Christian Scholars Review 28, #4 (1999), 586-604
JESUS ON KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
Paul K. Moser
Loyola University of Chicago
Surprisingly little is published on Jesus's view of human knowledge of God. Theologians and New Testament scholars have carefully pursued the important topic of Jesus and faith (see, e.g., Ebeling 1958; Fuchs 1958; Richardson 1958, chap. 1; Jeremias 1971, pp. 159-66; Keck 1980, chap. 2; Goppelt 1981, pp. 149-55; Marshall 1989; Stuhlmacher 1993, chap. 1; Wright 1996, pp. 258-64). We still await, however, a thorough account of Jesus's approach to human knowledge of God. This article offers a starting point for the needed account. It briefly elaborates the view of Jesus on the nature of human knowers and on the nature of human knowledge of God. (Unless noted otherwise, all translations from the New Testament are my own.)
1. Jesus on Human Knowers
In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus distinguishes between the physical component of a human person and the "inner" component, or the spiritual "heart" (καρδία), of a human person (Mk 7:14-23/Mt 15:10-20). He castigates the scribes and Pharisees for cleaning their "outside" (τὸ ἐκτὸς) but not their "inside" (τὸ ἐντὸς) (Mt 23:25-27/Lk 11:39-40). Jesus holds that the "inside," or the "heart," of a person is one's spiritual moral center from which good or evil intentions arise (Mk 7:21/Mt 15:19). This spiritual moral center, in Jesus's view, is not identical with, or constituted by, a person's body or any parts thereof.
Jesus calls the spiritual moral center of a person the "soul" (ψυχή) in Mt 10:28 (so NRSV, RSV, NASB, KJV, REB, NEB, NIV, NJB, NAB). This is what, according to Lk 12:4-5, can be cast into Gehenna after the body (σμα) is killed. Luke does not speak of "the soul" here, in drawing from the Q tradition distinctive to Luke and Matthew (on which see Tuckett 1996; Allison 1997), but he does portray Jesus as holding that there is a component of humans that can be cast into Gehenna after the body is killed. Matthew portrays Jesus as speaking of this component as "the soul." (Cf. 4 Macc 13:15, NRSV: "... great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.")
In Mt 10:28 Jesus encourages the missionary work of the twelve apostles by distinguishing between the body and the soul of a human person. He tells them: "Don't be afraid of those who kill the body but aren't able to kill the soul (ψυχή); rather, be afraid of the one who is able to destroy soul as well as body in Gehenna," the smoldering garbage dump representing a place of fatal punishment. (This passage may bear on the issue of the conditional immortality of human souls, but I won't digress to that complex matter.) We have no reason to suppose that the main idea of this passage doesn't go back to Jesus himself.
The parallel in Lk 12:4-5 has Jesus say: "I say to you, my friends, don't be afraid of those who kill the body but after this do not have anything further to do. I will show you the one whom you should be afraid of: be afraid of the one who, after the killing [of the body], has power to cast into Gehenna." Luke's version of Jesus's saying agrees with Matthew's in implying that the destruction of one's body is not the end of matter. Something remains thereafter as a candidate for inclusion in Gehenna. Following Mt 10:28, we may call this remainder after the body's destruction the soul.
Having acknowledged a nonphysical component of human persons, Jesus is not a materialist about human persons. He suggests a bipartite portrait of human persons wherein moral agents face accountability even after the destruction of their bodies. His portrait assumes that human persons can exist and even face punishment after their bodies perish. Jesus's view is thus incompatible with materialism about human persons, which implies that human persons are identical with, or constituted by, their bodies. Jesus's view acknowledges an irreducible spiritual component of humans. According to Oscar Cullmann (1958, p. 36), in contrast, Jesus's threat of the soul and body being destroyed in Gehenna is just the threat that God will not resurrect one to life. The problem, however, is that our passage goes beyond a threat not to resurrect. It suggests, in Mt and in Lk, something other than a body being destroyed in Gehenna. Cullmann's reading thus misses a central feature of the passage.
Perhaps, as T.W. Manson (1938, p. 399) and Robert Gundry (1994, p. 197) suggest, Matthew's talk of the soul attempts to clarify the original idea represented in Luke. Even so, the idea of a nonbodily spiritual component of human persons evidently goes back to Jesus himself. Many New Testament scholars would demur, on the ground that dualism concerning soul and body was foreign to Palestinian Judaism at the turn of the eras. Gundry (1994, p. 197), however, has offered a needed corrective: "Despite much current opinion to the contrary, Jews as well as Greeks regarded physical death as separation of the soul from the body (see, e.g., Isa 10:18; 38:10,12,17; Tob 3:6; Sir 38:23; Bar 2:17; Jub. 23:31; 1 Enoch 9:3,10; 22:5-7,9-14; 51:1; 67:8-9; 71:11; 98:3; 102:4; 103:3-8; 2 Apoc. Bar. 23:4; 30:2-5; 2 Esdr 7:75-101; Adam and Eve 43:1; As. Mos. 32:4; 42:8; Testament of Abraham passim; Ps.-Philo Bib. Ant. 32:13; b. Ber. 28b; b. Sanh. 91a; Lev. Rab. 24:3; Qoh. Rab. 3.20-21...)." So, Matthew's portrayal of Jesus as talking of the soul, in contrast with the body, fits with Judaism at the turn of the eras.
Suggesting a bipartite view of human persons, Jesus distinguishes between the spirit (τὸ πνεμα) and the flesh (ἡ σὰρξ) of a person, in his warning about prayer to Peter at Gethsemane. Jesus warns that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mk 14:38/Mt 26:41). This refers to the human spirit, not the Spirit of God. So, the warning concerns the willingness of the human spirit to obey in cases where the human body is physically weak and thus an obstacle to obedience. Physical weakness, such as bodily weariness, can result in weakness of will, in yielding to temptation. The fact that our bodily weakness often contributes to our yielding to temptation, and thus to our immorality, does not entail that we are identical with, or constituted by, our bodies. It entails rather that we have responsible control, directly or indirectly, over morally relevant bodily behavior. Jesus did, after all, say to Peter, "Watch and pray, in order that you may not come into testing." So, he evidently assumes that one has responsible control over the threatening weakness. We have further evidence, then, that Jesus holds a bipartite rather than a materialist view of human persons.
In the triple tradition of Mk 12:18-27/Mt 22:23-33/Lk 20:27-40, Jesus challenges the Sadducees' denial of the resurrection of the dead. His case for resurrection uses a bold inference from the claim of Ex 3:6 that Yahweh is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jesus infers that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still live — not just that they will live. Lk 20:38 portrays Jesus as saying: "Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living, for by [or, to] him they are all living (ζσιν)." Only Luke, among the synoptists, includes the clause, "for by [or, to] him they are all living," thus agreeing with the language, and the suggestion of immortality for the patriarchs, in 4 Maccabees 7:19, 16:25. (Given a standard view of Markan priority, such as that outlined by Styler 1982 and Neirynck 1990, I presume that Luke is here elucidating his version of Mark's gospel.)
Luke uses the present tense rather than the future tense ("ζήσουσιν") of "ζάω". At least Luke, then, evidently understood Jesus to affirm that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living. Likewise, in reporting that God is the God of the living, each of the three evangelists uses the present participle, "living" (ζώντων), thus apparently implying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living. Given that they still live, but lack physical bodies, materialism about human persons is false; for materialism implies that human are identical with, or constituted by, their material bodies.
New Testament scholars contend that since Jesus is replying to an argument against
the future bodily resurrection of God's people, he has nothing to say here about
the state of people between death and the resurrection. Robert Gundry, for instance,
comments as follows in connection with Mark's version of the passage:
they [the patriarchs] are already living to God without having been resurrected,
where lies the necessity of a future resurrection? Jesus would be saying nothing
to answer the Sadducees' question. Moreover, his phrase "concerning the dead"
undermines any belief or argument that the patriarchs are presently alive (1993,
The three suggestions of this comment are each questionable. First, the fact that certain persons are alive between their bodily death and resurrection does not conflict in any way with an important need of bodily resurrection. In the intermediate state, according to the view challenged by Gundry, people are alive without being embodied, but they nonetheless would ideally be embodied. So, resurrection is not dispensable. Second, given the view challenged by Gundry, Jesus could still be answering the Sadducees' question by implying (a) that God's people do not themselves (with regard to their spirits) die with the death of their bodies and (b) that upon bodily resurrection God's people neither marry nor are given in marriage. So, Jesus is offering an intelligible answer to the Sadducees. Third, Jesus's remark "concerning the dead" in Mk 12:26 may concern the death of bodies rather than spiritual death. This would allow that the patriarchs still live, not bodily of course, but as disembodied spirits. This, I presume, fits with Gundry's previously cited point that "Jews as well as Greeks regarded physical death as separation of the soul from the body" (1994, p. 197). Luke's interpretation of immortality thus coheres with his view of bodily resurrection, given a distinction between bodily and spiritual death. Contrary to the suggestion of Cullmann (1958) and Jürgen Moltmann (1974, p. 170), then, there is no conflict between an endorsement of (conditional) immortality and the New Testament view of the resurrection of the dead.
Another objection to my understanding of Lk 20:38 notes that New Testament Greek sometimes uses a futuristic present tense in cases where something is expected to occur with certainty. For example, Jn 14:3 uses the present tense "I am coming" (ἔρχομαι) with a promissory futuristic sense, "I will come." Similarly, Luke apparently uses the futuristic present "are raised" (ἐγείρονται) at 20:37. The objection, accordingly, is that the use of the present tense in Jesus's reply to the Sadducees does not imply that God's people immediately survive the death of their bodies.
The New Testament does sometimes use the futuristic present tense, but this is no reason to think that it occurs in Luke's elucidating phrase at 20:38, "for by [or, to] him they are all living." As Joseph Fitzmyer notes, "... this phrase can have neither a `proleptic' sense (they live `in the prospect of a sure resurrection') nor a `spiritual' sense (referring to the `Christian's present corporate existence in Christ which continues in spite of his individual death'). The former distorts the statement of the Lucan Jesus; the latter imports a Pauline idea which is not within the Lucan perspective" (1985a, p. 1307). In Luke's passage, Jesus endorses both that the dead "are raised" and that the deceased people of God "are by [or, to] him all living." We thus have evidence for an assumption of immortality by a Palestinian Jew during the first century A.D. The assumed immortality depends on God, and thus may differ from certain Greek variants, but it is immortality nonetheless. (For more evidence, contrary to Stendahl 1984, that commitment to immortality fits with Jewish thought before and at the time of Jesus, see Nickelsburg 1972; Cooper 1989; Barr 1992; Moser 1997.)
Further commitments by Jesus to pre-resurrection life after death are readily available in the New Testament gospels. Four brief examples should confirm the point. First, the narratives of the transfiguration of Jesus, represented in the triple tradition of Mk 9:2-10/Mt 17:1-9/Lk 9:28-36, portray Jesus as talking with Elijah and Moses. The main point of this story is that in God's eyes Jesus is, as God's beloved son, superior to both Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Hebrew prophets). A noteworthy implication, however, is that Elijah and Moses are alive in some manner, being able to talk with Jesus. The three narratives take it for granted that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus; they thus presume that Moses and Elijah survived bodily death. Second, in Lk 23:43, Jesus promises the repentant thief on the cross that "today (σήμερον) you will be with me in paradise." The main aim of this passage is evidently to illustrate the salvific significance of the crucified Jesus, but a relevant implication is that the thief would be with Jesus immediately after their death and prior to their bodily resurrection. So, the passage is incompatible with materialism about persons. (For further discussion of this passage, see Fitzmyer 1989, pp. 203-33.) Third, at the moment of his death, Jesus commends his spirit (τὸ πνεμα) into the hands of his Father, thus implying that he is bipartite and not just a physical being (Lk 23:46; cf. Acts 7:59). His spirit, it seems, is his person, which can survive without his body. This view contradicts materialism. Fourth, Jn 11:26 portrays Jesus as saying: "everyone who ... believes in me will never die (οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰνα)." Since this is not a denial of bodily death — Jesus had just reported, in Jn 11:14, that his friend Lazarus is dead (ἀπέθανεν)— it must be a denial of spiritual death. Jesus's remark entails the immortality of his disciples on the basis of Jesus's being "the resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:25; cf. Jn 8:51). Jesus saves his disciples from spiritual death, even in bodily death.
Suppose, contrary to the aforementioned evidence, that Jesus endorsed only the bodily resurrection of God's people, and not their (conditional) immortality. Materialism about persons would still face a serious problem, because it cannot preserve the kind of personal identity demanded by the New Testament view of the resurrection of the dead. If I am identical with or constituted by my perishable body, and if perishable "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50), then I myself cannot participate in the resurrection from the dead. Some clone of me or some vivid memory of me might then arise as a result of God's creative activity, but I myself shall not be resurrected if I am identical with or constituted by my perishable body; for I am neither a clone nor a memory of myself.
The problem for materialism is that the resurrection of a replica of me, however similar to me, is not the resurrection of me. The New Testament hope, in contrast, is in the imperishable bodily resurrection of each Christian person, not in the resurrection of a clone, a replica, or a memory of each such person. So, the God of the New Testament will not have the option, given his actual promises of personal, imperishable resurrection of persons, to preserve just some parts of, or even our total, current bodies. Preservation of personal identity demands more than this; it demands that we ourselves, rather than replicas of ourselves, survive death. Materialism lacks the resources to preserve personal identity in the resurrection, given its presumed relation of persons to their perishable bodies (namely, a relation of identity or constitution), and given the absence of perishable bodies from the resurrection of God's people. A bipartite view, in contrast, offers the needed resources for personal identity, because nonphysical souls can survive the destruction of their bodies. (For further problems facing materialism, and additional evidence for a bipartite view of persons in the New Testament, including in the apostle Paul, see Moser 1997.)
We can't find refuge in an Aristotelian or Thomist view implying that the survival of death is just God's preservation of a form, such as the form of a human body (see Stump 1995). Either the relevant form is a multiply exemplifiable universal (in the way that "redness," for instance, can be exemplified in many things) or it is an individual — it can't be both. If, on the one hand, it is a universal, the form cannot be identified with me, for I am an individual, not a universal. As an individual, I am not multiply exemplifiable in the way redness, roundness, or any other universal is. If, on the other hand, the form is an individual, we need to know how exactly (if at all) it differs from a morally responsible agent. If it isn't a morally responsible agent, then it's not identical with me, as I'm inherently a morally responsible agent; in that case, the survival of my form would not be the survival of me. If, in contrast, the form is a morally responsible agent, then it is an immaterial soul under another name; the difference then is merely verbal. So, an Aristotelian or Thomist view neither threatens nor improves on the bipartite view under consideration.
Jesus's view of the human soul, or spirit, is important for reasons beyond survival of death. Its importance extends to Jesus's view of human knowledge of God. If human knowledge of God entails a human personal relationship with God analogous to a relationship between a child and a father, then human knowers must be persons able to stand in such a relationship with a God who is inherently spirit, not body. The personal relationship in question is not inherently bodily but is inherently spiritual. In addition, human knowledge of God, as portrayed by the New Testament, must be able to survive bodily death. So we, as beneficiaries of knowledge of God, must not be identical with or constituted by our bodies. We must be inherently spiritual, as the aforementioned bipartite view implies. Let's turn, then, to the distinctive features of Jesus's view of human knowledge of God.
2. Jesus and Human Knowledge of God
The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew scriptures is crowned by the messianic biography of the four Christian gospels: the evangelistic biography of Jesus of Nazareth (on the status of ancient biography, see Burridge 1992; on the origin and significance of the fourfold gospel, see Burridge 1994; Stanton 1997). In Jesus we find a kind of authoritative teaching and conduct that leaves us with a clear, if disturbing, choice: either he was patently insane ("ἐξέστη," as his own family temporarily thought, according to Mk 3:19-21) or he was the unequaled man he claimed to be, the unique son of God. Contrary to suggestions from the North American Jesus Seminar, we have no firm historical basis whatever for portraying Jesus as just a moral reformer or just a Cynic sage. (For assessment of the Seminar's main views of Jesus, see Betz 1994; Talbert 1994; Witherington 1994, chap. 3; Pearson 1995; Boyd 1995; Eddy 1996; Johnson 1996; Wright 1996, chap. 2; cf. Brown 1987; Gundry 1993, pp. 603-23; Allison 1997, chap. 1.)
Jesus's Unique Authority as Son
In one situation, represented in the triple tradition of Mk 10:17-22/Mt 19:16-22/Lk 18:18-23, Jesus tells a man that the way to get everlasting life is to follow him. Jesus places himself below God the Father (in keeping with his attitude throughout the four gospels), and points the man to God's convicting commandments. Jesus remarks, however, that the man's obedience still lacks something: the kind of self-giving commitment to God found by following Jesus. In keeping with this theme, Jesus remarks that acceptance (rejection) of him amounts to acceptance (rejection) of God (Mt 10:40/Lk 10:16; Mk 9:37/Mt 18:5/Lk 9:48; cf. Jn 13:20). In other contexts, Jesus claims authority to forgive sins apart from God's Temple (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9:1-8/Lk 5:17-26) and to arrange for the final judgment as God's king (Lk 22:29-30/Mt 20:28; cf. Mt 7:21-27/Lk 6:46-49; Mk 14:62). Likewise, Jesus symbolically presents himself as king of Israel, after Zech 9:9, in his humble entry into Jerusalem on a colt (Mk 11:1-10/Mt 21:1-9/Lk 19:28-40/Jn 12:12-19; cf. Collins 1995, pp. 206-207), and he intimates that he is King David's Lord (Mk 12:35-37/Mt 22:41-46/Lk 20:41-44).
In the Q tradition, Jesus claims to be greater than even King Solomon (Lk 11:31/Mt 12:42), and, in reply to a question from John the Baptist (Lk 7:18-23/Mt 11:2-6), he alludes to Isa 61:1-2 and 35:5-6 to suggest that he is God's Messiah. We now know from the fragmentary Dead Sea text 4Q521 (available in Vermes 1995, pp. 244-45) that these passages from Isaiah were acknowledged by at least the Qumran Jewish community as having messianic significance. In fact, both 4Q521 and Jesus's reply to John go beyond Isa 61 in their reference to the raising of the dead, thus suggesting that Jesus was familiar with the messianic tradition represented by 4Q521. (On 4Q521 and messianism, see Collins 1995, pp. 117-22, 205-206; Vermes 1992, pp. 303-304; Wright 1996, pp. 530-33.) Craig Evans plausibly concludes that "4Q521 significantly supports the traditional view that Jesus did indeed see himself as Israel's Messiah" (1997, p. 97; cf. Evans 1995, pp. 127-29.) This conclusion adds credibility to Mk 14:61-64/Mt 26:63-66/Lk 22:67-71, where before the chief priests and their council Jesus makes astonishing claims about his status in relation to God. These claims, according to Mk 14:64/Mt 26:65 elicit the charge that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy.
In his own person and ministry, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God has arrived: "... if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Lk 11:20, NRSV/Mt 12:28). In the same vein, in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mk 12:1-12/Mt 21:33-46/Lk 20:9-19), Jesus suggests that he is God's rejected (beloved) son who is heir to the things of God; he finds support for the lesson of this parable in Ps 118:22-23 (on the significance of this parable, in connection with Ps 118 and the death of Jesus, see Snodgrass 1983; cf. Jeremias 1972, pp. 70-77; Gundry 1993, pp. 659-64). In addition, Jesus claims that his impending death will supply the blood of the (new) covenant poured out for many (or for you) (Mk 14:24/Mt 26:28/Lk 22:20; cf. Jn 6:53; 1 Cor 11:23-26). He thus suggests that his death has special redemptive significance for others and is thus representative for others. (On the latter theme, see Jeremias 1971, pp. 288-92; Gese 1981, chap. 5; Beasley-Murray 1986, pp. 258-73; Stuhlmacher 1993, chap. 3; Wright 1996, pp. 554-63; on the origin of the tradition, see Pesch 1982; Theissen and Merz 1998, chap. 13.) The surprise is not that a death can be redemptive; Jewish literature around the turn of the eras acknowledges that suffering can atone for sin, even for the sins of others (see Vermes 1995, p. 80 [1 QS 8.1-4]; 4 Macc 6:27-30, 9:23-25; cf. Bockmuehl 1994, pp. 89-91; Wright 1996, pp. 579-92). The surprise is rather that Jesus regarded his death, the death of a Galilean outcast, as the means of God's new covenant of redemption, quite aside from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem.
In light of Jesus's striking remarks and actions concerning himself, E.P. Sanders has concluded that Jesus "shared the evangelists' view that he fulfilled the hopes of the prophets," and that "Jesus's actual claim may have been ... not only spokesman for, but viceroy of, God; and not just in a political kingdom but in the kingdom of God" (1993, pp. 168, 242; cf. Sanders 1985, pp. 319-27; Dunn 1992, pp. 981-82). The previous considerations, drawn from Jesus's actions and remarks, suggest that Jesus regarded himself as God's unique Priest, Judge, King, Messiah, Son, and Redeemer, as the one sent by God to fulfill the hopes of Israel and thus of all other nations as well. No other human could make such authoritative claims with any real plausibility. Jesus thus shatters the limits of human authority in a way that is disturbing but not disturbed. He is anything but a mere moral reformer or Cynic sage. He is either patently insane or God's unique son and viceroy, and no evidence of his insanity is forthcoming. As Sanders observes, "He was not a madman" (1992, p. 78). (For a recent, rather speculative psychological assessment of Jesus, see Miller 1997. Jesus, on Miller's intriguing portrait, is nowhere near insanity.)
Anyone genuinely open to personal excellence for us humans, including moral excellence, can readily come to see that Jesus was by no means insane. On the contrary, he serves as a living paradigm of sanity and even unsurpassed wisdom. He was exactly what one would expect, on appropriate reflection, of the human manifestation of a truly excellent God of self-giving righteous love. Just as God is the perfect personal manifestation of wisdom, Jesus is the perfect human manifestation of God's wisdom. In fact, Jesus spoke of himself as the representative of God's wisdom (Mt 11:16-19/Lk 7:31-35; cf. Mt 23:34-36/Lk 11:49-51). (For an overview of contemporary scholarly views on this topic, see Piper 1989, chap. 4; Meadors 1995, chap. 3; cf. Witherington 1994, pp. 201-208; Hengel 1995, chap. 2.) If, then, we acknowledge the challenging authority of Jesus as God's viceroy, the fact that Jesus was fully committed, volitionally and intellectually, to God as the righteously loving Father offers us a compelling reason to follow suit, volitionally and intellectually.
In one of the most revealing and challenging passages in the gospels, often called the "Johannine thunderbolt" in the synoptics, Jesus prays:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden (ἔκρυψας) these things [regarding his person and ministry] from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows (γινώσκει) who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Lk 10:21-22, NRSV/Mt 11:25-27; cf. Jn 3:35, 5:20, 10:15, 17:25; Mk 4:11-12).
The thematic similarities with John's Gospel do not recommend a Johannine origin for this passage. As Reginald Fuller suggests, "it is the product of a Christianity which has remained in very close touch with the mind of the historical Jesus: its conception of Sonship is his own, not the Hellenistic conception of the gnostic Redeemer" (1954, p. 95; likewise T.W. Manson 1938, p. 371; W. Manson 1943, pp. 71-76; Jeremias 1967, pp. 45-52, 1971, pp. 56-61; Marshall 1967; Bauckham 1978; Fitzmyer 1985a, pp. 867-70, 1985b, pp. 35-38; Piper 1989, pp. 170-73; Witherington 1990, pp. 221-28; De Jonge 1991, pp. 74-75; Gundry 1994, pp. 215-18; Meadors 1995, pp. 184-87; cf. Dunn 1975, pp. 26-34; Suggs 1970, pp. 71-97).
Jesus claims in his prayer that he is the unique son and sole revealer of God and therefore has unequaled authority among humans ("all things have been given to him," the Son, by his ["my"] Father). Luke speaks of knowing "who the Son is" and "who the Father is," whereas Matthew speaks simply of knowing "the Son" and "the Father." The difference is, I suggest, merely linguistic. Jesus is speaking of a kind of knowledge that differs from mere justified true belief that God exists. He is speaking of knowing God as authoritative but giving Father. Knowing God as existing First Cause, Designer, or Ground of Being is one thing, but knowing God as the Lord who is my righteously gracious Father is significantly different and more challenging. Consumed by the latter kind of knowing, Jesus addressed God as "Abba" (best translated as "Father," not "Daddy"; cf. Barr 1988), and the retention of the Aramaic term in the Greek New Testament (cf. Mk 14:36; Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15) offers warrant for treating "Abba" as ipsissima vox Jesu, as Jeremias 1967, Fitzmyer 1985b, and others have argued. In addition, Joseph Fitzmyer, an expert in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, has contended that "there is no evidence in the literature of pre-Christian or first-century Palestinian Judaism that 'abbā' was used in any sense as a personal address for God by an individual — and for Jesus to address God as 'abbā' or "Father" is therefore something new" (1985b, p. 28). At a minimum, we may embrace James Dunn's conclusion that Jesus's customary use of "Abba" to address God distinguished him significantly from his contemporaries (1989, pp. 26-29; likewise Brown 1994, pp. 85-89; Stanton 1995, pp. 152-55; cf. Bornkamm 1960, pp. 125-29.).
William Manson goes to the heart of Lk 10:22/Mt 11:27 in noting that "... the special knowledge which makes the teaching of Jesus a revelation of God is expressly grounded upon the filiality of his consciousness in relation to God, and this is a unique relation" (1943, p. 72; likewise T.W. Manson 1935, pp. 109-13, 1938, p. 371; Marshall 1967; Gundry 1994, p. 217). The basis of proper knowledge of God, according to Jesus, is consciousness of one's standing in a child-parent, or filial, relationship to God as righteously gracious Father. This theme is widely neglected by contemporary philosophy of religion, including Christian approaches to knowledge of God. James Dunn rightly adds that Jesus's consciousness of being God's son was an "existential conviction," and not a matter of merely intellectual assent: "He experienced a relation of sonship — felt such an intimacy with God, such an approval by God, dependence on God, responsibility to God, that the only words adequate to express it were `Father' and `son'" (1975, p. 38; cf. Dunn 1992, p. 981). Jesus's experience of filiality, as Jeremias 1967 argues, finds clear manifestation in his prayers (cf. Mk 14:36; Lk 10:21-22/Mt 11:25-27; Mt 26:42; Lk 23:34,46; Jn 11:41). Indeed, Jesus seems to have regarded filial prayer as an ideal avenue to proper knowledge of God (cf. Dunn 1975, pp. 15-22, 37-38).
Since distinctively Christian knowledge of God depends on a filial relationship of the sort exemplified by Jesus, it relies on a trusting personal relationship with God as Father. Accordingly, Jesus used trusting children to illustrate the kind of humble attitude suitable to entering God's kingdom (Mk 10:13-16/Mt 19:13-15/Lk 18:15-17). Our properly knowing the Jewish-Christian God is thus not a spectator sport, not a matter of passive observation. Knowing God properly requires our entering into an active personal relationship with God as Father; for God as righteously gracious Father promotes active loving relationships, not mere knowledge that he exists. Just as we come to know other human persons by actively relating to them, by interaction with them, so also we come to know God by a kind of personal interaction. By way of analogy, you could not recognize the genuineness of your parents' love for you if you avoided a sincere personal relationship with them. Personal knowledge of God is not just knowledge that another object in the universe exists. Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge as a kind of spectator's observation do not apply here; they are foreign to the main Hebraic conception of personal knowledge of God, whereby one knows God not as a mere object but as the supreme subject who is Lord of all.
Dodd, following Bultmann 1932, has approached the main idea with a contrast
between Greek and Hebraic conceptions of knowledge:
for the Greek, to know God means to contemplate the ultimate reality, τὸ
ὄντως ὄν, in its changeless essence. For
the Hebrew, to know God is to acknowledge Him in His works and to respond to
His claims. While for the Greek knowledge of God is the most highly abstract
form of pure contemplation, for the Hebrew it is essentially intercourse with
God; it is to experience His dealings with men in time, and to hear and obey
His commands (1953, p. 152; likewise Richardson 1958, chap. 2).
Commenting on the relevant Hebrew term for knowledge, "עדי", G.J. Botterweck notes: "`To know Yahweh' refers to a practical, religio-ethical relationship" (1980, p. 469). The Hebraic conception of personal knowledge of God is summarized by the epistle of James: "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (Jas 4:8, NRSV; cf. Jer 29:13; Mal 3:7; Heb 11:6). The heart of this personal knowledge is, from the human side, consciousness of God as Lord who is my righteously gracious Father. From the other side, the heart is the righteously gracious Father who reveals himself through his unique Son, who in turn has been given all authority by his Father. So, the relevant knowledge of God results from God's gracious self-revelation, not human self-credit or manipulation.
Divine Hiding and Revealing
In his prayer of Lk 10:21-22/Mt 11:25-27, Jesus thanks the Father for hiding his ways from those unprepared to enter a humble filial relationship. In a similar vein, Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God is "like treasure hidden (κεκρυμμένω) in a field" (Mt 13:44; cf. Lk 19:42). The apostle Paul makes a similar point by distinguishing the wisdom of God from the wisdom of the world and adding that the world does not know God through its wisdom (1 Cor 1:19-25). Echoing the idea of Lk 10:21-22/Mt 11:25-27, Paul contrasts the "wisdom of this age" and "God's wisdom": "[A]mong the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden (ἀποκεκρυμμένην), which God decreed before the ages for our glory" (1 Cor 2:6-7, NRSV). Paul sums up this divine wisdom in terms of Jesus himself, the personal paradigm of filial knowledge of God (1 Cor 1:30). Like Jesus, Paul suggests that the wisdom of God is hidden from some people and revealed to others. Is this compatible with the Jewish-Christian doctrine that God is all-loving? I shall argue that it is, contrary to a notable objection from divine hiddenness to Jewish-Christian theism (see Schellenberg 1993).
Consider a (transliterated) foreign linguistic token, such as "Tov vayashar adonai; tov layisrael elohim; tov vayashar hadavar." Perhaps you do not apprehend the meaning of what this says. In fact, you may not even be confident that this token actually has meaning; or you may have a vague and tentative glimpse of some of its meaning. The problem, however, lies not in the linguistic token; it lies rather in the overall perspective of beliefs and other attitudes you bring to this token (call this your "attitude"). In particular, the problem lies in your lack of due exposure and thus semantic sensitivity to ancient Hebrew. Your life has perhaps been too busy, or otherwise distracted and thus closed, to concentrate on the ancient Hebrew vocabulary and grammar needed to comprehend the meaning of the previous token. This illustrates that the reception of significant evidence sometimes depends on the attitude of perceivers.
Failure to receive some evidence comes from psychological facts about the intended recipients, rather than from flaws in the available evidence. The analogy, then, is this: those of us whose attitude is closed to God's "language" of righteous grace (i.e., God's program of all-inclusive redemption by righteous grace through his unique son) may be blinded from apprehending the available evidence for the reality of God and God's program. The evidence may be available, just as my (transliterated) Hebrew token was meaningful, but we need appropriate "ears to hear and eyes to see" the available evidence (cf. Mk 4:9, 8:18). We need a change of attitude, to apprehend the available evidence in the right way.
In particular, we must acknowledge that on our own we have failed dismally at the program of all-inclusive redemption, including self-redemption. This humbling acknowledgment is significant relative to our knowing God, as Jesus suggests in his prayer of Lk 10:21/Mt 11:25. It requires that we change how we think of ourselves and of our relation to a righteously gracious God; in particular, it calls for beginning a filial relationship after the model of Jesus, the unique son. It also recommends a change in our intentions regarding our conduct, and such change is volitional, a matter of the will. One result is that we are displaced from the prideful center of moral importance in our supposed universe. We then become able to appreciate the explanatory profundity of Judeo-Christian theism regarding the human condition, in a way that would not otherwise be apprehended. So, volitional transformation can contribute to our appreciation of explanatory value, in giving us a new perspective on our moral predicament.
Lacking transformation, we will be blinded from recognizing God by our own counterfeit "intelligence" and "wisdom" (cf. 1 Cor 1:19-25). We will then lack the kind of honest openness, humility, and filial obedience appropriate to relating to the true God, perhaps because we have assigned the authority of God to ourselves or to some other part of creation. In the latter case, we are guilty of idolatry, perhaps even a kind of epistemological idolatry where we demand a certain sort of knowledge of God inappropriate to a filial relationship. (On this topic, see my forthcoming paper "Beyond Epistemological Idolatry.") To the extent that we violate God's program of gracious redemption, we are slaves to selfishness and we need to be set free. The wisdom of the philosophers, however sophisticated and self-advancing, offers no means of freeing us from selfish fear of losing what we value; it lacks the needed power to set people free, to transform us from the inside out toward God's ideal of all-inclusive redemption. Only the freeing power of God's gracious offer of filial relationship can meet this need.
We come to know God only as he becomes our God, our Lord as Father of our lives, rather than just an object of our contemplation, convenience, or amusement. God refuses, for our own good, to become a mere idol of our speculation, self-indulgence, or entertainment. It follows that our knowledge of God depends on our filial loving submission to him. Such submission is volitional and action-oriented, not merely intellectual. Distinctively Christian knowledge of God is thus inherently ethical and practical rather than simply reflective.
The Johannine literature in the New Testament highlights the importance of morally relevant attitude with regard to the problem of hiding. In Jn 7:3-4, Jesus faces a version of the problem of hiding raised by his own brothers (who, according to 7:5, did not believe in him). His brothers tell him that nobody works in hiding while seeking to be known openly. Their challenge is straightforward: "Manifest (φανέρωσον) yourself to the world" (Jn 7:4; cf. Jn 10:24). Part of Jesus's reply is that the world hates him because he testifies that its works are evil. He suggests that the world has the wrong attitude toward him. John then portrays Jesus as teaching in the temple that if anyone wills (θέλῃ) to do the will of God, that person will know (γνώσεται) whether Jesus's teaching is from God (7:17). Note the importance of one's willing to obey God, as in a filial relationship with God. It thus is fitting that this part of John's Gospel culminates in a dispute over filial association with either God or the devil (Jn 8:39-47; see also the relevant filial language of one's being "born" again/from above in Jn 3:1-12, in connection with seeing/entering the kingdom of God and knowing the things of God).
Jn 12:35-40 continues the theme of hiding. After predicting his death, Jesus advises his listeners to walk while they have the light, lest the darkness overtake them (v. 35). He suggests that understanding the things of God requires faith in him (v. 36). Christian faith is not, however, an ungrounded supplement to inadequate evidence for God; it rather is fundamentally a filial attitude of obediently entrusting oneself to a faithful God who is a righteously gracious Father (cf. Jn 14:1). Jesus hides from the unbelieving crowd, and John links the unbelief to the kind of judgment described in Isa 6:10: "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them" (cf. Mk 4:11-12). John suggests that the crowd's unbelief in the face of Jesus's signs led to hardening and blindness in understanding. The lesson is that one's handling of the available evidence concerning God has serious consequences for one's understanding other considerations about God.
Jn 14:21 blunts the sharp edge of the problem of divine hiding. Its grand promise harks back to the challenge from Jesus's brothers that he manifest himself (and perhaps even back to the manifestation to Moses in Ex 33:18, LXX): "The person having my commandments and keeping them, that is the one who loves me; the person loving me will be loved by my Father, and I will love that person and manifest (ἐμφανίσω) myself to him." The striking promise here is general, applying to anyone keeping the commandments of Jesus.
One of Jesus's disciples reiterates the challenge from Jesus's brothers in Jn 7:4, asking why he will not manifest (ἐμφανίζειν) himself to the world (v. 22). The disciples' thinking is familiar: Why hide from the world if you have miraculous powers? Jesus offers, as before, a reply that highlights the importance of human attitude in relation to God: "If a person loves me, that person will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (7:23). The reply assumes that the world does not love the things of God and therefore God's manifestation would not have the filial effect desired by God. In another context, Jesus remarks that "an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign" (Mt 12:39, 16:4/Lk 11:29; cf. Mk 8:12; Jn 6:30), as signs and wonders are ineffective toward a filial relationship. Jesus thus portrays God as desiring not mere acknowledgment or intellectual assent, but an attitude of filial, loving obedience.
The first epistle of John develops the theme that proper knowledge of God depends on a filial attitude of loving obedience. John writes:
By this we know that we have come to know [God], if we keep his commandments.... Whoever keeps his [God's] word, truly in this person the love of God is perfected. By this we know that we are in him. The one who claims to remain in him ought himself to behave as he [Jesus] behaved (1 Jn 2:3,5). The one who loves ... knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8).
John regards a filial attitude of loving obedience toward God as necessary and sufficient for properly knowing God. Note the central role of the Son Jesus in this passage. This approach to knowledge of God as filial relationship agrees with the perspective on hiding in John's Gospel (chaps. 7, 12, 14).
The Gospel of John (6:30-35) identifies Jesus himself, God's unique Son, as the effective "sign" (σημεον) — the filial evidence — for us from God, even though he is a sign unavailable to people closed to God's gracious offer of filial relationship. Familiar evidence regarding such matters as prophecies, miracles, the empty tomb of Jesus, the post-resurrection transformation of the apostles, design in nature, and the reality of moral conscience is undeniably important for reasonable Christian commitment, but it is not decisive for personal knowledge of God. A person can accept such evidence and find the New Testament claims quite reasonable without properly knowing God at all. The kind of absolute, whole-hearted commitment demanded by Jesus of his followers (see Mk 8:34-38/Mt 16:24-27/Lk 9:23-26; Mt 8:18-22/Lk 9:57-62; Mt 10:37-39/Lk 14:25-27) requires and finds a motivational basis, not in the vicissitudes of history or rational inference, but in the morally transforming presence of God's righteous love through filial relationship, made available by the self-giving life and death of God's unique Son Jesus. The historical evidence is indeed indispensable but not suitably decisive for personal knowledge of God, which for us must be reconciling and transforming.
One must know God's transforming love directly in filial relationship, not just in historical evidence about God's love. C.H. Dodd has put this key lesson in context: "Perhaps one of the most striking features of the early Christian movement was the re-appearance of a confidence that [one] can know God immediately.... Jesus Christ, with a confidence that to the timid traditionalism of His time appeared blasphemous, asserted that He knew the Father and was prepared to let others into that knowledge. He did so ... by making others sharers in His own attitude to God" (1920, p. 131). Jesus's "attitude" to God in which others can share is inherently filial, as illustrated by Lk 10:22/Mt 11:27 and many other familiar gospel passages, including the Lord's Prayer.
A person's appreciating that Jesus himself, in terms of his unique status, offers a compelling reason to acknowledge God is no mere intellectual matter. Jesus remarked that the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8). We must be genuinely open to imaging, or reflecting, the kind of personal excellence manifested by Jesus, in his relation to God as Father, to appreciate adequately that it is indeed excellence. In particular, we must be able to accommodate Jesus's teaching that we humans have failed at being appropriately filial toward the God who is our righteously gracious Father and toward agents created by him, and that this is the worst kind of personal failure possible. As a result, we must render judgment against ourselves, judgment that we have rebelled against our filial responsibility before God (cf. Lk 15:11-32). This is the beginning of what Jesus called repentance and demanded of his followers (on which, see Allison 1987; cf. Wright 1996, pp. 246-58). It calls for humble recognition that we are not entitled, on our own, to know God as Father, that such knowledge can come only as a gracious gift. One result is that, for the sake of our Father, we are displaced from the prideful center of intellectual and practical importance in our lives. We must become humble as God is humble (cf. Hos 11:1-4; Mt 11:28-30). In becoming humble before God as our Father, we become able to appreciate the explanatory profundity of Christian theism, with regard to ourselves and our Father, in a way that would not otherwise be apprehended. So, volitional transformation can contribute to our appreciation of explanatory value.
The excellence of Jesus is ultimately revealed to people honestly open to honoring such excellence with their lives, and not just their thoughts. Just as God uses grace to remove pride about good works (Eph 2:9), he can use revelation to remove pride about self-crediting intellectual means of finding him. Argument can remove some obstacles to God's revelation, but God's Spirit is its final source and seal, and this Spirit makes the wisdom of God a liberating power absent from worldly wisdom. Proper knowledge of God thus has its ultimate source in the Spirit of God, who testifies, or witnesses, immediately to our spirits. (On this important topic, see Camfield 1934; Trites 1977, chaps. 7-11; Burge 1987, chaps. 4,5.) In keeping with Jesus's prayer of Lk 10:21-22/Mt 11:25-27, we ultimately know God by gracious revelation. Christian theory of knowledge must therefore give a central role to the immediate testimony and motivating power of God's revealing Spirit. Paul put the point as follows: "We have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit from God, in order that we may know the things freely given to us by God" (1 Cor 2:12; cf. 1 Cor 4:7, 12:3; Rom 8:14-16; Jn 3:8). As a result, a person will be unable to appreciate the depths of Christianity from outside, apart from filial reception of the Spirit of God. Accordingly, in Lk 11:9-13, Jesus connects (a) finding, and receiving from, God with (b) receiving the Father's Holy Spirit.
Neither God nor anyone else can coerce genuine love or trust. Free choice is a prerequisite for loving filial relationships, and God seeks such relationships above all else. As Father, he seeks the freely chosen union of our wills with his righteously gracious will. He thus seeks to transform us to free conformity with his own moral character, particularly as it is revealed in the human life of his unique Son. Evidence of such transformation in our own lives is salient evidence of God's redemptive work in his creation. That is, in fulfilling his promise of transformation in our lives, God offers us decisive evidence of his faithful presence. Accordingly, the apostle Paul remarks that "[Christian] hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us" (Rom 5:5, NRSV). In addition, the prayer of Eph 3:17-18 is that we may be "rooted and founded" in love in order that we may have the power to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. God's love indwelling our lives, through the Holy Spirit, is the foundation of Christian hope and of our knowledge of Christ's excellence. A life opposed or indifferent to self-giving love thus excludes itself from proper, reconciling knowledge of God.
As our wills yield to God's excellence, we open ourselves to a kind of transforming wisdom and power unavailable from worldly wisdom. We then encounter a Father able and willing to liberate us from our own destructive ways. Paul captured this point in his first letter to the Corinthians: "My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Cor 2:4-5). The power of the Spirit appears not with competitive, prideful, or otherwise self-serving behavior, but rather with such unworldly fruit as self-giving love and service.
The evidence of God's presence offered by character transformation goes much deeper than the comparatively superficial evidence found in signs, wonders, visions, and ecstatic experiences. We can consistently dismiss any sign, wonder, vision, or ecstatic experience as illusory, given certain alterations in our beliefs. In contrast, genuine character transformation toward the ideal set by Jesus does not admit of easy dismissal. Such transformation cuts too deeply against our natural tendencies toward selfishness. It thus offers a kind of firm evidence that resists any quick dismissal. God as Father takes us too seriously to have us settle for entertaining signs and wonders rather than character transformation toward his excellence. This is a salient indicator of God's redemptive love for us.
God's loving wisdom has authority of a special kind. It is a redeeming authority that works from within to avoid coercion, to preserve freedom, and to free us from bondage to selfishness. Jesus captured the idea by telling his disciples that the authority of God comes through service rather than through wielding power over people (Mk 10:42-45). As a result, Jesus accepted scandalous death on the cross, thus manifesting God's self-giving love to the very end. As Paul puts it, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Paul also identifies a central purpose of the crucifixion of Jesus: "... he died on behalf of all, in order that those who live would live no longer for themselves, but for the one who died and was raised for them" (2 Cor 5:15). God, through Jesus, reconciles us by manifesting his self-giving love and by calling us to follow suit. The disturbing authority of Jesus is all about laying down our personal rights in love, for the sake of others. It is thus the direct opposite of worldly authority; indeed, it is foolishness in the world's eyes. The authority of Jesus calls for a life motivated not by austere duty or personal honor, but rather by joyful filial gratitude for what God as gracious Father has done for us (see the parables of Lk 15). Saying this is easy; living it is not. Our reconciling knowledge of God must, nonetheless, permeate all of our lives.
In sum, we have seen that Jesus regards people not as mere physical entities, but as morally accountable agents capable of spiritual communion with God as gracious Father. We have also seen that Jesus regards proper knowledge of God as inherently filial. Spiritual communion with God as Father requires filial knowing of God, involving trust, love, prayer, and obedience toward God as Father. Such filial knowing finds its unique paradigm in Jesus, the Father's unique Son. Given God's gracious promises to his children, filial knowing must survive bodily death and continue even prior to bodily resurrection. So, our filial knowledge of God as Father depends on human spiritual agency incompatible with materialism. In restoring the central views of Jesus on knowing God to their place of first importance, we shall open ourselves to the kind of liberating power characteristic of the life and ministry of Jesus. In that case, all things will be new for us, including our manner of knowing God and his unique Son. Following Jesus, then, all Christians do well to pray sincerely for such filial change by God the Father through God's own unique Son and Spirit.
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