Docetism, Justin Martyr, and the Logos Afire

As I read Olson and English’s Pocket History of Theology for my Constructive Theology course at ABSW, I find myself drawn to the heresies and theological struggles of the early church. Some I find more palatable than others. Below is my No and then my Yes to the ideas I found expressed in the extremely rapid but serviceable overview that the Pocket History provides of the early church fathers and heretics’ theologies.

NO – “In Gnostic teachings, Christ became an immaterial spiritual messenger sent down from the unknown and unknowable God to rescue and bring home the stray sparks of his own being that had become trapped in material bodies.” (p.10) I can appreciate that the Gnostics were struggling to reconcile their understanding of divinity as expressed by Greek philosophy (divine logic as the True God behind all creation) and Jesus Christ, but their rejection of all things earthly pushes them too far out. There are many people pushing back and forth here, the Gnostics, the Apologists are simply the most obvious.

I find myself objecting to Gnosticism or at least Docetism on a fundamental level. There was no seeming to the incarnation of Christ. The full humanity of Jesus is incredibly important to me. If Jesus merely seemed to be human, than there is nothing worth striving for myself, because at least according to Docetic thought, my fleshly body renders me hopelessly trapped in corruption. But it is in Jesus the human, fully incarnate of Jesus the Logos of God, that I find my way to glimpsing the divine. I cannot wrap my head around the infinite, but by embracing finitude – by being fully human – Jesus allows me to view God, and perhaps comprehend some small part of endless love, unceasing compassion, and unending mercy. If that was a mere seeming – than there is no understanding to be gleaned in the life and works of Christ – they are as incomprehensible as the infinite night sky.

YES – “Justin was one of the first Christians to explain the Logos and Spirit concept in relation to [God] using the analogy of fire. The Son’s (Logos’s) generation from [God] in no way diminishes [God] because, like fire kindled from fire, ‘that from which many may be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.’” (pp. 15-16) Justin Martyr writes this in rejection of Gnostic ideals, and as an apology (explanation) to non-Christians of Christian theology – specifically to explain the incarnation of the Logos – a direct reference to the opening of John’s Gospel. While neither the Gospel, nor Martyr’s theology are explicitly Trinitarian, they are a step on the way to Trinitarianism.

For me this strikes quite close to home, as Justin’s focus on this mirrors some revelation I had of my own. The second sermon I had to preach in seminary was to a non-Trinitarian church on the opening to John’s Gospel. I focused on the idea of fire, not just as the Logos (or divine logic) but also drawing in the parallel frequently found in mystical faith traditions of envisioning the divine as Love and that love as fire. Just as the Greek Philosophers viewed the sparks from the divine fire to be that which allows humanity to have the power of reason, mystical traditions across not just Abrahamic, but also Near and Far Eastern religious thought have viewed the sparks of the divine loving God as being that which allows us to love. For the Greek philosopher to exist in a pure state of logic and philosophy was perfection. For the mystic, to exist in a pure state of love for all of creation was (is) perfection. Of course, as humans we will never quite accomplish that – but that renders the striving all the more noble. I hold that the divine fires of logic and love are the twin driving forces which render us capable of creating the Heavenly Realm in the here and now on earth. Together, our heads and our hearts lead us with mercy and forethought to building a better tomorrow for our children.

Perhaps I’m too enamored of my own theological musings, but almost two full years after parsing these ideas to write the sermon then, it still rings true to me now. I wonder what I’ll think 10 years from now, or 20. Hopefully, regardless of my opinion on Logos, fire, and Docetism, I will still be striving for a better understanding of the infinite God, unending love, and unceasing mercy, using the incarnation of Jesus as guide post and inspiration to help me as I strive to help build that Heavenly Realm in the here and now.

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