Theological Docetism and the Postmodern Turn

One of my pastors (that guy listed as an author on this blog, you can guess which one right?) is doing a Sunday School class this year entitled “Foundations of Systematic Theology”. This morning he dealt with the two natures of Christ in one Person. He began with a brief survey of early errors in Christology regarding this subject. One of them, Docetism, stuck with me today as I thought about facts and appearances. What do I mean?

Docetism is the belief that Christ was divine, but only appeared human. We discussed in the class why this view is problematic. If Jesus only appeared human, then he didn’t really suffer on the cross. If he only appeared human, then he couldn’t be our represententative as the second Adam, couldn’t have experienced (and resisted) temptation in our stead, couldn’t have bled and died in our place.

I started thinking of a postmodern form of Docetism. What would that be, you might ask? The belief that the Bible only appears to record historical events and persons (i.e. Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, the extermination of the Canaanites, etc.) but in reality contains a boat load of myth and metaphor. Is there a historical narrative in Scripture you can’t stomach? Simple. It’s a myth. Maybe the early chapters of Genesis got you down? Easy. Metaphor.

It’s all in the appearances anyway, isn’t it?

Except that the Christian faith is based on actual historical events that are all tied together and cannot be separated. Consider 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defends the resurrection on historical grounds, tracing sin all the way back to Adam. Verse 13 and following, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” Vs. 17, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” Seems like this historical event is important in the apostle’s view, doesn’t it? Vs. 21-22, “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”

But, wait a minute (says the postmodern mind), Adam is a myth. A figurehead meant to illustrate a theological point. Hmmm. How can I assert a historical Jesus now?

Not sure. I’d like to know that myself.

Have an answer? Chime in…

C.M. Granger


22 thoughts on “Theological Docetism and the Postmodern Turn

  1. Pingback: Theological Docetism and the Postmodern Turn | The Breadline

  2. That’s an interesting way of framing the subject…I’m not sure if your “opponents” would want to adopt the word “appearances though. It probably wouldn’t contribute much to a faithful description of their position.

    I tend to think that inerrancy is closer to docetism, being that, even though inerrantists affirm the humanity of scripture with their mouths, they deny it in practice, allowing the deity of scripture to so supercede the human element that the human element becomes practically irrelevent.

    The human Jesus grew in wisdom, which I believe insinuates that he didn’t know everything and that he likely even made mistakes. So hey, isn’t what’s good enough for Jesus good enough for the bible?

    Is the bible “more” the word of God than Jesus?

  3. Hi Brian,

    What word would my “opponents” then adopt?

    I’m happy to utilize the correct terminology.

    Why do you assume humanity = “the possibility of error” when referring to the humanity of Scripture?

    Since Jesus grew from boyhood to manhood, being truly human, I would expect him to grow in wisdom. However, since he is also truly divine, I don’t see why this must insinuate that he made mistakes. Perhaps there is a mystery in the Incarnation that you are failing to account for? Could it not be that Jesus accepted certain human limitations with regard to knowledge without being prone to error?

    Taking the Bible as a whole, the conclusion that Jesus “made mistakes” is untenable. Since Jesus quoted Scripture as authoritative at every point, as “unbreakable”, and made authoritative deductions from the OT, and said that God’s word is truth (Jn. 17:17), certainly what’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for the Bible.

    You asked:

    “Is the bible “more” the word of God than Jesus?”

    The Bible is the word of God written, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. There are errors in neither.

  4. “Appearance” is a poor word choice because your “opponents” do not believe that it is self-evident, within the bible itself, that its authors were intending to present literal, historical facts in a post-enlightenment, scientific sense.

    The bible only “appears” to present literal, historical and/or scientific facts to persons who have been indoctrinated by or within certain traditions (traditions which so often refuse to engage with serious biblical scholarship in any meaningful way) which presume that the authors of the scriptures were intending to present literal, historical and/or scientific facts when, in fact, they were not.

    Your “opponents” would argue that if students of the bible would pay closer attention to the literary genre of each individual book of the bible, and also if they would attempt to cease from reading their post-enlightenment conceptions of the nature of things such as history, science and truth back into the text of scripture, then they would begin to see that the biblical authors did not intend to recount literal, historical, scientific facts through their writings.

    At least, not in any way that would typically satisfy the modern, enlightened mind.

    • Hi Brian,

      Is it self-evident when an author is recording historical events that he intended to present literal, historical facts, whether post-Enlightenment or not? Is there any historical facts recorded in 1,2 Kings, Chronicles, Samuel? How about the Pentateuch? How would I know? It seems rather short-sighted of God to inscripturate such texts when He also intended to communicate with people outside of pre-Enlightenment, pre-scientific times, doesn’t it? Apparently the average Christian is unable to really understand the text because he or she just isn’t familiar enough with “biblical scholarship”.

      Any true student of the Bible takes into account the literary genre of each individual book of the canon of Scripture. Conservative, reformed, evangelical scholars certainly do. They are also aware of Pre-enlightenment conceptions of history, science and truth. Vanhoozer is, so is Silva and Beale, just to name a few. Can their scholarship be disregarded because you think they have been “indoctrinated by or within a tradition”? That would be convenient, but it wouldn’t further your argument or engage the issues.

      But, back to your point about what is self-evident in the Bible. How do you assert that the biblical authors did not intend to recount literal, historical, scientific facts through their writings? How is this “self-evident”? If it’s “self-evident”, why is such a position held by relatively few Christians?

  5. Brian,

    In the post I ask how someone adhering to postmodernism can assert a historical Jesus. You have not engaged that question.

    In postmodernism, there is no truth, only truth claims. Do you agree with this statement?

  6. I’ll try to answer your earlier comment later…time permitting; but I felt the need to start with your final question.

    It needs to be said first and foremost that postmodernists DO NOT believe that there is “no truth”. This is a horrendous caricature; a strawman continuously touted about by conservative Evangelicals that blatently reveals their profound ignorance with reference to the subject.

    Everytime that I hear this sort of rubbish, I am forced to wonder how it is that such intellegent people can, after all of this time, continue to persist in their arrogantly bold proclamations of this gross misrepresentation of postmodern philosophy. After a while, one is forced to question the sincerity of their motives.

    So no, I do not agree with your final statement, nor would any other postmodern thinker. It is not at all inconsistant to be a postmodernist and to believe in a historical Jesus. It will be difficult for you to even have a conversation with any Christian postmodern thinker if you continue to presume otherwise.

    • Hi Brian,

      I got that statement, word for word, from a former lesbian activist and English professor who taught postmodernism at a popular university. Apparently, she did not understand her own position based upon your comments.

      • To clarify, this might have been her position, but apparently she did not understand postmodernism all that well.

        She has taken one type of postmodernism to its extreme. I’m sure that there are people who take her position, but in reality, she is in the minority. Actually, I agree with you that this extreme position is nonsensical, and that no one can live within this worldview with any sort of consistency.

        Perhaps given the opportunity, she might like to fine tune or further flesh out her position.

      • Let me add this as well…

        This definition, or something like it, usually appears within conservative Evangelicalism as a means whereby its leaders might discredit those Christians who happen to believe that the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment is a valuable asset to for the Christian faith; most specifically those associated with the so-called Emergent movement. I am sure that you recognize this to be true.

        However, I am certain that those who are actually a part of that movement would not assent to this definition as an accurate representation of their own beliefs.

        My point is that even if there are those on the fringe who would accept this radical position as a faithful representation of their own beliefs, Emergent Christians, those whose beliefs this definition is supposed to define according to the conservative leadership, do not believe it.

        I am just saying that you should stop assuming that I (or people in the emergent movement, progressive Christians, liberals or whatever) do not believe that there is such thing as truth. I do. We do. It should be obvious from the fact that we use terms like love, justice, godliness, etc. I do not believe that you can even speak of these things if you do not in some sense believe in the existance of truth.

      • I think that she is simply bringing postmodernism to its logical conclusion. Since she was an unbeliever, she had no qualms with the nonexistence of truth. However, believers do not so easily have that option available.

        I know you believe there is such a thing as truth. You have said so. I just don’t understand how, when you hypothetically arrive at it, you can assert and proclaim it. You have no ground to do so, for you have dug it off from under yourself.

  7. I suppose that I will work from the bottom up…

    I do not believe that my position is self-evident within the scriptures. I am hoping to hold myself to the same standard that I hold you to. I personally do not believe that any position is self-evident.

    I have concluded from reading your post that you do believe that your position is self-evident, which is why I brought that up. In order for your hypothesis with regard to docetism to work, you had to presume that your position is “the obvious” truth. Clearly, you believe that anyone who disagrees with inerrancy must be, for one reason or another, denying the obvious.

    I wanted to say that your position is not so obvious as you presume, but I was in no way insinuating that my position is any more obvious.

    I suppose that I should answer another point that you made in your comment at this time. In summary, I do not believe in the perspicuity of scripture. Normal, everyday persons with no exposure to the bible will and do have a terribly difficult time understanding the scriptures apart from the assistance of teachers, and they tend in the end, for the most part, to read the scriptures in ways that are in accordance with and acceptable to the traditions that they are most familiar with.

    The fact that there are so many denominations with drastically different views of scripture, and also so many opposing viewpoints within those denominations, serves to illustrate the point adequately. While you would probably raise pneumatological and harmartiological issues at this point (which I do believe are appropriate) they are not the only hermeneutic features that need to be considered. In other words, you cannot simply brush off alternative reading as “spiritual blindness”, “the consequences of sin”, “God’s judgment”, or worse yet, “God’s will”.

    This leads me to the final point I want to make in this comment. I believe that it is misleading to say that “relatively few Christians” hold to positions similar to the one that I am espousing. Actually, I find it to be circular (I can hear John Frame’s arguments regarding circularity brewing in your mind as you read this) and ultimately nonsensical.

    Is it not true that you are at the very least highly skeptical of the reality of the professions of faith that are made by persons who reject the doctrine of inerrancy and who are themselves skeptical of the veracity of the claim made by conservative Evangelical that every single miraculous event that is recorded in the bible actually occurred in a literal fashion?

    If so, you have already excluded most if not all professing Christians who do not believe as you do with reference to this subject from your definition of Christianity, which is what enables you to conclude that “relatively few Christians” hold to positions like mine. Therefore, it is impossible for anything less than an extreme minority (if that) of Christians, as you define them, to hold to positions similar to mine.

    So then, to answer your question on your terms, so many “Christians” do not hold to positions like mine because if they did, they probably wouldn’t be “Christians” at all. Do you see the problem here?

    In reality though, it is probably much more likely that amongst professing Christians, inerrancy is the minority position. However, as you well know, just because a position is in the minority, it does not necessarily mean that it is false.

    Regardless which of us has the more “biblical” definition of Christianity, I find this question to be largely irrelevant. Even worse, those who buy into the idea that something is likely more true if the majority believes in it could potentially be misled. I certainly do not want that.

    • Brian,

      I could (I think) fairly summarize your above comments in this way:

      1) Nothing in Scripture is self-evident
      2) Scripture cannot be understood by the common person
      3) “Christian” is a term difficult to define, or should be defined so broadly as to almost be meaningless

      You believe this is the clearest, most profound declaration of the postmodern Christian faith?

      I’m afraid I don’t see the substance in this. Nor do I see the hope of the gospel in it, nor the consolation of God’s people.

      • I do not believe that I have offered up the clearest most profound declaration of the postmodern Christian faith.

        I can understand why you would not find consolation in what I have said. It is probably because you equate epistemological certainty with salvation.

        I do not.

        For those of us who have begun to recognize that epistemological certainty is an illusion, what I am saying can offer great comfort.

        We take comfort in the fact that salvation is not dependent upon our own mental capabilities.

      • I do not equate epistemological certainty with salvation. That would be a radical assertion, to say the least.

        Salvation is not dependent upon our own mental capabilities either. Such statements are caricatures. Mental ascent to a certain catalogue of propositional truths saves no one. Salvation is bound up in a Person.

        I don’t find consolation in what you said because it makes God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture a garbled and confusing collection of personal theological agendas. It makes it a locked book, more troubling than useful.

  8. Okay…last comment on this thread for me.

    To your main question (finally).

    Let me begin by saying that I am persuaded that the main reason for which the authors of the OT books that you site wrote their works was in order that they might present a theology; not so that they might record or recount literal, historical or scientific facts.

    That said, I also believe that theses authors were, from time to time, recording actual historical events from their own personal perspective. I have added “personal perspective” to the previous sentence because I am of the mind that it is important to note that the authors’ recounting of historical events were always subservient to their individual theological agendas, their own cultural and temporal embededness, and additionally their personal subjective experience of those events.

    These things unquestionably would have impacted their understanding of and ultimately their recounting of those events.

    A premodern worldview was much different than our post-enlightenment perspective. They were much more comfortable with the use of myth and story as means for the communication of truth. They saw angels and demons, and miraculous events on a “regular” basis; and this extends far beyond the Judeo-Christian religious culture. My point?

    Perhaps many miraculous events really did in some sense “occur” in ancient times, and perhaps they did not. I doubt that either position can be varified conclusively. The best thing that we can do is attempt to utilize the gifts that God has given us (even though these gifts themselves have their limits) to determine which, if any, of those events did actually occur (i.e the scriptures, tradition, science, archeology, literary analysis, reason, personal and communal experience, etc.).

    We should recognize that although our concusions might sound “reasonable”, “reasonable” is not the equivilent of “true”, and in fact, many worldviews that appear to be “reasonable”, in the end, prove to be tragic. We are all limited, biased, sinful and fallible.

    Ultimately, as I have been insinuating from the beginning of this comment, we do not, can not and will not ever have direct access to those events which inspired the Judeo-Christian tradition, and thus we may never know for certain what occured (scientifically defined) in history. All that we have access to are the transmitted scriptures in their final form, and the theologies that they present.

    Whether or not someone believes that particluar biblical events literally occured is of little significance to me, because it was not the reason for which the authors wrote. They wanted to communicate truths about God, truths about how human beings are to relate to God, and how human beings are to relate to one another and to the rest of creation; and they did so in ways that they and their contemporaries would understand (from God’s point of view, we would call this condescension).

    If believing that the events recorded in the bible literally occured spurs people on to godliness, by all means, believe it! If others do not believe that many or all of the miraculous events litteraly happened, that is fine too, as long as they are still, by God’s grace, able to find inspiration within God’s glorious creation to pursue godliness.

    My biggest problem with inerrantists is their arrogant tendency to exclude anyone and everyone from their definition of Christianity who refuses to mindlessly accept their largely uninformed assertions concerning the ontology of scripture.

    Hear me out though, if Christians want to believe in inerrancy, I have no problem with that. I actually have great respect for the Vanhoozers, the Beales and the Silvas of Evangelicalism (even though I disagree with their conclusions) because they are at least attempting to wrestle with critical biblical scholarship as honestly as they can.

    Nevertheless, that does not mean that both they and I need not acknowledge our own relationships to specific church traditions that have tremendously influenced, either positively or negatively, our own interpretations of scripture.

    My use of the term “indoctrination” was not meant to be undersood as a blanket disregarding of all people who are persuaded that inerrancy is a sound way of understanding the scriptures. I was more directly aiming that word at all of those people who believe that inerrancy is “the obvious” or self-evident way to understand the scriptures. Assumptions such as these are what I find truly reprehensible.

    And lets be honest, the Vanhoozers, Beales and Silvas are clearly in the extreme minority within conservative Evangelicalism; those who believe that the bible is inerrant. In fact, most conservative Evangelicals probably do not even know who they are (let alone subscribe to their versions of inerrancy) and if they did know who they were, they would probably look at them with great suspicion, being that at least one of them (but I think at least two?) consider “heretics” like NT Wright and Karl Barth to be repudible and orthodox Christian scholars.

    I have said way too much, but maybe all of this will be of some use to you or to someone else.

    • Brian,

      If the Bible is simply a collection of personal theological agendas which cannot really be understood (except maybe by the academic or seminarian), woe unto the sinner and the people of God.

      You said:

      “Ultimately, as I have been insinuating from the beginning of this comment, we do not, can not and will not ever have direct access to those events which inspired the Judeo-Christian tradition, and thus we may never know for certain what occured (scientifically defined) in history. All that we have access to are the transmitted scriptures in their final form, and the theologies that they present.”

      How does this comport with your assertion that there is such a thing as truth? You admit that it exists on the one hand, but on the other you seem to deny that we can ever truly know it.

      The really strange thing is that you make many assertions which, were they true, could only be true if they are grounded in Scripture. You mention godliness, but what of it? You mention arrogance, what about it? Why should I care about the personal theological agendas of pre-modern men? Can you tell me why? You continue to argue for your position all the while undermining where you’re trying to stand. Can you explain how in the end everything you assert and argue for is not a vain exercise in polemics?

      But then, you can disregard such criticisms by attributing them to my “foundationalism”.

      My brother, my sincere prayer for you is that you may grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and that God will bless you as you seek to know and serve Him. I appreciate the discussion and the cordial interaction.

      Best to you in 2013,


  9. I have a little bit of free time on my hands, so I figured I’d take one more crack at all of this before I call it quits.

    Why is it inconsistant for me to, on the one hand, believe in the reality of truth, and on the other, to lack 100% confidence in my own (or any human being’s) ability to comprehend truth with absolute certainty?

    Why do you (appear to) assume that the search for truth is a futile pursuit if human beings can not comprehend it with absolute certainty?

    Is it because you equate absolute certainty concerning truth with salvation? If so, “woe unto the sinner and the people of God”.

    Is it wrong for me to attempt to live my life in accordance with my convictions regarding truth, and at the same time have the humility to recognize that there is a real possiblity that I could be wrong?

    Why would it be wrong, knowing that we human beings are sinful, biased and fallible, to hear all facets of God’s revelation, both special and general, in conversation with one another?

    Couldn’t this possibly protect us against our own sinful tendencies to call untruth truth, and from perverting God’s gifts into instruments of injustice, oppression and immorality?

    Is it possible for God to communicate truth through sinful, biased, fallible people like you or I? If so, why would it be impossible for God to do the same thing in the bible?

    I think that you are confusing my critiques against the epistemological underpinnings of the inerrancy position with a critique of truth in general; perhaps because you are unconsciously equating truth with your own interpretation of the scriptures?

    By the way, your sincere prayer is mine as well. Grace and peace and I’m out for now.

    • Jesus admonished his disciples for their unbelief. How could he do so if they did not have the ability to comprehend truth with some level of certainty? That does not mean 100% *absolute* certainty, but certainty at a high level.

      It is inconsistent for you to believe in the reality of truth when you do not believe you can *truly* know it. The apostles did not stake their lives on the truth about a man named Jesus whom they thought was 70% likely to be the Son of God. They *proclaimed* him, they *heralded* the gospel.

      Would this have been likely if they held to the same epistemological position you hold?

      • One more thing in passing….

        No one knows anything with “absolute” certainty in this life. You take for granted that you can trust your senses and memory, and live your life as if everything you sense is real and everything you remember actually happened. When, in reality, you may only be a brain in a vat in a laboratory somewhere, with sense and memory information being fed to you electronically. However, I doubt this possibility crosses your mind when you leave the house to pick up pizza for dinner.

        In other words, “absolute” certainty is not a requirement to discern whether something is in accordance with truth or not. There is a difference between acknowledging our own fallibility with regard to understanding the truth, and denying that anyone can truly know it. Jesus spoke of weak faith, as well as strong faith. A believer may be confused about many areas of theology, he or she may struggle with understanding the concepts of the Trinity, the nature of Christ as God and man, etc. He may have many doubts in light of those difficulties, and yet commit them to God acknowledging that the source of the difficulty lies with his failure to understand rather than the truth itself.

        As far as I can tell, in the final analysis, your position makes all of theology a matter of the individual’s opinion. No one is right, and no one is wrong either. What “gospel” does one preach in light of this? And why should the sinner listen to it? Even if you boil it down to its’ most basic elements, repentance from sin and faith in Christ, how do you know that? You could be wrong.

Chime in...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s