Only The Father Knows

by Harold F. Carl, PhD

Historical and Evangelical Responses to Jesus' Eschatological Ignorance

in Mark 13:32


            Mark chapter thirteen, and especially Mark 13:32, is among the most difficult passages in the New Testament.  Volumes have been written debating the authenticity and compilation of chapter thirteen centered around the “little apocalypse” theory of some New Testament scholarship, as well as other theories about the chapter.[1]  Ralph Martin rightly characterizes the theological controversy surrounding Mark 13:32 among those who have supported the historic, orthodox Christology of Chalcedon.


The admission, attributed to Jesus (in 13:32), that “about that day or that hour no one except the Father knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son,” has been an exegetical embarrassment from the beginning.  Its trustworthiness as part of Jesus’ teaching has been impeached partly on the ground that it seems to betray the very truth which an orthodox Christology championed.[2] 


Any real lack of knowledge on the part of “the Son,” in any sense, was so abhorrent to early Christian writers that a number of means were employed to either dismiss the idea of the Son’s ignorance all together, or reinterpret it in a completely metaphorical or symbolic way.  Others used the verse to dismiss any idea of true deity in the Jesus of history.

            This article is an attempt to ask a number of questions about this passage: How do those who hold to a Chalcedonian understanding of the two natures of Christ interpret Mark 13:32?  Have ancient and reformation theologians addressed the key issues?  How have modern evangelicals approached the same issues?  Do theological solutions and discussions applied to other problems in the two-natures context (like the weakness and omnipotence of Christ) really work for the knowledge of Christ (his omniscience and ignorance)?  How are we to understand key phrases in Mark 13:32 such as “no one knows,” “nor the Son,” and “only the Father?”  How are we to understand the title “the Son” in the context of the widening circles of verse 32, chapter 13, the Gospel of Mark, and the New Testament as a whole?  Would some of our modern evangelical answers to these questions sound like Nestorianism, an over-separation of the two natures to the point of a division of the person of Christ, to those who lived during that debate?  These are just some of the issues that confront us.  The approach of this article will be a survey of the interpretation of this verse from ancient Christianity through modern evangelicalism, followed by discussion of key exegetical and interpretive issues.  Then we will attempt some evaluation of interpretations and to draw some tentative conclusions.



            The church fathers developed interpretations of Mark 13:32 mostly in response to the Arians, and others, who used the verse to argue that if there was something that the “Son” of God did not know, then He must not possess a full and complete divinity.  Athanasius (295-373) devotes most of chapter 29 in his discourses against the Arians to the proper interpretation of Mark 13:32.  He follows a number of lines of biblical/theological reasoning that are paralleled by other church fathers and are later picked up by reformation and modern theologians.

            Athanasius’s answer to the problem of the ignorance of the Son is that when Jesus said that the Son did not know, He spoke according to his humanity, not his divinity.  “Son” refers to the humanity of Christ in this passage, not to the deity.


He made this, as well as those other declarations as man, by reason of the flesh.  For this as little as the others is the Word’s deficiency, but of that human nature whose property it is to be ignorant. . . Moreover this is proper to the Savior’s love of man; for since He was made man, He is not ashamed, because of the flesh which is ignorant, to say “I know not,” that He may show that knowing as God, He is but ignorant according to the flesh.[3]


Athanasius argues this on a number of biblical grounds.  The Word created all things, including the times and seasons, night and day.  Is the “Framer of all said to be ignorant of His work?”  In the immediate context, Jesus related many details of the approaching day.  Certainly if he knows the antecedents of the day, the Word knows the day itself.[4]  Athanasius also argues that if “nor the Son, but only the Father” applies to the divine economy, then the implication is that the Holy Spirit is also ignorant of the day and the hour.[5]  (The issue of the Holy Spirit’s omniscience or implied ignorance, repeated by others, may be a key to the interpretation of the passage.)  He also appeals to the relational language of Jesus in Matthew and John.  He who knows the father as no one else knows the Father, must know what the Father knows (Matt 11:27).  If all that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son (Jn 16:15; 17:10), this includes knowledge; then the divine Son knows.  If the Son is in the Father, and the Father in the Son (Jn 14:10-11), then the divine Son knows.  He also makes his case from theological descriptions of the divine Son’s being.  If the Son is the Father’s very image (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), then he shares the likeness with the Father of knowing the day and the hour.[6]  Athanasius argues that it is not unusual in Scripture that both human and divine traits are ascribed to the Savior.  One would not attribute Jesus spitting, or stretching out his hand, or speaking with his human voice to his divine being.  Neither should one attribute ignorance to it.  Both natures are sometimes seen simultaneously.  He asked where Lazarus was, then He raised him from the dead.  He told His mother His hour had not yet come, then turned water into wine.  These all show that Jesus Christ is a person with two natures, who is sometimes described by traits of one or the other nature.[7]

            Hilary of  Poitiers (315-367) appears to take a very different approach.  Hilary argues using many of the same passages and arguments as Athanasius for the omniscience of the Son.  But Hilary argues them for the whole person of Christ, not just the divine nature.  The ignorance of Christ expressed in Mark 13:32 is strictly an economic or apparent ignorance.  There is no deficiency whatsoever in the knowledge of the person of Christ.


Whenever God says that he does not know, He professes ignorance indeed, but is not under the defect of ignorance.  It is not because of the infirmity of ignorance that He does not know, but because it is not yet the time to speak, or the divine Plan to act . . . This knowledge is not, therefore, a change from ignorance, but the coming of the fulness of time.  He waits still to know, but we cannot suppose that He does not know: therefore His not knowing what He knows, and His knowing what He does not know, is nothing else then a divine economy in word and deed.[8]


Christ, in both natures, does not know only in the sense that it is not yet time to declare a thing or that it is not deserving of His recognition.[9]  It cannot be said that any infirmity exists in the Son so that He does not know.


For since His ignorance is due to the economy of hidden knowledge, and not to a nature capable of ignorance, now that He says the Father alone knows, we cannot believe that He does not know; for, as we said above, God’s knowledge is not the discovery of what He did not know, but its declaration.  The fact that the Father alone knows, is no proof that the Son is ignorant: He says that He does not know, that others may not know: that the Father alone knows, to shew that He Himself also knows.[10]


            Gregory of Nazianzus (330–389) interpreted the verse solely in terms of the two natures of Christ.  The divine is omniscient, the human is ignorant.


Thus everyone must see that He knows as God, and knows not as Man; - if one may separate the visible from that which is discerned by thought alone.  For the absolute and unconditioned use of the Name “The Son” in this passage, without the addition of whose Son, gives us this thought, that we are to understand the ignorance in the most reverent sense, by attributing it to the Manhood, and not to the Godhead.[11]

Gregory goes on into a lengthy discussion of the names and titles of the Son.  He clearly identifies the title “Son” with the divine nature and never explains how it can be used to denote the human nature in Mark 13:32.[12]

            Ambrose (339-397) takes an even stronger approach to battle the Arian use of Mark 13:32.  He attributes the phrase “neither the Son” to an Arian interpolation.


It is written, they say: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only.”  First of all the ancient Greek manuscripts do not contain the words “neither the Son.”  But it is not to be wondered at if they who have corrupted the sacred Scriptures, have also falsified this passage.  The reason for which it seems to have been inserted is perfectly plain, so long as it is applied to unfold such blasphemy.[13]


No reference is made to which Greek manuscripts Ambrose is referring.  Ambrose goes on to state that if the Evangelist did in fact write these words, that the name “Son” embraces both natures.


The name “Son” embraces both natures.  For He is also called Son of Man, so that in the ignorance attached to the assumption of our nature, he seems not to have known the day of the judgment to come.  For how could the Son of God be ignorant of the day, seeing that the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God are hidden in Him?[14]


Ambrose then states, in similar fashion to Athanasius, that the divine Son must know the day and the hour of the Lord’s return.[15]

            Augustine (354-430) understood the ignorance of Christ in a very limited and unusual sense.  In numerous contexts, Augustine says Christ is ignorant of the day and hour of His return only in the figurative sense that others do not learn this from Him.  It is a sort of derived ignorance.  Two passages sufficiently illustrate what Augustine means:


What comes then of the Son’s even not knowing this?  Which of course is said with this meaning, that men do not learn this by the Son, not that He by Himself doth not know it . . . When therefore the Son is thus said not to know this day: not because He knoweth it not, but because He causeth those to know it not, for whom it is not expedient to know it, that is, He doth not show it to them[16]


He said, that “of the day not even the Son of Man knew,” because it was not part of His office as our Master that through Him it should become known to us.  For indeed that Father knoweth nothing that the Son knoweth not; since that is the Very Knowledge of the Father Itself, which is His Wisdom; now His Son, His Word, is “His Wisdom.” . . . Now thus according to a certain form of speech, the Son is said not to know what He does not teach: that is, in the same way that we are daily in the habit of speaking, He is said not to know what He causes us not to know.[17]

A number of these ancient ways of reasoning are later used by reformers and modern theologians.


            Martin Luther’s solution for Mark 13:32 can be found in a disputation with Schwenkfeld on the deity and humanity of Christ.  Schwenkfeld contended that since Jesus claimed not to know the day and the hour, He was not omniscient and therefore could not be God.  Luther’s answer was that in this case, Jesus was speaking with regard to His human nature.


Argument:  God knows all things.  Christ does not know all things.  Therefore Christ is not God.  I prove the minor premise from Mark, where Christ says that he does not know the last day.  Response:  The solution is that Christ there speaks after a human manner, as he also says:  "All things have been given to me by the Father."  Often he speaks of himself as if simply of God, sometimes simply as of man.  The Father does not will that the human nature should have to bear divine epithets [ut humana natura debeat gerere dicta divina], despite the union, and yet sometimes [Christ] speaks of himself as of God, when he says, "The Son of Man will be crucified."  To be crucified is a property of the human nature, but because there are two natures united in one person, it is attributed to both natures.  Again, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life."  There he speaks of the divine nature.  Or again, "They crucified the Lord of glory," where he speaks of the property of the humanity.[18]

Here Luther develops the interpretive principle that later becomes know as the rule of predication, where a divine title (the Lord of glory) is often in Scripture connected with a human attribute or activity (crucifixion).  This is a very common mode of thinking for Luther.   For Luther, this is possible through the communicatio idiomatum of the two natures in the one person.


From the moment when deity and humanity were united in one Person, the Man, Mary’s Son, is and is called almighty, eternal God, who has eternal dominion, who has created all things and preserves them “through the communication of attributes” (per communicationem idiomatum), because He is one Person with the Godhead and is also very God.[19]


If asked how the divine-human person of Christ might be both omniscient and ignorant at the same time, one might expect Luther to say this was possible because the Godhead was often hidden in the flesh.


For from the very beginning of Christ’s conception, on account of the union of the two natures, it has been correct to say: “This God is the Son of David, and this Man is the Son of God.”  The first is correct because His Godhead was emptied and hidden in the flesh.  The second is correct because His humanity has been completed and translated to divine being.[20]


Elsewhere Luther speaks of the humiliation and Incarnation of Christ as a non-use of his divine attributes.  Explaining Philippians 2, Luther writes, “He says that Christ emptied Himself of the divine form; that is, He did not use His divine might nor let His almighty power be seen, but withdrew it when he suffered.”[21]  Luther understands apparent deficiencies in the divine attributes of the incarnate person of Christ to be attributed to the concealing of or non-use of divine attributes that were always present during the humiliation.

            John Calvin addresses Mark 13:32 in his Harmony of the Evangelists.  He writes that many, driven by the misuse of this passage by the Arians, employ a subterfuge and a contrivance when they say that Christ is ignorant only in the sense that He did not choose to reveal this information to humankind.  Calvin combines the idea of the non-use of the divine omniscience (repose) and an appeal to the two natures of Christ to solve the difficulty.


For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator.  There would be no impropriety, therefore, in saying that Christ, who knew all things, (John xxi.17,) was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us, (Heb. ii.17.) . . . And if Christ, as man, did not know the last day, that does not any more derogate from his Divine nature than to have been mortal.[22]


In the Institutes, Calvin attributes this to the “communication of properties” (rule of predication).  Divine titles and human characteristics are often interchanged due to the union of the two natures in the person of Christ.

The scriptures speak of Christ: they sometimes attribute to him what must be referred solely to his humanity, and sometimes what belongs uniquely to his divinity; and sometimes what embraces both natures but fits neither alone.  And they so earnestly express this union of the two natures that is in Christ as sometimes to interchange them.  This figure of speech is called by the ancient writers “the communicating of properties.”[23]


What Christ said about himself- ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ - was far removed from his humanity . . . therefore they and their like apply exclusively to his divinity.  But he is called “the servant of the Father”; he is said to have ‘increased in age and wisdom . . ., ‘not to know the Last Day’ . . . All these refer solely to Christ’s humanity . . . But the communicating of characteristics or properties consists in what Paul says: ‘God purchased the church with his blood’ [Acts 20:28], and ‘the Lord of glory was crucified’ [1 Cor 2:8].  John says the same: ‘The word of life was handled’ [1 John 1:1].  Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched with hands.  But since Christ, who was true God and also true man, was crucified and shed his blood for us, the things that he carried out in his human nature are transferred improperly, although not without reason, to his divinity.[24]


When Calvin says “communication of properties,” he does not mean that the properties of either nature are communicated to the other.  He means that since the person of Christ has both a human and divine nature, what can be said of either the human or the divine can be said of the whole person.  The practical ramification of this in Scripture, as Calvin and others after him so clearly demonstrate, is that a divine title (Lord of Glory) can be used with a description of a human attribute (was crucified), or, more pertinent to this discussion, a divine title (Son) may be used with a description of the human nature (ignorant).  This is the totality of what Calvin means by the communication of properties.[25]   This idea is developed by later theologians.


            The majority of modern evangelical interpretations of Mark 13:32 fit into three or four broad categories with some overlap.  However, at least two minority understandings are worth mentioning for the sake of discussion.  In his controversial article “The Subordination of the Son” in JETS in 1994, John Dahms cites Mark 13:32 as one of several passages which “possibly” imply the eternal subordination of the Son.  Dahms argues that the title “Son” when used absolutely implies that the deity of Christ is in view.  This being the case, there is something that the divine “Son” does not know that the Father does know.  This verse stresses the subordination to the Father.  Dahms concludes, “It is probable that the eternal subordination of the Son is reflected in Mark 13:32.”[26]

            Another minority explanation of the passage is what W. G. T. Shedd dubs Christ’s “official ignorance.”  In volume one of Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology,Shedd outlines a position closely parallel to that of Augustine, even quoting Augustine.  Omniscience is ascribed to Christ.  Yet Mark 13:32 says He is ignorant of the day of judgment.  While some attribute this ignorance to the humanity of Christ, a better approach is that Christ knew, but was not commissioned to reveal, the day or the hour of the final judgment.  This is official ignorance.


To “know” means to “make known,” . . . A particular Trinitarian person is officially the one to reveal another, and in this reference the others do no officially reveal, and so are officially “ignorant.” . . . When it is said that “the Father only” knows the time of the day of judgment, this must be harmonized with the truth that the Holy Spirit is omniscient, and “searcheth the deep things of God,” 1 Cor. 2:10.  The Holy Spirit is not ignorant of the time of the day of Judgment, but like the incarnate Son he is not commissioned to reveal the time . . . Again, it is not supposable that Christ now seated on the mediatorial throne is ignorant, even in respect to his human nature, of the time of the day of judgment, though he is not authorized to officially make it known to his church.[27]


            The perplexing thing about Shedd is that in the second volume of his Dogmatic Theology, he sets forth a highly developed explanation of the relationship between the finite human mind of Christ and the omniscient divine mind of Christ.  There he attributes the ignorance of Mark 13:32 to the human nature of Christ.[28]  The only other modern author found, and he not so modern, to espouse the “official ignorance” view is Lewis Sperry Chafer.  Chafer wrote,


Of Mark 13:32 where it is recorded that Christ declared that He did not know the day nor the hour of His return, it may be observed that the passage is not unlike 1 Corinthians 2:2 where the Apostle wrote, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  The thought is not to make known, or not to cause another to know.  The truth mentioned was not then, as to its time, committed either to the Son or to the angels to publish.[29]


This again is very similar to Augustine’s argument.

            The other three ways of explaining the ignorance of Christ all have several things in common.  They all attribute to the incarnate Christ a full and proper deity and humanity.  They all describe the ignorance of Christ as real and concrete as opposed to metaphorical or “official.”  And they all attribute this real ignorance of Christ to the human nature alone.  How they describe the possibility of an omniscient divine mind and a finite human mind is what separates them, although there is some overlap.  The non-use and two-natures approaches are both ways of dealing with the problem of how Christ could be both omniscient and ignorant.  The rule of predication explains how a divine title may be used to describe a human nature or trait.

            The least common of the three focuses on the idea of some sort of non-use of divine omniscience.  Both Luther and Calvin sometimes explain the ignorance of Christ in this way.  Charles M. Horne, in an exposition of Philippians 2, describes the “true kenosis” as not a loss of divine attributes, but a giving up of their independent use. 


During the Son’s earthly sojourn the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence remained potential or latent, existent but no longer at the center of His consciousness and in conscious exercise, but undestroyed and capable of manifestation in appropriate circumstances.  The Son of God as one Person possessed of two natures determined according to the eternal counsels of the Godhead to draw upon the attributes inherent in His divine nature only as such was clearly the will of the Father.  And although “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Him,” He determined during the brief span of His earthly career to employ those treasures only when, where, and in a manner ordained by the Father, as mediated through the Holy Spirit.  “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things” (John 5:19).  See also John 8:28; 11:15 ; Mark 13:32.  This is the true meaning of the kenosis..[30]


R. C. H. Lenski describes this non-use of divine omniscience by the incarnate Son in its relationship to the Trinity.


In their essential oneness the three persons know all things, but in his humiliation the second person did not use his divine attributes save as he needed them in his mediatorial work.  So the divine omniscience was used by Jesus only in this restricted way. . .How the incarnate Son could during his humiliation thus restrict himself in the use of the divine attributes is one of the mysteries of his person; the fact is beyond dispute.[31]


More recently, Thomas Oden employs the non-use of eternal foreknowledge to describe how the eternal Logos could be both omniscient and finite in knowledge, and experience a complete human development.


This troublesome point is greatly illuminated by the triune premise (and confusing without it): the divine Logos eternally experiences full awareness of the cosmos, yet as incarnate Logos united to Christ’s humanity he has become voluntarily subjected to human limitations, ignorance, weakness, temptation, suffering and death.  As eternal Son he is equal with God in knowing and foreknowing, but in the mystery of his humiliation he is servant, obedient, willing to be vulnerable to time and finitude.  As conceived in the womb, as born of Mary, as child of Joseph, the eternal Logos gave up or constrained or temporarily abnegated the full and independent exercise of eternal foreknowing, so as to become a little child.[32]


            A fourth group of solutions could be classified as “two-natures” or “hypostatic union” solutions.  The most unique of these is W. G. T. Shedd’s second solution which he proposes under his discussion of the theanthropic person of Christ.  The divine nature, not the human nature, is the basis for Christ’s person.  The second person of the trinity had a personal subsistence prior to the Incarnation.  To this pre-existent person, a human nature was added at the miraculous conception and Incarnation.  (The Word became [took on] flesh).  Because of this, the divinity, not the humanity, is the “dominant and controlling” factor in Christ’s person.  The divine Logos regulates the acts of power of Christ.  The divine nature also regulates the knowledge of the human nature.  Therefore, the human mind of Christ could not know any more than the divinity allowed and communicated to it.


As the prophet Isaiah could know no more of the secret things of God than it pleased the Holy Spirit to disclose to him, so the human mind of Christ could know no more of these same divine secrets than the illumination of the Logos made known.[33]


While the Logos knew precisely when the day of judgment was, the human mind of Christ knew only what the Logos revealed, and He did not reveal this.


The Logos in himself knew the time of the day of judgment, but he did not at a particular moment make that knowledge a part of the human consciousness of Jesus Christ.  In so doing, he limited and conditioned his own manifestation of knowledge in the theanthropic person, by the ignorance of the human nature.[34]


The ignorance is attributed solely to the human nature of Christ because the human nature is dependant upon the divine for the amount of its knowledge.

            B. B. Warfield develops the classic reformed two-natures understanding of the knowledge of Christ in his article, “The Human Development of Jesus.”  Warfield writes that Reformed theology has never shrunk from the idea that Christ, as a man had a finite knowledge, that as a man he grew in wisdom and knowledge, and that Christ’s human knowledge will continue to be finite forever.  A human nature is not and can never be infinite in wisdom as a divine nature.  There is no danger in confessing this.[35]  Problems arise when we so emphasize the humanity of Christ that we attenuate his deity.  Both are clear from Scripture.  Scripture teaches that Christ has two natures and two kinds of knowledge.


Along side of these clear declarations and rich indications of his true and complete humanity, there runs an equally pervasive attribution of him of all that belongs to deity . . . If, for example, he is represented as not knowing this or that matter of fact (Mark xiii.32), he is equally represented as knowing all things (John xx.17; xvi.30) . . . If he is represented as acquiring information from without, asking questions and expressing surprise, he is equally represented as knowing without human information all that occurs or has occurred - the secret prayer of Nathaniel (John i.47), the whole life of the Samaritan woman (John iv.29), the very thoughts of his enemies (Matt. ix.4), all that is in man (John ii.25).  Nor are these two classes of facts kept separate; they are rather interlaced in the most amazing manner . . . everywhere, in a word, we see a double life unveiled before us in the dramatizations of the actions of Jesus among men; not in deed, in the sense that he is represented as acting inconsistently, or is inconsistently represented as acting now in one order and now in another; but rather in the sense that a duplex life is attributed to him as his constant possession.[36]


What are we to do with this double set of facts Warfield asks?  The quick and dirty method is to grasp one set and negate or neglect the other.  A second method involves destroying both sets by combining them into some kind of new middle being.  The only solution that makes sense of all the data is the historic church’s doctrine of the two natures of Christ.  All others fail to do justice to the data found in Scripture.  In Christ there dwells both an infinite and finite mind, “both at every moment of time knows all things and is through out all time advancing in knowledge. . . There is mystery enough attaching to the conception; but it is the simple and pure mystery of the Incarnation.”  Warfield concludes, “It may be much to say that it is because he is man that he is capable of growth in wisdom, and because he is God that he is from the beginning Wisdom Itself.”[37]  Warfield spent his life demonstrating that the conclusions of critical scholars were no more “scholarly” than his own, but simply were based on other assumptions and presuppositions, usually assumptions that simply negated the possibility of a divine nature in Christ or the miraculous actions of Christ.

            More recently, Wayne Grudem addresses the ignorance of Christ in his discussion of the person of Christ.  He writes that the distinction of two centers of consciousness in Christ helps us understand how he could both learn things and yet know all things.  On the one hand, Jesus knew all things (Jn 2:25; 16:30; 21:17).  On the other hand, he had limited knowledge (Mk 13:32; Lk 2:52).


Now this is only understandable if Jesus learned things and had limited knowledge with respect to his human nature but was always omniscient with respect to his divine nature, and therefore he was able any time to “call to mind” whatever information would be needed for his ministry.  In this way we can understand Jesus’ statement concerning the time of his return . . .(Mk 13:32).  This ignorance of the time of his return was true of Jesus’ human nature and human consciousness only, for in his divine nature he was certainly omniscient and certainly knew the time when he would return to the earth.[38]


Grudem responds to the notion that Christ’s possession of two consciousnesses requires him to be two different and distinct persons which ultimately leads to Nestorianism.  He simply responds that this is not the case.  Logically speaking, “It is mere assertion without proof to say that they do.”  Failing to understand how this is possible does not prove it impossible; it simply proves that our understanding is limited.  The adoption of any other solution creates far greater problems and requires one to give up one or the other nature.[39]  Grudem is following Warfield in attempting to formulate a theology that best accounts for the most biblical data.

            Grudem employs the “rule of predication” to explain the use of the divine name “Son” in connection with the ignorance of Christ, much in the same was as Athanasius and Calvin.  “Anything either nature does, the person of Christ does.”  The phrase, Before Abraham was, I am (Jn 8:58), implies that the divine nature existed before Abraham, not the whole person or the human nature.  The phrase, Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3), means that the human body ceased living and functioning, not the divine nature.  Titles that remind us of one nature can be used to designate the person even though the action is done by the other nature.  For example, when Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43) we know that Mary is the mother of the human nature of Christ and not the divine nature which has existed from all eternity.  (Grudem also cites 1 Cor 15:3, Jn 3:13, and Ac 20:28 as examples of this phenomenon in Scripture.)  This helps us to understand Mark 13:32.


In this way, we can understand Mark 13:32, where Jesus says no one knows the time of his return, “not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Though the term “the Son” specifically reminds us of Jesus’ heavenly, eternal sonship with God the Father, it is really used here not to speak specifically of his divine nature, but to speak generally of him as a person, and to affirm something that is in fact true of his human nature only.  And it is true that in one important sense (that is, with respect to his human nature) Jesus did not know the time when he would return.[40]



            A few commentators have asserted that Mark 13:32 is a late addition by the early church to justify the delay of the anticipated parousia.  They argue that since Mark never uses the absolute form “the Son” elsewhere, this occurrence should be doubted.[41]  This is a problematic position on two counts.  First, there is certainly precedent in Mark and the other gospels for the absolute use of “the Son” without a modifier (“of God” “of Man”) where there is already an implied association with the Father.  Twice Mark records the words spoken by the Father “this is/you are my beloved Son” (o` ui`o,j mou o` avgaphto,j) (1:11, 9:7).  Jesus also tells us a parable where He clearly identifies Himself as the beloved Son (ui`o.n avgaphto,n\to.n ui`o,n mou) (12:6 [2x]).[42]  In using the absolute phraseology “the Son” in Mark 13:32, Jesus is thinking of Himself in the way the Father thinks of Him as the beloved Son.[43]

            A second problem with this position is that it seems illogical that the church would attempt to justify the delayed parousia with a verse that attributes ignorance to the Son and consequently creates more difficulty than it alleviates.  Even some of the most radical textual critics accept the passage as genuine.[44]  Gundry comments, “Attribution of ignorance to the Son runs against the grain of increasingly high Christological assertions in the NT church.”[45]

            Others have argued that verse 32 doesn’t fit the context of chapter 13 and owes its position to a compiler.  Cranfield counters that this view reflects a misunderstanding of the entire chapter.  Chapter 13 is not typical Jewish apocalyptic.  The succession of events is too orderly. The form of the discourse is different.  It is not primarily given in the first person.  The purpose here is to sustain the faith of the hearers through these events, not to impart esoteric knowledge.  Cranfield believes that this view also fails to recognize the intentional paradox here between being watchful for the clear indicators of the second coming and being careful not to attempt to know the exact date.  There can be a sudden coming which is heralded by signs, catastrophic to those who are unaware of the signs, expected by those who recognize the signs.[46]  There are also clear parallels between verse 32 and the surrounding verses.  Vigilance is required because: “No one knows . . .,” v 32;  “You do not know . . ,.” v 33; “You do not know . . .,” v 35.  There is nothing out of place here.[47]

The Son

            Jesus’ primary form of self-identification in Mark is as the Son of Man.[48]  There is even reference to Jesus as Son of Man in the nearby context (vs 26).  But the mention of the Father in the phrase immediately following “the Son” implies that “the Son of God” should be understood.  Jesus need not include the modifier “of God” when he speaks of the Son in relation to the Father.  Even in the fourth gospel, one never sees the phrase the Son of God in close proximity to a reference to the Father.  On the other hand Jesus spells out “the Son of Man” when he refers to that title even in close proximity to a reference to the Father (Mk 8:38; 14:62; Jn 5:25, 26, 27).[49]  In Mark 13:32, “the Son” refers to Jesus in filial relation to the Father.[50]

Supernatural Knowledge

            A number of writers already cited have referred to the omniscience of Christ in their solutions to Mark 13:32.  Ralph Martin gives a detailed account of the supernatural knowledge attributed to Jesus by Mark himself.  Jesus perceived the thoughts of others (2:8), knew the state of the dead child (5:39), was aware of the discussion of the disciples (8:16), knew the details of His rejection, trial, mocking, beating, crucifixion, death, and resurrection (8:31, 10:33-34), had foreknowledge of the availability of the colt and the exchange of words with the owner (11:2, 3, 6), and knew that the disciples would desert Him and that Peter would deny Him (14:27, 30).[51]  The picture of Jesus in Mark and the other gospels is of one who possesses the supernatural knowledge of the Father (Mt 11:27; Jn 5:20).

Nor the Son, but only the Father

            If “Son” is understood to be a divine title, and Mark and the other evangelists picture Jesus as possessing supernatural knowledge, then how is the phrase, “nor the Son, but only the Father,” to be understood.  “Nor the Son” in what sense?  “Only the Father” as opposed to whom?  Athanasius, Ambrose, and Shedd all made reference to the fact that if the phrase “only the Father” applies to the divine economy, then the direct implication is that the Holy Spirit is also ignorant of the day and the hour of the Lord’s return.  Indeed all views that posit ignorance to the divine Son, the second person of the trinity, must also by inference posit ignorance to the third person as well, who, like the Son (Col 2:3), is described in Scripture as the one who searches all things, even the deep things of God and who knows the very thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:10-11).  If the divine Son is ignorant, the Spirit is ignorant as well.


            The subordinationist solution proposed by Dahms is fraught with several serious theological difficulties.  In solving the problem of the ignorance of Christ by attributing ignorance to the divine incarnate Son, Dahms joins earlier kenosis theologians in destroying the divine nature altogether.  How is a divine Son, minus omniscience, Emmanuel, God with us?  How is He the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3)?  How does He reflect all the fullness of the godhead (Col 2:9)?  How can He in any sense possess all that the Father has (Jn 16:14-15; 17:10)?  How can He truly and fully “know” the Father (Matt 11:27)?  How can He be the exact representation of the Father’s being (Heb 1:3)?

            Equally difficult is the implied ignorance of the Holy Spirit.  If the only divine person who knows the day and the hour of the Lord’s return is the Father, then the Spirit is ignorant by implication.  How can a Holy Spirit, thus limited, search all things, even the deep things of God and know the very thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:10-11)?

            The “official ignorance” solution proposed by Shedd and Chafer is less problematic.  It keeps the two natures of Christ intact.  But this view seems to place a deception on the lips of Christ.  And it doesn’t really fit the type of language its proponents suggest as examples of this kind of speech in Scripture.  For Jesus to say He does not know, when in reality He does know in every common sense of the word in both natures, sounds very untruthful.

            The “non-use” approach to this problem (Horne, Lenski and Oden) preserves the full deity and humanity of Christ.  It suggests ways in which Christ might be omniscient and ignorant simultaneously.  It subordinates Jesus to the Father or to the Spirit in economic ways that historic Christianity would not find objectionable.  In this way, it makes the knowledge of the human dependant upon the divine.  It might possibly be argued that if the divine Logos is subject to the will of the Father or the Spirit for the use of His divine attributes, that this negates His divine self-existence or self-dependence.  But certainly Luther, Calvin, and Oden would argue for the self-existence and self-dependence of Christ.

            The two-natures defense suggested by Shedd and Grudem (and Feinberg, Warfield, Walvoord, and Geisler) also preserves the two-natures Christology of Chalcedon.  It harmonizes the two parallel streams of data describing the life of Christ found in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament.  These approaches also make the human knowledge of Christ dependent upon the divine nature.  In most cases the only limitation of the divine is in the sense of manifestation.

            The “rule of predication” espoused by Athanasius, Calvin, Warfield and Grudem applies the two-natures solution for the omniscience and ignorance of Christ to the specific difficulty of Mark 13:32.  Sometimes Christ speaks, but what He says can only be attributed to one or the other nature (Mt 28:20; Lk 2:52; Jn 8:58; Jn 16:28; Jn 17:11; Jn 19:28).  But most importantly, titles of one nature and attributes of the other have indeed been mixed freely in Scripture in both gospels and epistles (Lk 1:43; Lk 2:11; Jn 3:13; Ac 20:28; 1 Cor 2:8; 1 Cor 15:3; Heb 6:6; 1 Jn 1:1).  It is perfectly acceptable for Jesus to speak using His divine title, the beloved Son of God and yet say there is something He does not know and be understood as solely describing his human nature.  This answer, although not immediately apparent, makes sense from a systematic approach to Scripture and best harmonizes all the data concerning the two natures of Christ united in His one person.

Dr. Harold F. Carl is has a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA) 1992, Doctor of Philosophy. His dissertation topic was "Found in Human Form: The Maintenance and Defense of Orthodox Christology by Nineteenth Century American Reformed Theologians." He earned his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA), Cum Laude, 1987, and has a B.S. from Malone College (Canton, OH), 1981. This article "Only The Father Knows: A Historical and Evangelical Responses to Jesus' Eschatological Ignorance," has also been featured in the Journal of Biblical Studies, Issue #3.

[1]Vincent Taylor calls this chapter “one of the unsolved problems of New Testament exegesis.”  Taylor outlines and critiques several forms of the “little apocalypse” theory.  Vincent Taylor, “Unsolved New Testament Problems: The Apocalyptic Discourse of Mark xiii,” Expository Times 60 (January 1949): 94.  Cranfield opens part one of a three part article on Mark 13 with the sentence, “The difficulty of this chapter is notorious,” and then refers to Taylor.  C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Mark 13: Part 1," Scottish Journal of Theology 6 (June 1953): 189.  Discussions about the makeup of chapter thirteen and the various compilation theories, except where they impact the interpretation and exegesis of verse 32, are well beyond the scope of this article.  The authenticity of verse 32 as a saying of Jesus will be addressed below.

[2]Ralph Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), p. 124.

[3]Athanasius, Three Discourses of Athanasius Against the Arians, in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, 2 vols, trans. John Henry Cardinal Newman (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1887), 1:410-411.

[4]Athanasius, Arians, 1: 409.

[5]“But He did not go further and say, “not the Holy Ghost;” but He was silent with a double intimation: first, that if the Spirit knew, much more must the Word know, considered as the Word, from whom the Spirit receives; and next, by His silence about the Spirit, He made it clear that it was of the Son’s human economy that He said, no, not the Son.”  Athanasius, Arians, 1:411.

[6]Athanasius, Arians, 1:411-412.

[7]Athanasius, Arians, 1:408, 414.  This is an incomplete form of the argument of predication of natures and titles developed by later authors.

[8]Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, trans. E. W. Watson and L. Pullan, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, second series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 9.63, 177.

[9]Hilary, Trinity, 9.66, 178.

[10]Hilary, Trinity, 9.68, 179; 9.71, 180.

[11]Gregory of Nazianzen, The Fourth Theological Oration, Which is the Second Concerning the Son, in Orations, trans. Charles G. Browne and James E. Swallow, in  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, second series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1890), 7:15.315.

[12]Gregory, Orations, 7:19-20.316.

[13]Ambrose,  Exposition on the Christian Faith, trans. H. De Romestin, 199-314, in Some of the Principal Works of St. Ambrose, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, second series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 10: chapter 16, paragraph 192, 308.

[14]Ambrose, Christian Faith, 10: chapter 16, paragraph 193, 308-309.

[15]Ambrose, Christian Faith, 10: chapter 16, paragraphs 195-207, 309-310.  Ambrose argues from the Son’s creation of all things, from His relationship to the Father, from the fact that the Spirit must know, and from the Son’s knowledge of other aspects of the Lord’s coming that the divine Son must know.

[16]Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, first series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956) 8: Psalm 6, paragraph 1, 15.

[17]Augustine, Psalms, Psalm 37, paragraph 1, 91.  See also: On the Trinity, trans. A. W. Haddan, rev. W. G. T. Shedd, in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948) 2: book 1, chapter 12, 688-689: “For He is ignorant of this, as making others ignorant; that is, in that He did not so know as at that time to show His disciples . . . He was “ignorant,” therefore, among them of that which they were not able to know from him.  And that only he said that he knew, which it was fitting that they should know from him.”  See also: Augustine, “Letter CLXXX to Oceanus,” The Confessions and Letters of Augustin, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 1, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1995),  paragraph 3, 547: “ ‘he did not know the day,’ with no other meaning than this: In proportion as he had made others ignorant by concealing his meaning, he spoke of it figuratively as his own lack of knowledge.  So by concealing it, he so to speak caused others not to know it.”

[18]Martin Luther,  Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ, February 27, 1540, trans. Christopher B. Brown, from WA 39/2, 92‑121 (Ft. Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary-Project Wittenberg) http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/ luther/luther‑divinity.txt.  See also: Martin Luther, "Confession Concerning Christ's Supper," in LW, 55 vols., vols. 1-30, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Pub. House); vols. 31-55, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958-1986), 37: 210-211: “Since the divinity and humanity are one person in Christ, the Scriptures ascribe to the divinity, because of the personal union, all that happens to humanity, and vice versa.  And in reality it is so.  Indeed, you must say that the person (pointing to Christ) suffers and dies.  But this person is truly God, and therefore it is correct to say: the Son of God suffers.  Although, so to speak, the one part (namely, the divinity) does not suffer, nevertheless the person, who is God, suffers in the other part (namely, in the humanity). . . Thus we should ascribe to the whole person whatever pertains to one part of the person, because both parts constitute one person.”

[19]Martin Luther, “The Last Words of David,” in LW, 15.293.

[20]Martin Luther, “Romans,” in LW, 25.147.  Elsewhere Luther writes what one might expect Jesus to say.  “I had this from my Father from eternity, before I became man, but when I became man, it was imparted to Me in time according to My human nature, and I kept it concealed until My resurrection and ascent into heaven, when it was to be manifested and glorified.” Luther, “Last Words,”15.293-294.

[21]Martin Luther, “Sermon on Psalm 8:5,” in LW, 12.127.

[22]John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 3:153-154.

[23]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20 and 21 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 2.14.1, 482-483.

[24]Calvin, Institutes, 2.14.2, 483-484.

[25]Joseph N. Tylenda, “Calvin’s Understanding of the Communication of Properties,” WTJ 38 (Fall 1975): 55-66.  Tylenda makes a very clear and well-documented case for this limited understanding of the communication of properties in Calvin.

[26]John V. Dahms, “The Subordination of the Son,” JETS 37 (September 1994): 356-357.  Gilbert Bilezikian responded in a paper originally presented at the November 1994 meeting of ETS that this was a gross misuse of the text.  Gilbert Bilezikian, “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead,” JETS 40 (March 1997): 60.  Other evangelicals have defended a subordinationist view.  See: Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm, Jr., “A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son,” JETS 42 (September 1999): 462-477.

[27]W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3 vols, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980), 1.319-320.

[28]Shedd, Theology, 2.272-278.  This view will be explored more fully later.

[29]Lewis Sperry Chafer,  “Trinitarianism: Part 4," Bibliotheca Sacra, 97 (October 1940): 401.  Beasley-Murray strongly opposes this view.  “It can no longer be regarded as an assumed ignorance, or set down as something known to him, but outside the scope of his commission to reveal.  It was a genuine limitation of his human consciousness, a matter not contained in the revelation of the Father to the Son.” G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Future (London: MacMillan, 1954), 263.  Some would argue that the “official ignorance” interpretation, if true, seems to be the most “deceptive” of the possible solutions and goes against the perspicuity of Scripture.

[30]Charles M. Horne, “Let this Mind be in You: An Exposition of Philippians 2:5-11,” Grace Journal 1 (Spring 1960): 28.  See also: Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1907), 703.  “In this act, he resigned not the possession, nor yet entirely the use, but rather the independent exercise, of the divine attributes.”

[31]R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946), 590-591.

[32]Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology, vol. 2: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), 2.89-90.

[33]Shedd, Theology, 2.269-273.

[34]Shedd, Theology, 2.273.  Even in the context of this discussion, Shedd reiterates his alternate explanation of the “official ignorance” in a footnote on page 276.  Feinberg parallels Shedd’s thought on the hypostatic union and the ignorance of Christ.  Charles Lee Feinberg, “The Hypostatic Union: Part 2," Bibliotheca Sacra 92 (October 1935): 419-421.

[35]B. B. Warfield, “The Human Development of Jesus,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. (Nutley, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1970), 162.

[36]Warfield, “Human Development,” 163.  John F. Walvoord develops similar lines of thought.  John F. Walvoord, “The Person of the Holy Spirit, Part 4: The Holy Spirit in Relation to the Person and Work of Christ,” Bibliotheca Sacra 98 (January 1941), 30-55.

[37]Warfield, “Human Development,” 165.

[38]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 561.

[39]Ibid.  See also: Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 425.

[40]Grudem, Systematic Theology, 562-563.  B. B. Warfield also employs the “rule of predication.”  “Every one who believes in the Two Natures already confesses the existence of a limited mind in Jesus, and, on the well-known principle of the communio idiomatum, the use of the term “the Son” here creates no difficulty - any more than a difficulty is created by the sayings that the Lord of Glory or the Son of God was crucified (1 Cor ii.8, Heb. vi.6), or that the blood of God has purchased His Church (Acts xx.28).”  B. B. Warfield, "Late Discussions of Kenosis," Presbyterian and Reformed Review 10 (October 1899), 722.


[41]Javier-José Marín, The Christology of Mark: Does Mark’s Christology Support the Chalcedonian Formula “Truly Man and Truly God”?, (Bern: Peter Lang, 1991), 142-143.

[42]For “my Son,” see Mt 2:17, 17:5, 24:36; Mk 1:11, 9:7; Lk 3:22, 9:35.  For the absolute use of “the Son” in relation to the Father, see Mt 11:27, 28:19; Mk 13:32; Lk 10:22; Jn 3:35, 5:20, 23, 26, 14:13, 17:1.  For parabolic examples, see Mt 21:37, 38; Mk 12:6; Lk 20:13.  For a detailed analysis of this, see: Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 794-795.

[43]Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 138-139.

[44]Paul Schmiedel counts it among the five passages, or at the most nine, that he would consider “the foundation pillars for a truly scientific life of Jesus” because to him these passages prove that Jesus was completely and only human and that the gospels do contain “at least some absolutely trustworthy facts concerning him.”  Paul W. Schmiedel, "Gospels," in Encyclopedia Biblica, 2:1761-1898, ed. T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 1881.

[45]Gundry, Mark, 793.  Brown uses almost the exact same words.  Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 57.  Taylor concludes, “Of its genuineness there can be no reasonable doubt . . . Its offence seals its genuineness.”  Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), 522.

[46]C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Mark 13: Part 1.3 (continued)," Scottish Journal of Theology 7 (September 1954): 295, 299-302.

[47]William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482-483.  Lane develops the parallelism more fully.  See also: William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 541.

[48]2:10, 28; 8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41, 62.

[49]Gundry, Mark, 794-795.  We have already noted Jesus’s self-understanding as the “beloved son” (of God).  There is certainly precedent in Mark for the idea of divine sonship as well (1:1; 14:61; 15:39).  See: Ralph Martin, Mark, 104-106 for a fuller discussion.

[50]G. R. Beasley-Murray, A Commentary on Mark Thirteen (New York: MacMillan, 1957), 107.

[51]Martin, Mark, 133-135.  Martin cites a number of other examples.


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