Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Here's the flip side to my argument that theological language is complicated because any human endeavor has to be complicated.

A particular friend of mine is a very smart guy, the sort of person whose conversations and questions and explanations always leave my head hurting. Yesterday, he sent me the following email:

Hey I had a question come into my mind this morning. Does Jesus have a free will separate from God the Father? I don't even know what free will is other than that it must exist to remove the causal link between God and our sin, but my guess is Jesus does not have a free will...

Without knowing it, of course, he had hit on one of the classic theological arguments, the Monothelite Controversy that followed hard on the heels of Chalcedon. And traditionally, my friend's position has been seen as heretical, since it implies that Jesus was not fully human.

As it turns out, my friend's definition of will, revealed in a later exchange, largely obviated the (entirely humorous) charge of heresy I immediately leveled at him:

My definition of will is such that by definition an entity can have only one will. I define "will" as the ultimate/final component of one's self that determines one's decisions/actions. And for an entity to have two separate wills is to say that neither of these wills are the "ultimate/final component". There must be something beyond those two wills to determine the entities actions when there is a conflict between one will and the other. Or if there is never a conflict between the two wills then I would say that the "two" wills are actual the same will given a different name..."

But the exchange got me thinking (yet again) about theological language. The discussion of the Monothelite Controversy in the Catholic Encyclopedia is wonderfully nuanced and astonishingly detailed: recommended for anyone who takes their theological debates obscure and ancient. But it also illustrates one of the problems with theological language: how quickly its terminology loses contact with the social structures which support and indeed create all language.

In order for the word "will" to be used in any meaningful way in this debate, you have to define what you mean by it very, very carefully, which indeed the article above tries to do. But before you go very far in your definitions, you're forced to confront a reality which we can hardly expect to capture in human words. In what way could our word "will" – or "person" or "nature", for that matter – possibly describe the inner workings of the Triune God? As Aquinas realized long ago, any human language can be related to God only in an analogical fashion. When we say, "God is love," we are applying to God a realm of human experience which can't be transferred literally. We mean that God is "something like" the reality we experience with our friends and family -- or better yet, that our experience of family and friends is something like God – and yet we are also forced to acknowledge that the two things are not alike.

So when we start pushing the boundaries of theological language, we end up with sentences like this one: "Operation or energy, activity (energeia, operatio), is parallel to will, in that there is but one activity of God, ad extra, common to all the three Persons; whereas there are two operations of Christ, on account of His two natures." The sentence is reasonably straightforward, but it presumes to discuss an almost literal relationship between such analogical constructs as divine "will", "energy", "person", and "nature", all of which are, by definition, beyond our experience. Now, part of the power of analogies lies precisely in our uncertainty as to where the points of similarity end, and where the points of dissimilarity begin. But this also means that the relationship between those different words must be, to some substantial degree, opaque to us. In other words, I don't think that sentence is meaningless: but I'm not sure that I could define precisely what it does mean (outside of its own very particular system of reference).

And that's the real trouble with theological language today: its ability to carry meaning outside of a very tight-knit community is exceedingly limited. Or as another friend of mine likes to say, "The whole world depends on your definitions."

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