Facing the Peril of Docetism

At the heart of the Docetist denial is horror at the prospect of God—a purely spiritual being, untouched by the material world in any way—actually becoming one of us.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the fourteenth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

There are two opposite yet equally erroneous views about Christ that St. Ignatius of Antioch needs very directly to confront in his correspondence with the churches of Asia and Rome—that of Docetism and Judaism. Of the two, Docetism poses the more significant danger. In fact, in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, which is the penultimate installment in the series, he advises complete avoidance. A total boycott. So odious are its adherents, he insists to the Smyrnaeans, that they must never even mention their names. Pray for their conversion, yes, but have nothing to do with them.

Why is that? One would think Judaism’s denial of Christ’s divinity a far graver affront to God than Docetism’s disdain for his humanity. But not to Ignatius it isn’t—for whom everything is personal, everything at stake in the struggle with Docetism. That is because were it true to say that God had never really become fully human, that He only appeared to assume mortal flesh, then what would be the point of Ignatius going all the way to Rome to die? To suffer hideously at the hands of wild beasts in the arena?

If what our Lord did is a sham, so is my being in chains. Why, then, have I given myself up completely to death, fire, sword, and wild beasts?… What good does anyone do by praising me and then reviling my Lord by refusing to acknowledge that he carried around live flesh? He who denies this has completely disavowed him and carries a corpse around.

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At the heart of the Docetist denial is horror at the prospect of God—a purely spiritual being, untouched by the material world in any way—actually becoming one of us. From such defilement Docetism instinctively recoils, seeing it as a grotesquerie no more revolting than which can be imagined. For there is nothing more alien to such heretics than the claim, the sheer shocking singularity of the claim, that the Absolute and Transcendent God Himself should actually condescend to enter the material world as a little child—from zygote to embryo to fetus to infant—in order to rescue and redeem a fallen world.  

“What sets Christianity apart from other religions,” writes von Balthasar in an essay on “The Incarnation of God,” 

Is the offensive claim that the one who bears all names and is yet without name, who as the Scripture says “is everything” (Sir 43:27), has once and for all declared himself identical with a tiny something or someone in the vast cosmos and among the countless millions of swarming humanity—identical with someone who can make such monstrously exclusive statements about himself as “I am the door…all who have come before me are thieves and robbers” (Jn 10:7f) and “No one knows the Father but the Son and him to whom the Son will reveal it” (Mt 11:27).

So how does Docetism deal with all this? How does it cope with the messy details of Christ’s own death, for instance, an event so obviously and undeniably real that not a single creedal confession fails to record it as having taken place at a most particular time and place? Indeed, in every reference to this most climactic moment of Christ’s life, when He chooses to take leave of life, it is always “under Pontius Pilate”—again, a perfectly real and historically verifiable figure—that Christ will suffer, die, and be buried. And then, of course, rise triumphant on the third day. Only an imbecile, or a crazed idealogue, would dare to doubt the plain historicity of the fact.

How, then, do they respond? Faced with this pesky little detail at the center of the story? Ah, but these are devilishly clever heretics, for whom even the plainest of facts must never be allowed to get in the way of a narrative steeped in hatred and fantasy. Christ’s Passion and Death? Not a problem. Just substitute Simon of Cyrene at the eleventh hour and—poof!—it all goes away. Nothing untoward has happened. Not a trace of the unseemly will be permitted to spoil the story. And, certainly, no mere mortal will ever be in a position, as it were, to dagger God to death.

So, will the good people of Smyrna buy it? Not if Ignatius has any say in the matter. And he has heaps to say to the Church of Smyrna, the very place, after all, from which the first four of his letters were sent. “You are a wonderful credit to God and real saints,” he tells them. Who, as regards our Blessed Lord, 

are absolutely convinced that on the human side he was actually sprung from David’s line, Son of God according to God’s will and power, actually born of a virgin, baptized by John, that “all righteousness might be fulfilled in him” (Mat 3:15), and actually crucified for us in the flesh, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch. 

In other words, nothing was feigned. In the agony and abandonment of the Cross, the pain and the loss were real. Not only was there no masquerading the misery, no affectation amid the afflictions, but it was all done for us. Here, in two tiny words—pro nobis—which the Church early on inserted into the creed, are contained the deepest reason for hope we have.  

For it was for our sakes that he suffered all this, to save us. And he genuinely suffered, as even he genuinely raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. It’s they who are a sham! Yes, and their fate will fit their fancies—they will be ghosts and apparitions.

Do not be misled by the claims of Docetist theology, Ignatius is saying to the Church in Smyrna, lest you fall headlong into the same heresy. So vast are its tentacles, he adds, that even the cosmos itself is not immune to its evil reach. “Heavenly beings, the splendor of angels, principalities, visible and invisible, if they fail to believe in Christ’s blood, they too are doomed.” In the end, what it all comes down to is, of course, the Holy Eucharist, the scandalous particularity of which will always remain a barrier to the enemies of faith.  

This is precisely why, Ignatius reminds us, they shun the Sacrifice of the Altar. “They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” If only they were, he says, “to pay attention to the prophets and above all to the gospel” for it is only there that “we get a clear picture of the Passion and see that the resurrection has really happened.”    

His final warhead thus launched, there is little more for Ignatius to say. Save only the following theological zinger, which concerns a single phrase never before uttered in the history of Christianity, to wit, the Catholic Church. Long and hallowed usage has turned it into a standard canonical commonplace instantly understood by the faithful everywhere. It appears at the very end of a sentence in which Ignatius, having first urged the faithful “to flee from schism as the source of mischief and to follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father,” concludes as follows: 

Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. 

A fitting end, it would seem, to a perfect letter.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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