A Grievous Distortion of
"The Catechism of The Catholic Church", or...

the Return of the Nestorian Heresy in "The Priest" Magazine

It is incredible that "The Priest" magazine (April 1993) should publish the article "Did Jesus Know He Was God?" by Charles DeCelles, a professor of Religious studies at Marywood College in Scranton, PA, and a member of the Catholic Academy of Sciences in the USA. It is a particularly bad article evidencing an uncritical reliance on such authors as Raymond Brown, the Protestant exegete Joachim Jeremias, and the "theologian-psychologist" Fr. Daniel Helminiak — all of whose works radically question belief in the divinity of Christ as the Catholic Church has traditionally understood and explained it.

In an illogical article Dr. DeCelles admits that:

"Jesus is the Eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, become man." However, as the Son of God, "He had a reality distinct from that of the man Jesus."(!)  Moreover, as "truly human... it is to be expected that He would not know certain things and would occasionally make mistakes. In fact, Jesus admits He does not know the exact time of the end of the world." Jesus not only "most glaringly admits human ignorance" but made "erroneous prophecies" and "other mistakes."

DeCelles insists that:

"as a true human being, Jesus could make mistakes, could possibly confuse biblical characters, and was uncertain as to when the end of the world would occur."

DeCelles also swallows the doubts of a destructive higher biblical criticism:

"In St. John's Gospel, there are numerous passages in which Jesus lays explicit claim to unique divine Sonship, but they cannot be trusted historically." (!)

Dr. DeCelles who also serves on the Scranton Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith Affairs, concludes that:

"Jesus is conscious of being the Son of God. Whatever intellectual limitations may have been His as a man, Jesus was aware, at least intuitively, that He was divine. He was conscious of being God's Son. The biblical evidence points strongly in that direction. No mistakes by Jesus... can eradicate or dilute the truth of Jesus's human awareness of His identity... He may have spent a good part of His life struggling to put into words, the clear, burning, unshakeable sense of who uniquely He was. But He never doubted that He had a singular relationship to the Father...

Did Jesus, as a man, know He was God? Perhaps not, if 'know' means precise and accurate understanding, or exact conceptual formulation. The man Jesus did not know He was God in the way the Church, through its councils came to understand that He is God. Certainly, Jesus did not think in the thought patterns of Catholic dogma."

The above excerpts reveal the author's deficient (and heterodox) understanding of Our Divine Lord's Person and His human knowledge. Confusion and self-contradiction and the revival of an heretical Nestorian Christology are inevitable, given the ignoring of the classical Christological doctrine of the Church. As Fr. Bertrand De Margerie, S.J., has explained in his "The Human Knowledge of Christ" - St. Paul Editions, 1980 - (which is a theological gem and a perfect antidote to DeCelles' unfortunate article):

"Classical Christology teaches, and the Magisterium also, that, long before Easter, Jesus enjoyed in His human intelligence a three-fold knowledge: acquired, infused, and beatific. The first kind came to Him, as it does to other men, from the exercise of His senses and His reason; the second was immediately communicated to His human soul by His Divine Person; and the third gave Him immediate knowledge of His Father."

As Fr. De Margerie, S.J., notes (and as Fr. William Most - Christendom Publications, 1980 - reinforces in a brilliant work "The Consciousness of Christ" refuting blasphemous errors reproduced by Dr. DeCelles), Catholic belief on the divinity of Christ cannot be sustained by a Christ Who is ignorant, or mistaken, or in error about matters which, as the All-knowing God, He must know. In other words, if what DeCelles says is true concerning Jesus being "limited in His understanding while on earth," that same historical Jesus could not be God.

Whereas the 5th century Council of Chalcedon defined that in Christ the divinity and humanity were united in a single Divine Person "without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation," DeCelles has clearly separated (in Nestorian fashion) the humanity of Christ from the divinity. In becoming perfect man, the Eternal Son did not cease to be what He was before: a Divine Person, One of the Holy Trinity. It is to dishonor Christ's Divine Person to allege that He at any time did not know Who He was from the moment of His conception as man in the womb of His Virgin Mother, or [that He] could be ignorant or mistaken about anything pertaining to His mission as Savior of the world.

As to the old canard about the Son of God not knowing the day and hour of the Last Judgement, Pope St. Gregory the Great gave a quite satisfactory explanation of Mark 13:32 long ago, insisting that Christ DID KNOW the day and hour of said Judgement, but it was not His mission to reveal it. The appropriate texts from Pope St. Gregory's writings can be found in the works of Fr. De Margerie and Fr. Most which cannot be praised too highly for their scholarly defense of the Church's orthodox doctrine concerning the unity of Christ's Person.

The truth is that possessing a triple knowledge (including that resulting from the Beatific Vision of God), Our Divine Savior knew in His human nature all things, past, present, and to be. It is absolutely absurd, moreover, to allege that Christ, the God-man, would be lacking a "precise and accurate understanding" of the definitions concerning His Person and Work that would be made by the Ecumenical Councils of His Church.

In the preceding paragraphs we have vigorously and decidedly refuted the views expressed by Dr. Charles DeCelles on the limits of the knowledge possessed by Christ. As previously stated, in an article published by "The Priest" magazine (April 1993), DeCelles has declared:

"As a true human being, Jesus could make mistakes, could possibly confuse biblical characters, and was uncertain as to when the end of the world would occur."

He whom the Catholic Church declares to be "equal to the Father", "God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God", and the "Lord of History" was further stated by DeCelles to have made "erroneous prophecies" and "other mistakes". The burden of our critique was to note DeCelles' revival of the ancient Nestorian heresy which split Christ the God-man into two persons — one human, the other divine. DeCelles' April '93 article also received severe criticism from Frank Morriss, columnist for "The Wanderer" (5/16/93), and from Fr. Pierre Conway, O.P.

Writing in "Torchlites", newsletter of the Dominican laity, Fr. Conway outrightly rejected DeCelles' view of Christ, observing that it was:

"contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church on two main grounds:

  1. it ascribes ignorance and error to the human nature of Christ;
  2. the author considers himself to eliminate verses of Scripture which do not suit him, thereby taking over the role of the Catholic Church as the sole custodian of Scripture, as expressed in the Councils of Trent, Vatican I and II."

It may be added here that DeCelles' erroneous theology also relies on a serious mis-interpretation of [the Letter to the] Philippians 2:6-7 (NOT 5:6-7 as given by DeCelles) which speak of Christ's "self-emptying" in the Incarnation. Contrary to DeCelles' view, Christ's "self-emptying" cannot be understood as meaning Christ shed His divine nature or modified His divinity in order to be truly human.

Drawing upon the profound teaching of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Conway further explains that:

"Christ in His human nature possessed, from the moment of His conception, the beatific vision. In this beatific vision of His own divine Person grasped by His human nature, Christ had the divine knowledge of vision, i.e., the knowledge of all things, past, present and future, done, or to be done, by God, making any ignorance or error in His human nature impossible... The presence of ignorance and error in the human knowledge of Christ, contains an even more fundamental denial of the Catholic faith."

Stung by Frank Morriss' criticisms, DeCelles has sought to justify his basic Nestorianism with yet another article, "The Universal Catechism on Jesus' Knowledge" ("The Priest", November 1993). There he attempts to twist the Catechism's doctrine to justify his false distinction between God the Son, and Jesus the Son of God:

  • "As God, the Son knows all things. He knows with the infinite mind of God. As Jesus, however, the Son of God was restricted in knowledge, having taken upon Himself the intellectual limitations of the human condition. As a true human being, with a human soul and mind, He could make mistakes...
  • He was incapable of... fully grasping all the implications of what it meant to be God's Only Begotten Son...
  • Eternally He chose, as God's Only Begotten Son, to put aside His divinity on a practical level and become a human being, Jesus!...
  • There were certain facets of the eternal economy that Jesus was not knowledgeable regarding it."

Though DeCelles writes:

"In reality, I insist upon Jesus's one divine Personhood or identity."

The fact is, that he utterly fails to grasp the Catholic dogma of the Hypostatic Union. The latter means that when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took a human body and human soul in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He united both body and soul to His own divine Person. Thus, divinity and humanity are inseparably united in the Man Jesus Christ. Although His humanity remains humanity, it is always the humanity of God the Word. In Christ Jesus there is no human individual or human person distinct from God the Son.

DeCelles' articles reproduce the Nestorian heresy which separated the Man Jesus from His divinity. Nestorius had agreed to a certain union of God and man in Christ but, in St. Thomas' words, denied "that there was only one Person Who was both God and man." Catholic teaching is that Christ was personally God, and in addition to the human knowledge He acquired through the use of His senses, He possessed divine knowledge, and this not only as God but also as man. It is to renew ancient Arian and Nestorian blasphemies to allege that Jesus as man was ignorant of anything, made mistakes and errors, and lacked the perfect knowledge of all that God must know.

As Fr. Conway, O.P., demonstrates, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that Christ had divine knowledge (of such matters as the Day of Judgment) in His human nature, although not by His human nature. He further noted the Catechism appropriately quotes the great Greek theologian St. Maximus the Confessor in support of traditional Catholic teaching:

"The human nature of the Son of God, not of itself, but by its own union to the Word, knew and manifested in itself everything that befitted God."

It is mind-boggling that DeCelles should claim the support of the Catechism and St. Maximus the Confessor in support of his nuanced Nestorianism. "It is somewhat disturbing to be called a heretic or near-heretic", he writes, "but it is gratifying to be vindicated by a document of the stature of the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

The truth is quite otherwise: he distorts sections 464-469 of the Catechism which thoroughly emphasize the Unity of Christ's Person: "The Church confesses that Jesus is inseparably true God and true Man" (no.469). The Catechism in no way subverts the true divinity of Our Savior.

Lastly, it is interesting to observe how Dr. DeCelles confusion regarding the meaning of the Hypostatic Union is furthered by his mischievous use of "Inclusive language" for the translation of passages from the Catechism (wherein the word "man" has been rashly replaced with "human").

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage