Christology and Pastoring

     I was once invited to speak to some seminary students on the subject of how the view on the construct of man affects the expression of daily spirituality.  I explained to the class that holding a trichotomous view of “body-soul-spirit” versus a dichotomous “corporeal and non-corporeal” position would result in radically different life pursuits.[1] Such effort is one of my many endeavors in the past few years to bridge the gap between systematic theology and Christian spirituality.  I realized the significance of this task when I began to understand my theology is what I truly believe and that belief system will continuously drive me to live my life in certain ways.

     A recent article written by Dr. Jim Sawyer, titled “Faxed from Heaven?” inspired me to reflect on the subject matter of Christology and how it might impact the pastoral style of the minister.  In this article, Sawyer discusses the “dual authorship” of the Holy Scriptures.  While we believe that God inspired the scriptures, we have a hard time accepting that He did this through a historical process.  This emotional tension is evident in our view of Christ.  Using a character from the infamous The Da Vinci Code, Sawyer makes the following argument.

Sir Leigh Teabing, the intellectual gadfly in The Da Vinci Code takes great delight in saying that the Bible was not “faxed from heaven” but was the work of men, as if this in some sense discredited the inspiration and authority of the Scripture and brought Christianity down to a merely human invention. The common perception is all or nothing—Scripture is human or divine. Jesus is God or Man. If we cannot know with absolute certainty we can know nothing at all. All of these dichotomies are patently false.

While we on some level acknowledge that God got his hands dirty (so to speak) by entering into the historical process via the incarnation, on another level, a deeply emotional level, we do not quite believe this to be true. Jesus was after all God. He could not really have lived life like us. One of my college professors denied that Jesus ever felt the pull of sexual temptation. We have trouble really believing that Jesus was so human that he had to urinate and defecate like we do. It is so earthy, so dirty. It is not spiritual.[2]

     Sawyer cuts to the core of a common heresy that exists within the church.  This heresy does not occur at the level of the head but of the heart.  In other words, while most Christians would endorse the Nicene Creed, they do not really want to believe Jesus is truly man, therefore bringing back the old argument of Docetism.   

From the Bible

     The view that Jesus had not really been human came most prominently from the Gnostics in the second century; however, the apostles obviously had to counter the influx of this notion as early as the end of the first century.  First John begins by saying the apostles “have looked at” and their hands “have touched” the Word of life indicates that Docetism already had adversely influenced the church.  The Apostle John emphatically warns the church of the anti-Christ in this epistle and he does not shy away from proclaiming from the beginning that he is writing this letter so that his readers may have fellowship with the believers (1 John 1:3-4).  (The implication could very well be that beliefs that fall under the warning of this letter will lead them away from the fellowship with the church.)  John points out the anti-Christ fails to acknowledge two characteristics of Jesus—his identity as Christ (2:22) and his nature as man (4:1-3).  Apparently, the church had no problem acknowledging the first, but the latter issue eventually became the highly debated subject in the second century.

From History 

     Contrary to our contemporary world, early Christians believed that theology is important.  They came to understand that Docetism would turn Jesus’ life to some kind of a trick or illusion.  If Jesus only seemed to have suffered on the cross, then ultimately salvation could become an illusion.  After all, Jesus assumed the image of man to atone our sins through substitution.  The corollary understanding dictates that a Jesus without a human body could not cleanse the sins of man.  Likewise, Apollinarianism that says Jesus came in a human body but divine mind did not win approval from the church because of the similar reason.  Gregory of Nazianzus, the Cappadocian, says:  “For what he has not assumed he has not healed…”   In essence, early Christians saw the significance of Christology because salvation was at risk.  We have a very different context in today’s world.  Arguably, most Christians in the twenty-first century do not really care how salvation works out as long as they follow the formula—believe in Jesus and you shall be saved.  Although this notion sounds much simplistic compared to the historical course ploughed by the early church, I must admit it makes practical sense.  Ultimately, nobody knows exactly how salvation works out in the divine sense.  On the other hand, the Bible does not give us a complicated salvific message but a simple one:  That whoever believes in the Son of God shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  In this sense, the responsibility of man is to put his trust in God and believe.  The rest is up to the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  However, this does not mean the ignored doctrine will stay on the bookshelf and collect dust.  Its relevance often comes in ways that we least expect—beginning from our pastors.

From Spirituality

     As I mentioned above, the heresy of Docetism (or even Apollarianism) exists in the church largely at the emotional level rather than the intellectual.  In other words, while we know the right doctrine that Jesus is both God and man, we have trouble really believing that Jesus had to live within all the human limitations we experience every single day.  This emotional tension is understandable.  Many of us are looking for a hero larger than life.  We feel bounded by our own limitations.  We wish to be holy but we often fail in our most secretive moments.  We long to step out in faith but we are held back by our worries.  We aspire to accomplish great things for God and mankind but we are reminded by our being ordinary.  Then, one day we heard the good news of born again in Christ, that the old self is gone and we are summoned to become Christ-like.[3]  Although we heard the teaching that says Jesus is both God and man, what really attracted us to go forward is that he is God, not man.  Unfortunately, what occurs at the emotional level is expressed in our daily lives.  It is as real as having a cyst in the spleen or a bacterial growth in our nasopharyngeal tract.  And, when you are a pastor who is in ministry, your emotional tension will become an obstacle to what you do. 

     Imagine trying to become like Jesus, the blessed lamb on the great white throne, loving God and man with all your spirit, soul, mind, and strength.  Many pastors burned out from modeling to the congregation as the perfect husband, father, and Christian.  They prayed.  They studied the Word.  They prayed more.  They studied more.  After all, they were trying to bring people to Jesus.  What better way than to model for them what it was like?  Unfortunately, they did not realize that they might have a great flaw in their understanding of Jesus.  This Jesus, whom they were trying to copy, is totally free of human struggle and never inconvenienced by human limitations.  His divine will overcomes the temptation in the desert and his heavenly wisdom always guides him to answer the Pharisees.  His hunger and grief are only described to remind us that the Son of God had flesh and blood.  In the mind of an “emotional docetist”[4], Jesus was really a spiritual “Terminator”[5]—human on the outside, non-human on the inside.  The pastor who wants to model after this Jesus of deity without humanity would find himself keeps falling short of the ideal figure.  Internally, shame and guilt will dominate his incentive for ministry; externally, his congregation will find him a fake.  To maintain a balance in this tension, the pastor would need to distant himself from his sheep and assume a position to stay on top of the pedestal.  Sadly, the result comes from a godly intention without a godly calling.  We are summoned to copy a historical figure, not an imaginary one.  From the perspectives of theology and spirituality, I would conclude with this:

     The matter of Docetism or Apollarianism exists today mainly as an emotional tension within the church.  However, the Christian who has not resolved this tension does not know what he really believes.

     In reality, God calls us to follow Jesus in our full awareness of our limitations and fallenness.  Every time we hit our boundaries, we are reminded to run to Jesus and ask for his salvific grace.  As a pastor, I believe we should model this running to the Son of God rather than perfection.  Our congregation knows we are not perfect.  They do not always know what running to God looks like. 

[1] For more detailed discussion on this subject, please read my article titled Theology and Ministry:  Trichotommy & sacred-secular segregation posted on June 8, 2008.


[3] Although the actual sequence of events is likely to be different, the idea is still valid.  Most believers came to accept Christ before they learned the doctrine of regeneration and sanctification—if they ever did. 

[4] Realistically, the form of Docetism that I am describing in this article is better termed Apollarianism in its classical definition. 

[5] For those who do not go to movies, “Terminator” is a futuristic character in a sci-fi thriller played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The character has an exterior human appearance but a robotic interior.  The comparison used here is not completely accurate but my purpose is to trigger a “visual effect” in the mind of the reader.  

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