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The MOST Theological Collection: The Consciousness of Christ

"Chapter 4. Messiahship and Divinity"


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Major objections to Jesus' Knowledge of His messianic dignity stem from Wrede's views on the Messianic secret, and from certain form critical analyses of Mk 8:27-33. Since we pursue these errors in the Appendix,1 we shall here consider other charges.

John A. T. Robinson claims to have found three variant Christologies in the Gospels and Acts: (1) in the Gospels, Jesus seems to be the Messiah already during His public ministry; (2) Acts 2:36 says that "God made Him [the crucified Jesus] Lord and Messiah!" (3) Acts 3:19-21 urges: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus." Robinson comments: "Jesus here is only the Christ elect, the Messianic age has yet to be inaugurated;" Jesus will become the Messiah only at the end.2 Thus we have, according to Robinson, conflicting Christologies, with Scripture itself featuring contradictions. And also, according to the "most primitive" Christology, the third one: Jesus did not know He was Messiah, but only thought of Himself as the "Servant".

There is some trouble here, however, we read the Acts 3:18, "But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled." This sentence comes immediately before the passage in which Robinson thinks he can find the most primitive Christology, namely, Jesus will become Messiah only at His second coming. Verse 18 clearly proclaims Jesus as Messiah already when He suffered. Robinson escapes the trap by saying Luke interpolated the words "that His Messiah would suffer." What an arbitrary procedure! Simply deny the evidence.

But more basically, even if the texts were as clearly in Robinson's favor as he claims, there is another solution. Paul many times speaks of Christians as sons of God (e.g., Rom 8:14; Gal 3:26; 4:6-7); yet in Rom 8:19,23 he tells us: "Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God...we ourselves...groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons." That is, we already have the beginning of sonship, but not its full possession and manifestation. Similarly, Jesus was the Messiah from the start, but came to its fuller manifestation and fruition in stages; the final, perfect manifestation of His messianic, redemptive mission is still to come at the end of time.

Similar objections surround Christ's knowledge of His divinity. For example, R. Brown raises this objection:

...when we ask whether during his ministry Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, knew that he was God, we are asking whether he identified himself and the Father-and, of course, he did not. Undoubtedly, some would wish to attribute to Jesus an anticipated understanding of the later broadness of the term 'God' (or, indeed, even expect him to speak in trinitarian terminology), but can serious scholars simply presume that Jesus could speak and think in the vocabulary and philosophy of later times?3

Tilt that question somewhat: Can serious scholars simply presume Jesus lacked divine knowledge-which would surely include the information in question? Brown himself more than once admits that the Scriptural evidence on the knowledge of Jesus is inconclusive.4 So, until it has been proved that Jesus did not know who He was, it is not presumption to suppose Jesus knew of the Trinity and knew who He was. Further, if we press Brown's language strictly, and say HE did not know, it would be undiluted heresy. To be charitable, we assume Brown really means to question whether this knowledge registered on the human intellect of Jesus.

Secondly, it is not at all necessary for any person, human or divine, to use the language of the Council of Chalcedon, or later speculation, in order to know of the Holy Trinity. Semites particularly were adept at accepting several seemingly conflicting statements as true without trying to harmonize them. Jesus often taught in this pattern, e.g., in Mt 6:6 He said: "When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." Yet Mt 5:16 says: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." A Westerner would want to know how to avoid the appearance of contradiction here; a Semite could comfortably believe both. Similarly, a Semite could comfortably, if assured on proper authority, accept that the Father is God and the Son is God, yet there is only one God, without endeavoring to reconcile the statements. For that matter we, with all our vaunted sophistication and speculative ability, are still unable to explain away the seeming contradiction in the Holy Trinity. We said, "if assured on proper authority", because the fact that monotheism had been hammered in for so many centuries would create a psychological difficulty unless adequate authority were at hand to assure the faithful listeners: "Thus says the Lord."

Thirdly, Brown puts the question badly when he asks if Jesus would identify Himself with the Father and replies "of course he did not." For "identify" normally means to assert there is no difference. But there is a difference: the Father and the Son are distinct persons, even though they, with the Holy Spirit, form only one God. Moreover (without entering the problem of the literary genre of John5), we read in Jn 10:30, "The Father and I are one." Jn 14:9 adds: "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Still more strongly in Jn 8:58: "Before Abraham was, 'I Am."' We do not presume to have solved the problem of the fourth Gospel's literary genre, yet as a minimum we may say this: the writer did not consider it presumption to suppose Jesus knew what Brown considers too sophisticated for Jesus to have known.6

A further objection is raised from Mk 10:18. A young man came to Jesus and, addressing Him as "Good Teacher," asked what he should do to attain eternal life. Jesus replied: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." Lk 18:19 is verbatim the same, while Mt 19:17 is a bit different: "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good."

As Lane points out, the young man showed Jesus unusual reverence, in kneeling to Him-a deference reserved for revered teachers of the Law-and in calling Him "Good Teacher. " Such a title is virtually without parallel in Jewish sources."7

Jesus replied by using an enigmatic form of speech, to arouse meditation on a sublime truth. Spiritual writers would probably put it this way today: (1) only God is the source of His own goodness; really, He is one with it, while humans merely participate in that goodness after receiving it. As St. Paul reminds us (1 Cor 4:7): "What have you that you did not receive?" (2) strictly, we should imitate 1 Jn 4:8 and say that God is goodness, rather than that He has goodness. (3) goodness in men is not goodness in the same sense as it is in God. The term good is used analogically, i.e., it applies to God and to men in senses that are partly the same, partly different.

Now it is evident that it would not fit with the divine economy for Jesus to make all these distinctions, and then formally add: "I am God." A revelation, so flat, so prematurely given would have been difficult for His hearers to grasp. (Think of the difficulties His disciples had in assimilating simpler things about the nature of the suffering Messiah and His coming resurrection.8) Yet Jesus, in that enigmatic style, partly revealing and partly ambiguous, which many skilled teachers use, did want to convey some of the ideas just sketched.9 And He did succeed in provoking thought as witnessed by the ensuing Pharisaic opposition.

Matthew's report of Jesus saying, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good," could be an instance of that approximation in reporting described in Divino afflante Spiritu.10 Nevertheless can anybody actually prove that Jesus is not responsible for these words as well as the words recorded in Mark and Luke?

A statement by R. Bultman (quoted already for a different purpose) is pertinent here: "...if the Christ who died such a death was the pre-existent Son of God, what could death mean for him? Obviously very little, if he knew that he would rise again in three days?"11 Bultmann does not believe in the incarnation at all.12 But he does perceive, correctly, that if there had been an incarnation, then Jesus would consciously know He was God and would know He would rise again in three days.

The Epistle to the Hebrews (4:15) is often quoted as supporting a general charge of ignorance in Jesus, one which would, probably, include ignorance of His Messiahship and divinity: "We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect (kath' homoioteta) has been tempted (pepeirasmenon) as we are, yet without sinning." So, the argument goes, since we are ignorant, He must have been ignorant. The basic flaw in this line of thought is that it ignores the literary genre of Hebrews, generally admitted to be homiletic. Within that genre, it is common to speak a bit loosely, and therefore it would be out of place to attempt precise deductions from mere implications. Further, who would know just where to draw the line, if we ignored the genre? Would that text quoted refer to merely external, physical sufferings? Did He have various kinds of bodily diseases like other humans? Mental illnesses? Did He even suffer from psychoses as many persons do? And so on. Common Catholic faith and piety have provided interpretative guidelines that critical exegesis ignores to its own detriment. We are attempting to remain within this tradition.


1 See pp 202-05.
2 John A.T. Robinson, "The Most Primitive Christology of All?" in Journal of Theological Studies 7 (1956) 177-189.
3 JGM 87 (italics in original).
4 Ibid 42, 68, 99-100.
5 See pp 26-28.
6 JGM 56.
7 William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, in NICNT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974, 364-65.
8 See pp 205-06 below.
9 See p. 64 above.
10 Enchiridion Biblicum 559.
11 KM 8, cited above, pp 42-43.
12 KM 7.

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