Worship and Docetism

Foolish virgins

We’ve just started a new series on worship on Sunday’s, looking at different aspects of worship and why it’s important. The problem for me is that I can’t tackle all aspects of an area on a Sunday. There are bits that I have to leave out. So, this blog gives me a chance on occasion to look at some of these.

Foolish virgins

Foolish virgins

The early church had to work out what was acceptable in terms of belief and worship for it to still stay as the group of people sent by Jesus as a new way of living. Many of their intellectual struggles occurred over many years and in lively debate. Some of these were absolutely crucial to maintain a specifically Christian faith. Some have proven to be less important over time.

[As an aside it is well to remember that the early church had no state power behind it and so there was no inquisition etc.]

One of the ones that fascinates me (and has done since theological college) is that of Docetism. Docetism has held a strange hold over both religious movements (such as Islam) and over literature (such as Philipl Pullman’s The Good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ). Docetism tries to separate the person of Jesus from the divine Christ.

One of the earliest exponents was Cerinthus who held that Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph through the ordinary course of events. He believed that the spirit of the supreme being descended on Jesus on his baptism. The divine Jesus then preached through his ministry but left the human Jesus on the cross.

Docetism appeared in different forms but as the patristic scholar Norbert Brox has said they come down to “Jesus was different from what he appeared to be”.

So why is this important? Well it determines the sort of God we worship and believe in. It can have all sorts of negative consequences. For instance, Docetism believed that Jesus did not have the nous. Nous in greek thought was what made people individuals and gave peoples cultural identity.

There is an example of this in a frieze over the headquarters of Standard Life in Edinburgh. It is a frieze of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

Wise Virgins

Wise Virgins

The Foolish Virgins all look different whilst  the Wise Virgins look identical. This is a playing out in a very visual and accessible form of Docetism the lack of individuality and the idea of being merged into one overall identity those that are redeemed.

Now this plays negatively in all sorts of ways. In terms of culture it can lead to a view where there is only one culture that is worthwhile and good and the rest are sub-standard. Or that my culture is more superior to yours and that we should be looking to have only one way of worshipping or only one way of organising ourselves. It also doesn’t take creation seriously. Creation is seen as disposable and unimportant, indeed as something that is base and often bad. Something that is intrinsically of fleeting importance and not something worth saving.

At its root it does not take the Incarnation seriously (the idea that God comes as a human being in a particular time and place and interacts with particular people and cultures in that). A God that takes the pain and pleasure of his creation. That values humanity and is prepared to live within its constraints and show us what true humanity should look like.

So for Christians who over-emphasise the divinity of Christ and underplay his equal humanity there is a real danger of Docetism – of Jesus as a miracle worker; of Jesus whom we cannot identify with because he is so other. Amusingly Valentinus (who took a strong Docetist view of Jesus) taught that Jesus was continent in that he ate and drank without excreting his solids! He thought it degrading to believe that Jesus might have needed to go to the loo!

We see it too in some of the sentimental 19th Century Carols such as Away in a Manager when in the 2nd Verse it says

The cattle are lowing,
the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus,
no crying He makes

The idea here being that crying would make Jesus less than perfect. It doesn’t take seriously the idea of Jesus’ humanity!

A truly Christian view of Jesus sees Jesus as the God-man. Fully human and fully God. Who empties himself (Phil 2:6-7) to come as one of us and identify with us and therefore values each one of us. He speaks our language and understands our culture and challenges us and values us and nurtures us. Because he takes on and values human form and interacts with the world we also then find that God has a purpose for the world and that instead of being intrinsically evil and bad that God loves it and wants to redeem all of creation. As someone once said “matter matters” to God.

When we see Jesus like this then we realise that we are called to value others and their cultures as well as nature. Yes, parts of their culture may need challenging and asking questions of – but it always starts with doing that to ourselves and our culture.

Overall, docetism is subtle and can appear in all sorts of ways and can seem to be for the best of motives (such as trying to find common ground with other faiths by appealing to a supreme being behind a creator “god”). The dangers though are that we lose far too much.


3 comments on “Worship and Docetism

  1. harveyedser
    January 6, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    Interesting stuff. The Wise Virgins looks like a slightly dodgy ‘spot the difference’ picture, but without the differences.

    I guess we humans like simple, one-dimensional truths rather than the kind of mysterious paradox that belief in the Christian God often seems to involve: the three-in-one of the Trinity, the God-man of Jesus; the upside-down ideas of losing your life to save it, of the last being first, of leaders being servants, and of God’s power being made perfect in our weakness; a God who is complex, surprising and often unpredictable. That’s one of the aspects I find most attractive about Christianity – you couldn’t think these things up for yourself, but the more you meditate on them the more sense they make of everything.

  2. Alicante Airport
    March 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I guess you may want to place a twitter button to your website. I just bookmarked the url, however I must complete this by hand. Simply my advice.

    • Will Cookson
      March 26, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

      Thanks for that. There should be all the usual share buttons if you select the story and read the whole things – towards the bottom. If it isn’t there would you let me know!

      The share buttons should be displayed on the front page but there is a bug on the Crisp theme I am using. I am ‘hoping’ that WordPress will fix it shortly – they tell me that they are!

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