The Docetic Heresy
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”- 2 John 7
Groups who denied the deity of Christ outright, such as the Arians, were not the most significant threats to Christian orthodoxy in the earliest years of church history. Arianism was not a major problem until the fourth century, and while the Ebionites denied the deity of Christ relatively early on, they were never as significant a threat as the Arians. Instead of denying that Christ is true deity or at least that He is in some sense a divine being, the very first heresies had a much greater issue with the humanity of our Savior. In fact, the New Testament demonstrates that the denial of the true human nature of Jesus began during the lifetime of the Apostles.
We are talking specifically about the heresy of docetism. The term docetism is derived from the Greek verb dokeō , which means “seem” or “appear”; thus, the name of the heresy points to its teaching that Jesus did not have a real physical body. Instead, He only seemed to possess physicality. His body was an illusion, something that looked real but in fact was not a part of the physical order at all.
Today’s passage indicates that the Apostles themselves had to confront docetism by the end of the first century. In 2 John 7, the Apostle John says it is false teaching to deny that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh.” He is referring to docetic teaching or at least to teaching that would later blossom into full-fledged docetism. Before John died, he had to remind the church that the Son of God came in the flesh, that He possesses a true human nature that includes a true human body.
Why was docetic teaching popular in the early years of the church? Remember that Christianity was born in a world heavily influenced by Greek thinking, and Greek philosophers tended to look down upon the physical world. For many Greek thinkers, embodied existence was not a good thing, and they looked forward to the time when the soul would be released from the “prison” of the body. The earliest gentile Christians were heavily influenced by such ideas, so there is little wonder that a body-denying heresy such as docetism would be a problem as the gospel went out to the gentile world.
The crass form of docetism that says the physical body of Jesus was merely an illusion no longer poses much of a direct threat to the church. However, an incipient form of docetism remains. Because of recent denials of the deity of Christ, it is easy for us to become so focused on defending His Godhood that we neglect His humanity.
The docetists rejected the true humanity of Christ because of a notion that the physical world is inherently defective. Biblical Christianity affirms something different. Although the creation is presently fallen, God originally made it very good. Thus, there is no inherent obstacle to the Son of God’s uniting Himself to a human nature in the incarnation. We need not disdain the created order, for God will redeem it.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 1:1–4