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Could Jesus Have Made Mistakes? An Exercise in Controversial Christology

Could Jesus Have Made Mistakes? An Exercise in Controversial Christology June 2, 2014

Could Jesus Have Made Mistakes? An Exercise in Controversial Christology

I was recently asked to comment on whether Jesus could have made mistakes. Here’s the back story: A well known, controversial preacher publicly stated that there is a difference between “sin” and “mistake” and that, although Jesus did not sin, he may have made mistakes. The preacher’s online sermon was bawdlerized to omit that statement. The assumption is that it created controversy.

Now, many people would probably consider any controversy over this tantamount to making a mountain out of a mole hill. I’m tempted to agree. However, any statement about Jesus made publicly is likely to create controversy because, of course, Jesus is the center of Christianity. Also, claiming that Jesus might have made mistakes raises issues, for some, at least, about his deity and trustworthiness. Believers in the strict inerrancy of the Bible might be reluctant to agree that Jesus, the “author and finisher of the faith,” could ever have made an error about anything. If the Bible doesn’t, why believe Jesus did? If Jesus did, perhaps the Bible does.

I think this claim and the controversy surrounding it makes a good “teachable moment” about theology. Rather than react, why not step back and calmly consider all the angles? What’s at stake? What evidence do we have? What data might point toward an answer? Can we know an answer or must we suspend judgment?

First, we must acknowledge that the Gospels give us no clear answer to the question whether Jesus made any mistakes, however “mistakes” might be defined. However, it would not have been in the evangelists’ interests to record any. The Gospels are not biographies of Jesus; they are witnesses and theological records of his ministry, passion and resurrection. The fact that the Gospels doe not record any “Jesus mistakes” is hardly definitive when it comes to answering.

Second, perhaps much depends on what is meant by “mistakes.” The distinction between “sin” and “mistake” is surely correct if “mistake” does not imply moral error. If “mistake” means only “factual error,” then making one does not affect holiness.

Third, however “mistake” is defined, however, the underlying issue is whether Jesus was omniscient. God is omniscient which, by all accounts, means incapable of factual error. God cannot be wrong in what God believes. Even open theists and (most) process theologians agree! But was the man Jesus omniscient? That he was God incarnate does not automatically answer the question. There are two main theological views of the relationship between Jesus’ humanity and divinity: the two minds theory and the kenotic theory. According to the former Jesus was omniscient because he had a divine mind undimmed by his humanity. However, even in the “two minds theory,” Jesus’ human mind might have been mistaken in matters of fact. (I’m only saying there’s no logical reason embedded in the two minds theory that rules this out.) According to the latter, the kenotic theory, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos/Word, Son of God, equal with the Father, divested himself of the use of his attributes of glory for the purpose of being truly human. (Here I am following the British version of Kenotic Christology laid out by, for example, P. T. Forsyth The Person and Work of Christ.) In this Christology, Jesus was not an “omniscient baby” or even an “omniscient man.” He genuinely did not know the day or hour of his own return in glory—because of his voluntary “self-emptying” of omniscience. Still, even for Kenotic Christology, “Jesus mistakes” are not necessary.

Both models of orthodox Christology (interpretations of the hypostatic union) allow Jesus to have made mistakes of fact, but neither one requires that he did. That is not to say their proponents think Jesus made mistakes; it is only to say there is no logical reason why he could not have made mistakes. In both cases, the question remains moot—depending for answer on other data.

But there is another theological divide—within orthodox Christianity—that troubles the question and any answer. That is the so-called communication idiomatum—the “communication of attributes” in the hypostatic union. Church father and bishop of Alexandria Cyril believed in it; for him the divine nature of Christ communicated divine attributes to the human nature—something that made him reluctant to affirm “two natures” of Christ (which he eventually did with that proviso). Luther agreed. However, the Antiochian church fathers (e.g., Theodore of Mopsuestia) did not believe in it and during the Reformation most Reformed theologians (non-Lutherans) agreed with them. If one believes, with Cyril and Luther, that in the hypostatic union the incarnate Son of God communicated divine attributes to the humanity of Jesus, then it would make sense to deny that Jesus ever made even one factual error. However, if one agrees with the Reformed theologians (Bucer and Calvin) that in the hypostatic union the divine attributes were not communicated to the humanity of Jesus, there is reason to believe that perhaps Jesus made errors of fact.

Theologically, another question must be asked here. Does denying that Jesus ever made any mistakes, even innocent factual errors (e.g. when working with his father in carpentry cutting a board too short), imply a mild docetism? (Docetism is any denial of Jesus’ full and true humanity.) I think that danger at least lurks in such a denial. Why? Well, it would seem that normal human development implies some trial and error. What would we think of a person, say a child prodigy, who never made a mistake about anything? We might consider him human but only in a very strange sense. If denying that Jesus made any errors of fact, mistakes, is tantamount to even mild docetism, then it would be preferable to affirm that he did.

On the other hand, theologically, we must consider whether we believe Jesus is still human. Orthodox Christianity has always affirmed that he is and always will be—even if already “glorified.” But I have never heard anyone suggest that the resurrected and ascended Jesus makes mistakes of any kind. That would seem to be beyond any vision of orthodox Christology. But if Jesus can be “truly human” now, in his glorified state, and be inerrant, then, logically, we must admit that “to err” is not necessarily human.

There is none verse in one Gospel, Luke’s, that might lend itself to an answer (and, if so, incline away from the communication of attributes in the hypostatic union). Luke 2:52 says that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom (italics added, of course) and favor with God and man. Is it possible to “grow in wisdom” without ever making any mistakes of any kind? That would seem doubtful. Growing in wisdom implies moving from less wisdom to greater wisdom and that implies trial and error. This is the only New Testament passage that I can think of that someone who argues Jesus did make innocent mistakes (not touching morality) can appeal to.

However, someone who believes Jesus never made any mistakes, of any kind, would probably simply answer that growth in wisdom does not imply actual mistakes. It might simply mean growing from a lesser kind of wisdom to a greater kind of wisdom—not a difference of quantity but of quality. After all, Luke 2:52 also says Jesus grew in “favor” with God. Does anyone imagine that at some point Jesus did not have God’s perfect and complete favor—that he lacked God’s favor? So the passage must, some would say, be referring to qualities, not quantities, to intensity of experience, not objective content or relation.

What’s at stake in this controversy? I don’t think much is at stake—so long as “mistake” is explained as completely innocent and so long as denial that Jesus made is not an expression of docetism. In the end, I don’t think we can know definitely whether Jesus made innocent errors.

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