Docetism part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Docetism part 1
Docetism was a refinement of Gnosticism. In the history of Christianity, Docetism is the heretical doctrine that the phenomenon of Jesus, his historical and bodily existence, and above all, the human form of Jesus, was mere semblance without any actual reality. Its followers believed that Jesus' body was an illusion and that he was wholly spiritual. Simply put, Gnosticism (from gnosis – Greek - knowledge) has the notion that it is secret mystical knowledge that saves rather than faith in God; Docetism ( Latin - docere - to seem) is the belief that Jesus only seemed to be a real man but was a kind of avatar.
Questions and Answers
How do Gnosticism and Docetism differ? Or What is the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism? One (Gnosticism) is a thread running through many sects and religions. The other (Docetism) is a specific sect.
Gnosticism is a classification of sects and religions that focus on experiential knowledge of the divine rather than relying on faith. Many notable sects fell into this classification, including Docetism, Valentinians, Sethians, Manicheans, and Mandeans. Prior to the Catholic Church’s rise to dominance, there were dozens of different sects of Christianity, some with compatible beliefs and many with contradictory beliefs. Those that relied on experiential knowledge of the Divine (gnosis) were eventually considered heretical and were either wiped out or forced into subjugation. However, there were considerable differences in belief even among the Gnostic sects.
It should be noted that Gnosticism is not limited to being classified as a Christian. Any religion that focuses on experiential knowledge over faith could be considered Gnostic. Docetism is broadly defined as any teaching that claims that Jesus' body was either absent or imagined. The term 'docetic' is somewhat vague. Two varieties were widely known. In one version, as in *Marcionism, Christ was so divine that he could not have been human since God lacked a material body that could not physically suffer. Jesus only appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man; his body was an apparition. Other groups accused of Docetism held that Jesus was a man in the flesh. However, Christ was a separate entity who entered Jesus' body as a dove at his baptism, empowered him to perform miracles, and abandoned him upon his death on the cross.
*Marcionism was an early Christian dualistic belief system that originated from the teachings of Marcion of Sinope in Rome around the year 144. Marcion was an early Christian theologian, evangelist, and an important figure in early Christianity. He was the son of a bishop of Sinope in Pontus. About the middle of the 2nd Century, he traveled to Rome, where he joined the Syrian Gnostic Cerdo.
One of those Gnostic sects within early Christianity was Docetism. The term derives from the Greek word for “to seem.” The idea behind Docetism was that Jesus was never really here in the flesh; he only seemed to be here. So rather than being a flesh and blood person, it was just the apparition of Jesus that appeared to his followers. This helped overcome the issues with Jesus, being God incarnate, living in the impure wrappings of the human body.
Who started Docetism?
The word "Illusionists," referring to early groups who denied Jesus's humanity, first occurred in a letter by Bishop Serapion of Antioch. It appears to have arisen over theological contentions concerning the meaning, figurative or literal, of a sentence from the Gospel of John: "the Word was made Flesh."
Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Armenian Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church, and many Protestant denominations.
What was the heresy of Docetism? The chart below contains the heresy, description, origin, condemnation, and other comments of various beliefs (including Docetism).
Heresy Description Origin Official condemnation Other
The belief that Jesus was born as a mere (non-divine) man was supremely virtuous and that he was adopted later as the "Son of God" by the descent of the Spirit on him. Propounded by Theodotus of Byzantium, a leather merchant, in Rome c.190, later revived by Paul of Samosata
Pope Victor excommunicated Theodotus, and the Synod of Antioch condemned Paul in 268 Alternative names: Psilanthropism and Dynamic Monarchianism. Later criticized as presupposing Nestorianism (see below)
Apollinaris further taught that other souls and their bodies propagated the souls of men Proposed by Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 390) Declared to be a heresy in 381 by the First Council of Constantinople
The belief that the soul perished with the body and that both would be revived on Judgement Day. Founder unknown but associated with 3rd-century Christians from Arabia. I am Reconciled to the main body of the Church after a council in 250 led by Origen.
Denial of the true divinity of Jesus Christ takes various specific forms, but all agreed that the Father created Jesus Christ, that he had a beginning in time, and that the title "Son of God" was a courtesy one.11
The doctrine is associated with Arius (c. AD 250–336), who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt.
Arius was first pronounced a heretic at the First Council of Nicea. He was later exonerated due to imperial pressure and finally declared a heretic after his death. The heresy was finally resolved in 381 by the First Council of Constantinople. All forms denied that Jesus Christ is "consubstantial with the Father" but proposed either "similar in substance,” "similar," or "dissimilar" as the correct alternative.
The belief is that the Trinity consists of the Father, Son, and Mary and that the son results from the marital union between the other two. Described by Epiphanius in his Panarion.
The sect's existence is subject to some dispute due to the lack of historical evidence aside from the writings of Epiphanius.
The belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and physically die, but in reality, he was incorporeal a pure spirit, and hence, he was incorporeal could not physically die. Tendencies existed in the 1st Century, but Gnostics most notably embraced by in subsequent centuries. The ecumenical councils and mainstream Christianity rejected and largely died out during the first millennium A.D. Gnostic movements that survived past that time, such as Catharism, incorporated Docetism into their beliefs, but such movements were destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229).
Strongly anti-Arian sect in Sardinia Founded by Lucifer Calaritanus, a bishop of Cagliari Deemed heretical by Jerome in his Altercation Luciferiani et orthodoxy
Macedonians or Pneumatomachians ("Spirit fighters")
While accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ as affirmed at Nicea in 325, they denied that of the Holy Spirit, which they saw as a creation of the Son, and a servant of the Father and the Son. Allegedly founded in the 4th Century by Bishop Macedonius I of Constantinople, Eustathius of Sebaste was their principal theologian.13
Opposed by the Cappadocian Fathers and condemned at the First Council of Constantinople.
This is what prompted the addition of "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is equally worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets", into the Nicene Creed at the second ecumenical Council.
Considered Melchisedech an incarnation of the Logos (divine word) and identified him with the Holy Ghost.
Refuted by Marcus Eremita in his book Eis ton Melchisedek ("Against the Melchisedekites")14
It is uncertain whether the sect survived beyond the 9th Century. They were probably scattered across Anatolia and the Balkans following the destruction of Tephrike.
An overemphasis on the indivisibility of God (the Father) at the expense of the other "persons" of the Trinity leads to either Sabellianism (Modalism) or Adoptionism.
In Eastern theology, stressing the "monarchy" of God was a legitimate way of affirming his oneness and the Father as the unique source of divinity. It became heretical when pushed to the extremes indicated.
Monophysitism or Eutychianism
The belief that Christ's divinity dominates and overwhelms his humanity, as opposed to the Chalcedonian position, which holds that Christ has two natures, one Divine and one human, or the Miaphysite position, which holds that the human nature and pre-incarnate divine nature of Christ were united as one divine-human nature from the point of the Incarnation onwards. After Nestorianism was rejected at the First Council of Ephesus, Eutyches emerged with diametrically opposite views. Eutyches was excommunicated in 448. Monophysitism and Eutyches were rejected at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. is also rejected by the Oriental Orthodox Churches also reject