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Church Fathers: St. Ignatius of Antioch

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 06, 2014

Tradition has it that the church at Antioch was founded by St. Peter himself, who served as its bishop for seven years before moving on to found the church at Rome. (Robert Spencer writes that “Gregory III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, has joked that if the Apostle Peter had just stayed put, he himself would be the earthly head of the Catholic Church today.”)

Only decades later, during the reign of Trajan (98-117), another bishop of Antioch would also make the journey to Rome. This was St. Ignatius, who had succeeded St. Evodius as Antioch’s third bishop. Sometime around 107 or 110, by order of Trajan, ten soldiers brought Ignatius to Rome, where he was exposed to wild beasts.

The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch

There were multiple stops on the journey to Rome. At Smyrna, Ignatius met with the bishop there, St. Polycarp, and with representatives of several Christian communities of Asia Minor. He gave those representatives letters to bring to Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles. Also sent from Smyrna was his letter to the Church in Rome, in which he reflected at length on his impending martyrdom.

Later, stopping at Troas, Ignatius sent letters to Philadelphia and Smyrna, as well as a personal letter to Polycarp. There seems to have been a persecution in Antioch which ended during Ignatius’s journey, for in the letters from Troas, he asked the recipients to send envoys to congratulate and rejoice with the Christians in Antioch.

These seven Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch are rich in theological and mystical content, and are significant for their consistent depiction of a monarchical episcopate. Their authenticity is attested by Eusebius, who lists them in the above order and describes the content of each, and by Origen and St. Irenaeus, who quote from them. St. Polycarp, the recipient of the seventh letter, mentions them in his own letter to the Philippians:

The Epistles of Ignatius which were sent to us by him, and others which we had by us, we send you as requested. They are enclosed herewith. You will be able to benefit greatly from them. For they are conducive to faith and patience and to every kind of edification pertaining to our Lord. [Quoted in Quasten, Patrology, Vol. I, 1950, p. 73]

Ignatius’s writing is passionate and energetic. The letters to the Romans and to Polycarp contain particularly striking imagery and fresh modes of expression. In addition, we find here the first appearance of the term “Catholic church,” meaning the whole body of the faithful (Smyrn. 8).

Mysticism and evangelization

According to Quasten, the mysticism of St. Ignatius draws from both St. Paul’s mysticism of union with Christ and St. John’s mysticism of life in Christ, leading to Ignatius’s ideal of “imitation of Christ” [Quasten, p. 70]. Imitation of Christ involves a transformation as much as an abandonment of the earthly way of life:

They that are carnal cannot do those things which are spiritual, nor they that are spiritual the things which are carnal; even as faith cannot do the works of unbelief, nor the unbelief the works of faith. But even those things which ye do according to the flesh are spiritual; for ye do all things in Jesus Christ. (Eph. 8)

If we do all things in Christ, it is because Christ does all things in us. Ignatius emphasizes Christ’s immanence in the soul, describing Christians as “God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers” (Eph. 9). In all his letters, in fact, he introduces himself as “Ignatius, also called Theophorus [God-bearer].”

Christians bring others to Christ by prayer, love and good example. We ought to “pray without ceasing” for others, for there is always hope that they might repent. Teaching by example and love is paramount:

See, then, that they be instructed by your works, if in no other way. Be ye meek in response to their wrath, humble in opposition to their boasting, [etc.]… While we take care not to imitate their conduct, let us be found their brethren in all true kindness. (Eph. 10)

Actions are preferable to words, and the efficacy of the latter depends on the former:

It is better for a man to be silent and be a Christian, than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts…. He who possesses the word of Jesus, is truly able to hear even His very silence, that he may be perfect, and may both act as he speaks, and be recognized by his silence. (Eph. 15)

Indeed, faith is more than just a verbal profession. Faith cannot be separated from love: “Those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognized by their conduct. For there is not now a demand for mere profession, but that a man be found continuing in the power of faith to the end” (Eph. 14).

Martyrdom

We are called to imitate Christ not just in His virtue but in His passion and death. For Ignatius, willingness to die for Christ is requisite for discipleship. Indeed, he frequently calls himself one who is “now but being initiated into discipleship” (Eph. 3), by means of his captivity and imminent death.

He considers himself inferior to those to whom he is writing, because he is a convict and cannot speak to them as though he were an Apostle. He calls his own church in Syria that “from which also I am not worthy to receive my appellation, being the last of them” (Trall. 13), which is all the more striking given that one of the major themes of his letters is the dignity of the episcopate and the importance of submission to and unity with the bishop. He refers to his own need for humility, and begs his addressees to pray that he may be found worthy of martyrdom.

For all his apprehension because of his own unworthiness, Ignatius shows great eagerness for martyrdom. He considers his bonds to be “spiritual jewels” (Eph. 11), and begs the Romans not to try to rescue him: “Suffer me to obtain pure light: once arrived there, I shall be a man” (Rom. 6).

One of the most famous passages of Ignatius describes in vivid terms the spiritual consummation of martyrdom:

I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. (Rom. 4)

Christian unity and the episcopate

The most pervasive theme in all of Ignatius’s letters is Christian unity. Union with Christ is not just a personal (in the sense of private and individual) matter, rather it is “the bond which encircles all Christians.” This union cannot exist without unity with one’s bishop “through faith, obedience and particularly through participation in divine worship” [Quasten, p. 73]. There can be no independence in the spiritual life; rather, there is only one union with Christ in which all Christians participate, in community and liturgy.

Ignatius constantly exhorts his addressees to respect their bishop. He urges them to “defer to him, or, rather, not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all men” (Magn. 3). This comparison of the bishop with God the Father is found throughout the Epistles. Christians are to follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, to follow the presbyters as though they were the Apostles, and to honor the deacons (Eph. 6, Trall. 3, Magn. 6-7, and elsewhere). “Apart from these, there is no Church” (Trall. 3).

The exhortation to “run together in accordance with the will of your bishop” (Eph. 4) indicates in a general sense the importance of respect and obedience towards ecclesiastical authority. But Ignatius seems to have the liturgy particularly in mind, since it is in common worship that unity with Christ, under the bishop and with the whole community, is expressed and effected. He writes:

Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself.… Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Eph. 5)

The bishop is high priest of the liturgy, and in practical terms, this means that baptism, the agape meal and the Eucharist may not be held without authorization of the bishop, which renders such things “valid” (Smyrn. 8). Those who wish to get married must also have the bishop’s approval, so that “their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust” (Poly. 5).

The Docetist heresy

Even in this early stage of Christianity, there was already a need for bishops to protect the faithful from false doctrine. In his letter to St. Polycarp, Ignatius exhorts the bishop of Smyrna to perseverance and watchfulness in protecting his flock from heresy, and prudence in preserving unity: “Every kind of wound is not healed with the same plaster” (Poly. 2).

Ignatius attacks the heresy of Docetism, which denied Christ’s humanity and said that “he only seemed to suffer” (Trall. 10-11, Smyrn. 2 and 7). Docetists also abstained from the Eucharist because they did not believe it was the flesh of Christ (Smyrn. 7).

In combating Docetism, Ignatius sets forth a clear Christology and doctrine of the Eucharist. Christ is both fully divine and fully human, and truly suffered and died (Smyrn. 1-2):  “There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Eph. 7).

As for the Eucharist, it is “the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death, and everlasting life in Jesus Christ” (Eph. 20). The following passage cannot be mistaken to say anything but that the Eucharist is literally the flesh of Jesus:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. (Smyrn. 7, cf. Phil. 4)

In Eph. 5, Trall. 7 and Phil. 4, the Church is called the “altar,” which can also be translated as “the place of sacrifice,” meaning that the Eucharist is the sacrifice of the Church [Quasten, p. 66].

"Presiding in love"

Finally, the salutation in the letter to Rome is highly significant. It is much longer and loftier than the greetings found in the other letters; it is clear that Ignatius accords the Roman Church more respect than the others:

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Mast High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the report of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God.

Quasten calls this “the earliest avowal of the Primacy of Rome that we possess from the pen of a non-Roman ecclesiastic” (p. 68).

The phrase “presiding in love” has attracted much scholarly attention. It could simply mean that the Roman Church was the most charitable of all churches, but the word “preside” is used twice in the same sentence, the first time with a clear connotation of ecclesiastical authority (“Which also presides in the chief place of the Roman territory”).  This Greek idiom appears only once elsewhere in Ignatius (Magn. 6), where it explicitly refers to the authority of bishops, priests and deacons.

There are more intriguing phrases along these lines elsewhere in the letter: “You have envied no one; but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force” (Rom. 3). “Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria which now, in place of me, has God for its shepherd. Jesus Christ, along with your love, shall be its only bishop” (Rom. 8).

Sources

Collections of Ignatius’s epistles have come down to us in three basic forms, called recensions. The collection containing only the seven authentic letters listed by Eusebius is called the short recension. In the fourth or fifth century, a forger, possibly a follower of the Apollinarist heresy, added six spurious letters and also added spurious passages to the original seven, creating what we call the long recension. Finally, there is the mixed recension, which we have in Greek and Latin, containing the seven letters in what seems to be their original form along with the six spurious letters. There is also an Armenian version of the mixed recension, translated from the original Syriac.

The first version of any of Ignatius’s writings to become known was the long recension, which was printed in Latin and Greek in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively. The authenticity of this collection was doubted, but in the seventeenth century, the primitive Greek texts of the original seven letters were discovered and published. Because the letters so clearly show a hierarchical Church and a monarchical episcopate, Protestants argued that they could not be genuine, but in the nineteenth century prominent non-Catholic scholars such as Zahn, Harnack and Lightfoot demonstrated their authenticity. Also in the nineteenth century, three of the letters were discovered in Syriac – the “Syriac abridgement” of the short recension.


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Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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