The Ignorance of Christ?

“When did Jesus know that he was God?” We are not surprised when children and adults in our parishes, who have a healthy curiosity about their faith, ask this question. It is a good question that grows out of a desire to get to know Jesus better. In fact, it is a question whose answer determines our whole approach to the life and teachings of our Lord. Unfortunately, some of the clergy, perhaps following certain biblical scholars, have been giving the faithful any number of conflicting answers, e.g., “at his Baptism” or “around the time he turned twelve.” Many more of us have been dodging the question by giving the seemingly innocuous answer that no one knows for sure. The problem with all of these responses is that they are false. The Church does know for sure. She teaches, in fact, that our Lord had the Beatific Vision in his life on earth and was, therefore, conscious of his divine identity from the first moment of his conception in the womb of Mary. As we will see, this position is not only more theologically sound, teaching it is also more pastoral.

Sometimes, people are confused by the claim that Christ had the Beatific Vision while on earth. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that Christ “grew in wisdom” (Lk 2:52)? Assuredly, the Church teaches that Jesus learned things.1 Our Lord assumed a full human nature, and it is proper to man to acquire knowledge through experience. We should note at the outset that there is no difficulty in saying that Christ learned, through experience, things that he already knew through his beatific and infused knowledge. It is a matter of coming to know in fundamentally different ways. For example, already knowing the geographical layout of Palestine, Jesus actually walked the streets of Palestine. Already knowing the precise day and hour of his death on the cross, our Lord arrived at that hour, and gave himself over to the fearful experience of crucifixion.

Still, hasn’t modern theology set aside the scholastic theory of Christ’s beatific knowledge as unrealistic and out-of-date? Modern theology may have set this doctrine aside, but the Church has not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers, for example, to “the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God, made man, has of his Father.”2 What does “immediate” mean if not “direct” or “without medium”? In other words, Christ’s human intellect perceived the Divine Essence directly, without the intervention of any concepts or ideas. The doctrine of Christ’s beatific knowledge is certainly scholastic—in its more precise formulation, not its genesis—but it is hardly out-of-date. On this point, what purports to be modern theology is often little more than ancient heresy.

Although he does not mention Christ’s beatific knowledge in explicit terms, (Pope) St. Pius X condemned the Modernist proposition that: “Christ did not always possess the consciousness of his messianic dignity.”3 In fact, the ancient condemnation of Nestorianism already includes what Pius X declares. If Jesus’ human intellect had been at any point operative, without being aware of his divine identity, then it would have been operative without being aware of the subject of its own operation. Jesus would have been thinking without knowing who was doing the thinking. The condemnation of Nestorianism affirms precisely that Christ’s human nature has no subject or personality but the Logos. The “who” of Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. His human thoughts are the human thoughts of God, the Son. How could we claim that Jesus knew less about himself than any other man knows? You know who you are; I know who I am. Could Jesus have known any less?

Venerable Pius XII, affirming Christ’s beatific knowledge, draws an important theological and pastoral conclusion as he places this doctrine in the context of ecclesiology:

[T]he knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of his Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was he 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. O marvelous condescension of divine love for us! O inestimable dispensation of boundless charity! In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before him and united to him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself.4

Pius XII makes an important observation, namely, that Christ’s beatific knowledge is a means of greater union with us. Denying that Christ, as man, had the Beatific Vision in his life on earth does not render him a more approachable figure. Rather, if Christ lacked the Beatific Vision, then his knowledge of you and me was precisely divine but not human. In that case, Christ, as man, could not have known, loved, and died for each of us. Only the Beatific Vision made it possible for his human intellect to know each member of humanity, intimately and individually, for in that Vision, our Lord saw each of us in the divine Essence, the very source of all reality. Does not the sense of the faith among our people instinctively turn away from the idea that Christ, as man, did not, or does not, know us? Think for example, of the devotion which many of the faithful rightly have to the Sacred Heart. What priest would wish to teach his people that Christ’s human heart did not burn with love for each of them as he prayed in the garden or carried the cross?

People sometimes object that if Christ had the Beatific Vision on earth, it would have been impossible for him to suffer. But when we consider his intimate knowledge of every human person, we find the opposite to be true. First, the Beatific Vision is an intellectual, spiritual vision. While it necessarily imparts spiritual joy, this joy is not at all incompatible with bodily pain, or with emotional or psychological suffering, in the lower faculties of the soul. Thus, while seeing his Father, our Savior experienced fear at the prospect of death, and great physical pain during his Passion. Second, Christ’s beatific knowledge allowed him, even as a man, to know each and every sin throughout all of human history. Indeed, the profound knowledge of the sheer weight of humanity’s sinfulness, and the atonement that he would make for each of us, caused him to sweat blood (cf. Lk 22:44). What great consolation is the knowledge that our Lord had each of us in mind when he cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them!” (Lk 23:34). Each of us can truly say with St Paul, “[Jesus] loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

This self-offering of Jesus for us was consummated on the cross, but it did not begin there. Rather, from the first moment of the Incarnation, our Lord showed himself to be our Redeemer and Mediator, but Jesus could not will what he did not know. Only the sure knowledge of his identity and mission allowed Christ’s human will to be conformed perfectly and explicitly to the divine will. If we were to claim that Christ did not have certain knowledge of his identity and mission until later in his life, then as we ponder Our Lord’s time in the womb, his childhood in the Holy Family, and his hidden life, we would have to conclude that, as man, he had not chosen these for our salvation. Entire spheres of human life and activity would be untouched by the redemptive, self-offering of Christ. Once again, denying Christ’s beatific knowledge offends not only sound theology, but also popular piety, and the sensibilities of many of the faithful.

If we denied that Christ had the Beatific Vision while on earth, we would have to conclude that whatever knowledge he did eventually gain of his identity and mission was a result of God’s revelation. Thus, Christ would have had the virtue of faith. This would mean, in turn, that the faith of the Church would be based on Christ’s own faith, and his unique role as the “perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2) would be undermined. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the human intellect is even capable of believing with faith that its subject is God himself. Imagine Jesus, a humble and devout man, learning for the first time that he is God, the Son. Wouldn’t he have recoiled at such a seemingly impious and outrageous suggestion? Surely, he would have dismissed any divine revelation, e.g., the voice from the cloud, as a delusion on his own part, unless he already possessed, with infallible certainty, the true knowledge of his identity. Even infused knowledge would not have been sufficient. Given the unimaginable and extraordinary mystery of the hypostatic union, any sane man would reject the idea as absurd, even if infused, that he himself is God. Only if the human intellect of Christ perceived its own union with the Logos—seeing the very truth of the hypostatic union directly—could Christ, as man, ever know with certainty that he is God. It is precisely out of that certain knowledge that Christ preached “as one who has authority,” (Mt 7:29) giving the faith of the Church its sure foundation.

As we strive to present to the faithful an accurate portrait of Jesus Christ, we do well to make sure that our own teaching and preaching conforms to the faith of the Church. The Church’s teaching on Christ’s beatific knowledge is not unrealistic; it is simply faithful to her original experience of Jesus (cf. Jn 16:30), and his message. In the end, we must admit that it is not Christ who was ignorant of himself, but we, who have too often been ignorant of him.

  1. CCC §472; cf. the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church §90.
  2. CCC §473; cf. Compendium §90.
  3. Pius X, Lamentabili sane (1907), n. 35; DS §3435. The same document mentions as a component of the identity of the Messiah that he is the “true and natural Son of God.” Ibid., n. 30; DS 3430. Note also the responsa ad dubia of the Holy Office in AAS 10 (1918), 282; DS §3645–3647.
  4. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis (1943) §75; DS §3812.
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avatar About Fr. Dylan Schrader

Father Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. He currently serves as parochial vicar of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.

Comments

  1. avatar Sharon says:

    She [the Church] teaches, in fact, that our Lord had the Beatific Vision in his life on earth and was, therefore, conscious of his divine identity from the first moment of his conception in the womb of Mary.

    Where does the Church teach this?

    Note also the responsa ad dubia of the Holy Office in AAS 10 (1918), 282; DS §3645–3647. ↩

    Where would I find these documents? Are they in English?

    • Good question. The citation you mentioned is not in English, but it has been translated in an older edition of Denzinger (Sources of Catholic Dogma) that is available online here: http://www.catecheticsonline.com/SourcesofDogma22.php (nn. 2183-2185 in the older numbering).

      To be very precise, I should say that there are really two different doctrines being discussed in this section of my article. The first is the doctrine that Christ, as man, was always conscious of his divine identity. The second is that he possessed the Beatific Vision on earth. The first doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (at least a doctrine de fide tenenda). The second doctrine is taught by the Magisterium (e.g., very clearly in the letter of Pius XII I quoted), though possibly not definitively; it is at least a doctrine to which religious submission of intellect and will is owed, and it would be theologically unsafe to deny it.

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