Jesus' Impeccability and Language Acquisition

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Andrew Fulford has some thoughtful reflections on how far Jesus' impeccability extended during his earthly ministry. Clearly an orthodox view of the Incarnation requires Jesus not sinning, but could he have had false beliefs as he was growing and learning? Andrew argues no. Andrew thinks any sense in which Jesus might have made an error would make the Incarnation contradictory. (He says parodoxical, but the Incarnation is paradoxical no matter you say about this issue; I assume he means outright contradictory.)

I'm a little worried about what Jesus' growth and learning involved if he never made any errors whatsoever. In particular, what could his language acquisition have been like? The normal, I would say correct, path to language development involves learning certain rules that one eventually has to unlearn in order to master the next stage of language-learning. Children regularly make certain errors. At least they count as errors when you compare it to fluent use of the language by an adult. These errors actually might count as correct use of the stage of language understanding that the child has. If we think of it that way, then maybe Andrew's thesis turns out ok. If such errors aren't really errors, then Jesus could have learned the languages he spoke (which probably included Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) with all the standard errors children make, without them counting as the kind of error Andrew is worried about.

14 Comments

There are several possibilities, probably.

Another scenario could be: Jesus didn't learn as gradually as we did, and when he did he spoke better than we would. For example, my mother tells me I went from speaking nothing to speaking full sentences. If this is possible for me, obviously that (and more) is possible for Jesus.

Beyond that, perhaps Jesus would have been a very quiet and observational child, allowing him to learn more by listening to others than by speaking himself.

Or, perhaps one could argue as you did above, that these really don't count as errors; do we consider children as making assertions about what standard adult English usage is, when they make these mistakes? Probably not; we allow that the English of children will not follow all the sophisticated rules of the language. Besides, language is a human construct, and a constantly changing one at that; what is English now is not what English was a century ago, and probably wont be a century from now.

If what we need is for Jesus never to have had false beliefs, the answer may lie in the metaphysics of belief. If belief is tied closely to language, then during the time when the child Jesus was still only just acquiring language, it might be false that he had any beliefs at all.

I don't think it's just about beliefs or even false statements. Andrew is concerned about Jesus doing anything that might count as an error. If he's God, then he shouldn't make mistakes of any sort.

Well, I'm not exactly concerned with Jesus "making mistakes" simpliciter. Tripping over your shoelace is a mistake; I think Jesus probably fell as a child. But tripping is not an assertion about reality, it's a misco-ordination of one's limbs.

I'm concerned about Jesus making errors in the sense of believing and/or communicating falsities.

So my concern is more narrow than what you might think...

How about the story of Jesus teaching in the church as a boy and his parents having to come find him (I know I'm not doing the best job repeating this story). I just quickly looked it up.. it's Luke 2:41-52.

He was not with his family on the return trip. I have heard this taught that he was disobedient (did not sin) by not being with his parents (while he was still under their authority). He has a great answer for them... but did he not need to respect their authority and be with them?

Most trinitarians accept that Christ was tried in every way and yet did not sin.

If he didn't possess human frailty (not sin) could he actually be tested?

Where does human frailty end and error begin?

We cannot know the exact nature of the perfect union of God and man into a single person.

Without that knowledge what can we do beyond speculate on this sort of issue?

Glass is fragile, but that doesn't mean it has to break.

Jeremy, I get that you're using a metaphor but I'm assuming you don't see Christ being in error as a fundamental lapse?

He was human.

You may say that God could not err. Well God couldn't die either. God couldn't hunger according to the OT.

Christ could hunger. Christ certainly died. I understand there's a desire to protect from rearguard attempts to undermine Christ's spiritual authority. Error does not mean spiritual error.

Interesting idea, indeed. Thanks for posting this.

I found your post through the Christian Carnival.

EGS: That was an analogy, not a metaphor. My point was merely that possibility doesn't entail actuality. You asked where human frailty ends and error begins. Frailty is a potentiality. Error is an actuality.

Ken: It's not clear that Jesus disobeyed his parents or disrespected their authority. It's possible that this was initiated by the Father, clearly a higher authority than his parents, and then when they returned he was submissive to them, having fulfilled whatever point the Father intended to show to Joseph and Mary. It's possible that they hadn't given him instructions to disobey but that they just expected him to be there, knowing he was trustworthy. One reason for thinking this is that he wasn't discovered to be missing until a day into the journey.

EGS:

Actually the motivation is more basic than that. It's protecting Jesus' divine authority and truthfulness, not just his "spiritual inerrancy", however that is understood.

I had a thought:

I think one way that Jesus' being able to die and his being able to speak a falsehood are different is that dying is not immoral for God, but lying is.

Now you might say: who said God was lying? But consider this: there's only two possible reasons for speaking a falsehood: deliberate or accidental. The latter happens because of ignorance. But God had no ignorance (and this is one the properties clearly stated of Jesus, as well as being inferred from his divine nature; yes, I also realize it is said that Jesus lacked knowledge in places, but such is the paradox of the incarnation). So any falsehood he would speak would have to be deliberate. But this is exactly what Scripture says God cannot do: lie.

I think if divine omniscience means anything to us poor mortals, its that we can trust God. I also gave my interpretations of the biblical data of Jesus' lacking knowledge in my original post.

So really Jesus' death is not exactly analogous to Jesus' lying, for the former is morally permissible for God to do while the latter is not.

Jesus said there were things he didn't know. But that's consistent with knowing exactly which things he didn't know and thus not being ignorant about which things he was ignorant about. He knew which things he knew and which things he didn't and thus had no false beliefs about things that his knowledge didn't include. He simply had no beliefs about those things. If that's right, then any false speech would have to be deliberately negligent (although it doesn't follow that it's a deliberately false statement, just a deliberate statement about something he has no idea of, which is a sort of lie, because saying it carries the implicature that he does know it).

But do we want to say this of a three-year-old Jesus? Did he at that point know the list of things he was ignorant about? I doubt it. So the problems I'm raising in this post aren't solved by this point (not that the things said above don't solve them).

Two thoughts:

1) if it is true that the false speech you describe would be negligent, then that adds another reason for thinking that nothing Jesus said as an adult would be false, since now it would implicate Jesus in something immoral. This could also apply to a child; they are aware of some things, so it's impossible that he could be aware of that, especially with his extra-ordinary psychology (being the God-man). I mentioned in my original post that Jesus could (and certainly did, for some things anyway) have a kind of "gut-instinct" or subconscious awareness or something of things beyond his human limitations. This would apply even as a child (which was my point in highlighting the temple case), and could imaginably even apply to things he claimed or believed.

2) I think one still has to deal with the fact that Jesus was also God and omniscient, both as an adult and as a three-year-old. This means, insofar as Jesus is God, everything he does is with full knowledge and therefore deliberate. I think there is a real danger of descending into a kenotic Christology here if we don't keep this mind.

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