Ignorance and Omniscience: A Brief Thought Experiment on Jesus’ Knowledge as God and Man

Chalcedonianism–as translated by Marvel Comics

“No one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Mt 24:36 and parallels.)

One of the basic paradoxes of the Incarnation is the idea that the Son, who is omniscient (being God) is also, at the same time, as man, limited in knowledge.  This paradox of course can be transferred to other attributes (power, presence, etc…) but for the purposes of this post, the paradox of knowledge comes primarily to the fore.  How can Christ, as God, both know all things, yet as man need to learn?  There are of course a very interesting historical array of solutions.  Most recently so-called Kenotic theories following the German theologians Thomasius and Gess, which also invoke various forms of social trinitarianism (along the lines of Moltmann, Plantinga, Swinburn, Brown et al) suggest that divine attributes are themselves modified by their distribution amongst the inter-relations of the Trinitarian persons, so that strictly speaking it is feasible many of the attributes are not “essential” or ideographic properties that must be identically possessed by each of the three persons.  Rather, because of perichoretic distribution of the attributes, if the Son for example divests himself of omnipotence (or in this specific example, omniscience) given the identities of the Trinity still mutually inter-relate and are dependent upon the others for their identities, attributes like omniscience are not a sine qua non for deity as long as at least one of the persons possess them in relation to the others.  This comes with an array of problems, however, though I will not discuss them now.

Can the classical concept of omniscience be reconciled with this dilemma? For now, I want to bracket-out the basic “Chalcedonian” answer that I am in full agreement with: namely that Christ’s two natures account for this dilemma.  The thought-experiment that I am about to embark on is not an alternative to Chalcedonianism, but if developed more fully would be an extension of it.  Keeping in mind that this is a thought experiment, and one whose ins-and-outs I have not yet explored, let us begin!

Omniscience by definition is to know all that is possible to know.  The classical Thomist definition names God’s omniscience via God’s knowledge of His own essence and the manifold of possible finite participations in that essence.  Which is to say God knows all there is to know by knowing Himself in a simple act of intuition.  Putting aside for this thought experiment the difficulties that Aristotle himself noted regarding the possibility of knowledge regarding future contingents (which both Open Theists and neo-Molinists like Boyd, Pinnock, and Craig have taken ample opportunity to explore), we must for our purposes note that infinite knowledge is not merely the knowledge of an infinite amount of facts.  Rather knowledge itself is paradigmatic knowledge.  Which is to say that omniscience must not simply include an infinite quantitative amount of data (which God of course knows in the simple act of knowing Himself) but also is an act of knowledge which includes an infinite amount of differing paradigms of organization of that information.  This is a key point which is seldom touched upon.

What does it mean, and why is it key?  Part of the tension in the paradox of Christ’s simultaneous omniscience (as God) and ignorance (as man) comes from the somewhat straightforward juxtaposition of antithetical amounts of data.  One nature knows an infinite quantitative amount of data; the other does not.  When juxtaposed as such, the paradox threatens to become mere incoherence.  We can put aside for the moment that this in part assumes a univocal account of knowledge to focus on the main point of this particular thought experiment which for convenience I will label the Paradigmatic Knowledge Hypothesis (PKH).  This is an ugly term, but lets use it for now.

In PKH God’s omniscience is not just having unlimited and complete knowledge of an unlimited and complete set of data.  Rather God knows all things by knowing all things and knowing how all things might be known.  I hate to talk in symbols but for the sake of simplification:

God (G) is Omniscient if and only if G knows all data sets (D)            and all possible modes (P) of organizing said sets.

What does this mean?  In the form of omniscience which I am critiquing, knowledge is assumed to be fairly flat: that is there is an infinite data set of facts that, if one knows these facts, one is omniscient.  So, one knows Columbus sailed in 1492, that water is H2O, that Lincoln was a president of the Unites States, etc… and cumulatively these constitute in their infinite variety a complete description of omniscience.  But I am arguing with PKH that this is not the whole story.  Omniscience is not merely the unlimited store and access of data.  It is the infinite knowledge of all possible modes of knowledge.  Which is to say that God knows not only an infinite amount of data but an infinite amount of perspectival knowings of that infinite amount of data.

Lets take an example.  God knows what an apple is.  As far as data goes God of course knows all that there is to know: An apple is a fruit that grows on a tree, an apple’s average weight, their colors, their shapes, their growing seasons, life span, origin, etc…  But to constitute omniscience on PKH there is also another mode of infinite knowledge God knows: God knows an apple in the sense that He knows how I know an apple, when in 3rd grade I bit into an apple and got a worm.  He knows an apple as I know an apple from my perspective when my grandmother would bake an apple pie: He knows it as I knew it in its specific connotations–coziness, family, the smell after a fun day at the pool as I now eat it in the shade of a fading summer’s heat.  Which is to say He knows the apple exactly as I knew that disgusting apple in 3rd grade, or the delicious apple pie later on.  He thus knows what it is to know an apple from my finite and limited perspective.  And thus omniscience includes not only all data sets but is also the inclusion of all finite perspectives on all data sets: God knows what it is to know this or that from someone or anothers finite perspective in which they do not know all things.

Or to put it another way: precisely in knowing all things God knows what it is to not know all things in knowing something in particular.  This is not in competition with knowing all sets of facts, but is a necessary compliment to it, a necessary concomitant to God’s omniscience.  In knowing all things God knows what it is to know as I know, when I know very few things.  And this is included in God’s knowledge not as a limitation of omniscience, but precisely in the very act of what it is to be omniscient, part of the essential definition of the act itself.  For limited, contextual perspectival knowing–if it is not merely to be considered a deficient mode of knowledge a priori–is not accidental, but a vital constituent feature of how human knowledge works.  But my perspectival act of knowing “x” is itself, in its phenomenological perspective, in its irreducible first-person singularity, itself part of a total data set of what God must know in his omniscience.  Here, paradoxically, ignorance (or more neutrally: contextual knowledge) is itself necessary corollary to the expression of omniscience, not its antithesis.

How this applies to Christ should hopefully at this point be becoming evident: Christ in being omniscient knows what it is to know all things, and knows them also in this simple act of all-knowing also in all the finite ways that they might be participated in and thus all the finite ways in which things might be known.  Which is to say Christ, in not knowing the time of the end, is not somehow divested of knowledge (as in the kenoticist arguments) but rather in my account of PKH is actually enacting omniscience precisely in the act of not knowing.  This is the logic of infinity.  In knowing all things the Logos knows what it is to know as the particular, finite, Jewish man Jesus.  Thus the infinite act of knowledge is also the finite act of knowing from a particular and bound perspective, since infinite knowledge must also include an act of knowledge that knows what it is to know from a limited perspective.  If omniscience did not include this, it of course would not be infinite but bound by its opposition to a finite instance of knowledge.  It is not.  It rather includes this finite act of knowledge in itself.

Christs ignorance thus does not constitute a contradiction of the Logos’ omniscience, but is predicated on a very specific instance of its exercise

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