The Knowledge of Christ

A week or so ago, I sent out one of these short essays -- one dealing with the problems associated with conflicting Christian beliefs about the end of the world. In it I suggested that one way to deal with the confusion regarding the "End Time" was to entertain the possibility that while Jesus accurately predicted the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, not just his followers but even he himself may have been mistaken in his predictions as to when the end of the world would arrive.

This suggestion -- first made by the biblical scholar and later Noble-prize winning missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer back around 1900 -- raised a few eyebrows, to say the least. But the reactions, both then and now, also reveal how deeply one of the earliest heresies to afflict Christianity still affects the belief of many Christians today. That heresy was called "Docetism" (from the Greek word dokeo meaning "to think" -- but in this case mistakenly, thus to "appear" or "seem") because it held that Jesus was God in a form that only seemed or appeared to be human -- as if Jesus was nothing less than almighty God walking around on earth in a suit of human clothes. Later on, after the Council of Nicea (325 AD) had further emphasized Christ's divinity, this same old heretical tendency took a new more sophisticated form technically known as "monophysitism" (from the Greek mono for "single" and physis for "nature"). It held that Jesus was a kind of amalgam of divine and human natures, thus implying, among other things, that everything God knew, Jesus also would have known, and that he could not have really "suffered" in any psychological sense of the word, but only that at most only his body could feel physical pain.

As a result of this situation, the Council of Chalcedon had to be held in the year 451. It is mostly famous for its "one person, two natures" description of Christ, which made it into our catechisms, but unfortunately, not into any of our usually recited creeds. Even more disturbing, the insistence at Chalcedon that these two natures remain permanently conjoined, but "unconfused" or unmixed in the person of Jesus Christ is almost never quoted -- probably because it makes the mystery of who Jesus really was during his life here on earth even more mysterious than it already is.

Whether or not this explanation of the Church's official doctrine makes it any easier to entertain the idea that Jesus might possibly have been mistaken--of course, only "humanly speaking"--about the divine time table for the end of the world, is, of course merely a matter of opinion. It could be, as St. Ephraim the Syrian once suggested, that Jesus was being deliberately ambiguous, just to keep us, so to speak,"on our toes". Or it could be that most early Christians, not being all that familiar with Jewish apocalyptic literature of that time, somehow got it wrong.

But it seems to me that to deny the possibility that Jesus himself, in terms of his human knowledge, could have been uncertain or in the least bit mistaken, amounts to what might be seen as still another revival of this old docetic tendency. And what is perhaps more disturbing, at least to my mind, is that when this tendency affects our thinking this way, it ends up, to a large extent confusing particular beliefs, or the interpretation of these beliefs, with the life of faith. Even worse, it destroys the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jesus, who, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:2) reminds us -- despite the often misleading translations of the phrase -- is "the leader and perfecter of faith".

R W Kropf 12/9/06

Docetism.doc 06-12-09.html