Jesus the Theologian

Jesus Christ is the greatest theologian of all time; He read, interpreted, and applied the Scriptues in a masterful way, and taught others to do likewise. While we've already considered Jesus as a learner and teacher, it may help us at this point to think further about theology—the knowledge of God—and it's relation to our Lord.

Theology: God's, Ours, and the Redeemer's

Older theologians were prone to view theology on two levels. The first level pertains to God himself, and it is denominated as archetypal theology. Franciscus Junius says it “is the divine wisdom of divine matters.”[1] Whereas we are eyewitnesses of created things and obtain knowledge of God by them, this is not the case with God’s wisdom or knowledge. Divine wisdom and knowledge are not obtained. As Junius says, “[The divine] wisdom produces intellect, reason, conclusions, knowledge, and wisdom itself in others” but “[it] is not born from them.”[2]

Archetypal theology is the comprehensive divine knowledge of God and all things in relation to God. This means that the Bible does not, and cannot, give us comprehensive knowledge of God. Only God comprehends God (1 Cor. 2:10-11); the finite cannot contain the infinite. We may and do apprehend some knowledge of God, but our finitude (and sinfulness) precludes us from knowing God as God knows God in himself and all things in relation to him. It also means that the knowledge the Bible gives us is accommodated to our creaturely capacities.

Accommodated knowledge is what we call revelation. God knows himself perfectly and eternally. He does not learn about himself in any sense. He does not derive his knowledge of himself or anything else from outside of himself. In fact, his knowledge is in no sense derivative. He does not learn. He does not study. He does not accumulate data from outside, meditate upon it, and then draw conclusions. He knows himself perfectly and eternally, as well as all things in relation to him. Archetypal theology is perfect, flawless, infallible, uncreated, eternal. This infinite knowledge of God possessed by God alone is the “ultimate pattern for all true theology.”[3] The Lord Jesus knows God in this sense but only according to his divine nature.

The second level of theology is reffered to as ectypal theology. Junius defines this type of theology as “the wisdom of divine matters, fashioned by God from the archetype of Himself, through the communication of grace for His own glory.”[4] Our theology is not eternal as to its form; it was “fashioned by God,” though it does reflect the Eternal’s knowledge. It came into existence, though being “created according to the capacity of the one communicating it”[5] and “communicated to things created, according to the capacity of the created things themselves.”[6] We know divine effects (i.e. creatures) according to our creaturely capacities. Likewise, ectypal theology was created by God for us, in accordance with our receptive and interpretive capacities. It is revealed knowledge, one in which creatures can grow.

Ectypal theology may be considered on various levels. Adam, the first created man, had a theology before the fall. He possessed knowledge of God by virtue of being created in God’s image and through that which God had made. He also possessed knowledge that was revealed to him directly by God. But he fell into sin and plunged the rest of us into a state of moral pollution and condemnation. Though man after the fall has knowledge of God, it is not the same as Adam’s before the entrance of sin. Some are born and die only knowing God by virtue of being created in God’s image (though fallen), along with that knowledge that comes through creation itself—and even this knowledge they suppress (Rom. 1:18ff).

Others are born again, and are given true knowledge of God by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit (normally) in conjunction with the written Word of God, the Bible.[7] Once these men die, their knowledge of God is no longer tainted by corruption. So among men, there is pre-fall and post-fall theology. Within post-fall theology there is the theology of the lost and the theology of the saved. Within the theology of the saved there is the theology of pilgrims (i.e., believers on the earth) and the theology of the blessed (i.e., glorified souls). For the saved, there is one more stage of theology. It is that which is to come in the world-to-come (Eph. 2:7).

But there is one man who walked among us who had a unique theology; one never tainted by sin: Christ Jesus. This is the theology of the Redeemer, according to his human nature. He did not need to be born again. He did not suppress truth. Our Lord Jesus was without sin. This does not mean that our Lord knew everything at age two that he did at age thirty, but it does mean that he did not sin with the knowledge of God possessed via being fully man. Being fully human, Jesus grew in his knowledge of God by reading the Hebrew Scriptures and discussed them with others.

Since claiming our Lord learned anything, let alone Holy Scripture, seems odd, let us consider this a bit more. Our Lord Jesus Christ grew in wisdom as a boy in such a way that shocked others. Jesus grew in the skillful use of knowledge. Notice Luke 2:40 and 52. Luke 2:40 says, “The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” Luke 2:52 says, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” In between those two verses the twelve year old Jesus is found in the temple (Luke 2:46-52). At the age of twelve, his learning astonished even the teachers at the temple (Luke 2:47). The sinless, incarnate Son of God grew in wisdom as a boy. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit upon his human soul, he was enabled to grow in wisdom like no other boy in history before or since.

Our Lord Jesus, however, “kept increasing in wisdom” and the “grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:52, 40). These statements bracket the incident at the temple concerning his knowledge and understanding. This increase in wisdom and grace was a constant experience of our Lord, according to his human nature. He kept increasing in his ability to skillfully use the knowledge he obtained. This implies that he grew in his knowledge of the Word of God and came to realize that and how it spoke about him. Mark Jones comments:

"Jesus came to a growing understanding of his Messianic calling by reading the Scriptures. He had to learn the Bible just as we must. Of course, he is the greatest theologian who has ever lived. His reading of the Bible would have been free from the problems that beset Christians who wrongly interpret passages and bring their own sinful dispositions to the text. Nevertheless, we must not imagine that Christ had all of the answers as a baby and merely waited to begin his ministry at the age of thirty without putting in hard yet delightful work on a daily basis in obedience to his Father’s will. As Christopher Wright notes, the Old Testament enabled Jesus to understand himself. The answer to his self-identity came from the Bible, ‘the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship. And in this tapestry, where others saw only a fragmented collection of various figures and hopes, Jesus saw his own face. His Hebrew Bible provided the shape of his own identity.’ …he had to study to know what to do. While he was never ignorant of what he needed to know at any stage of his life, he nevertheless was required to learn."[8]

When Jesus begins his public ministry, it is clear that he knows his relationship to the OT; he knows he is that to which it pointed all along. He knows who he is and he knows what he is supposed to do. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34b). According to his human nature, our Lord came to learn this and confessed it: “Then I sayd, Lo, I come (In the beginning of the booke it is written of me) that I should doe thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7 Geneva Bible [1599]). This is why Hamilton is right, when he says, “On the human level, Jesus learned the interpretive perspective he taught to his disciples from Moses and the Prophets.” This is not to deny that he had other revelation given to him via other means (e.g., Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; John 5:20). It is simply to affirm that what he learned from the Old Testament was vitally connected to the fact that he increased in wisdom.

Jesus the Teacher

The NT documents come to us as inspired by the Holy Spirit of truth (i.e., the Spirit of the exalted Christ). The authors of the NT books end up following Jesus’ own principles of Bible interpretation. Why is this? The simple answer is that he taught them these principles, or at least illustrated them while discussing the Scriptures with them. Jesus’ own view of the OT as it related to him was communicated to the disciples. Consider Luke 24:25-27 and 44-49.

"And He said to them, 'O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?' Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures...

"Now He said to them, 'These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 'You are witnesses of these things. 'And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.'"

The latter text is probably the most comprehensive statement from Jesus in the Gospels concerning his understanding of the OT and his relation to it. Notice Jesus’ audience for these words (Luke 24:33–the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the eleven, and others with them). It is important to recognize the importance of the eleven being there and hearing these words. Surely this brief lesson on Jesus’ relation to the OT triggered much thought and discussion among them (Acts 6:4?). They had heard it before (or at least were witnesses to the interpretive methods of Jesus applied to Scripture [for possible examples see Luke 4:16-19; John 5:39, 45-47]) though maybe not in these exact words. Luke 24:49 is important to note at this juncture. He told them to wait in the city of Jerusalem until he sent forth the promise of his Father, the Holy Spirit. A special endowment of the Holy Spirit’s activity awaited them. Once this happened, recorded for us in Acts 2, the Apostles testified boldly and clearly that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed servant of the Lord as promised in the OT, the One who suffered and entered into glory in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures, and the One to whom it pointed (Matt. 2:13-15; Mark 1:1-3; Acts 2:14-36; 3:17-26; 9:1-19[9]; 15:12-19; 26:19-23; Rom. 1:1-4; 5:14; 1 Pet. 1:10-12). The Spirit of truth helped them remember what Jesus said (John 14:26) and to interpret the Scriptures the way our Lord Jesus did. Just as the Spirit of God helped the man, Christ Jesus, understand the Hebrew Scriptures as pointing to him, so the Spirit of God helped Christ’s apostles to the same end.

Our Lord learned hermeneutics, interpreted the Old Testament, and taught others how to do the same.

Richard C. Barcellos is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ.

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The Incarnation in the Gospels by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, and Daniel Doriani

"On Informed Reading" by Richard Barcellos 

The Incarnation in the Gospels by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, and Daniel Doriani

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[1] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 107.

[2] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 108.

[3] Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 300.

[4] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 113.

[5] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 116.

[6] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 117.

[7] I say “normally” because there are some who had the true knowledge of God before Holy Scripture, the Word of God written, was given (e.g., Adam, Eve, Abraham, etc.).

[8] Jones, Jesus Christ: An Introduction to Christology, 32.

[9] Cf. Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel, where Kim argues that Paul’s hermeneutic was permanently altered on the Damascus road.