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The Magisterium and the Human Knowledge of Christ


A new movie has stirred up controversy about Jesus’ human knowledge. What has the Church traditionally taught on the subject, and how is the teaching expressed today?

The recent film The Young Messiah has raised the question of what Jesus understood in his human knowledge.

I have not seen the film and have no interest in defending it. However, the controversy it has occasioned needs to be addressed, for the question of Christ’s human knowledge has a more complicated history than many suppose.

This subject provides an illustration of why it is often important to look not just at individual statements of theologians and the Magisterium but at the whole history of how a doctrine has been handled.

To look at that history, we will start at the beginning.

The New Testament

The New Testament contains passages indicating Jesus was both God (John 1:1, Titus 2:13, 1 Pet. 1:1) and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

It also contains passages indicating that he knew things beyond ordinary human knowledge (Mark 14:30, John 1:18, 1:48, 2:25, 4:17-18, 6:46) and that he grew in knowledge (Luke 2:52, 8:43-48, John 11:34).

It even contains a passage where he seems to say that the Father knows something he does not (Mark 13:32).

How can we understand these passages in light of each other?

A starting point

Part of the solution is obvious: Since Jesus was God, he has a divine knowledge that is infinite. As God, he is omniscient.

What about as man? The Christological controversies of the early centuries established that Jesus is fully God and fully man, which means that he has a complete human nature, including a human soul.

It is easy to explain the superhuman knowledge Jesus displayed by appealing to the union of his human nature with his divine nature: information he knew by divine omniscience was imparted to his human soul.

How much knowledge was imparted in this way?

The Church Fathers

It may surprise some modern readers, but the Church Fathers’ opinion on this question was mixed.

This is revealed by their comments on Mark 13:32, where toward the end of his prophetic discourse, Jesus says, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Some Church Fathers took this as a straightforward indication that the Son did not know the day or hour in his human knowledge.

Thus St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 140-c. 202), combatting Gnostics who claimed to know all divine mysteries, wrote, “even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment” and that “the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only” (Against Heresies 2:28:6).

Combatting Arians, St. Athanasius (c. 295-373) wrote that, as the Word, Christ knew all things but, as man, did not know the time of the end:

He knows also the hour of the end of all things, as the Word, though as man he is ignorant of it, for ignorance is proper to man, and especially ignorance of these things. Moreover this is proper to the Savior’s love of man; for since he was made man, he is not ashamed, because of the flesh which is ignorant, to say “I know not,” that he may show that knowing as God, he is but ignorant according to the flesh. (Discourses Against the Arians 3:43)

St. Gregory of Nazianz (c. 330-c. 389), similarly wrote that “everyone must see that he knows as God, and knows not as man” and that “we are to understand the ignorance in the most reverent sense, by attributing it to the manhood, and not to the Godhead” (Orations 30:15).

It is worth noting that Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianz are not only Fathers but also Doctors of the Church.

Others, however, disagreed. Fathers—and Doctors!—such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great were on the other side of the question, and their view came to dominate the Middle Ages.

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