The Ancient Heresy of Docetism

Early in my project of reading all of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, I encountered two terms that I was aware of from my theological studies in seminary, but now couldn’t define or describe. Since Barth assumes that his readers will know these terms, he doesn’t bother to define them. The terms I’m referring to were identified as heresies in the first centuries of Christianity. They are Docetism and Ebionitism. In this post I’ll discuss Docitism and in the next post, I’ll write about Ebionitism.

The word Docetism is derived from the Greek word “dokeo” which means “to seem.” Docetism is the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth only seemed to have a physical body, that his physical body was either absent or an illusion, that Jesus only appeared to have a body.

This early Christian heresy grew out of a popular Greek philosophy called Gnosticism, the dualistic idea which viewed matter as inherently evil and that only spirit as good. Gnostics believed that God could not be associated with matter and that God, being perfect and infinite, could not suffer. Therefore, God as the word, could not have become flesh as stated in the Gospel of John 1:1, 14 (Common English Bible), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh, and made his home [literally: “tented”] among us . . . ” This denial of the incarnation would mean that Jesus did not truly suffer on the cross and that he did not rise from the dead.

As the message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus spread to the Greek world, early believers may have been tempted to embrace it as a form of super-spiritual Christianity. The letters of first and second John may include a direct refutations of Docetism. “This you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, 3 and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and now is already in the world” 1 John 4:2-3 (CEB). Also, 2 John 7 (CEB), “Many deceivers have gone into the world who do not confess that Jesus Christ came as a human being. This kind of person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

Docetic teaching was attractive to a minority of believers in the first centuries of the Christian Church. However it was unequivocally rejected by the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 and from that time on it has been regarded as a heretical teaching by all branches of the Christianity.

However, his ancient heresy reemerged in the teaching of Islam which has a docetic understanding of Jesus. The Qur’an views Jesus as a prophet and divine illuminator rather than the Redeemer. Islamic Docetism focuses on a denial of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Sura 4:157–158 reads: “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger — they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise.”

Personally I have Muslim friends and neighbors whom I respect and admire. Muslims have participated in Bible study groups in my home. I have been enriched by frequent conversations via Skype with wonderful Palestinian Muslims living in Gaza City and in Hebron. There are many aspects of Islam that I find appealing, especially their devoted prayer practices from which I have much to learn. But we clearly disagree about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I believe that docetic tendencies continue to persist among Christians to this day. When we think that our bodies with all their appetites are evil compared to our spirits which are pure, we are being docetic. When we emphasize Jesus’ divinity more than his humanity, we are in danger of embracing the ancient heresy in our thinking.

The creation narratives of Genesis assert that God created everything and declared that it was very good. That includes our bodies. When the eternal Word of God revealed himself to humanity, it was as a real human baby born to human mother and father in the real town of Bethlehem in Roman occupied Judea. Jesus was no phantom pretending to be a man. He was a flesh and blood human being who new hunger and fatigue and all the temptations we face. He was nailed to a real Roman cross, but was raised bodily from the grave. That reality is at the heart of the Christian message. And that’s why Docetism is regarded as a heresy.

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