Posts tagged ‘Docetism’

Jesus – More Than Just God

Jesus 1Was Jesus really human?

These days, this question does not get asked a lot.  Rather, people wonder whether or not Jesus was God.  And time and time again, people come to the conclusion that Jesus is not, was not, and, indeed, could not have been God.  Take, for instance, Reza Aslan, author of the bestseller Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  In an interview with NPR about his book, Reza summarizes his position on Jesus’ divinity:

If you’re asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no.  Such a thing did not exist in Judaism.  In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.  The idea that Jesus could’ve conceived of Himself — or that even His followers could’ve conceived of Him — as divine, contradicts everything that has ever been said about Judaism as a religion.[1]

There’s no way, Reza says, Jesus’ followers could have considered Him to be divine.  He was only a man who led a failed revolution as a failed run-of-the-mill Messiah.

In my studies for a class I’m teaching on Galatians, I came across some terrific commentary from the second-century church father Tertullian on Galatians 4:4-5.  The apostle Paul writes in these verses: “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”   Tertullian comments on Paul’s phrase “born of a woman”:

To what shifts you resort, in your attempt to rob the syllable “of” of its proper force as a preposition, and to substitute another for it in a sense not found throughout the Holy Scriptures! You say that He was born through a virgin, not of a virgin, and in a womb, not of a womb.[2]

In Tertullian’s day, there were people trying to rob Jesus not of His divinity, but of His humanity.  A group of called the Docetists considered everything corporeal to be evil while holding anything non-corporeal to be good.  They thus denied that the non-corporeal God of the universe would ever dare to take on corporeal human flesh.  This group taught that though Jesus may have been born “through” Mary, he was not born “of” Mary.  In other words, He did not take on human flesh as a genuine offspring of a genuine human mother.  Rather, He merely passed through Mary as an immaterial God and received nothing concrete from her.  Indeed, the Docetists taught that though Jesus may have appeared to be a physical being, He was not.  In fact, the very name “Docetist” comes from the Greek word meaning, “to appear.”  Jesus, then, was simply an apparition – divine, yes, but certainly not a corporeal human.

Tertullian has no time for such teaching concerning Christ.  He says that Docetists “murder truth”[3] and vigorously makes the case for Christ’s humanity.  Thus, the problem in the early Church was not that some denied Jesus’ divinity, but that many denied His humanity!  Reza has the problem exactly backwards.

Ultimately, to deny Jesus’ humanity or His divinity is to deny Him.  Paul is crystal clear concerning the person of Christ:  He is God’s Son and He is born of a woman.  He is both God and man.  Any other or lesser confession of Christ simply will not do.


[1]Christ In Context: ‘Zealot’ Explores The Life Of Jesus,” NPR (7.15.2013).

[2] Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 20.

[3] Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 5.

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November 11, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

CHRIST.ology – Part 2

This blog is part two of a three part series I am writing on Christology, based on the Tuesday morning Men’s Bible Breakfast series I am teaching at Concordia.  In part one, I spoke of Christ’s two natures as truly God and truly man.  Sadly, over the centuries, these two natures have regularly been disparaged and misrepresented by heretics.  So that we do not make the same mistakes as these heretics of old, it is worth surveying some of the historical mistakes made concerning Christ’s two natures.

Broadly speaking, Christological heresies have fallen into one of two categories:  those which deny Christ’s two natures on the one hand, and those which confuse Christ’s two natures on the other.  Let’s look at some examples of each.

Heresies which deny Christ’s two natures…

Arianism
Arianism rose to ascendancy in the third and fourth centuries.  This heresy taught that though Jesus was a god, he was not the God.  That is, Jesus was indeed divine, but he was not “of one substance with the Father,” as the Nicene Creed confesses.  A letter that Arius wrote to Eusebius of Nicodemia, the bishop who baptized Constantine, succinctly states the Arian position: “Before Christ was begotten, he was not…The Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.”  The Arians taught that Jesus’ was God’s first creation and not eternal.  John 1:1 firmly refutes such a notion:  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus, the Word, was in the beginning.  He is uncreated and without beginning because he is in the beginning.  Thus, he is not a god, he is the God.

Adoptionism
The heresy of Adoptionism surfaced at the turn of the second century.  The Adoptionists taught that Jesus was not just declared God’s Son at his baptism, he was made God’s Son (cf. Luke 3:21-22).  To back up this claim, the Adoptionists used Psalm 2:7:  “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”  According to Acts 13:33, this Psalm is fulfilled in Jesus.  The Adoptionists pointed to God “becoming” Jesus’ father as proof that he was adopted.  However, their reading of this passage is woefully mistaken.

The Hebrew word for “become” in Psalm 2:7 is yalad, a word classically translated as “beget.”  This word can either denote cause or relationship, depending on what Hebrew mood is used.  That is, sometimes this verb can denote cause – one generation giving rise to another through procreation.  Other times, however, this verb is used to denote relationship, describing the love and affection that two people have for each other.  In Psalm 2:7, this verb, according to its Hebrew mood, is used to denote relationship and not cause.  That is, this verb is used to speak of the Father’s loving relationship with the Son and not the Father’s causation of the Son.  Thus, Psalm 2:7 is not meant to say that the Father adopted to Jesus to make him his Son, but that the Father loves his Son, even as many fathers love their sons.

Docetism
The name “Docetism” comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning, “to seem.”  The Docetists taught that though Jesus looked, or seemed, human, it was merely an illusion.  He did not truly become a man and he did not truly die on a cross.  The Docetists based their position on the philosophy of the Gnostics who taught that the spiritual was inherently good while the physical was inherently evil.  Therefore, the Docetists taught that God, who is spiritual, would never become a man because a man is physical and the physical is evil!  John refutes this heresy again and again.  For instance, the evangelist writes in 2 John 7: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  John is unequivocally clear:  If a person does not acknowledge that Jesus became true man, he is a deceiver.

Heresies which confuse Christ’s two natures…

Even as Arianism and Adoptionism denied Christ’s nature as God and Docetism denied Christ’s nature as a man, there were other heresies which affirmed both natures, yet confused them.  To these we now turn.

Nestorianism
Nestorianism became especially prevalent in the fifth century and taught not only that there were two natures contained in the one person of Christ, but that there were actually two Christs!  That is, although Christ may have looked like one person, he was actually two persons.  Thus, there were some things which the human Christ did which the divine Christ did not participate in and vice versa.  For instance, the Nestorians taught that only the human Christ died on the cross, for God cannot die.  This is in direct contradiction to Philippians 2:6, 8 which teaches:  “Christ, being in very nature God…and being found in appearance as a man, humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross.”  Paul clearly teaches that Christ, who was in his very nature God, died on the cross. Thus, God died on the cross contra Nestorianism.  Christ is one person with two natures, both of which participate in everything Christ, the one man, does, including his life, miracles, ministry, death, and resurrection.

Monophysitism
In reaction to Nestorianism, there arose yet another heresy called Monophysitism. Monophysitism taught that Christ was one person with only one nature.  That is, Monophysitism so desired to keep the two natures of Christ unified rather than radically separating them into two Christs as did Nestorianism that it melded Christ’s two natures into one hybrid nature.  Eutyches explains Monophysite theology thusly: “Christ’s human nature was dissolved like a drop of honey in the sea.”  Thus, Christ’s human nature, though still theoretically present, is not in any way distinct from his divine nature.  Biblically, this is problematic because Scripture speaks of Jesus’ two natures as distinct, though not separate.  For instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).  Here we see both Jesus’ human and divine natures.  As a human, Jesus does not want to die.  As God, he surrenders himself to his Father’s will.

Pope Leo the Great wrote against Monophysitism in a declaration known as The Tome of Leo:

The proper character of both natures was maintained and came together in a single person…The birth of flesh reveals human nature; birth from a virgin is a proof of divine power. A lowly cradle manifests the infancy of the child; angels’ voices announce the greatness of the Most High. Herod evilly strives to kill one who was like a human being at the earliest stage the Magi rejoice to adore on bended knee one who is the Lord of all. And when he came to be baptized by his precursor John, the Father’s voice spoke thunder from heaven, to ensure that he did not go unnoticed because the divinity was concealed by the veil of flesh: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Accordingly, the same one whom the devil craftily tempts as a man, the angels dutifully wait on as God. Hunger, thirst, weariness, sleep are patently human. But to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves; to dispense living water to the Samaritan woman, a drink of which will stop her being thirsty ever again; to walk on the surface of the sea with feet that do not sink; to rebuke the storm and level the mounting waves; there can be no doubt these are divine.

There is hardly a finer confession, explication, and affirmation of Christ’s two natures than the one penned above.  Pope Leo clearly confesses that Christ has two natures, yet he is only one person.  And indeed, this confession of Christ is sorely needed – not just because it is good Christology, but because it is good soteriology, a word which refers to the doctrine of our salvation. Christ must be human so that he can identify with us in our struggles, temptations, and sin.  He must be human so that he can die.  But he must also be God so that he can lead us, guide us, and redeem us.  He must be God so that not only does he die, but he also rises again.

Truly man.  Truly God.  Truly Jesus.  Truly our hope and salvation.  Don’t settle for anything or anyone less than him.

February 4, 2010 at 4:45 am 1 comment


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