Can a Divine Jesus have False Beliefs? – Part 1

Divine JesusAccording to the Council of Chalcedon in C.E. 451, the incarnate person of Christ had two natures, one divine and one human. The Council did not specify how these natures were united (yet distinct) in the same person, but theologians have since offered their own speculative proposals. One recent proposal, by William Lane Craig, uses depth psychology to argue that the incarnation is a coherent doctrine.[1]

Craig argues that because Christ was one person, he could only have had one mind. But how can the divine and human natures of Christ function together in one mind? Craig’s answer is thatthe divine aspects of that mind functioned subliminally and were therefore absent from Christ’s conscious awareness.

Craig uses analogies from depth psychology to argue for the coherence of this proposal. Through hypnosis, for example, a person can be made oblivious to a table that is in front of their eyes. Yet, when the hypnotized person is told to exit the room, that person will walk around the table, rather than bump into it, in order to make their way out. One might ask, “Is such a person aware or unaware of the table?” Craig would reply, “Both!” But how can this be?

The hypnosis example suggests that the human mind is a complex, multi-layered system in which knowledge (in this case, subliminally) and ignorance (consciously) can be experienced on various levels in the same person. The important point is that these levels of awareness can remain distinct from each other without compromising the unity of a person’s mental life.

Similarly, Craig thinks it is possible that Christ’s mind was both omniscient and ignorant in a way similar to one’s being aware and not aware of a table. Because the divine aspects of Christ’s mind played only a subliminal role in his mental life, Christ truly experienced uncertainty and ignorance.[2]

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Craig’s proposal renders the doctrine of the incarnation coherent. What, then, are its implications for the correctness of Christ’s conscious beliefs? Perhaps Christ did not hold any false beliefs because he was perfect. Another possibility is that Christ was perfect in character, but was still subject to epistemic errors, ignorance, and human vulnerabilities. For example, he hammered his thumbs while learning carpentry; he mistakenly believed (like his contemporaries) that the earth was flat and that mustard seeds were the smallest seeds in the world (Matt 13:31-32); he did not know the time of his return (Matt 24:36), he grew in maturity through suffering (Heb 5:8), and he had to fight against internal and external pressures to maintain purity of character (Heb 4:15). On this latter view, a divine Jesus can have false beliefs because those beliefs (1) do not issue from culpable negligence or defects of character on his part, and (2) are incidental to his teachings.

But let’s press this chain of reasoning a bit further. Could a divine Jesus have had false theological beliefs? What if they were incidental to his teachings, and did not issue from any character defects or culpable omissions, vis-à-vis (1) and (2) above? Does his divinity require that all of his theological beliefs be true?

These are important questions, which I take up in my next post.

[1] Craig, William Lane. (2009) “The Coherence of the Incarnation.” Retrieved on February 16th, 2013, from:

[2] By saying that the divine influence in Christ’s mind was subliminal, Craig is not asserting that Christ was consciously unaware of his own divinity. Quite plausibly, Christ’s conscious belief in his own divinity may have grown and developed over time, perhaps through his own prayerful reflection on the Hebrew Scriptures.

13 thoughts on “Can a Divine Jesus have False Beliefs? – Part 1”

  1. Referred here by Anthony’s blog.

    I think the root problem of the dilemma is that it centers on a ‘what’ rather than a ‘who’.

    We go out of our way to say Jesus is God, but then have an immense difficulty with defining ‘what’ God is (a being we are told, at the same time, that we are incapable of really expressing in human terms) in order that Jesus can be identified in the same way. We run into countless ontological problems, but two of the most basic ones being (a) If God knows all things, how come Jesus learns and admits to lack of knowledge on occasions?, and (b) If God is immortal, and immortal means to be incapable of dying, how did Jesus die?

    A huge step in changing my paradigm was something that is /just not taught/ in churches: that the Old Testament uses the term ‘god’ (non-facetiously) for a variety of beings, including: the God of Israel, pagan gods, angels, and human rulers (and once for the ‘ghost’ of a prophet). While the usage of ‘god’ certainly became more limited as time went on, it still had this wider range of meaning. So what distinguished the God of Israel from other ‘gods’ was not necessarily /what/ he was, but /who/ was, as primarily defined by his self-expressive actions in relation to Israel, roughly distributed under four main categories: creator of the universe, maker of the covenant, savior of the oppressed, and judge of the world.

    The New Testament writers only rarely associate Jesus with God in active terms of ‘what’ he was, but they repeatedly associate Jesus with God in terms of ‘who’ he is. Jesus is the creator of all things, Jesus is the maker of the covenant, Jesus is the savior of the oppressed, and Jesus is the judge of the world.

    I don’t believe Jesus was omniscient or omnipotent or omnipresent prior to his ascension, but this is not because I take an adoptionistic view that has Jesus ‘not God’ during his earthly life followed by him adopting ‘Godhood’ after his ascension. I entirely believe Jesus was God even prior to his ascension, despite his human limitations, but this is because I define him as being God in terms of ‘who’, not ‘what’:

    Jesus is not a person made of two ‘whats’ (human and divine) somehow mixed-but-not-mixed together. Jesus is a person (his ‘who’ is divine) in the form of a man (his ‘what’ is human). I could nuance this a bit more, but I don’t want to take up much more space in your comments unless invited to do so. It’s your blog, after all!

    1. Actually, I would like to post a second, but shorter, response. I think I went a little soap-box in my last comment rather than directly addressing your post, so I apologize.

      ‘Does his divinity require that all of his theological beliefs be true?’

      I don’t know if it would be Jesus’ own divinity which would require that all of his theology be correct and true. But I do expect that being God’s intended representative in the fullest sense possible (i.e. how John has Jesus saying ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father’), Jesus would have all of his theology correct and true, since he is purported by the Fourth Gospel to have taught only what God directed him to teach.

      1. Hi markedward,
        I think you have steered the discussion in a fruitful direction. It is not so much the divinity of Christ that is at stake – if he held some benignly incorrect theological beliefs; rather it is his representative role, broadly speaking. In part 2 of this thread, which I have posted on my blog, I indicate that it is Jesus’ claims about his words coming from the Father that create the most difficulty here. However, I offer a speculative proposal based on the notion of “double discourse” which could mitigate the force of that difficulty somewhat. Feel free to add your comments! HBR

    2. Can you elaborate on what you mean by the distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of the God of Israel? I think you are on to something here. My first observation is that it reflects somewhat the distinction between ontic and functional Christology. The latter attempts to locate the divinity of Christ in his role as God, whereas the former emphasizes the divine attributes which are ascribed to Christ in the early texts about devotion to him. Are you opting for a functional interpretation? HBR

      1. Hank Hanegraaff, I think it was, described the trinity as ‘three whos, one what’. He relegated God into a ‘stuff’ that happened to be shared by three ‘whos’. But this explanation treads way too close to tritheism. By that same definition, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon are three ‘whos’ each made of the same ‘what’, so how is that any different? I looked for a way to express my concerns with this, but then I found out Bauckham did it better than I could have: God (and by that, I mean Yahweh, the God of Israel) is not a ‘stuff’ to be made out of, he is an identity, a personal being.

        I actually think good ol’ John 1 is an excellent way of framing this, if it helps to clarify what I mean. In the beginning was God, and with him was his word / wisdom, which was itself God. God created all things by his word / wisdom, so his word / wisdom reveals that he is the creator. God communicates by his word / wisdom to the prophets, so his word / wisdom reveals God as the covenant-maker, the savior, and the judge, because they see ‘who’ it is that is doing these actions.

        This word / wisdom is God’s self-expression, his personal identity. So when we read ‘the word of Yahweh’ being relayed to Israel by the prophets, what we are reading is a glimpse of God’s concerns, his character, his person. And then by a miracle, God’s word / wisdom actually became a flesh-and-blood man. He is God’s concerns, his character, his eternal person… in the form of a man, the son of God, ‘the imprint of his substance’. Note that Hebrews doesn’t use ‘substance’ to describe what Jesus is made from, but what of God it is that Jesus characterizes. Jesus is a full-fledged human being; there’s no divine ‘stuff’ swirling around in his DNA (or his metaphysical DNA?), but his very existence is that of God’s self-expression, his personal identity.

  2. Were all Jesus’ beliefs true? I assume this refers to all Jesus’ expressed beliefs, and I demure to suggest that perhaps Jesus did not feel to need to develop white knuckled opinions on all topics, as some do. Perhaps he simply held his tongue on subjects he wasn’t certain about. Thus, could he have been mistaken? Sure. My impression, however, is that when Jesus chose to speak it was at times when he felt pretty confident about what he was saying. I mean, the guy went 30 years in Nazareth contemplating the Divine One without spouting off about it. (!) But anyway…

    My larger impression is that Nicea and Chalcedon are so qualitative. Historical considerations of what someone was like in their experience are, I suggest, more quantitative. Instead of “being and substance” I find myself more interested in action and function. Instead of imagining Jesus with a particular nature, or an innate pool of knowledge, I tend to imagine Jesus as someone who attempted to commune with the divine, as he attempted to learn the ways of human life, through trial and error. From my own 38 years, it seems that this type of knowledge, if gained through practical experience, tends to breed a more natural level of humility. Thus, again, I’m more inclined to see Jesus as being humble enough to avoid speaking in error, but not perfectly unable to commit any. Speaking theological error, to me, can be most naturally curbed by having a general hesitancy to say too much, out of one’s respect for God himself.

    All in all, while I’m unable to say I can imagine him *speaking* error very often, I do certainly expect that his awareness and knowledge were limited.

    One last point: WLC’s proposal of subliminal omnipotence seems de-personalizing to me. Someday we’re going to get away from this magic Jesus brain and consider him as a spiritual person who sought God personally, and found God actually, and pursued God daily for God’s sake – instead of seeing Jesus as someone who abstractly possessed and obtained and pursued divine perfection or knowledge.

  3. Neat thoughts on subliminal consciousness, but I’m not sure we can ever go beyond mere speculation on the psychology of that “union.” With respect to Jesus and the correctness of his beliefs, if we’re going with what the NT says, upon incarnation Jesus intentionally gave up any knowledge that the Father didn’t will to him. His submission was complete in every respect, including history and theology. “The son can do nothing by himself” (Jn. 5:19). Again, if we’re going with what the NT says, we can’t go much further than this. If we’re going outside of the NT then we can pretty much argue for whatever we want as truth. But hey, this has all been said before. Different forms of kenosis theory are as old as the Church itself.

  4. I am not a theologian, but I play one on the internet.

    I doubt that ardent sola scriptura folks will care, but Chalcedon’s dictum was: “Jesus Christ … of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

    That last bit intrigues me. Moreover, it gives me a whole lot of freedom to be honest as a Jesus historian. “Like us in all respects” …so I would guess ‘yes’ to the hammer on thumb thing.

    Let’s take it a step further: Is it a sin to hold a theologically incorrect belief?

    If I believe that all dogs got to heaven and I’m wrong, is this a sin? We get this stuff wrong all the time… not sure if this is a “sin” as much as it is a function of being limited.

    “…like us in all respects, apart from sin.” There is some interesting wiggle room created by this language.


    1. Hi Anthony,
      You’ve made an excellent point that some theologically mistaken beliefs are benign, more a matter of human limitation than a cognitive or moral defect on the part of the person holding the belief. In my second installment of this discussion, I pick up this theme, and I welcome your own analysis of it. btw, hog tying canadian geese is a requirement of citizenship. No surprises there 🙂 HBR

  5. Nice post!

    To me it seems that it does not help too much in making progress is the question of how *incidental* certain beliefs were. How incidental certain of Jesus’ beliefs were is a *gradual* matter. In contrast, the question of how it is possible that Jesus was both human and divine seems to be a “principled” question (a question that, once it is solved for non-incidental beliefs, also is solved for incidental beliefs).

  6. I think the implications that arise from asserting that Jesus could have false theological beliefs require that the answer be, “no”. Specifically, this would render His claim to speak the words of the Father as useless posturing. “The words I speak come from the Father – except when I am wrong”, seems a bit problematic.

    And because John 5 makes clear that what Jesus taught came from the Father, whatever limitations His humanity may have put on Him are irrelevant. The fact that His teaching was from the Father was an end run around those limitations. This also answers the second question. Does His divinity mean all His beliefs will be true? I think yes (same reason as first paragraph), and yet again the source of His teachings and beliefs makes the question irrelevant.

    It seems the only thing we know for sure about the limitations imposed by Jesus’ humanity comes from His own words. Namely, that He set aside the “doxa” (glory) that He shared with the Father. How the setting aside of glory affected His knowledge we really can’t know.

    Finally, to borrow N.T. Wright’s words – “status” and “animation” – Jesus set aside “status” (glory) not ontology (being). Nor did He set aside the fellowship and “animation” He shared with the Father and Spirit. After all He was led/taught by the Father and raised by the Spirit. To speak of “false” anything in this context makes no sense theologically because it is not just Jesus we are talking about, but the Trinity.

    1. Hi CMA,
      You may be interested in consulting part two of this thread, which I have recently posted. In part 2, I offer a speculative proposal of how the words of Jesus and the Father can be identified as “double discourse”, but also be distinct. Feel free to check it out! HBR

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