Did Jesus only appear Human?: The Heresy of Docetism

Did Jesus only appear Human?
The Heresy of Docetism
By: Rev. Joe Kramer

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:14 (NKJV)

(14)Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—(15) and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
-Hebrews 2:14–15 (NIV)

This teaching was well adopted by the Gnostics (we will get to them later). This teaching is hard to pin down on who started it but it was highly praised and spread through Christendom the most under Cerinthus in the second century. Cerinthus was a Gnostic teacher who also taught that the earth wasn’t made by God, but by some lesser being (an angel or another created thing) out of unformed matter.

This heresy taught that Jesus could not take on a physical body because those that followed this teaching believed that the physical (anything physical) was inherently bad and that the spiritual is good; with God being spirit there is no way He would come in the physical, He only appeared to be physical. This teaching was taught by the majority of the Docetics but there were some that taught that the spirit of Christ came upon the man Jesus and departed at His death (similar to Arianism).

Some believe that the root of this teaching had started to take shape early on in the church and could be why John wrote that the “Word Became Flesh and dwelt among us. “This heresy was also condemned early on by the church fathers. While John’s writing may have been an attempt to fight this kind of teaching, the early Church fathers drew most of their response from Hebrews 2:14.

The main problem with this teaching is that it denies the Hypostatic Union (that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man) because they teach that Jesus did not actually come physically but only appeared to come physically (Otherwise they taught that the Christ only came on Jesus the man and departed at that man’s death).

How did this come about? We have a tendency to see Jesus as super-human. We read and hear about His miracles and tend to separate ourselves from Him. How many times have you (speaking to Christians) had a situation that seemed insurmountable and then you look at Jesus and you say to yourself, “yeah but that was Jesus!” Out of this tendency is, I believe, how this abhorrent teaching came about. We need to watch for this in our lives because if we aren’t carful we may believe some of this kind of teaching and find ourselves in this error as well.

If you would like to study further by all means look at the sources listed below and check them out. I have only touched a small portion of what is written in them. I hope you have enjoyed and may God bless you as you learn more.

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Sources Consulted in the Writing of This Article:

  • Walls, D., & Anders, M. (1999). Vol. 11: I & II Peter, I, II & III John, Jude. Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (163–164). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  • Karleen, P. S. (1987). The handbook to Bible study : With a guide to the Scofield study system (321). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (496). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Strong, A. H. (2004). Systematic theology (670). Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  • Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (289). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
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