A Word of Caution
In his epistle to I Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” The following Thomistic contemplation on the knowledge of Christ is meat. SPL has written extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas and the majority of our lists are written in such a way that any Catholic may pick them up and glean some wisdom from our Common Doctor. The following consideration on Christ’s knowledge is a deeply scholastic reflection that presupposes a good deal of familiarity with Aquinas. Those wanting a quality introduction to the Angelic Doctor can reference Pope Benedict XVI Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas or see our introduction to the distinction between knowledge and wisdom or read our primer on the Queen of the Sciences. That said, we begin what is really in itself a primer on the subject of Christ’s knowledge.
The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) infallibly declared that Christ was one person with two distinct natures: a human nature and a divine nature. The Tome of Pope Leo – a letter articulating Pope Leo’s position on Christology – was read at the Council. The pontiff states, “therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours.” Furthermore, predicated upon the dogma of the two natures of Christ, the Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680) confessed, “two natural wills in Him and two natural operations.” The implicit import of affirming two natural operations within Christ is that “there are in Christ two modes of knowledge, one divine (common to the three Persons of the Trinity) and the other human, in Christ’s human intellect.” Without a genuine human operation and mode of knowledge, Christ’s rational soul would be ineffectual. Moreover, Christ’s role as Savior appears to necessitate true human knowledge insofar as that knowledge “is the basis for his free human decisions and consequently of his capacity to merit salvation for us.” However, the divine nature in Christ necessitates a divine knowledge, which would seem to intimate that Christ held the Beatific Vision. Returning to the Tome of Pope Leo, the pontiff submits what has now been entitled the Communication of Properties or Idioms. He states, “each of the natures retains its proper character without defect; and as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not impair the form of God.” The words of Pope Leo have become the Christological standard in understanding the properties of Christ. It stands then that the knowledge of Christ presents the theologian with a particular dilemma: how can Christ have true human knowledge and possess the Beatific Vision? Likewise, how can one person be both acquiring knowledge in a genuine human mode and truly possess the perfection of human knowledge in the Beatific Vision? Can Christ be simultaneously moving toward an end and in possession of the end? In navigating the question of Christ’s knowledge, the Catholic intellectual tradition has posited three modes of knowledge: acquired, infused, and beatific. Turning more particularly to the Thomistic tradition, in following the standard of Pope Leo, St. Thomas strives to show how Christ held all three forms of knowledge without imposing a defect on the human or divine nature.
1. On Acquired Knowledge
Acquired knowledge is knowledge which “a man comes to know through his own efforts.” It is the natural epistemic method of human persons. In Disputed Questions on Power, St. Thomas examines in detail the mode of acquiring knowledge. He states at first there is the “thing which is understood” or rather the intelligible object. Secondly, there is the “intelligible species, by which the intellect comes to be in act.” The intelligible species is the form of the thing extracted from the object, “by which the intellect comes to be in act,” and is “considered as a principle of the action of the intellect.” It is the “first act,” that leads to the “second act” of actually comprehending the object. The intelligible species is impressed into the mind as first act, thus the intelligible species “comes to be in act through some form” – the form extracted from the object – “which must be the principle of the action.” The “second act” is that which finds its end, its term in forming a concept. The “conception of the intellect” – which is never the object itself, but always in the mind – is the conceptual form from the understanding of the object. As St. Thomas explains, “the conception of the intellect is ordered to the thing understood as to an end: for the intellect forms in itself a concept of the thing that it might know the thing understood.” The conception of the intellect may be seen clearly in the distinction of the interior word and the exterior word. St. Thomas states, “The conception of the intellect in us is properly called a ‘word’ for this is what is signified by an exterior word.” In human speech, a word does not “signify the intellect itself” nor does it signify the “intelligible species,” but the spoken word signifies the interior or inner word – that is the conception of the intellect, “by mediation of which it is referred to the thing [the original intelligible object].”
For the sake of clarity, it may advisable for us to place St. Thomas’ cognitional theory within a basic example. A person sees the tree and the intelligible species of the tree is impressed on their mind. St. Thomas considers this the first act. The second act is the person’s intellect understanding the intelligible species of the tree. The understanding of the intelligible species forms a concept of the tree in the intellect, which is the term or end of the second act. The individual then has an “inner word” of the tree, which then can be spoken as the “exterior word.” The spoken word or exterior word then mediates the understanding of the individual’s conception of the original tree to the other individual.
2. Agent & Possible Intellect
The Angelic Doctor’s cognitional theory brings to the surface two modes of the intellect: the agent or active intellect and the possible or passive intellect. In examining the rational soul of men, St. Thomas observes the soul “is in potentiality to knowing intelligible things,” and “it is like a tablet on which nothing is written.” However, the human intellect is capable of learning and thus the possible intellect is the potency to understand. The agent or active intellect is then operation by which the possible intellect is moved to act. As St. Thomas avers, “the proper operation of the active intellect is to make intelligible species in act.” Abstracting intelligible species, the agent intellect reduces the possible intellect into act, by what it sees in the phantasm or intelligible material object. The extracted intelligible species from the phantasm becomes a habit informing the intellect. The habit is formed because the agent intellect also reduces the understanding into the concept and that concept is habitually called upon for understanding.
3. Whether there is Beatific Knowledge in Christ
With a basic understanding of St. Thomas cognitional theory natural to man, we may turn to the knowledge of Christ. In light of the fact that that which is higher orders that which is lower, the beatific knowledge of Christ must be treated prior to any of the two lower forms of knowledge. The beatific vision, the vision of the blessed, or the “science of vision” are all univocal terms that refer to the knowledge of one who has seen God in his essence. St. John refers to the beatific vision when he says that the faithful departed will see God “as he is.”
Turning to the biblical tradition within St. John’s Gospel, Christ’s relationship with the Father appears to be in a beatific manner. Christ says, “not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father,” and furthermore, he states “but you have not known [the Father]; I know him.” Moreover, St. John records, “he who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard.” These passages seem to “put it beyond doubt that the revelatory power of Christ originated not in a revelation made to him nor in his faith, but in the direct knowledge he has of the Father.” If Christ did not have the beatific vision then he would need faith, but “Scripture is notably silent” about Christ’s faith. In fact, Christ is “never depicted as a believer,” but is rather shown as “someone who knows God intimately and directly.” St. Thomas predicates his philosophical argument upon Scripture’s affirmation of Christ’s direct knowledge of God. Referring to St. John’s Gospel, St. Thomas notes that Christ “knew God fully, even as He was man.” St. Thomas observes that all men have their teleological end in God and therefore man “is in potentiality to the knowledge of blessed.” It is by the “humanity of Christ” that “men are brought to this end” of Beatific Vision. Here St. Thomas argues what is commonly called the principle of perfection: “hence it was necessary that the beatific knowledge” should “belong to Christ pre-eminently, since the cause ought always to be more efficacious than the effect.” According to this principle, if there was a time when Christ did not possess the end or rather the beatific vision, then the end that humanity is brought to could not be derivative of Christ’s humanity. However, since humanity is brought to the end by the humanity of Christ, then it seems necessary for Christ’s humanity to have the perfection of the efficient cause. However, could it be stated that Christ’s beatific knowledge is only necessitated after the Resurrection, because “from that point onwards Christ’s humanity effectively leads men to heaven”? In spite of this claim, Christ must be seen as “mediator, the one who unites men to God” could be lacking the mediation required to bring man to God at any time. If there was a privation of mediation in Christ, then “he would have needed mediation,” but this cannot be as he is the “first and only mediator.” According to St. Thomas, it stands then that the biblical tradition and scripturally predicated philosophical principles reveal Christ to have knowledge that is in the manner of the blessed.
4. On the Manner of Christ’s Beatific Knowledge
What then is Christ’s comprehension of the Divine Essence? St. Thomas posits that the soul of Christ could not fully comprehend the Divine Essence. In holding to Christ as one person with two distinct natures, Christ’s soul would have limitations proper to a created soul. As St. Thomas avers, “it is impossible for any creature to comprehend the Divine Essence,” because “the infinite is not comprehended by the finite.” Returning to St. Leo’s communication of idioms, is Christ’s inability to grasp the Divine Essence fully a defect between the natures? No defect is inferred to the Divine nature as all questions of Christ’s knowledge are rooted in his humanity. To argue Christ’s divine nature or the Word did not have beatific vision would be ad absurdum. Regarding the human nature, there is no defect, because Christ’s soul is perfected according to its natural capacity. Therefore, Christ’s human nature comprehends the Divine Essence according to the natural perfection of the human soul, which is the perfection needed in order for him to be the efficient cause of humanity’s reaching the beatific end.
What then is the knowledge that Christ comprehends? St. Thomas addresses this issue in two ways. First, Christ knows “whatsoever is, will be, or was done, said, or thought, by whomsoever and at any time.” “In this way,” St. Thomas states, “it must be said that the soul of Christ knows all things in the Word.” The Angelic Doctor predicates his view upon the “dignity” of Christ and his role as “Judge.” As he says, “no beatified intellect fails to know in the Word whatever pertains to itself,” and thus to the position of Christ as Judge “all things to some extent belong, inasmuch as all things are subject to Him.” Therefore it is necessary for one “appointed Judge of all by God” to have the knowledge of all in order to judge perfectly. However, Christ has been placed Judge over a reality in act, not over all realities in potential. In this light, St. Thomas makes his second statement: “to such things as are in potentiality, and never have been nor ever will be reduced to act,” it appears “some of these are in the divine power alone, and not all of these does the soul of Christ know in the Word.” If Christ’s soul could “comprehend all that God could do,” then it would appear he would be able to comprehend the Divine Essence, simply. St. Thomas states, “every power is known from the knowledge of all it can do,” but the finitude of Christ’s soul cannot comprehend the infinitude of God’s power. However, could Christ’s finite soul comprehend the finite power of creatures? St. Thomas says that Christ does comprehend the power of creatures, because in comprehending the Word “the essence of every creature” is comprehended. Furthermore, to comprehend the essence is to comprehend the “power and virtue and all things that are in the power of the creature.” It stands then, St. Thomas posits Christ’s beatific knowledge as necessary to his role as Judge and must know all things – including the potentialities of creatures – in order to judge perfectly.
5. Whether Christ had any knowledge besides the Beatific?
St. Thomas submits three reasons why Christ must have knowledge other than beatific or rather created knowledge. Firstly, predicated upon the belief that Christ’s unadulterated human nature has a true rational soul, it is fitting for Christ to have a possible intellect. “Now what is in potentiality is imperfect unless reduced to act,” and Christ must have “a perfect human nature, since the whole race was to be brought back to perfection by its means.” Again, Christ’s role as mediator and the principle of perfection necessitate Christ’s perfection in being the efficient cause of man’s perfection. All human perfections must be present within Christ’s humanity. Furthermore St. Thomas’ second point reveals if the beatific knowledge rendered Christ’s rational soul ineffectual, Christ’s human nature would suffer defect. Thirdly, “some created knowledge pertains to the nature of the human soul, viz. that whereby we naturally know first principles.” It stands then that predicated upon Christ’s necessity to be perfectly human, he must have knowledge other than the beatific.
6. On Christ’s Infused Knowledge
Infused knowledge is not ascertained by the intelligible species being extracted from the intelligible object, but rather by the intelligible species being infused directly into the intellect by God. The cognitional mode of divine fusion appears to be demonstrated best by the biblical prophets, whose prophecies are not the product of human reason. Did Christ have this infused knowledge? St. Thomas quotes St. Paul, that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” First however it must be shown why if Christ has beatific knowledge is not infused knowledge superfluous? St. Thomas observes that the mode of “cognition by infused species includes no opposition to beatific cognition.” The opposite of the beatific vision is faith. As St. Thomas states, “the essence of faith [is] to have reference to the unseen,” whereas beatific knowledge is gleaned by one who has seen God’s Essence. The prophets, while having infused knowledge, would still have to have faith, for they have not seen God; while Christ who has seen the Divine knowledge, maintains beatific and infused knowledge without the need of faith.
Again St. Thomas appeals to the necessity of Christ’s human perfection in all things and posits that Christ must have infused knowledge perfectly. Therefore, “the Word of God imprinted upon the soul of Christ” the “intelligible species of all things to which the possible intellect is in potentiality.” However, it would seem that there is now a contradiction between the beatific and infused knowledge of Christ. As matter cannot have two simultaneous forms, neither “can the soul receive a double knowledge at once” or rather simultaneously receive a perfect and imperfect intelligible form. However, St. Thomas posits a distinction between the modes. The beatific knowledge is “not by a species,” because the Divine Essence is not known by an intelligible form or species. The “Divine Essence is a form exceeding the capacity of any creature whatsoever,” and thus the intelligible species cannot be fully comprehended. Infused knowledge however does use intelligible species, for God imprints the intelligible species to the possible intellect. Therefore, in knowledge of the Divine Essence there is nothing competitive with the human intellect comprehending intelligible species “proportioned to its nature.”
Fr. Raymond Brown has observed, “each of the four Gospels attributes to Jesus the ability to know what is in other’s minds, to know what is happening elsewhere, and to know the future.” Certainly not exhausting the examples, it can be noted that Christ knew the past of the woman at the well, the details of St. Peter’s betrayal, and, of course, foretells of his own death and resurrection. Returning to the concept of the perfection of Christ’s humanity, “it is very fitting that he should have grace in the highest degree.” Further, the “Holy Spirit reposes in Christ with all his gifts and in all his fullness.” It appears then that with the Thomistic arguments and the Scriptural evidence there “is no reason to deny that Christ has infused knowledge.”
7. On the Acquired Knowledge of Christ
Holding to the same principle of perfection, it appears that Christ must have acquired knowledge in order to avoid defect. As adumbrated, acquired knowledge denotes an active intellect, and thus to deny Christ acquired knowledge is to render a part of Christ’s soul ineffectual. The Angelic Doctor avers “what has not its proper operation is useless” and as mentioned above the operation of the active intellect is to “to make intelligible species in act, by abstracting them from phantasms.” Therefore St. Thomas claims, “it is necessary to say” that Christ has acquired knowledge via the proper operation of the active intellect.
In spite of this claim, it would seem that Christ acquiring any knowledge would be in direct contradiction with the beatific and infused modes of knowledge. How can it be said that Christ knew the intelligible species of all things past, present, and future and grew in knowledge? Whereas Scripture has seemingly affirmed Christ’s beatific knowledge in seeing God face to face and Christ’s infused or prophetic knowledge, it also affirms that Christ acquired knowledge. The clearest example is in St. Luke’s Gospel: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” The tortuous nature of the question of Christ’s knowledge is exemplified in the “great theologians like St. Bonaventure, Scotus, Suarez, and even St. Thomas in his earlier works, denied that Christ had genuinely acquired knowledge.” While these theologians generally predicated their view upon “dignity of the Word made flesh,” it appears via an ineffectual active intellect to submit a defect in the rational soul of Christ. In a holding to Pope Leo’s principle, St. Thomas recants his former view and posits “it must be said that in Christ there was acquired knowledge, which is properly knowledge in a human fashion.” The objection is put forward that “nothing can be added to what is full” and thus “the power of Christ’s soul was filled with intelligible species divinely infused.” St. Thomas notes that neither the beatific nor infused cognitional mode utilizes phantasms in order to extract an intelligible species, thus “it behooved [Christ’s knowledge] to be also perfected with regard to phantasms.” St. Thomas is illuminating the fact that without acquired knowledge Christ would lack phantasms, which Christ must have or he lacks a natural function of the rational soul.
What then is the role of an active intellect upon a possible intellect, which by infused knowledge, reveals all possible intelligible species? In other words, what does it practically mean for Christ to acquire knowledge? It is here that St. Thomas de-mythologizes Christ’s beatific knowledge. Beatific and infused knowledge “produce the whole all at once” and therefore they were immediate and perfect “in the beginning.” However, acquired knowledge “does not produce the whole at once, but successfully” and therefore “by this knowledge Christ did not know everything from the beginning.” Further, St. Thomas observes St. Luke’s passage records that Christ “increased in knowledge and age together.” In accordance with holding to a perfect human nature, Christ’s beatific and infused knowledge could only be in proportion to the faculties of Christ’s rational soul. Christ’s acquisition of phantasms and human limitations reveal the certain “perfection appropriate to age” and “experience available.” It seems St. Thomas’ theory does not offer a defect to either nature. A cup that is perfectly filled with water still only holds its given amount, albeit perfectly. In this light, Christ’s humanity growing in knowledge is predicated upon his age, i.e. the development of his intellect. If the limitation is ignored, it could be argued that Christ’s humanity would be cognizant of the beatific and infused knowledge regardless of the soul’s capacity, e.g., Christ could be cognizant in utero, which is ad absurdum. It is then that there was a proper habit of the active intellect in extracting the “intelligible species from phantasms.” However, the habit of infused knowledge would “be there from the beginning” and be “perfect infused knowledge of all things.” Therefore, whatever intelligible species Christ’s active intellect abstracted from the phantasm, was already found perfectly by the actualization of the infused knowledge upon the possible intellect – in accordance with the capacity of Christ’s age specificity and human limitation. St. Thomas’ theory would account for how Christ was found to wise even at a young age – e.g., in the temple – but still be able to grow in wisdom. In this, St. Thomas holds together the divine knowledge and faculties proper to human cognition without conferring a defect on either one.
8. Beatific, Infused, and Acquired Harmony
In accordance with Pope Leo’s communication of idioms at Chalcedon and the two distinct operations of Third Constantinople, St. Thomas holds together a genuine human mode of cognition with beatific knowledge. The knowledge of God’s essence, the infused intelligible species, and the acquired phantasms all flow harmoniously within the knowledge of Christ. The efficient cause of humanity’s perfection maintains his human perfection.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Vol. IV Summa Theologica III (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948)
Levering, Matthew. Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah & Temple: Salvation According to Thomas Aquinas. (Notre Dame: ND Press, 2002)
Ocariz, F. L.F. Mateo Seco, & J.A. Riestra. The Mystery of Jesus Christ. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1991)
Schaff, Philip & Henry Wallace, Eds. Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14 (Peabody: Hendrickson Pub., Inc., 2004)
St. Thomas Aquinas. Disputed Questions on Power, Q. VIII, a.1.
 Schaff, Philip & Henry Wallace, Eds. Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 14 (Peabody: Hendrickson Pub., Inc., 2004), 255.
 Aquinas, St. Thomas. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Vol. IV Summa Theologica III (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948), III.18.1
 Ocariz, F. L.F. Mateo Seco, & J.A. Riestra. The Mystery of Jesus Christ. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1991), 149.
 Schaff, 255.
 Ocariz, 150.
 St. Thomas Aquinas. Disputed Questions on Power, Q. VIII, a.1. Class Handout.
 ST III.9.1 – n.b. St. Thomas differs from John Locke’s “blank tablet” insofar as the Angelic Doctor holds to that tablet being formed by first principles.
 ST III.9.4
 Phantasm – the image in the imagination, the form of an object in the imagination; the active intellect can extract the intelligible species from both an understood material object or an imagine object, i.e., phantasm
 I John 3:2, RSV
 John 6:46; 8:55. RSV. Emphasis added.
 John 3:32. RSV. Emphasis added.
 Ocariz, 153.
 Ibid., 154.
 III.9.2; cf. John 8:55
 Ibid.; cf. Heb. 2:10
 Ibid., 155.
 III.9.3. – Col. 2:3
 III.9.3 – the beatific being perfect and the infused being imperfect
Levering, Matthew. Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah & Temple: Salvation According to Thomas Aquinas. (Notre Dame: ND Press, 2002), 32.
 Ocariz, 153. – Jn 4:17-18; Mk 14:18-21, 27-31, Lk 22:31-39; Mt 12:39-41, Lk 11:29-32; Other examples: Jn 1:47-49, 11:14; Mk 9:33-35; Mt 24:1ff; Mk 13:5ff
 Ibid., cf. Is II:1-3
 Luke 2:52
 Ocariz, 150.
 Ibid. Obj.2
 Ibid. Ad.2
 Ocariz, 152.