You Asked: Does Gethsemane Separate the Trinity?

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Daniel C. from London asks:

When Jesus says to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt.26:39), how should we think of this relationships within the Trinity? Did the Son have a different desire or will from the Father?

We posed the question to John McKinley, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and author of Tempted for Us: Theological Models and the Practical Relevance of Christ’s Impeccability and Temptation.


The theological term that Jesus possesses two wills, one divine and one human, is Dyothelitism. God the Father and God the Son are distinct persons, but they share the same divine will. The difference of Jesus’ will from his Father’s will in Gethsemane is his human will. By incarnation, God the Son took up a second way of living as a man. He now possesses two natures. Each nature is complete, including a will for each. I define “will” as the spiritual capacity for desires and choice in the exercise of personal agency. But remember, these are mysterious operations (desiring, choosing) of mysterious realities (persons, wills, Trinity) that may leave us continuing to wonder even after thinking it all through as best we can.

We will consider briefly Jesus’ divine will, his human will, the situation of Gethsemane, and how this affects our thinking about the Trinity.

Jesus’ Divine Will

Before the incarnation, the Son of God is a divine person with a divine will. By this will, the Son loves his Father (John 14:31), obeyed his Father to become incarnate (John 8:42), sent the Holy Spirit to those who believed in him (John 15:26), and, in the future, will hand over the kingdom to his Father (1 Cor 15:28). What we are calling Jesus’ divine will should be understood as a mysterious personal operation of choice that he shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is one God, without division or separation. A shared use of desires and choice is the way the three persons of the Godhead love each other and fulfill personal inter-relationship as co-essential, co-equal, and inseparable persons.

Jesus’ Human Will

Through the incarnation, the Son of God entered into a true human life, complete with a created human will. This will includes his desires, decision-making process, and choices as a man. For his mission in salvation, he had to have a true human will, since God cannot be tempted to sin (James 1:13). The temptation of Jesus through his human will was necessary for him to succeed where Adam failed, and to obey God as a man for our righteousness (Rom 5:12-19). His human will was operative when he was a child obeying his parents (Luke 2:51). As an adult, Jesus showed his human will by voluntarily submitting to the Holy Spirit’s leading (Luke 4:1), and by submitting to instruction from the Father by the Spirit as to what to do (John 5:30; 15:10) and what to teach (John 7:16). This dependency is also why Jesus had to pray frequently. Other examples of his human choices were to love his people (John 13:1) and to submit voluntarily to his Father’s plan that he surrender himself and go to the cross (John 10:17-18).

In Gethsemane 

In Gethsemane, we can see that Jesus prays from within his life as a man, as a creature under God. He pleads to his Father because he is motivated by his natural human desires to avoid the pain of hell. He sees it, and he strongly desires to avoid it (Heb 5:7). Jesus is the Son of God embedded in a human struggle between obeying God and self-preservation. This is the culmination of many temptations to sin that Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:15-16 report: Jesus suffered because of his total solidarity with sinners. The development of his human will shows in Hebrews 5:8 that he learned obedience through his suffering, and thereby became perfect as our priest (Heb 2:10). Jesus is here leading his people to rescue them, struggling as they struggle, on our behalf, as the last Adam constructing a new humanity. Jesus is also wrestling authentically as our model, the demonstration of the painful path for them to follow him (Rom 8:17; 1 Peter 2:21-25). Jesus had to make the choice as a man to deny himself, surrender his desires for self-preservation, and embrace his God’s call and will that he suffer hell. This is the same situation for the believer who follows Jesus. These things are impossible someone who possesses only a divine will.

Thinking about Trinity

The idea of two wills in Christ seems weird to us. We expect that true and real persons in the Godhead must have opposable wills, and one person cannot have more than one will. The unity and coherence of being one person who is divine and human, with two wills, may be understood by starting with the eternal, pre-incarnate life of the Son and the Trinity. The Son of God obeys his Father in all things, as shows in the voluntary response of becoming incarnate according to the Father’s command (John 3:16; Gal 4:4). His obedience as the Son of Man, according to his human will, is an extension of his eternal obedience, that he has come to do his Father’s will (John 6:38). His earthly obedience is a parallel of his divine response to become incarnate.

The Son’s obedience to become a man is like other prior commitments that people make in life. People repent and surrender to God, enter marriage with another person, and commit to contracts. Each example has an initial, comprehensive commitment, followed by incremental choices to fulfill that pledge by daily choices. The Son’s response to become incarnate and obey as a man does not remove the validity of his individual struggles and choices taken on a daily basis as a man. The Son of God chose as God to become a man, and, as a man, he chose to obey to the point of suffering hell for others (Phil 2:8). We can also point to the analogy of a human father and son who work together as boss and employee—they live in two modes of relationship that run parallel in the order of authority and submission. One mode is family, and the other mode is economic.

As difficult as this is for us to imagine, we are not alone since the church has strenuously considered this question at several points in the early centuries, culminating in the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681-682 (Constantinople III). Earlier councils had declared orthodoxy that Jesus has a human body and a human soul (Constantinople I, 381; Chalcedon, 451; Constantinople II, 553). The sixth council directly considered the alternate proposal of one will and operation in Christ (Monothelitism). As with all the ecumenical councils, political factors in the unraveling Roman Empire motivated the circumstances of calling a formal debate. In this case, politicians had earlier sought to heal divisions by theological formulas of unity. At the council, theological factors prevailed in a careful review and refutation of Monothelitism, and produced a consensus affirmation of Dyothelitism. Since then, Eastern and Western churches and theologians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) have repeatedly confirmed that consensus.

One major argument used at the council for Dyothelitism is the unity of the Trinity. If the will is a component or property of the three persons separately and individually (as Monothelitism held), then that meant three wills in God, with potential conflict that undermined the oneness of God. Instead of three wills, we can think of three mutually constitutive persons, inseparable in personal operation and sharing their existence as the one God, including one divine will. This is mysterious, and a deeper union than what humans, who possess distinct and opposable wills, can ever experience. The Trinity unveils a vision of deep harmony and union for our relationship of surrender to God, after Jesus’ pattern as a man submitted to God. Only in this way, with a true, created human will like us, does Jesus fulfill humanity by a true trial of our existence (Rom 8:3). He is truly the firstborn of the new humanity who are just like him, body and soul.

  • Jeff Kaldahl

    I would like to expand this question (a great one) to the cross? How did God forsaking Jesus impact the trinity? This seems to be one of the more difficult questions I have when looking at Jesus bearing the wrath and separation from God – yet still being one with God?

    • Lee Furney

      This is at least partly explained by Jesus having two natures. A divine nature that continues to sustain the stars, planets and even those who are putting him to death(Col 1:17), and a fully human nature that dies an actual physical death. Thus, God has always been and always will be three persons in unity without interruption, whilst the second person of the trinity *willingly* dies and is forsaken in his human nature to propitiate God’s wrath. This should of course make us marvel and turn to praise!

      • Kenton

        The only problem with this is that orthodoxy holds that Jesus is one person, not two. Therefore, if he is 100% God and 100% man, without confusion or conflation, then he is only one person if what he experiences, he experiences as a complete person. Otherwise, he is practically two people with two different experiences (not to mention two wills, and therefore two minds).

        There is no separation if he’s not actually separated (though I would begin by questioning the language of “separation”).

        • Lee Furney

          I see the concern, but don’t think that by having two natures anyone becomes practically two persons or is in anyway incomplete. Instead, they are two perspectives on the same reality (by hypostatic union). Despite the difficulty in defining what exactly some of these terms mean (nature, person, etc.), some things are clear. In the incarnation, Christ took on an additional human nature rather than exchanged his divine one for a human one (or any of the other Christological heresies for that matter). Thus, he can rightly be said to be both fully God and fully man. Moreover, he died as the complete God-man (rather than just the man) which was necessary for our salvation. Yet, importantly, he suffers as the complete God-man in his human nature and not in his divine nature, as God is impassible. In some way similarly, as Christians, we too take on a new nature when we are born from above. In addition to our old sinful nature, which we are still trying to put to death, we are given a new spiritual nature. This does not mean that we are practically two people, but there is an inner conflict, as you go on to allude to yourself with reference to Romans 7. There is much mystery around the edges but these points seem reasonably clear. Happy to be corrected though.

  • John Dunn

    Jesus obediently offered up himself to God as the faithful and righteous Last Adam. His submission to the Father was one of the eschatological Adamic-man offering himself up (federally)for those elect beneficiaries (his redeemed Bride) comprehended in the merits of His death. The renunciation of His own will does not indicate that Jesus had an ulterior desire, but rather that the Father’s will was the wholehearted objective of the Son’s will.

    Jesus offered himself up to God through the Holy Spirit (Heb 9:14). There is complete Trinitarian agreement in Jesus’ obedience unto death.

  • Kenton

    I realize we’re in the realm of theological “metaphysics” and existential thought, but when we use the term of “will”, is this simply another way of saying “desire”? Ordinary human beings can have contradictory sets of desires, owing to a sinful nature (see Romans 7). At the same time, such an existence of contradiction doesn’t imply two wills.

    So anyway, when you say that the Trinity is possessed of one divine will, and not three, and that three distinct wills would have the potential for conflict, and that they are inseparable in personal operation, are you saying that the Trinity has one mind (the wellspring of the will)? Because that’s what it seems like to me.

    I see a potential problem in that. If there is only one mind and one will, then there really isn’t something that we could actually describe as love or obedience in the Trinity. Rather, we could only say that there is one God who operates in three simultaneous and distinct ways (as Father, Son, and Spirit): in other words something very close to modalism.
    It wouldn’t actually be love because, let’s be clear with our terms, love exists between two wills (one of the oft-repeated arguments for the Trinity is that God’s nature couldn’t actually be love if there was no expression of love *between* the Persons of the Trinity, which implies a giving and another receiving will).

    Neither could there be actual obedience, because obedience is the submission of one will to another. If there is only one mind and one will, then at most we could say that there was mutual agreement, but that again is a stretch since agreement requires at least two distinct wills.

    Most importantly, how are you defining Persons if it is not by the presence of distinct wills? It’s one thing to say that the Persons of the Trinity do not have differing desires and priorities and purposes. It’s another thing to say that they don’t have distinct (not necessarily differing) wills.

    As to that other question of what precisely occurs on the cross, I think the problem is that we don’t know what we mean when we say, “Christ bears the wrath of God.” What is the wrath of God, exactly, and what does it mean for God the Son to be separated from God the Father? What would it mean for Christ to be separated from God the Father as a man (and not as God)? If we leave these things undefined, that is when we run into problems.

    • Lee Furney

      I wonder whether there is unintentional ambiguity or inaccuracy in the last paragraph of the article? “If the will is a component or property of the three persons separately and individually, then that meant three wills in God, with potential conflict that undermined the oneness of God.” Surely, it’s ‘yes’ to three wills and ‘yes’ to inseparable operation so that there is both unity and diversity and, thus, real relationship between three really personal agents. The complete unity of these three wills could then allow us to refer to there being effectively one divine will. However, this would be three *and* one and not one rather than three as stated in the article.

  • jeremiah

    Good questions Kenton.

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