Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part V

One letter remains for us to explore from Ignatius - that which he wrote to his friend Polycarp, a fellow student of John the Apostle and fellow First Century Christian bishop. We will study Polycarp in more detail soon enough, but first we will examine a few lines from Ignatius’ letter to this dear friend.

Ignatius opens his letter with the following words:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: [wishes] abundance of happiness.”

We have seen in other texts from Ignatius great emphasis placed on the authority of the bishop. Ignatius says that Christians are to follow their bishop as they would God. This seems strong language. But in the opening of this letter we have the other side of the story: the bishop is to see God as his own Bishop. Or, put more plainly: the leaders of the Church are answerable to God, just as we are answerable to those same leaders. Thus God is an active participant within the hierarchy of the Church.

Still we must ask, is this comparison of “God” and “Bishop” biblically sound? Is Ignatius perhaps elevating the authority of the bishop to undue heights; or, conversely, is God’s majesty being drawn down to a human level? Can we rightly speak of “God” and “Bishop” in such a relational manner?

The answer is clear. Scripture gives the title of “Bishop” to Christ: “For you were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” (1Peter 2:25)

The word used here to refer to Jesus as “Bishop” of our souls is the Greek word episkopos, which is the same word used elsewhere in the Bible for the office of “overseer” or “bishop” as the highest rank of ordination in the Church. Obviously, the Bible has no problem relating Jesus (the Son of God) to the office of bishop. There is a direct correlation between Jesus’ role as head of the Church and the bishop as head of the local congregation – both are described as episkpos. If the Bible uses this terminology, then we can be certain that God is not diminished by calling Him “Bishop.”

Still it might fairly be asked, is Ignatius not elevating the power of man by assigning undue authority and prestige to the office of bishop? God may be the “Bishop” of our souls, (this much is true and is soundly biblical), but do the human bishops within the hierarchy of the Church really have sway over our souls as well?

Scripture tells us that those holding leadership positions within the Church are worthy of imitation and set an example of faith for other Christians to follow: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Outward imitation is one thing, but does God expect a mere human to be answerable for the salvation of those who are under his watch as bishop? Does a bishop’s spiritual authority reach to our very souls? According to Scripture, it does: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

Understandably, Ignatius and Polycarp take very seriously their duties as bishop, as they will be answerable to God for the outcome of their service. They take as their role model, Jesus, the Bishop of bishops, and guardian of our souls. Ignatius encourages Polycarp in this vocation, and urges him to remain steadfast in exercising his God-given authority:

“Let not those who seem worthy of credit but teach strange doctrines fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten…Let nothing be done without your consent…”

Even marriage falls under the discretion of the bishop: “…[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God.”

Also, to the people of Smyrna, those who have Polycarp as their bishop, Ignatius issues instructions similar to that which he gave the other churches:

“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! Labor together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God.”

From all that we have read of Ignatius’ letters, we can conclude that the First Century Church had an ordered hierarchy, composed of bishops, priests, and deacons; that the ordained clergy of the Church exercised an authority originating from the Apostles, who in turn received their authority from Jesus; that the office of bishop in the local church is a reflection of Jesus’ own authority over the whole, universal Church and over each individual bishop; that the word “catholic” (“universal”) correctly describes Christ’s Church; that Rome enjoyed a special distinction among all the ancient church’s as worthy of high honor and praise, and as a faithful witness to Apostolic teaching; and finally, that the early Christians sought unity in belief and practice, most especially concerning the celebration of the Eucharist, which they saw as containing the Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine.

These teachings of Ignatius cannot be discredited as simply one man’s opinion among many. This was not some obscure “nobody” who died alone in his musings at the start of the Second Century. This was Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, consecrated bishop by Simon Peter, friend of the Apostles, bishop of Antioch (an important center of Christianity); he was led to his death after decades of service to the Church. On his journey to martyrdom he was met by adoring throngs as word spread of his passage to Rome. Along the way he wrote letters to the surrounding cities and Christians preserved these texts for future generations. This was not just any man, nor was this some deviant sect of Christianity. This was the faith of the First Century Church recorded for history to retell many centuries later.

We do not know how many letters Ignatius issued during his lifetime, (we have only seven of which we are certain, and these reflect his thoughts as he awaited his impending death). But we do know that his influence reached far and wide in the First Century Church, during the years he served as bishop. His final instruction to Polycarp is characteristically aimed at spreading the Catholic faith far and wide and preserving Apostolic Teaching:

“It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honor that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ…”

Ignatius wished for all the churches to send out messengers bearing his greetings and his final instructions…

“Inasmuch as I have not been able to write to all the Churches, because I must suddenly sail from Troas to Neapolis, as the will [of the emperor] enjoins, [I beg that] you, as being acquainted with the purpose of God, will write to the adjacent Churches, that they also may act in like manner, such as are able to do so sending messengers, and the others transmitting letters through those persons who are sent by you…”

Till his death Ignatius remained a strong witness for the First Century Church. Through his writings we catch a glimpse of the faith of the first Christians. To believe as Ignatius believed is to share in the faith of the martyrs. In our study of the Church Fathers, Ignatius, called Theophorus (Bearer of God) offers invaluable insights into the early Catholic Church.

Next we will meet Ignatius' friend, Polycarp…


  1. Hi Thomas
    I was just wondering if letters from Ignatius and polycarp carry authority like a bible text in the RCC? If not does it still carry authority but under the auspice of tradition?

  2. Great question Michael.

    The letters of Ignatius and Polycarp are NOT equal to Scripture or Tradition. The writings of these early Christians (and there are many such writings - I have only begun to examine them here) can give us valuable insight into what Christians of a certain time and place believed, but they do not carry the same weight as the Word of God. In other words, they are NOT Holy Scripture. Also since Tradition, strictly speaking, is unwritten, these writings do not fit that category either.

    These Christians do often cite Scripture verses and also refer to Apostolic Tradition (some of them even recieved their training from the Apostles themselves), so they do show us how the early Church interpreted God's Word and applied it through their lives and in the workings of the Church. If we examine how the first Christians believed and worshipped then we can see how the Word of God (in Scripture and Tradition) has been applied down through the centuries. You may think of these writings as early "commentaries" on the Word of God. They are like "Bible tracts" used in some denominations today. Only these tracts come from men who learned at the feet of the Apostles or who lived through the early days of Christianity when the Bible was yet being compiled and Christians were martyred for the faith. They lived at a time when Jesus had died less than a century before and there were those who still could remember the voice of Paul or the preaching of Timothy or Peter, or any number of other Christian missionaries. These men and those who came immediately after them comprise what we call the "Church Fathers."

    There are many Christian denominations today that claim to be just like the first Christians in their doctrine and in the way they worship and function as a church. The reason I am posting this series on the Church Fathers is to demonstrate that the first Christians interpreted God's Word very much as the Catholic Church does today. If anyone can claim a connection to the first Christian Church it is certainly the Catholic Church.

    I would in no way make the claim that these writings themselves are equal to God's Word, but they do tell us how the early Church understood God's Word. Most debates I have had with non-Catholics have revolved around the issue of interpretation. I hope to show here that when it comes to interpreting God's Word, the early Church has more in common with Catholics than with any other church.

    Thank you for the question

  3. Since the christian church (all inclusive) as we know it today was just forming we can also know that 85% of all issues were un solidified as doctrine at that time.
    In fact it always amazes me how much stock people put into the apostles viewpoints when right up to the very end they still thought Jesus was talking about an earthly kingdom and they jostled for position as to who would sit at his right hand.
    I heard the comment, why do we treat the apostles as idiots before the crucifiction and geniuses after? There are as many texts showing their stupidity as their correct understanding.
    Doesnt that fact alone make it a little dangerous to take whatever old time christian says and thought without a large grain of salt?

  4. I have answered a few of your comments below….

    “Since the christian church (all inclusive) as we know it today was just forming we can also know that 85% of all issues were un solidified as doctrine at that time.”
    I’m not sure where you get the 85%...could you cite some texts to support that?
    I would agree that many doctrines were not solidified. But if we read the writings from that time period (as I am presenting here), we can see that what was solidified was very much in line with Catholic teaching. So it is pretty obvious that the Church of the First Century was not Methodist or Baptist or Lutheran or any other sect or denomination that came after. It was not “all inclusive” of those doctrines and beliefs.
    If by “all inclusive” you mean that the First Century Church included doctrines that your church holds, or that are common in these non-Catholic groups, then I invite you to show me a text from that period that demonstrates this kind of “all inclusive” approach to Christianity. Show me a text that demonstrates the First Century Church believed as you believe. Otherwise it seems that the Church of the First Century was not “all-inclusive” but was instead very particular about its beliefs. And those beliefs were Catholic.

    “In fact it always amazes me how much stock people put into the apostles viewpoints when right up to the very end they still thought Jesus was talking about an earthly kingdom and they jostled for position as to who would sit at his right hand.”
    Well, Jesus put enough stock in the Apostles to entrust them with the mission of growing His Church after his Ascension. He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. He told them to go to the ends of the earth and baptize in God’s Name. He commissioned them to preach and to heal. They met in Council to make decisions for the Church. Paul met with the original Apostles before he began his own ministry. Jesus said to the Apostles “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” He said “whoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven.” Even before the coming of the Spirit, Jesus sent out the seventy two into the towns and villages and said, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me…”
    If Jesus put that much stock in the Apostles then why shouldn’t we? If God used them to build his Church (they are the foundation stones of the Church – Ephesians 2:20) then shouldn’t we look for the Church that can trace itself back to that foundation?

    “I heard the comment, why do we treat the apostles as idiots before the crucifixion and geniuses after? There are as many texts showing their stupidity as their correct understanding.”
    And then came the Holy Spirit!! God can work wonders even through simple fishermen. I do not question God’s plan. I see your point about their ignorance before the Ascension, but afterward the Spirit led them to all Truth. Jesus promised this to be so, and I take Jesus at His word.

    “Doesn’t that fact alone make it a little dangerous to take whatever old time christian says and thought without a large grain of salt?”
    No! Not if we are trying to be authentic Christians. We ought to study what the first Christians believed because they were closer to the events of Jesus’ life and death; they can bear witness to the preaching of the Apostles (the foundation) who were moved by the Spirit; they can tell us what the Church believed from the beginning. They are the first witnesses to the gospel message. They lived at a time when you could be tortured and killed for professing belief in Jesus; they had to stake their lives on it; they were the first martyrs; they deserve to be heard.

    Besides, isn’t it much more dangerous to take what a modern Christian says and build a whole new denomination on that person’s words? Isn’t it much more likely in this day and age that you will encounter fallacies and heresies that have grown and multiplied down through the centuries? I first heard from you, Michael, on an Adventist blog. Ellen White is greatly respected among Adventists, is she not? She is called a “prophet” by some. Do you put much stock in her writings? Did she meet Paul? Was she baptized by Peter? Did she watch as Roman soldiers dragged her loved ones away to be fed to wild beasts? Did she find it necessary to stake her very life on her teachings as these Christian martyrs did? Shouldn’t we take “with a grain of salt” the things preached by a woman who lived more than a millennium after Jesus and who never met or spoke with an Apostle?

    I am not equating Ignatius or Clement or Polycarp or any other early Christian with the Apostles. I am not saying that their writings are equal to Scripture. But they do bear faithful witness to the First Century Church’s beliefs. If we want to be serious about our faith, and we truly wish to follow authentic teaching as preached by the Apostles (the ones Jesus first commissioned to preach, and on which He built His Church), then we ought to listen to those who actually heard their preaching from their own lips. If you do not put any stock in the Apostles; if you think Jesus made a mistake in sending the Apostles out to preach and to establish his Church; if you think that the best source you have for authentic teaching didn’t come from Jesus’ own followers, but instead from someone who lived just a few generations ago, then so be it. You can have your beliefs and I pray that God blesses you. As for me, I wish to be true to the gospel message.