That God has lied or deceived, an impious claim
In the recent debate about lying – which began to rage on the Catholic blogosphere less than a month ago, but which has already lost all its momentum (a testament to human fickleness) – several authors, some of whom are even recognized as “theologians,” appealed to Sacred Scripture either to claim that lies are not always wrong or that what the Catechism (following many Popes, theologians, and saints) says is a lie is not necessarily a lie. Such persons appealed most often to various difficult passages in which it seems that the Old Testament saints – notably, Abraham, Jacob, Rahab, and Judith, as well as the midwives of Egypt – lied. We have already discussed these principle stories. They certainly offer no justification for lying.
Some, however, were not content merely to point to the patriarchs and saints of old, but went so far as to impute lying and deception to God himself. The gross impiety of such a claim need hardly be mentioned, for God “can neither deceive nor be deceived” (Dei Filius 3, CCC 156). The very thought of accusing Truth himself of uttering falsehood befits not the mind of a Christian.
These persons pointed, most often, to two “cases” in which it seemed to them that God had lied: First, they bring forward the testing of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14), for Isaac was not to be sacrificed as it seems God said he would be; then, they turn to Christ’s claim that none know the day or the hour of the Second Coming not even the Son (Mark 13:32), for our Savior most certainly did and does know the exact time of the Parousia. In answering the objections, we will see that there is a marvelous union between these two texts – one which will only be gleaned through reading the Scriptures as a Catholic, as opposed to plucking out “proof-texts” simply to win an argument.
What Abraham knew and did not know
After these things, God tempted Abraham, and said to him: Abraham, Abraham. And he answered: Here I am. He said to him: Take thy only begotten son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the land of vision: and there thou shalt offer him for an holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will shew thee. […] And behold an angel of the Lord from heaven called to him, saying: Abraham, Abraham. And he answered: Here I am. And he said to him: Lay not thy hand upon the boy, neither do thou any thing to him: now I know that thou fearest God, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake. (Genesis 22:1-2, 11-12)
It has seemed to some that God deceived Abraham when testing him, for the Lord had had no intention of allowing Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain. However, we know by divine and Catholic faith that God cannot lie nor even deceive, for he is Truth. Thus, we must consider this passage carefully, with the guidance of the Church Fathers and in relation to the New Testament.
Origen, whose biblical commentaries inspired St. Jerome, tells us that Abraham knew that Isaac would be given back to him alive. Indeed, Abraham’s faith included explicit belief in a type of resurrection. We must first consider the text of the Apostle.
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Abraham had received the promise that he would become the father of many peoples through his son Isaac. Therefore, since he knew that God would never deceive him, Abraham believed that, even if the Lord did have him sacrifice his son, he would receive him back through a physical resurrection. Origen goes further and specifies that Abraham knew that this sacrifice was a prefigurement of the future reality to be accomplished in Christ: “The apostle has therefore reported to us the thoughts of the faithful man [Abraham], that the faith in the resurrection began to be held already at that time in Isaac. Abraham therefore hoped for the resurrection of Isaac and believed in a future that had not yet happened. […] Abraham knew himself to prefigure the image of future truth. He knew the Christ was to be born from his seed, who also was to be offered as a truer victim for the whole world and was to be raised from the dead.”
Abraham was not deceived, for he knew of the mystery he was foreshadowing. What he did not know was that Isaac would not be killed – this he neither affirmed nor denied, but only said, God will provide himself a victim for an holocaust, my son. He knew that he would return with Isaac alive (whether through a resurrection or through his being spared, he knew not). And Isaac was indeed offered, just as the Lord had commanded – but the offering would not be received and the sacrifice would not be perfected until our Savior accomplished all things on the Cross.
What Christ knew in and what he knew from his Humanity
But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)
As God, Christ most certainly knew and knows all things without any qualification whatsoever. And, even as man, we affirm that our Savior knew and knows all things – excepting that he does not comprehend the Divine Essence (for such is beyond the powers of the human intellect).
However, when we speak of the human knowledge of Christ, we must affirm that his knowledge is of three types: Beatific knowledge, infused knowledge, and acquired knowledge. Beatific knowledge is that by which a creature knows all things in the Word – in the vision of the Divine Essence. Infused knowledge is the divine gift of knowledge, infused directly and without any assistance from the senses. Finally, acquired knowledge is that which is gained through sense experience. Of these, only acquired knowledge is proper to human nature unaided by grace.
Now Christ our God knew the day and hour of the Second Coming in his divine intellect. Moreover, even in his Humanity, our Lord knew the time of the Parousia – according to both beatific knowledge and infused knowledge. However, the Savior did not know the time of the Parousia through sense experience and, hence, it was not part of his acquired knowledge.
Thus, when Jesus says that he does not know the day or the hour, we must understand him to mean that he does not know the time from his Humanity – i.e. he does not know it from acquired knowledge through sense experience. Nevertheless, he most certainly did and does know the day and the hour in his Humanity – i.e. he knows it in his human intellect through both beatific and infused knowledge.
Hence, the Good Lord does not lie, nor even deceive, when he says that he does not know the day or the hour of the final judgment – he only means to tell us that he knows it not from his Humanity.
What God does not make to be known, he is said not to know
When Christ our Savior states that the Son does not know the day or the hour of the Second Coming, he means that the Son does not make the time to be known. Much as when we say that a day is “happy” or “pleasant,” we do not intend that the day itself is pleasant but that it makes us to be pleasant; so too, Christ is said not to know insofar as he does not make us to know (so, St. Hilary of Potiers, St. Gregory the Great, and others).
St. Augustine offers the following commentary: “According to the form of God everything that the Father has belongs to the Son for All things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine. According to the form of a slave, however, his teaching is not his own but of the One who sent him. Hence of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. He is ignorant of this in the special sense of making others ignorant. He did not know it in their presence in such a way as to be prepared to reveal it to them at that time.” So too the Catechism: “Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.” (474)
Returning to St. Augustine, we find an interesting connection between the testing of Abraham and our Savior’s words: “Recall that in a similar way it was said to Abraham: Now I know that you fear God, in the sense that now I am taking you through a continuing journey to know yourself, because Abraham came to know himself only after he had been tried in adversity. […] Jesus was ‘ignorant’ in this sense, so to speak, among his disciples, of that which they were not yet able to know from him. He only said that which was seasonally fitting for them to know. Among those with mature wisdom he knew in a different way than among babes.” (De Trinitate 1.12.23)