Thomas H. from Los Angeles, California, asks:
How can Christ say, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mathew 24:36) when the three parts of the Trinity are one in essence and operate in perfect community/harmony?
We posed the question to Luke Stamps, assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University in the online and professional studies division.
This is an excellent question and one that gets at several important issues related to our basic evangelical commitments. First, as evangelicals we want to take Scripture seriously. When we read a verse like this, we don’t want to airbrush it out of our Bibles or to distort its meaning or blunt its intended force. Often, the most difficult passages are precisely the ones we need to wrestle with in order to disrupt our preconceived notions and comfortable theological solutions.
But second, we as evangelicals also want to take Christian doctrine seriously. Understanding the doctrine of the person of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity involves more than examining one verse of Scripture. The task of theology is systematic; it involves putting together all of the relevant biblical texts—read in their immediate, redemptive-historical, and canonical contexts—and seeking to construct theological models that are a good “fit” for this whole-Bible biblical witness. It also involves giving due regard to the ways in which Christians down through the centuries have wrestled with these issues, paying particular attention to the early church councils that hammered out the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ.
Avoiding Two Errors
So when we come to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36 (and Mark 13:32), we should avoid two opposite errors. On the one hand, we should avoid reading too much into this passage. We would be ill-advised to build an entire model of the incarnation upon a single verse of Scripture or even upon a single Christological theme found in Scripture. It seems to me that this is the kind of mistake made by proponents of kenotic Christology. The kenotic theory of the incarnation takes its name from the Greek word for “empty” (kenoō) in Philippians 2:7: “But he emptied himself taking the form of a servant.” According to the kenotic theory, God the Son had to surrender certain divine attributes (or at least the exercise of those attributes) in order to become incarnate and thus live a genuinely human life. So the kenotic theory has a ready answer to the question of Jesus’ ignorance of the “day and hour”: the Son simply gave up his omniscience (or at least any functional access to his omniscience) when he became incarnate.
Well-meaning Christians can disagree on this point, but in my estimation the kenotic theory falters on several fronts, both biblical and theological, which we don’t have space to explore here. In brief, I would simply suggest that divinity is not the sort of thing that can be turned on and off, surrendered and reclaimed. Classic Christian theism has argued (rightly, I believe) that God possesses all of his attributes necessarily, not contingently. It is not enough to say that God is omniscient. He is also necessarily omniscient; as the most perfect being, he cannot be otherwise. So if Christ is truly God the Son—one of the three persons in the Holy Trinity—then he simply cannot give up his divine omniscience.
On the other hand, we should also avoid reading too little out of this passage. Unfortunately, some patristic and medieval interpreters made the mistake of explaining this difficult verse by effectively explaining it away. One common interpretation maintained that the Son did not know the day and the hour only in the sense that he did not intend to reveal it to the disciples. So Augustine writes, “He is ignorant of this in the special sense of making others ignorant. He did not know it in their presence in such a way as to be prepared to reveal it to them at that time.” In a similar fashion, Thomas Aquinas writes, “He is said, therefore, not to know the day and the hour of the judgment, for that he does not make it known, since, on being asked by the apostles (Acts 1:7), he was unwilling to reveal it.” Thomas goes on claim that the Father’s knowledge of the day and hour, which is clearly affirmed in Matthew 24:36, strongly implies the Son’s knowledge as well, given the intimate relationship between Father and Son. And, for Thomas, this knowledge inheres not simply in the divine nature of the Son but also in his human nature. So when the Son claims that he does not know the timing of his second coming, we simply cannot take his words at face value as if they implied any real ignorance on his part. But surely such a tortuous reading the text is exegetically unsatisfying. It requires us to interpret Jesus’ words against the grain of their apparent meaning.
Holding Humanity and Divinity Together
If the kenotic approach is insufficient and the Augustinian-Thomistic reading is unsatisfying, how then should we interpret Jesus’ claim to ignorance, especially in relation to his status as God the Son—one of the Holy Trinity? I think John Calvin’s treatment of this passage offers a more satisfying interpretation—one that gives full play to the genuine human limitations of Christ and, at the same time, preserves his full divinity. In short, Calvin seeks to read Jesus’ words here in light of Christ’s two natures and in light of his role as the mediator. Consider Calvin’s explanation:
For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of mediator. There would be no impropriety, therefore in saying that Christ, who knew all things (John 21:17), was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us (Hebrews 2:17).
Notice that, for Calvin, the Son does not surrender his divine attributes in order to become a human being. Instead, each nature “retained its own properties.” To be sure, during Jesus’ earthly ministry his divinity was “in repose,” or, as the Latin version of Calvin’s commentary puts it, “the divine nature was kept, as it were, concealed; that is, did not display its power.” But the divine nature was not lost or even turned off, so to speak, during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Instead it was hidden, or concealed. Thus Calvin suggests a kryptic Christology (from the Greek, krypsis, “concealing”) rather than a kenotic Christology (for more on krypsis as a Christological category, see Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity, 118-53).
But notice also that Calvin clearly affirms the real human limitations placed upon Christ in his earthly ministry as the mediator. For Calvin, both omniscience and ignorance can be attributed to the same person at the same time: “There would be no impropriety, therefore, in saying that Christ, who knew all things, was ignorant of something in respect to his perception as a man” (emphasis added). The key is the hypostatic (i.e. personal) union of two distinct natures in Christ. In his divinity, Christ knows all things, but in his humanity, Christ was limited in knowledge. Attributes from each of the two natures can be predicated of the one person of Christ, but the natures retain their integrity; they are not changed or blended together. In his interpretation, Calvin is simply providing a faithful rendering of the Christological consensus established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
So, to bring the matter back to Matthew 24:26, we can say that, in his humanity, Christ was limited in knowledge, and at that point in his earthly ministry, the Father had not yet revealed the day of judgment to the Son in and through his human mind. But at the same time, I think we can say that, in his divinity, the Son of God most certainly did know the day and the hour of the final judgment. How can we say otherwise, if Christ remains divine?
No doubt, this solution doesn’t answer all of our questions. We want to know how this position can be defended as logically coherent. How does it actually work for a single person to be both omniscient and limited in knowledge? If we don’t adopt the kenotic model, what model can make logical sense out of this conundrum? To be sure, there are better and worse answers to these difficult questions. For my own part, I think a compositional model of the incarnation is most promising—one that distinguishes logically between the Son of God as such and the incarnate Christ, who comprises the Son of God and the concrete human nature (including a discrete human mind), which he assumed in the incarnation. (For those interested in learning more about compositional models, see the first several chapters in this volume.)
At any rate, affirming the biblical witness to the incarnation is more important than being able to articulate a metaphysical model that can make sense of it. What Calvin said of the divine essence can also be said of the mystery of the hypostatic union: It is “rather to be adored than inquired into.”