This post is a companion to the Heretics podcast found on the Podcast tab at the top of this page; and a continuation in our series of looks at the ancient heresies of the church and a refutation of them using good theology and hermeneutics.
I said a few weeks ago that we needed to look at this group, so today we will. Today the object of our investigation is the Docetists. Docetism was a short-lived early church heresy that had a knack for reaching its tentacles into other theological systems; hence why we have mentioned them before and need to give them a cursory examination. They were influencers of Marcion; and you can see their influence in some Ebionite groups, as well as many associated with monophyysitism (the singular nature of Christ heresy).
The name comes from the Greek word δοκεώ (pronounced do-ke-o), which means I think or seem. This group was catalogued by a bishop of Antioch named Serapion sometime between 197 – 203 and led to his, and the broader churches, rejection of the Gospel of Peter; due to the doctrines of the Docetists being contained therein.
The teachings of the Docetists show them to be a mainly mystical religion with an over emphasis on the duality of spirit and body. I say mystical in the technical sense; meaning Docetism was concerned with the ethereal systems of the spiritual realm than it was with the idea of functional religion or worship in this life. To put it simply: in the Docetic mind, the body is bad and the spirit is good; this puts them somewhat into the Gnostic category. In line with this dualism is the teaching that the body of Jesus was not a really body. It may have looked real, but was some sort of: projection, phantasm, or other manifestation; depending on which stream of Docetism one followed.
Because of this emphasis on diminishing the humanity of Jesus, Docetism was borrowed by several other heretical 1st and 2nd century groups. Typically Docetism appeared (see what I did there—it’s a heresy joke), in one of two forms. The first form was the “appearance” Docetism, wherein the body of Jesus was merely illusory in nature. The second, we want to term “separationist” Docetism, as it merges Docetic Gnosticism with heretical, Separationist Christology. In this system, the man Jesus, was inhabited by the spiritual “Christ”; typically at the time of the baptism by John. Later on in the public ministry, the “Christ” departs the body of Jesus, typically at some point before the crucifixion; thus allowing the physical Jesus to suffer while rescuing the pure spirit which is the Christ.
Early Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch wrote about this group in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, and in chapter 7 warned the Christians of Smyrna to avoid these false teachers. According to Ignatius, among their false doctrines were: abstaining from the Lord’s Supper, mocking the Passion, and avoiding prayer. We have no reason to doubt Ignatius, because in light of the core of the Docetic movement, these charges are both reasonable and believable. The Supper was rejected because they did not believe the bread to be the body in any shape form or fashion. Herein the Roman Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation is rejected because Jesus has no body with which to inhabit the elements of the Supper. Likewise the Lutheran Consubstantiation is also cast aside as there can be no real presence about the elements because there is no body with which to be present. Further, the modern Evangelical model in the line of Zwingli is also put away as the memorial is vapid in light of the lack of true physical suffering by the second member of the Trinity on behalf of His covenant people. The Passion is obviously rejected because Jesus’ suffering is not atoning in any real or meaningful sense, since the “deity” in the form of the spiritual “Christ” would have departed beforehand. And obviously prayer is downcast, because there is not a physical Jesus in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, to bring our prayers. There is further, no real need for prayers in this world as the spiritual, which will be redeemed later, far outweighs any physical concern.
I can’t imagine why this group was so quickly deemed heretical (insert eye-roll here).
Our starting point with this group should be pretty clear; in order to deal with the effects of the work of Christ, we must rightly define who He is. Jesus’ humanity and deity exist bodily, that is actually physically, in what is termed in theology as the hypostatic union. This means that the actual, physical body of Jesus contained both a complete human nature, and a complete divine nature. Within His actual, physical body, there was no mixing or mingling of these two natures; thus making Jesus, fully God and fully man.
This is where our historical theology is so important; and why a church history section is included in every issue of Calvary’s Cavalry, which is the theological Journal you may read and sign up for at practicaltheologyministries.com.
So in regards to our history, let’s see the definition of this theology as it was given at the Council of Nicea in 325: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father
This is an excellent statement, which, duh, is why it has survived for 1700 years. Yes the Son is begotten as described in Scripture in John 3:16, but He is in essence or substance of being, God. This is why it was not blasphemy for Jesus to claim equality with God as the crowd clearly understood that He had in John 10:30 (read verses 31 – 33) for the punchline. As the old sports saying goes: “it ain’t bragging, if you can back it up”.
Unfortunately, just because something is clearly condemned, doesn’t mean it will go away. Fortunately, Godly teachers and theologians through the ages have been more stubborn than the enemies of God. Hence in 451, the Council of Chalcedon was required to further explain the nature of Christ in this manner: We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood. This is where our definition of the hypostatic union comes from. The Council further declared Jesus to be: one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.
Let’s put this as simply as we can; God has a name that He, Himself has given in Exodus 3:14: Yahweh (I AM). That name encapsulates the description of God in human terms as self-existent; but it is also the description of the essence of God. Therefore we cannot stop here, we must continue. Under the banner of Yahweh there exist the three persons of Yahweh: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; one God, three persons. And yes, in order to avoid any hint of Modalism, we utilize the terminology of persons. Any theology that rejects persons in favor of manifestation or appearance is typically (not always) attempting to hide a less than orthodox understanding of the Trinity.
In ancient Israel, the Son; who is Yahweh; left the throne room of Himself and joined His completely divine nature to a baby in the womb. This was not after the child was conceived, but was the act of Divine conception by the Holy Spirit as described in Luke 1:35. That completely divine nature did not overshadow or overpower the human soul, but they both occupied it in totality.
No, I do not understand how that works; neither do you: and that is mercy from God and proof of the Divine origin of Christianity and Scripture. Were this a fictional deity, we could and would explain Him. We cannot explain Him, although people wrote as they were moved according to 2 Peter 1:20 – 21; therefore it is beyond our comprehension. To continue our proof, therefore Scripture and our orthodox understanding of God, which is that which stands with Nicea and Chalcedon is not the product of the human mind or will.
Next we have to delve into the necessity of the physical body. Jesus, in order to redeem, had to be made like us. He had to be tempted and overcome as Hebrews 4:14 – 16 says. This overcoming is demonstrated in the temptation laid out in Matthew 4:1 – 11, as the second Adam succeeds where the first Adam failed; by trusting in God alone. Were God to deny sin, we say: “DUH!!!!!”; but for a man to deny sin, is to ascend gloriously perfect to the cross as the righteous sacrifice for His people as John 1:29 reminds.
Peter beautifully explains this necessity in 1 Peter 2:21 – 24, as he praises Christ’s sinlessness and perfect trust of God. He does that, so He may bear our sins, not His; so that in Him we might be dead to sin and alive in the righteousness of God. Paul likewise points to the physical existence of the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15; as he in verses 42 – 49, explains the difference between a: fallen, sinful, perishable body; and that which is raised imperishable in righteousness.
The Docetic theology of Christ is refuted plainly throughout Scripture. This is why the movement was condemned quickly and easily, by ancient standards. Humanity still clings to her tenets and offspring because we reject the sacrifice of Christ. We want to make the sacrifice; we want to get the credit. The God of creation and eternity will not share His glory with another, as Isaiah 42:8 makes so plain. We must submit, trust, and follow.
This leads us to our last idea; which is a piggyback from last week: the sufficiency of Scripture. Part of the idea of following as we are called to in 1 Corinthians 11:1, is knowing what to follow. Jesus came in the flesh as John stated in John 1:14, and even clarified the necessity of in 1 John 4:2. His birth was promised by God in Luke 1:26 – 38, He was praised for His coming in the flesh in Philippians 2:5 – 11, and He demonstrated the reality of His resurrected body in John 20:26 – 29. If we reject this, it is because we have rejected the clear testimony of the inspired word of God. If we understand this and reject it; it is because we have rejected the sufficiency of that inspired word.
As Christians it is incumbent upon us to do the hard work of knowing the Word and being built up by it. This is the clear command of both the Old (Psalm 1:1 – 3), and the New (Romans 12:1 – 2) Testaments. We study these ancient departures from orthodoxy because they are truly the stuff of nightmares; they are shipwrecks of our souls and the problem makers Jude 5 – 16 warns us about. But as we learn, we grow; and as we grow; we are secure in Christ and girded for the battle by God as described in Ephesians 6:10 – 17, so that we cannot and will not fall away.