Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Jesus Christ Yesterday, Today and Forever

[Homiletic and Pastoral Review 83 (June 1983) 9-16]

If Jesus had met a Chinaman by the sea, could he have spoken with him? Did Jesus have to learn to walk? To speak his native language? "Did the historical Jesus have a clear idea of a sacrament?"1

These and similar questions are being asked today, all as part of a trend to make Jesus more human. But even more deeply, according to Raymond Brown, "all modern christology is based on the theory that the human knowledge of Jesus was limited."2 Now Brown is not thinking just of the fact that the human intellect of Jesus, being finite, could not hold an infinite store of knowledge; no, he means far more. Brown would prefer to say no to the question, "Did Jesus have a clear idea of a sacrament?" He seems to hold that Jesus did not found or even clearly foresee the Church: He just "left behind the disciples ... gave a mission to proclaim the kingdom; He also gave them a spirit."3 So they gradually evolved a Church, a priesthood, and sacraments. (We wonder then: where would the sacraments get their power to produce grace if just invented by the Apostles?)

Further, Brown adds: "The Son of God who speaks in the first three Gospels is a Jew of the first third of the first century, who thinks in the images of his time, speaks in the idiom of his time, and shares much of the world view of his time."4 Hence, not strangely, Brown also says that Jesus spoke of banquets in the place of beatitude, and heaven as above the clouds, and comments: "We cannot assume that Jesus shared our own sophistication on some of these questions. If Jesus speaks of heaven above the clouds ... how can we be sure that he knew that it was not above the clouds?"5 Alas poor Jesus: not very smart, surely not as smart as Raymond Brown.

In fact, Brown thinks Jesus had some superstitions: "I do not believe the demons inhabit desert places or the upper air, as Jesus and Paul thought ... I see no way to get around the difficulty except by saying that Jesus and Paul were wrong on this point. They accepted the beliefs of their times about demons, but those beliefs were superstitions."6

Modern statements assert truth

Countless others today attribute ignorance to Jesus. Even Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom not a few "conservatives" idolize, holds such views.7

So much for the mind of Jesus. As to his human will, Karl Rahner writes: "We can ... speak without qualms about a spiritual and indeed religious development in Jesus."8 More recently, Jean Galot wrote that, "Jesus advanced in the virtues" and could speak of, "his spiritual growth."9 Raymond Brown would seem to agree; in a strikingly fundamentalistic comment on Heb. 5:8 he said simply that Jesus "could learn obedience."10

We could easily fill all our allotted pages with more and more quotations like those above, but it is time to begin to sort things out, and for that we need some principles.

To begin, there are some very strong modern statements of the Magisterium on this matter. Thus Pius XII, in his doctrinal encyclical, Mystici Corporis, spoke of "that blessed vision which He enjoyed when just received in the womb of the Mother of God. He has all the members of the Mystical Body continuously and perpetually present to Himself."11 As recently as 1966, the Doctrinal Congregation complained: "There creeps forth a certain Christological humanism in which Christ is reduced to the condition of a mere man, who gradually acquired consciousness of His divine Sonship."12

The authors cited above dispose of the Magisterium texts lightly. Karl Rahner speaks of them as just "marginal and incidental."13 Galot gets rid of them in a mere footnote: "As for the beatific knowledge, it stems from a Scholastic theory that is now outdated ... in both Encyclicals [Mystici Corporis, and Haurietis Aquas] these are affirmations of secondary importance which do not affect the essential points of the doctrine announced."14 Raymond Brown concurs vigorously: "Past church statements affirm that Christ had the Beatific Vision during his ministry, but it is irresponsible to bring them into the modern discussion of Jesus' knowledge without alerting people to [the fact that] the theory of Jesus' Beatific Vision was advanced in the Middle Ages as an answer to a problem: Although one could not suppose that the divine (nonconceptual) knowledge of the Second Person of the Trinity was functional in the human mind of Jesus (which operated with concepts), the Gospels portray him as having extraordinary knowledge about God, the future, etc.-might he not have had the Beatific Vision...?"15 Thus Pius XII in 1943, and the Doctrinal Congregation in 1966, were repeating an outmoded medieval notion-"irresponsible."

Even Vatican II is not exempt from that reproach of irresponsibility: ``In a meeting at Notre Dame the year after the Council, George Lindbeck of Yale expressed the hope that Catholic biblical scholars would soon undertake the task of exposing the 'questionable character' of the 'irresponsible' exegesis that appeared, particularly in the Council documents on the church and on Mary."16 Brown raises no objection to Lindbeck's charge.

The question is no longer open

Can we dismiss the Magisterium texts this way? By no means. Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) wrote about theological decisions made in Encyclicals: "These things are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, in regard to which it is also correct to say: 'He who hears you, hears me.'"17 And he added that these things, "cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians." Vatican II said basically the same: "Religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining."18 Now submission of mind means real interior belief, which is incompatible with writing teachings off as "irresponsible" or "medieval." Sadly, not only the leftists (of course), but even many who think themselves loyal to the Church say, in effect: If it is not defined, I can take it or leave it. Vatican II did not speak that way. Nor did Vatican II say: The Pope means to teach only the central idea in each Encyclical. Rather, the knowledge Jesus had and has of his members is vital to his relations to the Mystical Body and to his love of them, as Haurietis Aquas teaches.

So, from the several papal statements we know the fact that Jesus' human mind had the Beatific Vision even from his conception.19 What of the how? As long as we are assured of the fact-and we are-we do not have to know the how. But in this case it is really easy. Brown repeats an objection others have thought up: the Beatific Vision is simple and indivisible, therefore, anything Jesus might see there could not be directly known by him in such a way that he might express it to himself or to others. But St. Thomas Aquinas-poor medieval man-knew how to answer. He held that St. Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2-4) had that vision once, and explained that just as our image-making power can take concepts of a mountain and of gold, and put them together to get a concept of a golden mountain, "thus Paul, or anyone else, by seeing God, from the vision itself of the divine essence, can form in himself likenesses of the things that are seen in the divine essence. These remained in Paul even after he stopped seeing the essence of God."20

Really, reason alone can show that the human soul of Jesus not only happened to have that vision, but necessarily had to have it, as a result of his structure. We put together two points: (1) If we try to put two complete beings together, there will be no unity; to unite a complete humanity and divinity in Jesus would not yield unity. So there must be something lacking in his humanity. He had, of course, a body, a mind and a will. But that complex would normally become a human person-yet in him it did not, for it was assumed, taken over by the Person of the Word. Now we add a second consideration: (2) Any human soul can have the vision on two conditions: (a) its power to see must be elevated by grace-obviously true in Jesus-and (b) the divinity must join itself directly to the human mind, with not even an image in between.21 But-now we put together both points-in Jesus, his human mind was so joined, even more closely than in an ordinary soul, for in him, not just his mind, but his entire humanity was so closely joined to the Word as to lack separate personality and separate existence. Therefore, his human mind did not just happen to have that vision, it had to have it.

This reasoning is not a medieval invention, it is strictly modern, proposed for the first time, so far as I have seen, in my book, The Consciousness of Christ.22

Really, nothing more is needed once we see the Church has spoken; and it has done so on several occasions on this matter. But it is not unreasonable to see further reasons. To present all of them fully takes not just an article, but a book. The book just mentioned does take up, in detail, every objection proposed by Brown and all others worth noting, in four fields: Scripture, Patrology, Magisterium, theological speculation.

We will give a sampling

We turn first to Scripture. Brown devotes well over half of an entire book, Jesus God and Man, to heaping up Scripture texts tending to show ignorance in Jesus, according to his claim.23 My own book takes up every text Brown presents. But really, it is not necessary, both because the Church has spoken, and because Brown himself twice confesses: "As we shall insist in the conclusion, the biblical evidence does not decide the theological problem.... Scripture alone neither favors nor disproves a theory that posits a psychological development of Jesus' knowledge of what lay in store for Him."24 So, if Scripture is inconclusive: Why not believe the Church? Perhaps the answer is found in Brown's more recent, The Critical Meaning of the Bible: "Limited too is the ability of church authorities to determine the literal sense of a passage of Scripture."25 But then, even the Bible itself is not free of religious error, according to Brown: "Critical investigation points to religious limitations and even errors" in the Bible.26

Since we cannot take up all Scripture texts in a mere article, we will give a sampling of the minor objections, and then the two objections that seem strongest.

In Mark 5 30-32, Jesus is in a crowd; a woman with a flow of blood touches his garment. Jesus asks: "Who touched my garments?" Oddly, Brown thinks this is apt to show ignorance in Jesus.27 Really, any teacher asks questions to draw out responses. Or will Brown think the Father himself ignorant since he asked: "Adam, where are you?"?

In Mark 6:6 we find that Jesus is at Nazareth.28 He meets with rejection, and then: "He marveled because of their unbelief." But we can all "marvel" at a splendid sunset without being ignorant of what a sunset looks like-we have seen so many. The marveling is just an emotional response that need not imply any ignorance at all.

Now it is our turn to marvel. Brown comments on Jesus in Gethsemane: "Jesus ... should not have feared death ... since He knew exactly how he would triumph, and he should not have found it necessary to pray that this cup pass from him."29 The implication seems to be: He did fear, so he did not know the outcome. Brown got this idea, it seems, from R. Bultmann, who wrote: "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?"30 As we said, it is our turn to marvel: How could anyone think that knowledge of resurrection could make it not be painful, and a thing to shrink from, to be scourged, and to hang by nails on a cross? Jesus allowed his humanity to go without a miraculous divine help that could have removed a natural shrinking or fear: He used divine power for others, but not for his own comfort.

But the most difficult Scriptural passages are two: Luke 2:52, and Mark 13:32. The former says: "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and Man." The latter reports that Jesus said, "Of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Some cite these texts simplistically, like a Bible-thumper: Look, you can just see it! But we should study.

This brings us to the Fathers, who wrestled hard with these two passages. A remarkable phenomenon meets us in their work: many of the Fathers have two sets of seemingly opposed statements on both points (Sts. Athanasius, Epiphanius, Basil, Amphilochius, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary).31 One set of texts seems to affirm ignorance; the other to deny it.

How could the Fathers write this way? Because of sound theological method and faith. In divine affairs one can meet things that seem to clash. But if he is faithful to method and has faith, he will hold both truths-he will not as it were use a metaphysical crowbar to force either side. He will hope that sometime he will find the distinction needed to fit them together.

The Fathers often did work this way. St. Athanasius first found the needed distinction for Luke 2:32: "Gradually as the body grew and the Word manifested itself in it, He is acknowledged first by Peter, then by all."32 So there can be growth in manifestation of wisdom, but not in its possession. St. Cyril of Alexandria is even clearer: "How then was He said to advance? [it happened] when the Word of God, as I think, measured out the manifestation of the divine gifts which were in Him, according to the growth and age of His body ...." And again: "Because He was wiser to those who saw, He is said to advance ... it was the status (hexis) of those who then wondered that advanced, rather than that His status (hexis) changed."33

Really the words of St. Luke could hint at this distinction, for they say that Jesus grew in wisdom and favor "with God and man."

The text is viewed simplistically

On the second text, which seems to speak of ignorance of the day of judgment, the Fathers needed more time. The needed distinction first appears in Eulogius and St. Gregory the Great. The latter wrote: "The Incarnate only-begotten ... knew the day and the hour of judgment in the nature of humanity, but yet not from the nature of humanity ..."34 That is: the information registered in the human mind of Jesus-but the knowledge did not come from his humanity.

Again, we might see a hint in the words of Mark 13:32 themselves: for if taken crudely, they could mean that even the Son, in his divinity, did not know.

We saw above that several writers think there was real spiritual progress in Jesus. Raymond Brown, in a surprisingly fundamentalistic statement, says that Jesus "could learn obedience."35 We styled this statement fundamentalist because it takes a scripture text simplistically, without any study of genre, or comparison to find out what it really means.36 Hebrews 5:8 does say that Jesus "learned obedience through what he suffered." But anyone who has made any comparisons knows that the same Epistle also depicts Jesus as perfectly obedient from the moment of his conception: "When Christ came into the world, he said: Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me ... Then I said: Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God." So it is evident at the outset that Jesus could not have had to learn obedience in his human will: it was the theme of his life from the start. What then does Heb. 5:8 mean? In an article in Faith and Reason (originally a research paper given at the national convention of the Catholic Biblical Association in Chicago in 1974), I proposed a new interdisciplinary solution: Just as a person who has long been devoted to the will of God, but now for the first time finds himself in great physical suffering, from cancer, needs to have his bodily side learn to acquiesce, to settle down in suffering, so it was with the bodily, not the spiritual side of Jesus.37 In other words: the somatic resonance to that union of will with the Father could and did grow through suffering. Only in such a sense could he learn obedience.

We see, then, that the most formidable claims of ignorance in Jesus can be solved. Really, since the Magisterium assures us of the fact, we would not have to know the how. But we can see even that.

Finally, we can return to a few of the miscellaneous problems we raised in the opening paragraph.

Did Jesus have to learn to walk? We reply yes. His human mind obtained from the Beatific Vision all the knowledge needed for walking-but for the body to acquire a facility-that took practice. It is something like the case of learning obedience.

Similarly, through that Vision he always had all the knowledge about his native language, but to get his tongue and vocal organs used to forming the sounds-that again needed practice.

Lastly, suppose he had met a Chinaman: could he have talked with him? The same principles will solve the question for us now too. The Beatific Vision and his infused knowledge gave his human intellect full knowledge of the Chinese language. But his vocal equipment would normally need practice. Divine power could have made up for the lack of that practice. But would it have done so? His principle of acting is found in the emptying of which St. Paul spoke in Phil. 2:6 ff. R. Bultmann again shows a marvelous lack of perception when he writes: "The kenosis [emptying] of the pre-existent Son (Phil. 2:6 ff) is incompatible with the miracle narratives as proofs of his messianic claims."39 It is hard to imagine, but Bultmann seems to mean that in emptying himself, Jesus gave up being God! Then, thinks Bultmann, he could not work miracles. Really, God cannot stop being God-and many prophets and others who were not God worked miracles.

What Phil. 2:6 really means is this: Jesus resolved not to use his divine power for his own comfort. Hence he considered it a temptation to be asked to change stones to bread in the desert. But he would use that power freely for the sake of others, especially in healing the sick.

What then of the Chinaman: Would Jesus have called on his divine power to provide the missing facility to let him speak to the Chinaman? I am inclined to think he would have, for that would have been for the benefit of the soul of another, not for his own comfort.


1R. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible, Paulist, N.Y. 1981, p. 40 (Hereinafter CMB).
2R. Brown, Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church, Paulist, N.Y., 1975, p. 35, n. 28. Italics added.
3CMB p. 92.
4CMB p. 12.
5R. Brown, Jesus God and Man, Macmillan, N.Y., 1967, p. 56.
6In: St. Anthony's Messenger, May, 1971, pp. 47-48. Brown is alluding to Mt. 12: 43-45 and Ephesians 2:2; 6:12. In Mt. 12 we have a small sort of parable, as is evident from v. 45: "So shall it be also with this evil generation"—that is: Jesus came and broke the power of Satan for the Jews, but they rejected him; Satan will return in force, and the last state will be worse than the first. The sin becomes unforgiveable: Mt. 12:32. As to Ephesians: Paul is talking the language of his Gnostic opponents: it does not follow that Paul believed devils inhabited the upper air.
7Hans urs von Balthassar, "La conscience de Jésus et sa mission" in Communio IV.I. Janvier-février 1979, pp. 31-40. Cf CMB p. 87, n. 8.
8Karl Rahner, "Dogmatic Reflections on the Self-consciousness of Christ" in Theological Investigations, tr. K. H. Kruger, Helicon, Baltimore, 1966, V. p. 211.
9Jean Galot, Who is Christ?, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1981, pp. 379, 378.
10CMB p. 85.
11Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, DS 3812. cf. Haurietis aquas DS 3924.
12July 24, 1966, AAS 58 (1966) pp. 659-60.
13Rahner, Art cit. p. 214, n. 13.
14Galot, op. cit. p. 358, n. 33.
15CMB p. 87, n. 8.
16CMB p. 69.
17DS 3885.
18Lumen gentium §25.
19If it be objected that the physical brain of Jesus was not formed at the moment of conception we reply: granted, but the spiritual human intellect was fully there, and fully united, hypostatically, so as to form one Person with the Word.
20ST 1. 12.9. ad 2.
21DS 1000, and ST, Suppl. 92.1.c. and Contra Gentiles 3.52.
22W, Most, The Consciousness of Christ, Christendom College Press, Front Royal, 1980, pp. 165-68.
23Jesus God and Man, pp. 39-105.
24Ibid. pp. 42, 68.
25CMB p. 39.
26CMB p. 16.
27Jesus God and Man, p. 45.
28Cf. The Consciousness of Christ, pp. 42-43.
29CMB p. 91.
30R. Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology" in Kerygma and Myth, ed. H.W. Bartsch, tr. R.H. Fuller, 2nd. ed. London SPCK, 1964. I. p.8.
31Cf. The Consciousness of Christ, pp. 93-133.
32St. Athanasius, Orations against Arians 3.52. PG 26. 433.
33St. Cyril of Alexandria, Against Nestorius 3.4. PG 76. 153; and Thesaurus 28. PG 75. 428.
34St. Gregory the Great, DS 475.
35CMB 85.
36The genre of Hebrews is generally considered to be homiletic, which allows considerable imprecision of language. We add: Heb 4:15 says that Jesus was "tempted as we are in every respect, yet without sinning." If we were to be simplistic, we might argue: Therefore Jesus must have been ignorant, and must have had at least some of the severe diseases from which humans often suffer, such as cancer, arthritis, etc.
37"On Jesus Learning Obedience: Hebrews 5.8" Faith and Reason III. 2. (Summer 1977) pp. 6-16.
38R. Bultmann, art cit. I. p. 11.



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