Sunday School – Ignatius of Antioch

English: Ignatius of Antioch, ortodox icon.
English: Ignatius of Antioch, ortodox icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you know, we are studying Church History. Before we move on to the ‘please, dear emperor, accept us’ I thought we’d take a break and study —

Ignatius of Antioch

This week, we are getting into the early 2nd century where we will encounter the need for Christians to establish themselves as a state religion in the Roman Empire. Contrary to what you’ve may have heard, Rome did not really care about your personal religion. What they respected was ‘hollowed antiquity.’ This is why the Jews could get away with not worshipping Jove or the other gods and goddess. Because they could show by their Scriptures just how ancient they were.

In come the Christians whom the Jews said weren’t really Jews. That means the Christians were new — or, in the eyes of the Romans, atheists. They were suspect. So, for the next few centuries, we will encounter intellectuals who sought to present the Christian faith as ancient and politically supportive of the Empire while maintaining certain independent positions previously afforded only to the Jews.

Before that, we must encounter Ignatius of Antioch. His letters survive in (generally) two forms — the longer and the shorter. Many scholars see the shorter versions of the epistles as the more authentic (some settle for what they call a middle recension) so we will only quote from them.

Ignatius is best remembered, perhaps, for inventing two words — apostolic and catholic.

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the holy Church which is at Tralles, in Asia, beloved of God, the Father of Jesus Christ, elect, and worthy of God, possessing peace through the flesh, and blood, and passion of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, through our rising again to Him, which also I salute in its fulness, and in the apostolical character, and wish abundance of happiness.[1]


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. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.[2]

As regards to this, we might better read it church universal, or, universal church. Why is this designation important? I would point to one reason — Ignatius understood ecumenical missions better than most today. He was a bishop of a long-standing Asian (note, this is according to Roman geography) church going to Rome to be executed. Later, the Asian Churches and Rome would have severe disagreements — and these disagreements are still manifest today in the Great Schism. For Ignatius, however, the Church is founded on Christ, so regardless of other differences, if Christ is present (and no doubt, present in the Eucharist), then it is the Church.

Other things to note from Ignatius — he has established a hierarchy that is far more reaching than the Roman one we saw in Clement. While the Church is founded on Christ, the Bishop/Elder/Overseer is who brings Christ to the Table.

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God[3]

One final thing Ignatius provides for us is an early view on the nature of the bread and the wine,

Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is3 faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty.[4]

The discussion this week will focus on Ignatius. Some of the questions to consider as you read Ignatius are

  • Who is Jesus Christ to Ignatius?
  • Why did he feel the need to be martyred and not otherwise rescued (or his freedom purchased)
  • What does ‘catholic’ mean?
  • Can we find his view of the Eucharist anywhere today?
  • Can we find his view of the Church Government anywhere today?
  • And of course, does this matter to our faith, in this modern world, right here, right now while the world is waking up from history?

[1] Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; vol. 1; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 166.

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnæans,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 190.

[3] ibid, 189.

[4] ibid,  188–89.

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Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

4 thoughts on “Sunday School – Ignatius of Antioch

  1. Is this a place where we can post discussions of your questions for Bible class? Yes? OK, good. I’m guessing that Origen came after this guy, Theophorus; however, not sure that they didn’t have nearly the same idea about the nature of corporeality and it’s basic prevention of one’s “attaining to God” as he mentions in Chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans. Is that letter authentic? Well, the idea is good to discuss regardless of its origins.

    It brings to mind something one of my friends said to me once when one of my relatives passed away. At the time, it made me mad because it was glib, so I am not recommending anyone say this as a word of comfort, but my friend said that death might be the ultimate healing because you are then one with God and you can’t get anymore whole than that.

    But I wonder how that idea interlocks with Philippians 1:21 ? For me to live is Christ and to die is gain – how can you gain more than Christ? If that’s even how that’s to be interpreted.

    I’m not mentioning the “willing sacrifice” concept; however, “sacrifice” contains within it a necessary perception of value of that which is being sacrificed, does it not?

    1. Origen did come after this guy — and I don’t think he mentioned him much.

      I would argue for the shorter recension of Romans as more authentic, but yes, Romans his an authentic letter.

      I think you are correct about the sacrifice. I have to wonder if early martyrology wasn’t connected to a really mystical understanding of the Eucharist.

  2. That’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure what the understanding of the Eucharist was exactly at the time Theophorus was writing letters. We were so close to “last supper” I guess that Christ’s last supper was still intertwined with the paschal lamb and the angel Gabriel. It confuses me that the akedah, which in some way marked YHVH as that one god who doesn’t want our children (in that way), preceded the cross. Also, in a mystical sense, those who accused the Christians of cannibalism were mystically correct. It all brings to mind the two underlying features of physical life, which is that we must kill to live (eat death) and that we feel guilty about it (some of us) – so physical life feels valuable in some way and it must be toward doing good things for God (unto death, even death on a cross), but this idea hardly leads all of us toward good deeds. William James has it that mystical experiences exit the realm of madness when the result of the experience (whatever it may have been – who are you to tell me that I didn’t see the virgin’s face in my pancake?) is clarity of thought, inspiration to action and good deeds.

    1. Actually, you hit the nail on the head regarding cannibalism, which is an early charge against Christians — and one used by those who take the high view of the Eucharist.

      Further, the role of the akedah is quickly becoming something of a hermeneutical enterprise in interpreting the Passion in the Gospel of Mark. I have a paper I could share…

      As far interpretive stances… This compares well with John 6 where Jesus is explicit in a very liturgical sense about the blood and the body, although I’m not yet read to say which came first, Ignatius or John.

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