Already in the apostolic period of the church there were heretics, John calls them “antichrists” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2–3; 2 John 1:7) who taught that Jesus only appeared to be human but that he did not have a true human body. He opened his first epistle by testifying to his sense experience of the Word:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1–4; ESV).
The docetic heresy remains with us and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. I regularly encounter American Christians who have what I have called (see the resources below) a “Star Trek” Christology. They think that Jesus is capable of dematerializing and re-materializing. In other words, they do not think that he is true man and true God. They assume that his humanity has been divinized. They have inherited the old Anabaptist “celestial flesh” Christology.
The influence of docetism shows up in other ways. Earlier this month, Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt discussed the decision of Life Church, a multisite church with a reported 85,000 “members” based in Oklahoma City, to implement a virtual reality (VR) worship service. Those with a VR headset create a digital representation of themselves (an avatar) and, through the VR headset, are given a first-person perspective on the worship service. They watch a video but the illusion is created that they are present in the service even though they are actually, physically at home in their pajamas.
Of course this is perfect for an time in which Covid-anxiety is once once again driving people indoors to isolate from other actual humans. It also fits the tendency to devalue the communion of the saints (see the resources below) and it flows from and reinforces the docetic tendency latent in Modern evangelicalism. This has been coming for some time. In 2009 I wrote,
…A digital link can’t baptize (a “virtual” baptism is gnostic), administer holy communion (ditto), make a hospital call, or bury you. It takes a real, live person in person, to do those things. The ministry cannot be conducted from a distance. Here is yet another opportunity for those in positions of leadership in the mainline churches in Scotland and in the USA to stop and consider one more time what they are doing to the church. An acquaintance once compared his ministry in the mainline to that of the OT prophets. Well, eventually the Lord stopped sending prophets to his rebellious people. Is that the analogy the mainliners really want to follow?
It was true in 2009 and it is true today. Jesus did not save us from a distance. We have learned during Covid fairly definitively via a mass experiment, that distance education cannot substitute for in-person learning. For all the wonder of the digital revolution (in which the HB participates—you are likely reading this on a digital device) virtual reality is not reality. It is an approximation of it but it is not substitute. God the Son became incarnate, of the Virgin Mary. He was in her womb. He was surrounded by amniotic fluid. He had an umbilical cord. He was hungry (Matt 4;2), tired (John 4:6), and he bled (John 19:34).
Evangelical megachurches have been itching to do this for a long time. In 2010 the HB ran a story calling attention to plans by a megachurch to use holographic preachers for their multi-site campuses. VR “worship” is just the next step.
It is one thing to play VR video games but the Christian life is no game. The preaching of the gospel is joyfully serious business because it is the means (medium) through which God the Spirit calls his elect to new life and true faith (Rom 10:14–17). God the Spirit is free to work as, when, and where he will but we are obligated to God’s revealed will (Deut 29:29). The means of grace (preaching, sacraments, and prayer) by which he nourishes our faith week by week are real and received, by divine ordination, in person and not virtually. We hear the gospel with our ears as the sound comes from the minister’s mouth creating sound waves that actually strike our eardrums and we receive the Lord’s Supper “from the hand of the minister” (Heidelberg 75). It is all intentionally earthy, proximate, and gloriously inefficient. God the Son might have hovered over the earth and spoken from heaven but he did not. He came to be with us and so we ought, as much as possible, to be with each other.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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Lifechurch is the same church/company behind the Youversion Bible app the number one (by far bible app on phones across the world.
Dr. Clark: What is your advice for those of us who are of such an age and have underlying health conditions such that in-person church attendance during this Covid plague could easily result in death if we would contract Covid?
You should consult with your physician and act accordingly. Since the beginning of Covid I have been long defending the liberty of Christians to abstain from public worship when it is necessary.
Re dematerializing and re-materializing – how does the long-standing idea of pre-birth appearances of the Lord Jesus as a man in the Old Testament, which I think may have been held by Calvin (?), fit in with this? DayOne publications issued a book about these occurrences, I think. Is this because eternity might be outside of, and of a different nature to, time?
Good question. There are two parts to the answer.
1. Before the incarnation, to state the obvious, God the Son was not incarnate. He didn’t have a body to materialize and de-materialize and it is what Jesus allegedly did with his body that is in question here.
2. Before the incarnation, e.g., under the types and shadows of the Old Testament, God the Son did manifest himself. It is almost certain that it was God the Son who came in the “spirit of the Day” (Gen 3:8), i.e., who came in judgment. God the Son manifested himself as the “Angel of Yahweh” (e.g., Gen 16:10). Jude, speaking anachronistically to be perfectly clear, says that Jesus led the Israelites out of Egypt (Jude 5). Paul says, “and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). Again, Paul was speaking anachronistically. They’re both saying that God the Son was personally present with the church under the types and shadows. Many of the ancient fathers and the Reformed theologians explain these passages and others by what the Lutherans labeled the “extra Calvinisticum.” The “Calvinistic beyond,” i.e., that God the Son was operating in redemptive history (and in general providence) before the incarnation and after. The “beyond” refers specifically to the operation of the Son after the incarnation.
God the Son did manifest himself visibly before the incarnation but he did not become incarnate under the types and shadows. He only became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. He remains incarnate now, in his true glorified humanity. That glorified humanity is consubstantial with ours. We don’t materialize and dematerialize. Our bodies can only be in one place at one tine. That’s true for Jesus’ body too.
When Jesus walked on water, assuming for the sake of discussion that something changed, which changed: his body, which is like ours in every respect sin excepted (Heb 2:17; 4:15), or the water on which he walked? The water of course! What do we care if God the Son changed the water? We don’t. We do care very much, however, if his humanity isn’t consubstantial (of the same substance) as ours.
This is why the Reformed churches condemned the doctrine of Christ’s so-called “Celestial flesh” taught by the early Anabaptists. In Belgic Confession 18 we confess: