"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Monday, August 18, 2008

St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church

In this post I want to consider what St. Ignatius of Antioch reveals to us about the Church. But first let us review briefly what we know about St. Ignatius of Antioch. According to the tradition, St. Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch (from 70-107 AD) after Evodius, about whom little is known. Evodius, apparently, was appointed by the Apostle Peter, who seems to have gone to Antioch immediately after being released from jail by the angel, according to the account in Acts 12. St. Ignatius is thought to have been an auditor (i.e. hearer) of the Apostle John (who died around 100 AD). St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 - 407 AD), who was raised in Antioch, taught that St. Ignatius had been ordained at the hands of Apostles, including St. Peter.

In Trajan's ninth year (107 AD) St. Ignatius was sent to Rome, where he was martyred in the amphitheatre by wild beasts. The account of his martyrdom is claimed to have been written by eyewitnesses [Philo, a deacon of Tarsus, and Rheus Agathopus, a Syrian who had accompanied St. Ignatius from Antioch to Rome -- see chapter 11 of St. Ignatius's epistle to the Philadelphians].

On his way to Rome St. Ignatius composed seven epistles (letters), five which were addressed to churches of various cities along the way, one to the church at Rome, and one composed to St. Polycarp (c. 69 - 155 AD), the bishop of Smyrna. Eusebius devotes a whole chapter to St. Ignatius (H.E. 3.36). St. Polycarp knew St. Ignatius (they had met face to face) and wrote about St. Ignatius's epistles in his [St. Polycarp's] letter to the Philippians. Smyrna was the first place that St. Ignatius stopped on his way from Antioch to Rome. There he wrote his letters to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome. Then, when St. Ignatius arrived at Troas, he wrote his letter to the church at Philadelphia, his letter to the church at Smyrna, and his letter to St. Polycarp.

Let us consider each of these seven letters, in each case examining what St. Ignatius says about the Church, and especially the structure and ground for the leadership of the Church. Again, I would ask that if you wish to comment on this post, please first read through St. Ignatius's seven epistles, prayerfully and carefully. The goal is to approach St. Ignatius in the open and humble stance of listening and learning from him, so as to understand what he thinks about the Church.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius refers to Onesimus as the bishop of the Ephesians (c. 1). Then Ignatius says, "It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing," [1 Corinthians 1:10] and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified." (c. 2) Notice here that St. Ignatius enjoins the Christian faithful in Ephesus to be subject to their bishop and the presbytery, as the means by which they may all be in "unanimous obedience".

St. Ignatius explicitly denies issuing orders to the Ephesians as if he is some "great person". He points out that he can learn from them, and that he is exhorting them on account of love. He then speaks of bishops being already established all over the world. He says, "For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ." (c. 3)

Then he goes on in chapter 4, to say the following: "Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God."

Notice that unity and harmony are, for St. Ignatius, made possible by hierarchical order. St. Ignatius is not teaching that unity takes place by a 'flattening' of authority to some form of egalitarianism. Rather, for St. Ignatius, it is precisely in the harmony of each person acting in accordance with his appointed office that true harmony is made possible.

Then in chapter 5 he writes, "For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature—how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity!"

Here St. Ignatius again shows how being united to our divinely appointed ecclesial authority is analogous to the union of the Church with Jesus, and the union of Jesus to the Father. Just as the gospel has come to us in an hierarchical fashion (from the Father, to the Son, from the Son to the Apostles, from the Apostles to the bishops), so likewise our union with the Father is through an harmonious hierarchy, with the bishop, and through union with him to the Apostles, and through union with them to Jesus Christ, and through union with Him to God the Father.

At the end of that same chapter St. Ignatius writes, "Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God." The hierarchical nature of our union with God makes union with the bishop essential, and makes separation from our bishop a separation from the divinely appointed means by which we are united to God.

Then in chapter 6 St. Ignatius writes, "Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, (Matt 24:25) as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that you all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you. Nor, indeed, do ye hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth."

Notice the relation between following the bishop, preserving unity and avoiding any sect. For St. Ignatius, we receive and follow the bishop because He is sent by Jesus.

St. Ignatius commends the Ephesians for not heeding false teachers. (c. 9) Then in chapter 13 he writes, "For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end."

He points out that Satan is seeking to bring destruction and division. This is overcome through the "unity of our faith". Especially in the last sentence there he reveals that peace is not the cessation of war. Rather, peace and unity is that by which war is overcome. To bring peace we must ourselves enter the peace and unity of God. We cannot make peace or unity out of division and strife. We must find the existing peace and unity established by Christ Jesus, and enter into it. This principle applies also to sects and schism between Christians. We cannot make unity out of division, without being united to an existing unity.

Then in chapter 20 St. Ignatius writes, "so that ye obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ."

Here too St. Ignatius urges the Ephesian Christians to obey their bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, so that they can share together the Eucharist. We may be reminded of what St. Paul wrote: "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Corinthians 10:17) We can see here in chapter 20 of St. Ignatius's letter that for St. Ignatius, this sacrament by which we are made one is deeply connected to our being joined together to our rightful shepherds. If we depart from the bishop, we no longer share in the one Bread, and thus are in some respect separated from the one Body.

In his epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 2, Ignatius writes, "Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write to you]."

Notice that the deacon is subject to the bishop (as by analogy to God the Father) and also to the presbytery (as by analogy to Jesus Christ).

In chapter 3, he writes, "Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop] in honour of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets."

Chapter 3 in this way gives us a very clear insight into the thought of St. Ignatius regarding the hierarchical way of being united with God in love and obedience. When we submit to the bishop, we are not submitting ultimately to the bishop, but ultimately to God the Father, because it is God who has sent and appointed the bishop as His representative. We thus serve God by way of following our divinely appointed shepherd, the bishop. To disobey the visible bishop (or feign obedience to him) is to disobey the Bishop who is invisible (i.e. God the Father).

In chapter 4 he writes, "It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment."

Some Christians, according to St. Ignatius, recognize a person as having the title 'bishop', but disregard their bishop in their activities, as if he has no authority. This behavior, claims St. Ignatius, is not in accordance with the commandment pertaining to the assembling of believers. Believers are supposed to assemble in union with their bishop.

In chapter 6 he writes, "Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. Do ye all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbour after the flesh, but do ye continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality." (my emphases)

This paragraph again shows how St. Ignatius understands the basis for a divine harmony in the Church. There is an hierarchical order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons. They are united to each other in that hierarchy, and the laity are united to them in obedience and love. This is the key to unity, according to St. Ignatius, that we be united to our bishop and the others under him in the hierarchy, so that we may reflect the eternal order and unity in the Godhead.

In chapter 7 he writes, "As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled."

Again, the unity St. Ignatius urges us to maintain is based on an hierarchical order that comes from God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ whom He sent, then through Christ's Apostles whom He sent, and then through the bishops whom they appointed. For St. Ignatius, to be united together in true unity in the Church, we must be united to the eternal divine harmony that has become incarnated through Christ and continues in the enduring apostolic succession.

St. Ignatius finishes chapter 7 with the following: "Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one."

We are to run together as into one temple of God, not to multiple temples. The Church is one, because Christ is one, because God the Father is one. How do we ensure that we run together into one temple of God? For St. Ignatius, the answer is: By following the bishop whom God has appointed and established.

In chapter 13 he writes, "with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual."

Notice again the hierarchical conception St. Ignatius teaches of order and unity. The unity of a plurality in which the plurality is in some sense preserved is always a unity of *order*. There is an order in the Trinity. So likewise, there is an order in the Church, of deacons to presbyters, and presbyters to the bishop. If we wish to imitate Jesus in His obedience to the Father, we are be obedient to the bishop, and thus, together in submission to our bishop, we are also to be subject to one another. For in this way, according to St. Ignatius, the Apostles were subject to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit. By being subject to those in the flesh who have been divinely established over us, we are also being subject to the Spirit.

In his epistle to the Trallians, St. Ignatius writes in chapter 1 about Polybius as the bishop of the church at Tralles. He writes, "I know that you possess an unblameable and sincere mind in patience, and that not only in present practice, but according to inherent nature, as Polybius your bishop has shown me, who has come to Smyrna by the will of God and Jesus Christ, and so sympathized in the joy which I, who am bound in Christ Jesus, possess, that I beheld your whole multitude in him."

In chapter 2, he writes, "For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire."

Here again we see St. Ignatius treat of the offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. The Christians are to be subject to their bishop as to Jesus Christ. They are to do nothing apart from him, that is, nothing pertaining to the Church. They are to be subject to the presbytery as to the apostle of Jesus. So the authority of Christ and the Apostles continues in the Church, according to St. Ignatius, through the offices of bishop and presbyter. The deacon is in a different order. The deacon is distinct from the bishop and presbyter in the third place after the bishop and the presbyter. The deacon is not a minister of the "mysteries" (i.e. the sacraments). He is not a priest. Deacons are not "ministers of meat and drink" (i.e. the Body and Blood of Christ). They are servants of the bishop, and in this way servants of the Church of God.

In chapter 3 he writes, "In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion. For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence, seeing they are also pleased that I do not spare myself."

Here again the deacon is to be honored as an "appointment of Jesus Christ" while the bishop is to be honored (by comparison) as if Jesus Christ. The presbyters are to be honored as "the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles." By describing the presbytery in both of these ways, St. Ignatius draws a connection between the magisterial authority under the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant. He also once again shows in this chapter the three fold distinction in Holy Orders, from bishop, presbyter, and deacon.

In chapter 7 he writes, "Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons [i.e. hertics]. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience."

Here St. Ignatius says that if remain humble and in intimate union with "Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles" we will be able to avoid being deceived by heretics. This statement strongly suggests that in the mind of St. Ignatius, what was enacted by the apostles and continues in the succession of the bishops is a way of remaining in intimate union with Jesus Christ. If we remain in this divinely established order, according to St. Ignatius, we will be protected from heresy. In other words, St. Ignatius seems to hold that in the succession of bishops set up by the Apostles, there is some kind of promise of divine protection from heresy and schism.

In chapter 12, he writes, "Continue in harmony among yourselves, and in prayer with one another; for it becomes every one of you, and especially the presbyters, to refresh the bishop, to the honour of the Father, of Jesus Christ, and of the apostles."

By remaining in harmony with one another, and praying for another, we refresh our bishop, and honor God the Father and Jesus Christ, and the apostles [who appointed the bishops]. (We can't help here but be reminded of Hebrews 13:17).

In chapter 13 St. Ignatius writes, "Fare well in Jesus Christ, while you continue subject to the bishop, as to the command [of God], and in like manner to the presbytery."

St. Ignatius seems to believe that with the death of the Apostles, it is important to emphasize to the Christians that the apostolic authority continues in the succession of bishops whom the Apostles appointed. Only in this way, in his view, can unity be preserved and heresy avoided.

In his epistle to the Romans, St. Ignatius writes in a very different manner from the tone in his other letters. He never enjoins the Roman Christians to submit to their leaders. He instead asks them to pray for him. It is worth recalling that at this time, there was a recognized primacy in the three "apostolic churches": Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. But there is also a clear deference here on the part of St. Ignatius to the church at Rome, apparent in the very style and tone he adopts in his letter to the church at Rome, in contrast to that in his other letters. This seems to be an indication of the recognition on the part of St. Ignatius of the primacy had by the church at Rome, even among the three apostolic churches.

In chapter 2 he writes "that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west." Then in chapter 9 he writes, "Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me." Here we see him identify himself as "the bishop of Syria", whose role he sees as a shepherd. It is not that while he was the bishop of Syria the church there in Syria did not have God as its shepherd. What he means here apparently is that now (upon his absence from Syria) the church in Syria has only God as its shepherd (or bishop).

From Troas, St. Ignatius wrote his epistle to the Philadelphians. In chapter 2 of this epistle he writes, "Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive (2 Timothy 3:6) those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place."

How are we to flee divisions and wicked doctrines? For St. Ignatius, the answer is follow the shepherd (i.e. the bishop).

In chapter 3 he writes, "Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.]."

What does he mean by "evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend"? He means those who are separate from the bishop. "For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop". But God is merciful, so that if any return in repentance to the unity of the Church, they shall belong to God. St. Ignatius makes a very strong claim about schism. To create a schism or to follow those who create a schism, is to imperil one's soul. We are not to walk according to "strange [novel] opinion", but according to what has been handed down to the bishop.

In chapter 4, he writes, "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.."

Here clearly St. Ignatius enjoins the believers in Philadelphia to be united to their bishop, so that they may have only one Eucharist and in this way show forth the unity of Christ's blood. Here too we see St. Ignatius's understanding of the three offices: bishop, presbytery and deacon. In being joined in our actions to the bishop and the presbyters and the deacons, we are ensuring that we are acting according to the will of God.

In chapter 7, he writes, "For, when I was among you, I cried, I spoke with a loud voice: Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus, as knowing beforehand the division caused by some among you. But He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed these words: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father."

Here too we see St. Ignatius exhorting the Christians to "love unity" and "avoid divisions". How are they to do this? By "giving heed to the bishop, the presbytery, and the deacons".

In chapter 8 he writes, "I therefore did what belonged to me, as a man devoted to unity. For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop."

According to St. Ignatius, God is a God of unity, peace and order. He does not dwell where there is division and wrath. So if we wish to be united to God, we must return to the "unity of God". How do we return to the "unity of God"? By seeking communion with the bishop.

In chapter 10 he writes, "as also the nearest Churches have sent, in some cases bishops, and in others presbyters and deacons." He St. Ignatius reports that some of the churches bishops, and others sent presbyters and deacons. It is very clear that there is in the mind of St. Ignatius a clear distinction between the bishop and the [mere] presbyter.

In epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius writes in chapters 7-8, "But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils. 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. 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."

How do we avoid divisions (which are the beginning of evil)? For St. Ignatius, the answer is: Follow the bishop even as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and follow the presbytery as we would the apostles, and reverence the deacons as being the institution of God. Here we see in St. Ignatius the three primary Holy Orders as having been established and perpetuated by God, so that to follow those holding these Holy Orders is to follow God. Likewise, there is a very important relation, according to St. Ignatius, between Holy Orders and the other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Only that Eucharist is proper (licit) which is administered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has entrusted it (i.e. a presbyter under him). According to St. Ignatius, the same is true of baptisms. The people are to follow the bishop. Where the bishop is, there is the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church. In other words, the bishop forms the backbone, so to speak, of the Body of Christ. We are all joined together in an organic unity insofar as we are joined to the bishop.

In chapter 9, he writes, "It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil."

That needs no commentary.

In chapter 12 he writes, "I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons, my fellow-servants, and all of you individually, as well as generally, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual, in union with God and you."

Lastly, in his epistle to Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes in chapter 5, "If [the man who chooses to remain a virgin for Christ] begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined. But it 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."

Notice that for St. Ignatius, marriage of Christians should be approved by the bishop.

In chapter 6, in speaking of the duties of the flock he writes, "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!"

In chapter 7 he writes, "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 honour that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ."

We see here how St. Polycarp, as bishop, would assemble a solemn council in order to choose someone do perform this particular task of going to Syria as a messenger on behalf of St. Ignatius.

What can we learn from these seven epistles regarding what St. Ignatius believed about the Church? We see clearly his concern for the preservation of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church. We see also his firm belief that the divinely established means for the preservation of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church is for all Christians, wherever they may be, to follow the bishop. We see also a clear conception of three Holy Orders in the Church: bishop, [mere] presbyter, and deacon. Also clearly implicit in St. Ignatius's ecclesiology is a belief in the perpetual divine protection of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church through the apostolic succession of the bishops. Of course this does raise the question of whether bishops can fall into apostasy. What is explicit in St. Ignatius's ecclesiology regarding the ordered relation of deacon, presbyter and bishop, implies that insofar as there is any hierarchical order among the bishops themselves, those subordinate bishops should likewise defer to those of greater authority. And this seems to be the case for the bishops of the three apostolic churches: Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. St. Ignatius, as the bishop of the church in the second highest place of honor and preeminence in the "Catholic Church", clearly shows deference to the church at Rome, and in this way gives an example to all bishops of lesser sees. Implicit then in St. Ignatius's belief that the laity are assured divine protection as they follow their bishop are two conditions: namely, that the bishop in question is in full communion with the bishop holding the highest authority in the Church, and that this bishop with highest authority in the Church has some unique divine protection from error.


John Bugay said...

Why the history lesson? I thought you only wanted to deal with "content". Doesn't that constitute a "secondary source"?

What makes your "history" more relevant than the history I've presented, by some of the leading historians of that period?

The situation on the ground in Rome, as it's been outlined will clearly affect your conclusions.

It's clear to me that you are not really searching for an honest discussion, void of presuppositions. You merely want your own presuppositions to be counted, without any challenges from other points of view.

Your conclusion is a stretch that goes far beyond what even your official [and quite boastful] church is willing to claim.

Bryan Cross said...

Hello John,

Thanks for your comments. The history helps provide the context, which helps us understand and appreciate what St. Ignatius is writing. Regarding your worry about "secondary sources", I addressed that before in my comments on St. Clement. I didn't make any claim about the history I have presented being "more relevant" than the history you have presented.

It's clear to me that you are not really searching for an honest discussion,

John, one of the rules here is that ad hominems are not allowed. What you are doing here [in this particular comment] is impugning my sincerity, and that is an ad hominem. If you think one or more of my presuppositions is false, feel free to point out which presupposition is false, and why you think it is false. But, please try to refrain from ad hominems. There is a link to the rules for posting here on the left side bar. It might also be helpful to review my post on preconditions for genuine ecumenical dialogue.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

John Bugay said...

Hello Bryan. I know what "ad hominem" is, and I do not need to be lectured about what an "ecumenical dialogue" is.

Your conclusion, "that this bishop with highest authority in the Church has some unique divine protection from error," presupposes that there is actually a "bishop" in Rome at this point, and it also very much implies ("clearly implicit") that the readers of these letters coulda, woulda, and shoulda come up with some nascent doctrine of papal infallibility.

Both of these are long, long stretches. In fact, even the Catholic commentator Boniface Ramsey, "Beginning to Read the Fathers," New York, Paulist Press, 1985, p.10, says, "Just because Ignatius of Antioch…emphasises the role of the Bishop in the early 2nd century churches of Antioch and Asia Minor does not mean that anyone else felt the same way about the Bishop at that time, or even that Bishops existed in other churches at such an early period."

This has even been described as "wishful thinking" on the part of Ignatius.

I will say it again: It does not appear to me that you are seeking a discussion void of presuppositions; you are clearly injecting later beliefs back into these early sources. That is not a personal attack on you. That is just a comment on what you have written.

Bryan Cross said...


Your conclusion, "that this bishop with highest authority in the Church has some unique divine protection from error," presupposes that there is actually a "bishop" in Rome at this point,

Not necessarily. The conclusion is also equally compatible with it being apparently the "church at Rome" that has the highest authority, in which case the conclusion itself does not presuppose that at this point there is one bishop in Rome with authority over any other bishops and presbyters in Rome. It would be strange, however, for these other particular churches to have bishops, and for the preeminent church at Rome to lack a bishop (or bishops). And given what St. Clement says around 96 AD (in chapter 42 of his epistle) about the Apostles appointing bishops in all the "countries and cities", it would seem to follow that the church in Rome would have had at least one bishop.

and it also very much implies ("clearly implicit") that the readers of these letters coulda, woulda, and shoulda come up with some nascent doctrine of papal infallibility.

No, for two reasons. First, as I pointed out above, to the reader of St. Ignatius's epistles, the authority could (at this point) seem to rest with the "church at Rome", not with the papal office as such. Second, the fact that something is implicit does not itself imply that the readers could have or would have derived it. That would be a non sequitur. The deference St. Ignatius pays to the church at Rome could be perceived by a reader as that of honor, not necessarily that of superior authority, and not necessarily one of guaranteed orthodoxy. I'm pulling a few things together in St. Ignatius's letters in order to draw the implication.

Regarding whether other churches had bishops at this time, it is quite clear from St. Ignatius's letters that those churches to whom he writes *do* have one bishop who oversees a plurality of presbyters and deacons. He does not explicitly address the leadership of the church at Rome, but if he thinks of the church at Rome as being an authority deserving deference on his part, and if he knew that they did not (de jure) have a bishop (but only a plurality of [mere] presbyters, then it seems he would not be affirming the episcopal structure in the churches to whom he writes. It is possible that in some churches at this time there was a plurality of bishops (who are also presbyters), and it is possible that in other churches there were [mere] presbyters and no bishop (say, because the bishop had been martyred and not replaced).

But these Christians were aware of the natural principle that the unity of a body requires the unity of a head, as Jesus Himself had taught that no man can serve two masters. Otherwise there would be a continual inherent disposition to schism. Hence even where there was a plurality of bishop in a single particular church, or a plurality of [mere] presbyters in a single particular church without a bishop, there would be have been some recognition of the need for one among the leadership to have some kind of primacy.

But, St. Ignatius does say the following in his letter to the Ephesians:

"For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ."

You suggest that St. Ignatius is engaged in "wishful thinking". I will simply point out that that is an ad hominem. If I have to choose between those moderns who accuse this great saint, martyr and auditor of the Apostle John of "wishful thinking", and his own testimony, I'll choose the latter.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

CD-Host said...

Here I think the context is very informative.

From Philadelphians:

Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.]
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,

What's interesting is that Ignatius considers this to be a self evident truth. Nowhere does he argue for notion that one God implies one bishop. More importantly this line tying the crucifixion to the Bishop seems to not make any sense. So we are missing some key context. If we start piecing together the letters the context more clear:

Lets look at Trallians:

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.
But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? Why do I long to be exposed to the wild beasts? Do I therefore die in vain? Am I not then guilty of falsehood against [the cross of] the Lord?

Here the tie makes more sense. Docetic Christians are denying the reality of the incarnation hence denying Ignatius' interpretation of the crucifixion.
He argues that the believers can know the truth not based on argument from scripture but rather based on apostolic authority via. the bishops.

When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified.

In other places he attacks arguments from Philosophy based on the same type of argument.

That is what we are looking at is one sect making claims of authority as part of a debate with an alternate sect vying for the hearts and minds of the membership. The reason he needs to make these claims is indicated in the Philadelphia letter:

Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father....
When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified.
The priests indeed are good, but the High Priest is better; to whom the holy of holies has been committed, and who alone has been trusted with the secrets of God. He is the door of the Father, by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church. All these have for their object the attaining to the unity of God. But the Gospel possesses something transcendent [above the former dispensation], viz., the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, His passion and resurrection. For the beloved prophets announced Him, but the Gospel is the perfection of immortality. All these things are good together, if you believe in love.

Which is to say he is losing the scriptural arguments to people focusing on older / more traditional dispensation. Perhaps the same kinds of problems we discovered with Clement?

So in other words:
denial of Bishop leads to a denial of the incarnation which leads to a denial of Ignatius doctrine of crucifixion and this leads to a denial of his view of the relationship between the father and son.

And this makes perfect sense the docetic Christians did deny the authority of the church since for them the apostles did not have any kind of unique access to Jesus. So what we have is one sect asserting something that another sect is rejecting. And evidentially the other sect has a persuasive argument based on scripture.

Bryan Cross said...


I think I agree with what you are saying. I discussed this idea of docetism (or some form of gnosticism) as the root of heresy in a paper titled "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy".

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan