God the Father and Jesus Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Economy of God, Part 2

This is part two of a series began here.


The Bishop’s letter to the Roman church is one of exasperation – they must have implored him to save himself, or perhaps allow a rescue attempt (divine or otherwise). He implores them to let him die, willingly for God. We must read this letter in light of Ignatius’s service for God, in his attempt to suffer the same passion as Christ (Chapter 6). We have seen Ignatius already attempt a separation based on the Incarnation – never once does he refer to the Incarnation as God – although Jesus Christ is God, the only God – nor does he refer to Jesus Christ as the Father. It is in this letter that the Johannine Theology that surrounded Antioch, and indeed Asia Minor, is the best pronounced.

Ignatius greets the Roman Christians by stating that he has obtained mercy through the ‘majesty of the Moth High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son.’ This is a common Johannine greeting as the Apostle used it in 1st John 1.3 and 2nd John 3 (“and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ and from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father,” respectively). This does not imply an eternal distinction but one of doctrine, as in the same section, the Bishop goes as far as Paul, but in a indisputable fashion, when he writes, ‘in Jesus Christ, our God,’ a familiar refrain.

In chapter 2, the friend of Polycarp writes that the congregation should be joyous at his impending martyrdom and that they should ‘sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus’. We find parallels to this in John 14.6 (no mans comes to the Father except by Me) and Colossians 3.17 (And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.) Further, we understand that the Incarnation is the mediation of the New Covenant, in that through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, we can now come to God (Galatians 3.20-26; 1st Timothy 2.5; Hebrews 8.6, 9.15). Ignatius points the way to God, even in sorrow, is through (the man) Christ Jesus.

The Bishop of Antioch tells the Romans to pray that he may attain martyrdom in chapter 3. There is a reason – ‘Nothing visible is eternal’ he writes. It is his goal to prove himself a Christian, not in name only, but in deed, and once found faithful, that he should ‘no longer appear to the world’. This underscores, indoctrinates rather, his statement, ‘For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed.’ This line is not about separation or distinction, but about the glory revealed through the Eternal. Immediately, we must refer to the prayer from Christ to the Father as found in John 17.

The reason for the prayers from the Son becomes clear when we understand that the Incarnation is not a mere indwelling of God in a human shell, but God coming to be a genuine man. The Incarnation does not imply a transmutation of God into a man, but allows that God remained who He was both in and after the manifestation. If God had changed into a man He would cease being God, or at least cease being the same God He was prior to the Incarnation. As God came to exist in flesh, complete in the limitations of humanity, Christ had the capacity of and the need for relationships. Because of the reality His humanity He even had need of a relationship with God. As man (servant) Christ experienced the same limitations all humans experience along with a dependence upon God. These prayers are not an example as some Modalists try to say as a cover, but a real act; real, because Christ, as a man, needed to pray because of his dependence on God. His prayers are rooted in His humanity, not in His divinity.

This prayer is important as well, in that we find Christ prays for the unity that the Logos had with the Father before the Incarnation. The phrase ‘with the glory which I had with you before the world was’ is recalled here in the words of Ignatius. God told Israel by Isaiah (42.8) that He would not give His glory to another. The glory of God is God’s alone. Again, we turn to Hebrews 1.3 whose author calls Christ the emanation of His glory. We should rightly understand that if a distinction in God existed, then glory would have to be shared and given to another; yet, if the Son is understood as an emanation, then it is easy to see that the Son emanated from the Father’s glory, without distinction, and only in the flesh does the Son existed without the Glory of God.

Ignatius is reminding the Romans that the glory of Christ – in that His Faithfulness and Righteousness – was revealed not on earth, but when He ascended. Ignatius is demanding no glory on earth, but waiting to be revealed in heaven. Again, this calls us to John’s writings,

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3 NKJV)

It is not a stretch of the mind to place both ourselves and Christ into the place of ‘children,’ and understand what Ignatius is rightly saying.

In chapter 6, Ignatius writes, “Permit me to be the imitator of the passion of my God.” This is easily connected to the passion of Christ. It is the next phrase that draws our attention. He writes, ‘If anyone has Him within himself,’ indicating not the Father or the Spirit as the agent of the Indwelling, but Christ. Ignatius, although he readily points to a separation during the Incarnation, never has a cause of distinction after the ascension.

We see this point solidified as he writes, “I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. (See John 6.35) The flesh is the crucifixion – His body broken for the world. This again turns the congregation back to the impending death of Ignatius and the connection with the passion of Christ. It was only in the flesh that Christ suffered. These are more than code words from the Bishop, but words of comfort and consolation to the suffering congregation who no doubt would be the ones to witness the last minutes of Antioch’s overseer.

Conclusion to Romans

Ignatius’ use of words and phrases are Johannine, and rightly so. It is in this gospel that we have the intense application of the deity of Christ and the humanity Christ so heavily, and theologically, enforced. Ignatius, unlike the Apologists of later generations, is not writing to correct or promote doctrine, but he is writing in the common dialect to urge people to keep the faith, and in this case, to not plead for him, but to let him find the glory of being a Christian. He nowhere, like the Apostles before him, calls Jesus Christ the Father, implying the Father’s distinction only during the Incarnation. He uses biblical phrases – as any good preacher does – to extort his audience to the right way; however, there is not dogmatic in his approach. For him, Jesus Christ alone is God.

I do not mean to separate the theology of the Church into apostolic divisions, but to say that Ignatius used John’s mode of thinking and writing when expressing the deity of Christ as unique.

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