Docetism, the very early heresy that our blessed Lord had a body like ours, only in appearance, not in reality. St. Jerome scarcely exaggerates when he says (adv. Lucif. 23): “While the apostles were still surviving, while Christ’s blood was still fresh in Judea, the Lord’s body was asserted to be but a phantasm.”
Apart from N.T. passages, e.g. Eph. ii. 9, Heb. ii. 14, which confute this assertion, but do not bear clear marks of having been written with a controversial purpose, it appears from I. John iv. 2, II. John 7, that when these epistles were written there were teachers, stigmatised by the writer as prompted by the spirit of Antichrist, who denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, a form of expression implying a Docetic theory.
Those who held that evil resulted from the inherent fault of matter found it impossible to believe that the Saviour could be Himself under the dominion of that evil from which He came to deliver men, and they therefore rejected the Church’s doctrine of a real union of the divine and human natures in the person of our Lord.
But our Lord’s pre-existence and superhuman nature was regarded as so essential a part of Christianity that with two exceptions, or perhaps even only one (i.e. JUSTINUS and perhaps CARPOCRATES), all the sects known as Gnostic ascribed to the Saviour a superhuman nature, some however separating the personality of that nature from His human personality, others reducing our Lord’s earthly part to mere appearance.
It is even doubtful whether we are not to understand in a technical sense the statement that he taught that “power” from the Father had descended on our Lord; that is to say, whether it was not his doctrine that one of the heavenly powers had united itself to the man Jesus.
Teaching of this kind is unequivocally attributed to CERINTHUS, whose other doctrines, as reported by Irenaeus, have great resemblance to those of Carpocrates.
It is in opposition to the theory which makes our Lord’s claim to be Christ date, not from his birth, but from some later period, that Irenaeus uses the argument, shewing his belief in the inspiration of the gospels, that Matthew might have said, “the birth of Jesus was in this wise,” but that the Holy Spirit, foreseeing and guarding against the depravation of the truth, said by Matthew “the birth of Christ was on this wise.”
Baur makes Docetism common to all the Gnostics, holding that the theory which has just been described is in a certain sense Docetic; inasmuch as while holding Jesus to be a real man, visibly active in the work of redemption, it teaches that this is but deceptive appearance, the work being actually performed by a distinct personality, Christ.
But it is more usual and more natural to use the word Docetism only with reference to those other theories which refuse to acknowledge the true manhood of the Redeemer. For example, we are told that, according to the system of Simon, the Redeemer (who, however, is not Jesus, but Simon himself) “had appeared among men as man, though he was not a man, and was thought to have suffered in Judea, though he did not suffer.” According to the system of SATURNINUS, the Saviour was without birth, without body, and without figure, and appeared a man in phantasm, not in truth.
According to BASILIDES, as reported by Irenaeus, Christ or Nous is not distinguished from Jesus, but is said to be an incorporeal power, who transfigured Himself as He willed; that He appeared on earth as man and worked miracles, but that He did not suffer; that it was Simon of Cyrene, who, being transfigured into the form of Jesus, was crucified, while Jesus Himself, in the form of Simon standing by, laughed at His persecutors, and then, incapable of being held by them, ascended up to Him Who had sent Him, invisible to them all.
The Docetism here described is strenuously combated in the Ignatian Epistles in their Greek form, esp. in ad Trall. 9, 10, and ad Smyrn. 2.
In these the writer emphasises the statements that our Lord was truly born, did eat and drink, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified, and truly rose from the dead; and he expressly declares that these statements were made in contradiction of the doctrine of certain unbelievers, or rather atheists, who asserted His sufferings to be but seeming.
This polemic is absent from the Syriac Ignatius, and an argument has hence been derived against the genuineness of the Greek form.
But in order to make the argument valid, there ought to be proof that the rise of Docetism was probably later than the age of Ignatius, whereas the probability seems to be quite the other way. Saturninus holds such a place in all heretical lists, that he must be referred to the very beginning of the 2nd cent., and, as he taught in Antioch, may very possibly have been encountered by Ignatius. Polycarp also (Ep. 7) uses the words of I. John iv. 3 in such a way as to shew that Docetism was in his time troublesome.
In the forms of Docetism thus far described there is no evidence that there was involved any more subtle theory than that the senses of the spectators of our Lord’s earthly life were deceived.
The Docetism of VALENTINUS was exhibited in a more artificial theory, which is fully set forth in our art. s.v. It appears that Valentinus was only partly docetic. He conceded to Jesus the possession of a real body capable of really affecting the senses, but held that that body was made of a different substance from ours and was peculiar as regards its sustenance by earthly nutriment.
Irenaeus, however, insists that the Valentinian doctrine did not practically differ from pure Docetism; for that if our Lord had not taken substance of flesh in the womb of the Virgin He could not have been the real man Who suffered hunger and thirst and weariness, Who wept at the grave of Lazarus, Who sweat drops of blood, from Whose wounded side came forth blood and water.
The Docetism of MARCION differed from that of preceding Gnostics. With them the great stumbling-block had been the sufferings of Christ, and accordingly it is the reality of Christ’s passion and death that their antagonists sought to establish.
Marcion, on the contrary, was quite willing to acknowledge the proof of our Lord’s love exhibited in His sufferings and death, but it was repulsive to him to own His human birth, which according to his view would have made our Lord the debtor and the subject of the Creator of the world.
Accordingly, while Basilides had admitted a real birth of the man Jesus, Valentinus at least a seeming birth in which the body elsewhere prepared was ushered into the world, Marcion would own no birth at all, and began his gospel with the sudden announcement that in the 15th year of Tiberius Christ came down (by which we are to understand came down from heaven) to Capernaum, a city of Galilee.
Marcion’s disciple Apelles so far modified his master’s doctrine that he was willing to own that Jesus had a solid body, but denied that there had been a birth in which He had assumed it; and he held that of this body our Lord made only a temporary use, and that when He had shewn it to His disciples after His resurrection He gave it back to the elements from which He had received it.
Something of this kind seems to have been also the view of the sect known as Docetae. The fourth book of the dialogue against the Marcionites contains a polemic against Docetism which is represented as defended by Marinus the disciple of Bardesanes, who adopts the Valentinian notion and who maintains that His earthly body was only such as the angels had temporarily assumed who ate and drank with Abraham.
One argument on the orthodox side is used by several Fathers, and the form of words in which each has expressed himself has been much discussed in modern controversy. It occurs here in the form “If Christ were without flesh and blood, of what sort of flesh and blood are the bread and wine, the images with which He commanded that the memorial of Him should be made?”.
Of later heretics, the most considerable who maintained a Docetic theory are the Manicheans. In the controversy with them the orthodox had exactly the same points to establish as in the controversy with Marcion, viz. that Christ had come into the world, not merely as sent by the Father, but as really born of the Virgin; that He was truly incarnate, and did not assume the form of a body merely as did the angels whose appearances have been recorded; that He was circumcised, baptized, tempted; that His death was a real one, as was necessary in order that His resurrection also should be real (see in particular the disputation between Augustine and Faustus).
With regard to the disputes in the 6th cent. concerning our Lord’s body, see JULIANUS of Halicarnassus. It is well known that Mahommed also adopted the Docetic account of our Lord’s crucifixion.
Besides formal heresies which have been tainted with Docetism, the same imputation has been cast on more than one of the Fathers. It is very strongly brought by Photius against the hypotyposes of CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA.
This book has not survived, but there is no doubt from his extant writings that Clement ascribed to our Lord a real body. In a fragment probably from the lost Hypotyposes preserved in a Latin trans. (p. 1009), he quotes from “the traditions” that when St. John handled the body of our Lord the flesh offered no resistance, but yielded place to the disciple’s hand.
Redepenning’s conclusion is that Clement’s doctrine deviated from that subsequently recognised as orthodox, not in respect of our Lord’s body, the reality of which he acknowledged, but in holding that His body was directly united to the Divine Logos without the intervention of a human soul capable of feeling pain or suffering.
The traditions referred to by Clement have been identified with the contents of a work of Leucius Charinus, purporting to relate travels of the apostles, of which an account is given by Photius, and from which extracts are also quoted in the Acts of the second council of Nicaea.
In this work, which Grabe seems to have correctly regarded as Marcionite, it was taught that the Son was not man, but only seemed to be so; that He showed Himself to His disciples sometimes young, sometimes old; sometimes a child, sometimes an old man; sometimes great, sometimes small; sometimes so great as to touch the heavens with His head; that His footsteps left no trace; and that He was not really crucified, but, according to Photius, another person in His place.
The account given in the Nicene extracts of a vision seen by St. John on the mount of Olives, at the time of the crucifixion, teaches that the form crucified was not really our Lord, but does not suggest that it was any other person.