February 2, 2008

Apparently Docetic

In my post of last week I was having a bit of fun when I wrote, "Their teachings aren't really docetic; they just appear to be." But lo and behold through my letterbox today slid the latest issue of The Living Church, with an article by the Reverend Hugh C. Edsall on the foundations of the faith. For a foundational article, it gets off to a shaky start. The first paragraph reads:

Any presentation of elements of the faith needs to begin with two urgent questions: does God exist? Is Jesus Christ God in human nature? If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then the existence of churches and the practice of the Christian religion is in vain. (Emphasis mine.)

The article closes with this assertion:

We further believe that Jesus Christ is precisely who he said he is — God in human form.

Of course, the orthodox teaching is that the divine and human natures are united without confusion in the one person Jesus Christ, and that Jesus was not simply God in human form, but truly God and truly human, Son of God and equally and fully Son of Mary. I certainly don't accuse the author of either confounding the natures or of docetism; any more than I would accuse Gerard Moultrie of doing more than "deriving without his poetic license" on account of his adaptation of an eastern Orthodox liturgy into "Lord of lords in human vesture..." I imagine we are dealing here with slips of the tongue; and that, in both cases the slips are amenable to correction, and the bulk of Fr. Edsall's article attests to his essential orthodoxy, centered, I am happy to say, on the Resurrection. I look forward to the next installments.

However, all of this does go to show that when doing theological writing one can't be too careful, and sticking to the language of the Creeds is the safest course of all! And, saints preserve us, I know I've stumbled into the unintentional theological thicket myself from time to time. Which is one reason blogs have comments...

Tobias Haller BSG

For an interesting discussion of "heresy" in the hymnal from last year, as well as my suggested amendment to Hymn 324 visit Creedal Christian's blog.


WSJM said...

Tobias --

An interesting observation about how we phrase christological statements in an orthodox way. As it happens, Fr. Edsall's article in the current Living Church was lying open on my desk just now as I read your post, so I went back and read it. I agree that he clearly means to be orthodox but there are a few phrases, as you point out, that are a little shaky. In your interesting discussion with Bryan last fall on Creedal Christian you mentioned some expressions reflected for example in Hymn 324.2 (Moultrie's translation of the Liturgy of St. James) or Hymn 87.2 (C. Wesley). Whether these expressions verge toward docetism or toward monophysitism (a very common heresy these days among the "orthodox"!), they do seem problematic. Another area where the same issue crops up, it seems to me, is the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Behind the various degrees of "fundamentalism" or "literalism" may there not lie an interpretation of God's revelation through human language that is monophysitic or even docetic? If we believe, in accordance with the Definition of Chalcedon, that the one person Jesus Christ is truly and fully human as well as truly and fully God, and that this is how God purposely chose to reveal God's self, then should this not also guide our understanding of the Scriptures? Jesus is not just God in a people costume, and the Bible is not just a transcription of divine dictation.

Fr. Edsall also puzzles me a little in what he says about the resurrection -- but that's another posting for another time!

Bill Moorhead

Anonymous said...

i believe it is quite orthodox to describe the Incarnation as the Son's clothing himself with flesh...

that's what the hymn you quote is saying.

it's a quite far cry, of course, from the incautious words "God in human nature" which says something different, and surely seems problematic to me.

but it sounds problematic to me not so much as docetic, but as monophysitic.

Unknown said...

While I'm all for caution in our theological language, I would, however, warn against being TOO picky in applying dogmatic exactitude to the language of liturgy. Yes, liturgy is theology, indeed our primary theology, but it also calls for more expansive, poetic use of language (something often forgotten over the course of liturgical revision).

Besides, to use the example of "human vesture" in "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," one does find this kind of language quite a bit in the patristic sources. What's key, however, is that it is not the only language that's used for the Incarnation but rather emphasizes part of the mystery. e.g. Syriac literature often speaks of Christ being "robed" in human flesh but also giving us through baptism his "robe of glory."

Another example is the use of "memorial" to describe the Eucharist, even within the liturgy itself. Even if this is the primary emphasis in a certain prayer, does that necessarily mean that it advocates a memorialist theory of eucharistic presence? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on the context.)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Tobias+ and all--

"Lord of Lords in human vesture" is certainly heretical (though, like you, I would make some allowances for a pious poet whose overall intention seems orthodox enough), as is Fr. Edsall's remark about "God in human form."

The heresy involved, however, is not Docetism but, rather, Nestorianism. Docetism is the claim that God the Son merely appeared to be human. Moultrie's hymn (and I think Edsall's comment) aren't denying the reality of the human nature; rather, they are denying the reality of the union between the human nature and the divine nature, by saying that the human from was united to the divine only (in the technical sense of the word) "accidentally"--that is, the divine nature was just somehow there inside the human nature, like, well, like someone wearing a suit of clothes.

In fact, the image of someone wearing clothes is a standard one in discussing the union of natures. Peter Lombard uses it in the Four Books of the Sentences (iii.D.vi), and Aquinas cites that passage from the Sentences in his discussion of Nestorianism in the Summa (at III.q2.a6 in the "I answer that" section). As Thomas says, to say that God the Son puts on human nature like clothing is no better than saying God the Son inhabits the human nature as if dwelling in a Temple (which Nestorius himself apparently said).

This is a passage that's particularly interesting in looking at the development of Thomas's thought, as (if I recall correctly) he himself misunderstood the doctrine when he wrote his own early commentary on the Sentences, saying then that the "like putting on clothing" image was an orthodox one.

The careful reader will note that I have avoided trying to give brief explanation of the orthodox teaching (the Doctrine of the Hypostatic Union) in the space of this posting...though, as it happens, I did once preach about it in a sermon for the Feast of the Presentation.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Well said, Tobias. And thanks for the link. I still think your suggested amendment to Hymn 324 is a good one.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for all the comments. I continue to remain troubled by imagery of "clothing" for the incarnation, as it suggests Christ only appears to be human, or is only human on the outside. (Hence the suggestion of a docetic incarnation.) My concern, and my reason for linking it to the general category of docetic thinking, is that it seems to reduce the human to its formal appearance, rather than its substantial substance -- like a suit of clothes that is simply inhabited. For true Nestorianism I think one is dealing more with a fully divine person somehow living inside a fully human person -- which is more than mere vesture; and then Monophysitism essentially annihilates one of the natures. In any case, as I say, I don't think we are dealing with heresy here at all, but rather with what the professional inquisitors might call "unguarded language..."

Fr Moorhead raises an interesting point: do we really mean that the Bible "is God" when we call it the "Word of God" -- that is, do we mean the same thing as when we apply that phrase to the Second Person of the Trinity? I think the contrast in the opening of the Letter to Hebrews supports a less radical understanding of Scripture -- the difference between the word of God spoken through the prophets as opposed to the Word spoken in and through the Son. It is the latter that delivers the presence of God "exactly."

Malcolm+ said...

Given that our minds our finite whereas the reality of God is infinite, it is inevitable that the things we say are going to be imperfect in capturing the essence of God.

That is not, of course, an excuse to get sloppy about theological language.

But it is a good reason not to become McCarthyist in trying to hunt for heresy in what are intended to be poetical or reflective writings.

One of the more strident "reasserters" has posted a YouTube piece slamming your Presiding Bishop because she once said in a sermon that the ressurection "was a metaphor for" something else. Therefore, this theological thought policeman has concluded she does not believe in the resurrection. Thus she's a heretic, an apostate, a false leader etc., etc.

Those of us who are called upon to communicate the gospel in words, if we make those words comprehensible to the many, will inevitably be imperfect in our expression and will be less precise than the theologian writing for a very sophisticated audience.

Anonymous said...

Hi, all--

For what it's worth, I think the Docetists are still basically thinking like pagans--Jesus is human only in the way that, say, Venus is human when she appears to Aeneas in the guise of a hunting girl (but he guesses it's his mother, and when she turns to walk away, "her footstep reveals the true goddess"). There's no humanity there at all, really, just an appearance--a hologram, a direct impression on the senses, whatever science fiction equivalent one likes. For the sake of the mythological narrative, the avatar (so to speak) can do whatever is necessary, but it's all just illusion, accomplished by the power of the god: or of God, in the case of the Docetic Christ. In terms of our "clothing metaphor," the Docetic Christ isn't really wearing human nature, he just appears to be doing so.

The Nestorian Christ, on the other hand, has a real mind and an actual physical body, a human person (using "person" in a loose sense for the moment). But his divinity is not so closely tied to that humanity as to allow us to predicate of the divinity the unbecoming events of human life. Jesus spoke of the temple of his body, and for the Nestorian, God the Son in fact dwells in the human nature as God was present in the Temple, so that if we point to the Temple we are also necessarily pointing to God, but things that happen to the Temple do not affect God. It's with this in mind that St. Thomas classifies the clothing metaphor as Nestorian: the clothing (the humanity) is real, but the divinity is not essentially connected to it. What happens to my suit does not affect me any more than what happens to the Temple affects God.

The pre-Nestorian fathers who talk about clothing should (IMHO) get something of a free pass, since the language hadn't yet been problematized.

The orthodox answer is that in Jesus Christ humanity and divinity are united in such a way that there is no individual human act of being (no hypostasis) associated with the human nature; rather, God the Son is that individual act of being, so that if we ask "Who is living this human life?" the answer is "God the Son." (That is, the hypostasis of the human nature in Jesus Christ is God the Son.) Thus, contrary to the Nestorians, whatever happens to the human nature happens to God the Son, just as much as we would say that what happens to the human nature of Thomas Aquinas happens to the individual act of being that makes human nature the specific person Thomas.

All that being said, getting back to Tobias's+ newer question, "Word" is not used (it seems to me) in the same sense in saying "God the Son is the eternal Word" and "the Bible is the Word of God." Word in the first sense means "rational power, plan, Wisdom"; word in the second means "statement, message, communication," as communicated by the prophets or in the teaching of Jesus. The Incarnation of the Son reveals God to us, but the Son in himself simply is the Word in the first sense, eternally, and before there is any creation to which revelation could be made.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Carthusian Martyr,
Thanks for the further reflection. I suppose the reason I remain troubled by the "apparently docetic" language is the hint of gnosticism that seems to reduce the human person merely to a suit of clothes. I wonder, in the case of Moultrie and other who used that language (Wesley -- "veiled in flesh the Godhead see..." -- clearly with orthodox intent if not form (I suppose this may be orthodoxy robed in the language of heresy?) may be more reflecting the body/soul dualism that became more prevalent in the humanist and Enlightenment eras.

As to Word and Word -- sadly, some among the conservative party do appear to take this form of bibliolatry rather literally. The paper on hermeneutics to which I contributed was assailed by one Dr. Robert Sanders as "modalist" on the basis of our claims that the Scripture contained passages that differed in form and content, operating in different ways in different times, and he explicitly called me a docetist for even suggesting that the Scripture was not an incarnation of God, but rather that God speaks through it. So, sadly, there do seem to be a few folks around who think the Bible is much more than an "oracle of God" but is somehow actually and essentially divine itself.

Greg Jones said...

I just happen to be reading De Incartione by Athanasius and he allows the following:

"He was both born and appeared as Man, and died, and rose again, dulling and casting into the shade the works of all former men by His own..."

"The Word disguised Himself by appearing in a body, that He might, as Man, transfer men to Himself, and centre their senses on Himself, and, men seeing Him thenceforth as Man, persuade them by the works He did that He is not Man only, but also God, and the Word and Wisdom of the true God."

"He was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was He absent elsewhere; nor while He moved the body, was the universe left void of His working and Providence; but, thing most marvellous, Word as He was, so far from being contained by anything, He rahter contained all things Himself..."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Fr Jones for the good word from Athanasius. This is the kind of nuance that is needed when approaching such a great mystery, and in part why "vestiture" language falls short when it is left on its own. I particualarly like "born and appeared" -- that is, the "visible" part of the incarnation is not to be separated from the invisible aspect (that is, the incarnation is complete at the level of being as well as appearing).

I get a little uncomfortable with "disguise" language, however, as it seems to imply a kind of pretense rather than actuality. (I'm not so troubled by the application of this imagery to the poor and persecuted, in whom we encounter Christ "in distressing disguise").

Anonymous said...


I was working on my Julian book today and ran, once again, upon these words of hers:

"...for at that same time that God knitted Him to our body in the Maiden's womb, He assumed our fleshly soul. In taking this fleshly soul, He, having enclosed us all in Himself, one-ed our fleshly soul to our essence. In this one-ing He was complete humanity, for Christ, having knit unto Himself all men who shall be saved, is Perfect Man." (Chap. 57)

Not only is this anti-docetic, but there is a wonderful mystical dimension here in which Julian sees Jesus's incarnational union of the divine and human as also a virtual re-uniting within Himself of our own human "essence" (which "dwells in God" - i.e., in the mind of God) with our own "fleshly soul" -- in other words, she suggests that mystically, Christ's hypostatic union ALSO effected a true "hypostatic" re-union of our own human disparate parts.

I don't mean to push this too far in systematic theology, but I think it is a beautiful mystical insight.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Fr. J-J. As you know, I love Julian of Norwich, and the "intimacy" of her vision of the Incarnation is, imho, much more hopeful and helpful than the language of robing or vestiture. The sense in which Christ did not only become "a man" but "the man" -- the new Adam in whom all humanity is organically bound, as we were in the Old Adam who fell -- this seems to me to be a much more powerful grasp and embodiment (in every sense) of the force of the Incarnation. Thanks for the quote.

WSJM said...

Far be it from me to nitpick Father Jones, much less St. Athanasius (oh, hell, let's be honest, I'll nitpick anybody!), but I do think we have to admit that Athanasius veers a little more closely than comfortable to Apollinarianism (the idea that in the incarnation the Logos replaced the human soul when uniting with the human body of Jesus). I don't think Athanasius goes that far, but in any case Apollinarius (who I think was a friend of Athanasius) had not yet been condemned, and so Athanasius may have been a bit incautious by later standards. Chalcedon clarified this: "at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body...."

Part of the problem, I think, is that it may not have been obvious in the fourth century to Christian Platonists (who tended toward dualism) that human nature includes soul as well as body. (We Aristotelians are always eager to take a shot at the Platonists!) Yay for Pope St. Leo, who thought in Latin!

Re-reading Fr. Edsall's article (Fr. Edsall, I apologize for adding you to my nitpick list!) I continue to be puzzled by the statement: "Jesus did not need the resurrection. He could have returned to the Father directly from the cross....The resurrection was for our benefit, not his, to prove that he is who he said, and that his promises are true." Certainly one dimension of the resurrection is God's vindication of the ministry and teaching of Jesus as the proclamation and implementation of the Kingdom. But a Jesus who returned to the Father directly from the cross without a resurrection sounds a lot like a docetic Jesus -- an immortal soul, perhaps, but not a raised body. The resurrection was not just a theological demonstration but the firstfruits of the exaltation of humankind to the throne of God.

(Okay, time to go be quiet and write a couple of sermons....)

Bill Moorhead

Unknown said...

Ooh, John-Julian,

I love that image of knitting. The picture I get in my mind is of knitting one garment with two different types of yarn, say, e.g. red and blue.

"perfect in red and perfect in blue, the same truly red and truly blue . . . in two yarns without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between yarns was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two yarns was preserved as they came together in one garment . . . and one hypostasis."

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

I realize that this thread is now stone-cold dead, but Bishop N. T. Wright, in his new book Surprised By Joy, has a very interesting discussion of "heretical" - or at least questionable - views about death and the afterlife in our hymns (pp. 20-23).

BTW, this book is OUTSTANDING!!! Buy it and read it carefully!