The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, or so the aphorism goes. Since we are not angels but mortals, our knowledge is mediated through our senses and gained through a discursive process; we do not intellectually perceive anything apart from the object from which idea is abstracted and drawn forth. Were we intellects like the angels, we would be able to grasp the universal and the concrete at once.
But even intellects as great as an the angels’ are not infinite, and there are finally things that they simply cannot know, for one must be God to know them. The angels are as ignorant about the divine essence as we are, for only one who was divine could see it laid open before him in all its infinite and perfect mystery. And as God’s will absolutely coincides with his essence, what God intends and wills to do is, apart from some revelatory act, something to which the divine substance alone is privy.
It is against this background that one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings occurs, a statement which has provoked endless rounds of controversy and emptied oceans of ink:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32 NIV)
The implications for Christian orthodoxy are, of course, immediately obvious. If Trinitarian theology maintains that the Son is one in substance with the Father, and if that unity of substance is predicated upon an absolute co-incidence of attributes, then for the Father to know something that the Son does not (or for the Son to not know something that the Father does) is, well, somewhat problematic for the whole theological edifice.
St. Hilary summarizers precisely why this particular statement is vexing:
Is it credible, that He, Who stands to all things as the Author of their present and future, should not know all things? If all things are through and in Christ, and in such a way through Christ that they are also in Him, must not that, which is both in Him and through Him, be also in His knowledge, when that knowledge, by virtue of a nature which cannot be nescient, habitually apprehends what is neither in, nor through Him ? But that which derives from Him alone its origin, and has in Him alone the efficient cause of its present state and future development, can that be beyond the ken of His nature, through which is effected, and in which is contained, all that it is and shall be? (St. Hilary, On the Trinity, Book 9)
In other words, if everything came into existence through the Son, that ‘everything’ is exhaustive, including time itself. Thus, the Son contains all things within himself, including what has come before, what is now and what is to come, and thus could not help but know it, since he is the cause of its being in the first place.
Theologians are resourceful, and it is therefore not at all surprising that this passage has been met by some of Christian history’s most prominent thinkers. One fascinating aspect of this passage is that there are numerous ways of explaining how it can be reconciled to the orthodox confession of the oneness of the Father and the Son.
For example, some of the church fathers maintained that there was an textual issue. Noticing that Matthew’s parallel account does not include the phrase ‘or the Son’ in many of the extant manuscripts, some (such as St. Ambrose and St. Jerome) maintained that the phrase in Mark was a later insertion. However, while many manuscripts of Matthew do not contain the phrase (even though most modern translations contain it), there are only a handful of manuscripts of Mark that lack it, which caused even most of the earliest commentators to avoid taking that approach.
Figure of Speech
One of the more common explanations (and one taken up by luminaries such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas) is that the term ‘know’ here does not refer to knowledge per se but rather to the revealing of that knowledge. St. Augustine explains by means of other scriptural language:
For He is ignorant of this, as making others ignorant; that is, in that He did not so know as at that time to show His disciples: as it was said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God,” that is, now I have caused you to know it; because he himself, being tried in that temptation, became known to himself… For the Scriptures do not use any other kind of speech than may be found in use among men, because they speak to men. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 1)
According to St. Augustine here, in the case of Abraham God speaks as if he was ignorant and has passed into knowledge, even though it is clear that this is really only a figure of speech rather than positing that God comes to know things by discursive reasoning. St. Augustine would no doubt agree with St. Hilary that since the Son is the source of all that is he could in no way be ignorant of it, and hence his statement here should be taken as a figure of speech as naturally as we do for that of God to Abraham. He expands on this point elsewhere:
I am by no means of opinion that a figurative mode of expression can be rightly termed a falsehood. For it is no falsehood to call a day joyous because it renders men joyous, or a lupine harsh because by its bitter flavour it imparts harshness to the countenance of him who tastes it, or to say that God knows something when He makes man know it (an instance quoted by yourself in these words of God to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God”). Genesis 22:12 These are by no means false statements, as you yourself readily see. Accordingly, when the blessed Hilary explained this obscure statement of the Lord, by means of this obscure kind of figurative language, saying that we ought to understand Christ to affirm in these words that He knew not that day with no other meaning than that He, by concealing it, caused others not to know it, he did not by this explanation of the statement apologize for it as an excusable falsehood, but he showed that it was not a falsehood, as is proved by comparing it not only with these common figures of speech, but also with the metaphor, a mode of expression very familiar to all in daily conversation. For who will charge the man who says that harvest fields wave and children bloom with speaking falsely, because he sees not in these things the waves and the flowers to which these words are literally applied? (St. Augustine, Letter to Oceanus)
There is a certain measure of plausibility to this explanation, but one of the disadvantages is that it requires an equivocation within the text itself. After all, the same deficiency of knowledge seems to be predicated of men, angels and the Son, reserved for the Father alone. While the text could certainly have this meaning, there would appear to be few exegetical clues which would make this obvious, at least to make it a natural reading apart from the theological precondition of what Trinitarianism posits. That is not to say that such a scenario is by any means illegitimate, but rather that it tends to leave a certain amount of ambiguity since we are compelled to understand knowledge in one way for certain beings and the (supposedly) same knowledge another way for others.
The other standard explanation of this passage has recourse to the hypostatic union; how in the person of the Son there are two natures, divine and human, and each nature exercises what is proper to it without mingling with the other. In other words, the human nature of Jesus is completely human, and as such has a limited intellect which naturally cannot know everything.
This understanding has an ancient and luminous pedigree, held by none other than St. Athanasius. The idea here is fairly simple: Jesus’ statement that the Son does not know the day nor the hour refers to the human nature of Jesus, which in and of itself is incapable of knowing such a thing. He explains it this way:
Moreover, after narrating the parable of the Virgins, again He shows more clearly who they are who are ignorant of the day and the hour, saying, ‘Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour Matthew 25:13.’ He who said shortly before, ‘No one knows, no not the Son,’ now says not ‘I know not,’ but ‘ye know not.’ In like manner then, when His disciples asked about the end, suitably said He then, ‘no, nor the Son,’ according to the flesh because of the body; that He might show that, as man, He knows not; for ignorance is proper to man. If however He is the Word, if it is He who is to come, He to be Judge, He to be the Bridegroom, He knows when and in what hour He comes, and when He is to say, ‘Awake, you that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light Ephesians 5:14.’ For as, on becoming man, He hungers and thirsts and suffers with men, so with men as man He knows not; though divinely, being in the Father Word and Wisdom, He knows, and there is nothing which He knows not. In like manner also about Lazarus He asks humanly, who was on His way to raise him, and knew whence He should recall Lazarus’s soul; and it was a greater thing to know where the soul was, than to know where the body lay; but He asked humanly, that He might raise divinely. So too He asks of the disciples, on coming into the parts of Cæsarea, though knowing even before Peter made answer. For if the Father revealed to Peter the answer to the Lord’s question, it is plain that through the Son was the revelation, for ‘No one knows the Son,’ says He, ‘save the Father, neither the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him Luke 10:22.’ But if through the Son is revealed the knowledge both of the Father and the Son, there is no room for doubting that the Lord who asked, having first revealed it to Peter from the Father, next asked humanly; in order to show, that asking after the flesh, He knew divinely what Peter was about to say. The Son then knew, as knowing all things, and knowing His own Father, than which knowledge nothing can be greater or more perfect. (St. Athanasius Four Discourses Against the Arians Book 3.46)
There is a definite advantage to this approach in that one does not have to equivocate about the knowledge (or lack thereof) in this passage. For if the Son’s ignorance is predicated of his humanity, then suddenly the agents in view (men, angels, the Son) are ultimately all created beings, and thus the difficulty is seemingly alleviated. For even if Christ’s human nature could know about the end because of it being revealed by virtue of the hypostatic union, such knowledge would be as unnatural to that nature as to humans or angels.
Another advantage is that it leaves untouched the unity of knowledge between the Son and the Father. After all, if the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God, it would be difficult to predicate any ignorance of him, and that is what many of the church fathers have in view here. This passage can not be understood in isolation but is part and parcel of divine revelation. The Son is clearly said to be one with the Father, to be the Word, and to be, as Sts. Hilary and Augustine have argued, the very one through whom all things have come to be, including time itself.
One final advantage is that there is a convenient correspondence between this explanation and others in which a human aspect of Jesus seems to be in contradiction to his divinity. The agony in the garden is the most prominent example, for even though the Father and the Son are one in being, we see that the Son seems to have a different will than the Father, something that would be impossible if they were truly one in substance. One prominent explanation is that the disjunction of will is that of the human will of Jesus and the divine will of God (and thus the Son). Jesus in his humanity did not wish to die, even though the cross was the Father’s will. Ultimately, the human will of the Son came into oneness with that of the Father, as seen in those famous words “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
Due to this and many other considerations, the two-nature explanation is one of the most common in the modern experience, for it appears to obviate the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ words and Trinitarian orthodoxy.
Notwithstanding the immense theological and historical pedigree, I have always found this explanation somewhat wanting and less than intellectually satisfying. These lingering difficulties make understanding this passage slightly frustrating, for I find myself always wondering what is going on here, and why Jesus would actually say such a thing.
It is incredibly difficult to parse out the two natures in one person, and there seems to be no method for ascribing one thing to the human substance and another to the divine except for reconciling a passage to a theological presupposition. However, surely the purpose of an inspired text is not to serve as a way of reconciling another but rather to reveal something profound.
One of the greatest difficulties I have with there two natures explanation arises from the hierarchy of being that Jesus seems to indicate in this deficiency of knowledge. He begins with humanity, rises to angels, and finally moves on to the Son, all of whom do not know what the Father alone does. The two-nature proposal would seem to go from humanity to angels and back to humanity, which seemingly flies in the face of what is being clearly stated here. referring back to the communication of idioms, while something of a stopgap measure, ultimately does not bring about intellectual harmony in me, most likely a user error.
Needless to say, these questions are not easy to answer.
It wasn’t until I started working my way through Richard of St. Victor’s De Trinitate that another approach opened up, one which has the convenience of finding itself on Jesus’ lips. Richard’s explanation of the Trinitarian relations revolves around the relations of charity-love. Given that charity-love requires another to receive it, and given that God is the fullness of the perfection of charity-love, in God there must necessarily be a plurality of persons among whom this dynamism of charity-love is expressed.
There thus become several movements of charity-love, corresponding to the various persons of the Trinity. The originating movement of charity-love is that where a person loves and desires to be loved in return. The receiving of the fullness of this charity-love results in a reciprocity, in which the receiver loves and wishes to be loved in return. And since this reciprocity of love already exists, a third person completes the circle, so to speak, by receiving this co-love.
The crucial point for the subject at hand is that even in the Trinitarian relations there is a person from whom all the perfections of the Godhead flow and are communicated in their totality. Even the eternal existences of the Son and the Spirit are eternally communicated by and originated from the Father. This distinction in origination underlies the distinction in persons, and for Richard makes intelligible the personal properties that allow God to be one substance but three persons (or existences, in his terminology).
This understanding ultimately illuminates Jesus’ statement about the Son’s supposed deficiency in knowledge in light of his statements of unity with the Father. For we read this elsewhere:
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. (John 5:19-24 NIV)
It can be tempting to read this statement as an admission of helplessness and dependency, but in respect to Jesus’ insistence of unity it is actually a profound admission of that very indissoluble union. The Son can only do what he sees the Father doing not because he is powerless but rather because his very activity is that of the Father.
Understood in this way, one does not have to equivocate on the meaning of knowledge or try and parse out the distinction between the divine and human natures in Jesus. Rather, since Trinitarian orthodoxy asserts that the Son is eternally generated by the Father, and since Jesus himself states that he does what he sees his Father doing, the most natural way of understanding this is- shockingly enough- in exactly the way that Jesus states it.
The Father alone knows because he is the one who is the eternal origination of the Son, certainly not in time but rather in existence. The existence of the Son (Richard of St. Victor’s ex-sistence) is externally originated by the Father, and thus the unity of divine attributes that the Son possesses is something that he has eternally received. Going back to Richard’s conception of the movements of charity-love, The Son possesses charity-love eternally by having eternally received it from the Father; without the Father’s movement of charity-love he would not possess it.
Therefore, as humans and angels cannot know God’s will in this manner because their minds are incapable of perceiving the divine essence and could only know it if God were to reveal it to them, so analogously the Son does not know because he can only know what he has received from the Father.
St. Augustine seems to anticipate this sort of understanding:
It remains, therefore, that these texts are so expressed, because the life of the Son is unchangeable as that of the Father is, and yet He is of the Father; and the working of the Father and of the Son is indivisible, and yet so to work is given to the Son from Him of whom He Himself is, that is, from the Father; and the Son so sees the Father, as that He is the Son in the very seeing Him. For to be of the Father, that is, to be born of the Father, is to Him nothing else than to see the Father; and to see Him working, is nothing else than to work with Him: but therefore not from Himself, because He is not from Himself. And, therefore, those things which “He sees the Father do, these also does the Son likewise,” because He is of the Father. For He neither does other things in like manner, as a painter paints other pictures, in the same way as he sees others to have been painted by another man; nor the same things in a different manner, as the body expresses the same letters, which the mind has thought; but “whatsoever things,” says He, “the Father does, these same things also does the Son likewise.” He has said both “these same things,” and “likewise;” and hence the working of both the Father and the Son is indivisible and equal, but it is from the Father to the Son. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 2.1)
The Son’s mode of receiving charity-love and existence in the Trinitarian communion thus appropriately unites itself to the human nature which receives the totality of its substance from the divine being. In the hypostatic union there is a true union of receiving love and thus of receiving knowledge, and in in this manner Jesus’ statement need not be understood as equivocation or as idiomatic or as referring to a particular nature, since the Son truly receives all he has from the Father.
This somewhat impenetrable mystery thus moves this passage out of the realm of potential embarrassment and into that of absolute profundity, for here in this moment we catch a glimpse of the deep unity between the divine and human natures in the person of the Son.