Sunday, 28 April 2013

Did Christ grow in knowledge of his Father?

I've very much being enjoying the daily sermons of the new parish priest of my geographical parish, which are basically ferverinos on the readings followed by some prayers that take in the message of the text, giving it a strong lectio divina feel.

But yesterday he said something that gave me pause: that in his opinion, Jesus himself grew in knowledge of his relationship to the Father.

It's a view that is fairly common these days, and is a theological opinion that is still open to hold.  All the same, I think it is one that quickly leads down some dangerous paths, and is a good example of the dangers posed by the twentieth century theological rupture embodied in the works of Rahner, Congar et al.

Christ's self-knowledge

Among progressives, for example, this view is used to argue that since Jesus wasn't fully aware of his own nature, he felt bound by cultural constraints when it came to the role of women and so forth.

Personally I think that the cultural context line is pretty hard line to argue given that Our Lord had no compunction about breaking Jewish law in relation to the Sabbath and many other issues, and teaching a stricter law than current Jewish tradition on issues such as marriage and divorce.  Nonetheless, the idea that Jesus grew in knowledge of his mission and nature in its more orthodox formulation seems to have a much broader popularity even with 'conservatives' and charismatics.

So is it a view we can legitimately hold?  And even if it is, is it a view we should propagate?

At Mass on Saturday in the Fourth Week of Easter in Year C (in the Ordinary Form) the Gospel is St John 14: 7-14, and the key section of the text (RSV) is:

"If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him."  Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied."  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me..."

That sounds like a fairly firm assertion of who Jesus is to me, and not one that obviously points to any 'growth' in knowledge on the part of Christ, as opposed to the disciples!   It also stands in strong continuity with the only childhood incident we have recorded in the Gospels, where Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem and when found answers his parents reproaches with the assertion that they should have know he would be 'in his Father's house and about his Father's business'.  So in what sense is a 'growth' in awareness said to occur?

The tradition teaching

The traditional teaching on Jesus' knowledge is actually encapsulated in St Thomas' Summa (III 9).  St Thomas taught that Christ in his human nature had enjoyed the beatific vision from birth; enjoyed 'infused knowledge' (as the angels do); but also had acquired, or experiential knowledge of human things (the conventional explanation for the words of St Luke 2:52: "And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men").

The idea that Jesus grew gradually in knowledge of his mission (as well as in the things humans normally learn to do) is sometimes suggested these days as an explanation for texts such as St Mark 13:32, "Of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father." But there are a variety of perfectly convincing conventional explanations for this within the pre-scholastic and scholastic traditions that certainly do not depend on any growth in knowledge on Jesus' part.

All the same, St Thomas' view is only given the status 'common teaching', rather than anything magisterially taught, in that excellent pre-Vatican II summary Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott.  And as far as I know there has been no subsequent Magisterial teaching on this subject other than in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, while cast in terms of modern theology rather than St Thomas, and leaving some room for theological debate on questions such as Christ's infused knowledge, insists that Christ (always) had full knowledge of his mission:

"Apollinarius of Laodicaea asserted that in Christ the divine Word had replaced the soul or spirit. Against this error the Church confessed that the eternal Son also assumed a rational, human soul.  This human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not in itself be unlimited: it was exercised in the historical conditions of his existence in space and time. This is why the Son of God could, when he became man, "increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man", and would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience. This corresponded to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking "the form of a slave".   But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God's Son expressed the divine life of his person. "The human nature of God's Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God." Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts.  By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal." (CCC 471-4)

The twentieth century rupture

What then, is the origin of this modern shift away from the pre-Vatican II theological consensus?  Certainly nothing in the documents of Vatican II itself.

In fact it seems to originate in the work of the twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner who argued that rather than experiencing the beatific vision, Christ's knowledge of his mission is a result of his self-awareness: as the eternal Son, he experienced his relationship to the Father in a human way, and this knowledge could grow through reflection.

As the theologian Roch Kereszty presents it in his Jesus Christ Fundamentals of Christology (Second ed, 2002, pp 390-3), the case for this approach is that it presents a more 'human' view of Christ, allowing us to construct a psychology of him.  It arguably enables us to better identify with, and imitate him, in that instead of some aspects of his knowledge being entirely 'other', his teaching becomes a product of the interaction between his awareness of God as his Father; his knowledge of God and God's plan through the Father's inspiring and guiding action; and his experiential knowledge of the world.

To become great saints

Certainly I think that was the context in which the priest was using it, since his comment was the lead up to the challenge posed to us by the last section of yesterday's Gospel:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father." (John 14: 12)

What greater works can we do than God, you might well ask?! St Augustine suggests that one possible explanation of the verse suggests that he was talking about the number of converts that would be made by the Apostles:

" works here our Lord refers to His words. For when He says, My Father that dwells in Me, He does the works, what are these works but the words which He spoke? And the fruit of those words was their faith. But these were but few converts in comparison with what those disciples made afterwards by their preaching: they converted the Gentiles to the faith. Did not the rich man go away sorrowful from His words? And yet that which one did not do at His own exhortation, many did afterwards when He preached through the disciples. He did greater works when preached by the believing, than when speaking to men's ears. Still these greater works He did by His Apostles, whereas He includes others besides them, when He says, He that believes in Me." (from the Catena Aurea).

I don't think myself though, that linking this challenge for us to become great saints to Christ's growth in knowledge is actually helpful; quite the contrary.  Christ, after all, was always perfect and free from sin; we are not.

Our growth in the spiritual life, the process of deification whereby he works in and through us, it seems to me, requires more than self-reflection: it requires grace and the cultivation of the virtues, for our relationship to the divine is inherently different to Christ's, since he had two natures, human and divine, while we do not.  Moreover, the other danger of this line of reasoning is that while it (legitimately) emphasizes his humanity, it can lead to an underplaying of Christ's divinity and the infallible status of his teaching.

Christology has been the source of many errors in recent times, and although the Vatican has made some judgments on authors such as Schillebeeckx who have taken these ideas to their logical conclusion, a lot more needs to be done to point out just why the authors such as Rahner too, are in error on some of these key points.  Perhaps Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on faith, completing the work started by Pope Benedict XVI, will provide an opportunity to advance this cause.

Meanwhile we should ponder that great challenge of John 14:12 in terms of what Christ is asking of us, for it is a call to do extraordinary things, not just the ordinary.


A Canberra Observer said...

"itching ears" ?

I agree with you, the novel theology is just that, novel.

Kate Edwards said...

Well, not that novel given its been around to various degrees for a good few decades now, but a direction that I think will ultimately be consigned to the dustbin of history! If only we could help speed it on its way....

The alarming thing to me is that it is being taught unchallenged in textbooks such as Kereszty's used by perfectly orthodox seminaries and Universities.

Maureen said...

Have you read Jose Pagola's book - "Jesus, an Historical Approximation"? It's riveting, at least I found it to be so, and it follows the view that Christ gradually grew to understand who He was.

Kate Edwards said...

Maureen - The Spanish Bishops conference issued a statement very critical of this book and ordered its withdrawal from sale.

A subsequent investigation by the Vatican found that it could not be given an Imprimateur, that is it could not be certified as free from error as it contains dangerous omissions and ambiguities.

As a result, the author has agreed to make revisions to it which will be incorporated in a new edition to come soon.

The work seems a case in favour of my argument, not to the contrary!

Maureen said...

I didn't know that, Kate; I borrowed it from the library!