Docetism: First Heresy of the Early Church

fuzzy-jesusTaken from Dr. Robert Morey’s The Trinity: Evidence and Issues.

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“What must be in order for what is to be what it is?  Given the theophanies of the Old Testament and the early Jewish literature, we would expect to find that the first heresy to afflict the Church would be a denial of the humanity of Jesus.  And when we turn to the New Testament, we find that the earliest heresies refuted in the New Testament denied the humanity of the Christ, but not His deity.

The deity of the Christ was not controversial until much later because the theophanies in the Old Testament had already established the idea of Yahweh coming to earth in human form.  The literature of early Judaism already spoke of Yahweh coming to earth as a man (Isa. 40:10-11; Mal. 3:1). It is, thus, no surprise to the Trinitarian the the first heresy to arise was Docetic Gnosticism.  As Millard Erickson pointed out, it was probably ‘the original heresy’ and ‘the object of the apostle’s rebuttal in 1 John.’ 1

He explains:

Docetism (from the Greek verb  δοκεῖν, ‘to seem’) was the belief that Jesus was not genuinely human, that he merely ‘seemed’ or ‘appeared’ to possess human nature.  Just as the Docetic Gnostics had no difficulty accepting the deity of Jesus but only the humanity, so they had no difficulty accepting the idea that Mary was a virgin, but only that Jesus was genuinely born. 2

In his commentary on 1 John, Lias notes:

The Gnostics denied that the Deity could be united to matter, which they believed to be essentially alien to the Divinity.  And so they denied the perfect manhood of the Son of God.

The classic commentator Robert Candlish explains:

In the dreamy and misty theosophy of the Gnostic anti-christs, any Christ whom they would acknowledge at all could be nothing else than a sort of effect or emanation of Deity, a detached portion of the divine nature, or wisdom, or love; altogether visionary and unsubstantial; but withal very sublime.  The idea of such a transcendental Christ being identical with the historical man, the man of ‘flesh and bones,’ Jesus, was an outrage on their philosophy . . . that he was truly and personally himself the Christ, in his man-hood and in his manhood’s history and experience, especially in his birth and in his death, their subtle notions of spirit and matter compelled them strenuously to deny. 3

The point of controversy in the earliest heresies had to do with a denial of the humanity of Jesus Christ, i.e., that the Christ was a real human being, a man of flesh and blood.  The Gnostics claimed that the divine Christ was a phantom or spirit manifestation, but not a real human being.  This is why the New Testament writers stressed the doctrine of the Incarnation as the test of orthodoxy.” 4

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  1.  Millard J. Erickson, The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 45-46
  2.  Lias, 294
  3.  Robert S. Candlish, The First Epistle of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 180-181.
  4. Morey, Robert A. “God the Son.” The Trinity: Evidence and Issues. Las Vegas: Christian Scholar’s, 1996. 291-92. Print.
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