The So-Called “Celestial Flesh” Christology Is Just Gnosticism

But, according to [the Gnostics], neither was the Word made flesh, nor Christ, nor the Saviour (Soter), who was produced from [the joint contributions of] all [the Æons]. For they will have it, that the Word and Christ never came into this world; that the Saviour, too, never became incarnate, nor suffered, but that He descended like a dove upon the dispensational Jesus; and that, as soon as He had declared the unknown Father, He did again ascend into the Pleroma. Some, however, make the assertion, that this dispensational Jesus did become incarnate, and suffered, whom they represent as having passed through Mary just as water through a tube;1 but others allege him to be the Son of the Demiurge, upon whom the dispensational Jesus descended;

Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 426–27.


1. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists confessed the “celestial flesh” Christology, that Jesus did not take his humanity from the Virgin but that he passed through her. This is virtually identical to the second-century heresy denounced by Irenaeus. Anabaptist historian Christina Moss writes:

Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists. This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed [emphasis added—rsc]


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  1. Dr Clark, I get the impression from your extract from Christina Moss, that the Swiss Anabaptists never held any “celestial flesh” doctrines. Is this, in fact, the case?
    If so, what, apart from rejection of infant baptism, is there in the writings of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, or George Blaurock that you would consider to be contrary to Scripture?

    • So, she claims. I wouldn’t expect that Hubmaier, who was formally trained in theology, would have held it. I need to investigate the others. My impression is that the celestial flesh Christology was fairly widely held among the Anabaptists, including Menno. I’m skeptical that of the claim that it went away in the 17th century. I included the quotation just so readers could see an Anabaptist scholar confirming the existence of the doctrine among some Anabaptists. The Swiss Brethren were problematic for their reading of redemptive, on which their view of baptism was based. They were problematic in re their view of the Christian’s relation to society and the state and most especially for their rejection of the Reformation doctrine of salvation. None of the Anabaptists, until perhaps Menno, affirmed salvation sola gratia, sola fide for fear, in their view, that it would lead to immorality.

      What I found striking about this passage in Irenaeus was how his account of the Gnostic view of Christ was identical to that of the Anabaptists. Further, as I’ve discussed before, this view of Christ is widely held today by American evangelicals. See the essay on the “Star Trek Christology.” The existence of this view, which I have found among students for 25 years suggests to me that the Anabaptist “celestial flesh” view did not die off in the 17th century.

  2. These views are pretty wonky. However, they might also be sincere. Would you assess the holders of these views to be outside the pale based on 1 John 4:1-3? Surely, they must have attempted to reconcile them with this passage.

    • Bruce,

      They were sincerely held. It was one of a number Of serious mistakes these groups made. Yes, they were aware of 1 John etc but they had little little regard for the historic Christian Consensus. Their approach to Scripture was what has come to be known as “Biblicism.” yes, these views are heretical, that is, they are contrary to the Word of God as confessed in the ecumenical creeds. A version of this Christology is widespread in American evangelical Christianity.

  3. Not only anabaptists, but some German spiritualists and mystics hold that theory of the “Celestial flesh”. See, for example, in Valentin Weigel “On the Life of Christ” (1578), Chapter I and oth., you can find 1648 English text on Googlebooks. This theme also was touched in his impressive “Dialogus de Christianismo”(1584). I found Weigel as a very interesting author, full of very deep thoughts, – but he hold a lot of unorthodox ideas, one of them is this “celestial flesh”. Lutherans condemned him as arch-heretic; I didn’t know what Reformed churchmen of that era think about him. If Reformed readers can read his “Dialogus”, it would be very interesting to know, what they can think about this text… “Dialogus” is one of the powerfulest christian texts, which I can read in my life…

    It seems, that this quasi-monophysite quasi-docetist theory also has its impact on the soteriology and ecclesiology: for this kind of thinkers, “true Christians are not from beneath of Adam, but a new creatures from above”; also they didn’t believe in “visible church”, but believe only in “invisible church”. What about Schwenkfeldians? They also hold the same views.

  4. “Celestial flesh” is a very exotic Christology for nowadays. It can be popular in the XVI-XVII ct., – but then even mennonites leave this theory.

    I think, that much more dangerous was another mistake, opposite of this, which even hold some kind of persuasiveness for modern people. I mean ebionitism. For example, they understand the words “I and my Father are one,” only as “a unity or harmony of disposition” between God and Jesus Christ. (Joseph Priestley).

    • Ihor,

      Would that you were correct but my experience as a pastor and teacher has convinced me that that versions of the “celestial flesh” Christology are pervasive among American evangelicals. I first encountered it teaching a course in Christian doctrine at Wheaton College in 1993. In trying to explain the true humanity of Christ I said “Jesus had an umbilical cord” and students gasped. Since then I have come to challenge students by asking them: which changed, the door or Christ’s humanity? Many students are tempted to say that Jesus humanity changed in order for him to enter a locked room, hence my complaint about the “Star Trek” Christology.

      Against The Star Trek Christology

      I’m sure that the error you mention is present but it isn’t the one I’ve seen among students.

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