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«1 Jesus’ ignorance of His return One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament is Mark 13. Epitomizing the difficulty of this chapter ...»

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On Jesus’ Eschatological Ignorance

Edwin K. P. Chong

Version: July 25, 2003

1 Jesus’ ignorance of His return

One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament is Mark 13. Epitomizing the difficulty of

this chapter is verse 32, which explicitly teaches that Jesus does not know when He will return:1

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but

only the Father.

An identical verse appears in Matthew 24:36. How is this compatible with the orthodox view that Jesus is God and hence is omniscient?

Over the centuries, groups like the Ebionites, Arians, and Nestorians2 have used this verse to argue that Jesus was not fully divine.3 In response, the church fathers developed interpretive approaches to Mark 13:32, which today continue to form the basis for theological solutions to this problem.

In 451 A.D., the Council of Chalcedon, in Act V, defined the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.4 According to this definition, Christ is “truly God and truly man.” This Chalcedonian formula has since become a hallmark of orthodox Christology. How exactly does this orthodox view reckon with Mark 13:32?

In this essay, I outline the prevalent solutions to the controversy surrounding Mark 13:32, the major proponents of each solution, and its basis. I also provide some evaluation of these solutions, indicating which have garnered mainstream acceptance, and why.

Mark 13:32, New International Version.

Over the centuries, a number of heresies on the divine and human nature of Christ have emerged. The Ebionites denied the deity of Christ, asserting instead that he was divinely empowered at his baptism. The Arians believed Christ to be a finite, and hence created, being. The Apollinarians held that Christ took on the human nature only partially.

The Nestorians, in reaction to the Apollinarians, emphasized the human body of Christ. In contrast, the Eutychians held that Christ had only one nature, the divine nature.

The same argument persists even in current anti-orthodox literature; see, e.g., Jason Hatherly, “Why the Christian god does not exist,” 2001, http://www.mwillett.org/atheism/oolon1.htm.

See, e.g., http://www.mit.edu/ tb/anglican/intro/chalcedon.html.

Edwin K. P. Chong 2 Approaches to Jesus’ ignorance The dominant approaches to dealing with this problem fall into several categories, ranging from those that strongly preserve the Chalcedonian understanding to those that abandon this understanding in resolving the issue. These views continue to be discussed in the current theological literature—see, e.g., the recent paper by Harold F. Carl,5 and a response to this paper by Kris J.


2.1 Hypostatic union The Chalcedonian formula involves a view that Christ has two natures, God and man, subsisting in only one person. This union of two natures in one person has come to be called the hypostatic union.

The doctrine of the hypostatic union is based on a cumulative view of the scriptural witness to Christ. This witness testifies to several important attributes of Christ, outlined below.7 The preexistence of Christ. This means that Christ existed before his earthly birth. The scriptural evidence for this understanding of Christ includes proof from the Old Testament (Isaiah 9:6), New Testament (John 8:58), Christ’s involvement in the creation (Colossians 1:16), the appearance of the angel of the Lord (Exodus 3:2,4; Genesis 22:11), and by Christ’s various names: Logos, Son of God, and Jehovah.

The incarnation of Christ. Christ’s incarnation is defined as the eternal second Person of the Trinity taking on Himself humanity or flesh. The central supporting passage for the incarnation is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,8 who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The means of Christ’s incarnation is the virgin birth (Matthew 1:23, Luke 1:35).9 Several purposes of the incarnation are recognized within orthodox Christology: to reveal God to us; to provide an example for our lives; to provide an effective sacrifice for sin; to be able to fulfill the Davidic covenant; to destroy the works of the devil; to be able to be a sympathetic high priest; and to be able to be a qualified judge.

Harold F. Carl, “Only the Father Knows: Historical and Evangelical Responses to Jesus’ Eschatological Ignorance in Mark 13:32,” Journal of Biblical Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, July–September 2001.


Kris J. Udd, “Only the Father Knows: A Response to Harold F. Carl,” Journal of Biblical Studies, vol. 1, no. 4, October–December 2001. http://journalofbiblicalstudies.org/issue4.html.

For a fairly exhaustive summary of common Christological views, in particular views on the deity and humanity of Christ, see http://theopenword.org/topics/humanity/hummain.htm, http://www.biblicalstudies.com/bstudy/christology/jesus1.htm, and http://www.discernment.org/Christ.htm.

Or “the Only Begotten.” Both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of Jesus.

Edwin K. P. Chong The deity of Christ. The Scriptures provide ample evidence that Christ is God. For example, the Scriptures testify to Christ possessing attributes that only God has: eternality (Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2; John 1:1; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:8-10; Revelation 1:8), omnipresence (Matthew 18:20, 28:20; John 3:13), omniscience (John 16:30, 21:17), omnipotence (Psalm 45:3; Philippians 3:21; Revelation 1:8), immutability (Hebrews 13:8), self-existence (John 1:1–3, 5:21-26; Hebrews 7:16), and holiness (Luke 1:35; Acts 3:14; 1 Peter 1:19).

Furthermore, Christ performed acts that only God can perform: forgiveness (Mark 2:10;

Luke 7:47), judgment (John 5:22; 2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 17:31), creating (Hebrews 1:10;

Colossians 1:15), sustaining (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), and miracles (John 10:37).

Also, Christ was given names and titles of deity: Son of God (Matthew 8:29, 16:16; Mark 1), and Lord and God (John 1:1,18; Hebrews 1:8; Titus 2:13; Matthew 22:43-45). Finally, Christ claimed to be God and He received worship (John 10:30; Matthew 4:10; John 5:23; Revelation 22:8-9; Philippians 2:10).

The humanity of Christ. That Christ was human is clear from Scriptures. He was born and had a human body, as described in the Gospels (see also Galatians 4:4), He had a human soul and spirit, He exhibited the characteristics of a human being, like growing up (Luke 2:52), and He was called by human names.

The unity of the person of Christ. In addition to the Biblical evidence for Christ’s deity and humanity, the unity of these natures in the person of Christ is also evident (John 1:14; Galatians 4:4; 1 Timothy 3:16; Ephesians 2:16–18; 1 John 2:1–2, 4:2, 4:15, 5:5).

The hypostatic-union view of Christ plays a key role in dealing with Mark 13:32. Prominent theologians who espouse this solution include W. G. T. Shedd, B. B. Warfield, Wayne Grudem, Charles Lee Feinberg, Norman Geisler, and John F. Walvoord (who, incidentally, passed away in December 2002 at age 92). W. G. T. Shedd, in particular, provides a unique solution along these lines by positing that the divine nature of Christ, not His human nature, is the basis for His personhood—the Word took on flesh, not the other way around (John 1:14). Hence, as Shedd puts it, “As the prophet Isaiah could know no more of the secret things of God than it pleased the Holy Spirit to disclose to him, so the human mind of Christ could know no more of these same divine secrets than the illumination of the Logos made known.”10 In other words, the Word (Logos) in His omniscience knew the day of the return, but the human mind of Christ did not, because the Logos did not reveal this.

One key issue in dealing with Mark 13:32 is that the title “the Son” is used specifically in this context. If the Son refers to the second person of the Trinity, then it would appear that it is the deity of Christ who does not “know about that day or hour.” The orthodox solution to this issue is that the divine title of “Son” is often in Scripture connected with a human attribute. Another example W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Second Edition, 3 vols. Thomas Nelson, 1980. As quoted in Carl, “Only the Father Knows,” cited before.

Edwin K. P. Chong is the statement, “they crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). This interpretive principle was developed by Martin Luther, and has since become known as the rule of predication. The rule of predication was present even in the work of early theologians, notably Athanasius (295–373).

This principle is also applied in the work of John Calivn, B. B. Warfield, and Wayne Grudem.

2.2 Non-use Closely related to the hypostatic-union solution is what is best described as the “non-use” solution.

The idea here is that although Christ did not lose His divine attributes at the incarnation, He gave up independent use of them. For this reason, he was ignorant of his return. Both Luther and Calvin sometimes explained Christ’s ignorance this way.11 Other prominent theologians who take this view include Charles M. Horne, R. C. H. Lenski, and Thomas Oden.

The hypostatic-union and non-use solutions are so closely tied that, as suggested above, many seem to hold both views.12

2.3 Official ignorance A third solution to Mark 13:32 is to say that although Christ knew, He was not commissioned to reveal the day or the hour of the final judgment. In other words, Christ’s ignorance is only an apparent ignorance. This view was W. G. T. Shedd’s first solution in volume one of Dogmatic Theology, where he dubs it the “official ignorance” of Christ:13 To “know” means to “make known,”... A particular Trinitarian person is officially the one to reveal another, and in this reference the others do not officially reveal, and so are officially “ignorant.”... When it is said that the “Father only” knows the time of the day of judgment, this must be harmonized with the truth that the Holy Spirit is omniscient, and “searcheth the deep things of God,” 1 Cor. 2:10. The Holy Spirit is not ignorant of the time of the day of Judgment, but like the incarnate Son he is not commissioned to reveal the time... Again, it is not supposable that Christ now seated on the mediatorial throne is ignorant, even in respect to his human nature, of the time of the day of judgment, though he is not authorized to officially make it known to his church.

The official-ignorance view was held as far back as by Hilary of Poitiers (315–367); it was also the view espoused by Augustine (354–430). Today, this view is a minority view. As Carl points out, “The only other modern author found [other than Shedd], and he not so modern, to espouse Carl, “Only the Father Knows,” cited before.

Even some contemporary literature seems to hold both these views simultaneously; e.g., http://www.daviscru.com/ccci/resources-is-jesus-god.asp and http://www.carm.org/diff/Mark13 32.htm.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Second Edition, Volume One. Thomas Nelson, 1980, pp. 319–320. (As quoted in Carl, “Only the Father Knows,” cited before.) Edwin K. P. Chong the official ignorance view is Lewis Sperry Chafer.”14 This view remains appealing to those who cannot accept that Christ could be ignorant in any real sense.15

2.4 Kenoticism

Another solution to Mark 13:32 is based on the scriptural notion of kenosis found in Philippians 2:5–7:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Kenosis, often translated “to empty” or “to make into nothing,” is how Christ’s incarnation is described here. Thus, in explaining Mark 13:32, kenosis theologians (kenoticists) would say that Christ was ignorant because He willingly emptied Himself of His divinity when He became incarnate. Kenoticism developed with the work of Gottfried Thomasius (1802–75), a German Lutheran.

The view continued to develop in Germany in the period 1860–80, and in England in 1890–1910.16 Over the years, several views of the kenosis have developed, some more liberal than others in reconciling this view with the rest of Scriptures:17

1. He gave up the use of the attributes.

2. He acted as if he did not possess divine attributes.

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