Summa III, Q.17-19 – Christ’s unity of will and unity of operation

Question 17. Christ’s unity of being

Article 1. Whether Christ is one or two?

Basically, “Christ is something that the Father is, and something that the Father is not.” He is both God and man.  Is He therefore “two?”

Now in Christ there are two substantial natures, the human and the Divine. Therefore Christ is one thing and another. Therefore Christ is two.

What, though, are we asking?  Who Christ is?  Or what He is “made” of.  Christ is one Person, and this is the one suppositum. Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity, and He is no less this One divine Person after the Incarnation than before. We can’t say “Christ is human nature” but that He has a human nature.  Christ is one, for His being is His Person.  He, the divine Person, is unchanged in the Incarnation.  “He IS.”

Article 2. Whether there is only one being in Christ?

Everything is said to be a being, inasmuch as it is one, for one and being are convertible. Therefore, if there were two beings in Christ, and not one only, Christ would be two, and not one.

There is only one being in Christ, inasmuch as He is one Person. Analogously, there is only one being in a human person, although there is a soul and a body.  Indeed, any material object has a formal and a material cause.  Now, Christ’s divinity is not the formal cause and His human nature the material: by no means.  Christ’s human nature, likewise, is not an “accident” attached to the “substance” of His divinity.  Thinking along these lines can help contemplate the union, but lack an exactness in understanding the unique reality of the hypostatic union. Still, it may be helpful to ponder this in understanding the oneness of Christ as person.

For a much fuller treatment, however, it may be helpful to read Fr. LaGrange’s discussion of the Incarnation in the Person from ST III, Question 2 (

Objection 3 and Reply:

Further, in the Trinity, although there are three Persons, yet on account of the unity of nature there is only one being. But in Christ there are two natures, though there is one Person. Therefore in Christ would there not be two beings?

Since the Divine Person is the same as the Nature, there is no distinction in the Divine Persons between the being of the Person and the being of the Nature, and, consequently, the three Persons have only one being. But they would have a triple being if the being of the Person were distinct in them from the being of the Nature.

Question 18. Christ’s unity of will

Article 1. Whether there are two wills in Christ?

An early heresy, monothelitism, claimed that there was only one will in Christ, but a human nature has a human will, and so this could not stand in a correct understanding of Christology. Unlike monophysitism, it did admit two natures in Christ, but obviously misunderstood what it meant to truly have both natures.

Much of this is related, then, to the understanding of the person and will, for the controversy at this point is whether a will belongs strictly to a person or to a nature. The will pertains to the perfection of human nature, being one of its natural powers, even as the intellect, as St. Thomas states in Summa Theologica I, Q79,80. Hence we must say that the Son of God assumed a human will, together with human nature.

“Father, if Thou wilt, remove this chalice from Me. But yet not My will but Thine be done.”

In the sixth Council held at Constantinople it was decreed that it must be said that there are two wills in Christ, in Act. 18: “In accordance with what the Prophets of old taught us concerning Christ, and as He taught us Himself, and the Symbol of the Holy Fathers has handed down to us, we confess two natural wills in Him and two natural operations.”

Whatever was in the human nature of Christ was moved at the bidding of the Divine will; yet it does not follow that in Christ there was no movement of the will proper to human nature, for the good wills of other saints are moved by God’s will, “Who worketh” in them “both to will and to accomplish,” as is written Philippians 2:13.

Article 2. Whether in Christ there was a will of sensuality besides the will of reason?

The question pertains to the sensitive appetite, which comes from the body (the senses) but with a relation to the soul, as an operative power. There is “will” of sensuality, then, in Christ, and not merely a “will” related to reason.

“The Son of God must have assumed together with the human nature whatever belongs to animal nature; one of which things is the sensitive appetite, which is called the sensuality. Consequently it must be allowed that in Christ there was a sensual appetite, or sensuality.”

Unlike us in our fallen state, however, Christ’s sensitive passions were completely under the control of His human soul, instead of being a negative influence on it, as ours so often are. Sensuality is signified by the “serpent” not as regards the nature of the sensuality, which Christ assumed, but as regards the corruption of it, which was not in Christ.

Article 3. Whether in Christ there were two wills as regards the reason?

In every order there is one first mover. But the will is the first mover in the genus of human acts. Therefore in one man there is only one will, properly speaking, which is the will of reason. But Christ is one man. Therefore in Christ there is only one human will.

Again, Fr. LaGrange is most helpful:

“In Christ there is one power or faculty of the human will; but if we consider the human will with reference to its acts, then there is a distinction between the natural will that is naturally inclined to good in itself, shrinking from what is harmful to nature, and the rational will, or free will, that is drawn to its object by comparison and deliberation.”

The will is sometimes taken for the power, and sometimes for the act. Hence we must say that if we are speaking of the power of the will, in Christ there is but one human will, but if we are speaking of the will as an act, we thus distinguish in Christ a will as nature, and a will as reason.

Article 4. Whether there was free-will in Christ?

The objection is made that free-will is indifferent. But Christ’s will was determined to good, since He could not sin, so there was no free-will in Christ.

Here is not this place to venture an in-depth discussion of the [I think false] idea of free will as indifference, but we may note that nominalist moral philosophers and theologians would seem to have been anticipated here.  Freedom does not, rightly understood, entail the indifference to do right or wrong.  After all, Christ came to “set us free” from sin; how then can true freedom involve the ability to sin?  On the contrary, it is to be freed from it.

Aristotle says (Ethic. iii, 2) choice differs from will in this, that will of itself regards the end, while choice regards the means. For one with the beatific vision, even as man (wayfarer), the end is always in view, and the means is thus never distorted.

Thus Thomas says in his reply to the third objection: The will of Christ, though determined to good, is not determined to this or that good. Hence it pertains to Christ, even as to the blessed, to choose with a free-will confirmed in good. (This is the ancient teaching of the freedom for excellence, as opposed to the freedom of indifference, mentioned above in reference especially to the nominalists)

Article 5. Whether the human will of Christ was altogether conformed to the Divine will in the thing willed?

He who desires to do another’s will, wills what the other wills. Hence it seems that Christ’s human will willed nothing but what was willed by His Divine will.

Augustine disagrees, saying “When Christ says ‘Not what I will, but what Thou wilt’ He shows Himself to have willed something else than did His Father; and this could only have been by His human heart, since He did not transfigure our weakness into His Divine but into His human will.”

It was the will of God that Christ should undergo pain, suffering, and death, not that these of themselves were willed by God, but for the sake of man’s salvation. We know that in his sorrowful prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, the man Jesus certainly did not positively will His passion (let this cup pass from Me). Yet He conformed His will by reason to that of the Father; “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” For He willed in His reason that the Divine will should be fulfilled although He said that He willed something else by another will.

Likewise, if the doctor prescribes bitter medicine, I take it not because I am merely doing his will, but willing it myself by reason of what it accomplishes.

Article 6. Whether there was contrariety of wills in Christ?

The purpose of this article is to explain that diversity of wills, which was discussed in the preceding article, was not such as to induce real contrariety, because they are considered under different aspects.

“Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” His reason, would we say, willed contrary to His flesh?

The Third Council of Constantinople says: “We confess two natural wills, not in opposition, as evil-minded heretics assert, but following His human will, and neither withstanding nor striving against, but rather being subject to, His Divine and omnipotent will.”

Contrariety can exist only where there is opposition in the same and as regards the same. There is no contrariety, for example, if I wish a man to be executed for the sake of protecting the community, and another wills him to be spared out of mercy, for we are not willing the act under the same aspect. Likewise, a difference in sensitive appetite and rational appetite approach something from two different aspects, and are not contrarieties. And hence it must be said that although the natural and the sensitive will in Christ wished what the Divine will did not wish, yet there was no contrariety of wills in Him.

In us the desires of the spirit are impeded or retarded by the desires of the flesh: this did not occur in Christ. Hence in Christ there was no contrariety of flesh and spirit, as in us.”

Question 19. The unity of Christ’s operation

Article 1. Whether in Christ there is only one operation of the Godhead and Manhood?

On account of the unity of hypostasis is there only one operation of the Godhead and Manhood? St.Ambrose says (De Fide ii, 8): “How can the same operation spring from different powers? Cannot the lesser operate as the greater? And can there be one operation where there are different substances?”

The heretics (see Question 18 art. 6) who placed one will in Christ placed one operation in Christ. Now, as in a mere man the body is moved by the soul, and the sensitive by the rational appetite, so in the Lord Jesus Christ the human nature is moved and ruled by the Divine.

What is moved by another has a twofold action: one which it has from its own form and the other, which it has inasmuch as it is moved by another; thus the operation of an axe of itself is to cleave; but inasmuch as it is moved by the craftsman, its operation is to make benches. We see then that Thomas here uphold’s first and second causality.  Indeed, this is necessary for man’s free will, for God is the primary mover of all, even insomuch as He holds things in existence.

“Wherever the mover and the moved have different forms or operative faculties, there must the operation of the mover and the proper operation of the moved be distinct; although the moved shares in the operation of the mover, and the mover makes use of the operation of the moved, and, consequently, each acts in communion with the other.”

“Therefore in Christ the human nature has its proper form and power whereby it acts; and so has the Divine.” I cannot emphasis enough here that proper Christology and proper understanding of ourselves as free creatures yet dependant upon God go hand in hand.  And error in one inevitably leads to an error in the other.

Pope Leo says both the Divine and the human nature in Christ “do what is proper to each in union with the other, i.e. the Word operates what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carries out what belongs to flesh.”

Article 2. Whether in Christ there are several human operations?

Further, powers and habits are distinguished by their acts. Now in Christ’s soul there were divers powers and habits; were there therefore also divers operations? No, for “operation is consequent upon the nature.” In Christ there is only one human nature, and likewise, only one human operation.

If there is any operation in man which does not proceed from the reason and the will, it is not simply a human operation, but belongs to man by reason of some part of human nature. There is, in Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics, an important distinction between acts of man and human acts. In fact, true ethics is the study of voluntary human action. Voluntary action always proceeds from the will and intellect, and thus, other actions and their operations are not properly human acts.  For example, a human may fall due to gravity, but this is an act insomuch as he is made of matter; it is not particular to what makes him human: his rational nature.

Article 3. Whether the human action of Christ could be meritorious to Him?

No one merits what is due to him, but Christ is the Son of God by nature, and the eternal inheritance is due to Him, which other men merit by their works. It seems, therefore, that Christ Who from the beginning was the Word of God could not merit anything for Himself.

“Becoming obedient unto death . . . For which cause God also hath exalted Him.” (Philippians 2:8-9)

Thomas mentions the principle of predilection here, according to 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What hast thou that thou hast not received?”

“Nevertheless, in a secondary manner anyone may be a cause, to himself, of having certain good things, inasmuch as he cooperates with God in the matter, and thus whoever has anything by his own merit has it, in a manner, of himself. Hence it is better to have a thing by merit than without merit.” Christ, in His human nature, merits as we do, conforming His human will to God and cooperating with His grace.

“We must say that Christ had, by merit, the glory of His body and whatever pertained to His outward excellence, as His Ascension, veneration, and the rest. And thus it is clear that He could merit for Himself.”

Earlier we said that Christ was both comprehensor and wayfarer at the same time.  It is, then, as wayfarer that Christ merited for Himself.

Article 4. Whether Christ could merit for others?

It is written: “The soul that sinneth, the same shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) and also: “Noah and Daniel and Job be in the city. . . they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; but they shall only deliver their own souls by their justice.” Is it possible, then, that Christ merited for others?

Thankfully, the completion of this doctrine is cleared up by Paul: “As by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life” (Romans 5:18).  But Adam’s demerits reached to the condemnation of others. Much more, therefore, does the merit of Christ reach others.

It is important here to remember that original sin does not impute the guilt of personal sin on each person.  We are born sinners taken as “in sin” because we lack the graces of our first parents, but we are not born sinners taken as “having sinned.”

“As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27); and it is by grace that it is granted to man to be incorporated with Christ. And thus man’s salvation is from grace.


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