Church Write-Up: Truth, Sharing the Crown, and the Two Natures and Wills of Christ

I went to the LCMS church service and Sunday school class last Sunday morning.

A. At the LCMS service, the pastor preached about John 8:33-38. Jesus is appearing before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The two interact about whether Jesus is a king, and Jesus states that his kingdom is not of this world. “So you are a king””, Pilate responds. Jesus then affirms that he (Jesus) came into the world to be a king and to bear witness to the truth, and that anyone who is of the truth listens to him. Pilate replies, “What is truth?”

The pastor speculated that Pilate, somewhere inside, may have hoped that Jesus was who Jesus claimed to be: a different kind of king. During this time, Tiberius was emperor. Tiberius did not particularly want to be emperor and let his mother and certain subordinates govern, so Pilate was not entirely sure who was in charge and whom to appease.

The pastor talked about how many treat truth as foggy. We live in a postmodern era, and the pastor quoted a performance artist, who asked why one person’s experience of something should be considered more authoritative than anyone else’s. Moreover, we rationalize to avoid ill consequences or to feel better about ourselves. The pastor’s ultimate point was that Christians live with the embodiment of truth, Jesus Christ, who observed God’s commands of truth and saves us.

B. The youth pastor talked about how it was conventional for people to fight to be king, but Jesus is unusual in that he laid aside his kingly glory to give others the crown.

C. The Sunday school class got into the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century and the seventh century controversy over whether Jesus had one or two wills.

Nestorius was the bishop of Constantinople, which was a significant and prominent position, as Constantinople was the capital of the Roman empire. Nestorius believed that Jesus had a divine nature and a human nature, but he saw the two natures as like two boards glued together side by side: they did not mix with each other. He also opposed calling Mary the bearer of God, saying that it was more accurate to call her the bearer of Christ. Cyril of Alexandria opposed Nestorius on this, maintaining that Mary was the bearer of God by being bearer of the God-man. Not long after Cyril died, the Council of Chalcedon sought a solution to the controversy, declaring that Jesus had a divine nature and a human nature that were distinct and yet in one person. The divine nature influences the human nature without overwhelming it.

The teacher told a story about Cyril. Cyril was a cantankerous man. After he died, one person wrote to another person, saying that Cyril is with the angels. “Let’s hope they don’t send him back!”, the other person said.

In Matthew 26:39, Jesus asks God, if it is possible, to take from him the cup of suffering and death that he is about to experience, but Jesus then says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” The question Christians asked on the basis of this passage is whether Jesus has a will that differs from that of God the Father. In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor and the pope, Martin, affirmed that Jesus had two wills, one divine and one human. The emperor, however, held that Jesus only had one will. Maximus’ tongue was cut out and his right hand was mutilated, so that he would neither speak nor write. According to the teacher, the rationale behind Maximus’ position was that Jesus had to have free will, like human beings, in order to assume and to transform human nature. God could have unilaterally gotten rid of sin, but the fact that God became a man indicated that God sought to do so by assuming and transforming human nature. To be truly human, Jesus had to have free will: the ability to say “no” to God.

The rationale of the monothelite (one will) position was probably that Jesus was God and thus only had a divine will. I do not know how it interpreted Matthew 26:39. I read ahead on that Robert Wilken article we are going through, and the two-will position held that, ultimately, Jesus’ will was not separate from that of the Father because Jesus submitted to the Father. That sounds like a way that “one-will” advocates could explain away Matthew 26:39: by saying that Jesus’ two wills were actually only one will. But apparently it was the position of the “two-will” people.

As is often the case, people in the class wonder why ancient Christians were so worried about these issues. Why not simply accept what the Bible says—-that Jesus was human and divine—-without trying to understand how that was the case? The teacher’s response has been that humans are thinking beings, and that our interpretation of the Bible benefits from two thousand years of Christian history, which contains such struggles. Maybe. I just wonder what headway the church fathers made. I have long agreed with Wilken that the Chalcedonian council artificially acknowledged and tried to hold together tensions, without explaining how the tensions conceptually hold together. Reading ahead after I came home, I see that debates continued after Chalcedon, so I wonder if they ever reached a solution.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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