Friday, September 09, 2011

Paradoxes of Jesus, Bowman and a Possible Sleight of Hand

On pp. 74-76 of Why You Should Believe in the
, Robert M. Bowman, Jr. includes a section dealing with so-called "paradoxes of Jesus." Bowman seemingly puts a nail in the coffin of non-Trinitarians
(particularly, Jehovah's Witnesses) who think that the Incarnation of Christ concept is notionally meaningless or incoherent (i.e contradictory). Bowman argues that since Christ was both 100% God and 100% man (fully God and fully human) while on earth, we should not be surprised to read Bible verses that picture the Son of God both professing ignorance of the "day and hour" in Mk 13:32 and knowing "all things" in Jn 16:30.

Bowman also contends that while it is true that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) and Jesus could be (and was) tempted in the days of his flesh (Heb 4:15)--Jesus could not sin (Jn 5:19).

There are other texts that Bowman appeals to in order to support the Incarnation as a biblical concept. I pick these two arguments to focus on though because they seem blatantly problematic to me.

Firstly, Jesus' disciples did say that he knew "all things" (OIDAS PANTA) in the Johannine verse mentioned by Bowman (Jn 16:30). As with other biblical texts, however, we must not only note what the Bible says; we must also seek to ascertain what a given scriptural utterance means. Were Jesus' disciples actually saying that they believed he was omniscient? If so, this would be a remarkable confession from a group of first century monotheistic Jews. In fact, it is highly unlikely that Jesus' followers were attributing omniscience to him. Mr. Bowman seems to be engaging in what a friend of mine has called "prestidigitation." His handling of Jn 16:30 does not appear to be all that rigorous, and it is evidently driven by some type of personal ideology. Simply put,
Jn 16:30 does not teach that Christ was or is omniscient.

PANTA is apparently not employed in an absolute sense at Jn 16:30. John's use of the Greek word should be construed in a relative sense, meaning that Christ knew "all things" to a degree. To illustrate what I am saying about Jn 16:30, I appeal to 1 Jn 2:27:


In this passage, John informs his readers that God's "anointing" teaches spirit-begotten Christians about "all things." Yet, John is not employing PANTWN here in an absolute sense. The spirit of God does not teach those whom God anoints about physics, geometry, logic, foreign languages or marine biology. The children of God are taught subject matter that concerns everlasting life or salvation (1 Jn 2:25), not knowledge associated with the famed quadrivium or trivium (et al.).

Trinitarian commentator Gerald Borchert explains Jn 16:30 thus:

They [the disciples] were partly correct in their
assumption that Jesus had great knowledge . . . Their
generalization of how much knowledge Jesus had ('all
things,' PANTA) was, however, a typical human
overstatement that was far beyond their actual
capacity to comprehend. It was merely one of their
assumptions. Such an assumption has often become part
of our theological assumptions about the incarnate
Jesus' knowledge, even though elsewhere, for example,
he states that he did not know the time of the end
(cf. Mark 13:32). Moreover, Paul states that he
'emptied himself' ('made himself nothing,' NIV;
hEAUTON EKENWSEN, Phil 2:7), although we are not quite
sure of the full implications of that statement
(John 12-21, page 180).

In Alford's Greek testament, we read this paraphrase
of Jn 16:30:

Thou hast spoken so clearly of our feeling towards
Thee and of Thyself, that we have no occasion to ask
Thee anything;--and this was what Thou didst announce
would be;--we know therefore, by its being so, that
Thou knowest the secrets of our hearts (PANTA by
inference),--and hence believe that Thou camest forth
from God.'

Notice that Alford limits PANTA to the "secrets" of the disciples' hearts. Bowman may claim that only God can read hearts, but the disciples did not necessarily believe that only God could discern hearts. They affirmed that Christ was "from God" and it is conceivable that they believed Christ had knowledge of human thoughts based on the things he learned from his Father (Jn 7:16-18) In any event, it seems clear that the disciples were not imputing omniscience to Christ. A "great knowledge" of many things or an intimate acquaintance with a vast array of facts does not make one omniscient in the absolute sense of the term. Contra Borchert, I tend to believe that the words of Jn 16:30 simply constitute an idiomatic way to use a Greek term that can mean "all things." It is not necessarily an "overstatement," but Borchert nonetheless illustrates why one need not interpret the text as an apostolic declaration of Christ's omniscience.

As a closing note, has anyone else noticed how problematic it is to use Jn 5:19 as a proof that Christ was sinless or could not sin? The context of the passage is dealing with Christ observing and emulating the works of the Father toward the creation. The text has nothing to do with Christ's ability or inability to sin.



Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Edgar,

I have written a paper defending the omniscience of Jesus:

Biblical Evidence for Jesus' Omniscience, by Cross-Referencing to Parallel Texts Describing the All-Knowing Attributes of God the Father

Edgar Foster said...

Thanks for your input, Dave. I'll read your paper and try to offer a response. Or, if I cannot, maybe one of our readers will.

Best regards,


Dave Armstrong said...

Great. Thanks for posting my link.

God bless you,


Sean Killackey said...

I fail to see how (if) Jesus was omniscient it would prove that he was God. He may have been, but that doesn't mean he was omniscient by himself, but that God gave him that knowledge. Look at Peter's example when he was lied to about the field. He had no way to know that they were lying - unless God gave him that knowledge. So too, it is possible that God gave Jesus that knowledge.

And the statement by Peter at the end of the gospel account, "you know all things" isn't necessarily absolute, but could be similar to the statement given to David, "you are wise like an angel of God and know all things going on in the land."

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Sean,

There may possibly be another way to view this issue, but admittedly, my thinking has usually been that only God (Jehovah) is omniscient in the strict sense of the word. Omniscience is supposed to be a divinely incommunicable attribute, which only Almighty God can instantiate. So if Christ is omniscient, then it would seem that he must be Christ Pantokrator in the strong sense of that term.

Therefore, while I would agree that God could/has given Christ special knowledge, would we call that knowledge "omniscience" in the special theological way that term is normally employed?

Sean Killackey said...

Hi Edgar,

Thanks for the reply. I have a few points, and if you have the time I'd appreciate if you give me your thoughts on them.

Omniscience in the strictest sense would also include what Jehovah is thinking, so I wonder if Jesus knows that, or if he learns what Jehovah is thinking from communication to Jehovah (but even if learns everything that Jehovah is thinking it would't be omniscience, but knowledge given after the fact). I would suppose that Jehovah hasn't given it to Jesus, but there is no way to tell from the scriptures definitively.

And while I made the main point in my last comment to concede a point (tentatively) and still say "this doesn't prove the Trinity" I think I may have "conceded" to much. For Jesus like Jehovah can read hearts and observe us and he knows how all things work and all that has been, but that (I don't think) is the limit of what omniscience is.

So I guess Jesus could be said to be practically omniscient, but (as you said) only Jehovah possesses true omniscience in the strict sense. And whatever power Jesus has comes from God. I would say that we wouldn't call it omniscience, yet as far as it concerns us it is as if he is omniscient.

Although I feel that omniscience (while almost certainly belonging to Jehovah alone) isn't necessarily restricted to Jehovah, at least not based on the scriptures alone. Yet neither is the exact definition of omniscience. But what is said is "by your light we see light."

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Sean,

I appreciate your reply. Jesus probably learns what Jehovah is thinking by means of communicating with his Father (Mt 11:27; Rev 1:1). On earth, he spoke only what his Father taught/had taught him.

If omniscience truly is incommunicable (like omnipotence in the strictest sense or divine holiness), then Jehovah could not give omniscience to Jesus Christ (from a non-Trinitarian perspective); otherwise, it would make Christ fully God like his Father.

Interestingly, in Rev 5:6 (I believe), Christ is said to have seven eyes as the exalted Lamb of God, but these eyes evidently result from the seven spirits of Jehovah empowering him. Compare Zechariah 4:10.

Maybe we could distinguish between weak/thin omniscience (like an "omniscient" narrator in a story) and strong/thick omniscience, which only God possesses. Cf. Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32.

I've long thought that the word "omniscience" is a theological abstraction from scripture anyway. The Bible doesn't use that exact term in the Hebrew-Aramaic or Greek scriptures, but we do learn that God knows all things (in the absolute sense). Richard Swinburne also has a good discussion on God's omniscience. I'll try to look up his definition of the term.

All the best,