nature.

Let’s stop here. Every language suffers from ambiguities, but Leithart’s failure to address this one becomes fatal to his argument. How is he using the term “God” here?

If by God he refers to the divine nature, then he’s absolutely correct. But since he follows his statement that “God must have a single will” with “since He has only one nature,” I suspect that’s not what he means. He could also mean God the Father, as is the most common (but not exclusive) use in the Scriptures. But again, I don’t think that’s what he means. Rather, he’s using the third and least common (though still legitimate) traditional use: to refer to the Holy Trinity, as implied by his introductory clause: “Applied to Tri[n]itarian theology….” Herein lies the problem.

What is missing here is some basic philosophical consistency. When the Fathers, like St. John of Damascus for example, say that the Holy Trinity is “one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences [hypostases],” they don’t mean that each of the Persons somehow share one personal will. The key here is “made known in three perfect subsistences” or Persons. Just as, being human, I have by nature a human will that is, in that sense, the same as all other human wills, but nevertheless as a human person, I have my own will, so too do the divine Persons have one divine will, each. The way it works is this: one will per person per nature.

St. Gregory of Nyssa makes this clear:

If, then, the Logos, as being life, lives, it certainly has the faculty of will, for no one of living creatures is without such a faculty. Moreover that such a will has also capacity to act must be the conclusion of a devout mind. For if you admit not this potency, you prove the reverse to exist. But no; impotence is quite removed from our conception of Deity.

For St. Gregory, the Logos, as a divine Person, must have its own faculty of will.

But what is a will? It is unclear to me how Leithart is using the term, so a short clarification may be in order. “Will” is not a mere synonym for “desire.” As St. Augustine put it, refuting the Manicheans,

I ask them, is it a good thing to have delight in reading the apostle, or good to have delight in a sober psalm, or good to discourse on the gospel? To each of these they will answer, “It is good.” What, then, if all equally delight us, and all at the same time? Do not different wills distract the mind, when a man is deliberating which he should rather choose? Yet are they all good, and are at variance until one be fixed upon, whither the whole united will may be borne, which before was divided into many. Thus, also, when above eternity delights us, and the pleasure of temporal good holds us down below, it is the same soul which willeth not that or this with an entire will….

Rather than each desire necessarily representing a separate will, the will is the soul’s faculty of choice. Presented with simultaneous desires, such as reading St. Paul, singing a psalm, or discussing the Gospel, we are able to “fix upon” and choose one over the others due to our power of will.

To say that Christ has a divine and human will means that, being each by nature, he can will all that is in a human being’s power to will as well as all that can be done by God. The former cannot encompass the latter, and in some ways (struggling with the provocations of the passions, for example) the latter does not encompass the former either.

Now, it should be said that there is another sense in which the Persons of the Holy Trinity have one will: through the perfect symphonia of their wills. Thus, they never get into arguments, because they never disagree, because being God they are sinless, omnipotent, and in all ways perfect.

Leithart, however, confusing the very distinction he began with, that between essence or nature and persons, writes,

The two wills in the incarnate Son are a human will and the one divine will of the divine essence. But that makes fair nonsense of the way Jesus talks about His relation with the Father’s will: “My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me” must be translated as “My meat is to do the unified will that I share with the Father and Spirit.” That doesn’t qualify, but contradicts Jesus’ actual statement.

While I’m not so sure I’d even agree if I accepted Leithart’s interpretation, I certainly disagree given what I’ve said above. Christ, as divine, has the same sort of will (divine) as the Father and the Spirit. Being human, he also has the same sort of will (human) as you and me, save the corruption of sin, which is not natural to us but antinatural, a privation of our will’s natural condition.

Thus, when Christ says, “My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me,” he can mean that in either or both senses: divine and/or human. As the Second Person of the Trinity, his will is perfectly in accord, or one with, that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. As God incarnate, his human will is perfectly deified, as all of ours are meant to be, and it derives its life (or meat) from perfectly harmonizing with the divine. It is not, for that, less human, however. It’s just how all of our wills are meant to be.

Somehow, Leithart seems to think that the fact that persons who share the same nature have the same kind of will, somehow makes that will “unified” in the sense of being indistinguishable from that of any other person. But again, that is the whole point of distinguishing between natures and persons in the first place. A person is an enhypostatization of a nature, which is an imminent, repeatable universal. As the Damascene puts it, “there is no nature without subsistence [hypostasis].”

Just because human nature is uniquely enhypostatized in me as a human person, it does not mean that my will is any more or less human than Peter, James, or John. In fact, that is, once again, exactly the point. In the sense of nature, there is not only just one divine will, there is only one human will. In the sense of persons, there are many humans in which that will is uniquely “made known.”

Thus, far from “fair nonsense,” the Orthodox dogma of the two natural wills of Christ makes good sense to me.


  1. Hi Dylan,
    Excellent Article!!
    I note that Peter Leithart is a Presbyterian (i.e., reformed).
    Would it be truthful to say, that due to their A Priori proposition; that God conceives, immutably decrees, and meticulously renders certain, all things that come to pass, that this causes them to insert “causally determinative” distinctions into all things concerning God and His cosmos?

    I’m currently reading Elaine Pagel’s [The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis].
    And I note she makes that observation as effecting gnostic interpretations.

    1. Well, that’s possible, but he’s not exactly a typical Reformed or Presbyterian thinker, so I would caution against assuming too much.


      My bachelor’s is from Kuyper College and my Masters is from Calvin Theological Seminary. I learned there that the Reformed tradition is quite broader than most people realize, historically at least, and that it need not be identified with the likes of John Piper or even, for that matter, the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who was actually quite innovative in his time, though importantly influential afterward. I also learned there that I am definitely not Reformed, but I still stick up for them when I can. They are too often used as scapegoats and their views represented as strawmen in my experience.

      1. Thanks very much Dylan,
        I’ll keep my eyes out for the scapegoat phenomena that you mentioned.
        I do see a fair degree of polemic writing against them that doesn’t end up serving much good. But I think that is often due to critiques focused on elements of the system that are superficial (e.g. tulip) mistaken as foundational.
        I think Piper may see himself as an Edwardian, and Edward’s writings on the will were definitely a defense of causal determinism. The system itself is consistently sighted as founded on Theological Determinism.
        Since that’s the case, its hard for me to conceive of a reformed believer embracing indeterminism, being taken seriously within his group.

        However, I think you’re right that as every snowflake bears its own distinctives, every believer finds some elements within the system, they are comfortable with, and some they are not. I observe serious reformed thinkers as often finding a position somewhere on a line of determinism, which stretches out between soft-determinism to hard-determinism. Each one finds a place on that line, where he can be comfortable with God’s role in the [darker side] of [all things that come to pass]. Many, avoid looking at that element of the system altogether. That’s all part of being human and being individuals.

  2. This seems like scholasticism vs. scholasticism. We don’t get to know how the “will” or “wills” of the divine persons in the immanent Trinity work–that is not knowable information. The divine Persons are distinguished in revelation by their relationships to one another, not by divisions of “attributes.” Is there any difference between a “will” as an attribute of one of the divine Persons and the wholly united “will” of the one God? The human mind cannot possibly answer that question and need not try to do so.

    Maximus’ theology is about ensuring that we understand that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, had every single mental faculty and capacity that God created within human beings, including a “will,” a capacity to choose. This is not about delineating how the mystery works, but about ensuring that we are not saying something untrue (to say that Christ lacked something that you and I have other than sin would be untrue).

    Nyssa’s theology cannot be expected to be rigorous regarding monothelitism, being written four centuries before the debate.

    Understanding the detailed specifics of how the divine Persons distinguish each other within their own mind/minds (do they each have a “mind?”) is not something given to us, for it is not necessary for our salvation. You cannot, as a human being, take the perspective that would be necessary to understand whether from the Father’s point of view, the Spirit has something called a “will” that is distinct from something called a “will” in the Father or anything of the sort.

    1. St. John of Damascus, according to many, may have been the first scholastic, so I take your comment as a compliment and recommend his Dialectica. Indeed, one could easily respond that you, too, are responding to me with scholasticism, delineating precisely what can and cannot be known about divinity. I think that misses the point. These distinctions are never meant to encompass the mystery of the Holy Trinity but to set a baseline from which we can speak coherently about our confession, and I’ve grounded them in the work of fathers who all insisted on the incomprehensible nature of the divine essence. I wholeheartedly affirm that too, as well as other details that they believed were essential to the defense of the Orthodox faith as I’ve detailed in this essay.

      1. Forgive me, dear brother! I probably sounded like much more of an enemy than I meant (oh the internet…)

        Reading that you’re a Calvin Sem grad contextualizes this quite differently for me. My big concern in this kind of thing is whether it is really worth delving into the almost inevitably divisive work of articulating the unknowable–is an absolutely essential salvific truth at stake? There are times when we must so delve…but my immediate reaction was “surely this isn’t one!”

        But, maybe it’s more essential than I had thought given the conversation you’re in, and regardless you are closer to that scene than I am (although I did my undergrad out at Hope)–in which case, may the Lord bless the struggle. I don’t think you’re wrong in what you’re saying per se, I just think you are opening a lot of cans of worms and if it were me, I would rather point to the futility of what Leithart is up to in light of the Mystery than to grab hold and engage him on his own terms.

        That’s a judgment call, though, so proceed with my prayers!

        1. No offense taken, and thank you for your prayers.

          I think there is a time and place for each response. When we worry about not saying too much, we should temper that by remembering those who, in the fourth century, did not want to affirm homoousion but only homoeon. Many ended up being persuaded that staying out and keeping their language neutral was not the right path after all. On the other hand, those like me must always remember people like Arius, who thought he was clarifying a mystery and instead fell into heresy.

    2. “We don’t get to know how the “will” or “wills” of the divine persons in the immanent Trinity work–that is not knowable information.”
      … ineffable it certainly may be but ‘knowable’ ie rational our faith absolutely must be, else submission to a voluntarism aka relativism of another’s choice (will) including radical Islam or secular-majoritan atheism the forfeited (for lack of will) alternative:
      “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature” Benedict XVI at Regensburg,

  3. Well said, Dylan! I would like to think this is the consensus view on the matter but my understanding is that the tradition has often failed or refused to distinguish faculty of will from enactment/operation of will. In the controversy surrounding 6th Council, it was rejected that Christ could have two natures and one personal operation. Likewise in Trinitarian theology, the different activities of the Divine persons are chalked up to economic Trinity while immanent Trinity shares one divine will/operation (not faculty) according to unified nature.
    Would you also argue the Trinity is three “subjects” or three “centers of consciousness?”

    1. As for the council, I’d have to look into that again. My typical understanding has been that one could speak of one divine-human subject willing, just as the fifth council affirmed the use of the phrase one theandric energy. What seems important to me is the modifiers in the sixth council: two natural wills and two natural energies. That seems to me to be concerned with the implications of the ousiai and not the unity of the Person who wills and acts.

      As for your question, I suspect in some sense St. Gregory of Nyssa would, but he would also caution that we must always break down the analogy as well. For if even a term like essence is analogical (for we affirm the divine to be superessential), then so also must consciousness. Thus, it would depend very much what someone meant by “consciousness.” So long as one doesn’t fall into anthropomorphism, I think a case could be made based on the fathers and the Scriptures.

      1. I’ll have to look into the wording of 5th vs 6th Council. Can we reconcile “one theandric energy” with “two natural wills and two natural energies”?

        And as much as I like your reasoning, I’m afraid you (we) rely too heavily on the work of Nyssa who I assume was in agreement with Nazianzus concerning this issue and it was Nazianzus’s position that Maximus rejects in Op. 6.

  4. John of Damascus explains the Theandric Energy in an interesting way.
    Seemingly, he would claim that we can affirm monothelitism and dyothelitism–as long as we distinguish the two properly.

    John of Damascus says:

    When the blessed Dionysius [2197] says that Christ exhibited to us some sort of novel theandric energy [2198] , he does not do away with the natural energies by saying that one energy resulted from the union of the divine with the human energy: for in the same way we could speak of one new nature resulting from the union of the divine with the human nature. For, according to the holy Fathers, things that have one energy have also one essence. But he wished to indicate the novel and ineffable manner in which the natural energies of Christ manifest themselves, a manner befitting the ineffable manner in which the natures of Christ mutually permeate one another, and further how strange and wonderful and, in the nature of things, unknown was His life as man [2199] , and lastly the manner of the mutual interchange arising from the ineffable union. For we hold that the energies are not divided and that the natures do not energise separately, but that each conjointly in complete community with the other energises with its own proper energy [2200] . For the human part did not energise merely in a human manner, for He was not mere man; nor did the divine part energise only after the manner of God, for He was not simply God, but He was at once God and man. For just as in the case of natures we recognise both their union and their natural difference, so is it also with the natural wills and energies.

    1. Right. So do I. Dyothelitism regarding natures, monothelitism regarding persons, for the natures are two, but the Person is one. The problem with the historic (heretical) monothelites is that they thought affirming the latter required denying the former, hence the modifier “natural” in the decision of the sixth council.

  5. I find this passage perplexing: “Just as, being human, I have by nature a human will that is, in that sense, the same as all other human wills, but nevertheless as a human person, I have my own will, so too do the divine Persons have one divine will, each. The way it works is this: one will per person per nature.”

    You and I certainly have our own wills, which is one of the many ways that we are differentiated from each other. However, the divine Persons, from what the Damascene states, are “one in all respects, save those of not being begotten, of birth and of procession (De fide Orthodoxa IV.8).” To compare the divine will and human will in such a manner seems to introduce another kind of separation between the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

    You also say that the Son has the “the same sort of will (divine) as the Father and the Spirit,” which implies similarity, but St. John also states that the will is not merely similar but identical. St. Maximus also emphasizes the common will of the Father and the Son in his writing on Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane. We cannot say that the Son is similar in essence with the Father, so how can we say that He is similar in willing?

    1. Not similar, but “the same,” as I wrote. Homoousios, not homoiousios. The comparison to human persons is common among St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John of Damascus. Likely others, too, but those are who I think of off-hand. My intention is simply to follow their example.

    1. I’ll look into it. Thinking over what I wrote, I think I may have been less nuanced than intended. “Monothelite” would be a misleading label since the whole focus was on natural wills. What I mean to affirm is what St. John of Damascus said: “For we hold that the energies are not divided and that the natures do not energise separately, but that each conjointly in complete community with the other energises with its own proper energy.” I’d just apply this to the two wills as well as the two energies of Christ.

    2. I’ve now had time to look over you’re link.

      To be clear, I would definitely not affirm what it describes as monothelitism:

      “Monothelitism held that while Christ had two natures (both human and divine), he had only one will (divine/human), which is not distinguishable from the will of God.”

      The divine and the human are definitely distinguishable, and I hope I haven’t given the impression otherwise.

      I think now that I really should have quoted the decision of the sixth council, since that is the most important statement of the Church on this issue:

      “For we will not admit one natural operation in God and in the creature, as we will not exalt into the divine essence what is created, nor will we bring down the glory of the divine nature to the place suited to the creature.”

      Note the concern with essence/nature above.

      “his two natures shone forth in his one subsistence in which he both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of his economic conversation”

      The locus of union above, just like Chalcedon, is the one subsistence (hypostasis).

      Lastly, note the Chalcedonian phrasing:

      “We glorify two natural operations indivisibly, immutably, inconfusedly, inseparably in the same our Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine operation and a human operation….”


      “in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers.”

      So the question, then, is how does this relate to the definition of Chalcedon? It is one Person who wills and acts, but he does not do so with any deficit of humanity or divinity, nor with any confusion between the two. The natural wills in the one hypostasis of God the Logos incarnate can neither be separated or divided, for they are united in him, nor can they be confused or changed one into the other, for he exists in two natures.

      Does that help?

  6. I’m more of a church historian than a theologian, so I may not be following the intricacies of your argument. But for what it’s worth, a few things seem problematic to me:

    1) Leithart seems to be trying to argue from oikonomia to theologia regarding the wills, but historically it was the other way around — language about essence, persons, wills, etc. was applied first to the Trinity and then gradually to Christology. This is not a criticism of your argument, but I’m curious as to whether you think there is a right “direction” for analogizing.

    2) Your comparison of divine willing to human willing by analogy with divine nature re: human nature runs the danger of slipping into tritheism, does it not? God is not one and many in the same way that human is one and many, or in more technical terms, the divine nature is not merely generic; a fortiori, then, presumably neither is the divine will generic.

    3) We cannot affirm both monotheletism and dyotheletism, the first re: persons and the second re: natures. This is one of the compromise positions that the monotheletes tried to get St Maximus to agree to (similarly to attempts today to forge a compromise agreement with the Monophysites). Maximus himself clearly distinguishes between the faculty of willing, the act of willing, and the thing willed. Monotheletism, as a theological term, properly refers only to the first of these.

    1. Thanks for your questions! In order:

      1) I think that sounds right re: Leithart and the fathers having a different approach. In defense of Leithart’s approach, however, I would say that St. Basil for example says that we gain knowledge of the divine nature only through our experience of the divine energies, the nature remaining ultimately incomprehensible. So if one is seeking to do theology as Evagrius defines it, for example (i.e. through prayer), we might even argue that this is the right way to start. However, Leithart isn’t really working from personal spiritual experience but from his interpretation of a passage describing the oikonomia, making it not really the same.

      2) I think the comparison always has that danger, yes. However, the Cappadocians and St. John of Damascus all use the example of three persons as a starting point for understanding any sort of nature/person relation, then to be apophatically qualified regarding the Holy Trinity. I’d say the same applies here. I tried to add some qualification in talking about the vast difference between the divine will (omnipotent, omniscient, sinless, in perfect harmony) and human wills (prone to disagreement, discord, sin, ignorance). I have no idea what it is like to be omniscient, for example, it is totally beyond my ability to comprehend or fathom, and I’d prefer that we had a more apophatic-sounding term, like unlimited knowledge or un-ignorance. So I think your worry is right, but I would also caution that not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

      3) On this, I will once again admit that my use of that term in a comment above was misleading. See my response to Dan on this.

      1. Sorry, “the Cappadocians and St. John of Damascus all use the example of three persons” should be “the Cappadocians and St. John of Damascus all use the example of three *human* persons….”

  7. Dylan, in thinking more about this, I think to be more precise, and here leaning on St. Maximus’s language, we should speak of distinct employment’s of the will, for we don’t say that the three Divine Persons have the same ‘sort’ of will, but that each individually wills the same will. This guards the language of Christ from Leithart’s unhappy ‘fair nonsense’ all the while preserving the Patristic testimony of the single divine will employed by the three Divine Persons.

    1. You’re not the only commentator to mention it, so I think it was a bad word choice on my part. By “sort,” I mean the answer to the question, “what sort of thing is it?” i.e. “what is its nature?”

  8. A general comment: Thanks to all the commentators! You’ve been very helpful to me in further clarifying and refining my argument. I wish such cordial criticism accompanied everything I write. For that matter, I hope Peter Leithart, if he read or will read it, views this essay the same way. Blessed Lent to all!

    It is indeed good and pleasant when brothers and sisters dwell in unity … even (especially?) when they disagree.

  9. Dylan’s argument, suggesting that there are three (non-conflicting) wills–and perhaps also three (non-conflicting) operations/energies–in the Holy Trinity, corresponding with the three Persons, could lead to accusations of tritheism. Contrast with this statement of St. Gregory of Nyssa about the unity of operation (energy) in the Trinity: “Men, even if several are engaged in the same form of action, work separately each by himself at the task he has undertaken, having no participation in his individual action with others who are engaged in the same occupation… Thus, since among men the action of each in the same pursuits is discriminated, they are properly called many, since each of them is separated from the others within his own environment, according to the special character of his operation. But in the case of the Divine nature we do not similarly learn that the Father does anything by Himself in which the Son does not work conjointly, or again that the Son has any special operation apart from the Holy Spirit; but every operation which extends from God to the Creation, and is named according to our variable conceptions of it, has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit… Since then the Holy Trinity fulfills every operation… not by separate action according to the number of the Persons, but so that there is one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit (for as we do not call those whose operation gives one life three Givers of life, neither do we call those who are contemplated in one goodness three Good beings, nor speak of them in the plural by any of their other attributes); so neither can we call those who exercise this Divine and superintending power and operation towards ourselves and all creation, conjointly and inseparably, by their mutual action, three Gods.” (“Not Three Gods”, Consider also St. Ambrose of Milan, “Since He then says, ‘Not my will but yours be done’ [Luke 22:42], He referred His own will to man and His Father’s to the Godhead. The will of man is temporary, but the will of the Godhead is eternal. There is not one will of the Father and another of the Son. There is one will where there is one Godhead.” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 10.60,;imode)

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I do not believe that the will of the Son is ever separate from the Father. But that does not mean they are not distinguishable. Just as the two natures of Christ are inseparable, but nevertheless two. Rather, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always act in perfect harmony, or as St. Gregory put it, “conjointly.”

      The second quote from St. Gregory refers, I think to nature, since he says, “There is one will where there is one Godhead.” Godhead, according to St. Basil and others, refers to the divine essence (ousia) or nature. The Persons are one in nature, and accordingly there is one divine will. But they are three Persons (hypostases).

      Tritheism, according to St. Gregory, would require separation between the Persons. I agree and never said nor intended to imply otherwise. By contrast, as material beings we humans experience some separation naturally. But, furthermore, tritheism also requires difference of natures. Think of Zeus and Poseidon. Both are “gods,” but here “god” is a genus, like animal, not as species, like human. Poseidon clearly has an aquatic nature, while Zeus does not. They are homoiousios, but not homoousios. By contrast, St. Gregory says that to speak of three human persons as three humans is a common abuse of language, for “human,” properly understood, refers to our nature, which is one. This is okay, he says, when we are talking about created things in everyday conversation, but theology requires greater precision and qualification, so we strictly confess that the three divine Persons are not three gods but one, for “God” refers to the nature (see my second common use at the start of the essay), and the nature is one.

  10. Dylan, having read the original post, and the back-and-forth in the comments, I have become unclear regarding the exact position you are taking.

    Simply put: Are you positing 3 wills/3 energies, that is, a singular will/energy for each divine Person, saying that said wills or energies are ‘one’ inasmuch as they are in perfect harmony/consonance?

    1. I’m affirming one natural will made known in three Persons, as St. John of Damascus put it. In my reading of the fathers, I’ve always taken it that way: the Persons cannot be said to work together or conjointly or in symphonia if the will and action of each is indistinguishable. There would be no “together” without plurality. I think the quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa in the body of the essay makes it clear that he believes the Logos—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—must have its own (personal) faculty of will. I understand that many worry about that sliding into tritheism—that’s a real danger—but as I’ve described it I think it meets the fathers’ standards.

      The idea that the will of each Person is not only inseparable but indistinguishable, on the other hand, faces a greater danger of modalism to me. Indeed, if their will and action cannot be distinguished as belonging to each as unique subjects, then they are not unique subjects and the Trinity is lost. That, in fact, is the only way I would distinguish the will and energy of each, for as I said (and more importantly, as the fathers I’ve referenced have said), they do all things in perfect harmony and are inseparable.

      I guess that would be a yes to your question, then, but I would emphasize that they are one not only in operation but also and importantly in nature. I am yet to read a passage from the fathers where oneness of the divine will could not be taken to mean either the former or the latter, and as I’ve said going beyond that would make me worry about modalism for the reasons above. I’d also, whenever possible, prefer to use the fathers’ phrasing—I think I’m reading them right, but they might still look at a person strangely if they spoke of “three wills,” since their concerns were clearly so centered around will as derived from nature, which is one.

    2. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the three Persons are three enhypostatizations of the one divine nature, will, and energy.

    3. Or maybe we could say three *faculties* of the one divine will. The problem here is, and this I think is what Leithart wanted to highlight, in modern thought we don’t primarily think of will as a property of natures but of persons (or maybe even just of “minds”). In ancient thought people thought of wills more as attributes of natures. But in neither, I believe, is the other completely absent.

  11. Dylan,

    Why, by your account, can the same claim not be made about the divine essence?

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “the same claim”? I’ll try to cover possible readings of that below, but please clarify if this doesn’t answer your question.

      The problem here is this: Generally speaking, in ancient thought will is primarily, but not exclusively, an attribute of nature. In modern thought, will is primarily, but not exclusively, a faculty of persons. This is not a strict distinction but significant in this case. For the fathers there is one natural will of the Holy Trinity but three divine subjects who can and do will in and through one another in perfect, inseparable harmony.

      Regarding the natures of Christ, we can see an example of where the fathers very tentatively accepted a usage more in line with modern assumptions. There are two natures and so two wills and energies but one subject who wills and acts. Nevertheless, the Dionysian term “one theandric energy” was accepted as Orthodox, so long as it is understood as St. John of Damascus describes (quoted in a comment above and linked by me), to signify the action of the one subject, Christ, who acts both divinely and humanly without any reduction, confusion, separation, or division between his natures and their attributes (in this case wills and energies). The key to sorting all of this out is understanding how the fathers used the terms nature and person and what they were willing to attribute to each.

      Perhaps more to your question, the fathers even allowed, if only with great caution and when understood properly, for St. Cyril’s (in)famous phrase “one nature (physis) of God the Logos incarnate.” Here, however, the Greek term matters: They would never have said “one ousia” but physis had a wider semantic range. Furthermore, another way of understanding it would be to again follow St. John of Damascus, who says, citing St. Cyril, that the word “incarnate” refers to the human nature of Christ while “one nature” refers to the divine. So I actually think they might have been less flexible here than with “one theandric energy.”


      In any case, given that everything rests upon the difference between natures and persons, I do not think that my argument would ever allow for anything other than the affirmation of one divine nature of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity; and one Lord Jesus Christ in two natures, God and human.

      1. Dylan,

        You claim the divine will is inseparable but distinguishable – “I do not believe that the will of the Son is ever separate from the [will of the] Father. But that does not mean they [the wills] are not distinguishable”. From this I understand you to say there are three divine wills, not one. Correct me if I am mistaken.

        Why, on your terms, can the same claim not be made about the divine essence, to say that “I do not believe that the divine nature of the Son is ever separate from the divine nature of the Father. But that does not mean the divine natures are not distinguishable”? Or perhaps you do claim the divine nature is “inseparable but distinguishable”? And how would this not amount to tritheism?

        1. Well, here again is where the distinction between natures and persons is fundamental. “Divine” refers to the nature. Thus, there is one divine will, not three. Period.

          However, there are three subjects (hypostases) who will. In modern parlance, we speak of persons (of any nature) as each having their own will *as persons.* In ancient terms we would say that the one will of their nature is “made known,” to quote St. John of Damascus again, in each of the subsistences or persons of any given nature. Thus, there is an ancient/modern semantic problem that complicates this.

          However, this is not exclusively a matter of difference of time. As I said the difference is one of emphasis, but a more modern use of the term will (and action or energy) can be found in ancient writers as well. There are times when the fathers speak of “the will of the Father” or “the will of the Son” or “the will of the Holy Spirit” while nevertheless insisting on one divine (which, again, signifies the nature) will and energy. They furthermore insist that the Persons of the Trinity, unlike human persons, will in perfect harmony, conjointly and inseparably from one another, perichoretically in and through one another.

          For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes the following:

          “Yet although we set forth Three Persons and three names, we do not consider that we have had bestowed upon us three lives, one from each Person separately; but the same life is wrought in us by the Father, and prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Holy Spirit. Since then the Holy Trinity fulfils every operation in a manner similar to that of which I have spoken, not by separate action according to the number of the Persons, but so that there is one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit (for as we do not call those whose operation gives one life three Givers of life, neither do we call those who are contemplated in one goodness three Good beings, nor speak of them in the plural by any of their other attributes); so neither can we call those who exercise this Divine and superintending power and operation towards ourselves and all creation, conjointly and inseparably, by their mutual action, three Gods.”

          Notice that he is willing to speak of “the will of the Holy Spirit” while nevertheless insisting that the Persons will “conjointly and inseparably” with one natural “power and operation” bestowing the same divine life upon us, not three different kinds or natures of life, for they are not three gods, but one God.

          I am well aware of the danger of tritheism. For St. Gregory, however, tritheism requires either three natures (which I deny) or three different kinds of operation (which I deny) or *separate* action of the Persons (which I deny). By his standard, at least, I think my position remains Orthodox, and as I wrote in a comment above, I’d worry about falling into modalism by saying otherwise.

          1. Thank you for the clarification.

            I must now confess then that I do not understand your original point at all.

          2. I’m glad that helped clarify.

            Leithart, despite beginning by mentioning the distinction between natures and persons and that ancient writers thought of will primarily as an attribute of nature, goes on to interpret that as meaning that the willing of the three Persons of the Trinity, as I put it, is “‘unified’ in the sense of being indistinguishable” from one another, reading will in the more common modern sense as a personal property. The fathers do, at times, talk about the personal faculty of will, which is what I pointed out, but though they insist on the unity of the divine will (will as an attribute of nature) and the inseparable and harmonious action of the Persons of the Trinity, they still distinguish between them.

            Similarly, he seems to understand the doctrine of the two natural wills of Christ as two independent personal faculties, rather than united without separation, division, confusion, or change in the one Person, Christ, who wills.

            Thus, Leithart seems to read the traditional dogma of the Trinity modalistically and the traditional dogma of the Incarnation as Nestorian, then, finding that to be a problem, he rejects the dogma rather than his interpretation.

            What the fathers affirm, so far as I understand them, is that there is one divine will, but three Persons who will. And there are two natural wills and energies in Christ, but one Person who wills and acts. These facts are inseparable to the fathers due to the doctrine of the enhypostasic existence of natures, i.e. that an essence is an immanent repeatable universal. Contra Plato, and following Aristotle, natures do not exist apart from the particulars in which they subsist.

            My essay meant to point out that Leithart was misreading the Tradition and that there was more there than he was giving it credit for. The hinge for understanding the nuance of the fathers is the very distinction he begins his post with: that between natures and persons.

  12. Thank you Dylan,

    I agree with you that the fathers affirm there is one divine will, but three Persons who will.

    I am not sure this means we can distinguish the divine wills into three (as it appears that was what you were denoting, or at least I read your comments that way), or else what the nature of the distinction of the one divine will may constitute, other that we can affirm about the one divine will, without straying from orthodoxy, that the Father has a will, the Son has a will and the Spirit has a will.

  13. Surely we cannot say that “the Father has a will, the Son has a will and the Spirit has a will”, but rather that the Father wills, the Son wills, and the Spirit wills the numerically singular divine will, each in the manner appropriate to their hypostatic personhood.

    1. Agreed Father Bittle, I do believe your construction is more accurate and precise, but which would seem to go contra Dylan’s point, so it seems to me. Furthermore, and perhaps more apropos to your statement, the issue of “possession” when speaking of God is particularly problematic. God does not participate in, possess as in degree or measure, goodness – rather He is good.

      1. Well, in other comments above, I have tried to clarify that part of the problem is an ancient vs. modern use of the word “will,” though one can find examples of the fathers using it in a more modern sense, such as when they speak of “the will of the Holy Spirit.” I won’t repeat that again here, but I’d encourage you to scroll upward and scan my previous comments to get a more precise picture of what I mean. To be charitable, I would afford that same nuance to ApophaticallySpeaking.

        As for your point about possession, I think your standard might be too strict. Ps.-Dionysius, for example, insists,

        “This Good is celebrated by the sacred theologians, both as beautiful and as Beauty, and as Love, and as Beloved; and all the other Divine Names which beseem the beautifying and highly-favoured comeliness. But the beautiful and Beauty are not to be divided, as regards the Cause which has embraced the whole in one. For, with regard to all created things, by dividing them into participations and participants, we call beautiful that which participates in Beauty; but beauty, the participation of the beautifying Cause of all the beautiful things.”

        So God, as the Good (agathos), is also Beauty and the Beautiful (kallos, which can also be translated “good”), not by participation but as that in which all other goodness and beauty participate.

        Nevertheless, St. Dionysius in the very same paragraph goes on to speak of the Beautiful “having beforehand in Itself pre-eminently the fontal beauty of everything beautiful.” So the Good is the Beautiful which possesses “the fontal beauty,” and yet It does not do so by participation. Apparently this statement was not problematic for him, unless we are to presume that within the space of only a few sentences he grossly contradicts himself.

        Rather, I think we need to admit that despite our best grasping for precision, all language, no matter how careful or precise, is ultimately inadequate to describe the ineffable. Nevertheless, we must speak about God in order to praise him. And that is precisely what theology, admitting its profound weakness, has a duty to do: to establish the parameters that guard against statements that in substance would stray from the mystery of our salvation. I.e. it’s duty is to discover and relate the boundaries of Orthodoxy. With some issues the boundaries are narrow, but with others they are wide, and moving them in either direction can jeopardize one’s Orthodoxy.

        To get back to the point in question, one may possess something by participation, but that is not the only way. I have blond hair, for example. But my blond hair is not something other than me. Nor do I, in having blond hair, somehow *participate* in blond hair (though my hair participates in blondness). This is a human example, so please don’t make too much of it. My point isn’t that God is Beauty and possesses “the fontal beauty” in the same way that I have blond hair. I only mean to demonstrate that possession need not imply participation. It is the substance of a person’s statements that matters more than the words, whose usages may shift through times and contexts.

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