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Docetism

DOCETISM

The theological error of those who denied the material reality of the body of Christ. The word probably comes from the Greek δοκε[symbol omitted]ν, referring to appearance or representation of something not existing in reality (Tertullian, De carne Christi 1). According to the Docetists, Christ did not have a true body during His earthly existence, but merely a bodily appearance. The origins of Docetism are obscure. The heresy could have taken its rise from diverse causes such as the opinion current in the first century that material in itself is evil; or the scandal given by the bodily weaknesses exhibited by Christ while on earth, and more particularly his ignominious death on the cross. The earliest evidence of the existence of this heresy is probably that of the first two Epistles of St. John (1 John4.23; 2 John 7). At the start of the second century, igna tius of antioch explicitly condemned this doctrine (Smyr. 13; 7.1; Tral. 910). Ignatius saw clearly that to deny the reality of the body of Christ was to destroy the reality of Christianity and the christian way of life.

In the course of the second and third centuries, Docetism found an ally in gnosticism. Beginning with the principle that the flesh is evil and that salvation consists in evading the consequence of having a body, the various expressions of Gnosticism, even though differing in modalities, were united in claiming that Christ had assumed only a bodily appearance. According to Basilides, Simon of Cyrene was miraculously substituted for Christ and crucified in His place, while Jesus Himself returned to heaven (Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 1.24.4). According to Valentinian, Christ had passed through Mary as water passes through a channel; and His body had not known any physical necessities (ibid. 1.7.2). Outside the Gnostic circles, Docetism exercised a more or less profound influence on the early Christian world. Traces of it are to be found in some of the apocryphal books, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Ascension of Isaiah and certain expressions used by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 6.9.71) and Origen (In Matt. 13.2) that, if detached from their context, have a Docetist connotation.

Among the adversaries of Docetism, along with Ignatius of Antioch, were polycarp of smyrna (Philip. 7.1), Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 4.23.15; 5.1.2; 5.2.2), Serapion of Antioch (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.12.6) and particularly tertullian (Adv. Marcionem 3; Adv. Valent.; De carne Christi ). With Tertullian the history of Docetism, properly so-called, ceases. While Docetism in its radical form was a heresy of the first centuries of Christianity, certain Docetist tendencies and mentalities continued to make themselves manifest within Christianity both in the sphere of doctrine and in the moral and ascetical sphere, particularly as a consequence of Pelagianism. Docetism is a danger for all who do not admit that the Son of God became man in everything similar to all men, except sin, and refuse to draw the practical conclusions from this fact (see pelagius and pelagianism).

Bibliography: g. bardy, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al., (Paris 1932) 3:146168. a. grillmeier, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, eds., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:470471. r. schnackenburg, Die Johannesbriefe (2d ed. Freiburg 1963) 2022. l. vaganay, L'Évangile de Pierre (2d ed. Paris 1930) 188122. Les Actes de Pierre, ed. and tr. l. vouaux (Paris 1922) 6673. Ascension d'Isaie, ed. and tr. e. tisserant (Paris 1909). g. bareille, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 4.2:14801501.

[a. humbert]

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