The Docetist Heresy—Implications for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus

A question about christology was posted in the “About Doug” section of this website. It seems fitting to copy my reply here.

That questions seems to assume a view about Jesus Christ known as “Docetism.” Docetism is a heresy that confronted the early Christian church and was summarily condemned at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Convened by Emperor Constantine, this Council took place in modern-day Turkey at a place called Bithynia.

A major sector of Docetists held that the man born to Mary in Bethlehem was merely a man, and that the Spirit of God, after some fashion, imbued this man with divinity. Some held that Jesus only appeared to be human. (The word “Docetism” derives from the Greek word <em>dokeo</em>, meaning “to seem”.) Docetism was deemed a heresy because the traditional and orthodox doctrine is that Jesus, one and the same person, had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, so that he was fully God and fully man at the same time from the beginning.

There is evidence that an incipient form of Docetism was already at large during the first century. 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 7 address the threat that some deceivers deny the literal incarnation of Jesus Christ, holding that as the divine Son he had not come in the flesh. This is probably the first heresy to be addressed by the Christian church. Through the prevailing influence of Gnosticism, Docetism and other heresies continued to flourish in some quarters. By the 4th century it was clear that official condemnation of the heresy was needed. This would curtail attempts by Docetists to pass their doctrines off as the truth about Jesus Christ.

Thus, it was the physical body of Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man, that was literally raised from the dead. This is the teaching of Scripture and so it has been the orthodox position of the Christian church from the beginning.

Addendum:

Some early converts to Christianity may well have been Docetists before their conversion. Perhaps they had heard of “Christ,” and, under Gnostic influence, did not then associate the Christ with the man Jesus.

Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, had known of Jesus and preached about Jesus in the synagogue at Ephesus. Though much of what he preached was accurate, some things were amiss. We don’t know what these things were, but two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, “took him aside and explained the way of God more accurately.” It’s said in the Acts of the Apostles, a New Testament book, that he left with their blessing to preach that “the Christ was Jesus.” See Acts 18:24-28. So it’s possible that Apollos had been confused on this point. But he was persuaded of the truth through his association with the church at Ephesus, and he left, with their blessing, for Achaia to preach this truth from the Scriptures. This was in refutation of Jews he encountered along the way, and so, apparently, many of them had misunderstand the truth about Christ.

I speculate that because Gnosticism was well-ensconced in the region, when Christ was preached some simply accommodated this preaching to their Gnostic perspective. Others who were not Gnostics, but who lived surrounded by the ideology of Gnosticism, assumed that the Christ was somehow to be understood in gnostic terms. Apollos may have been one of these, and yet had accepted much that he had heard about Jesus. And other Jews, who were more reluctant to accept the official story about Jesus that had been filtered by the Gnostic community, were not prepared to believe any of it. Having been set straight about Jesus Christ, Apollos then began to preach to fellow Jews, by appealing to their Scriptures, that “the Christ was Jesus.”

Mind you, this is speculation about the details of the situation. But Apollos, a Jew who anticipated the arrival of the Messiah, was familiar with the preaching of John the Baptist about Jesus. (See Acts 18:25.) But his knowledge of Scripture and his understanding of Jesus were somewhat confused, until Apollos’ meetup with believers at Ephesus.

Just a short time later in Acts, we’re told about a group of twelve individuals who also had heard and believed the message of John the Baptist. See Acts 19:1-7. There they are called “disciples,” but they may only, at the time, have been disciples of John the Baptist, or, because they soon came to believe the truth about Jesus Christ, and were to become disciples, they are here called disciples because that is what they were at the time of Luke’s account of what happened. It appears that Paul had doubts that they had yet believed the Gospel. Or at least he wanted to be sure that they understood the Gospel. So he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered something like this, “The Holy Spirit? What Holy Spirit?” Subsequently Paul learned that their knowledge had up to then been limited to what they knew of John the Baptist’s message, which, of course, preceded the message Jesus delivered during his earthly life. Though they were expecting the Messiah, and likely would have known prophesies in their Bibles of the future outpouring of the Holy Spirit, these men probably had not even heard of Jesus. It was time they knew the rest of the story!

John the Baptist had foretold the soon arrival of the Christ, that is, the Messiah, so they were naturally anticipating this. Apparently, they had not yet heard that John’s words had already been fulfilled in Jesus, and that his Spirit had been given at Pentecost. Imagine the thrill it must have been for them to hear such news! Right there on the spot, it says, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And thus they received the Holy Spirit.

What these men had believed exactly, prior to their encounter with Paul, is not quite clear. But apparently they hadn’t quite gotten it sorted it out yet that Jesus was the Christ.

I’m not suggesting that they had accepted a heresy up to that point. Rather, I recount these facts to indicate that at the outset Jesus Christ was known by the church to be God’s Messiah in the flesh.

There were others, though—under the influence of Gnosticism, I believe—who knew of Jesus and claimed to believe in the Christ, but had explicitly dissociated the two. This is suggested in a non-canonical book known as 2 Clement. Paul had spoken of a “Christ-party” in his first and second letters to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 2:12; 2 Cor. 11:13, 23). Without true belief about Jesus, these were false prophets who disguised themselves as apostles of Christ. This, one may think, suggests that they misrepresented Jesus Christ in their preaching. More likely, they preached Christ without reference to Jesus, and the church of Jesus Christ was being disturbed by their activities.

In any case, it didn’t take a 4th-century council to set things straight about Jesus Christ and his nature.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking.

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