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Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane and the 'cry of dereliction'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theology
Wordcount: 6355 words Published: 12th Oct 2021

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How do we understand Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane and the 'cry of dereliction' on the cross in the light of the Nicene claim that Jesus is 'of one substance' with the Father?


In this essay, I will consider the Nicene claim that Jesus is 'of one substance' with the Father through a Trinitarian perspective, an exploration of the two natures in Christ, the impact of a dyothelite Christology on the prayer in Gethsemane, and the use of Psalm 22 in the 'cry of dereliction'. I will argue that the two wills in hypostatic union in Christ, enabled him to pray to his Father and experience abandonment, even though he was not actually abandoned. This 'opens the field of Christological​ speculation to the pneumatological infrastructure of Jesus' incarnate being.'1

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Trinitarian perspective

In examining the Nicene claim that Jesus is 'of one substance' with the father, the make up and relationship of the Trinity must first be explored. From the fourth century, the language surrounding the Trinity was fiercely debated. The development​ of Trinitarian theology by the Cappadocian Fathers, ​ provided a doctrine for the ​ first​ council of Nicaea (325). At this council, it was asserted that the Trinity was one God, one essence (ousia​ ​) that 'subsisted as three co-eternal, equally divine hypostases: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.'2 This doctrine has been the building block of innumerable subsequent theological debates surrounding the Trinity, and it has led to many differing ideologies. One convincing belief states that since the Trinity is one essence (ousia​ ​), all the works of the Triune God in this world are undivided. As Lucy Peppiatt suggests, 'the concept of inseparable and indivisible operations in the works of the Trinity'3 helps us to perceive the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one essence working together, rather than a superior Father dictating instructions to an inferior Son or subordinate Spirit.

12 Aaron Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ(Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2016).​ p119 ​Ian A. McFarland,The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation(Westminster John KnoxPress, 2019)3 .​p73

Lincoln Harvey,Essays on the Trinity(Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018).​p75

Christ as the second person of the Trinity is fully human and fully divine

After the success of recognising a common language of essence and hypostasis at Nicea, subsequent theological debates surrounded the manner in which Christ could be said to be fully human and fully divine as indicated in Philippians 2:5-11. Various hypotheses were debated that diminished either the full divinity or the full humanity of Christ, suggested that the divinity within Christ would overcome the humanity, or asserted that Mary should not be called the 'Mother of God'. There is not room to consider the details of these debates here, but the Council of Chalcedon (451) sought to resolve these issues and agreed a doctrine which included: 'Lord Jesus Christ...of the same substance with his Father according to his Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity; for there became a union of two natures.'​ 4 From this point onwards, as demonstrated by Riches, there were 'linguistic refinements [that] helped to clarify the notion of the​ unity and distinction in Christ.'5 It was agreed that there were two natures in the person or hypostasis of Christ: a divine nature and a human nature that were not 'mixed' but in 'hypostatic union'. The council of Chalcedon was seen as a triumph in​ the way it 'connect[ed] the trinitarian and christological discussions terminologically'.6

The language agreed at Chalcedon led to a deeper understanding of the person of Christ. The communicatio idiomatum,​ ​ in which the 'properties of both the human and the divine natures, [were] now properties of the person and therefore ascribed to the person'7, was defined by Cyril of Alexandria in three phrases: 'truly God the Son who is man, truly man that the Son of God is, the Son of God truly is man'.8 Mcfarland portrays it adeptly when he states that Christ lived 'simultaneously​ a fully divine and a fully human life, each with all of its inherent and inalienable attributes'.9

Explorations of the natures of Christ often mention little of the role played by the Spirit. The divine nature of Christ is frequently imperceptible but its attributes

4"Council of Chalcedon,"New Advent, Church Fathers, n.d.,https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3811.htm.

56 ​Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​p80

Robert W. Jenson,Systematic Theology: The Triune God(Oxford University Press, USA, 1997).


78 ​Louis Berkhof,Systematic Theology(Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996). ​ p324

Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​p44-5

9McFarland,The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation.​ p79

become observable in the person of Christ through the power of the Spirit. Riches quotes from Valdimir Lossky, 'The Son shows his person and hides his nature. The Spirit hides his person and shows the divine nature by pointing to the Son.'[1][2] I agree with Riches when he asserts that Christ 'acts and wills in obedient intimacy to the Father, always through the Spirit (Luke 4:18)'.11 The Spirit abiding upon Jesus is what enables him to carry out his work as the incarnation (John 6:38).

Dyothelite Christology and Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane

The Council of Chalcedon did not end the turbulence of the theological debates that continued to rage amongst the theologians of the time. One such theologian, Maximus the Confessor, sought to speak out against the views of monothelitism that were spreading. The conviction that Christ had only one will was, according to Maximus, complete heresy. For Maximus, the will could not be disconnected from the nature as 'if it were an external or unrelated faculty', since to be fully human, Christ must 'be able to choose without external compulsion'.12 The Lateran Council (649) agreed with Maximus and its tenth canon states: 'Christ our God had two wills, divine and human, cohering in union, and that, on this basis, through each of his natures, the same Christ of his own free will effected our salvation.'[3]

The doctrine of Christ's two wills can be seen most clearly in the garden of Gethsemane as he prays, 'yet, not my will but yours be done.' (Luke 22:42) If, as the​ monothelites asserted, the 'two natures of Christ were united in a single will',14 this prayer would then suggest that Jesus had only a human will. It could then be further concluded that Jesus lacked a divine will and that Christ was not of one substance with his Father; against the doctrine agreed at Nicaea and Chalcedon. Through the prayer, Jesus exhibits the extreme 'weight of human suffering and psychological terror before the fact of death'[4] and displays his human nature that fears death.

Maximus proposed that although Christ 'possesses a fully human natural will, his humanity lacks a gnomic will'.16 Maximus asserted that there is gnomic will in the human will of all human beings that, as a result of the fall, can act in opposition to God. Christ cannot act in opposition to God as he is God and of one substance with the Father, and therefore he cannot have a gnomic will.

What we see so vividly in Gethsemane, is Christ's human will that fears death. The Monothelites were 'oppos[ed] to the reality of fear in Christ and in his human will— on the assumption that it would be contrary to God's will.'17 However, death was not part of the plan before the fall, so it is natural for Christ's human nature to fear it even though he cannot act in opposition to his Father. Consequently, in this moment of human despair, we can see the Spirit at work; it is through the Spirit that the will of the Father is revealed in Christ.18 Jesus chooses the Father's will through the Spirit at work in him because the works of the Trinity are undivided and inseparable. The work of the Trinity here is to restore a relationship with humankind through Jesus' death on the cross, and so Father, Son and Spirit work inseparably to bring that about.

The 'cry of dereliction' and Psalm 22

On the cross, 'Jesus cried with a loud voice..."My God, my God, why have you​ forsaken me?"' (Mark 27:46) The understanding of this cry in light of the hypostatic union in Christ, is not only crucial to our understanding of Jesus being of one substance with the Father, but also to our perception of the character of God. Jürgen Moltmann argues for a stark understanding which claims that Jesus died in 'complete abandonment and rejection by God'.19 Richard Bauckham asserts that for Moltmann,​ there is a soteriological implication in how Jesus 'identifies with the godless and the godforsaken in their abandonment'.20 The implication is that if Jesus does not suffer abandonment, then he cannot bring about salvation in his human form. Both

Moltmann and Robert Jenson argue that abandonment takes place between the Father and the Son, 'either as an event in the intra-trinitarian life of God, or...the life

1617​Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​ p111

Cyril Hovorun,Will, Action and Freedom: Christological Controversies in the Seventh Century

(18BRILL, 2008).​ p97-98

Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​ p114

19 Jurgen Moltmann,The Crucified God - 40th Anniversary Edition(SCM Press, 2015).​6. The 'Crucified God', section c. The fullness of life in the Trinitarian history of God

20 Richard Bauckham,Theology of Jürgen Moltmann(Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995).​ p53

of the human Jesus of Nazareth.'21 Christ suffers a sinner's death, parted from the Father.

In opposition to Moltmann's and Jenson's views, the Nicene understanding of the Father and Son being of 'one substance', could lead to the suggestion that complete abandonment is not possible. In addition, the implication that, even if he could​, the loving Father would​ ​ completely abandon his Son in his hour of greatest need is not compelling.Therefore, I am much more persuaded by the suggestions of other theologians such as Holly Carey, who propose that the 'cry of dereliction' was a quote from the beginning of Psalm 22, and that the early readers of Mark's gospel would have understood that it represented the whole of Psalm 22. In the whole Psalm, 'Jesus' vindication by God in the resurrection [is anticipated]'; thus abandonment is not required.22

There are three areas of Carey's work that are particularly pertinent here. Firstly, she looks in detail at other sections of Mark's gospel, that predict Jesus'​ suffering yet also point to his resurrection. She discovers that passages such as Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34, 'consistently conclude with the prediction of Jesus' resurrection after his suffering and death.'23 Secondly, Carey explores the 'liturgical uses of the psalms in the temple, synagogue and at Qumran in the first century'. She finds evidence that the knowledge of the psalms used in worship, would have given the early readers an understanding of the implications of quoting the beginning of

Psalm 22.24 Thirdly, Carey examines the gospels of both Matthew and Luke as early 'readers' of Mark's gospel, to ascertain if there is any evidence that they interpreted the Psalm 22 reference within the context of the whole Psalm. Whilst some of her evidence here is not particularly strong, (allusions to the psalm), her case remains compelling when put into the context of the entirety of her arguments. She concludes

21John Yocum, "A Cry of Dereliction? Reconsidering a Recent Theological Commonplace," Int. J.Syst. Theol22 .7.1 (2005): 72–80.​ p73

Cameron Coombe, "Reading Scripture with Moltmann: The Cry of Dereliction and the Trinity," in

Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review(ANZATS, 2016),https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/701923 . ​ p8

Holly J. Carey,Jesus' Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the

Intertextual Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark's Gospel(Bloomsbury

Publishing, 2009)24 .​ p172

Carey,Jesus' Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the IntertextualRelationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark's Gospel.​ p173

that overall 'Mark's early readers would indeed have interpreted the Markan Jesus'​ citation of Ps. 22:1 contextually.'[5]

In addition to Carey's conclusions, there is the evidence of the whole of Psalm 22 itself, which includes verses that directly speak of details which are prophetic in the events surrounding Jesus's death. There is not space to explore them all here but verses 15-18 are particularly relevant, leading again to the conclusion that the whole Psalm was to be recognised.

Moltmann's and Jenson's assertions that Jesus was abandoned by the Father on the cross, could be seen in opposition to the Nicene and Chalcedonian claims of

'one substance'. The hypostatic union would prevent God from abandoning himself. Jesus experiences​ ​ the human feelings of abandonment and separation from God in that moment, but he is not and cannot actually be abandoned. Just as we might feel​ separation at times, if we have Christ in us, we are never actually​ ​ abandoned. Christ, in union with the Father and Spirit, participates freely in his death and resurrection so that evil and the powers of darkness may be overcome. Yocum summarises this well: 'The cry from the cross expresses the suffering of the Son and the non-intervention of the Father, a non-intervention fully and freely embraced by the Son in co-operation and inseparable union with the Father, in order that they might together triumph over the powers and principalities.'26

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In conclusion, the Nicene claim of Jesus being of 'one substance' with the Father underpins a clear Trinitarian belief stated by Leo the Great, 'the inseparable Trinity did not admit of any division.'[6] The doctrine of two wills in hypostatic union in Christ enables us to explain the suffering of Christ in his human will. The agony Jesus experiences in both the prayer in Gethsemane and the 'cry of dereliction', is not evident in the inter-Trinitarian relationship, and therefore, must be emanating from his human will. This agony was not a result of abandonment by the Father (Psalm 22 points to Jesus' resurrection), but an expression of Jesus' human nature and fear of death. Christ may have experienced abandonment in his human nature, but the Father did not actually leave him; his divine nature remained in union with the human nature. The Father, Son and Spirit acted together to restore humanity in a manner that enabled the human nature of Jesus to choose to act in obedience with God's will. Riches sums this up well, 'The Cross is the ultimate expression of the unitas ​of the Son with the Father. The decision of Gethsemane could not lead anywhere else, only to a total realization of oneness expressed in his freedom to do the Father's will.'[7]


Bauckham, Richard. Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

Blowers, Paul M. Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of theWorld. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Carey, Holly J. Jesus' Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding ofthe Intertextual Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark'sGospel. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.

Coombe, Cameron. "Reading Scripture with Moltmann: The Cry of Dereliction andthe Trinity." Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review.ANZATS, 2016. https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/7019.Harvey, Lincoln. Essays on the Trinity. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018.

Hovorun, Cyril. Will, Action and Freedom: Christological Controversies in the SeventhCentury. BRILL, 2008.

Jenson, Robert W.Systematic Theology: The Triune God. Oxford University Press,USA, 1997.

McFarland, Ian A.The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation. WestminsterJohn Knox Press, 2019.

Moltmann, Jurgen.The Crucified God - 40th Anniversary Edition. SCM Press, 2015.

Riches, Aaron. Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ. Wm. B. EerdmansPublishing, 2016.

Spence, Alan. Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed. T&T Clark, 2008.

Yocum, John. "A Cry of Dereliction? Reconsidering a Recent TheologicalCommonplace." Int. J. Syst. Theol.7.1 (2005): 72–80. "Council of Chalcedon."New Advent, Church Fathers, n.d.




[1]McFarland,The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation.​p93 (quote from Vladimir Lossky,

Dogmatic Theology: Creation, God's Image in Man, and the Redeeming work of the Trinity

[2] Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ. p119-120​

Alan Spence,Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed(T&T Clark, 2008). ​ p55

[3]Paul M. Blowers,Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World(OxfordUniversity Press, 2016)14 .​p56

Spence,Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed.​p54

[4]Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​ p114

[5]Carey,Jesus' Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual

Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark's Gospe26 l.​ p189

Yocum, "A Cry of Dereliction? Reconsidering a Recent Theological Commonplace."​ p79

[6]Yocum, "A Cry of Dereliction? Reconsidering a Recent Theological Commonplace."​ p72

[7]Riches,Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.​ p120-121


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