One Person and Two Natures
- Written by David Booth
One Person and Two Natures:
a note on psychological science and the earthly life of Jesus Christ, God the Son
This comment by a psychologist on a recent account of the future of Christology in the Reformed tradition suggests that, while Christ was on earth, part of his human nature was the ability to call on the whole knowledge of the Godhead as part of his divine nature, in the way that he determined was relevant to the situation he faced at each time and place.
Robert L. Reymond’s highly instructive chapter on Christology in Always Reforming1 emphasises that even the most assured theological conclusions from exegesis of the whole Bible are not final but at most are what future developments in understanding must take into account. Central to these parameters of biblical Christianity is the doctrine of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus of Nazareth, being in eternity and during his life on earth one person with two distinct natures, divine and human.
Professor Reymond recognises difficulties in this belief that may never be resolved: these may have to be lived with as part of the “transcendent mystery intrinsic to the incarnation”, even though they have “caused some people to stumble at the portrait that the Gospels draw of Christ” (page 111). Nevertheless he welcomes any suggestion that would remove such a difficulty, without of course failing to take the full weight of the biblical data on the issue. This note is to attempt a clarification from psychological science of one of his own and other theologians’ suggested solutions and to offer a substantive suggestion as a research psychologist, I hope of the sort that Prof. Reymond would welcome.
Simultaneous infinitude and finitude of knowledge
Perhaps the most widely recognised of such issues is how Christ as a man can be finite in knowledge and yet as God be omniscient. Reymond quotes Warfield’s collation of statements in the Gospels of both sorts of knowledge “interlaced in the most amazing manner”2 - sometimes within the account of a single incident (John 11:3,6 and 11,14).
Robert Reymond refers to variants (which he finds unconvincing) of a solution in terms of an active Spirit-led human consciousness with a subconscious level at which Christ as God knew everything. The variants differ in characterising the one person’s human access or not to his divine knowledge. On one hand, neither just the divine nature nor just the human nature of Christ can determine when and what access occurs, because deciding is an attribute of personhood. On the other hand, Christ’s awareness on earth of his divinity has to be accounted for.
In this latter connection, a distinction is introduced earlier in the chapter between Christ being “self-consciously divine” and his being “consciously - not self-consciously - human”, on the grounds that there can only be one “self-consciousness” in one person (page 105). These usages of the term consciousness are not clear. Indeed this passage appears to be self-contradictory, as David F. Wells has just been quoted approvingly as stating that “in Jesus … the self-conscious acting subject was in fact a composite of the human and the divine.”3
Knowledge as performance, not private awareness
As a psychological scientist, I strongly commend a self-denying ordinance by theologians and philosophers (and indeed scientists) in their professional work: stop using the word ‘consciousness’ and its cognates. Many decades ago, philosophers showed that the word has so many meanings that its introduction into a discussion without careful technical glossing risks serious confusion and even downright incoherence. An entity called ‘consciousness’ has no theoretical role in the contemporary science of psychology: at best, a cognitive, affective or conative mental process of specified content at a certain time within a particular person may be conscious or not conscious, as determinable in principle by objective evidence. (By the same token, that person is then and there aware of or attending to that content.)
What knowledge someone has of his or her identity or of any particular fact is that person’s (capacity for) objective achievement; it is not subjective experience. No amount of personal confidence or clarity in a private world of thoughts or images amounts to knowledge. Only public demonstration of the capacity to state the facts correctly or to act with realism can justify attribution of knowledge. This performance is not any delimitable set of (speech) sounds or (writing)scratches or movements either. The knowledgeable ‘behaviour’ is not (merely) physical; the knowledge is in successful communication using the highly flexible symbolising conventions of a culture.4
Hence, it must be noted, knowledge as such is not a psychological process or state of any sort. What is in the mind of the knower is a belief – and, in the case of a knowledgeable belief, one that is held with good reason. Whether or not the sound belief happens to be correct is a matter outside the scope of the performance based on that or any other mental process, state or capacity.
Consistently with that analysis, what a person knows does not have to be consciously known to that person. A correct and well founded belief can be implicit in what is thought about, said or done. It may be part of the concept of belief that it could become conscious: there are additional conceptual problems about a (permanently) unconscious ‘belief’ than a (temporarily) subconscious belief: in behavioural biology we prefer to think of the former sort of ‘knowledge’ as preadaptedness etc.
Also knowledge, perceptions and beliefs are of different sorts. Aside from the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge (‘know-that’ and ‘know-how’), there is the range from sensory perception of the colour of a flower in the fields or of emptiness of the stomach in David’s men hiding from Saul to the sense of identity as the divine Son of God or sense of mission as the Saviour of the world. If I understand him correctly, what Reymond means by Christ’s “self-consciousness” is our Lord’s belief - from his personhood as the Son from heaven - that he is one with his heavenly Father in their divine nature. We need no access to Jesus’s own private experience to get evidence that this was his belief. The evidence is in the Gospel accounts of what he succeeded in communicating to his disciples about his person and nature.
Robert Reymond seems to presuppose that the sense of his divinity that Jesus had while on he was on earth had to be based on knowledge possessed only by his divine nature. It not at all clear to me why or whether that has to be so. No doubt, the divine nature is to know that one is divine and which person of the Trinity one is. Yet it is evident that Jesus knew his identity at least in part by human means: after all, he expounded the fact to his disciples from the Scriptures.
Thus what I believe needs to be considered is what specific information Christ had at a particular point in time during his life on earth and how he gained access to that item of knowledge.
It is often clear that Christ knew through his senses, often simply by hearing the information that people told him. It may be possible that great human wisdom and insight can gain reliable information through human means that is beyond most mortals and that this is correctly regarded as fruit of a Spirit-filled and Creator-endowed human life.
There may be other accounts in the Gospels that are most safely taken to be examples of Christ’s use of his divine omniscience. Nevertheless, faithful exegetes of Scripture do not run ahead of decreasing human ignorance of ‘natural’ possibilities. Indeed, the clearest datum in the Gospels on Christ’s divinely accessible information is what he as the Son on earth, unlike the Father in heaven, does not know – the date of the End.
Be that as it may, how in principle from what we know scientifically of human nature could Christ while on earth have accommodated his divine omniscience?
Human attention as a limited resource
Human beings can hold only a modest amount of information in attention at any one time. Not all of our personal knowledge is being put to work in any one situation. This is not merely some unfortunate consequence of being finite, constrained to act in one body and one society at one place and time. Even if we could make active use of an indefinitely large amount of knowledge at any one time, only a small subset of all held information is likely to be relevant to a particular situation. Working on irrelevancies would not just be a waste of effort: it could be actively obstructive.
Hence a ‘limited span of attention’ is also empowering, to the extent the processes selecting the information for attention are good at detecting relevance. A large part of psychology is indeed the theoretically organised empirical investigation of those conscious and non-conscious mental mechanisms for coordinating incoming information (perception), previously acquired information (memory) and the output of information (action and emotion).
My suggestion is that, while Christ was on earth, part of his fully human nature was the ability to call on the whole knowledge of the Godhead as part of his fully divine nature, to the extent that he consciously and non-consciously determined was relevant to the situation he faced at each time and place. If Jesus used divine omniscience (as Warfield assumes2) to tell the Samaritan woman “everything [she] ever did” (John 4:29) or to perceive the thoughts of his doctrinal antagonists (Matthew 9:45), it would have been of a perfect human nature to have selected the most significant of the woman’s actions or the teachers’ thoughts – for example, the evil ones, as we are indeed told in the latter case.
The general idea of limits on how much can be attended to at one time is of course widely recognised. No psychological education or research on the detailed specifics is needed to appreciate it. So I would not be surprised if theologians ancient or modern had already made this suggestion. Indeed, I would be delighted. If historically expert exegetes would then study the biblical accounts of (for example) Jesus’s divine knowledge alongside scientific experts in human social and physical perception, broader advances might be made for the Gospel – maybe as widely as matters such as what there is for God from eternity to know and to redeem of our innermost created being.
1 Robert L Reymond, ‘Classical Christology’s future in systematic theology’ in Always Reforming. Explorations in systematic theology, edited by A.T.B. McGowan, pp. 67-124. Apollos, IVP, 2006.
2 B.B. Warfield, ‘The human development of Jesus’, in Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1, p. 163. As cited in 1.
3 This inconsistency may be unintentional, for there are misprints and an apparent misreading in an immediately previous passage on the eternal personhood of the Son. Paul (sic) Helm is quoted writing that the NT is “reading back into the eternal relationships of the godhead what became true at the resurrection.” Professor Helm can respond for himself but I believe that, as a philosopher who is very careful about concepts of eternity and human history, he could not have intended to use the term “reading back” (from the point in time of the incarnation) to deny, as Professor Reymond takes him to, that “[t]he persons of the Godhead have eternally existed within the ontological Trinity as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (p.103).
4 This is not the place to enlarge on these points. They stand firm in the British approaches to ‘linguistic’ philosophy and experimental ‘cognitive’ psychology exemplified in Cambridge University during the 1930-40s, led respectively by the later Wittgenstein and Sir Frederick Bartlett, each in their own way refuting either rationalist and positivist foundationalism, and both crypto-materialist Behaviorism and the anti-scientific delusion of Introspectionism.
5. Sic given as verse 14 on page 112 of Reymond.1