The Magisterium and the Human Knowledge of Christ

A new movie has stirred up controversy about Jesus’ human knowledge. What has the Church traditionally taught on the subject, and how is the teaching expressed today?

The recent film The Young Messiah has raised the question of what Jesus understood in his human knowledge.

I have not seen the film and have no interest in defending it. However, the controversy it has occasioned needs to be addressed, for the question of Christ’s human knowledge has a more complicated history than many suppose.

This subject provides an illustration of why it is often important to look not just at individual statements of theologians and the Magisterium but at the whole history of how a doctrine has been handled.

To look at that history, we will start at the beginning.

The New Testament

The New Testament contains passages indicating Jesus was both God (John 1:1, Titus 2:13, 1 Pet. 1:1) and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

It also contains passages indicating that he knew things beyond ordinary human knowledge (Mark 14:30, John 1:18, 1:48, 2:25, 4:17-18, 6:46) and that he grew in knowledge (Luke 2:52, 8:43-48, John 11:34).

It even contains a passage where he seems to say that the Father knows something he does not (Mark 13:32).

How can we understand these passages in light of each other?

A starting point

Part of the solution is obvious: Since Jesus was God, he has a divine knowledge that is infinite. As God, he is omniscient.

What about as man? The Christological controversies of the early centuries established that Jesus is fully God and fully man, which means that he has a complete human nature, including a human soul.

It is easy to explain the superhuman knowledge Jesus displayed by appealing to the union of his human nature with his divine nature: information he knew by divine omniscience was imparted to his human soul.

How much knowledge was imparted in this way?

The Church Fathers

It may surprise some modern readers, but the Church Fathers’ opinion on this question was mixed.

This is revealed by their comments on Mark 13:32, where toward the end of his prophetic discourse, Jesus says, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Some Church Fathers took this as a straightforward indication that the Son did not know the day or hour in his human knowledge.

Thus St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 140-c. 202), combatting Gnostics who claimed to know all divine mysteries, wrote, “even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment” and that “the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only” (Against Heresies 2:28:6).

Combatting Arians, St. Athanasius (c. 295-373) wrote that, as the Word, Christ knew all things but, as man, did not know the time of the end:

He knows also the hour of the end of all things, as the Word, though as man he is ignorant of it, for ignorance is proper to man, and especially ignorance of these things. Moreover this is proper to the Savior’s love of man; for since he was made man, he is not ashamed, because of the flesh which is ignorant, to say “I know not,” that he may show that knowing as God, he is but ignorant according to the flesh. (Discourses Against the Arians 3:43)

St. Gregory of Nazianz (c. 330-c. 389), similarly wrote that “everyone must see that he knows as God, and knows not as man” and that “we are to understand the ignorance in the most reverent sense, by attributing it to the manhood, and not to the Godhead” (Orations 30:15).

It is worth noting that Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianz are not only Fathers but also Doctors of the Church.

Others, however, disagreed. Fathers—and Doctors!—such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great were on the other side of the question, and their view came to dominate the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages

In this period, it became common to divide Christ’s human knowledge into three categories:

·         Beatific knowledge (knowledge derived—both of God and of created things—from Christ’s experience in this life of the beatific vision)

·         Infused knowledge (knowledge supernaturally infused into Christ’s soul in a manner distinct from the beatific vision)

·         Acquired knowledge (knowledge Christ’s human soul acquired in this world by experience)

For discussion of these categories, see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III:9 and Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 162-168.

Christ’s human knowledge was not held to include everything that he knew in his divine knowledge, for it was recognized that God knows things which go beyond what human understanding can grasp. However, it was held to include vastly more than what ordinary people can know in this life.

It was commonly proposed that, while Christ’s divine knowledge included all possible states of affairs—even of worlds God chose not to create—his human knowledge contained information about all actual states of affairs—everything past, present, and future in the real world.

Though Christ already knew vast numbers of things by his beatific and infused knowledge, it was important to recognize Christ’s acquired knowledge to do justice to Luke’s statement that Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), for only his acquired knowledge could increase. His beatific knowledge and his infused knowledge were held to be static.

Since the latter two included knowledge of all real things, according to this view, Christ actually did know the day and the hour that he said only the Father knew.

In saying he did not know, this view holds, he used a mental reservation. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia lists the traditional explanations of what he meant as: “The Son has no knowledge of the judgment day which he may communicate; or, the Son has no knowledge of this event, which spring from his human nature as such, or again, the Son has no knowledge of the day and the hour, that has not been communicated to him by the Father” (s.v., “Knowledge of Jesus Christ”).

Though theologians in this period had different nuances to their proposals, the idea that Christ did not have human knowledge of any actual states of affairs went virtually unchallenged until the Modernist controversy.

The Modernist controversy

In the late 19th century, Catholic authors such as Alfred Loisy began a theological controversy which called into question numerous Catholic teachings.

Modernism had a wide-ranging agenda, and among the subjects it raised was Christ’s human knowledge. Indeed, modernists went beyond this and even challenged the divinity of Christ.

The response of the Magisterium was firm, and in 1907 the Holy Office (later renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF) issued a decree that rejected as erroneous the proposition that “Christ did not always possess the consciousness of his Messianic dignity” (Lamentabili 35).

Similarly, on June 5, 1918 the Holy Office issued a decree in which it declared that certain propositions regarding the knowledge of the soul of Christ could not “be safely taught.”

One unsafe proposition was that it is uncertain that “the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing, but from the beginning knew all things in the Word, past, present, and future, or all things that God knows by the knowledge of vision [i.e., of all real states of affairs]” (DS 3646).

The Holy Office thus mandated the teaching of the opposite, safe position—i.e., that it is certain Christ’s soul had this knowledge.

Pius XII

A remarkable thing about the history of this question is the extent to which it was handled below the papal level.

A check of sources like Denzinger’s famous compendium of papal and conciliar statements, the Pierian Press’ collection of encyclicals from the rebirth of the genre in 1740, and Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma reveals very few papal statements.

Apart from a letter by Gregory the Great to the patriarch of Alexandria from the year 600 (DS 474), where he sided with the view that would become dominant in the Middle Ages, we find no papal statements until 1943.

Then Pius XII endorsed the view that Jesus had superhuman knowledge in his soul by the beatific vision from the womb onward, stating: “Hardly was he conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when he began to enjoy the beatific vision” (Mystici Corporis 75).

However popular the idea that Jesus had the beatific vision through his whole earthly life had been among theologians, this appears to be the first time a pope endorsed it in an encyclical.

The only repetition of the statement was also by Pius XII, who in 1956 stated that Christ had “the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused” (Haurietis Aquas 56).

Together, these represent the magisterial high-water mark of the idea, for—as we will see—the Magisterium subsequently took a different tack.

Subsequent discussion

Catholic theology frequently takes a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach.

Sometimes the Magisterium initially warns that a position goes too far but later acknowledges a partial truth that its advocates expressed.

After the initial assault of Modernism had been repelled—with its questioning of the divinity of Christ—the Magisterium began to entertain proposals by more moderate theologians—many of whom advocated the theological principle of Ressourcement, which sought to focus greater attention on biblical and patristic sources.

In what follows, note how different the approach is from the one previously used. This shift is significant because the easy thing for a body affiliated with the Holy See to do is to simply repeat what has come before.

It is easier to say “it has already been established that Christ had the beatific vision his whole life, and thus knew everything actual—past, present, and future” than it is to strike out on a new course and articulate something different.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission

In 1984 the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) issued a document stating that during his earthly life Jesus “grows more and more in the awareness of the mission entrusted to him by the Father, from his childhood up to his death on the cross” (Instruction on Scripture and Christology 2:2:1:3b).

This statement that Jesus grew in his awareness of his mission between his childhood and death does not indicate what level of awareness he had at what time, but it does indicate growth.

This is strikingly different from previous statements, which were not prepared to say that Christ grew in his understanding of his mission. It also indicates a shift in thinking on this subject that we will continue to see unfold.

At this point in its history, the PBC was not an organ of the magisterium, but an advisory body run under the auspices of the CDF.

However, its statement indicates a permitted view among Catholic scholars, as illustrated by the fact that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was then the head of the CDF and the PBC and approved the release of this document (cf. Paul VI, Sedula Cura 10-11).

The International Theological Commission

Another advisory body run under the auspices of the CDF is the International Theological Commission (ITC).

Like the PBC, it is not an organ of the Magisterium, but it does have the prefect of the CDF as its head, and prior to publication its documents are submitted to the pope and the CDF and published “on condition that there is not any difficulty on the part of the Apostolic See” (John Paul II, Tredecim Anni 11-12). Its statements thus represent permitted Catholic opinions.

Between 1979 and 1985, the ITC published a series of three documents on Christology that touched on different aspects of Christ’s human knowledge. The most relevant was the last, The Consciousness of Christ Concerning Himself and His Mission.

The document defends four theses, which can be summarized as follows:

1.       Jesus knew that he was God and the Son of God.

2.       Jesus knew his mission.

3.       Jesus intended to found the Church.

4.       Jesus loved all mankind “in a mysterious way” that allows each individual to say that he “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Several aspects of this document indicate how far the theological ground has shifted.

First, the theses are defended using biblical rather than theological arguments. The document expressly sets aside the theological arguments previously developed to explain the consciousness of Christ.

It states that the theses “are placed at the level of what the Faith has always believed about Christ. They expressly avoid theological elaborations calculated to give an account of this datum of faith. There is, then, no reference to attempts to give theological formulation as to how such a consciousness could have been articulated within the humanity of Christ.”

Second, the document only asserts Jesus’ knowledge regarding the four theses. It does not make broader claims, such as him knowing all real states of affairs.

Third, it does not specify when he came to know these things.

Fourth, it makes no reference to him having the beatific vision in this life.

The fact that the ITC took such a different approach to this subject than the one previously worked out by theologians indicates that a major re-thinking of the question, beginning with the data of Scripture, was underway.

The fact Cardinal Ratzinger—then head of the CDF and the ITC—approved the document indicates that “there is not any difficulty on the part of the Apostolic See” with this re-thinking.

John Paul II

The claim Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision in this life always faced a challenge in that the beatific vision involves a supreme joy in which every tear is wiped away, “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

How could Jesus enjoy this vision and still endure the sufferings of this life, and particularly the anguish of his Passion?

Proposals were made for how the two could be reconciled, but the issue remained keenly felt by some theologians.

This may have been one of the factors that led John Paul II to articulate a different understanding, according to which he spoke of the soul of Jesus entering into the beatific vision after death—just as we do:

Through the ineffable mystery of death the soul of the Son came to enjoy the glory of the Father in the communion of the Spirit. … The evangelist John says that Jesus “gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). Matthew says “he gave up the spirit” (Mt 27:50). Mark and Luke say that “he breathed his last” (Mk 15:37; Lk 23:46). Jesus’ soul entered into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity. (General Audience, December 7, 1988)

Commenting on Jesus’ “descent into hell,” the Pontiff remarked that Jesus was “buried in the tomb as regards the body, but glorified in his soul, which had been admitted to the fullness of the beatific vision of God” and that “with the entrance of Christ’s soul into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity, the ‘freeing from imprisonment’ of the just who had descended to the realm of the dead before Christ, finds its point of reference and explanation” (General Audience, January 11, 1989).

Although not on the level of an encyclical, these statements represent an exercise of the papal Magisterium.

The Catechism

The 1992 release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church continued this trajectory.

The Catechism makes no mention of Jesus having the beatific vision in this life. The threefold division of Christ’s human knowledge into beatific, infused, and acquired knowledge is absent, and the subject is treated from a different angle.

In its section on the human knowledge of Christ the Catechism begins by saying:

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.” (CCC 472)

It also says his human knowledge “expressed the divine life of his person” because of his human nature’s “union with the Word” (CCC 473). It does not determine the matter more precisely.

Most significantly, the Catechism states:

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 474)

This reflects the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was appointed a cardinal by John Paul II precisely because of his theological contributions, though he died before he could be formally invested.

Von Balthasar proposed that in his human knowledge Christ supernaturally knew not all real states of affairs but specifically what pertained to his mission (see, esp., his book Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 163-202).

The Catechism reflects this, stating that Christ’s human knowledge contained whatever pertained to “the eternal plans he had come to reveal.”

It then indicates that he did not know at least some things that fell outside these bounds, referring to “what he admitted to not knowing in this area” (i.e., the area of God’s eternal plans, referred to in the previous sentence) and stating that “he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal” these things.

A footnote for this sentence in the Catechism refers to Mark 13:32 and Acts 1:7—the first passage being where Jesus says that the Son does not know the day and hour his prophecies would be fulfilled and the second being one where he tells the disciples it is not for them to know the times set by the Father.

The Catechism is here taking a different tack than prior theologians who argued that Jesus really did know the time but was using a mental reservation when he said that the Son did not.

The statement that Jesus “admitted to not knowing” (Latin, ignorare agnoscit; literally, “he admits to not know”) indicates a real admission. Jesus is not evading but admitting.

Read in context, the reason is clear: Christ’s human knowledge contained the eternal plans he had come to reveal. He had not come to reveal that part of the eternal plans. Therefore, he did not know it—and admitted it.

The Catechism—which is an exercise of the magisterium—thus appears to be endorsing a position similar to that proposed by Saints Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nazianz.

This is in keeping with the Ressourcement of 20th century Catholic theology, which sought to retrieve views that had been advocated by Church Fathers but were lost in the Middle Ages.

Benedict XVI

One leader of the Ressourcement was Joseph Ratzinger, who belonged to the same theological circles as von Balthasar. His thought on Christ’s knowledge is along the same lines.

We have already seen that as the head of the CDF he directed the PBC and approved its document stating that Christ grew in his understanding of his mission. He also directed the ITC and approved its 1985 document on the consciousness of Christ, which indicated that a major re-thinking of the question was underway.

He further directed the writing of the Catechism and went over it line-by-line before publication.

More recently, he commented on the young Christ’s growth in wisdom:

And yet it is also true that his wisdom grows. As a human being, he does not live in some abstract omniscience, but he is rooted in a concrete history, a place and a time, in the different phases of human life, and this is what gives concrete shape to his knowledge. So it emerges clearly here that he thought and learned in human fashion. (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 3, 127)

This is different than the portrait of Jesus endorsed by theologians from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, whereby Jesus had beatific and infused knowledge of all real affairs from conception and then learned some of them again, in a parallel fashion, by experience.

Of course, as Pope Benedict famously pointed out at the beginning of the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, the series is not an exercise of the Magisterium. However, the fact a then-sitting pope wrote this, even in a private work, indicates the theological shift that had occurred on this issue.


The picture that emerges from these data points is of a shift away from the medieval consensus and a return to streams of thought found among the Church Fathers.

Our own age is like theirs in that orthodox theologians are split. Some, such as von Balthasar and Ratzinger, have held Christ’s human knowledge was more restricted than the previous consensus did. Others, such as the late Father William Most, defend the more expansive understanding of Christ’s human knowledge.

The latter is still a possibility, for the Magisterium has not condemned that view. At the same time, there has been a marked shift in the way the Magisterium treats the subject, as illustrated in the Catechism, the audiences of John Paul II, and the approval of the PBC and ITC documents we’ve reviewed.

If advocates of the traditional position are still free to propose their view, they cannot count on the support of the Magisterium in the same way or advance their arguments as if nothing has changed.

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About Jimmy Akin 0 Articles
Jimmy Akin is a well-known author and speaker. His works include The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church and Mass Revision: How the Liturgy Is Changing and What It Means for You. He is the senior apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live." He blogs at