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When Did Jesus Know He was God?

December 17, AD2013 15 Comments


Little is known about the time between our LORD’s birth in Bethlehem and the Wedding at Cana where he began his public mission. So the question of when Jesus in his human nature assimilated his knowledge of his divine nature is a little more speculative than many other questions. For that reason I’d like to give a disclaimer that this essay is not so much an answer to the question as much as it is a meditation on the Incarnation.

Pope Leo the Great sets the stage:

“God is not changed by his compassion, nor is man swallowed up by such dignity. For each nature does what is proper to each in communion with the other: the Word does what pertains to the Word, and the flesh to what pertains to the flesh. One shines forth with miracles; the other succumbs to injuries. And just as the Word does not depart from equality with the Father’s glory, just so the flesh does not abandon the nature of our race.” (Pope Leo the Great, Letter to Bishop Flavian of Constantinople).

This remains one of the clearest statements in existence on the Incarnation. I read it every Christmas. It brings into stark relief the delicate balance of the hypostatic union. Our theology can go wrong in two different ways: either we diminish Christ’s human nature which is the Gnostic mistake, or we diminish Christ’s divine nature which is the Nestorian mistake. The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. said no to both of these errors but we understand as people the temptation to tip in one or the other direction, don’t we?

Let me try to put this in human terms. At various times and circumstances in life we need to know that Jesus was really God and not some “good person” or “ethical teacher.” Our lives are not radically changed by a mere “idea.” They can only be changed from the roots up by the divine architect of the universe. Christ is either the second person of the Trinity or he is just another song and dance man.

On the other hand, we crave a sense that he was a regular person, not someone who had a free pass. Didn’t the Romans mock Jesus on this faulty understanding? If you are the Christ, you can come down from that Cross! We need to know that he really did it, that God really assumed a human nature exactly as we understand it in all things but sin, and without cheating. If he didn’t do that, he can’t relate to us, and we can’t trust him to know our most profound suffering.

It’s almost like the high school football hero who scored the legendary touchdown with a broken ankle. Over time, word gets out that the team doctor had given the boy a “vitamin shot” before the big play, and we’re crushed because we needed our hero to have done it with his native ability, without cheating. We can’t love a cheater.

The Conflict

When did Jesus know he was God?

On one hand, it can be thought that Jesus as a human received divine infusion of this knowledge, and thus can be pictured in the manger, or as a toddler, knowing himself fully with his human intellect in the hypostatic union. It is a fine theological answer. God created all that is seen and unseen, and he certainly can give Jesus a special human kind of knowing. But isn’t this a little like the football player who had help with the big touchdown? The Incarnation tears our hearts out and transforms them precisely because Jesus is a real man like us in all things but sin.

On the other hand, modern theologians have said Jesus did not know of his divinity until well into adulthood because he lacked the natural cognitive ability. This answer respects the humanity of Jesus but we have to admit it neglects his divinity and pushes us dangerously close to shrugging our shoulders and sighing in resignation, “Well, I guess he was a pretty good ethical teacher anyway.”

I am more sympathetic to the doctrine of infused knowledge, and more apt to picture the baby Jesus as more aware of his divinity than our imaginations suggest, mostly because I think that all human babies possess far greater cognition than any of us suspect.* I will weave this into my answer below, but I want to first explain why modern theologians are dead wrong about Jesus not being able to know he was God until he was an adult.

The Enlightenment that Enlightened Nothing

Modern theology on this topic has been led astray by an outdated enlightenment conception of what it means to know. This model envisions human knowing as a qualitative attainment of mind rather than the continuous psycho-physiological progression that it really is. In the enlightenment view, the human skull is sort of like a container of ideas, and to know a fact in the “mind’s eye” is to recognize the fact as present somewhere within the mental edifice. One is said to be certain of a fact when one apprehends the idea clearly and distinctly in consciousness.

If this were how the mind actually worked, I might possibly agree that no, Jesus as a human could not have known “as a fact” that he was God in his human nature until he was a fully grown adult without infused knowledge. I would agree if that was really how the mind works. But I have good news:  this is not how the mind actually works.

How Human Beings Acquire Knowledge

A lot has happened since the Enlightenment, so let’s bring ourselves up to date. Psychologists and neuroscientists recognize that there is not one single form of human knowing but several different ones that arise at different stages of development. We know how to ride a bicycle with a different part of the brain (procedural memory) than the one with which we know the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (semantic memory). We know the score of our high school football game (episodic memory) with yet a different brain system. We attain meaningful self-understanding through quite another system (autobiographical memory). Knowledge is a diverse and varied phenomenon. The coordination of these disparate systems forms in a determinate sequence from childhood to adulthood.

Psychologist Jean Piaget famously cataloged the sequence of development in young children. Through a series of ingenious observation, he studied how children think about structured problems. Piaget described the acquisition of knowledge as a gradual emancipation from reflexes in the sensorimotor channels toward concrete representational knowledge. This representational knowledge is, nevertheless, limited to an egocentric personal perspective. The final stage Piaget described is our knowing a thing from the highest viewpoint using formal symbolic methods such as syllogisms using math and logic. Knowing is not a process of adding and subtracting facts from our skulls, but rather of assimilation and accommodation of our knowledge to the world of experience.

An analogy might help here. As an infant, a child knows the concept of “security” in the sense that he instinctively and reflexively trusts his mother when she carries him across a room. Unlike the enlightenment philosophers who held a fetish for mindless doubt, an infant doesn’t naturally think to himself, “Well, there is after all a non-zero probability that she could drop me.” Look at the bliss on that baby’s face!

Then, consider a six or seven year old child. He is to all intents and purposes confident that even though his mom is out of the room, she is still present and she sustains him. His knowing is that of a person who understands security from their immediate perspective and experience. After all, his mother tends to show up in the nick of time when he gets into trouble. He can’t speak for all mothers, but his mother is a reliable source of security to him. Is that child certain that he is secure in his mother’s care? Yes, and it is a more mature idea of security than he had before; it begins to involve judgment and prudence, yet the earlier knowledge is intact.

Finally, around the age of twelve, a child is said to have de-centered from his limited perspective so that he acquires a genuine, objective knowledge of security in a way that does not contradict but rather encompasses and explains his personal perspective. His knowledge is no longer dependent on immediate conditions here-and-now, but is based on a mature and objective apprehension of reality. What happened to the older concept of security? All of what is known in the maturity of adulthood carries with it the precipitate of earlier modes of knowing. The security one feels as an adult engages the same physio-chemical signature that was experienced in being cared for as an infant.

Think of knowing as gaining increasing articulation of what is known over the life span. A child knows what he knows fully at any given time, but only within the constraints of his physiology. The Church of course admitted as much centuries ago, when St. Cyril of Alexandria in the Council of Ephesus said, “God the Word gradually manifested his wisdom proportionally to the age which the body had attained.” I would like to build on St. Cyril’s insight as I come to my answer below.

A Proposal on the Knowing of Jesus

Jesus knew in a human way he was God in the same way a person knows in a human way that he is secure in Mary’s arms. It is confident, certain knowledge that begins at conception, and involves his entire physiology. The embodied cognition is inseparable from the abstract knowledge.

I say that Jesus’ knowledge of his divinity would have become increasingly well-articulated, but it was always held with certainty. Due to his finite human nature, his way of manifesting this knowledge would not be seen the way a modern scholar might demand, i.e., in learned debates, not as a child. But his knowledge as a boy was almost certainly manifested in his actions, and his attention to his work, his questions to his teachers, and what I imagine would have been his unusually heartfelt and genuine love for others.

I said earlier that around the age of twelve, a child comes to know things as objective reality. He can reason abstractly, following the universal laws of valid inference. Once this developmental change had occurred in him, Jesus surely recognized his divinity not just implicitly but explicitly; and I can imagine he would feel compelled by his will to act, to go to the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem to teach.

This is exactly what Jesus did at the age of twelve in the story (and the mystery) of the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:43-49). Read this story and see that Jesus was found with his teachers “listening to them and asking questions (interrogantem),” and that “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding (prudentia) and his answers.” As a psychologist and a devotee of Latin, I have to comment on the intellectual maturity that these two Latin words imply. These are serious psychological capacities. Jesus has acquired the ability to reason hypothetically, in syllogisms. He has clearly attained the fullness of human capacity for knowing, but I hope I have described in this column that this capacity did not arrive fully formed. It was grounded thoroughly in the knowledge of the infant Jesus, and the child Jesus. His fully articulated knowledge did not replace or contradict his earlier knowledge, it completed and perfected them.

May our LORD be radiantly evident in our hearts and in our minds in the upcoming Christmastide, and may we be ever more humbled and blessed that our God took upon himself our human nature out of sheer love for us to show us who we really are and what we are capable of becoming.

*Carey, Susan. (2009). The origin of concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

© 2013 Jeff McLeod.  All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He works as a data scientist, researcher, statistician, psychometrician, and software developer. His passion is to express the tenets of Catholicism without compromise, faithful to the magisterium, in confident dialog with the modern world. In his spare time he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and teaches at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in St. Paul. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 25 years and share their home with two exceedingly accomplished children.

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