EDIT (May 2017): see more information on the patristic understanding of Christ’s knowledge here. It looks like I was right when I suggested that “Tradition does seem to suppose that Christ had impressive knowledge” – it seems like the quote below from St. Maximus, which denies ignorance of Christ in his humanity, summarizes the patristic consensus from at least the 600-700s onward.
Earlier this year I was reading a series of questions, mostly about Scripture, answered by St. Maximos the Confessor. It’s known in Latin as Quaestiones et dubia
, but the passage I’m interested in seems to come from an appendix/supplement to the work. In any case, I’m translating it from Cerf’s edition, Questions et difficultés
, pp. 175-176. Here it is:
Qu. I, 67: How should we understand the ignorance of the Son on the final things (cf. Mt 24:36, Mk 13:32)?
[Answer:] There are two kinds of ignorance. The first kind is blamable, the other kind isn’t. The blamable kind, which depends on us, is ignorance with respect to virtue and piety. And the other kind, which doesn’t depend on us, is ignorance with respect to whatever we want to know but don’t, such as the things coming in the future. But if the holy prophets, by the grace of God, knew the distant events that are not up to us, how much more then did the Son of God, and through him his humanity, know all things (knowing them, of course, not by his human nature but by his human nature’s union with the Word of God). In the same way that iron that has been heated red-hot has all the properties of fire – it is bright and burning – being still not fire by nature, but iron by nature, so the humanity of the Lord, in that it was united to the Word, knew all things and showed attributes proper to God. And he is said to be ignorant according to his human nature. (Translation slightly adapted using the translation from Greek in Robert Moloney, Knowledge of Christ (London: Continuum, 1999), p. 46).
In other words, St. Maximos is saying this: when Jesus says in Mark 13:32 that the Son is ignorant of the final hour, he is simply telling us that the Son’s human nature is ignorant by nature. However, St. Maximos adds, even though his human nature is by nature ignorant, by its union with the Word it is given omniscience of the final things, just as iron, which is not burning by nature, becomes burning when brought in union with fire.
How does this fit with the claims of modern theologians that in his earthly life, Jesus was (practically speaking) unaware of certain things because he didn’t always have ‘immediate access’ to his divine knowledge? Hans Urs von Balthasar has this to say:
Now a rather large number of texts, however, show undeniably that Jesus expected the arrival of the kingdom of God and with it the end of this world in the very near future; “some of those standing here” will experience this event before their death.
Hans Urs von Balthasar responds by saying that Jesus knew that “something horrible for him is coming, through which he will attain the end of the world,” which von Balthasar says is “the atonement of the whole world with God” by his death on the cross. However, according to von Balthasar, Jesus understood this as the literal end of the world (that the world would soon end was popularly believed by Jews at Jesus’s time).
Does what St. Maximos says allow that Jesus, while correctly predicting the end of the world in some sense (e.g., the end of the world as the atonement, as von Balthasar says), was ignorant about its exact nature? It seems not, because above he writes that Jesus’s human nature still “knew all things” by its union with his divine nature.
On the other hand, we can’t try to take too much from a passage. St. Maximos’s goal above was simply to clarify what Jesus meant when he said he was ignorant. He was not trying to answer more than this. One may object that St. Maximos says that Jesus’s human nature “knew all things” and so it’s very clear he would not allow it. But it’s risky to try to find answers to a question different from the one being responded to. Often times what is said in response to the original question leaves out some details because they’re not relevant to answering the original question. To illustrate: in one of his sermons, St. Augustine says “God has filled the world with all sorts of bitterness” (Sermon 311.14). If all we had from St. Augustine was his sermons, some would say that it’s obvious from this passage that St. Augustine thinks that God actively brings about evil. But this, we know, is totally wrong. He only said what he did to make a rhetorical point in a sermon. In the philosophical works where he actually treats the question, he is clear that God only allows evil, but doesn’t cause it. So it might be the same with St. Maximos here. I can’t say with certainty what St. Maximos thought about it. Maybe in other works he (or an earlier Father) discusses this point more directly, but I haven’t seen it.
One well-known Orthodox priest, Fr. Ephrem Lash (who reposed recently) does add this: “the idea that our Lord during his earthly incarnation was acquainted with the technical language of Greek philosophy has interesting implications for Christology. I am not sure it is quite what the Fathers of Chalcedon meant when they declared that Christ is homoousios with us, ‘sin alone excepted’.” So maybe there’s the answer. He doesn’t cite any Church Fathers, so I can’t be exactly sure, though.
But a very important point about this whole debate is made by Fr. Herbert McCabe, OP in his review of The Myth of God Incarnate:
A prominent symptom of misunderstanding the doctrine of the incarnation as telling us what, empirically, Jesus was or is like is confusion about Jesus’s knowledge. I know that large claims have been made for Jesus’s human knowledge … by many … Christians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, but none of these claims have any logical connection with the incarnation … People ask, then, did Jesus in Galilee assent to the Chalcedonian definition of himself? And nearly everyone nowadays says: No, he didn’t. He lived in a time before the language of Chalcedon was formulated; he no more accepted this than he accepted Newton’s third law or the theory of surplus value. But what about Jesus’s self-understanding as God? There seems to be an idea that if we once admit (with Chalcedon) that Jesus was divine in Galilee … he must, by the power of his divine nature, have foreseen the propositions of Chalcedon and assented to them. Once again the theological mind boggles. It would have seemed absurd to, for example, Aquinas, to say that Divinity ever assented to any proposition at all. The idea that Jesus, qua Son of God, constructed some special divinely authorised set of propositions such as the christian creed is as anthropomorphic as the idea that God has a white beard. Whatever we can mean by speaking of God’s knowledge, we know that it cannot mean that God is well informed, that he assents to a large number of true statements. Jesus’s knowledge of history, as Son of God, was no different from the existence of the world; it was not in the same ball-game with what he learnt as man.
In other words, Fr. McCabe says that the dogma that Christ is God and Man does not tell us any empirical facts about Jesus’s psychology: “The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information, it is pointing to a mystery in Jesus.”
In conclusion, I’m not sure exactly what to make of all this, but I do think that most of the Church Fathers did not put limits on Christ’s knowledge in his earthly life, as von Balthasar did. Tradition does seem to suppose that Christ had impressive knowledge, and while this may not necessarily follow from the incarnation, it does seem good to not contradict the Fathers unless we have excellent reason to do so.