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The Human Knowledge of Christ
John O' Connell
It is not unusual today to hear from the pulpit or in the classroom, or to read in popular or learned articles and books, that Jesus Christ only gradually grew in the realization of His Sonship and His Messianic mission - that He was mistaken or ignorant about certain facts. This idea of the fallibility of Christ's knowledge, once confined to certain theological circles, has been popularized since the Second Vatican Council by numerous theologians.
This new theology has ancient antecedents. The Arians, the Nestorians, and the Agnoetes, a monophystic sect of the sixth century, attributed ignorance to Christ.1 The sophisticated and nuanced form of this theological position differentiates the Divine consciousness from the human consciousness of Christ, holding that as Christ as God knows all things but as Man He was subject to positive ignorance and error.
Proponents of the fallibility of Christ's human knowledge base their position on what they consider to be the obvious examples in the Gospels of the historical Christ's ignorance, doubts, and errors. They further argue that to repudiate the teaching that Christ in His human consciousness experienced positive ignorance and error is tantamount to diminishing or even denying His humanity.
The Person of Christ
Before examining closely the human knowledge of Christ, let us look briefly at the Church's teaching on the Person of Jesus Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (451) taught:
Following the holy Fathers, therefore, we all with one accord teach the profession of faith in the one identical Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We declare that he is perfect both in his divinity and in his humanity, truly God and truly man composed of body and rational soul; that he is consubstantial with the Father in his divinity, consubstantial with us in his humanity, like us in every respect except for sin (Heb. 4:15). We declare that in his divinity he was begotten of the Father before time, and in his humanity he was begotten in this last age of Mary the Virgin, the Mother of God, for us and for our salvation. We declare that the one selfsame Christ, only-begotten Son and Lord, must be acknowledged in two natures without any commingling or change or division or separation; that the distinction between the natures is in no way removed by their union but rather that the specific character of each nature is preserved and they are united in one person and one hypostasis. We declare that he is not split or divided into two persons, but that there is one selfsame only-begotten Son, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. This the prophets have taught about him from the beginning; this Jesus Christ himself taught us; this the Creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.2
It is de fide teaching that the Logos assumed a human nature; that Christ has two natures, Divine and human, hypostatically united in one Divine Person. Because Christ has a human nature, He also has a human, rational soul. And since He has a rational soul, He has the operations of a soul including a human intellect (and will). So Christ has two minds (and two wills), human and Divine.
The Church's Traditional Teaching on the Human Knowledge of Christ
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologica formulated the traditional teaching of the Church on the human knowledge of Christ. Our Lord possessed three kinds of created knowledge in His human soul: immediate (beatific) vision of God, infused knowledge, and acquired knowledge.3 Christ had both the immediate vision of God and His infused knowledge from the moment of His conception.4
The knowledge of the immediate vision of God is an intuitive knowledge. St. Thomas wrote:
And in this way it must be said that the soul of Christ knows all things in the Word. For every created intellect knows, in the Word, not all simply, but so many more things the more perfectly it sees the Word. Yet no beatified intellect fails to know in the Word whatever pertains to itself. Now to Christ and His dignity all things to some extent belong, inasmuch as all things are subject to Him.5
Therefore, Christ in His human intellect while visibly on earth knew all things past, present, and future through His beatific vision. But He did not (and could not) know in His human mind all the possibilities. Why? Because Christ's human mind is created, finite. Only God, including Christ in His Divine mind, can comprehend all things that could have been.6
The Angelic Doctor teaches that Christ in His human soul also had infused knowledge. The knowledge infused into Christ's soul by God encompassed all things known to human knowledge and all of Divine Revelation.7
St. Thomas further asserted that Christ's soul possessed acquired or experiential knowledge, that is knowledge gained through the senses in the normal human manner. Christ did advance and progress in the acquisition of experiential knowledge.8
What Do The Gospels Say?
Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, presented the objections to the traditional teaching of the Church on the human knowledge of Christ in a chapter on the "Dogmatic Reflections on the Knowledge and Self-Consciousness of Christ." After briefly stating the traditional teachings, Rahner comments that they "sound almost mythological today when one first hears them; they seem to be contrary to the real and historical nature of Our Lord."9 In other words, the historical Christ that we can glimpse from the Gospels in no way resembles the theological construct of a Christ free from human error and positive ignorance devised by medieval scholastic theologians.
Many centuries ago, however, the Fathers of the Church addressed the issue of Christ's knowledge, and explicated the same passages from Sacred Scripture which some modern exegetes adduce as evidence to convict Our Lord of ignorance and error. Although some of the early Fathers seemingly admitted ignorance to Christ's humanity as a tactical ploy in their battle with the Arians and Apollinarists, the later Fathers taught Christ's freedom from positive ignorance and error.10
The Fathers of both the East and the West in meditating upon Christ's humanity, in light of certain difficult passages in the Gospels, developed the theological idea of accommodation. The principle of accommodation means that Jesus Christ accommodated or adapted Himself to the language, culture, and mentality of the people and the times of the New Testament, without ever compromising the integrity of His salvific word.
One example of Christ's supposed ignorance is the scene in the New Testament where Our Lord is walking to go cure the daughter of Jairus, and a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years reaches out and touches the tassel of His cloak and is instantly cured. Our Lord then says: "Who touched me?" (Mk 5:24-34) (Lk. 8:40-48). The exegetes who see Our Lord's query as a clear indication of His ignorance seem themselves unaware of the existence of the rhetorical question. Many times in the Gospels, Our Lord posed a question to elicit a response of faith from someone. Is it not reasonable to assume that Christ wanted the healed woman to publicly witness to her faith and miraculous cure by declaring openly that it was she who had touched His cloak? Would it not be incongruous for the One who had worked such a great miracle not to know the person whom He had just cured?
The Gospels also relate that Christ marveled at the unbelief of the people (Mk 6:6) and at the faith of the centurion (Mt. 8:10) (Lk. 7:9). Some exegetes maintain that Our Lord's marveling points out that Christ was surprised, proving He had no prior knowledge of the centurion's great faith or the crowd's unbelief. But to marvel can mean (and in this context does mean) to manifest marvel - not to be surprised. The foreknowledge that some event will occur does not preclude an affective response to it.11 Neither does the anguish and dread that Our Lord manifested in Gethsemani and on the Cross prove that He was unaware of His final victory over death and sin, or that He doubted His Father's love for Him.
Christ's raising of Lazarus from the dead, told by St. John in his Gospel (Jn. 11:1-44), demonstrates this concept about Christ's foreknowledge. Christ tells His Apostles that Lazarus is dead and that He rejoices that Lazarus died so that they might believe (when He raises Lazarus from the dead). Yet when Our Lord arrives at Bethany, He weeps and "groans and is troubled in spirit." Clearly, the foreknowledge that Our Lord had that He would soon raise Lazarus from the dead did not prevent Him from shedding tears over Lazarus' death.
A Scene from the Gospels that allegedly indicates the ignorance of Christ is when Mary and Joseph found the Child Jesus in the temple, in the midst of the doctors, listening and asking questions. However, this passage, when examined closely, describes more than a precocious, perspicacious youth startling His teachers with intelligent questions. Rather it depicts the Son of God using the Socratic method to teach the doctors of the law. For the Lucan account also says that "all who were listening to Him where amazed at His understanding and His answers" (Lk. 2:47).
Another famous passage in Luke's Gospel, much discussed in the context of Christ's knowledge, reports: "And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace before God and men" (Lk. 2:52). Some interpret "advanced in wisdom" to mean that Christ had to grow in His human knowledge. However, there are at least two other plausible explanations. First, "advanced in wisdom" means that Christ manifested His wisdom more and more as He grew older. A second explanation (that harmonizes with the previous one) is that Christ advanced in acquired knowledge, but not in His beatific vision or infused knowledge which He possessed from the moment of His conception.
Christ's teaching on the Parousia can be perplexing. Christ's prophesy on the Parousia, intermingled with predictions of His own death and the destruction of Jerusalem, are some of the most cryptic passages in Sacred Scripture. This obscurity does not prove His ignorance or confusion, but indicates our difficulty in interpreting Our Lord's words.
Specifically, it is Christ's statement that the Son does not know the day or the hour of His Second Coming that some say exhibits His human ignorance. "But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Mk. 13:32; see also Mt. 24:36). Surely, the Son as God knows the day and the hour - to dispute that Christ possessed omniscient knowledge as God would be to deny His Divinity.
But what of Christ's human knowledge? Pope St. Gregory the Great commenting on Christ's words that the Son does not know the day or the hour wrote:
Just as we call day joyful - not that the day itself is joyful - but because it makes us joyful, so too the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day, which He causes to be unknown - not that He does not know it, but that He does not permit to be known ... this can be understood more subtly: the incarnate only-begotten, made perfect man for us, knew the day and the hour of judgement in the nature of humanity, but yet not from the nature of humanity.12
So Christ while He was still visibly on earth knew in His human consciousness the time, but it was not part of His mission to reveal the day or hour of His Second Coming.
Rahner goes as far as positing "the positive nature of nescience" to assail the traditional teaching of the Church on the human knowledge of Christ. Ignorance is "... more perfect for this exercise of freedom than knowledge which would suspend this exercise."13 For Rahner, a perfect knowledge of the truth would end the exercise of one's freedom. And freedom allows for our self-realization. This supposition glorifies freedom as an end in itself, instead of a means to attain the good. But what is the purpose or end of human freedom? Freedom allows us to choose and to attain the good. If the truth leads us to recognize and attain the good, then it is impossible for the knowledge of the truth to hinder us from realizing and actualizing our humanity by knowing and doing the good. Ignorance, error, and intellectual groping, though the lot of mankind since the Fall, are not what make us human. Indeed, we will only actualize our full humanity when through Christ the New Adam we become more than what we are-i.e., adopted children of God perfectly united to Him in heaven.
Concerning the human knowledge of Jesus Christ, Rahner proposes that the immediate vision possessed by Christ was not beatific but the condition of a direct presence to God which "must not be understood in the sense of the vision of an object."14 Rahner also suggests that the Passion of Christ cannot be reconciled with Our Lord's possession of the beatific vision without reference to what Rahner calls "artificial layer-psychology."15
Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis (1943) wrote that Christ indeed had the beatific vision from the moment of His conception.
Also that knowledge which is called vision, He possesses in such fullness that in breadth and clarity far exceeds the Beatific Vision of all the saints in heaven ... in virtue of the Beatific Vision which He enjoyed from the time He was received into the womb of the Mother of God, He has forever and continuously present to Him all the members of His Mystical Body and embraced them with His saving love.16
Not surprisingly, Rahner assumes that Christ's infused knowledge is not actual knowledge but suggests that "it could be conceived as an a-priori basis for knowledge developing through the encounter with the world of experience."17 Pius XII affirmed in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart Haurietis aquas (1956) that the soul of Christ had infused knowledge.
Rahner speaks of Christ as gradually developing His self-consciousness: "This consciousness in Christ realized itself only gradually during his spiritual history, and this history does not consist only, or even first and foremost, in being occupied with this or that fact of external reality but consists rather in the never quite successful attaining of what and who one is oneself ..."18 So Christ in His human consciousness never became fully aware of His self-identity, nor was He fully cognizant that His Sacred Humanity was intimately united to the Logos. St. Fulgentius, a Father of the Church, taught: "It is very difficult and quite irreconcilable with the integrity of the Faith to assume that Christ's soul did not possess a full knowledge of its divinity, with which according to the Faith, it physically possesses one person."19
It is easy to see that ascribing positive ignorance and error to Christ's human mind leads to a neo-Nestorianism. Imputing ignorance and error to Christ as Man tends to rupture the hypostatic union of Christ's Divine and human natures.
Among the theological errors of the modernists condemned by Lamentabili (1907) issued by the Holy Office during the reign of Pope St. Pius X were these propositions concerning the knowledge of Christ:
32. It is impossible to reconcile the obvious meaning of the Gospel texts with the teaching of our theologians about the consciousness and the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.
33. It is evident to any unprejudiced person either that Jesus taught erroneously about the proximity of the Messianic Coming, or else that a major portion of His teaching contained in the Synoptic Gospels is not authentic.
34. It is impossible for a critical exegete to attribute unlimited knowledge to Christ, unless he makes a supposition that is inconceivable historically and repugnant to moral sense: namely, that as man Christ had God's knowledge and yet was unwilling to communicate so many things to His disciples and to posterity.
35. Christ did not always have the consciousness of His Messianic dignity.20
In the motu proprio Praestantia (November 18, 1907) St. Pius X confirmed Lamentabili together with his encyclical Pascendi thereby strengthening their magisterial import.21
The neo-Nestorians further appeal to Hebrews 4:15: "For we have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tried as we are in all things except sin." Yet properly understood, St. Paul's statement can be readily reconciled with the traditional teaching about Christ's humanity. Christ
Positive ignorance or error in the human mind of Christ is incompatible with the sublime dignity that the humanity of Christ has by virtue of the hypostatic union. He who said of Himself truly, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14:6), could not err or suffer from positive ignorance.
John O'Connell is the Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.
© 1997 Inter Mirifica
1 Ott, Ludwig Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974), p.165.
2 The Church Teaches (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, 1973), p.172.
3 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, III 9,1-4.
4 Ott, op. cit., pp.162-167.
5 S.t. III 10,2.
6 Ibid. III 10,2.
7 Ibid. III 11,1.
8 Ibid. III 12,2.
9 Rahner, Karl Theological Investigations, Volume V (New York:Crossroad), p.195.
10 Most, William G., The Consciousness of Christ (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press), p.94.
11 Ibid. pp.42,43.
12 St. Gregory the Great, Epistula ad Eulogium DS 474;76, cited by Most, The Consciousness of Christ, p.123.
13 Rahner, op. cit, p.202.
14 Ibid. p.209.
15 Ibid. p.203.
16 Ott, op. cit., p.163.
17 Rahner, op. cit., p.213.
18 Ibid. p.211.
19 Cited in Ott, op. cit., p.161.
20 The Church Teaches, op. cit., pp. 196,197.
21 Ibid. p. 53.