There has been a lamentable devaluing of the mystery of Jesus that has been going on for 40 years in the Church.
People have looked on Jesus as just a good man who is identified with God in some way. This has led to the positive teaching that Jesus simply learned like any other man. He had to discover he was the Messiah through investigation. Or perhaps he needed to be taught by others that he was the Messiah.
The question of the knowledge of Jesus is a reflection of what one thinks about the Incarnation, and it has been a puzzling one throughout the centuries. Only in the latter part of the 20th century did Catholics begin to think that Jesus had faith and ignorance like any other man. The solution to this question is obviously of paramount importance for any true picture of Christ.
At the outset, one must state that this question is not about the knowledge of Christ as God in his divine nature. He had two natures and so two intellects. This is a question of the knowledge enjoyed by his human intellect.
The question of the human knowledge of Christ is a very difficult one. Though the Gospels state that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), this was always interpreted to mean that he showed the wisdom characteristic of his age.
In fact, whatever Jesus assumed when he became man must fit into his mission, and the tradition of the Church was always that ignorance would not contribute to his perfect, loving obedience.
Until the 1960s, the common teaching of the Church enunciated most clearly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was that Jesus enjoyed three kinds of human knowledge: ordinary knowledge based on sense experience, a special knowledge of the “eternal plans he had come to reveal” (Catechism, 473), and the unique knowledge of his Father that St. Thomas said was the Beatific Vision of heaven.
Why was each of these kinds of knowledge posited by theologians about Christ? They were acting on the idea that if it was fitting and possible then Christ as a perfect man must possess it. All three of these kinds of knowledge are fitting and possible.
The Fathers of the Church and the Scholastic philosophers (such as Sts. Anselm, Albert the Great, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas) posited the fact that Christ had the Beatific Vision from the moment of his conception for several reasons.
First, if he did not have it he could have sinned. The Gospels do not record any sin on the part of the Christ. In fact, it was just the opposite — and it would not have been fitting for his mission of perfect obedience.
Second, if he did not have the vision of heaven, he would have to merit it for himself. Church tradition is clear that Christ came to earth only to merit for us.
The second kind of knowledge was fitting to Christ because he did not have to learn he was the Messiah. In fact, Paul is clear that Christ exercised obedience from the moment he was conceived in Mary’s womb (Hebrews 7:5-7).
He had a knowledge that God infused into his human mind from above of his mission and all it entailed. Some people made much about the fact that Christ said he did not know certain things about his mission, but as the Catechism (474) remarks: “What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal” (Mark 13:32, Acts 1:7).
Finally, many of the Scholastic theologians thought that if Christ had these two sources of knowledge it would be superfluous to think that he had to know like we do, through the everyday experience of the five senses.
Aquinas thought this in his youth, but in his more mature work, he concluded that if Jesus was to have the perfect use of all kinds of human knowledge open to the human race that he also had to be able to experience knowledge, just as the rest of the human race does.
Jesus kept the knowledge he received from higher sources from affecting his life precisely so he might suffer. For this reason he is often described as both a pilgrim on his way to heaven and a comprehensor — one who already understands heaven.
There are many theologians today who speak of Jesus having faith. This does not correspond to the Scriptures or the Tradition of the Church.
Faith, which is a virtue by which we experience knowledge of things we cannot directly know, “the essence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), is attributed to all sorts of people in Scripture. It is never attributed to Christ.
Some contemporary thinkers hold that if Jesus experienced the vision of God on earth, he lost it on the cross and merely gave himself up to God in darkness and absurdity. This is simply not possible.
Christ came to earth to reverse our unloving disobedience. For this to occur, he has to make a strong and informed choice of the cross, not in itself, but as the fitting means to redeem the human race.
Many think this picture of the knowledge of Christ is fantastic or impossible. One could answer that there are examples of human genius in which certain unique individuals have precocious abilities which go beyond ordinary human knowledge.
If Mozart could compose little pieces of music at the age of 4, it does not seem fantastic that the Son of God made man could know in his mother’s womb that he was the Son of God. Eastern icons depict this theological teaching by presenting the infant Christ not as the bambino (little baby) of the Renaissance, but as a baby with an adult face.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady has a doctorate in sacred theology. He is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. Parts 1 and 2 of the series are found here and here.