This Christmas season I have featured a number of posts on carols as well as Dr Paul Copan‘s theological perspectives from his article ‘The First Christmas: Myths and Realities’. (Previous posts on this article include ‘Compliments of the season to all my readers!’ and ‘Angel imagery in Christmas carols’.)

Copan, a theologian and author, has written several books about Christianity in light of the Bible. Highly recommended, in my opinion, is his book Is God a Moral Monster? It gives an excellent explanation of God’s actions in the Old Testament.

In his first Christmas article (see the section called Docetism in Our Hymnody and Theology), Copan cautions us against potential heresy with regard to Jesus (emphases outside of the bullet points mine):

This line from “Away in a Manger” is quite familiar to us: “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. . . .” This picture presents a Jesus who apparently never cried as an infant—and perhaps that he never soiled his diapers and never made a mess eating as baby. However, we must be careful about overemphasizing Jesus’ deity and underemphasizing his humanity. This is the heresy of “docetism.” (The word docetism is a derived from the Greek dokeō, meaning “(I) appear, seem.” The Christ seemed human but really wasn’t.)

This is a version of Gnosticism, which came to full bloom in the second century AD. It emphasized the following ideas: (a) a secret, saving knowledge (gnōsis) or illumination is available only to a select “enlightened” few; ignorance, not sin, is the ultimate human problem; (b) the body/matter is evil, and the spirit/soul is good—a belief that tended to produce extreme self-denial (asceticism); (c) an eternal dualism exists between a good Being/God and an inferior evil being/god (who created matter); so the creator in Genesis is an inferior intermediary between the ultimate/true God (the Pleroma—“Fullness”) and this world; (d) history is unimportant and insignificant; if Jesus (the Christ) played any part in Gnostic belief systems, he only appeared to be human but was really divine; God couldn’t take on an evil human body or suffer on a cross.

We can commit the same Gnostic error by focusing on Jesus’ divinity and downplaying his humanity. The same applies to Jesus’ temptation. We may say, “Of course Jesus didn’t sin. He was God.” The Scriptures portray Jesus as someone who struggled; it was not a breeze for him to do the will of his Father. He was not play-acting:

  • Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
  • Hebrews 5:8: Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 

So, when you sing “Away in a Manger” this Christmas season, you may want to do what our family does—adjust the words a bit: “The little Lord Jesus *some* crying he makes”!