Can a Divine Jesus Have False Beliefs? – Part 2

Divine JesusThank you all for responding to last week’s blog post. It is always enriching to have many points of view and your comments are very welcome. Based on the responses to that post, I will touch on two relevant concerns:

First, it is important to distinguish (inculpable) errors of belief from errors of teaching. Let me explain: when someone utters a speech act, it is crucial to understanding the act that we discern what the speaker intends to do with his words – whether the speaker is asserting, promising, hyperbolizing, etc, or some combination thereof. Speech act theorists call this the “illocution” of the act.

How does this relate to the belief/teaching distinction? Well, supposing that Jesus incorrectly believed that mustard seeds were the smallest seeds in the world (Matt 13:31-32), it still would not follow that he taught this. Why? Because the illocution of the speech act was theological – not botanical. His intention was to make a theological statement about the nature of faith, not a botanical claim about the size of seeds. Therefore, his (supposedly) false belief is not part of his speech act.

Why is this distinction important? Because it allows for the possibility that Jesus innocently held false beliefs on a variety of subjects which need not jeopardize the truth of his preaching and teaching. Perhaps his being fully human meant that he shared with his contemporaries mistaken beliefs about cosmology, history, literature, geography, medicine, and even theology which were either not part of his teaching, or part of it but benign in nature. As long as such errors are neither culpably acquired nor the consequence of defective character, it is hard to see how these would compromise the doctrine of the incarnation. However, the idea of benign errors of teaching may be harder to square with what (John’s) Jesus actually said about his own words. This leads to the next point.

Second, the Johannine portrait of Jesus suggests a very tight connection (or “identity”) between Jesus’ words and God’s words. In John 8:26,28 and 12:49-50, Jesus appeals to the Father not only as the source and authority of his testimony, but as the One commanding him what to say and how to say it! What are we to make of this identity claim?

Allow me to suggest a speculative proposal. In his book Divine Discourse (1995), Nick Wolterstorff explores the notion of “double discourse” whereby someone speaks through the speech act of another. He analyzes two kinds of double discourse which are especially relevant: authorized and deputized speech.[1] When speech is authorized, one speaker places their seal of approval on what another has said, as when a boss signs a letter that his secretary has just drafted. Or perhaps the boss pre-signs a blank draft before his secretary writes the letter because he trusts her enough to know his mind. When speech is deputized, a speaker confers authority upon another to speak on his behalf. The deputee then has the right to speak in the name of the deputizer, as when president Obama sends ambassadors to foreign countries to speak on behalf of the home nation: e.g. “the United States says!”

Now, an interesting feature of double discourse is that someone can speak through another’s speech act without necessarily intending or endorsing every detail of what the other in fact says. The author/deputizer just accepts the limits and risks involved in appropriating someone else’s discourse as their own, though both speech acts are taken as a unit. Could something like this be happening with respect to Jesus speaking the words of the Father? Can the concept of “double discourse” affirm a tight connection between Jesus’ message and the Father’s, while allowing for enough wiggle room for innocent errors in the delivery?

What are your thoughts?

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff. (1995) Divine Discourse. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

3 thoughts on “Can a Divine Jesus Have False Beliefs? – Part 2”

  1. I think there is a more satisfying answer than that to be told though. While this is exploring the philosophical perspective and implications of Jesus having made errors while being divine there is a practical problem.

    For one to teach and have correct theology on a limited scope as human beings do while still having possible other errors that don’t affect the theology that person must also be willing to let go of their false beliefs in the face of it affecting their theology. Else-wise, they run the risk of letting their unrelated beliefs form false dichotomies in the theological beliefs. To put it more simply, if Jesus held the mustard seed was the smallest seed in the world but holding to that starts to subtract from he theological point or beliefs than his theological beliefs are not longer infallible because they are influenced by his “mundane” beliefs.
    Therefore, in order for his theology to be completely correct it holds that he 1) does not assume his mundane beliefs are the full picture, 2) he knows and acknowledges his non-theological beliefs are not the full picture (I know that sounds close to #1 but there is a difference), and 3) his theological teachings and beliefs as they are intended to be taken as anything other than theological teaching and beliefs.

    Following this, it would imply that while Jesus can hold “incorrect beliefs” he does not hold on to these beliefs strongly or speak of them as truths. So he could “believe” a mustard seed is the smallest seed but also he would never make a claim like that outside of an example or without at least acknowledging that it isn’t absolute.

    In layman’s terms, his mundane beliefs would be humble and unassuming and he would try to make it clear as such when questioned on it or if they cause confusion.

  2. Thomas, I don’t think I have much to add to the discussion. But let me try.

    From a theological perspective, this question is interesting in relation to the questions of the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. It seems to that if you hold a strong view of i and i, then believing Jesus had false theological beliefs, no matter how trivial, is most likely problematic. The weaker the the view of i and i, the less problematic.

    It is an interesting question as to what counts as a (mistaken) trivial theological belief. Could Jesus believed in supralapsarianism when infralapsarianism is true? Coud he have believed that he would be present in the Churches celebration of the eucharist, when memorialism is true? Could he believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, though it is actually false? Could he have thought that Adam was a historical individual, when evolutionary biology tells us that this is not true? Was (is?) Jesus wrong and eb right? What would count for a trivial theological belief?

    Also, how would we know that Jesus held to mistaken beliefs? Would we trust historians over Jesus? Evolutionary biologists over Jesus? Could it be that Jesus held to a rationally incoherent belief that fails to hold in any possible world. But we, fallen, finite, fallible humans, could show that Jesus was wrong, now that Plantinga has shown us the light with possible worlds analysis!? I think presuppositionalists would have a hard time with that!

    Also, do you think that if Jesus recognized that he was the Son of God, that he was God yet knew that he held to false beliefs, that this might cause some serious cognitive dissonance for him?

    I hope the comments help.


    PS Would you mind it I ask you some questions about the free-will argument and the fine tuning argument sometime in the near future?

    1. Hi Gregg,
      I totally agree with the parallel you draw between this discussion and the debate about the inerrancy and inspiration of the Christian scriptures. Some evangelical scholars like Stephen T. Davis accept a view of inspiration according to which God’s superintention of Scripture allowed for some errors to exist in its final form. Such errors do not, according to Davis, jeopardize the core of what the Bible teaches on matters of faith and practice. It is no surprise, then, that Davis is thinks that some of Jesus’ beliefs were innocently false on trivial matters.

      You are right to ask, what counts as a theologically trivial matter? The answer to this question will depend on what one takes to be the core of Jesus’ message. There are no hard and fast interpretive rules for determining what that is, though rational arguments can still be made. The fact that we are interpreters means that our understanding of the boundaries and meaning of Jesus’ core message is continually being hammered out. With that said, I would stake the claim that Jesus’ preaching on the inauguration of the Kingdom of God was of central importance to his message. Much more can be said, however. What would you add to this?

      You also asked, how would we know that Jesus held to mistaken beliefs? The answer to this question will depend on what sources of knowledge one takes to be “authoritative” (in the epistemological sense of that word). If Christianity it true, and it is consistent with the doctrine of the incarnation that Jesus had some mistaken beliefs, then the best bet is for Christians to consult all the sources of wisdom and revelation God has already provided for discerning what is true. This will encompasses sources such as other scriptural texts, the natural world, history, archaeology, moral intuition, reason, experience, and other trustworthy people. However, I suspect that because Christians have such a high view of Jesus’ teaching, they will not draw any conclusions about his having mistaken beliefs lightly.

      Some presuppositionalists might protest that the strategy I am recommending for Christians amounts to intellectual hubris, that using human sources of knowledge to evaluate the truth of Jesus’ message is tantamount to exalting human reason above God. I think they are mistaken. Biblical interpreters already use human sources of knowledge, such as history, archaeology, linguistics, and non-canonical texts to discern the meaning of Jesus’ teachings. So why is this not hubris as well? One cannot have his cake and eat it too! I admit that the strategy I am recommending relates to how one discerns truth – not just meaning. But the relevant point still remains: if Christianity is true, then those “human” sources of knowledge are actually gifts from God, meant to be used with humility in the service of finding truth, not as ways to pridefully dismiss the biblical teachings one happens to dislike. The extent to which those sources are corrupted, defeasible, or unreliable is another debate 😉

      You asked, “do you think that if Jesus recognized that he was the Son of God, that he was God yet knew that he held to false beliefs, that this might cause some serious cognitive dissonance for him?” This question made me think of the Hebrew prophets for whom the penalty of false prophecy under Israelite law was being stoned to death! I would imagine that a legitimate prophet who knew his own frailties and proclivities would experience some kind of cognitive dissonance upon speaking the Word of God, especially if his audience was hostile! Similarly, on the analogy of the incarnation proposed by Bill Craig, I would imagine that in his waking consciousness, Christ might have felt some dissonance (or even apprehension) occasioned by his concern to speak truthfully and effectively while remaining dependent on his Father for guidance. As a fully human being, Christ’s experience of dissonance would have been real, not a sham, but it would not have prevented him from successfully carrying out his itinerary of preaching and teaching. Indeed, on a middle knowledge understanding of divine providence, God could have ensured that Christ would not (despite feeling cognitive dissonance) make any significant errors of teaching.

      b/t/w, feel free to ask about the free-will argument and the fine tuning argument sometime. Preferably you could add your questions/comments to the respective blog posts, but feel free to email me as well.


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