Orthodox Christians affirm that Jesus is God and possesses deity equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. That is, the three persons of the Trinity share in the same divine essence and thus the same divine attributes. Some of these divine attribute are classified as incommunicable in that only the Godhead (the three persons of the Trinity) possess them and they cannot be shared with, or possessed by, non-deity (humans). These incommunicable attributes include omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present), eternality (with no beginning or end), unchangeableness (His essential nature does not change) and omniscience (all-knowing). Since Jesus shares the same essence as the Father and the Holy Spirit, then He ought to share in these divine incommunicable attributes, namely, for the purposes of the following discussion, omniscience.
Presenting the Problem
The astute Christian will possibly pick up on the problem that Bible-believing Christians face when it comes to the person of Jesus. The potential “problem” for orthodox Christians is that the Gospel writers (and Jesus) present Jesus as not knowing things (thus not possessing omniscience) and growing in wisdom and knowledge. So we must ask ourselves, “Are we justified based on the testimony of Scripture, in saying that Jesus is God since He is clearly not omniscient? Does our theology of Jesus not line up with Scripture’s theology of Jesus?” “Are we asking Jesus to be more than Scripture tells us He is?” Further yet, is Jesus less than God because He “grows in wisdom and knowledge”? Perhaps the answer to these questions lies within the unique nature of Christ as the God-man.
There are a number of directions one could go in attempting to answer these questions. Since space is limited here, we will explore one way to address the problem—the unique divine/human nature of Jesus as God incarnate helps us to answer the so-called problem of Jesus lacking omniscience. For the sake of space, we will assume that Jesus is God as taught by the writers of Scripture (John 1:1; Col. 1:19; Heb. 1:3) and Jesus Himself (Matt. 22:44; John 8:57-59). First, we will examine some texts that help us to see the issue at hand. And finally, we will look at a proposed solution to the problem.
Examining Relevant Texts
Despite the number of relevant texts that pertain to this issue, the focus of this article will remain on a few key areas. The first text to examine is located within the heart of the first story we have of Jesus. At twelve years of age, Jesus’ parents took Him to the temple for the Feast of Passover. While heading home they realized Jesus is no longer with them. After searching for Him in the caravan without success, they finally return to the city and find Him in the temple with the Jewish Rabbis—teaching and being taught. Luke 2:46-47 sets the stage:
“After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.”
Most of the time when we read these verses, we are amazed by the fact that the teachers of the temple marveled at the wisdom and knowledge of a young boy’s understanding of Scripture. What we tend to overlook is that in addition to Jesus amazing all who heard Him with His answers, Jesus listened to and asked questions of the teachers. If Jesus is God (despite His age), why does He need to listen to and ask questions of others in order to learn about Scripture?
The second text to examine immediately follows this story of Jesus at the temple with the teachers. Luke 2:52 is the only verse that tells us anything about the time between Jesus at the temple and the beginning of His earthly ministry in John chapter three. The verse is as follows:
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
Though knowledge is not specifically mentioned in this verse, growing in wisdom by definition includes growing in knowledge so we can safely conclude that Jesus grew in knowledge as well. Jesus increased in both. Again, we are left asking ourselves, how did Jesus grow in knowledge and wisdom if He is God?
The third text to examine is found in Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36. Both passages give the same account of Jesus teaching His disciples about the unknown timing of His return. Mark 13:32 says as follows:
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father.”
If the previous verses did not put the problem front and center then this one surely does. Here, Jesus Himself clearly admits to not knowing something—more specifically the time of His return to earth. This time we might ask ourselves, how did Jesus even consider Himself to be God if He did not possess omniscience? After all, to be omniscient, one must possess knowledge of everything. To not know even one thing is to be less than omniscient. One can see why this is a classic text that people use to deny the deity of Jesus. But as we will see later, we must not be afraid that we are inconsistent in our affirmation that Jesus is God and yet did not know something.
As we can see from the above verses, the God-man grew in knowledge and wisdom and, therefore, did not know things. He was certainly the smartest person, greatest theologian, and most knowledgeable Bible Scholar to ever walk the earth. However, He still did not know things at one point in His life that He later learned—His return being the primary example. In fact, Jesus even grew in knowledge of Himself! To help us understand this mysterious concept, author Mark Jones explains how Jesus grew in His own self-identity as He read and learned Scripture:
Jesus came to a growing understanding of his Messianic calling by reading the Scriptures. He had to learn the Bible [or Holy Scriptures] just as we must. Of course, he is the greatest theologian who has ever lived. His reading of the Bible would have been free from the problems that beset Christians who wrongly interpret passages and bring their own sinful dispositions to the text. Nevertheless, we must not imagine that Christ had all of the answers as a baby and merely waited to begin his ministry at the age of thirty without putting in hard yet delightful work on a daily basis in obedience to his Father’s will. As Christopher Wright notes, the Old Testament enabled Jesus to understand himself. The answer to his self-identity came from the Bible, ‘the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship. And in this tapestry, where others saw only a fragmented collection of various figures and hopes, Jesus saw his own face. His Hebrew Bible [Scriptures] provided the shape of his own identity.’ …he had to study to know what to do. While he was never ignorant of what he needed to know at any stage of his life, he nevertheless was required to learn.[i]
As with many tensions and mysteries in Scripture, it becomes clear in reading the text that the writers themselves do not seem to feel the tension the same way we do as readers. Those who saw Jesus and heard testimony of His words and works were no doubt amazed by Him. But the writers of the New Testament do not seem to share our same perplexities in understanding the mystery that is Jesus Christ as both God and man. Even Jesus Himself does not express confusion over His possession of two natures, and this should encourage us.
Looking Toward An Answer
With the problem before us how can we pave the way for a solution? Without over simplifying the answer, I want to propose that the answer is in fact quite simple. The answer, as alluded to earlier, lies within the unique human/divine nature of Christ. While Jesus as the God-man is not necessarily a simple concept to grasp, it does give us the answer as to how Jesus can be 100% God and yet be limited in His knowledge as 100% human, in need of learning and growth in knowledge and wisdom. The definitive text for this is Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is your in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.
While there is a lot of good theological content packed into these few verses we will confine ourselves to a few thoughts. First, it is from this passage that we get what many call the kenosis theory (“self-emptying”) which is “the theory that Christ gave up some of His divine attributes while He was on earth as a man” (emphasis added).[ii] The words “gave up” seem to unintentionally communicate something about Christ that is not true and unnecessarily complicates our understanding of the human/divine nature of Christ. With context as our guide, we can see that the self-emptying that Christ did was not the laying aside (or giving up) of the independent use of certain divine incommunicable attributes (omnipotence, infiniteness, omniscience, etc.). Rather, His self-emptying is accomplished by humbling Himself to take on human form and likeness so that He can humble Himself so much that He can die on our behalf. As God, Jesus did not lay off attributes to become man, but, rather, He humbly took on humanity so that He can identify with us in our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). Michael Bird aptly expresses the concern with the usual way of understanding the kenosis theory:
The emptying of Christ Himself is not the grounds for a so-called kenotic Christology, whereby Christ left behind certain attributes such as glory, omniscience, or powers, like someone stripping off before climbing into a dirty pit. The emptying occurred not by what He left behind but through what He took on, humanity – humanity in humiliation no less.[iii]
Without belaboring the issue, the point is clear – Jesus did not leave part of His deity in heaven, but rather covered deity with humanity on earth.
Second, this slight change in our understanding of the self-emptying of Christ helps us to understand how Jesus could still be God and yet need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus acting as God would and as a human would. As God He commanded the sea to be still (Mark 4:35-41) and forgave sins (Luke 7:48). As a man He was born naturally from a woman (Matt. 1:23-25; Luke 2:6-7), He was hungry and ate food (Matt. 4:2; Luke 24:42-43) and He slept (Mark 4:38).
It is interesting that as we consider all of the divine attributes and the limitations of humanity that we are so easily distracted by Jesus’ limited knowledge. Here are a few other mysteries within the person of Jesus that we more easily accept:
- To be God is to be infinite but in taking on humanity Jesus took on finiteness.
- To be God is to be eternal but in taking on humanity Jesus took on perishableness.
- To be God is to be spirit but in taking on humanity Jesus took on a body of flesh.
- To be God is to be all-present but in taking on humanity Jesus took on the limited presence of humanity.
It is clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus is both God and man. It is a mystery to behold and ponder, and one in which we will never completely grasp. However, its mysterious nature does not detract us from understanding and proclaiming what Scripture does reveal to us about how Jesus can be deity and yet be limited in knowledge as humanity.
A Final Reminder…
We can rest assured in proclaiming that Jesus is 100% deity and 100% humanity. In humbling Himself by leaving His heavenly throne, Jesus did not leave behind any of His deity nor did He lay aside the use of any of His attributes of deity while on earth. He clearly exercised His attributes of deity at His own discretion. Yet, He also withheld the use of some of His attributes of deity as He saw fit. In whatever divine attributes He exercised, He did so as God. In whatever divine attributes He did not exercise, we see Him acting in His humanity, which (among other things) means He had to and was able to grow in wisdom and knowledge. As God, Jesus is omniscient, and as a man His knowledge was limited—but this does not lessen either of His natures. We must remember that there are some mysteries of God that are yet to be revealed to us while we’re on this earth, and Jesus’ dual nature is one of those unfathomable secrets of the Almighty.
[i] Mark Jones, Jesus Christ: An Introduction to Christology (Scotland, UK; Christian Focus Publications, 2012), 32.
[ii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1994), 1246.
[iii] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 467.