“I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’ in the same sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge, like knowing that two and two make four; nor was it straigtforwardly observational knowledge, like knowing that there is a bird on the fence outside my room because I can see and hear it. It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way–a knowledge most securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer. It was, in short, the knowledge that characterizes vocation. – N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus
This is, in my estimation, right on the money. I’m not sure how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent in my theological studies wrestling with this question and/or defending it against the accusation that “Jesus never says he’s God” in the Gospels. It was always frustrating because it always seemed that while Jesus’ actions were explicit along these lines (forgiveness of sins, authority, etc.) he never quite came around to making his divine status equally explicit (and…yet…somehow almost immediately after Easter Christians started making that sort of claim and directly in line with monotheism [cf. 1 Cor 8.4-6]).
Wright goes on and suggests that the whole insistence to have Jesus express himself in self-affirming divine terms is, itself, a form of both docetism and semi-Deism. The first, docetism, is the insistence that Jesus never was really fully human–he only appeared to be. And this is where I think most Christians get hung up…they want a Jesus that was never limited in his knowledge, much less his self-knowledge. To think that Jesus was bound by human cognition…well…what sort of God is that?! And so we throw on Jesus some sort of “magical” kind of knowledge and self-knowledge that is not available to the human brain or experience. I don’t for a moment think of Jesus, the three year old toddler, walking around knowing that he was God (Ann Rice’s book Out of Egypt is really good here, btw, with pointing at Jesus as a pre-teen boy slowly starting to figure out that he’s a bit different). Rather, like the Church trying to figure out for the first four centuries how to put the experience of the divine resurrected Jesus (the phenomenology) together with its prior convictions of monotheism (doctrine), I suggest that Jesus too had to work this all out.
I rather think that much of Jesus’ ministry was an expression of who He thought he was in relationship to God. One must not interpret Wright to be saying that Jesus isn’t God or the second person in the Trinity. He’s not saying that. The primary question is not ontological; it is epistemological. How did Jesus think of his relationship with the one he called Father.
I think, along with Wright, that especially those in the evangelical community need to start rethinking this question…and probably the follow up question of how we see ourselves in relationship with God. Is our conviction one based out of ontology (that is, my redemptive status with God is such and such) or out of experiential vocation? I am a son to my father in a certain ontological way: biologically. But true son-ship is the expression of sonship to my father, it is the activity of being a son through experience, living, and relationship. As I see it, people can claim the ontology without the vocation and be very wrong about things…but if one’s relationship with God is based out of vocation, if our lives are an expression of that relationship, the ontology will necessarily answer itself even if it is not explicitly stated.