Monday, August 01, 2005

"To err is divine"???

The August, 2005, issue of U.S. Catholic (or should I say U.S. Heretic) carries an article by Alice Camille, entitled "To err is divine." A heading beneath the title reads: "Jesus' humanity is an oft-forgotten element of his dual nature." This reminds me of an angle of attack taken frequently by our liberal friend, Fr. Joseph O'Leary, when he would on various occasions accuse non-revisionist, orthodox Catholics of being "docetic." Docetism, of course, is the heresy that denied the full humanity of Christ, which the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) made a clear point of condemning in its assertion of the full humanity of Christ along with His full divinity. What is legitimate here is the claim that Jesus was (and is) fully human. What is precariously speculative is whether or not Jesus, because He was fully human, was not also prone to the common sorts of memory lapses, miscalculations and errors to which all human beings are prone. Assurances are always immediately offered (as one finds also in Camille's article) that we're not talking about peccability (sinfulness) here: nobody is accusing Jesus of falling into sin, they insist. But that still leaves fallibility. Even if Jesus was infallible in his divine nature, was He not perhaps fallible in His human nature? Surely we know from the Gospels that Jesus seems to have expressed ignorance about certain matters that were known only to the Father. So the questioning goes.

Perhaps you can see where this is headed.

O'Leary, for example, suggests (ignoring all the traditional interpretations) that Jesus may have erred in His eschatological thinking, assuming (mistakenly) that His parousia (His return to earth) would occur within the lifetime of the Apostles (Mk 9:1; Mt 10:23). Further, O'Leary claims that Jesus may have erred in the elements of his teaching that gave rise to anti-Jewish supersessionist doctrine (Mk 12:9) and even in His notions of eternal punishment. You see how convenient this is. You don't like a Church doctrine? Attribute it to the erroneous human nature of the "Jesus of History," which can be overridden by the non-historically rooted and therefore free-floating and more malleable "Christ of Faith," which, according to historical-critics, anyway, is a construct of the later community of Christian fideists in any case -- or so the reasoning goes!

The insistance that Christians take the full humanity of Christ seriously, against the encroachments of Docetism, is a point well taken. This is simply historical (Chalcedonian) orthodoxy. But the suggestion that Jesus erred in His own teaching because of the fallibility of His own human nature is a denial of Chalcedonian's own affirmation of the communicatio idiomatum, which means that the properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the man Christ, and vice versa. A consequence of this is that there is nothing in Christ's human nature that is incompatible with His divinity. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, distinguishes between Christ's divine, uncreated knowledge and His human, created knowledge, which is twofold: a natural knowledge based on the senses and on receptive learning, and a supernaturally infused vision of things in the divine Word and of the Word itself, which is not immediate, but conferred by a superadded habit "through which a created intellect is elevated to what is above it" (De Veritate, Q. 20, a. 2).

What, then, about Jesus' seeming ignorance about certain things known only to the Father? For example, Jesus is recorded as saying in Mk 13:32 -- "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (cf. Mt 24:36); and in Acts 1:17 -- "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has fixed by His own authority." These passages were interpreted by the Arians, Nestorians and Agnoetes, a monophysite sect of the 6th century, as implying the ignorance of Christ. A leading exponent of this notion was Deacon Themistios of Alexandria. Yet this view was explicitly condemned on the basis of Chalcedon's formulation of the hypostatic union.

How, then, are the above passages explained? One answer is that a self-imposed epistemic limitation in Christ's human nature, along the lines of the Kenotic Christology of Philippians 2:5-11, is not at all incompatible with the omniscience of His divine nature, and fully consonant with the Cosmic Christology of Colossians 1:15-20 and the Logos Christology of John 1:1-18. St. Augustine (354-430) calls Christ's seeming ignorance in these passages an "economic ignorance" founded on God's decree, or a scientia noncommunicada, which is to say that it was no part of Christ's teaching duty, in accordance with the will of the Father, to make known the day of the General Judgment. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) says that Christ as man, in view of His innermost connection with the Logos, knew the day of the General Judgment, but did not have this knowledge from His human nature. Which is entirely consonant with what St. Thomas says above.

In short, Christ's human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error (D 2184), and any assertion otherwise is incompatible with orthodoxy. We cannot lose sight of Chalcedon's affirmation of the hypostatic union of Christ's two natures in the single person of Jesus Christ. The notion of a fallible human Jesus Christ who would mistakenly teach error contrary to His own divine will may be eminently convenient for contemporary Catholic dissidents; but it is also as heretical as any form of Docetism. In fact, it verges toward the opposite Arian error of denying the full divinity of Christ, except in a sense completely emasculated from the historical Jesus. When you encounter charges of "Docetism" and affirmations of Christ's "full humanity," beware: while this language may be fully orthodoxy, there's a good chance that it's also a smoke screen for the rationalization of dissent and heresy.

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