Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Church Fathers Wrestle with Jesus' Declaration of Ignorance (Matthew 24:36)

In Matthew 24:35-37, we read:

“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.  But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.  But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (KJV).

This passage appears to suggest that Jesus does not know the exact time when he will return.  How can this be, if Jesus is God and, thus, is omniscient?

I subscribe to Derek Leman’s Daily Portion.  Derek was a Messianic Jewish rabbi.  His Daily Portion presents a passage from the Torah and a passage from the Gospels, along with brief quotations of scholarly commentaries.  I have enjoyed reading the Daily Portion because Derek usually notices the sorts of things that I would notice—-the sorts of things that I would find interesting if I were reading those commentaries.

On Matthew 24:36-51, Leman quotes from Dale Allison and W.D. Davies, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).  Allison and Davies discuss how ancient church fathers wrestled with the idea of Jesus not knowing the time of his own return:

“Older Christian theology often struggled with Jesus’ declaration of ignorance. Luke omitted the saying, as did certain copyists of Matthew and Mark. Origen wondered whether Jesus was referring to the church of which he is the head. Ambrose attributed ‘nor the Son’ to an Arian interpolation [i.e., he did not think it was genuine but that copyists who doubted Jesus’ divinity added it]. Athanasius suggested Jesus only feigned ignorance. The Cappadocians thought the Son did not know the date on his own, but only through the Father; or as Gregory Nazianzen put it: ‘He knows as God and knows not as man.’ Chrysostom, in a prize example of bad exegesis, simply denied that Jesus was ignorant of anything: ‘neither is the Son ignorant of the day, but is even in full certainty thereof.’ So too Cassiodorus, citing Jn 21:17 and contending that ‘nor the Son’ means that the Son did not make others know. But modern Christian theology, emphasizing with the creeds that Jesus was ‘true man,’ has come to terms with our saying as an expression of kenosis [the truth from Philippians 2 that the Son emptied himself of certain divine privileges to descend into humanity].”

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