The Problem of Jesus’ Increase in Wisdom
“Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
These words conclude Luke’s backstory to the Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry. They connect the infancy narrative up to his appearance in the temple at age twelve, with his baptism, which as (only) Luke tells us, took place when Jesus “was about thirty years” (Luke 3:23).
Few of us linger on this verse. We want to get on with the story. But in the early church it garnered a lot of attention. Early Christians spent a lot of time sorting out how to speak about Jesus as divine and human at the same time. The notion that Jesus could “increase in wisdom” broke this question wide open.
The Arian heretics rejected the divinity of Christ. They insisted that Jesus was a created being, and was not “of one being with the Father,” as the creed put it. For them, the fact that Jesus needed to “increase in wisdom” like any other human being proved the point. If Jesus were truly divine, all knowledge would have been uploaded from the instant of his appearance in time and space, but Luke seems explicitly to deny that this was so.
By contrast, for orthodox Christians, Jesus’ need to “increase in wisdom” seems to have been an embarrassment to be explained away. In the 2nd Century, Theophilus of Antioch, wrote, “Not that He became wise by making progress, but that by degrees He revealed His wisdom,” suggesting that Jesus did not really grow incrementally wiser in an objective sense, but only in the perception of others.
Even one of the clearest-minded of the Church Fathers, Cyril of Alexandria, hedged on this point,
“As His body grew little by little, in obedience to corporeal laws, so He is said also to have increased in wisdom, not as receiving fresh supplies of wisdom, for God is…entirely perfect in all things, and altogether incapable of being destitute of any attribute suitable to the Godhead: - but because God the Word gradually manifested His wisdom proportionably to the age which the body had attained.”
Again, there is not an objective increase in wisdom, it is just that the limitations of Jesus’ physical nature determined its gradual manifestation.
During this period the Church vigorously affirmed the integrity of Jesus’ humanity alongside his divinity. As Gregory of Nazianzus said, “that which is not assumed cannot be redeemed.” If Jesus has not taken upon himself the entirety of our human nature, then our humanity remains unredeemed and we are, as Paul said, “still in our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Yet when it came to the Biblical statement that Jesus grew wiser over time like any other human being, many early Christians found this impossible to reconcile with Jesus’ divinity.
In the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas offered a different approach. He distinguished three types of knowledge available to Jesus. There was an “infused knowledge” as well as “the beatific knowledge of Christ’s soul” - both of which we might think of non-discursive or non-verbal awareness of his participation in the Trinitarian being. But there is also the knowledge that Jesus acquired by means of what Aquinas calls the “active intellect” like any other human being, knowledge that is verbal and discursive.
"Acquired knowledge is held to be in Christ’s soul, by reason of the active intellect, lest its action, which is to make things actually intelligible, should be wanting; It is written: “Jesus advanced in wisdom…”; Now human wisdom is that which is acquired in a human manner, i.e. by the light of the active intellect. Therefore, Christ advanced in this knowledge."
Of these various interpretations of Luke 2:52, only Aquinas does justice to Luke’s implication that Jesus shared in our human limitations yet without undermining his full divinity. Only Aquinas’ view is consistent with the Apostle Paul’s description of Jesus’ divine self-emptying, “though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-8).
How does Jesus know about his impending death?
Why is this important? In recent blogs I have been speaking about the cross. Inevitably, the issue arises of Jesus’ foreknowledge of his death. Not only does he often hint at his impending crucifixion, as when he says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” he also explicitly predicts his own death: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).
Some scholars have questioned whether Jesus truly anticipated his own death. They say that such passages are the result of the Church ascribing words to Jesus after the fact. There are interpreters who deny that Jesus thought of his death as an atoning sacrifice. This, they say, is the theology of the church, and notably of the Apostle Paul, written back into the story of Jesus. Some years back, the rector of a prominent church in California wrote, “institutionalized Christianity has taught a theology that disagrees with Jesus. Rather than seeing God with a powerful eagerness to forgive simply because of the nature of God’s love, which has no need for bloodthirsty sacrifices, the church has often expressed a competing theology…referred to as ‘substitutionary sacrificial atonement.’”
Traditional Christians would take this statement as a flat contradiction of what the scripture actually says - and rightly so. In regard to such skepticism within the guild of scholars, one can’t help but think of what Festus says to Paul, “your great learning is turning you mad” (Acts 26:24).
On the other hand, if we were to ask most traditional Christians, “how did Jesus know that he would die, or that his death would be a redemptive act,” the answer would inevitably be something like, “Well, Jesus is God, isn’t he?” Certainly, that is true, but what is the nature of his foreknowledge, if Jesus acquired knowledge as we do, gradually over time and through experience? Without denying the possibility of divinely revealed “supernatural” revelation - what my charismatic friends call “Words of Knowledge” - I believe that God’s normative means of divine guidance is more “incarnational.” It is the work of the Holy Spirit working inwardly in the course of ordinary human experience.
I propose that Jesus “grew in knowledge” through the regular everyday pattern of reading the scriptures. In this, he exercised the “active intellect,” typical of all of us in our humanity. At the same time, he had what Aquinas called “the beatific knowledge of Christ’s soul” - functionally, his perfect relationship with the Father, present from beginning, prior to his human capacity to verbalize it. This allowed the Holy Spirit unerringly to guide him in his scriptural reflection - to bring him to the recognition of his vocation as the one who, as Isaiah said, “was wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities,” and upon whom “the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Jesus’ own words point to how the prophetic words of Isaiah shaped his self-understanding when he quotes Isaiah 53:12, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’” (Luke 22:37).