The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part III: Christology

Part III: A Docetic Christ

It follows from evangelicalism's modalistic tendencies that Jesus' full humanity is lessened or suppressed, as if the divinity and humanity of Christ are in competition with each other. To be perfectly fair, this is a problem that has plagued the church from the very beginning (as has been the case for all these heresies). The question for the church in the first few centuries was simple, "What do we do with Jesus?" The answer has not been simple, and it took a few ecumenical councils to hammer out the disagreements.

I have chosen Docetism, because I think this heresy most accurately represents the tendencies in American evangelicalism. Docetism is associated with Gnosticism and states that Jesus only appeared human, that his body was not really like ours, and that his sufferings were an illusion. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, I do not think most evangelicals, when pressed, would deny Jesus' full humanity. But in practice, in worship, and sometimes in cognitive belief, Jesus becomes fully God and partly human. Why is this? I argue two main reasons: (1) Because the scandal of the incarnation remains a scandal, and (2) because contemporary evangelicalism is a reaction against trends in liberal theology. I will begin with the latter.

The Evangelical Reaction: Attacks against the divinity of Jesus have proliferated in modernity, and the 20th century saw some of the most egregious examples—most notably the Jesus Seminar. Biblical scholarship has placed great emphasis on the cultural particularity of Jesus, emphasizing not only his Jewishness but also that he was a human just like any one of us. Liberal theology (a term I apply primarily to those against whom Barth reacted) from the 19th century onward has tended to speak of Jesus as a human who had a God-consciousness (Schleiermacher), one who was more intimately related to God than any other person who has ever or will ever live. In addition, academic biblical scholarship also tested the doctrines of the infallibility of Scripture through text criticism and focused on the historicality of the biblical witness, its rootedness in a particular cultural framework.

American evangelicalism—which I tie to the legacies of Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer—was in many respects a reaction against the trends that dominated what we might call the "liberal" school of theology, although we might say that evangelicalism in the States is reactionary by nature, as the evolution-creation and pro-choice-pro-life debates make plain. What I wish to suggest here is that the emphasis on historical criticism in the academy resulted in a backlash among conservatives who ended up swinging too far in the other direction. A human, Jewish Jesus no longer looked like God, so evangelicals began to emphasize the divinity of Jesus who came in the appearance of a man.

(I have a suspicion that the emphasis on a divine Christ over a human Jesus, besides being heretical, also encourages the kind of "Jesus is just like me" nonsense. If Jesus is not really a particular Jewish man from the 1st century AD, he can become whomever we want him to be. Jesus no longer has cultural-particular roots. Granted, in the so-called "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus, scholars such as N.T. Wright have tried to stress these cultural factors while at the same time upholding the church's confession in the divinity of Jesus.)

To summarize: We can see in the evangelical stress on Jesus' divinity a reaction against the liberal schools of thought, instantiated in groups like the Jesus Seminar. It directly parallels, in my opinion, the reactions against evolution, text criticism of the Bible, and the various socio-political issues of the present day. The rejection of the creedal tradition by so-called "liberal" groups is surely heretical, but the evangelical reaction is heretical in that it too sheds the creedal tradition in the name of orthodoxy.

The Scandal of the Incarnation: If my historical suspicions regarding the relation between liberalism and evangelicalism are overgeneralized and possibly off-target at points, the scandalous nature of the incarnation is surely on target and unavoidable. Both sides—the liberal and the conservative—are attempts to domesticate the person of Jesus Christ, whether by turning him into a rather unusual prophet wandering around Palestine in the 1st century, or by turning him into a kind of Gnostic demigod or a Docetic theophany who takes on the form of a Jewish man as a mask which God wears on earth. The doctrine of the incarnation is scandalous because it says exactly what both sides do not want to affirm: that this man, this human person, is God. Not that this human person is close to God, or that God merely appears to be human, but that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed God in the flesh.

I will enter briefly into the dispute between potuit non peccare [able to not sin] and non potuit peccare [not able to sin], only to say that the latter is not only where most evangelicals land but is also the most liable to heresy. Obviously there are pious and well-meaning Christians on both sides of the debate, but only one question is needed to decide this debate: What kind of humanity did God assume in the incarnation? First, we know that God assumed our humanity, because only what is assumed is redeemed. Second, what is "our" humanity? It is inherently prone to sin. Thus, the humanity God assumed in Jesus is truly a humanity that is able to sin. Jesus fully entered into the matrix of sinful humanity. He descended into the abyss, though he remained the God who judges our sinful humanity, and thus was at a certain remove from our state of being since he was and is and always will be the imago Dei. But we can have no doubt about Jesus' peccability. If he were not peccable, he would not be human.

Much could and should be said about the incarnation and the person of Christ. In everything that we say, however, we must always return to the central affirmation: the triune God self-determined to be this human, this 1st century Jew and not another. Jesus is not "fully God and partially human" but "fully God and fully human." Our minds cannot comprehend this reality. We affirm according to the creeds that Jesus was entirely human, and as this human, entirely God. This is not what the Jews wanted in the 1st century, and it's not what many American evangelicals today want either. Our natural inclination is toward a messianic hero (à la Superman) or to the powerful, frightening God (à la YHWH on Mt. Sinai). But a simple Jewish man who proclaimed peace, offered love and acceptance to the poor and downtrodden, and was killed in an ignoble and grotesque fashion? This was and is and always will be scandalous. Such a God cannot be socially acceptable, but only accepted by faith alone.

Solution: Preach the Gospel that Jesus of Nazareth was human like us in every way as the sole mediator between God and humanity, as the one who assumed our humanity in order to redeem us and reconcile us to God.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14-17)


Shane said…
when do you find time to eat?
Nathan said…
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Gabrielle said…
What about the Transfiguration in Mark and Matthew? How you use that to further prove your point. I feel as though you've proved your point but as I was reading this I was trying to justify the transfiguration in it all.
D.W. Congdon said…
Hey Gabby,

The transfiguration is a special event in the gospels which has a purpose similar to that of the resurrection, albeit as a precursor and foreshadowing of that later and far greater event. What the transfiguration demonstrates is precisely that Jesus is more than just a mere human, in the sense that his identity is found beyond the bounds of time and space. The transfiguration shows that Jesus has a unique identity given to him by God alone, because in Jesus, God has come to humanity. The resurrection does this in a more substantial and profound manner, but the meaning is similar.

One thing that we should note is that in both events — transfiguration and resurrection — Jesus is never anything other than human. He is still truly and fully a man. That does not, however, make him anything less than God, but only because God decided to become this man. A lot of Christians seem to talk about the resurrection as if it gets rid of his humanness and makes him fully God — as if being human was something he was just waiting to leave behind so that he could go back to what he was from eternity. This is a grave mistake, and truly a heresy. And we must be careful not to come close to this with the transfiguration as well.

Thanks for the question!
kim fabricius said…
Hi DW.

Much obliged. A very fine post - as usual.

Do you know Bonhoeffer's Christology (Eng. 1966)? Bonhoeffer suggests that the Docetic Heresy "draws its strength from two sources:

"(a) From an abstract idea of God. . . One knows the deity already before he is revealed. One knows the truth already as a suprahistorical, absolute idea. When God is thought of as an idea, Christ must be understood as an appearance of this idea, but not as an individual [my italics]." Therefore, I would add, docetics cannot possibly know God as Trinity. Do conservative evangelicals give more than lip service to God as Trinity?

And Bonhoeffer's (b): "One particular view of redemption . . . The individual man in his individuality is fallen. Schelling's words are, 'Individuality is sin'. . . But this raises the question of how one can talk of a full incarnation when God has taken the 'nature' of man, but not his individuality [my italics again]." Hmmmm.

Bonhoeffer goes on to discuss the teachings of Apollinarius of Laodicea, Basilides and Valentinus. But - you're right - this is the practical teaching of American evangelicalism - and not just American evangelicalism (which for cultural reasons - the Frontier spirit, Yankee individualism, etc. - is the most virulent variety).

But the really interesting thing is this: Bonhoeffer directly connects docetism - with liberalism! Which perhaps just goes to show that conservative evangelicalism plays Tweedle Dum to liberalism's Tweedle Dee.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks, Kim, for the comment. I have read Bonhoeffer's Christology (sometimes titled Christ the Center), and I consulted it before writing this post. The observation about docetism, liberalism, and evangelicalism is spot-on, and this is just one more example of a growing trend. It is no where more prevalent, in my opinion, than in the "Christianity of religious experience" that evangelicalism in America has become. I think we see this most notably in contemporary soteriology, centered as it is upon the acting, thinking, and feeling individual. On this, see my most recent post.
Bryan Maloney said…
Evangelicals are simultaneously Docetists AND Nestorians. Their Christ is simultaneously not really human AND a lesser being than the Father. I'm going off how they actually worship.