‘Son of God’ is a title used for Jesus in the New Testament and in the early Church. In the Old Testament, this phrase was used to describe the King of Israel, but in the Gospels it highlights Jesus’ unique relationship with God and for the evangelists it is the preeminent title for Jesus. Mark brings his Gospel to a climax with the centurion’s confession at the foot of the cross that ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (15:39). Key events in the New Testament (for example Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration and the miracles including Resurrection) emphasise him as the Son of God. This is not to suggest that Jesus was somehow related to God, but that Jesus is God. This idea is dealt with in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of incarnation. For Christians today, being the Son of God is central to Jesus’ authority and role.
But how human was Jesus, and what were the implications of this for his self-knowledge? The First Council of Nicea in 325CE resolved that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or of one being – homoousios. The Gospels say Jesus comes into this world through the intervention of the Holy Spirit and Mary. But Jesus is not seen as a demi-god, or hero offspring with special powers (similar to myths in the ancient world). Jesus is directly and uniquely associated with God in the Bible, e.g. John 1:1 writes of Jesus as Word, and that the ‘Word was God’.
The miracles of Jesus could be regarded as evidence of his divine self-awareness; Jesus’ power to walk on water, his power to drive out demons, to recreate sight, speech and even life, are things that only God can do, reinforcing the message that Jesus is God’s Son. John records Jesus himself making a link between a miracle and who he is: “this happened so the works of God might be displayed in him. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-5). However, this miracle account focuses more on blindness as a faithlessness and restoration of faith through Jesus rather than simply on an incredible miracle that confounded the power of God. Hume’s Essay on miracles argued that because we have no present day, direct experience of miracles ourselves, it is not possible to trust the accounts of Jesus walking on water, or any other miracle given by New Testament writers. N. T. Wright offers an alternative approach to miracles as symbolic, to be interpreted as, for example, spiritual renewal. Subsequently it is difficult to offer the miracle accounts as firm evidence of Jesus’ divine self-awareness.
Whilst Jesus calls God ‘Abba’ (Greek for ‘father’) he does not use the term ‘Son’ to refer to himself. He does, however, describe himself using the title ‘Son of Man’ which is found in the Old Testament to refer to a heavenly figure mentioned in Daniel 7:13 as one who will some day come down from heaven to bring salvation and judgement. Jesus seems to fulfil the roles attributed to this eschatological figure. He uses this term when he speaks of his messianic authority on earth and in the age to come, and also of his suffering, death and resurrection. In John’s Gospel exclusively, Jesus uses the title ‘I am’ to highlight his own divinity (‘I am’ is the name of God, given to Moses in Exodus).
So did Jesus himself have an understanding of his divinity? Christians believe in a ‘perfect conjunction’ of Jesus’ two natures, as termed a ‘hypostatic union’ by the early Church. But difficulties remain. In order to save humanity from sin, Jesus had to be divine as only God has that redemptive power. However, if Jesus was God, does that mean he didn’t really suffer on the Cross – as how can a God suffer? If Jesus was fully human as well as divine, then that also created problems. Paul wrote that humans have a sinful, corrupting nature, so if Jesus became human, wouldn’t he be corrupted? He had to be God, as only God can save. Yet he also had to be human, as only humans need saving; as Gregory of Nazianzen put it, ‘what he has not assumed he has not healed’.
But what was the extent of Jesus’ self-knowledge? Did Jesus have double consciousness (divine and human) and freedom? In other words, how did his divine and human consciousness interact? Did he know his divine reality? Did he know he was the Son of God and saviour of humanity? Or was his knowledge and understanding of the world a human knowledge and understanding? Jesus often spoke about religious matters with authority, and yet his eschatological teachings, as an example, were arguably mistaken at points. Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God as imminent, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14) and early Christians expected the parousia and subsequent Judgement within their own lifetimes. Bertrand Russell argues in his essays ‘Why I am Not a Christian’ that the early Church community was not wise and, moreover, that Christ was not superlatively wise because his claims that the Kingdom of God was imminent were wrong. Furthermore, if he had divine knowledge then why was he anxious and fearful in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death? Why did he cry at the death of Lazarus prior to resurrecting him? Did he feign ignorance when he asked who touched him (Mark 5:30)? If he was fully God, surely he must have held a clear and full understanding of his role within the death and resurrection to come.
Medieval theology responded by categorising the types of knowledge Jesus could have had into three: scientia visionis (knowledge of his divine reality), scientia infused (an infused knowledge) or scientia experientiae (a human knowledge). Theologian Karl Rahner suggests that Jesus could not have the first type because this would have prevented him from having a human life. Instead Rahner suggests that Jesus’ conscience was like an onion with human layers close to the surface (hence his human experiences of anxiety, fear and suffering) whilst divine knowledge lay deep within.
Gerald O’Collins maintains however that we cannot know Jesus’ inner experiences, particularly as he left us without any writings of his own. Moreover, self-knowledge is not to be simplified – the question of whether Jesus knew his own divinity is not a straightforward one; to know one’s self is a complex process with many factors (memory, emotion, instinct, identity, etc.) Consciousness must necessarily involve reflection and as such it is not as simple as having knowledge of an objective, external object. O’Collins concludes that Jesus must have known he stood in a unique relationship to the Father and that as Son he had a mission of salvation for others, and that his self-knowledge was an intuitive awareness of his divine reality.
Ultimately, Jesus’ own knowledge (or lack of) concerning his divinity is not important; The Council of Chalcedon in 451CE affirmed that Christ is acknowledged in two natures, which come together into one person and one hypostasis. Jesus was not a mix or a blend. They established a key principle that as long as it is acknowledged that Jesus Christ is both truly divine and truly human, how this is possible is not a question of central importance. There is evidence to suggest Jesus knew of the unique relationship he held with the Father, and that his life would be a fulfilment of the scriptures, and that his sacrifice would redeem humanity, and herald a new era: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Matt 14:24). But the humanness of Jesus is also crucial to the way many Christians relate to him, and how they see him, in turn, capable of relating to us as human beings.
Author: A Meredith