Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part I

Because of his long life as a Christian (having converted in his youth) and his prominence as bishop of such an important ancient city as Antioch, Ignatius stands out among the early Church Fathers as an important bridge between the Apostles and the generations that followed. His life and leadership span many decades of the Church’s earliest years. Ignatius was born some time in the first half of the First Century and died around the year A. D. 107.

Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John, and was appointed bishop of Antioch by Peter himself. Thus Ignatius was an “Apostolic Father,” having known directly one or more of the Apostles. There are ancient legends (although doubtful at best and thoroughly improvable) which would have Ignatius as the child whom Jesus took into his arms in Mark 9:35. Be that as it may, it is at least certain that Ignatius knew and conversed with the Apostles, and was ordained and installed as bishop by them. His renown as a faithful witness to Apostolic teaching and his steadfast leadership as bishop of Antioch earned him the nickname Theophorus – “bearer of God.”

During a persecution under the emperor Trajan, Christians were ordered to make sacrifices to the gods; but Ignatius valiantly led his church in Antioch in disobedience to this imperial decree. His defiance was made known to the emperor, and Ignatius was arrested in Antioch and brought to Rome to be executed. On his long journey from his home to the capitol of the empire, Ignatius made many stops in towns and villages along the way where Christians lived. Word had spread beforehand of Ignatius’ arrival and many Christians came to greet this famed Christian bishop and student of John the Apostle, to hear him preach and to receive words of encouragement from him as he marched to his death.

During the course of this trip, Ignatius wrote at least seven letters (six to local churches, and one to his friend Polycarp – a fellow student of John). Six other letters have also been attributed to Ignatius (some to churches, others to individuals) but are of uncertain origins. The seven afore mentioned are of sound authenticity and to these we look to continue our study of the Church Fathers. These letters are as follows: one letter each to the churches of Rome, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and one letter to Polycarp.

Because there are a total of seven letters for us to consider, rather than tackle each document individually, we will instead look at broader themes within Ignatius’ writings and isolate certain texts within each letter that support each theme. This will not be an all-inclusive study of every facet of each letter – we are merely looking at a general overview of Ignatius’ doctrine and how his view compares in general to the overall view of the First Century Church. To that end, we will also be looking back to Clement of Rome, whom we have already examined, and try to shape a more complete picture of the early Church.

With that in mind, we will first examine Ignatius’ view of the Roman church and its position in relation to the other churches. For this we turn first, and most obviously, to his Letter to the Romans…

Ignatius opens his letter to the Romans with a greeting, in which he lavishes praises on the church of Rome in no uncertain terms:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, 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.”

These singular remarks are themselves an unmistakable sign of distinction for the Roman church when one considers Ignatius’ own reputation. Such a great man, student of the Apostles, aged bishop of a great and ancient church in Antioch, heaps on praises for the Roman church. He ought to be a good judge of Christian piety and faithfulness, and he seems to have found such in Rome.

But when one compares this Roman greeting to the greetings found in the other letters from Ignatius, the honor bestowed on Rome becomes even more obvious. Such as this written to Magnesia:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the [Church] blessed in the grace of God the Father, in Jesus Christ our Savior, in whom I salute the Church which is at Magnesia, near the M├Žander, and wish it abundance of happiness in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ.”

The other letters to churches carry similar greetings. Thus Ignatius strikes a different tone when addressing Rome than when he addresses the other churches. He is more reserved with them, less apt to praise.

A quick comparison of the bodies of these letters yields further differences. To Rome Ignatius tells of his impending death and pleads with the Romans to allow him his martyrdom and to not interfere in his fate. Not much else is discussed in the text. But to the other churches Ignatius sends instructions on how to live out the faith. He corrects various fallacies and admonishes them to be obedient to their bishops. Nothing of the sort is directed to Rome. He finds no fault with them and even describes them as “purified from every strange taint.” Rome is praised and honored by Ignatius, while the other churches receive strict lessons in the faith.

As an Apostolic Father, Ignatius was well within his authority to reprimand his fellow Christians and pass on what he himself had learned directly from the Apostles. In these letters Ignatius does just that, exactly as Clement had done with the Corinthians as we have already discussed. However, Ignatius withholds such instructions to the Romans. It seems that Rome instructs others (as Clement clearly demonstrated), but not even the highly regarded Ignatius, the “bearer of God,” the student of the Apostles, the leading bishop of the ancient Church, offers so much as a slight criticism to Rome.

This does not prove Roman authority in the sense that Catholics accept it today. But nor does it disprove the Catholic position. And so we begin to see, in Clement’s boldness as Bishop of Rome correcting the Corinthians, coupled with Ignatius’ respect and adulation for the Roman church, a distinct picture of Roman authority in the ancient Christian Church. There is certainly nothing here that contradicts Catholic claims. And there is much here that supports such a position.

Next we will examine Ignatius' view of the hierarchy of the Church, and explore the implications of those findings…


  1. Not to be an English nazi, but in the quote "During a persecution under the emperor Trajan, Christians were ordered to make sacrifices to the gods; but Ignatius valiantly led his church in Antioch in disobedience to this empirical decree." I think you meant to say "imperial" not "empirical".

  2. Also, despite Trajan's persecution of Christians, he has come to be known as one of the "five good" emperors of Rome. There was a medieval legend that said Pope Gregory I, through divine intervention, raised him from the dead and baptized him into the Christian faith. Also, Thomas Aquinas refered to him as an example of a "virtuous pagan".

  3. I appreciate your catch on the spelling error. I must have clicked the wrong word when spell-check offered possible corrections. I tend to type fast and let spell-check do its thing. I know, I need to be less dependent on technology, but I was in a hurry. - I have made the needed correction.

    And on the issue of Trajan...that's some interesting history. I suppose he was a relatively "good" emperor ("empirically" speaking - hee hee ;) )
    Obviously, there are two sides to this... According to some ancient sources Trajan actually met personally with Ignatius and still condemned him to death. That doesn't speak well for him. And in general, of course, it cannot be disputed that Trajan did oversee some persecution of Christians, however light that may have been...and that certainly tarnishes his reputation too. But then you have the great Saint Thomas Aquinas who speaks highly of Trajan and there are these legends of his postmortem conversion.
    It is difficult to sort out some of these legends from the actual facts. But it can at least be said that it was under Trajan's reign that Ignatius died. That is the fact so I tried to limit it to just that.

    (By the way I purposely left out the face-to-face meeting between Trajan and Ignatius, for the same reason I left out any positive comments about him. I didn't want to have to pass judgment either way on the issue.)

  4. By the way, Jim, Thanks for reading.

  5. Well when I say he was a relatively "good" Roman emperor, that is in comparison to some real bastards,so from that point of view good may not all count for that much. Really all I knew about him was his role in the Dacian wars, so I looked him up and found that stuff about Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas. Quite interesting. I'm finding your posts on patristics to be very enlightening so I shall continue reading.

  6. Thanks. I'll try to keep it interesting.

    I don't mind a few shout-outs from the peanut gallery from time to feel free to chime in.

    I just bought a book recently entitled "Church and State in Early Christianity" by Hugo Rahner, which promises to be a good read. It might touch on some of the issues you bring up here about the emperors and early Christianity. I think I'll bump it up on my list of books to read.

  7. Sorry it took me so long to get around to reading this.

    Indeed interesting the way Ignatius greeted the Roman church in contrast to the way he greeted the other churches.

    I look forward to reading the content of some of his letters.