Austin Farrer: The Human Will of Jesus

Classical (i.e.; Chalcedonian) Christology affirms that Jesus Christ is truly man and truly God, the Divine Person of the Son of God united to a human nature, ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’. Whilst this remains unbeatable in terms of describing and preserving what has been revealed about Christ, and who He must be in order for our salvation to be efficacious, it is often difficult to apply these criteria in practice, and it can be easy to lean too much to one side or the other, as the history of the early Church well shows. One area in which it has always been particularly hard to unpack the implications of the hypostatic union is in considering how the two wills – human and divine – interact in the one Person of Christ.

The idea that there was only one will in Christ – monothelitism – was particularly popular at one point, even finding the support of Sergius I (Patriarch of Constantinople from 610 to 638) and the Emperor Heraclius, as well as their successors (Paul II and Constans II respectively). Saint Maximus the Confessor wrote tirelessly against the heretical doctrine, which resulted in Pope Theodore I excommunicating Patriarch Paul II, and Saint Maximus having his tongue cut out and right hand cut off by order of Constans II, as well as being exiled, where he died. Pope Saint Martin I, who had supported Saint Maximus, and convened the Lateran Council of 649, which condemned the doctrine, was abducted with Maximus, and also died in exile.

The doctrine was finally condemned as heretical (as the Lateran Council was not an ecumenical one) by the third Council of Constantinople in 680/681, but it is still a persistent one, and many assume some version of it today without realising it. In a sermon preached at Mercer’s Chapel, London in 1963, the Anglican minister Austin Farrer discussed the dilemma of how we can reconcile God’s action (and therefore will) with the human will of the man Jesus. In a passage that is worth quoting at length, he provides an excellent imaginative examination of the Chalcedonian mystery:

The Christ of faith is not some figure remotely supernatural about whom ingenious doctrines have been propounded by theologians. He is the very heart of the present matter. For consider; what do we mean, when we call the man Jesus, Christ and Son of God? We mean that the action of Jesus was simply the action of God. But what was Jesus? Was he a divinely mesmerised sleepwalker, a jointed doll pulled by heavenly wires? Was he a painful pedant, carrying out with pharisaic exactitude a part which had been written for him by a divine hand?

He was the reverse of this. Never was there a man whose words and actions were more utterly his own. The spontaneity of his compassion moves us to tears. The blaze of his indignation shocks us; his speech is an unforced poetry, the coinage of his heart; the sacrifice on which he spent his blood was a decision personally made in agonies of sweat. If any man made his own life, Jesus did; yet what was the impression he left on his friends? That his whole life was the pure and simple act of God. What Jesus did was simply what God did to save us all.

taken from A Celebration of Faith (1970), pp.147-148, Hodder and Stoughton.

            The passage above could perhaps serve as a commentary on Hebrews 5:8-10, which says that, although He was the Son of God, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered’. This passage in Hebrews highlights not only the reality of Our Lord’s humanity, but also the great mystery that one who was ‘in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (4:16) was also the one who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by the word of his power’ (1:3). There is a constant tension between the fact that, as a man, Jesus learned things and grew in awareness as we do, yet was and is also the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15).

Clearly, as the hymn in Philippians (2:5-11) testifies to, for the Son to become fully human, it was necessary for Him to give up some of what He was entitled to as God – this is not to say He stopped being God, but that the obedience shown in His earthly life involved giving up His ‘rights’ as God. Ironically, it is in this very giving up of divine rights that Christ showed His divine nature, for God is in essence self-emptying, willing to pour himself out for the other; it was by agreeing to give up the privileges of being God that He thereby was able to show us what God is really like.

So, although when we talk about the will of Jesus it is highly tempting to speak of just one will, and thus make the mistake of merging His two natures together, by seeing that the more Jesus humbled Himself in embracing His humanity, the more He showed Himself to be God, we can see more clearly how the two wills can exist, yet in such a state of harmony that there is indeed no ‘division’ or ‘separation’ between them. When Farrer said that Jesus’ whole life ‘was the pure and simple act of God’, he meant that the divine will found perfect expression in the human will’s obedience to it and subsequent correspondence with it. The more Jesus’ human will strove to emulate His divine will, the more fully human He became, and the freer He became.

This can also shed some light on the relationship between our free will and the Providence of God, insofar as Jesus is the pre-eminent and perfect example of what we are all called to achieve. Farrer continues:

But this is not just something we have to gape at, and worship from a distance in the person of Jesus Christ: it is the model and pattern which we have to follow. The divine power underlies our being also; the wellspring of life is in the ground of our heart, even if the channel is blocked with mud…

…The man who receives the grace of God says: Now I am really myself; now I am caring about what I really care about; now I am making a genuine decision. The more it’s God, the more it’s I: and the more it’s I, the more it’s God. And it’s no use telling us that such a state of affairs is contradictory or impossible. For that’s the life of religion: everyone who has tested it knows it to be true.

ibid, pp.148-149.

            We are all created and held in existence by the will of God, and our free will is His gift; therefore, the path to true freedom can only really be found by embracing His will for us, by realising that, as Saint Irenaeus said, ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’ and so that His will is not an imposition on us, but the path to that full flourishing of our existence that He so desperately wants for us. Sin is a spanner in the works, a flat tyre, a knee injury that stops us from running as well as we could. God’s commandments and ordinances are the means He has provided for us to become free of the hindrances that sin creates, and for us to become truly free.

Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, is as Farrer says, the ‘model and pattern which we have to follow’, as He was completely without sin, and thus shows us a human life which was free to the utmost. His human will was liberated from any encumbrances to fully embracing the divine will within Him, and so gives us an example of the human being fully alive, fully free to choose the Good and to love without limitations. We will never be able to reach that level of sanctification in this life, but we can look to Him, and to the saints who followed Him in abandoning their wills to God, and be inspired to live more fully in harmony with the will of God than we are now.

The root of the divine will is of course Love, and so we can start upon that road to freedom right now, by lacing all our deeds (no matter how small) with that same virtue. The truth will indeed set us free (John 8:32), but we must remember that the ultimate Truth is that God is Love, the Love shown to us in the Cross of Christ, and in the lives of those who take up their crosses to follow Him each day. This is the reason for our hope, what we place our faith in, and why we love God – that He is Love, always has been, and always will be.

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One thought on “Austin Farrer: The Human Will of Jesus

  1. Pingback: Individuality, Personality and ‘Being Yourself’ | Journey Towards Easter

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