How Human Is the Mind of Christ?

Christ is the heart of Christianity. It is hardly surprising, then, that from the beginning of church history his own person has been the target of foes from without and heretics from within. Early on, some attacked the doctrine of his eternal deity, others the belief that he had a real physical body, and yet others that he had a real human mind.

This last attack is particularly fascinating because it was driven by a bishop, Apollinarius (310–390), who had previously distinguished himself as a defender of the deity of Christ. Most likely, he hesitated to acknowledge Jesus’s full humanity because he feared compromising the Lord’s deity. He took John 1:14, “The Word became flesh,” to mean only that the eternal Word took a human body: he did not take a rational human soul. The incarnation thus involved a union between the Son of God and only part of human nature. Jesus did not have a human mind.

Apollinarius’s doctrine eventually was condemned as heresy, but only after a keen debate. A key figure in this debate was Gregory, bishop of Nazianzen (in what is modern-day Turkey). Gregory (329–390) famously summed up his argument in the statement, “The unassumed is the unhealed” (Letter to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius). His logic was simple: a rational soul is as essential to human nature as a human body; if Christ didn’t take such a soul, he didn’t take the whole of human nature; and if he didn’t take it, he didn’t redeem it. Without a human mind, Jesus would have saved only a part of man, and not the most important part.

Side by side with Gregory in this debate stood his friend, Gregory of Nyssa (about 335–395), who also bequeathed to us a memorable image. Starting from the premise that it was not the body only, but the whole man that was lost, he proclaimed that the Good Shepherd, who came to seek and to save the lost, “carries home on his shoulders the whole sheep, not its skin only” (Against Eunomius, 2.13). Thus did the Good Shepherd make the man of God complete, redeemed in both body and soul.

Tempted Yet Triumphant

We shouldn’t overlook how tempting it is for those who are sensitive about the deity of Christ to follow the path taken by Apollinarius and to shrink from giving the humanity of our Lord its due place. Indeed, we already see the temptation confronted in the epistle to the Hebrews, where some in the early church found it hard to believe that the Son of God could sympathize with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). This is likely why the writer has to stress that Christ was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17).

“Jesus endured temptation to a degree that we shall never know because, unlike us, he never gave in.”

Before we go any further, however, we have to remind ourselves there is one exception to this: Christ was without sin. This fact is all the more remarkable when we recall that he not only shared our nature: he also shared our temptations (Hebrews 4:15). Indeed, he endured temptation to a degree that we shall never know because, unlike us, he never gave in. Though the devil pursued him relentlessly — through family, friend, and foe — Jesus would not yield, even when faced with the cursed death of the cross.

These temptations were real and protracted, sometimes cunning, sometimes violent, but from them all Christ emerges with his integrity inviolate. But the very fact that he was tempted is fatal to the idea that he had no human mind. A mere body cannot be tempted. The divine Logos cannot be tempted. Omniscience cannot be tempted. We are tempted by what we know, by what we shrink from, by what we fear, and by what we love. So it was with Jesus, as we see from his experience in Gethsemane. He knew something (but not all) of what the cup involved, he shrank from it, and he wished, as man, there could be some other way. But in the end, he prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). This was not mere submission. It was the keynote of his life.

Real Human Mind

When we turn to Jesus in the Gospel accounts, we are immediately aware that here is someone who not only lived in a human body but one who also had a real human mind. This is made plain at the beginning, when Luke tells us that Jesus grew not only in physical stature but in wisdom (Luke 2:52). God doesn’t grow in wisdom. He is eternally all-knowing, but the child Jesus was not.

His physical development was accompanied by a normal human intellectual development. His mother would have taught him what every human mother teaches her child, but she would have shared with him, too, what she had been told by the angel who had been sent to announce his birth. He learned from the Scriptures, which he clearly read for himself and which he cherished as a font of wisdom all his life. He learned by attending the synagogue, and by questioning the rabbis at the temple (Luke 2:46). He learned from his father, Joseph, to whom he was apprenticed. And he learned by observing the world around him and the ways of his own people.

Yet this human mind, acute and probing as it was, was also aware that it didn’t know everything, and couldn’t answer every question that might be put to him. The prime example of this is his confession of ignorance about the time of his own second coming (Mark 13:32). He was never ignorant of anything he ought to have known, or of anything his people needed to know. From that point of view, the Father had delivered to the Son everything that would be helpful to the “babes” (Matthew 11:25 KJV). But on such a detail as the date of the end, all that Jesus could say was that the Father had set it by his own authority (Acts 1:7).

The fact that Jesus had a real human mind and confessed himself ignorant on certain matters doesn’t mean, however, that his knowledge was never more than ordinary. He clearly had supernatural knowledge, as appears, for example, in his conversation with the woman of Samaria. He has never seen or heard of her before, yet he knows all that she ever did (John 4:29). Yet supernatural knowledge is not omniscience. It was a normal adjunct of the prophetic office, as we can see clearly in the ministries of men like Elijah and Elisha.

Deep Affections

If we see in Jesus a man possessed of a real human mind, we also see in him a deeply affectionate human being. Above all, of course, this affection is directed toward his heavenly Father, whom he now loves according to his two natures, human and divine. But alongside this affection, the Gospels highlight Jesus’s love for his fellow humans.

Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this is Jesus’s love for the rich young man who approached him to ask what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17–23). The man went away sad, we are told, because he was unwilling to part with his possessions. We have no reason to believe that he ever chose eternal life, but we have very good reason to believe that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). Jesus was drawn to him, it seems, as one human to another.

It is clear, too, that Jesus loved company, and in this respect he was a marked contrast to his cousin, John the Baptist. John was a solitary who preferred life in the desert to life in the city and was happy to live on his diet of locusts and wild honey. Jesus never found fault with John’s lifestyle, nor did John with his, but they were men of different temperaments (Matthew 11:18–19). Jesus readily accepted invitations to enjoy the hospitality of others, even when they came from tax collectors and sinners.

But he also had his own circle of intimate friends. Its nucleus was the original band of twelve disciples, whom he called apostles “so that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14), but within this band there was another even more intimate circle consisting of Peter, James, and John; and even within the inner three there seems to have been one who was special: John, “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2). This also bears the mark of humanity. Some were close to him, others were even closer, and one was closest of all. But they were all his friends (John 15:14). He loved them as the Father loved him (John 15:9), and his love for them was to be the paradigm for the way they were to love one another (John 13:14, 34).

There was another group, too, to which Jesus was especially close: the Bethany household of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Jesus, we are told explicitly, loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus; and in the sisters’ message to Jesus informing him of Lazarus’s illness, they refer to their brother as “he whom you love” (John 11:3).

There was clearly a close bond here: a bond that embraced the sisters as well as their brother, and a love so deep that when Jesus saw Mary stricken with grief, he was profoundly moved in his spirit, and wept (John 11:33–35), even though he knew that Lazarus’s illness would ultimately lead not to his death, but to the glory of God. The sight of human heartbreak convulsed his soul.

Human Emotions

Then we see, too, that Jesus experienced ordinary human emotions.

He was moved to anger, for example, by the hardness of the human heart, by the hypocrisy of the religious, and by the desecration of his Father’s house. More typically, however, the emotion we see in Jesus is compassion. He feels pity for the crowds, living aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), and it is pity that moves him to raise the widow’s son (Luke 7:13) and to heal the leper who approaches him imploring, “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40).

In fact, as B.B. Warfield points out in his splendid essay “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” compassion is the emotion most frequently attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and it was no shallow feeling. The Greek verb used to express the Lord’s pity (splanchnizomai) is closely related to the word for the inward parts (“bowels,” in the older English versions) and underlines the fact that Jesus’s compassion was visceral. He was deeply upset, stirred to his depths, by the misery he saw around him, whether in the state of society in general or in the plight of individuals, and his distress was frequently accompanied by clear physical symptoms such as, for example, his weeping at Lazarus’s tomb and his tears over the doomed city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Jesus felt, and felt deeply.

Nor is compassion something that Jesus, now that he has risen, has left behind as not fit to be taken back to heaven. After all, compassion is an emotion clearly ascribed to God himself (Psalm 103:13). Indeed, it is a key attribute in the name revealed to Moses when he hid in the cleft of the rock and the glory of God passed him by (Exodus 34:6). Pity is a part of the glory, and it is perfectly consistent, then, with the exaltation of Christ that he still sympathizes with his people in their weakness (Hebrews 4:15). He knows how they feel, he feels with them, and he feels for them, because he has stood where they stand.

Yet the fact that he can follow our experiences doesn’t mean that we can always follow his, because he has plumbed emotional depths that none of his brothers or sisters has ever known. The supreme example of this is Gethsemane. The cross had long occupied Jesus’s mind, but in Gethsemane, “Today is the day,” and the full horror of the cup he has to drink is well-nigh overwhelming. He cannot hide his anguish. “My soul,” he declares (speaking of his human soul), “is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34); and he prays, not once but thrice. He wanted the cup removed. Could there not, he asked, be some other way?

These, as John Calvin put it, are the feelings of a condemned and ruined man (Institutes, 2.16.11), and when what he dreaded in Gethsemane became a reality on Calvary, they found expression in the dreadful cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). What did they mean? That is between himself and the Father. Only they know what our salvation cost them each. But let’s never forget that while we have all, at one time or another, cried from the depths (Psalm 130:1), we have never cried from such depths as these: the depths of the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13).

Does the Whole Sheep Matter?

Back, then, to the two Gregorys. Why was it important that the shepherd should carry the whole sheep — or, more prosaically, that the Redeemer of the human race should take to himself the whole of human nature, and not just a human body?

“The sins of the human soul need to be atoned for as well as the sins of the body.”

First, because the sins of the human soul need to be atoned for as well as the sins of the body. This becomes clear the moment we look at such a passage as Galatians 5:19–21, where Paul lists the sins of the “flesh.” It is doubtful that any of these is exclusively a sin of the body, but some — such as enmity, jealousy, envy, and fits of anger — are clearly sins of the mind; and the bearer of the sins of the world had to bear these sins of the mind as surely as he bore the sins of the body.

Second, the human mind had to consent to the sacrifice offered on Calvary. It was not merely a physical act, but a voluntary act; otherwise it would have had no moral value. The power of the cross lies not in the degree or quantity of the pain it involved, but in the fact that Christ offered himself in love. In the very act of delivering himself up, Christ loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. Like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the cross was an act of worship (Genesis 22:5).

Third, the soul, no less than the body, had to bear the cost of redemption. This is the great truth highlighted by the Puritan theologians: “The suffering of his soul was the soul of sufferings” (Christ’s Famous Titles, 124). And just how real these soul-sufferings were, we have already seen. The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” came from the depths of Immanuel’s soul.

Fourth, the soul, no less than the body, needs a full salvation. It needs renewal and cleansing as well as forgiveness. But just as the resurrection of the body presupposes our union with Christ, so does the transformation of the soul. We are sanctified in him, our souls united to his soul, and drawing on one and the same Spirit.

Full Propitiation

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the two Gregorys provide a complete understanding of the atonement. There was a tendency among the great Greek theologians to see the union of the two natures in the person of Christ as itself the defining atoning act.

But the incarnation, magnificent as it was, was not an end in itself, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear when he tells us that Christ took flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Or, as he puts it a moment later, the reason that Christ became like his brothers and sisters in every respect was that he might make propitiation for his people’s sins. The propitiatory act was not his incarnation, but his death. He is a propitiation by his blood (Romans 3:35).