By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

  • Docetism comes from the Greek word, dokeo, meaning “to seem.”
  • Some associate Docetism with Gnosticism, but it might be simpler to say Docetism was a refinement of Gnosticism.
  • The Gnostics believed that there were two Gods, an evil god created matter and a good God created spirit. [Link should go here to DYK Gnosticism]
  • The Docetists applied this premise to the nature of Christ. They believed that the Saviour, being wholly good, could have no contact with matter, which was evil.
  • According to their beliefs, Jesus only appeared or seemed to have a body. It was really an illusion.
  • This teaching, in essence, refuted his incarnation and denied his humanity.
  • If Jesus had no body, he obviously could not die (or suffer) on the cross. (This, too, was an illusion. Some claim that at the last moment, he and Simon of Cyrene exchanged identities.)
  • His passion was called a mystical fiction of the cross.
  • And it follows that if Jesus did not die, he did not need to rise from the dead.
  • The real Son of God was simply using the body of Jesus as an expression, but wasn’t in unity with him.
  • “How could anyone be truly both Son of David and Son of God?” they asked.
  • So when John wrote that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14), this was thought to be a figurative statement.
  • The Docetists believed that Christ's divinity was irreconcilable with the fact that he was actually physically born.
  • The bottom line was simple: “if Christ suffered he was not divine, and if he was God he could not suffer.”
  • The first person known to expound such views was Cerinthus (ca 85 CE). He maintained that Jesus was better and wiser than other men, and that the divine Spirit came upon him at his baptism and left before his death on the cross.
  • Ignatius of Antioch wrote against this “heresy” before his death in 117CE.
  • In his writings, he mocked those who claimed Christ only “appeared to suffer.”
  • He called them “godless unbelievers.”
  • Irenaeus and Hippolatus were two other Church fathers who wrote against Docetism in the second century.
  • On the other hand, Marcion (also second century) was willing to concede the suffering of Christ, but not the reality of his birth. According to him, Christ simply descended from heaven. [Link here to Question on Marcionsim would be good.]
  • This discussion had a huge effect on Mohammed, who then denied the deity of Christ.
  • Docetism is best described as a christology whereby Jesus was different from what he seemed to be.
  • Some scholars think Docetism cannot be considered to be a true heresy because it did not originate in the church.
  • Its doctrine distinguishes the expression of Jesus from his essence.
  • It should have had a natural and early demise, but Docetism was given a boost by another heretical doctrine known as Manichaeism (another dualistic heresy of the late third century).
  • Several of the non-canonical gospels were rejected because they were thought to be docetic (such as the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of John). ·
  • Docetism was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451CE, but traces of it were still present in the 10-12th centuries.
  • The Council affirmed that correct Christian teaching regarding Jesus Christ was that he was “truly God and truly man.”
  • 1 John specifically addresses this issue in 4:2-3 as does 2 John 7.

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