Are There Two Wills In God?

After my post yesterday When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation, I received the following question in a comment:

Jonathan, could you elaborate a little more what you mean by this:

“[T]he notion of two wills in God . . . introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism.”

I can see the validity of your point here: “[Arianism] logically entails a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself.” But I fail to see how that at all relates to what the Reformed scholastics articulated about the revealed and hidden wills of God. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on why you think a distinction in the wills of God ultimately leads to a rupture between the two.

As I began to respond, I realized that my reply would become much too long and involved to post as a comment, so I decided to put it here as a separate post. Not only that, but I think that others may have the same question, and so I thought that I would post my reply here for the benefit of others as well.

To begin, it is important to remember that a commitment to a single will of God was integral to the pro-Nicene contention that Christ was homoousion – of the same being/essence – with God the Father. Clearly if Christ is a mere creature, then his will must be distinct from that of the Father. On the other hand, if he is, as Athanasius stated, “proper” to the Father’s nature, then his will cannot be distinct from the Father’s will. With the development of orthodox trinitarianism, this was expanded to include the Holy Spirit as well, such that all three persons were not said to possess distinct wills but rather to instantiate a threefold repetition of the same divine will. The reason for this, of course, is that a notion of distinct wills in God implies the existence of distinct natures, for as demonstrated in the later monothelite/dyothelite controversy, will is understood to be a property of a nature. Thus in orthodox theology, a distinction in wills implies a distinctionfull_does-god-desire-all-to-be-saved of natures, yet this would run into the problem of di- or tritheism (depending on the number of distinct wills posited), or full-blown Arianism (if one of the wills/natures is considered less than homoousion with the other). So just on the face of it, the notion of ‘two wills’ in God would seem to be incoherent at best, heterdox/heretical at worst. If the will of Christ is different from that of the Father, as in Arianism or tritheism, then there is no way for us to know for sure that who Christ reveals in himself is identical with the God who exists from all eternity in unapproachable light.

Someone could possibly respond that the distinction in question is not ontological but functional. In other words, what is meant by ‘two wills’ in God is not that God in himself actually possess two distinct wills, but rather that his one will has differing aspects that can be functionally categorized as either ‘secret’ or ‘revealed’. The problem with this is not as blatant, yet it is nevertheless still present. Since, as even indicated in the commentor’s question above, the error is not as obvious, it will require a bit of explain. To do so, I’d like to start by considering a passage whose interpretation is somewhat controversial, 1 Timothy 2:3-6. Paul says:

3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

The reason for which the interpretation of this passage is controverted is not that difficult to ascertain. Many classic Calvinists, including Calvin himself, understand the “all people” of verse 4 as all “kinds” or “classes” of people. Often these Calvinist are fairly consistent in their interpretation of the biblical witness in that whenever universal language is used in relation to God’s salvific will, that language is interpret in a limited sense in order to provide coherence with the classic Calvinist understanding of election and limited atonement. Thus, for example, John 3:16 is taken to mean that God loved the world not in the sense of every single person but rather in the sense of those whom he had predetermined to save.

There are other Calvinists, however, that accept a more universal reading of these passages. An example would be John Piper who, in an article on the question of two wills in God, says that while the limited reading of 1 Tim. 2:3-6 is exegetically possible, he is willing to concede, even if for the sake of argument, a universal interpretation. I personally think that this latter option is correct inasmuch as it seems required by the logic of Paul’s argument.

As Paul states in verse 5, the reason for which he can affirm that God “desires all people to be saved” is because (the conjunction “for” that begins vs. 5) God is one and the mediator between God and humanity is one – the man Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul’s affirmation in verse 4 of God’s universal salvific will derives from the fact that there is only one mediator who is the God-man Jesus Christ. Were there two mediators between God and humanity, Christ and another besides him – then in that case there might be grounds for asserting that while God desires all whom Christ represents to be saved, he may have another will regarding the eternal destiny of those represented by the second mediator. Were there a mediator unto damnation distinct from Christ who is the mediator of salvation, then it would make sense to say that 1 Tim. 2:4 means that God only desires the salvation of some (those represented by Christ). Since, however, there is only one mediator, Paul asserts that there can only be one salvific will of God.

Moreover, the universality of this salvific will is established by the fact that the one mediator assumed in his incarnation the humanity that is common to all people. Paul makes this clear by emphasizing the humanity of Christ – “the man Jesus Christ.” However, there is not a separate ‘humanity’ that is somehow distinct from that which Christ assumed in his incarnation. As all human beings have descended from Adam having been created in the image of God, so also Christ assumed this humanity as the last Adam and the true image of God and is therefore the representative and mediator of all humanity without exception. Again, were it the case that God had created two ontologically distinct classes of humanity in Genesis 1 – a humanity in the image of God and humanity in some other sense – then it would make sense to say that Christ represents only a limited group of human beings in assuming their flesh. Since, however, this is clearly not the case, it cannot be that Christ is not the mediator between God and all humanity without exception, for his humanity is not different from that of all other human beings.

All of this rests on the fact that the incarnation is a revelatory act. As John 1:14, 18 affirms:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

The Word of which John speaks in this chapter is self-same with the man Jesus Christ. This is the same Word who in verse 1 is identified as not only being with God in the beginning but also being God himself. For this reason, the one who came in the flesh and dwelt among us is none other than God himself. This means that when we see the glory of Jesus, we see the glory of the Father. No one has ever seen God, but when the Word became flesh, he ‘exegeted’ (this is the verb in the Greek) God to us. He made known to us the Father within the ontological structures of our humanity such that we as finite creatures could come to know our infinite Creator. This is why Jesus could say to Philip in response to his request to show them the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). Contrary to what Philip was likely thinking, there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. To see Jesus is not to see the Father only in part, as though there were some aspect of God that remained hidden or to be discovered through some other means. No, Jesus assures Philip, to see him is to see the Father without distortion or remainder.

Now if we put this all together, we can see why the idea of ‘two wills’ in God, one ‘revealed’ that is somehow different than than one that is ‘secret’, is so problematic. If what Christ reveals in his incarnation is somehow different from that which the Father has willed, then the good news that John records in his gospel loses its foundation. We might as well delete John 1:14, 18 and 14:8-9 from our Bibles, because we can have no assurance that what Christ reveals is coextensive with who God is eternally and antecedently in himself. We will always be left to wonder if there is some aspect of God that might alter the picture of him that we see in the person of Christ.

But more than this (and to respond more directly to the commentor’s question above), the notion of ‘two wills’ in God (a concept intended to buttress the classic Calvinist understanding of election and limited atonement) introduces a rupture into the being of God himself. How so? If we remember, from John, that the incarnation is revelatory of who God is, and if we combine this with what Paul says about how the incarnation reveals that God’s salvific will is universal, then we immediately encounter a significant problem if, apart from this ‘revealed will’, we posit a ‘secret will’ that somehow changes or limits, as in the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’, the actual salvific will of God (i.e. while the atonement is sufficient to save all, it is intended to be effective only in actually saving some). Thus, one the one hand, Christ’s incarnation reveals that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4-5); on the other hand, his secret will, established before creation, is different (or even contrary!) in that it actually only wills the salvation of a few.

So the rupture is this: either there is a disjunction between the salvific will of the Son (revealed in the incarnation as universal) and the salvific will of the Father (the actual content of which is hidden in eternity), or there is a disjunction between the salvific will of the Trinity revealed in Christ’s incarnation (universal in scope) and the salvific will of Trinity hidden in eternity (limited in scope). In the first case, we are back to either the problem of tritheism (because two distinct wills implies two distinct natures) or full-blown Arianism (because the salvific will of the Son is overridden by and thus inferior to the salvific will of the Father).

The second case is not as obviously problematic but is nonetheless so, for it renders the life of God revealed in the incarnation (the economic Trinity) as fundamentally different from the life of God from all eternity (the immanent Trinity). In this instance, the rupture is not within the eternal being of God (as in the first case) but between God’s eternal being in himself and economic being in revelation. Once again, this is precisely what the Nicene homoousion was intended to avoid, for according to the various forms of ‘Arianism’, the being, will, and act of Jesus Christ in time is not self-same with the being, will, and act of God in himself from all eternity. Arianism did not simply entail a denial of the full divinity of the Son simpliciter; it entailed a denial of the full divinity of the God-man Jesus Christ. This is why, in the Nicene Creed, it is specifically “Jesus Christ” (rather than simply God the Son considered apart from the incarnation) who is said to be homoousion with the Father. Therefore, if that which Christ reveals is somehow different than who God is antecedently and eternally in himself, than we violate one of the central meanings of the Nicene homoousion and cannot escape the charge that we have adopted a functionally ‘Arian’ view of revelation.

As I can see it, the only way to avoid this problem and still hold, as classic Calvinism requires, the notion of ‘two wills’ in God is by positing another disjunction, not between the Father and the Son nor between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity but rather in Christ himself between his person (incarnation) and his work (atonement). That is to say, if we are intent on avoiding the first two errors but we still want to hold to a distinction between God’s revealed will to save all and his hidden will to actually save only some, then the only option left to us is to say that Christ’s incarnation (which, again, is universal in its representation of all humanity created in the image of God) is different in scope than his work (designed only to save the elect).

Yet this move is just as problematic as the other two. First, it does violence to the clear teaching of Scripture that Christ doesn’t simply provide salvation but that he is salvation. If we divide Christ’s incarnate person (corresponding to the ‘revealed will’) from his atoning work (corresponding to the ‘secret will’), then salvation is reconstrued as a ‘thing’ that can be distinguished and possessed apart from Christ himself. But those goes against, for example, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” In other words, Christ doesn’t give us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption as gifts that we can possess apart from him. Rather, Paul says that Christ himself is these things, and we partake of them only insofar as we are “in Christ Jesus”, ‘engrafted’ into his very person by the Spirit.

Furthermore, a separation of Christ’s work from his person effectively instrumentalizes Christ’s humanity as a mere means to an end. That is, it implies the idea that Christ assumed flesh merely for the sake of accomplishing human salvation, similar to an astronaut who puts on a spacesuit only for the purpose of going into space. In this view, there is nothing essential to Christ about his humanity, for it is only an instrument that he took up in order to save the elect. The problem with this, however, is twofold. First, it once again evinces a similarity to Arianism in that it considers the man Jesus Christ as subordinate to the eternal will of God rather than as fully one with that will. The Arians believed that Christ had been created precisely for the purposes of human salvation, and thus they had an instrumentalized view of his humanity. Although the ‘two wills’ notion is not explicitly Arian, it effectively adopts of view of Christ’s humanity that is remarkably similar.

Second, a separation between Christ’s person and work means that the incarnation is not, as John teaches, inherently revelatory of who God is, because the only reason that Christ assumed flesh was due to the contingencies of history. Rather than, as T.F. Torrance beautifully stated, providing us with an ‘open window into the very heart of God’, the incarnation constitutes an action that occurs only because humanity has fallen into sin. Hypothetically then, the incarnation could have not even occurred had humanity not fallen into sin. But if the incarnation occurs only on account of the contingencies of history and creation, then it is not a revelation of who God is essentially in himself but only of what he would do given a certain set of circumstances. We don’t see the Father himself when we see Jesus, we just see what the Father has decided to do in this particular situation. The rupture that this introduces is between God and Jesus Christ, for while the former’s existence is necessary, the latter’s, in this view, is merely contingent.

So once again, the notion of ‘two wills of God’ in which the one ‘revealed’ differs in some way from the one ‘hidden’ in eternity inevitably runs into significant problems. Regardless of where it does so, it cannot help but introduce a rupture into the life of God, whether within the Trinity, between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, or between God and Jesus Christ. All three of these instances effectively constitute a violation of the inner theo-logic of the Nicene homoousion which, in the face of Arian assertions to the contrary, was intended to preserve the truth, indispensable to the gospel, that the being, will, and act of Jesus Christ in history is self-same with the being, will, and act of the Triune God antecedently and eternally in himself. Though of course the ‘two will’ notion does not explicitly deny the full equality of Christ with God, it nevertheless entails a theology that functionally denies it in practice. This is why I, in keeping with orthodox Christian belief and along with others like Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, would reject such a view.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for providing ideas for the critique in this post.)

4 thoughts on “Are There Two Wills In God?

  1. Phil Boonstra 29 August 2016 / 03:35

    This is the same reason common grace can’t exist because God cannot both love someone and hate someone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 29 August 2016 / 03:47

      Hi Phil, thanks for leaving a comment! I don’t care for the notion of common grace either, and I agree that a strong love/hate dichotomy is problematic. I’m with Barth on this one; I think that the wrath of God referred to in Scripture is an expression of his love rather than a contradiction to it. It’s his negation of the creature’s negation of his love.


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