The Quest for Certainty and Jesus’ Humanity

A few days ago, I wrote about Jesus’ humanity in Hebrews.  I’ve been thinking over the last few days about obstacles to taking seriously the humanity of Jesus in Hebrews.

When I taught undergraduates, I routinely encountered Christian young people who were certain that Luke 2:40-52 was not portraying Jesus as learning anything.  He was God so he must have been omniscient!  The fact that this seems to be the very point of the narrative and that Luke frames the episode by mentioning Jesus’ growth in wisdom didn’t convince them (vv. 40 & 52).

Our hopes and desires are shaped by cultural pressures and social forces and we end up making Jesus in our own image.

There are many ways we do this; here’s just one. 

I think the quest for certainty inhibits us from taking Jesus’ humanity with full seriousness.

Because of our situation in a post-enlightenment, post-scientific age, we idolize knowledge.  We are frustrated by what we don’t know and what we need to find out.  Driven by desires for something like omniscience, we create the image of a superhero who would know everything, have access to all knowledge.

Jesus, of course, must be like that!  He wouldn’t be hampered by a need to learn or discover anything.

Further, we all face uncertainties—both in our close relationships and in our experience of the wider culture.  We crave certainty.  We want guarantees that everything is going to be okay.  Driven by desires to escape the contingencies of daily life, we create the image of a superhero who has no doubts about life; one who doesn’t need to navigate the uncertainties of the future the way we do.

Again, Jesus must have been like that!

Shaped as we are by our fears, desires, fantasies, and experiences, it is difficult for us to take seriously the passages in the New Testament that depict Jesus’ human experience.  It was very much like ours.

The writer of Hebrews stresses this in several passages in order to encourage his readers to remain faithful.  They have a fully sympathetic high priest, one who has fully experienced the stresses, trials, and temptations of life.

He knows all about facing an uncertain future, struggling to clarify calling and vocation, navigating an uncertain world, and striving to remain faithful (Heb. 5:7-10).

The gospel is not that Jesus is exceptional because he isn’t like you.  The gospel is not that Jesus is a superhero who meets our fantastical projections.  The gospel is not that Jesus was a superhero who wasn’t like you at all.

The gospel is that Jesus fully took on our condition and seriously participated in humanity as we experience it.  He was faithful to God unto death and in his death he conquered death itself and the one who held the power of death—God’s cosmic enemy (Heb. 2:14-15).

And the gospel is that we have this Jesus as a sympathetic high priest to call upon.  When we pray to God for help in time of need, there’s no eye-rolling on God’s part.  The one at God’s right hand knows exactly what life is like and is eager to grant help to his sisters and brothers (Heb. 2:12, 18).

Don’t create a Jesus according to your superhero projections.  The biblical Jesus is far better.

18 thoughts on “The Quest for Certainty and Jesus’ Humanity

  1. athanasius96

    Jesus is much more the “anti-hero” who, rather than being bullet-proof, makes himself completely vulnerable to his enemies. He absolutely does not take on some form of a different humanity. It’s our humanity, or everything he does is pointless.

    This alternate view also betrays a belief that such a pat and certain answer exists from the start. A more Jewish view of the matter is that truth is wrestled with and acted upon as opposed to being fully understood.

    1. timgombis

      That’s more organic and resonant with the narrative shape of Scripture, too. We don’t get timeless, abstracted truth (though it is truth!) in Scripture, and we don’t get a timeless, abstracted Savior — we get Jesus! Much better than the one we’d construct from our ideological context and its idolatrous projections.

      1. joey

        He, like us, was shaped, defined, and created by a Story. He was shaped by the Story of his people (which, I believe, was part of the purpose for God’s choosing a special people). He was shaped by their psalms, their prayers, their poetry, their feasts and their sacred texts. How many times, I wonder, did Mary sing her song (Luke 1) to the young boy?

  2. John Thomson

    I agree with this in large part if not the whole. However, there is a sense that Jesus isn’t ‘like us’. He came not in sinful flesh but in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’. He din’t have a sinful nature – he was ‘the holy thing’.

    What did temptation mean for Jesus? We often speak as if he was tempted by all the sins that we are and by tempted we assume something in him was attracted to these. I do not believe this is the case at all.

    For example, do we think Jesus was tempted by pedophilia? Or by incest? Most would probably say no (hopefully). Indeed most of us will not have been tempted by these. Most of us are revulsed by the very thought. Yet some would happily say he was tempted sexually. Why is he likely to be tempted by the one one sin and not the other. Would not his holy nature be revulsed by sexual sin.

    I do not believe he was tempted (attracted to) anything that was intrinsically sinful. There was no corruption in his nature to be drawn to it. His reaction to sin is exactly the reaction of the Holy Spirit who filled him. He was grieved by sin and offended by it. He hated it and loved righteousness. He had come to destroy the works of the devil. He was the embodiment of ‘life’ the life of God. This ‘life’ was a life of pure light. In him was no darkness at all. He could only do the things that he saw his father do.

    His temptation lay in being deviated from the way of the cross. The cross was where he would be identified with all that his holy nature found loathsome and all that his humanity naturally (not sinfully) resisted. This he would rather avoid… if it be possible let this cup pass from me. Yet he set his face steadfastly towards Jerusalem. The cup that his father has given him to drink will he not drink it… nevertheless not my will but yours be done.

    Added to this of course is the sheer weight of serving others so selflessly. This was exhausting, draining and costly. Serving in the face of misunderstanding, rejection, hostility, abandonment etc. These were his trials. These called for loud crying and tears. These called for the resilience of faith… for endurance…

    It is ever in the consequences of embracing the way of the cross that Jesus is tried. Yet he embraced it so that faith was charted to its limits. For those who embrace the way of the cross he is a High Priest who supports. He knows exactly the kind of faith that is necessary to endure and in grace supplies this to his people.

    Christ did not have our humanity. He was not a sinner. In this sense he can never be like us. He can never enter into our sense of failure and defeat in sin for he has never sinned. But we become like him. We have his life in regeneration and his Spirit indwelling. Neither of these sins nor is capable of sinning. In the consummation we will no longer have our old humanity (the flesh, our Adamic nature). We will have only the divine nature and we will be eternally unable to sin. and yet we will be truly human.

    The problem with ‘our humanity’ is that it was unable to redeem itself. It was/is fallen, corrupt and hostile to God. Christ did not have this humanity (or rather, this state of humanity). Nor did he have Adam’s humanity prior to the fall (for he knew good and evil). Christ in incarnation is humanity in a new state (holy) and in exaltation he took it into yet another state… living as he now does in the power of an indestructible life.

    1. timgombis

      The NT expressions indicating that Jesus came in “the likeness of sinful flesh” are slightly misleading when translated into English. They don’t indicate that Jesus took on “something very close to but not quite exactly” our corrupted or broken nature. They’re actually indicating intensely that Jesus took on exactly our broken condition. He did indeed take on our humanity. He took on sinful flesh, a body dominated by the power of Sin–our humanity in its broken condition (Rom 8; Gal 4). It could have only be this way so that he could put to death sin-in-the-flesh. He became like us in every way so that he could redeem humanity that was enslaved to sin. If he didn’t become like us, then none of us can be redeemed.

      Christ did indeed take on our humanity, but he never sinned. So, he was indeed fully like us, but in our condition he walked in constant and persevering triumph over sin. And he finally defeated it in his death and resurrection.

      It is tempting (and it was tempting for many in the first few Christians centuries) to skew the incarnation so that Jesus is untouched by our broken and enslaved humanity, but that violates the NT witness and historic Christian orthodoxy. It also cuts us off from the possibility of redemption.

      Gregory’s formulation here is helpful: that which he has not assumed, he has not healed.

      1. John Thomson


        Sinful flesh is by nature/intrinsically hostile to God… it does not submit to God’s law and cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. What you offer for Roms 8 is an interpretation not a translation. Fallen humanity is corrupt at heart; sins are merely the inevitable expression of its nature. Flesh is ‘unclean’. This is why ‘flesh’ is never rehabilitated but put to death. Our new life is not ‘flesh’ (fallen humanity).

        Hebrews is careful, he took ‘flesh and blood’. He became truly human. The Virgin birth indicates a distinct humanity. Holy applies not merely to deity but to humanity – to a whole Christ; he is not ‘unclean’ but ‘holy’. Where do we get even a hint that he had to overcome the evil of his own nature? Temptation, when it comes, comes from without – from Satan.

        Christ and Adam are both human but thereafter it is all contrast; earthly/heavenly; natural/spiritual etc 1 Cor 15.

        ‘If he didn’t become like us, then none of us can be redeemed’. But you acknowledge he didn’t become like us. He never sinned. It takes a man to die for men – the state of the humanity is not the question in substitution but the reality of humanity.

        Barth was right that our Christology determines everything. The problem is he was wrong in his Christology.

      2. timgombis

        You’ve got too many assertions from too many places and all going in varying directions for me to address succinctly (remember, this is a blog!). I’ll just say that the very gnostic tendencies that drove some strands of early Christian theology in heretical directions are at work in your theology. You may feel similarly about what I have to say. In that case, perhaps we’re just bound to disagree at point after point. Perhaps we can just acknowledge that and avoid filling up the comments section of each and every post.

  3. Blake Hereth

    Well, Dr. Gombis, I’ve long been a fan of yours, and I appreciate your theological and cultural critique of Anselmian (or perfect being) theology. This is perhaps especially evident in this post when your target is a highly Anselmian view of the Incarnation. I suspect you advocate a much more kenotic view of the Incarnation according to which Jesus emptied himself of some divine attribute(s), in this case omniscience.

    As an Anselmian and a pretty hard-core analytic philosopher (I know: could there be a worse combination?), I’d like to offer some brief thoughts on your critique. My hope is that you’ll have a slightly better appreciation for where I am coming from, and where many of your undergraduate may also have been coming from.

    First, your students’ reactions to Jesus learning. You paint this reaction as defensive of Jesus’ superhumanness (Jesus is the coolest, right?!), and perhaps even a reflection of our need for certainty (Jesus isn’t fallible like us, right? If so, we’re screwed!). Of course, these are claims about the contingent psychologies of me and your students. You think THAT’S why we’re so Anselmian. While I know some people who certainly are motivated by those concerns, I can’t honestly claim to be one of them. I’m unconvinced that a strong kenotic account of the Incarnation should leave us unassured or afraid. And there are lots of people, including many of your undergraduates, who agree with me. What, then, explains our Anselmian inclinations? Well, lots of things, not the least of which is a conception of God as the most perfect being. We of course make additional inferences about what properties are great-making, but that isn’t itself objectionable, or so I say. Moreover, we are inclined to think that God, like everything, has a nature, an essence, a rock-bottom set of characteristics that constitute God’s being. Goodness is one of them. So is power. So is knowledge. So is love. Add Anselmianism and you get perfect goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

    Now, I say all that to say this: It seems inappropriately and implausibly dismissive to suppose that we are Anselmians primarily or even partially because of some fear or primordial desire to make Jesus into a superhuman. This critique could certainly be modified a bit and tossed the other way. (You guys make Jesus look more normal because you’d fear him if he was so superhuman, and you have a primordial desire to make Jesus look like you.) Why not suppose that many of us believe that an Anselmian picture is correct because of the evidence we have? Why not suppose that our intuitions and various arguments, including biblical ones, have supported an Anselmian picture? Admittedly, we might be a bit more trusting of our intuitions and arguments than you are, but critiquing us on those grounds is quite different than suggesting that we’re motivated by fear and a desire to craft a superhuman Jesus.

    This brings me to my second point. When you say that Jesus Incarnate learned things, that sounds like he wasn’t omniscient. The reason is simple: Omniscient beings necessarily know everything, and learning beings necessarily don’t know everything; thus, if Jesus learned something, he didn’t know it beforehand. You claim that Jesus learned things, which seems to imply he wasn’t omniscient. But recall that, on an everyday Anselmian picture, God is essentially omniscient. Either that picture is true, in which case Jesus Incarnate was never (or stopped being?) God, or the picture is wrong in which case omniscience is at best an accidental or contingent property of God. The first horn seems theologically unpleasant, at least if we take the creeds seriously (among other things). The second might be true, but it certainly clashes with Anselmianism plus our great-making intuitive ascriptions. What to do?

    Well, I don’t see why it’s unacceptable for me or other undergraduates to aim for a different interpretation of the “Jesus learned stuff” passage(s). That might be more plausible. Maybe our evidence for the Anselmian piece is much stronger than a kenotic-like interpretation of the “Jesus learned stuff” passage(s), in which case it seems fine to reinterpret the passage in light of highly plausible Anselmian convictions. It seems that’s what your students were doing.

    An alternative is to take a different, perhaps more straightforward reading of the passage. Jesus really did learn things. Now, we might just admit that this causes trouble for the Anselmian picture, or we might try to square them. My impression is that you prefer the former. But I am inclined to prefer the latter. How might an Anselmian go about making sense of this passage, understood to mean that Jesus actually learned something?

    Knowledge doesn’t require conscious entertainment. I might know my SSN, but have trouble recalling it. Similarly, I might know something but lack conscious access to it. Persons with amnesia often know things — the information is stored in their brains — but cannot bring that date into their conscious thought. They must re-learn what they already know but can’t recall. They must be told their SSNs, reminded of their birthdays, reminded how to walk and talk, etc. And all of this, both in appearance and in actuality, is genuine learning. Yet this learning is perfectly compatible with the thesis that they already know these things. Perhaps this is the case with Jesus Incarnate: he knew everything, but his conscious access to that information was very (perhaps totally) limited.

    There are issues we might press, but I’m nonetheless inclined to think that this sort of solution represents both actual and potential progress. This “Divine Amnesia” model seems to make sense of the biblical data and of Anselmian commitments. It also represents a hope of additional, similar reconciliatory moves that might be developed.

    In conclusion, then, I hope I’ve explained (a) where Anselmians are often coming from, and that it isn’t necessarily an objectionable starting point; and (b) it’s possible to make some sense of the biblical data in a way that both strongly affirms the ignorant/learning state of Jesus Incarnate (in a way that would please the strong kenoticist) while also affirming the omniscience of Jesus Incarnate (in a way that would please the naughtiest of Anselmians).

    A final thought for now. You might regard Anselmian intuitions, or intuitions in general, as somehow suspect. Maybe your critique is that we Anselmians have these intuitions BECAUSE we are fearful, obsessed with a superhuman Jesus, etc. But I hope you will dismiss this worry since (c) many of us claim not to be fearful or so obsessed, and (d) even if we were, it’s unclear what difference that makes to whether our arguments are valid.

    1. timgombis

      Good to hear from you, Blake. No, I wasn’t thinking of an Anselmian view in writing this, and I certainly didn’t have in mind undergraduates who have a well-developed perfect being theology.

      I have in mind the not-very-critically developed view of Jesus that assumes that his experience of life must have been far different than ours. While it did, very obviously, involve some differences, his experience of many of the complexities of life, along with the need to learn, develop, grow in understanding, figure out his vocation, etc., was very much like ours. Because of those struggles, he can be a sympathetic high priest on behalf of those (us!) who experience life as complicated, not easy to figure out, etc.

      So, don’t take my comment about a discussion in a class to include a critique of perfect being theology, Anselm, or anything beyond the default deism that plagues much evangelical thinking about God.

      1. Blake Hereth

        I wasn’t under the impression that you had a problem with a sophisticated Anselmian theology. I mentioned that primarily because I wondered if that’s where some of your criticism was coming from: a skepticism toward that intuitively-grounded, superhuman-making theology.

        Still, I wonder if many of the people you have in mind have a very simple grasp of Anselmian theology, which you’re interpreting as a “default deism.” It would go like this:

        (1) You mention the “Jesus learned stuff” passage(s).
        (2) A student reacts that Jesus didn’t learn, because, as you interpret them, “He was God so he must have been omniscient!”
        (3) You interpret this as a default to deism, or to a “not-very-critically developed view of Jesus that assumes that his experience of life must have been far different than ours.”

        I don’t see that the particular reactions you recorded (as in 2) justify your interpretation (as in 3). Sounds like they’re reacting against a strong kenoticism, because they’re default Anselmians (or they think of omniscience and the Incarnation in a way better represented by full-blown Anselmianism than strong kenoticism).

        In short, then, I agree with you that some people wrongly freak out about how Jesus was totally different than us. I just don’t see that your example showed that. AND it initially looked like you were targeting a non-kenotic Christology. Know what I mean? Or am I just crazy?

        Good to hear from you, too! And congrats on your promotion. I’m glad I got to know you while you were at CU.

      2. timgombis

        It very well may be that I have in mind an intuitively-grounded, superhuman-making theology. I just hadn’t thought of it in those terms. I do think that there are serious problems when conceptions of God are constructed in that way, since hopes and fears and ambitions and all sorts of other culturally-informed ideologies and idolatries get caught up in the process of constructing such a vision of God. And I do think that in many cases it results in a kind of deism.

        The main problem I see with that is that the Christian God constantly defies, subverts, and overturns human conceptions of what God “must” be like.

        I’m actually not relying on a “kenotic” conception of Jesus’ humanity. I’m happier with the notion of “pouring himself out” in Phil. 2 rather than emptying himself of divinity, which makes little sense.

        I’m just trying to understand here why people bristle at various aspects of Jesus’ full humanity. I think there are many other reasons, but it may be that their desire for some kind of certainty is one.

        On the specific point of Jesus’ learning, it may indeed be the case that there are other reasons for their objections, and there may indeed be good explanations. Looking back to that classroom conversation, however, things went in far less dignified direction!

        I’m more than a bit suspicious of a methodology that seeks to preserve a larger theological paradigm at the cost of taking the text with full seriousness. I can anticipate the response, and I imagine we’ll forever talk past each other, which is I usually engage my analytic philosopher-colleagues on other topics than biblical studies and theology!

    2. Blake Hereth

      I understand why you’re somewhat skeptical of the Anselmian project. I’m much more confident in the project, for reasons you’re probably not that interested in hearing. But I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a complex project, complicated by some of the issues you’ve already raised.

      You might not endorse kenoticism, although I don’t really see the distinction between kenoticism and your description of your view. I mentioned kenoticism because the biblical challenge you offered sounded kenotic, or at least kenotic-like in that Jesus lacked what most Anselmians think he had (it being essential to divinity and all): omniscience. So, I apologize for not making this clearer, but it really doesn’t make much difference.

      Biblical interpretation…. *sigh* At least I tried! In all seriousness, though, I think how we sketch the evidential situation is key. Like you said, exploring this further would likely be an exercise in confusion (for me, certainly), so I won’t bother pursuing it.

      Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  4. Pingback: Evidence for Luke’s Emphasis on the Humanity of Jesus « life and building

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy

    Driven by desires for something like omniscience, we create the image of a superhero who would know everything, have access to all knowledge.

    That’s not Jesus — that’s Wesley Crusher with an Internet Cyberdeck implanted in his brain!

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