Was Jesus ever ignorant of his mission? That just isn’t Catholic doctrine

Jesus and the Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet

Could Jesus be ignorant and need to learn from others? The question comes up whenever Catholics go to Sunday Mass and hear Matthew 15:21-28 (as they did a few weeks ago). It’s the scene where a Canaanite woman approaches the Lord and begs him to cure her daughter of a demon. Initially not answering her, Jesus delivers a seemingly striking rebuke: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel … It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Of course, he eventually accedes to her request and heals her daughter, but only after she demonstrates her faith in his divinity by calling him “Lord”.

Some claim that this shows Jesus being taught a lesson. Fr James Martin tweeted: “Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.” Even more audaciously, the official Twitter account for the Maryknoll Missioners actually declared: “Jesus was part of his culture: prejudiced against Canaanites. But he allowed a foreign woman to expand his views. Do we?”

Sadly, many Catholics will have heard similar claims from the pulpit. To claim that Jesus was part of his culture, and limited in his understanding, is a favourite argument of those who want women to be admitted to the priesthood. Jesus’s culture was sexist, they say, so it’s understandable that he would not ordain women.

But the idea that Jesus did not understand his mission in its fullness contradicts both the Catholic understanding of Jesus’s divinity and humanity, and the way the Church’s tradition has understood the Gospels.

Christ’s two natures

Fr Martin claims that Christ, in his human nature, was ignorant of his divine mission – that’s why he had to learn from the Canaanite woman. When challenged, Fr Martin said that his critics risked falling into the ancient heresy of Docetism, which denied Jesus’s human nature.

Fr Martin is right to say that the Church has condemned Docetism. But what else does the Church teach? In the 5th century, the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, followed by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, solemnly defined the dogma that Jesus Christ is one divine person with two natures: a divine nature that he has from all eternity, and the human nature which he assumed in time. Chalcedon specifically declared that in the Divine Person of Christ the human nature and the divine nature were united “without confusion or change, without division or separation”.

Chalcedon emphasises this unity: “He is not split or divided into two Persons, but he is one and the same only begotten Son, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The radical problem of assertions like the ones made by Fr Martin and the Maryknoll Missioners is that by ascribing such ignorance (or sinfulness) to the humanity of Christ, they necessarily separate his human nature from his divine nature by creating two personalities. If what they say is true, then on the one hand we are confronted with an ignorant Christ in his humanity; on the other hand, we are bound to believe that he is the Word of God who has a divine nature that itself is all-knowing and all-powerful.

Are we to assume, therefore, that the one Divine Person – the Son of God – sometimes chooses to act in his humanity and at other times chooses to act in his divinity? It’s absurd on the face of it: the Lord neither exhibits multiple personality disorder nor does he ever indicate that at one moment he is acting as God and at another acting as man. The Divine Person assumes a human nature for the sake of his mission to redeem and restore humanity to a relationship with divinity. The Son does not lose “access” to his divine nature during his earthly ministry, or we wouldn’t be able to say that the two natures are united in him without confusion, change, division or separation.

This doesn’t mean Christ’s human mind knows everything his divine mind does: it is a legitimately disputed question, for example, whether Christ’s human nature enjoyed the beatific vision of the divine while he walked this earth. No human mind can know the infinite truth that the divine mind knows because every human mind is limited. So even if Christ’s human nature participated in the beatific vision in a perfect way, his human mind could still not contain the fullness of infinite truth known to the divine mind.

But this is a separate matter: the human mind can fully understand Christ’s mission, and Christ never lacked this knowledge. As the Catechism (CCC 473) says, “The knowledge of Christ’s human nature expressed the divine life of his person” and was manifest in those many Gospel passages where a) Christ reveals an intimate knowledge of God; and b) is able to penetrate into the secret thoughts of human hearts. Interpretations such as the one Fr Martin offered have to contend with the fact that throughout the Gospels Christ seems to know things that no mere human can. Is he only then turning to his divine nature? If so, then we’re back to the problem of split personality and separated natures.

The Catechism thus asserts: “Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal”. That is, Christ’s human knowledge knew everything that pertained to the eternal plans of his divine nature – plans he shared with the other two Divine Persons: the Father and the Holy Spirit. And when he does not reveal anything with regard to those plans (such as the time and date of his return), it’s not because he is ignorant but only because he is not meant to reveal them (CCC 474).

Thinking with the Church

How, then, are we to understand this particular Gospel passage? Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is instructive. We interpret the Sacred Scriptures attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture, within the living tradition of the whole Church, and in harmony with the whole of the faith.

We simply cannot take a single verse or a single passage of the Gospel, read it, interpret it and preach it in isolation from the rest of the Scriptures, from the faith we hold to be true, and outside the living tradition of the whole Church. To do so is to reduce the richness of Divine Revelation to isolated allocutions unconnected to the larger narrative of salvation history. In short, it is to become fundamentalists of a modern variety along the lines of the liberal Protestants who emerged in the late 19th century.

If we look at certain passages in isolation, we can be misled. For instance, doesn’t Christ say of the Second Coming that “even the Son” doesn’t know the hour? Doesn’t Luke’s Gospel say that Our Lord “grew in wisdom”?

These passages didn’t present an inscrutable problem for the Christians of previous generations. Without exception, the Church Fathers, the saints and any magisterial document recognise that Christ was always aware of his universal mission in both his humanity and in his divinity.

All of these difficult passages are consistently interpreted by the Church Fathers, the saints, and believing scholars by giving preference to the fact that Jesus Christ cannot be understood as though he were another human person. He’s not; he’s a divine person. In his divinity, the Lord once made clear to the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” We approach the difficult words of Christ with the well-founded assumption that what seems like ignorance and sin in him cannot be so.

So St Cyril, for instance says that Christ “increased in wisdom” in the sense that it was manifested more to others. As for the hour of the Second Coming, St Jerome, St Augustine and the whole tradition of the Church say that Christ did know the hour, and his words should be taken as meaning that he will not yet reveal it.

The same principles apply with the Canaanite woman. St John Chrysostom is emblematic here. Knowing that Christ in his earthly ministry knew the hearts of men (something no mere human person or human mind could know), he insists that Christ knew what the woman was going to say, and wanted the depth of her humility, perseverance and faith to be revealed in all its glory. Faith, after all, comes from God. The Divine Person of the Son knew her faith, and rewarded it even as such faith and humility put to shame the faith and humility of his disciples.

Would that we all might beg to be dogs eating scraps that fall from the table of God.

Fr Thomas Petri OP is dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. He tweets @PetriOP