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Docetism

Docetism comes from the Greek word “dokein” which means “seem”. Docetism was a doctrine first promoted by the Gnostics that Jesus Christ wasn’t a real man, he only “seemed” to be a real man. “Docetic Gnosticism held that Jesus was actually a kind of Phantom, and only had the appearance of flesh.”[1] Docetism is a heresy that we read about in the first epistle of John:

Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already [1John 4:2-3]

Docetism is recognized as the first of the Christian heresies.   Ignatius addresses Docetism when he uses the phrase “really, and not an appearance”.[2]  Ignatius uses it several times in the longer version of his epistles:

He was baptized by John, really and not in appearance;… He was crucified in reality, and not in appearance [3]

Now, He suffered all these things for us; and He suffered them really, and not in appearance only, even as also He truly rose again. But not, as some of the unbelievers, who are ashamed of the formation of man, and the cross, and death itself, affirm, that in appearance only, and not in truth[4]

All of the above are in the longer versions of the epistles of Ignatius which are generally treated as adulterated, with additions and textual changes from the originals.  However looking at the shorter version, which is deemed to be genuine, we see that Ignatius was addressing Docetism:

Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.[4]

Harold Brown in his book on heresies says:

“A docetic view of Jesus Christ, which denies that he was truly a real, physical human being is often accompanied by an interest in the occult, in which the ‘spiritual’ activities of necromancy, words and magical gestures, produce a physical effect.  Human beings seem to need to have some aspect of their lives in which the spiritual and physical are seen as directly interrelated, and if this is not done in historic person of Jesus Christ, as it is in the Orthodox Christianity, other substitutes will be sought, as in magical and occult practices.  Despite the rise and apparent overwhelming dominance of the scientific worldview in the second half of the 20th century, there has been a wild proliferation of occult beliefs and practices, most pronounced in those areas where faith is the objective reality of Jesus Christ as the incarnate son of God has declined.”[5]

Docetism occurs and reoccurs throughout the ages. Key concepts to recognize Docetism include explanations where Christ’s life and resurrection are treated as metaphysical events as opposed to actual events, as well as claims that Jesus lived, died and was raised only symbolically or just in spirit.

[1] LECTURES IN SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, Henry C. Theissen, Erdmann’s, Grand Rapids, 1979, p. 206-207
[2]  HERESIES, Heresy and Orthodoxy In The History Of The Church, Harold O. J. Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass 2000, p. 52f
[3] Ignatius Epistle to the Magesians, Chap. X. — The Reality of Christ’s Passion, E-Sword program
[4] Ignatius Epistle to the Smyrnaeans its, Chap. II. — Christ’s True Passion., E-Sword Program
[5] HERESIES, p. 53

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

July 13th, 2010 Posted by | Heresies | one comment

Heresy, an Introduction

This site is adding a section in the table of contents on heresies.

There are several definitions for the word heresy.  The one that many are familiar with is that heresy is a belief that rejects the Orthodox tenets of a religion. [1]   That sounds simple enough, but it is actually more complicated than that.  Heresy comes from the Greek word “hairesis” which means to divide.  With that we see that heresy really refers to any doctrine that causes a group to split.  The negative connotation is that the doctrine that is labeled the “heresy” is the erroneous one because it caused a division within a group which in religious groups is not desirable.  With that in mind it is easy to see that both sides of a group that split over an issue will call the other side heretics.  The Pope called Martin Luther heretic while Martin Luther rejected papal doctrine on indulgences and other issues as heresies, because they were erroneous and egregious enough for Luther to split from the Catholic Church.

“In Christian usage, the term “heresy” refers to a false doctrine, i.e. one which is simply not true and that is, in addition, so important to those who believe it, whom the Church calls heretics must be considered to have abandoned the faith.”[2]

In original, primitive Christianity heretics were more easily seen to be “outside” the faith.  In modern times the distinction gets blurred.  With tens of thousands of churches and denominations in various degrees of dispute what is the legitimate line of demarcation between a serious doctrinal dispute and petty issues?  Some have isolated heresies to what they proclaim as a few supremely important doctrines, such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity, and made those the only critical doctrines that all Christians must agree on.  While that is an understandable attempt, it falls short in reality because there are many issues, many of which are enumerated on this website, which cause divisions so bitter and/or so severe that believers from the different sides do not fellowship with each other, and in fact, may become bitter enemies.  In my time I have seen Baptists decree Pentecostals as “of the devil.”  History shows that people were banned, tortured, and even killed for issues like “believers baptism”, the belief that to be baptized one must be of the age of reason, and choose to be baptized, probably by immersion in water.

I have chosen to make this section on heresies because a lot of them will be mentioned in the section on movements and other places.  Beginning with the apologists in early Christianity, writers throughout history have been addressing heresies.

Intricately involved with the idea of heresy is the concept of orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy means right doctrine.  And of course, right doctrine depends on which side of the argument you’re on.  So once we get to, let’s say, the Reformation we will begin to see that Lutheran orthodoxy is different from Catholic orthodoxy.

There have been many heresies proclaimed throughout the ages including Docetism, Gnosticism, Marcionism,  Montanism,  adoptionism, modalism, and Arianism.   Issues like freedom of will, mode of baptism, church government, justification by grace, state run churches, participation in war, down to modern issues like abortion, gay marriage and ordination, women’s ordination, and church involvement in social issues have all resulted in charges of heresy on one side against another.

As always, the focus of of these articles will be to compare whatever stand is taken against the standards of original, primitive Christianity.

[1] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=heresy
[2] HERESIES, Heresy and Orthodoxy In The History Of The Church, Harold O. J. Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass 2000, p. 1

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

July 13th, 2010 Posted by | Heresies | no comments