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False Teachings
Historic Heresies: Docetism

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Docetism was a heresy that arose in the church's earliest of days, affirming that the body of Christ was not real. The Apostle John argued against its Gnostic foundations in his epistles. It was shortly thereafter argued against in the second century by Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Tertullian. Docetism had a resurgence in the fourth century by the Manicheaens but has always been denied by the church as evidenced by the ecumenical creeds of the early church. Today's church is hardly confronted directly with docetism, as most modern errors affirm the humanity of Christ and deny instead the deity of Christ. The modern search for the "historical" Jesus vs. the Jesus of faith has docetic tendencies; and, modern preachers and teachers who focus only on the deity of Christ are perhaps guilty of the same.

The Teaching Summarized
The word "docetism" comes from the Greek dokeo, meaning "to seem" or "to appear." The docetists taught that the body of Christ was imaginary and only appeared to be real. This sort of a phantom body was forwarded by the docetists, because of Gnostic roots that falsely tied all material matter to evil. The docetists, therefore, insisted that God could not be united with "evil" human flesh. The result of their teaching was that either:
  • the very sufferings of Jesus had to be phony if his body were just a fašade; or,
  • the body the Son indwelled was a different person.
Clearly both of these options are demonstrative of only further theological error and the docetists' teaching must be rejected in the first place. The Apostle John specifically refuted an early form of this heresy in his first epistle:
By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. (1 John 4:2-4, emphasis added.)
Not only does John link the confession of Christ "in the flesh" to whether one is of God or Antichrist, but he affirms it as fundamental to the work of Christ, "this is He who came by water and blood -- Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood" (1 John 5:6) and begins his epistle with the reality of Christ in the flesh (1 John 1:1).

The Church has always rejected docetic teachings and all of the creeds of the early church affirm the reality of Christ's being born of a virgin, his suffering, his death, his burial, and his actual bodily resurrection. In short, docetism is an attack on the true humanity of Christ and is therefore to be refuted by the Church. For, Christ was "actually man, with a rational soul and body" (Chalcedonian Creed). A full presentation of the biblical humanity of Christ and its importance is made in's article, The Humanity of Christ.

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