More on Docetism


Concerning Identity and Nature

Perhaps the most pervasive of all heresies affecting the Christology of the church is Docetism, the idea that Jesus was not truly man but only appeared to be.  (1* On this see my Still Docetic.)  The problem is frequently referred to but almost never properly addressed. Even Evangelicalism tends in the direction of Apollinarianism which taught that the eternal Word replaced the rational soul in Jesus.  I would argue that the basic reason for this, and central to generally received theology, is the almost universal belief enshrined in the Chalcedonian Creed which teaches that in becoming man Jesus retained his divine nature in what is known as hypostatic union. In other words, despite denial and the claim that the two natures were united ‘unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably’, in true Nestorian style Jesus had at one and the same time two separate natures, one fully divine and one fully human, hence Chalcedonian Dyophysitism and Dyotheletism. Though this hypostatic union seems to fly in the face of John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11 and Hebrews 1 and 2 to go no further, all of which underline the fundamental truth of the incarnation, that is, that the Word did in fact become a genuine man, denial leaves us with a Jesus who was different from all other human beings that ever lived.  And if this is true, we are forced to recognise that the second Adam was not really man and hence that, since atonement was made by one who was not like us in every respect (Heb. 2:17), it was therefore ineffective. (It is worth adding here that Hebrews 5:7 gives the impression that Jesus as a genuine human being relied totally on his Father and not on his putative divine nature. See also my Did Jesus Perform Miracles?.)

Assuming that this inference is correct, we are forced to ask why the church has historically made such a basic mistake. I would argue that the problem stems primarily from failure to distinguish between identity and nature. In becoming man the Word did not cease to be who he was for clearly he retained his identity. (2* Cf. Boice who says that Jesus is the Logos who speaks the word of God, p.65. Again he says that he speaks the words of God because he is the Word, pp.67,71. Then he refers to the twofold identification of Christ: his ontology and is activity, p.68. On p.69 he says that Jesus reveals God because he is God and follows Barrett when he describes him as an ontological mediator between God and man. Then on p.72 he says that Jesus is the self-communication of God. On p.74 he sums up by saying that the revelation communicated in Christ is by its very nature a mediated revelation providing no direct vision of the Father but creating the human possibility of recognizing the Father. It is therefore self-authenticating and saving.) But he manifestly changed his nature (Heb. 2:14, cf. Rom. 8:3). If he did not, he never really became man. And this according to John constitutes horrendous heresy (1 John 4:2f.; 2 John 7).

The basic reason why Chalcedon taught the hypostatic union or two natures in one person was that it was deemed impossible for the Word to be fully divine if when he took on flesh he dispensed with his divine nature. However, if this is regarded as a truism of universal application, it leaves us with big problems in other areas, for we ourselves as human beings made in the image of God necessarily, that is, by divine decree, change our natures. Both Jesus himself and Paul insist on this. While Jesus teaches that we must be spiritually born again (John 3:7) to enter heaven, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that since flesh and blood (=human nature or the physical natural man) cannot by nature inherit the kingdom of God, we must all be corporeally transformed (1 Cor. 15:50,53). Stated baldly, we must dispense with our flesh and blood just as Jesus divested himself of his divine nature at his incarnation. It must be noticed at this point that sin does not figure in either scenario. Both regeneration and transformation are natural necessities inherent in the plan and purpose of God. So if man can change his nature in order to be perfected in the image of God, so could the Word himself in becoming man. Furthermore, having become man with the express intention of attaining to the glory intended for man but prevented by sin (cf. Heb. 2:10), he had to change his nature again and become the complete and acknowledged image of God as man (John 3:13; Eph. 4:9f. and note John 20:17.) (3* See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.)


Man Created Perfect

The underlying problem here would seem to be that traditional theology has held that man as created was fully formed devoid of development (though noticeably involving the change from dust to flesh) and thus implying that apart from sin he was immutable, fixed and static, apparently in accord with Greek philosophy. Augustine of Hippo whose views have done so much to fashion the thinking of the churches especially in the West held that Adam was created perfect, immortal, holy and righteous but ‘fell’ when he sinned. Creation also was regarded not simply as good and serving a temporal purpose (cf. Ps. 102:25-27; 2 Cor. 4:18, etc.) but initially perfect despite Genesis 1:2. But it was then radically, even constitutionally, affected by the ‘fall’ and its consequent curse. The result of this was that creation is now regarded as ‘fallen’ rather than simply futile by nature, that is, by divine decree (Rom. 8:18-25). (4* Regrettably Romans 8:18-25 has been massively misunderstood. It surely corresponds with passages like Hebrews 1:10-12, and 8:21 clearly refers to the creature who is differentiated from creation though derived from it. See further my Romans 8:18-25 and Romans 8:18-25 In Brief. The traditional view reflects Augustinian theology on the one hand and exegetical ineptitude on the other.) In other words, tradition has it that man’s nature has changed for the worse because of sin. What the Bible really teaches, however, is that man was created imperfect or immature knowing neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22) with a view to attaining to the maturity or the perfection of God himself (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Mt. 5:48; Heb. 6:1; 1 Pet. 1:16, etc.). (5* See my Perfection.)  In view of our present subject it is useful to add here that it was ‘made by hand’ (usually cheiropoietos in Greek) which is a pejorative term characteristic of the OT. Man, like the physical creation in general (Isa. 45:11f.), was thus created defective (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:16-18, etc.) and naturally in contrast with God himself (Heb. 1:10-12; 3:3). So if he was to take on his Creator’s generic nature and be glorified (cf. Rom. 5:2; 8:30; 1 Pet. 1:3; 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:4, etc.), he had to be changed on that account alone. Ideas of restoration, however, belong to the temporary old covenant and are contrary to the new covenant which is concerned with replacement and transformation (cf. Heb. 10:9b, etc.). (6* See further my Manufactured Or Not So.)  Otherwise expressed, man as the image of God was potentially like him but was prevented from becoming fully so by sin and the devil.


Beginning at the Beginning

The truth is that God began at the beginning and made man, that is, Adam imperfect or immature like all babies in both the animal and vegetable world. Failure to recognise that Adam began as seed created in the ground and was translocated to the womb or the Garden of Eden simply reveals traditional blindness (Gen. 2:8,15; Ps. 139:13-16). He was not merely capable of growth, development or evolution but inherently perfectible, that is, designed to attain to the completeness or perfection of God himself (Mt. 5:48, cf. James 1:4). As made in the divine image man was expected or rather required to become his complete likeness. (7* See again my Perfection.) In the event, since God always planned to be the Saviour of man (Isa. 45:22-25; Rom. 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29, etc.) whom he deliberately consigned to sin so that he could exercise his mercy (Rom. 3:19; 11:32; Gal. 3:22) and display the glory of his grace (Rom. 3:24-26; Eph. 1:6,12,14), he sent his Son Jesus who uniquely met the precondition of salvation by keeping the law as man himself (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). And so it was as man that Jesus eventually became the exact image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). In light of this we as sons or daughters are called to be conformed to the image of the one true Son (Rom. 8:29) who is our elder brother (cf. Heb. 2:11-13). Bluntly, as created, man was not statically perfect, as Augustine taught, but naturally immature and hence subject to dynamic development and providential change. While as flesh, like the earth from which he derived he was capable of attaining to physical perfection or maturity only to lapse into final dissolution like the rest of the animal, indeed the whole physical creation (cf. Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), as spirit he could be born from above (John 3:3,7) and achieve perfection in the presence of God (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12). This was the course pioneered by Jesus (Luke 13:32; Heb. 12:2) who was not so much the perfect man as the progressively perfected man as Hebrews in particular makes clear (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28). As man, he not only acquired the complete image of his Father himself (Heb. 1:3, etc.) but ensured that his sheep did so too by dying to cover their sins (Heb. 2:10-13, etc.) and thereby opening up for them the door of heaven and the presence of God (John 14:1-3, cf. Eph. 2:17f.).


Change from Word to Man and Man to Divine Image

It is vital to point out again that the Word not only changed his nature in order to become man but as man’s trail blazer into heaven also changed it as man. At his incarnation, though the ‘natural’ Son of God, he began his earthly career as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) born of woman, that is, of the dust of the earth (Gen. 3:20; Gal. 4:4) thereby recapitulating to perfection the career of the first Adam, his original human progenitor (cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49). As such he passed through the entire gamut of human development as Irenaeus taught long ago. “Created” (Heb. 10:5) first by God and conceived in the womb of Mary (cf. Eden), he then gestated and after birth experienced life as animal flesh in the stable at Bethlehem. After that he became a child of nature under the covenant with Noah and as such experienced heathenism in Egypt like his forebears before him (Mt. 2:15). Then like all Jewish boys he served his adolescence as a servant under the law (Lev. 25:42,55) till, having kept it flawlessly in accordance with Leviticus 18:5 (cf. Gen. 2:17), he gained eternal life at his naturally necessary baptismal regeneration (Mt. 3:13-17, etc.). Had he not done so, he would have been in no position to give his flesh in death (Col. 1:21f.) for his people (cf. Gal. 4:1-7). For it is only as a spiritually regenerate son that he could freely offer his fleshly life (cf. Mt. 17:25-27) and take it again (John 10:17f.). So long as he remained under the law (Gal. 4:4) he remained under obligation himself, and his death under it would have been permanent and irretrievable since it would have implied debt and sin (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). At best, like Noah, Daniel and Job, none of whom experienced new birth, he would only have been able to save his own life by his righteousness (Ezek. 14:14). In the event, however, as one who had personally and perfectly kept the law, was sinless (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22) and therefore born again (Lev. 18:5) but had died on behalf of his people, he was necessarily raised from the dead (Acts 2:24, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).


Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man

In further clarification of this it needs to be appreciated that Jesus’ ‘natural’ sonship of God (cf. 1 John 5:18b) which involved his incarnation and birth of Mary should not be confused with his development as a genuine man. As he himself so plainly taught, all, including himself even though he was the ‘natural’ son of God, who were born of the flesh, that is, as sons of Adam, had of necessity to be born again (John 3:3,7). So far as the latter is concerned, as man he himself had to attain to sonship by his obedience, for this was the human precondition of life (Lev. 18:5, etc.). Then, having laid down his life in atonement for the sins of his people and been physically raised from the dead, Jesus did not undergo corruption (Acts 2:27, etc.). This being so he remained flesh but as such, as Paul indicates, he could not enter the kingdom of heaven, for flesh and blood are excluded by nature (1 Cor. 15:50). So in order to regain his former glory, he had to be changed (John 17:5,24). As the author of Hebrews makes plain, he remained flesh only for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9). However, to be glorified he needed a body of glory (cf. John 17:24; Phil. 3:21) to match his regenerated spirit and this he gained at his ascension transformation which served as the paradigm of those who at the end of the world neither die nor undergo resurrection as he did (1 Cor. 15:50-53).



But the all-important point is that he was glorified as man (John 17:5). Though clearly retaining his identity throughout his earthly pilgrimage, far from regaining his divine nature again, as man he gained God’s generic nature (Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4, etc.). He was not merely designated Lord to the glory of God (Acts 2:36; Phil. 2:9-11) but was recognised as the exact image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3). It was as such that having had all things subjected to him, he himself was finally subjected so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). In other words, his own manhood is and remains in subjection to his deity, for though man cannot become God, he can share his generic nature as his son (2 Pet. 1:4, cf. Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4).



Of course, it may be objected at this point that Jesus remains ever the same and that his traditional immutability must not be questioned. But the assertion that he remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8) refers to his identity and character not to his nature. If his nature never changed, if God never became man, we should still be in our sins. Atonement had to be made by man and Jesus the man was not only our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) but also the propitiation of our sins (Rom. 3:25, ESV). As Paul says, he was made sin even though he knew no sin so that in him we believers might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).  And it is as such that we are his children (1 John 3:2f.) and hence his heirs along with Jesus (Rom. 8:17).


Necessary Change

Now if change is fundamental to man and inherent in the plan of salvation, then it must be true of Jesus or he never truly became man. In fact, in order to be our pioneer and trail blazer his manhood was indispensably necessary, for God’s original promise of eternal life (salvation) was made to man (Gen. 2:16f.; Lev. 18:5, etc.) and therefore had to be fulfilled by man. Of course, it can be claimed that God as our omnipotent Creator and Ruler can have mercy on whomever he pleases (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15f.), but this ignores his character as a holy and righteous God. The truth is that he saves in accordance with his promise and character and to the praise of his glory. The wonder of the gospel is that our triune God so loved the world that he sent his Son born of woman to be our Saviour. This can only mean that the Word was willing to humble himself, change his nature and become man, that is, one of us (Heb. 2:10-13) in order to save us. And it is as glorified man that he is forever King of kings and Lord of lords to the glory of God (Phil. 2:11) through whom we inherit all things (Rom. 8:17,32).  Not for nothing is it said that God is love (1 John 4:7-12; John 3:16). (8* See my The Ecclesiastical Christ.).


Additional Note

On re-reading the above I am conscious that I have not made enough of 1 Kings 8:27 and Acts 7:49f. In my article Manufactured Or Not So I sought to draw attention to the basic difference between what is ‘made by hand’ (cheiropoietos, referring to created things) and what is ‘not made by hand’ (acheiropoietos, that is, what is not created, cf. Heb. 9:11,24; 12:27). This is surely the point at issue in 1 Kings 8:27 and Acts 7:49f. These texts implicitly deny that the nature of the eternal Word who was uncreated God could be contained in the frail, fleshly, ‘manufactured’ body of Jesus born of woman. To maintain that it could is to beggar belief and to contradict Solomon’s point. Jesus, having overcome the world in the flesh (John 16:33), had of necessity to be transformed and take his seat at this Father’s right hand before he could possibly exercise universal control (Mt. 11:27; 28:18) and serve as Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). So while the identity of Jesus remained intact throughout, his nature as flesh was necessarily changed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50).

It is only as transformed, notably as the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18), that the fullness of deity could indwell him bodily (Col. 1:19; 2:9). The idea that a clay jar (2 Cor. 4:7), let alone a destructible tent (2 Cor. 5:1) not to mention a temple (1 K. 8:27), could contain the fullness of the  nature of the omnipresent God would surely have been shocking to Paul.

In The Message of The Person of Christ (Nottingham, 2013) Robert Letham asks in an appendix (pp.229-246) dealing with Nicaea and Chalcedon, Did the church get it wrong? My blunt answer is: Yes, it did.




J.M.Boice, Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John, Grand Rapids, 1970 (British Ed.).