Video Transcript: Unit 3 Lecture 3

The latter part of the first century saw the church developing more and more along the lines of its structures and its thinking about Jesus. During this time, we have some communications from a group we know as the apostolic fathers. There are a variety of names to be thought of among the apostolic fathers, names such as Hermas the author of The Shepherd, Ignatius who wrote several letters we have as he was being transported to Rome to die in the Coliseum, a man named Barnabas and a bishop we know as Polycarp.  We will hear more about Polycarp in the next unit, but for today, we will spend some time with the letters of Ignatius.

Icon of St. Ignatius

The writings of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch are among the most inspiring of the Early Church Fathers. Sometime late in the reign of the Emperor Trajan, a persecution broke out in Syria. Ignatius, leader of the Christians in the region's capital city, was apprehended and condemned to die for his faith in the Roman amphitheater. He was chained to a squad of Roman soldiers and marched overland through what is modern Turkey to Troas where he embarked upon a ship that, after various stops, eventually brought him to Italy and martyrdom. Virtually all we know about him comes from seven little letters he wrote while his traveling group was stopped in Smyrna and later in Troas. Five of these letters were written to Churches in the province of Asia that had sent people to encour­age him during his journey. One was sent personally to Polycarp, bishop of Symrna, and the other is a moving appeal to the Church of Rome not to try to prevent the carrying out of his death sentence. 

Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch, the place where the followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time. The impor­tance of Antioch as a center of apostolic Christianity is important to recognise. It was the first center of outreach to the Gentiles (Acts 11:20) and the base from which Paul and Barna­bas were sent out on their missionary journeys (Acts 13:2-3; 15: 35-41; 18:22-23).  Ignatius is therefore an important testi­mony to the way in which the teaching of these apostles was remem­bered by this Church. The letters witness to a common apostolic source of teaching as understood and lived probably only a decade or two after the writing of John's Gospel. 

Ignatius speaks to a number of issues that have been disputed among Christians for cen­turies. Regarding the identity of Jesus Christ, Ignatius could not be more forthright in asserting his divinity. In the course of his seven letters he explicitly calls Jesus "God” (theos) a total of sixteen times .There is no ques­tion of him meaning this in a loose or merely honorific sense; Ignatius affirms that Christ is the invisible, Time­less (achronos) one, incapable by nature of suffering, who becomes visible and capable of suffering through his human birth in time (Poly. 3:2).  So, two hundred years before the Council of Nicaea, Ignatius teaches that Christ is eternal, above time and all creation, God in the full sense of the term. 

Ignatius is equally clear regarding Jesus' true humanity. In his day there existed heretics called "Docetists” who believed Jesus' body to have been a  mere vision and his death therefore only an appearance. Against them Ignatius vigorously affirms the material reality of Jesus' human flesh and the truth of his suffering and death (e.g., Symr. 1; Tral 9). 

In the course of his defense of Christ's humanity, Ignatius dem­onstrates the early church's realistic under­standing of the Lord's Supper, which he calls "the medicine of immortality” (Eph 20:2). In his mind, a denial of the presence of Jesus at the table flows from a denial of the incarnation. The Docetists, he says, "hold aloof from the Supper and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Bread is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom, in his goodness, the Father raised. Conse­quent­ly those who wrangle and dispute God's gift face death.” (Smyr 7:1). For Ignatius and those to whom he writes, the Eucharist is clearly the center of the Church's life (Eph 13:1) and can be validly celebrated only by the bishop or by one he authorizes (Symr. 8:2). And, in contradiction to various Judaizing movements, Ignatius says (Mag 9:1) that a distinctive mark of Chris­tianity is to cease keeping the Sabbath (Saturday) and instead to observe the Lord's Day (Sun­day). 

With regard to the nature and structure of the Church, Ignatius is a particularly important witness. He has a strong consciousness that Christians all across the world are united in one universal assem­bly which he calls "the Catholic Church” which is the earliest instance of this phrase in surviving Christian literature. His letter to the Romans, an impor­tant witness to Peter's pres­ence and leadership in Rome (Ro 4:3), acknowledges that the Roman Church ranks "first in love” (Ro, inscr.). For Ignatius and the Asian churches to which he writes, it is taken for granted that each local Christian community is led by a single bishop assisted by a council of pres­byters and several deacons. According to Ignatius, "you cannot have a church without these” (Tral. 3:1). 

In the materials I have provided for this unit, you will find examples of the letters of Ignatius. You can find more of them in the links provided there. You will find that these are indeed, some inspiring reading when we know that Ignatius is being marched a great distance to get to Rome where he will die in the amphitheater.

Here is part of his letter to the Romans

 am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.

The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathise with me because you will know what urges me on.

The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God's side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbour envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: "Come to the Father”. I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God's bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.

I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favour, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire. I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of God. If I am condemned to suffer, I will take it that you wish me well. If my case is postponed, I can only think that you wish me harm.

Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2023, 8:44 AM