Docetism

Heresies have existed for centuries; they are false religious beliefs that corrupt the true teachings of Christ and of the Church.  People who either believe and/or teach these beliefs are called heretics. Docetism is one of the heresies; it is suspected that Docetism existed as early as the first century. Docetic, which comes from the Greek work meaning to “appear”. Those who proposed this heresy believed that Jesus did not possess, or inhabit a physical body, but only “appeared” to have a body. The basis of Docetism is that Jesus was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.

There are aspects of the New Testament that suggest Docetism was already a problem in the first century. Cerinthus (fl. c. 100), the teacher of Marcion, appears to have been the first person to be called a docetist.  He may have come out of Ebionite circles. His teachings were based on that Jesus began as a mere man who took on a divine power at his baptism in the Jordan, but then departed from him before he underwent the Passion of the Cross.  Some docetists are in the belief that Judas Iscariot and or Simon of Cyrene took Christ’s place on the cross. 

It is the belief of some scholars that John’s gospel contains some anti-docetic texts, for example in chapter 21 where Jesus eats fish with His disciples. It seems that John may have written to combat this heresy, “…every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God.”  (1 John 4:1-4). It was also mentioned in an earlier point in time (the 1st century) that Ignatius of Antioch was writing against docetics when he said, “He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again.” The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians (Philippians 3).  Most heretics in early Christianity had influential positions within the Church prior to being labelled a heretic.  As the Christian theology became more and more defined, heretics were increasingly isolated and named more quickly.  It is important to know that some heretics in history wouldn’t have been considered heretical earlier.

Docetism comes in a number of forms such as Gnostic docetism, Samosatene/Arian docetism, and other appearances of docetism.  The belief of Gnostic docetism is that Christ did not have an actual physical existence.  Therefore, the being that the apostles interacted with, and who the Roman’s killed, had actually been an illusion.   Since Gnostic dualism assumed that matter, or the physical was evil, and only light was good, they believed Christ had to have been “good’, then logically, the Gnostics were forced to believe that Jesus did not have a physical form. Some of supporters of the Samosatene Doctrine were also docetists for various reasons.  They believed Jesus Christ was not actually God, but rather, a man in whom lived a divine spirit which inspired and guided Him.  When Christ died, that spirit fled from Him, since nothing divine can die. In accordance to this belief, it was only Jesus the man who actually died. We must note not all Arians were Docetists.

As early on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth has given an important place in Christian theology and Mary is given a key role in God’s plan of salvation.   It became part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381:  became “For our sins and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”.   Sts. Ambrose and Augustine present the Virgin Birth as part of the mystery of the incarnation. “Begotten of the Holy Spirit” in the Creed argues against the rank of inferiority of the Son to the Father, and “born of the Virgin Mary” combats Docetism.

Docetism has cropped up in a number of Christian belief systems.  The main reason that it keeps coming up, is that in one form or another it irrationally answers the question how could God be human, how could God have died?  The docetist answer of course whatever the reasoning might be, is that God never was human and never actually died. This belief completely contradicts our Christian faith as it denies the resurrection, which is the most important aspect of our Christianity. In my perspective, many heresies including docetism have a huge effect on our faith. It is sad to realize how higher people with many responsibilities known in the church ( such as a priest) may cause such heresies. Therefore, knowing and understanding the true catholic religion and ways which contain all these aspects will lead us to build a stronger faith and belief.   

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