Sunday, November 04, 2007

The First Liberal Theology: Docetism

"The blood of Christ was still fresh in Judaea when His body was said to be a phantasm"
Ignatius of Antioch
I used to think that "Liberals" were out to destroy or deliberately pervert Christianity. I have learned, to the contrary, that they are in fact trying to save it by making its beliefs and doctrines more amicable to the Spirit of the Age (I have my own views about whether that is desirable or even possible). The first liberals in that regards were docetists. They had to confront the problem of how could a great teacher sent from heaven and now enthroned in heaven possibly suffer (let alone exist) in human form. For instance consider this quote from Ovid (Fasti 3.701f):
I was about to neglect those daggers that pierced
Our leader, when Vesta spoke from her pure hearth:
Don’t hesitate to recall them: he was my priest,
And those sacrilegious hands sought me with their blades.
I snatched him away, and left a naked semblance:
What died by the steel, was Caesar’s shadow.’
Raised to the heavens he found Jupiter’s halls,
And his is the temple in the mighty Forum.
But all the daring criminals who in defiance
Of the gods, defiled the high priest’s head,
Have fallen in merited death. Philippi is witness,
And those whose scattered bones whiten its earth.
This work, this duty, was Augustus’ first task,
Avenging his father by the just use of arms.
This is about the apotheosis of Julius Caesar who became a god and was taken away by Vesta just before his attackers set upon him, leaving only a vague naked image or a shadow to be murdured by his assassin's daggers. What else would the gods do for one who was so great and now set among them?
You can understand then the context in which docetism emerged. It was out of a desire to venerate Jesus and to accentuate his greatness in terms that were readily acceptable to persons in the Graeco-Roman world. It witnesses to the acculturation of christology.


J. R. Daniel Kirk said...

I'd take issue with the idea that docetism is the first liberal theology. I think that honor goes to the Torah-free mission to the Gentiles.

Blame Peter if you're an Acts guy; blame Paul if you're not, but the idea that you don't have to be circumcised to be part of the people of God was an astonishing rejection of the conservative theology of the circumcision party.

J. R. Daniel Kirk said...

Of course, whether or not that fits the idea of making the message "more amicable to the spirit of the age" probably depends on whether you're asking Paul (me genoito!) or the circumcision party (of course!). said...

And the prophet's idea that you didn't have to sacrifice animals to be cleansed came before that, for the people of God.
The Petrine idea about accepting
Gentiles and the Pauline idea about circumcision not being necessary for Gentiles came later, as the edited text shows.

James F. McGrath said...

I don't find this analogy particularly helpful or accurate. Liberal theology isn't about making Christianity amicable to the spirit of the age. It may, as a rule, be more aware of the fact that all theology reflects the culture and time it is expressed in, and thus be willing to jettison things that seem like they were simply cultural baggage of an earlier age or prior cultural context. That approach can certainly be questioned (Bultmann famously did so). But to suggest that the Docetists were the Liberal theologians because they were trying to make Christian amicable to the spirit of the age doesn't seem to reflect what was actually going on. Surely there were conservative Jewish Christians making the Gospel amicable to their context, without being liberals. The Docetists were some who gave priority to some philosophical assumptions about the nature of divinity and suffering, but I am not certain how many if any did so in a self-aware manner, as opposed to merely interepreting the Christian teachings through the lens of their own perspective - as we all do.