What Did Christ Know and When Did He Know It? [Commentary on Browne: Article II (2)]

In his discussion of Article I, Browne says we can infer that the Son is God because “the peculiar attributes of God are ascribed to Him,” including the fact that “he knows the thoughts, yea, all things.” At the same time, concerning Article II he writes that the fact Christ had a perfect human soul “appears from His ‘increasing in wisdom’ (Luke ii. 52); [and] from the possibility of His being ignorant (Mark xiii. 32), (which could not be true of Him considered only in His Divine nature).”

It is uncontroversial to say Christ’s divine nature cannot be ignorant, or in other words that Christ knows all things in his divine nature. However, the question of what Christ knew in his human nature during his earthly ministry is less straightforward. Indeed, as Browne shows, various passages of Scripture on the subject appear difficult to reconcile—some indicate that even in his human nature Christ knew “all things,” while others suggest that there were things Christ in his human nature did not know. Mark 13:32—in which Christ states that the Son does not know the hour of his second coming—is the most famous example of the latter, but there are other cases as well (e.g., Mark 5:30).

The Christian tradition has been similarly mixed on this topic. Some church fathers, such as John Chrysostom, Jerome, and John of Damascus, held that Mark 13:32 should not be read literally to mean Christ actually did not know the hour of his return.[1] Many Roman Catholics, as well as a number of early Reformed theologians (e.g., Polanus and Zanchi), have followed the lead of Thomas Aquinas in affirming that Christ enjoyed the beatific vision during his earthly ministry and, by extension, knew all things in his human nature.[2] The Lutheran Formula of Concord ~ Solid Declaration also affirms Christ’s comprehensive knowledge:

He [Christ, according to His human nature] not only knows some things and is ignorant of others, can do some things and is unable to do others, but [according to the assumed human nature] knows and can do all things. For upon Him the Father poured without measure the Spirit of wisdom and power, so that, as man, He has received through this personal union all knowledge and all power in deed and truth.[3]

In contrast, other church fathers such as Ambrose and Athanasius have upheld the genuine ignorance of Christ in his human nature on some matters.[4] A number of Roman Catholic theologians have objected to the Thomistic view that Christ enjoyed the beatific vision during his earthly ministry on the grounds that such a view undermines the fullness of Christ’s human nature.[5] Moreover, various Reformed theologians (e.g., Voetius and Turretin) have insisted on the importance of Christ exercising genuine faith during his earthly ministry, which by implication would mean he did not know all things in his human nature.[6]

Browne, for his part, more fully affirms Christ’s capacity for ignorance in his human nature during his discussion of Article IV, concerning the topic of Christ’s return:

It has been seen that in His human nature our Lord was capable of knowledge and of ignorance. He was perfect Man, as well as perfect God, and He grew in wisdom, as well as in stature (Luke ii. 52). In that nature, then, in which He was capable of ignorance, He, when He was on earth, knew not the coming of the day of God. Though He is Himself to come, yet as Man He knew not the day of His own coming. This is indeed a great mystery, that that Manhood, which is taken into one Person with the Godhead of the Son, should be capable of not knowing everything, seeing that God the Son is omniscient. But it is scarcely more inexplicable than that God the Son in His Manhood should be weak, passible, and mortal, who in His Godhead is omnipotent, impassible, and immortal. If we believe the one, we can admit the other.

I myself am inclined to think that Christ being ignorant of some things in his human nature is more in keeping with his fully sharing in our humanity, barring sin. As Francis J. Hall puts it,

His consciousness retained the methods of functioning, and the limitations, which characterize human intelligence. His divine omniscience neither did nor could come within His human attention so as to disturb and denaturalize His truly human experience and intellectual growth—for, with all its unique endowments, our Lord’s human mind grew like ours.[7]

All this being said, we would do well not to be overly dogmatic given the variety of opinions on the question, as Darwell Stone aptly observes:

On this subject dogmatism is out of place. The evidence from Holy Scripture is not all in one direction. The Fathers are not all agreed. If on the one hand, there is some difficulty in grasping the idea of a human mind without limitations as to matters of fact and in other ways, it is not easy, on the other hand, to suppose that, the nature of knowledge being such as it is, any knowledge could be excluded from the human mind of one who is personally God. Provided the omniscience which He possessed as God is declared to have remained unimpaired by the Incarnation, and throughout the lowest humiliation of the incarnate life, there is room for considerable difference of opinion as to the nature and extent of the knowledge of His human mind. While, in view of the unity of His Person and the nature of knowledge, it appears highly probable that His human knowledge embraced all things which a human mind is capable of receiving, it would ill beseem any who desire to limit their dogmatic assertions to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Universal Church, to deny that any other opinion can be true.[8]

This diversity of views cuts across denominational lines, as Steven J. Duby points out: “This is not an issue that can be settled simply by vague appeal to distinctive principles of Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. One must ultimately ask which view best expresses the concrete teaching of Holy Scripture.”[9] Browne’s professed goal is to show that the Articles are “Scriptural and Catholic,” in that order, and so we see him act accordingly in this difficult case, rather than deferring from the outset to a given theological system.

Notes

  1. Steven J. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology in Light of the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 264n68.
  2. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 267‒71. For recent Thomistic treatments of the subject, see Thomas Joseph White, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 236‒74; Dominic Legge, The Trinitarian Christology of St Thomas Aquinas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 173‒82; and Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 169‒82. See also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.10, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4010.htm.
  3. Book of Concord, “The Formula of Concord ~ Solid Declaration,” Article VIII, Section 72, https://bookofconcord.org/solid-declaration/person-of-christ/. It should be noted that this belief in Christ’s knowledge of all things in his human nature flows directly from the Lutheran affirmation of the “genus majestaticum, wherein the majesty or glory and excellence of the divine nature is communicated to the human nature on account of the hypostatic union, so that Christ’s humanity has an excellence and power that surpasses that of ordinary humanity” (Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 167).
  4. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 264‒65.
  5. See, e.g., Thomas Weinandy, “Jesus’ Filial Vision of the Father,” Pro Ecclesia 13 (2004): 189‒201.
  6. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 272‒74.
  7. Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. VI, The Incarnation (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 63. See also Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 64, 101‒102.
  8. Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 83. For a neat summary of different views on the subject, see Stone, Outlines, 295‒96.
  9. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 275.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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