Review of the Fathers on Christ’s Knowledge


  • Science de Jésus-Christ in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (1941), vol. XIV, part 2, cols. 1633-49.
  • Bernard Lonergan, The Incarnate Word, eds. Robert M. Doran and Jeremy D. Wilkins, trans. Charles C. Hefling Jr, vol. 8 in Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, pp. 613-661. This is a more comprehensive (and in English) collection of patristic passages on the topic than the DTC article, but with a bit less commentary.
  • Raymond Moloney, Knowledge of Christ. London: Continuum, 1999. Chapter 4. Both this and the DTC article contain material from Scripture and later writers (e.g., medieval theologians, Protestants, and modern authors) on the problem of Christ’s knowledge.
  • Edward J. Hanna, ‘The Human Knowledge of Christ. I.’, The New York Review, I, 3 (Oct-Nov 1905); greater focus on the fathers can be found in the third (ibid., I, 5 (Feb-Mar 1906)) and fourth (ibid., III, 4-5 (Jan-Apr 1908)) installments of the series.

The general patristic pattern on this thorny question is that at least some fathers generally allow ignorance in Christ’s humanity (though not in his divinity!) until, it seems, this hardened perhaps around the 6th century into not allowing any ignorance in Christ’s humanity. Bernard Lonergan provides an excellent summary: “And yet, little by little, the fathers reached a universal consensus. From the beginning of the seventh century, in East and West alike, common opinion insisted that Christ, even as man, was not ignorant.” (The Incarnate Word, p. 603). The hardening was likely helped (but not initiated) by the Agnoete heresy, founded by the Alexandrian monophysite Themistius, which claimed some sort of true ignorance in Christ. This was combated by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius, and also attacked by Pope Gregory I (for specifics, see the DTC entry Agnoètes).

Note, though, that despite my distinction between ‘apparent ignorance’ and ‘real ignorance,’ the problem is more complicated. Denying ignorance in Christ’s humanity (i.e., holding ‘apparent ignorance’) does not necessarily mean believing that all of the divine knowledge was immediately present to Christ’s human soul, so that any show of increase in knowledge was merely ‘for show’. Aquinas, for instance, denies ignorance in Christ’s humanity but says, “if there had been no other knowledge in the soul of Christ [than the divine knowledge], it would have known nothing” (ST III.9.1, ad. 1), so Christ can truly be said to gain knowledge through his human faculties. I think something like this is also present in Bede (see his entry in the table below). Conversely, saying that Christ gained knowledge (‘real ignorance’), as do the author of De Sectis and Euthymius Zigabenus (who interestingly wrote in the 12th c., long after the mainstream position had been set), does not necessarily mean denying that the fullness of Christ’s divine knowledge was present to his human soul.

Organization-wise, the table is arranged in approximately chronological order and in general focuses on the positions of the fathers on two scriptural texts: Mark 13:32 (“of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”) and Luke 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man”). Finally, for more detail on each father (for I could not include every one of their texts!), see the DTC articles above and please read the sources yourselves to verify my summaries! Where I was unable to find an English translation of a source, I have given a link to it in Migne. I have no better way to introduce the review than the words of Lonergan: “we do not want the students to hear only summaries without reading anything of the original authors, and we hope that once they start reading, they will keep reading in other books and above all in the sources themselves” (p. 613).

Father Positions Sources
Irenaeus Mk 13:32: used this verse to show the arrogance of gnostics thinking they could penetrate into the divine mysteries when even “the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only,” even though the Father “has fellowship with the Son in all things.” Against Heresies II.28.6 (PG 7:811)
Origen Remarked that Christ asked questions, not because he did not know the answer (he “knew all things in the hearts of men”), but because he wanted to conform his speech to the custom of those whose nature he took on.
Lk 2:52: Christ was able to grow in knowledge because he emptied himself and assumed an ignorant nature.
Commentary on Matthew, X.14 (PG 8:865)
Homilies on Luke, 19.2 (PG 13:1849)
Athanasius Takes the view of ‘apparent ignorance.’ Mk 13:32: As “ignorance is characteristic of men,” Athanasius stated that Jesus was ignorant of things as man, but not as God. But even as man he knew the day of judgement.
Lk 2:52: this means Christ manifested his power more and more as he grew.
Against the Arians, III.43f. (PG 26:416f.)
Basil the Great Mk 13:32: suggests this signifies that the Father is the cause of the Trinity. He moreover suggests that this verse, along with Lk 2:52, can be understood, without being “carried beyond the bounds of the interpretation of true religion,” as part of the divine economy, i.e., Christ showing the properties of his human nature, as when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink (uncertain whether Basil here allows for some sort of true ignorance). Ep. 236.1-2
Gregory the Theologian Mk 13:32: interpreted in Athanasius’s way.
Lk 2:52: interpreted in Athanasius’s way (“He also, the gospel says, increased in wisdom and favour, as well as in stature […] So I think that the virtue of Basil, without being itself increased, obtained at this time a wider exercise, since his power provided him with more abundant material”).
Or. 30.15 (PG 36:124) [on Mk 13:32]
Or. 43.38 (PG 36:548) [on Lk 2:52]
Ambrose Mk 13:32: interpreted as suggesting Christ’s humanity was ignorant but not his divinity (“for me and in me was He humbled and made subject … for my sake ignorant of the day and the hour.”)
Lk 2:52: used it against Apollinarians, states Jesus advanced as man, not as God.
Exposition of the Christian Faith II.11, V.16 (PL 16:580; 688f.) [On Mk 13:32]
The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord, 7.72 (PL 16:837A) [on Lk 2:52]
Augustine Mk 13:32: this means that, while the Father causes the Son to know, the Son does not cause others to know. Ignorance is not like hunger, weakness, etc., because not only is it the result of sin, but also the cause of sin, therefore it would be unfitting for Christ even in his humanity to be ignorant of the last day (Leontius of Byzantium will use similar reasoning).
Lk 2:52: If Christ progresses he does so as man, but not as God.
Christ had vision of God during his time on earth.
Eighty-three Different Questions, 60 (cf. On the Trinity, I.12) [on Mk 13:32]
Ep. 137.3.12 [on Lk 2:52]
Against Maximinus, II.9 (PL 42:763) [on vision of God]
Cyril of Alexandria Mk 13:32: “Christ acts in accordance with the economy of salvation when he says that he does not know the hour, although in reality he does.” Christ truly knows the day, but says he does not as he was speaking to men with whom he identified himself by taking on their nature.
Lk 2:52: He allows in some works that Christ’s knowledge gradually manifested itself over time, not merely, it seems (though this is controversial), an apparent ignorance, but that over time the knowledge which he had as God manifested itself more and more in his humanity, in the interest of the economy of salvation. However, he does not always offer this interpretation and at times even seems opposed to it (see above on Mk 13:32).
Lonergan summarizes: “What, then, did Cyril think about Christ’s finite, created humanity itself? Were the ignorance and the increase in wisdom real or only apparent? On this point, see Lebreton, Dubarle, Liébaert, Grillmeier […] and Jouassard, not all of whom are of the same opinion. Briefly, it can be said that the way Cyril taught the divinity of the Word and the unity of Christ, and the way he excluded any distinction of natures after the union, was such that he would not and could not discuss and specify the finite, created human nature as such. Sometimes, therefore, he has recourse to what is present and conspicuous; sometimes to Christ, who, as God, is absolutely perfect; sometimes to exegesis that palliates the difficulty; sometimes to other texts from which it is possible to draw the opposite conclusion.”
Thesaurus, 22 (PG 75:377D), Dialogues on the Trinity, 6 (PG 75:1069f.) [on Mk 13:32]
That Christ is One, p. 296 here (page numbers shown in red superscript) (PG 75:1332) [on Lk 2:52]
Fathers of Chalcedon In detailing the views of the Agnoete sect, the author of De Sectis remarks that although the Council of Chalcedon did not consider such fine points of dogma, most of the bishops there held that “he appears to be ignorant,” given that he was like us in all things except sin and Lk 2:52. However, reasons for caution: (i) De Sectis was written a century and a half after Chalcedon (ii) it is not perfectly clear if the author is including in his count the bishops who only allowed apparent ignorance, which would inflate his numbers. The author himself, for what it’s worth, held to a true ignorance, as he comments on Lk 2:52, “It is clear that he was learning something of which he was ignorant” (but see the penultimate paragraph in this post’s introduction!) Leontius the Scholastic, De Sectis, X.3 (PG 86:1262f.) – little is known about the author other than that he wrote in the late 6th century and that he was a strict Chalcedonian.
Fulgentius of Ruspe Responds to a question from the deacon Ferrandus concerning whether Christ’s soul had full knowledge of the deity which assumed it. “But if the soul of Christ has a lesser knowledge of his godhead in anything, he does not have in himself the whole of wisdom and the whole of power. He has a participation in Christ, he is not himself Christ, if he has [only] a part of the knowledge of his divinity. […] We can say clearly that the soul of Christ has complete knowledge of his godhead; still I do not know whether we ought to say that the soul of Christ knew his deity in the way that the very deity knows itself, or rather, that this should be said that he knew as much as it knew but not in the way it knows. For the deity knew itself in such a way that by nature it found itself to be what it knew; but that soul knew its complete deity in such a way that still the soul itself is not the deity. Therefore, that deity itself is by nature its knowledge; but that soul has received from the deity itself what it fully knows that it may know; therefore, the deity of Christ by nature is that which it knows; but that soul, in that it knows its deity, does not find that it is what it knows.” In this he anticipates the distinction to be made later by the scholastics between Christ’s divine knowledge and Christ’s human knowledge. Ep. 14.25f. (a.k.a. Letter to Ferrandus, ch. 25f.) (PL 65:415f.; FOTC 95,p. 534f. – a full view of FOTC may not be available on Google Books)
Eulogius I of Alexandria Mk 13:32: Christ did not take on our ignorance even in his humanity. Christ’s humanity was ignorant only in the sense that, if considered abstractly, the form of humanity which Christ assumed is ignorant. Responding to objections that some fathers taught ignorance in Christ’s humanity: (i) they did not teach this as dogma (ii) these phrases may be interpreted figuratively (iii) these were a response to Arianism. Photius reviews his work against the Agnoete heresy in Bibliotheca, 230 (PG 103:1080f.).
Gregory I “Unless you are a Nestorian, you cannot be an Agnoete.” Christ has full knowledge in his humanity, but not from his humanity. Ep. X.39, to Eulogius
Maximus the Confessor Mk 13:32: Christ has full knowledge in his humanity, but not from his humanity (like a red-hot iron bar which has all the properties of fire, though not hot by its iron nature). Like Augustine, he thinks Christ took on all our infirmities save ignorance. But unlike Augustine, he doesn’t think all ignorance causes sin. Questions and Doubts, answer I, 67 (PG 90:840)
Bede the Venerable Lk 2:52: “This verse equally refutes the Manicheans and the Apollinarists, showing that the Lord has true flesh and true soul. For just as the flesh advances in age, so also the soul in wisdom and grace. Yet the soul would advance not at all in wisdom, if it did not have the natural intelligence which has been granted to men for the sake of reason. Not that God, in taking this up, needed this, especially since in the above passages the boy was described as being full of wisdom, but because he chose this effect of the tender undertaking for the remedy of our salvation, so that when flesh and rational soul was taken up by God, each would equally be saved” (many thanks to Timothy Wilson for the translation). In Lucae evangelium expositio, I.2 (PL 92:350)
John of Damascus There is no true ignorance in Christ’s human knowledge. All such references (e.g., Lk 2:52) are only apparent. On the Orthodox Faith, III.21-22. See also On Heresies, 85 (the entry on Agnoetes).
Euthymius Zigabenus Lk 2:52: a true increase in the human knowledge of Christ. Panoplia, 11 (PG 130:636)

One thought on “Review of the Fathers on Christ’s Knowledge

  1. gregorystackpole May 17, 2017 / 10:35 pm

    Excellent, excellent post; great detective work. Kudos! I’ll be coming back to this intermittently, and it is very helpful for a future project. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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