Thursday, September 23, 2010

Heresy: Docetism

Docetism comes from the Greek dokeo meaning "to appear" or "seem". It is the thought that Christ only seemed to be a human being. This idea stems from thinking that a pure spiritual being, Christ, could not suffer as a man, and hence he must have been human in appearance only.

Much of this post was
adapted from this great book.
Heresies by Harold Brown
Image from
The story of docetism grows out of Gnosticism. Gnosticism has a large varied background and is therefore difficult to describe and categorize. The gnostic movement has appealed to many throughout the ages because of two primary features (1) the claim of a secret lore, explaining otherwise incomprehensible mysteries and (2) the idea that only those who are the elite can access these secrets. 

This clashes with biblical Christianity at many points, but two are primary, the doctrine of Creation and the doctrine of Christ. Gnosticism totally denied the Creation, and, while it accepted Christ, it gave him a drastically different interpretation. It is this strange interpretation that produced arguably the first heresy within Christianity, docetism. 

Docetism does affirm the deity of Christ but does not recognize his humanity. They claim that His humanity is only apparent and not real. It only seems to us like Christ must have been human but was not really human. 

It is easy to see where this thinking can lead if you think back to events recorded in the gospels. For one thing, we must deny that Christ died, for deity cannot die! This has so many other doctrines connecting to it that it is easy to see why docetism was condemned as heresy. The whole of soteriology must be changed if docetism is to stand.    

One can spot different elements of the error of docetism which had already appeared during New Testament times (see 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7).

"[4:1] Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. [2] By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, [3] and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3 ESV)"
"[7] For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 1:7 ESV)"
Geislers Systematic Theology
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Dr. Norman Geisler points out in his Systematic Theology v. 2 that "Muslims accept a form of this error as well (see Sura 4:187). Among those charged with this error were Cerinthus (fl. c. A.D. 100) and Serapion, the Bishop of Antioch (190-203)." 
While docetism is not very common these days but it is still heretical. We often run into another heresy that is almost the opposite of this one. The heresy known as Arianism. That however is another post for another day.

A few different early church men wrote against this error including Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus (115-190), and Hippolatus (170-235).
Docetism was also condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Which condemned a number of christological errors. 

You can check out the Catholic Encyclopedia entry which gives a great deal of background and detail here.

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