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The Elemental Forms Of Christological Error Docetism And Ebionitism


We propose to begin the study of the antecedents of monophysitism by
examining those of a Christian or semi-Christian character. For that
purpose it will be necessary to give a brief sketch of the early
heresies in so far as they bear on the Christological problem.

The two primitive forms of doctrinal error, to which the Church, even
in apostolic days, was exposed, were docetism and ebionitism. These
are the elemental heresies. All the later Christological heresies are
refinements of one or other of these two. They constitute the extremes
of Christological thought: between them runs the via media of
orthodoxy. Each of the two sees but one aspect of the two-fold life of
Christ. Docetism lays an exclusive emphasis on His real divinity,
ebionitism on His real humanity. Each mistakes a half truth for a
whole truth.

The docetists denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. His
body, they taught, was an apparition. He ate and drank, but the
physical frame received no sustenance. He appeared to suffer, but felt
no pain. The reality behind the semblance was the divine spirit-being,
who conjured up the illusion in order to elevate the thoughts of
mankind. This docetic theory commended itself to many of the Greek
Christians. They were familiar with the notion of "the gods coming
down to them in the likeness of men." Greek mythology abounds in
instances of docetic incarnations. The gods of the popular religion
constantly assumed visible form during their temporary manifestations.

The ebionites threatened the Faith from the opposite quarter. They
taught that Christ was real man and only man. According to them, the
whole value of His life and work lay in His moral teaching and His
noble example; there is no mystery, no contact of divine and human in
Christ; what He attained, we all may attain. The ebionites were
recruited from the Jewish element in the Church. The rigid monotheism
of the Jews made it hard for them to conceive an intermediary between
God and man; they were naturally disposed to embrace a humanistic
explanation of Christ.

Docetism was elaborated by Valentinus, Manes and other gnostics and
adopted into their systems, while ebionitism provided the basis for the
Christologies of Paul of Samosata, of the Photinians and Adoptionists.
In contact with these heresies orthodox beliefs, originally fluid,
gradually hardened. The dogma "Christus deus et homo" had from the
beginning been held in the Church. Its full implications were not
realised and formulated until the conflict with error came. The
controversies of the third and fourth centuries threw into bold relief
the unity of the person and the perfection of the divinity and of the

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