As we finish week 2 of our reading, we’ve made it two-thirds of the way through the apostolic fathers. (Because of some idiosyncrasies in ANF, in the coming months we’ll circle back to two texts often classified as part of the apostolic fathers, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas.) This next week we’ll finish the rest of the apostolic fathers, and on Saturday we’ll begin Justin Martyr. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll post an introduction to Justin.
I want to bring out two threads from our reading this week. First, Ignatius emphasizes that “you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters” (To the Magnesians, ch. 7, among many other places). The importance of Christian unity and harmony within the church was also a main emphasis in Clement of Rome, and we will find this point being made again and again. For Clement, the theological rationale for the unity of the church was the nature of the congregation and indeed the cosmos. For Ignatius, the theological rationale is on the Trinity as a model for the structure of the church, and so he especially emphasizes the bishop as the source of unity.
Second, in Ignatius’s epistles we read a heart-rending account of a man yearning for death so that he can bear witness to his Lord (μάρτυρος = witness), yet fearful that he will be denied martyrdom either by the maneuverings of the church in Rome, or because he will in the end deny his Lord. We will read in countless texts about the theology of martyrdom: should Christians give themselves over to death? How far should they go to avoid it? Should a bishop leave his congregation to avoid martyrdom? Should someone be excommunicated for handing over the Scriptures to save himself? We’ve already seen these questions addressed in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. One of the striking metaphors for martyrdom in the fathers’ writings, with precedent in the epistles of Paul, is the martyr as athlete. The comparison is to the gladiatorial games (which, by the way, the fathers universally condemn). We’ve seen this metaphor in Polycarp—”The most noble Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts” (Martyrdom, ch. 3)—and in Ignatius—”From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, … being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers” (To the Romans, ch. 5). Whenever I encounter this metaphor, I think of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic Speech” (“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena …”), only in service not of nationalism, but of people who are “strangers and exiles on the earth.” These accounts and theologies of martyrdom are especially important in an age where perhaps 200 million Christians suffer persecution, much of it state-sponsored.1
Several readers have been posting excerpts of the readings, including Theology for the Road and Near Emmaus (with a long, thoughtful comment thread on this post). It’s great to see people in the community writing about what they’ve been reading.
Bonus: Philip Jenkins explains that the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a translation of the ancient “O Antiphons.”
Double bonus: In the most recent issue of Church History, C. P. E. Nothaft reviews the theories and evidence behind the December 25th date for Christmas. (You’ll need a subscription, unfortunately.)