Raymond Maloney, S.J., a professor of systematic theology at the Milltown Institute, Dublin, accomplishes much in this short book on a vexing issue in the history of theology: the kind of knowledge that Christ possessed and what that knowledge says about the way God became a human being.
The issue of Christ’s knowledge has surfaced throughout the tradition as a problem that has had to be negotiated theologically. The Council of Chalcedon (451) defined the church’s classical confession of faith in the person of Christ in order to condemn deficient beliefs in the Incarnation. Chalcedon affirmed the teaching of Nicea (325) that the incarnate Christ is fully God, one in nature with the Father, and at the same time fully human, one in nature with all of humanity and like human beings in all things except sin. These two naturesdivinity and humanityare united in the one person of the incarnate Christ. But their union does not diminish the integrity of each nature which, in the language of the council, together are preserved "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation."
This definition conveyed the sacramental understanding of salvation that the Cappadocian fathers articulated so compellingly in the late fourth century. The divine nature, in their view, saves what it embraces in the Incarnation. For the Cappadocians and the fathers at Chalcedon, a Christ less than God would neither possess nor offer the power of eternal life, and a Christ fully divine but less than human would not bring that power to all the reaches of human need. Chalcedon’s "two natures" doctrine defined a Christology that has served the tradition as an authoritative touchstone. But it is this same "two natures" doctrine that has framed the problem of Christ’s knowledge. After all, if Jesus does possess the full nature of God, then it would seem that he possesses the eternal and boundless knowledge of God. And if Jesus possesses the full nature of humanity, then it would seem that he possesses the limitations in knowing, even the ignorance, that accompanies human finitude. How can these two subjective traits, infinite and finite knowledge, co-exist in the same inner life?
Maloney is an able guide through this knotty problem. He begins by examining the New Testament evidence that, given the pluralism of its Christologies, can be enlisted to support an all-knowing Jesus or a Jesus for whom the Father’s designs remain shrouded to some degree in mystery. His conclusion that "this is the last issue one should try to settle on the basis of scripture alone" introduces a concise and clear account of the road to Chalcedon and the soteriological purpose of its definition. The fathers at Chalcedon were wary of any Christology that collapsed Christ’s humanity into his divinity (monophysitism) or that separated the natures so as to compromise their real union in the person of Christ (Nestorianism). The problem of Christ’s knowledge was a consequence of their definition, not the issue their definition addressed. The lion’s share of Maloney’s analysis shows how theologians, and occasionally the magisterium, have dealt with this issue, and offers the reader a helpful sketch of speculative solutions in the work of medieval and modern thinkers.
Conversation with three 20th-century Catholic theologiansRahner, von Balthasar and Lonerganallows Maloney to present his own position in the book’s final chapter. All three theologians concede limitation to Christ’s knowledge, while insisting that he possessed a vision of God throughout his earthly life. Maloney judges favorably Lonergan’s proposal that Jesus’ appropriation of this vision occurs in a pre-reflective consciousness immersed in all the limited and developing dimensions of self-awareness. He especially appreciates Rahner’s description of Jesus’ vision of God as "immediate" rather than as "beatific," the latter suggesting a completeness in knowledge in which any real limitation vanishes. Like Rahner, von Balthasar and Lonergan, Maloney advocates a high Christology that nonetheless takes the "emptying" of Incarnation seriously. He wisely concludes that this perennial theological problem offers no certain solution. "[A]t the end of the day," he advises the reader, "the only complete certainty lies in affirming the truth in both sides of the paradox and acknowledging the mystery."
Maloney accomplishes much in a book that intends to present the "state of the question" and a modest constructive response. He succeeds admirably in his project. The book would be well used in the introductory educational venues for which it was written. Its announced purpose from beginning to end is to think along with the tradition on this difficult issue, and there is a real sense in which Maloney does this with reverence. Were I to hunt for a limitation in these pages (for none immediately presents itself), it would be the author’s exclusive efforts to frame the problem of Christ’s knowledge in terms of the Scylla of monophysitism and the Charybdis of Nestorianism, and thus in terms of Chalcedon’s "two natures" doctrine with its inevitable prejudice toward the divinity of the personal union. The authors Maloney cites approvingly all try to account for Christ’s knowledge by espousing a high Christology that yet purports to avoid the errors of monophysitism and Nestorianism, as does Maloney’s proposal. But are there not low Christologies, whether evinced in the New Testament or in contemporary theological offerings, which could speak to this issue while still affirming Chalcedon’s teaching that Jesus is fully God and fully a human being? Maloney seems to think not. I’m not so sure.