What follows is the text of a class from an introductory series of classes on Christology. This class was taught at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS on January 24, 2006.

So, now we actually begin the classes where we’ll talk about Christ. As I said last week, we’ll look at Orthodox Christian Christology by learning about false teachings, or heresies, and how the Church has dealt with these teachings and how She’s proclaimed the Truth. I have about ten (10) various heresies regarding Christ that I’d like us to look at over these next three (3) classes. So what I’d like to do is present each heresy in a similar pattern, and then before moving to the next one we could discuss or ask any questions about the specific heresy we’re discussing. So each night we’ll average, I think, three (3) heresies. And if we don’t do all we’d like to do over the course of these classes, then we can continue with more Christology after Great Lent (during Great Lent our classes will center around The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus).

Two things to mention before we begin—1) you’ll see a lot of similarity between many of the heresies, because most of them are deficient in talking about how Christ was fully God and fully man. So a lot of the issues will be similar, and the responses of the Fathers will be even more similar, usually. But it’s good for us to really explore and learn the subtleties of what Christ revealed for our salvation—and that revelation is in His Person. 2) In our discussions the problems with the heresies and the proper responses will be fairly obvious, usually. So we have to keep in perspective that we’re looking backwards, we have the benefit of the Councils and the Fathers to clearly see the Truth. But when the debates were going on, when the false teachings arose, almost always they came from within the Church, and were propagated by people who sincerely loved Christ and were trying to do good. They weren’t trying to lead people away, although Satan was able to use them to do just that. And in our anathema of heretics, which we’ll hear a good bit about in a month on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in the Church’s anathema She’s not condemning, rather She’s calling the heretics back. Anathema is defined as “formally setting apart; excommunicating.” The Church is clearly defining the boundaries of Truth, and calling for those outside the boundaries to come back in. So heretics are anathema not for their damnation, but for their salvation.

What is it?
Docetism is a tendency in many ancient heresies (we see it in Gnosticism, Marcianism, etc.) that arises, as many heresies do, from an inability to receive what the Tradition and Gospel present as reality. Platonic thought (which originated with Plato but was adapted and modified by other Platonists) viewed the created material world as less than what they called “the spiritual world.” In fact, the created world ultimately for most in this school of thought was bad, evil. Death was viewed as an escape—our spiritual selves are trapped in our material bodies, so death was seen as an escape from the material evil world, and a release into the good spiritual world. [Obviously, this is simplified for the purpose of getting to the point.] Those Christians who struggled with a tendency toward Docetism in their thinking couldn’t understand why God would actually want to become man. They were affected by the Platonic attitude toward material creation. It made no sense for God to trap Himself in what was inherently evil. In fact, in this mode of thinking, God couldn’t become man because flesh was evil and God can’t be a partaker of evil. So Docetists believe that the Incarnation of the Lord was an illusion. That He only appeared to have a human body, but in fact it was not a material body like we have. That His flesh, His sufferings and death, were all an illusion. for the Docetists, God did not become man, but came to earth in the appearance of a man. And then how that plays out—why He came, what is salvation—varies within the different groups that had Docetism as part of their thinking.
Why is it wrong and why is that important?
The first problem is that creation is not evil. From the beginning, in Genesis, God saw the creation and said it was very good. The Fall separates man (and in him, creation) from God, but doesn’t make the creation evil. And we’re not souls trapped in a material body. Man was created psycho-somatic; with both a soul and a body. In the Scriptures, death is a result of sin—it’s not part of the natural order. And in the Resurrection at the Second coming of Christ, our souls are re-united with our bodies for all of eternity. The Christian view of creation and materiality is drastically different from the Platonists. And in trying to merge the two, the heresy of Docetism arose. Once you see that creation is not innately evil, then the other issue for Docetists is no longer a problem. God can take on flesh, because creation is good. And as we’ll see time and time again—our salvation comes through Christ because He healed our humanity by taking it on Himself. If He just appears to be human, but it’s all an illusion, then there is no salvation. So the response to this heresy was soteriological—based on man’s salvation. God healed us by becoming what we are, that’s a fundamental teaching of the Scriptures and the Christian Tradition.
Where do we see it today?
Modern Christian Gnostics and some of the Eastern Christians can hold this belief. I don’t really know of any others who are Docetists today. But we certainly encounter people who think material creation is bad, or less than spiritual existence.
Questions/comments from the class-
-Many Christian groups, in denying the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary), end up with essentially a Docetist outlook. They will say that Christ got nothing from Mary; He passed through her as wind through a straw. What the Holy Spirit placed in her womb at the Annunciation was complete and sealed, and what was born had nothing of her. Contrastingly, the Orthodox Church (and the ancient Christian Tradition) teaches that the blood in the veins of Christ is from Mary. His DNA is from her. He takes humanity from His Holy Mother, like any of us take our humanity from our parents. Fully God and fully man!
-Have you ever asked anyone where the body of Jesus is today? Many people don’t know how to respond; they have never considered where the material body of Christ is right now. Many people assume that after the ascension, the body of Christ just disappears. But it does not. Christ continues to be Incarnate for all of eternity. He ascended into heaven with a human body, and He sits at the right hand of the Father in the Holy Trinity as perfect God and perfect man. Christ took on our full humanity for all of eternity! He still has a glorified human body that is His own by nature, just as His divinity is His by nature.

What is it?
Subordinationism is a tendency in many ancient heresies, in a similar way to Docetism. It’s properly a Trinitarian heresy, but that has a big effect on Christ, and we still see this tendency today. In this frame of thought, Christ (not only the Incarnate Christ, but the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos) is subordinate to the Father. The Logos is divine because the Father lets Him be; the Father shares His divinity with the Logos. So the divinity of the Son of God is not by nature (not His own), but is by the will of the Father. Christ is God because the Father makes Him God. And since Christ is seen to be God only because the Father allows it, He’s placed below the Father, in a subordinate position. This heresy comes from an attempt to understand with human logic and reason the mystery of the Trinity. We don’t understand how Three can be One, and how One Begotten can be equal and co-eternal with the One Who Begot. We can’t understand this mystery, and trying to explain it in a way that we can understand leads to problems.
Why is it wrong and why is that important?
Christ is not subordinate to the Father. The teaching of the Church is that the Holy Trinity is God. One God in Three Persons. All entirely equal. All sharing everything equally, yet still God in Three Persons. This is a mystery that we can’t understand. But the teaching of the entire Christian Tradition—a Tradition that has rejected this idea—is that the Three are equally God. This means that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God by nature. The natural existence of God is Trinity. None of the persons are subordinate, none are God because another allows it. We worship one God in Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is important because 1-it’s the revealed truth. 2-in the Incarnation, the fullness of God became man. And in our salvation we’re offered to share in God’s life by grace. If subordinationism were correct, then what we’re offered in salvation would be equal to Christ (He shares God’s life by grace in this teaching, and we would too). And in a worst-case scenario, the real God (Father) could get mad and make Christ not a God and destroy humanity. The Orthodox teaching is that Christ is God by nature, equal to the Father and the Spirit, and offers us a share in the life of God as God.
Where do we see this today?
We see this tendency all over the place. Many of the places that don’t have an Orthodox Trinitarian theology (which is basically accepting the revelation, and not trying to explain or understand it) wind up putting the Son under the Father. They also mis-interpret the Biblical verses about Christ doing the Father’s will, and that makes Christ a lesser figure than the Father. The Saints have always understood those verses in light of the revelation of the Trinity. (Especially as we see in the opening verses of the Gospel of St. John). One God in Three Persons, Co-eternal, Equal, sharing one Essence, one Will. So what the Father wills, the Son wills, and the Holy Spirit wills. In the verses where Christ speaks of doing the Father’s will, He demonstrates to us that we’re all called to have the will of God as our will (many people listening to Christ heard Him as just a man, and did not understand that He was God Incarnate-so He reveals to them the way they should be). We see this understanding perfectly illustrated in St. Paul—“it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” St. Paul has aligned his will with the will of God.

For further reading in Christology, I highly recommend a book by Archbishop DMITRI (Royster) of the OCA’s Diocese of Dallas and the South–The Doctrine of Christ: A Layman’s Handbook. It is a very accessible book which is thorough, and simply a marvelous presentation of the Christology of the Tradition of the ancient Church.