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

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