Docetism

(Gr. dokein, “to seem,” “appear to be”). In the history of Christian theology this is the view that Jesus Christ was not a real man, but simply appeared so. This undermines not only the Incarnation, but also the Atonement and Resurrection. Through Eusebius we know about Cerinthus,* the Docetist opponent of the Apostle John at Ephesus. The presence of such a heresy there probably accounts for the strong emphasis upon the “flesh” of Christ and His “blood” (although this word has sacrificial overtones also) in the Johannine group of writings (e.g., 1 John 4:2; 5:6-8). There was a docetic element in the Gnostic group of heresies, and this accounts for the exceptional emphasis upon the reality of our Lord's humanity in some early Christian writers, beginning with Ignatius.

The origins of Docetism are not biblical, but Hellenistic and oriental, and are due to the idea that matter is essentially evil and to a particular construction of the doctrine of divine impassibility. Alexandria was a melting-pot of Hellenistic and oriental ideas, and the home of some of the greatest Gnostic teachers. It is therefore not surprising to find that there are docetic tendencies even in some of the more “orthodox” Alexandrian Christian writers, such as Clement and Origen. Later christological heresies emanating from the Alexandrian school (such as Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, and Monophysitism) all have something of a docetic flavor. Although modern theology normally takes the humanity of Jesus very seriously (sometimes to the neglect of His deity), those theologians who tend to drive a wedge between faith and history are confronted with the charge of opening the door to a new Docetism.

See under Gnosticism.


DOCETISM dŏs’ ə tiz’ əm, dō’ sə—. Docetism was the term for a Gnostic sect which appeared so early in the history of Christianity that there is an answer for it in 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7. Its error lay in its denial of the reality of Christ’s human body. The Docetae or Docetists held that the body of Christ was not real flesh and blood but only a hallucination or a phantasm, deceptive and passing; that Christ’s body was purely spiritual and therefore took up nothing even in the body of the Virgin of true human nature. This heresy developed easily and rapidly in one form or another because of the pagan philosophic emphasis of the time that matter is inherently evil. This being so, it was blasphemous to maintain that the spiritual Christ could have, in any sense at all, a physical body. Basilides, an early Gnostic, held to a relatively human Christ with whom the divine nous became united in baptism, but his followers became true Docetae. Hippolytus gave an early account of the whole system of this sect and attached to the movement the names of Saturninus, Valentinus, Marcion, and the Manichaeans. Distinction should be observed in that Docetae denied the reality of Christ’s human body, whereas the Apollinarians denied the integrity of Christ’s human nature. In the case of the Apollinarians there was a human nature in body and soul, lacking mind or spirit. See Gnosticism.