We have thus far examined Ignatius’ understanding of episcopal (“bishop’s”) authority in the First Century Church, and the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon that composes the hierarchy of the Church. We have seen how this view of ecclesial (“church”) power ensures unity and preserves authentic teaching as handed down from the Apostles. According to Ignatius, the Church would cease to exist without this authority vested in the hierarchical structure of the institution. As he wrote to the Ephesians: “Apart from these, there is no Church."
On the theme of Church unity, Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaens concerning the people’s relationship to their bishop: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
This passage from Ignatius marks the first recorded use of the word “catholic” in describing the Church. Interestingly, we know from the Bible (Acts 11:26) that it was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called “Christian.” Now in this letter from Ignatius, a First Century bishop of the same ancient city, we find the Christian Church described for the first time as “catholic” – which means “universal.” Through this word “catholic,” we see that Ignatius’ view of the Church includes more than just a loose collection of individual local congregations lead by independent bishops spread throughout the world. Rather, the local churches are integrated into one single “Body,” and form - to use Ignatius’ term - a “catholic” (“universal”) Church, which encompasses all believers. The Church is a single entity, not a group of independent congregations.
Now we must ask… If, according to Ignatius, we are all members of a larger, “Universal” (Catholic) Church that extends beyond local boundaries, then what is it that brings about the Church’s catholicity? What are some of the common characteristics that bind Christians together in the “universal” faith? What do we believe that makes us “Catholic”?
Certainly, we might point out the common bond with Apostolic Tradition which is traced through the succession of bishops down through the generations. For Ignatius the hierarchy is one component of catholicity. This is a common theme in Ignatius writings. But we might also search further in Ignatius’ letters for a description of some of the specific Catholic beliefs that distinguish the First Century Church.
Ignatius does not give us a point-by-point run down of all the doctrines he held, but he is very specific about certain areas of belief, especially Christian worship. I will give a few points on which Ignatius writes concerning Christian worship:
1) Christians of the First Century accepted the bishop’s authority regarding the proper celebration of authentic worship, which they called “Eucharist.
From Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaens: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.”
The Greek term “eucharistia,” from which we derive the term “Eucharist,” means “thanksgiving.” The blessing and breaking of the bread and the sharing of the common cup, which Christ instituted at the Last Supper, became known as the “eucharistic” feast as early as the First Century. Ignatius, who learned the faith from John the Apostle (himself a companion of Jesus and a witness to the Last Supper), tells us that the Eucharist can be validly celebrated only by a properly ordained bishop or one designated by the bishop (presumably a priest serving under the bishop)
So we can say that one “catholic” belief from the First Century is proper ordination from a bishop (a successor to the Apostles) for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist.
2) The Eucharist unites Christians to Jesus, as it is a Communion in His Body and Blood.
“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” (From Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians)
Today’s Catholic understanding holds that the Eucharist may be celebrated in many locations or over the course of many years, at all times and places, yet in all of this there is but “one Eucharist.” In the Eucharistic celebration, whenever and wherever it is kept, we all gather around the “one altar” and partake in Christ’s one sacrifice. The Catholic Church’s teaching seems to echo that of Ignatius cited above.
Likewise Paul maintains a similar view: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1Corinthians 10:16-17
So, united with the bishop in the Eucharistic feast, Christians who partake in the bread and the cup are united to the sacrifice of Christ and within the one Body of Christ, the Church.
3) The First Century Christians believed that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus and only the heretics reject this teaching.
“They [the heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior 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.” (From the letter to the Philadelphians)
This belief obviously corresponds to the Catholic Church’s belief today that the Body and Blood of Jesus are truly present under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist. It is supported by Biblical passages such as Paul’s warning from 1Corinthians 11:27-29:
“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
Also Jesus own words: “I am the bread of life…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:6:48,54-56)
So the Real Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist is a “catholic” belief taught by Ignatius, a First Century bishop of Antioch.
4) Christians of the First Century worshiped on Sunday rather than the old Jewish Saturday Sabbath.
From the letter to the Magnesians: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. …[T]hose who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death…”
And furthermore: “Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live according to the principles of Christianity…It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God.” (Also from the letter to the Magnesians)
There is not a specific Biblical mandate for the transference of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. However, this is an ancient tradition that grew up within the Church from a very early date and Ignatius bears witness to this fact. The Bible offers some indication of this:
Acts 20:7 “On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread…”
1Corinthians 16:2 “On the first day of the week each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford, so that collections will not be going on when I come…” (Paul obviously knew that Christians gathered on the first day of the week and therefore a general collection would be possible at that time.)
Also important to note, both the Resurrection and the decent of the Holy Spirit happened on a Sunday.
So too, it must be remembered that Ignatius received his training in the faith directly from John the Apostle and from Peter who ordained him as bishop. Ignatius learned from the Apostles themselves how to carry on proper Christian worship. Just as the New Law superseded certain Jewish practices in the Old Testament (kosher dietary requirements, for instance), so too, the Sabbath took on a new meaning for Christians as Sunday became the day of worship.
Thus one of the “Catholic” (“universal”) Christian beliefs of the First Century was that Sunday is the proper day of worship.
In his brief letters to various congregations, Ignatius devoted much time to the issue of Christian unity - the oneness of the “universal” Church. He stressed unity in the authority of the bishops and the hierarchy of the institutional Church, and he sought unity in the authentic celebration of the Eucharist. Indeed, the Body of Christ on earth (the Church) is united to her Head (Christ) by partaking in the Body that is made present in true Christian worship. Thus the “Catholic” Church is gathered around the one altar to share in the one sacrifice.
The Eucharist played a central role in Ignatius’ writings, and also in his own life. Or rather, his death, as this passage from his letter to the Romans reveals:
“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. …[E]ntice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body…Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God].”
Truly no better witness can be found to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and our intimate relationship to Christ’s own sacrifice than Ignatius of Antioch, First Century bishop and martyr.