I recently had an interesting conversation about Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, "Not my will but thine be done." What made the conversation so interesting was the lead question: to whom was Jesus' praying in the garden? God the Father? God, a.k.a. the entire trinity? Himself, a.k.a. God the Son? Our conversation marked this as a genuine Bible Brain Buster: a biblical text that becomes puzzling in light of central Christian affirmations. In this case, how do we think through the prayer life of Jesus in light of his divine nature?
Since the question itself is just as interesting as the answer, let me offer a few possible responses before reflecting directly upon the significance of the question:
Option 1: The man Jesus is praying to God.
This first option is not really a solution but a denial of the problem. The story of the Garden of Gethsemane is simply a story of a human being crying out to God. Jesus may have been a perfect human being, but he was a human being nonetheless, and so prays to God like any other human being. Within this option a number of approaches to the divinity of Jesus could be taken: God the Son emptied himself of all divine attributes at the incarnation; Jesus became divine after the resurrection; Jesus' divinity refers to his perfect reliance on God's Spirit; etc. The strength of this option is its emphasis on Jesus' true humanity and its straightforwardness with regard to this particular text. The weakness of this option is the corners it has to cut with regard to a robust affirmation of the divinity of Jesus.
Option 2: God the Son is praying to God the Father.
This second option grounds the historical Gethsemane prayer in the eternal life of the triune God. In the story of the Garden prayer we catch a glimpse into the inner life of the trinity: the Father sends, the Son is sent; the Father wills, the Son submits his will. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is not a single willing person but three persons, each with its own "personality" and therefore "will." So God has these sorts of internal conversations all the time; the Gethsemane prayer is simply a significant instance of this social life of God. The strength of this option is its emphasis on Jesus' true divinity and its decision to locate this problem within the dynamics of the trinity. The weakness of this option is the new problem this solution creates: is a God with three wills really the one God of Israel? To put it bluntly, this multiple-personality theory runs the risk of tritheism.
Option 3: The Incarnate Son as the man Jesus is praying to God the Father.
This third option tries to bring the doctrine of the trinity and the doctrine of incarnation in close connection with one another in order to make sense of the prayer life of Jesus. In the story of Gethsemane we see the temporal fulfillment of God's eternal purpose to become incarnate. The one God with one will chooses to send himself into human history by taking on the human flesh of Jesus. God's eternal constitution as one being in three persons has this incarnational end in view. So the eternal Son (who has no will other than the Father's) wills to take to himself a complete human nature. This complete human nature includes a fully human will. Therefore, God the Son has two wills: the common divine will shared by all three persons of the Godhead and the human will of Jesus. So, in the garden, the fully divine Son incarnate as a human being is praying to God the Father in the power of their Holy Spirit. The incarnate Son submits his human will to the will of God the Father. The strength of this option is the close connection drawn between the trinity and the incarnation as well as its use of the "two wills" doctrine affirmed at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople 680-81). The weakness of this option is the possible implication that God must become incarnate in order to be triune. It is also a terribly complicated answer, which may be perceived as a strength depending on one's temperament.
Well, there's some possible responses to the question of "To whom was Jesus praying?" Now I find this question and the debate between these answers fascinating. I would be happy to discuss the particulars of the matter. But even more interesting to me is that one would even ask this question in the first place. The only person who would treat the Garden of Gethsemane story as a puzzle is someone who assumes a high Christology. You can tell a lot about a person's theological commitments by observing which biblical texts create interpretive difficulties for them. In other words, one's admitted Bible Brain Busters reveal one's deepest beliefs. Even if these beliefs are held implicitly or unreflectively, they exert pressure on us at these critical points. So identifying one's own (and others') Bible Brain Busters helps us to explicitly investigate our beliefs and how they relate to specific Scriptural passages. Hence, they are a worthy entry point for theological inquiry.
So, what are your Bible Brain Busters?
Which texts throw you for a loop?
Can you identify what basic beliefs make these texts particularly difficult?
Do you have any thoughts on the example of Jesus' Gethsemane Prayer?
NOTE: If I get a good list of Bible Brain Busters going, I may do a series on them at some point.