The most significant error among populist evangelical Christians, one heard in almost any adult SS class or Bible study, is docetism. Never put quite that way, belief by many is that Jesus’ humanity is not quite what it seems. In fact, in unguarded moments, many will say something like “Jesus only seemed to be human.” The next study in B. Quash and M. Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe is about Docetism, the view that Jesus only seemed to be human. (“Docetism” comes from the Greek word that means “seemed” or “was only deemed to be.”
One way of provoking this question is to ask if Jesus could have sinned when he was tempted. Another is to ask if Jesus made mistakes in mathematics as he learned his maths.
John Sweet, who wrote this chp, contends that if it was hard for those in Judaism to embrace the deity of Christ, for many Greeks it was hard to embrace the humanity of Christ. Lurking behind all of this is Platonism, the radical distinction between appearance and reality, flesh and spirit, God and human.
“For God to be human, to be mixed up in matter — that was demeaning, disgusting, unthinkable to the Greek mind; and for God to suffer was a contradiction in terms” (25). Therefore, Jesus was really a phantasm (because, being divine, he couldn’t really be human). Or, therefore, Jesus really was human and only at his baptism did the divine Christ-Spirit enter into him and depart from him prior to his crucifixion (adoptionism). But these aren’t the forms of docetism at work today.
Sweet moves to a slightly different form of docetism: was Jesus fully human in his mind? The issue came to a head with Apollinarius of Laodicea. He believed, and thinking he was fully orthodox, that Jesus’ mind was the divine Logos. “He was quite clear that Jesus did not have a human mind, did not learn and develop morally, could not have been humanly ignorant” (27; in spite of Mark 13:32: “about that day, no one knows … not even the Son”).
Sweet finds an analogy to docetism in how many read the Bible, favoring only specific books etc: it’s a scriptural docetism. Will it be John or will it be Mark or will it both? Further, he suggests we honor Jesus’ parents — both Mary and Joseph. And to the Old Testament.
Most importantly, Sweet suggests we begin elevating our understanding of “humanity” — Eikons of God is my expression. He suggests we begin to think of God and humans in verbs instead of nouns and to think in terms of relationships. (He says we need more Eastern thought in the West.)
And have a “negative capability”: a willingness to admit to mystery in this.
The humanity of Jesus matters in how you see yourself (Jesus is our brother), how you see others (Jesus is everyone’s brother), and how we see our relationship to God (as Son, we are connected to God through his relationship).