What Did Jesus Know?

27 Aug

Finding in the TempleThe constant teaching of the Church is that Christ, in His human intellect, from the moment of His conception, knew all things that a created intellect could know.

This question of Jesus’ human knowledge points to the great mystery of the Incarnation, when, “in the fullness of time,” God took on human nature. In doing so, our God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, united Himself in some fashion with every human person. As we consider the mystery of Christ’s being fully human and fully divine, we are filled with wonder and joy. God is truly with us; He has visited His people (cf. Is. 7:14; Mt. 1:23; Lk. 7:16), offering salvation to all the nations.

Going a little deeper, we find that the Church affirms that human nature was “assumed” and not “absorbed” in the Incarnation. Christ is true God and true man, not some hybrid of the two (Catechism, no. 464). In trying to come to grips with this truth, many great minds throughout history have fallen into error by embracing only part of this magnificent reality. Many people today, in rightly affirming Christ’s humanity, have failed to leave room for the complementary truth that Christ is also fully divine. Indeed, “today, because of the rationalism found in so much of contemporary culture, it is above all faith in the divinity of Christ that has become problematic” (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter at the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 22).

It within this context that we examine Christ’s human knowledge. It is legitimate to ask how God could at the same time be one like us (cf. Heb. 4:15) and yet know everything. However, the answer to this question must be faithful to the data the Lord has revealed to us through the Church.

We must confess, as the Church has done consistently throughout her history, that Jesus Christ is fully human. This truth is summarized in the Catechism, which in turn quotes Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22: “The Son of God . . . worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin” (no. 470).

Yet, because He is also fully divine, Christ has a divine intellect as well as a human intellect. His human intellect of itself is limited, because it does not have the full comprehension of divinity; that is something only His divine intellect possesses. Yet the consensus of Fathers, popes, and doctors of the Church is that His human intellect has constant and habitual knowledge of all things that a created intellect can know.

A survey of magisterial statements demonstrates this point. In the year 600, Pope Saint Gregory I (the Great) affirmed that anyone who interprets Mark 13:32 to mean that Christ did not know the day or the hour of Judgment is necessarily a Nestorian; that is, one who erroneously holds that Christ is two distinct persons, one human and one divine, such that He did not know the day or the hour only as a human person. The Pope explained the correct meaning of this passage, teaching that Christ “knew indeed in the nature of His humanity the day and the hour of the judgment, but still it was not from the nature of His humanity that He knew it . . . The day, then, and the hour of judgment He knows as God and man, but for this reason, that God is man.”

In other words, Christ as man knew the day and the hour, but only because He is God, which informed His human nature, and not by virtue of His human nature alone.

In 1907, Pope Saint Pius X rejected the Modernist proposition that “Christ did not always possess the consciousness of His Messianic dignity” (Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists Lamentabili Sane, no. 35). In 1918, the Holy Office condemned the propositions that Christ, while on earth, did not have the knowledge that the blessed enjoy in heaven and that He was ignorant of some things a created intellect could potentially know. In 1943, Pope Pius XII affirmed that “hardly was [Christ] conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love” (Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ Mystici Corporis, no. 75).

In His humanity, the Lord grew, learned, had human emotions, prayed, and suffered. Nonetheless, all these human attributes belong to the Divine Person Whose humanity this is. Thus, in His humanity, in His human mind and human will, Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) aware of His own divine identity. As the Catechism puts it: “Christ, being true God and true man, has a human intellect and will, perfectly attuned and subject to his divine intellect and divine will, which he has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit” (no. 482). Indeed, “[b]y its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal” (Catechism, no. 474). This means that Jesus knew everything as God, but only disclosed what He was sent to reveal by the Father.

Included in the human knowledge of the incarnate God was the very purpose of His coming: to die for the sins of all (Christ’s “redemptive passion was the very reason for his Incarnation” [Catechism, no. 607]). “Jesus’ violent death was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances, but is part of the mystery of God’s plan.” (Catechism, no. 599). United with the Father, Christ gives Himself up to death for us, so “that he could say in our name from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Catechism, no. 603; cf. Mt. 27:46). We should note that the cry is said “in our name;” Jesus Himself never knows abandonment by the Father.

But what about Luke 2:52, which plainly declares that Christ grew “in wisdom and in stature”? According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a real progress was not possible for Christ in His beatific knowledge and His infused knowledge, as these contained from the very beginning all things that could be known by a created intellect. However, Christ as man did have experiential knowledge, but this knowledge would have been new not in content, but only in the manner of acquisition. The fact that Christ grew “in wisdom and in stature” does not mean that He gained new knowledge that He didn’t have before, but rather that He gained in a new way knowledge that He already had (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, q. 12, a. 2).

Blessed John Paul II explained the mystery this way:

However valid it may be to maintain that, because of the human condition which made him grow “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52), his human awareness of his own mystery would also have progressed to its fullest expression in his glorified humanity, there is no doubt that already in his historical existence Jesus was aware of his identity as the Son of God. John emphasizes this to the point of affirming that it was ultimately because of this awareness that Jesus was rejected and condemned: they sought to kill him “because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18). In Gethsemane and on Golgotha Jesus’ human awareness will be put to the supreme test. But not even the drama of his Passion and Death will be able to shake his serene certainty of being the Son of the heavenly Father.

Questions For Reflection and Group Discussion:

1. What are some contemporary obstacles to faith in Christ’s divinity?

2. Based on what I have just read, how would I respond to the following: “Christ, one like us in all things but sin, who ‘grew in wisdom and grace’ during His formative years in Nazareth, only gradually came to the realization that He was truly the Messiah”?

3. What does the Incarnation teach me about my dignity as a human person? (See Catechism, no. 1701.)

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