The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch
And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
At some point, in the first two decades of the second century of the Christian era, the bishop of Antioch in Asia Minor was arrested by the authorities. His name was Ignatius. Apparently, he was a man of some importance as he was not immediately put to death in his home city but, instead, was sent to Rome where he expected to be killed in the arena by wild beasts. In the course of his journey he stopped first in Philadelphia (in Phrygia) and then in Smyrna where Polycarp (also later to be martyred) was the Bishop. While there he received visits from the bishops of Ephesus, Tralles and Magnesia, and gave to each a letter to be read to their churches. During this period, he also sent a letter to the church in Rome, alerting them to his coming and enjoining them to do nothing to prevent the martyrdom that awaited him. Traveling on to Troas, he sent letters to the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna, and a final letter to Polycarp himself. We are told by the church historian, Eusebius, that is was reported that Ignatius eventually arrived in Rome and there suffered martyrdom, likely during later years of the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117) or slightly thereafter.
The seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch are short and all seven can easily be read in the course of an hour or two. They provide us with a small snapshot of the first and second generations of Christians that followed the time of the apostles. It is said that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, sat at the feet of the Apostle John to be instructed in the faith. Owing to his reception by other churches and the authority with which he writes, it would seem that Ignatius was also of this immediate post-apostolic generation.
The writing of these letters took place in a time of persecution, yet it was not consistent or empire-wide in its scope or in its ferocity. We might think of it as similar to the persecution of Jews in the last two centuries. Many cities in Europe and America had large Jewish populations that were often integrated into the life of the cities in which they lived. Yet, on occasion, virulent anti-semitic outbreaks took place as in the pogroms of Russia. At other times laws curtailing Jewish life and activities could be found in other countries, including the United States. (The Holocaust in Europe, of course, looked to its final destruction.) This very much mirrors (apart from absolute numbers) the local and regional nature of the persecution of the Church in the first three centuries of its existence. It also helps us to understand how Ignatius could be on his way to be martyred in Rome, guarded by Roman soldiers, but, at the same time, be allowed to stop in various cities and communicate with other Christian leaders. Yet, as Ignatius’ fellow bishop, Polycarp, was to find out, death for the faith could be just around the corner, even when all seemed safe. This was the reality that was lived out by Christians for over three centuries.
So, in light of such a precarious position, how is the Church to conduct itself? Perhaps more to the point, as Ignatius is facing his own death, what are his principal concerns with regard to the Church?
Firstly, it is important to note one very important thing in these letters, the Church is “presupposed”. That is, Ignatius is not trying to “invent” the Church. It is there. It has a structure. It has a life as a worshipping community, with baptism and the eucharist seen as normative. It had all of this… and the first apostles were still within the living memory of many in the Church. Just to make the point, some readers may remember the evangelical youth revival of the late 1960s and 1970s. You may have heard, or even known personally, some of the leaders of the time. Writing in 2017 we are no more distant from them than Ignatius was from the apostles and the first followers of Christ. He is not writing about something that is “new”, he is writing about something that is “known”.
In Ignatius we see the struggle of the early Church with schismatic movements. In his letter to the Philadelphians, for example, he indicates that there are schismatic movements that are growing like “evil plants” (Phil. 3). In writing to the Magnesians, he writes that there is a group which advocates the keeping of the Jewish sabbath (in preference to the “first day of the week”) and yet another offshoot of Docetists who denied or disregarded the physical aspects of Christ’s life, such as his physical birth, death and physical resurrection. Ignatius counters both groups in grounding Christian faith in the physical resurrection which is celebrated each Sunday (Magn. 8, 12). Elsewhere, in opposing a non-physical Christianity, Ignatius makes use of stark realistic language concerning the elements of the Eucharist, calling the bread the “flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins” (Smyrn. 7,1). Equally, however, Ignatius is willing to use symbolic language in reference to the Eucharist when he speaks of Christ’s body being the “bread of God” and “his blood” as “incorruptible love” (Rom. 7,3). In each case, he uses the language suitable for his readers and his message and should not be seen as mutually exclusive.
Above all, however, the message of Ignatius is that of Church unity. Alone, of all the Apostolic Fathers, he sees unity as the ground and being of what it means to be the Church. While he writes very little of individual spirituality, in the course of the seven letters, Ignatius uses the noun form of unity eleven times and the verb form of unity six times. For Ignatius of Antioch, “unity” was the primary mark of the Church – that is, to be one with Christ, to be one with the leadership of the Church and to be one with one another.
Ignatius desired the Church to be one with Christ and to show that spiritual unity in faith and love (Eph. 14, 1) in imitation of the unity of Christ and the Father (Eph. 5, 1; Magn. 7, 1; Smyrn. 3, 3). Mindful of his coming martyrdom and the oft-persecuted Church, Ignatius saw this as yet another opportunity for oneness with Christ as individually and corporately Christians imitated Christ’s passion and suffering in their own (Eph. 8, 2). Moreover, when we celebrate the Eucharist (which is itself the Church’s celebration of the passion of Christ) as we break the one bread together, we receive a “medicine” which creates unity (Eph. 20) among all the members of the Church.
For Ignatius, this unity is exemplified by the leadership of the Church. Earlier Christian writings, including the Pauline epistles, indicated the presence of elders or presbyters or, as in the Didache, bishops and deacons. In Ignatius, for the first time, there appears a three-fold ministry of bishops, presbyters (elder or priests) and deacons. While much ink has been spilled through the centuries on the exact duties of these three orders of leadership, perhaps it is enough to say that at this juncture the bishop is the primary leader who presides over baptisms, the Eucharist and marriages. (This would grow, in time, to oversight of several churches within a region.) All these functions, somewhat in the range of any local congregational leader, belong to the Bishop as the representative of God (Magn. 3,1 and 6, 1) or of Christ (Tral. 2,1; Eph. 6,1). Most importantly, however, the Bishop stands as a sign of unity for the Church – not just the local church – but the Church universal or, as Ignatius says for the first time in a Christian document, the “Church catholic”; i.e. the whole or complete Church. This, of course, carried the responsibility of reflecting the holiness of the union of Christ and the Church in the conduct and practice of the bishop.
Much more could be said about the theology of Ignatius of Antioch, most especially his theology of martyrdom and I encourage you to read the letters for yourself. I hope, however, that this short article will at least give you a taste of the treasures that can be found in these seven short letters written in a time not wholly unlike our own.
We live in an age of fragmentation. Churches and denominations split and split again. We look for absolutes of purity and/or practice. The building of walls and fences, keeping people out and keeping people in, seems to be the model of the age. We custom design our “shibboleths” designed to determine and protect our own brand of “orthodoxy”. Yet, here in the early Church is the longing for unity. A unity not merely of doctrine, but a unity of heart and of spirit. Unity is the sign of the kingdom and of Christ’s Church, although it now seems densely veiled. Yet in spite of all evidence to the contrary, for those of you who will be attending or celebrating the Lord’s Supper this coming Sunday, on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, be mindful… all the Church will be there with you.
Unity happens, whether we like it or not.