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“Now I begin to be a disciple” – A week with Ignatius in review

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

This week we read all but one of St Ignatius of Antioch’s authentic letters, having read his Epistle to the Ephesians last Saturday, and then today we started the letters forged in his name. A little review of the main themes from St Ignatius is, I believe, in order. This week, we saw martyrdom, Christology, and church order, most especially, although St Ignatius is also famous for sacramental theology.

Martyrdom

In his letter to the Romans, we find the answer to the question I posed last week in my blog about martyrdom: Why die for Jesus? Why not just burn incense to Caesar and be done with it?

The answer, in short, is Eternity. Ignatius will not abandon Christ for whatever temporal lengthening of life that may give. His eye is beyond the arena, focussed on Eternity. For Ignatius, being a disciple is basically the full sum of his identity. Being carried off to martyrdom, he says, “Now I begin to be a disciple.” He expresses hope for prayers from the Romans that he will remain steadfast to the end. And the main point of being a disciple, of finding Eternity, is knowing Jesus.

We may find his desire to be munched in the jaws of lions like bread to be more than a little morbid, but the spirit that lies behind it should surely be seen as noble by anyone: Dying for a cause higher than one’s own self. Dying rather than surrender one’s conscience to the principalities and powers. Not allowing the government to dictate to you but allowing the way, the truth, and the life to be your main goal in life.

As Ignatius himself quotes, “If a man gain the whole world but lose his own soul, what good is it to him?” (Mt. 16:26)

Christology

Overall, Ignatius has a high Christology. The sentence with the highest Christology is, however, only present in the Latin (alas, I forget which letter that was), so I suspect it to be an interpolation. Nonetheless, for St Ignatius, Jesus is the one through whom all things were made. He is God the Son. He is worthy of worship and obedience. He came down from heaven as a real man to save us.

His Christology in the authentic letters is not nuanced — nor should we expect someone who died in 108 to have a developed, Nicene faith. However, living this side of Nicaea, it is clear to see that Ignatius stands within the tradition that would lead to the confrontation between “Arians” and Nicenes:

When we say these things about Jesus, when we worship him, when we even say He is God, do we really mean that he is YHWH? And what does that mean about the Person he calls Father?

I am not saying he is Nicene. There are ways that the party of Arius could read Ignatius and agree with him. But this is the tradition of which he is a part.

Pseudo-Ignatius, however, does not consider Jesus in terms that a Nicene could accept — it seems to me that he does not have a nascent Trinitarian faith when he differentiates between the Father and the Son. He may be rejecting modalism, but I am not sure he is compatible with St Athanasius, either.

Church Order

St Ignatius is one of our earliest, unequivocal believers and promoters of what we might call “monepiscopacy.” It is true that he imagines each church of each city having a board of presbyters (or “elders”), but he is no Presbyterian. He clearly sees the bishop of each city as being the Christ-appointed, Spirit-ordained leader of the church, with duties and obligations as well as with respect due to his office.

Ignatius, indeed, sees the bishops, priests, and deacons as being put in place over the church by God. Those who rebel against them rebel against God. They are to be submitted to and obeyed. People are not supposed to do things outside of the authority of these three orders. It is clear that he perceives a true charism coming upon himself and other bishops.

This runs contrary to much that we feel about charismatic leadership and the democratic ideals espoused in practice in many churches. Nonetheless, in episcopal traditions to this day, the bishop is consecrated by the laying on of hands and prayers for the Holy Spirit to come down and sanctify his (or her, depending on your church) ministry. And the other clergy or similarly ordained by bishops.

If one has a strong enough belief in the Holy Spirit, then beliefs like those of Ignatius are, in theory, perfectly logical outworkings of the consecration and ordination of clergy. I will, perhaps, say no more in this vein.

I would, however, like to point out that we find in the apostolic era, and some other sub-apostolic writings such as the Didache — which we’ll read in May, written c. 90 — a recognised role of prophet. I would say ‘office’, but that implies human mechanisms within the church, and neither the New Testament nor the early literature see the prophets in their role that way, unlike bishops, priests, and deacons.

Ignatius is taking into himself the role of prophet, I think. The speaking to others words of encouragement, speaking what he feels the Spirit has inspired, believing in his own anointing by the Holy Spirit — these, I would argue, are all part of what it would have meant in this same era to be a prophet.

Ignatius sees the prophetic and episcopal roles as merging — we will see this union again, at least in Cyprian, if not others.

What about you?

These are my thoughts on this week in review. What stood out to you? What do you think? Do you agree with any of my assessments?

2 Comments

  1. Very helpful comments. I do agree with them. What struck me reading Ignatius this week was his humility. It is interesting to see someone who held such a high view of the episcopacy of which he was a member state so strongly that the Apostles and their teaching rule the Church and are merely safeguarded by the bishops, presbytery, and diaconate.

    • You are right about the humility! One would expect a bishop with a high view of the episcopate to be more self-seeking — tainted by all the amibitious bishops from Late Antiquity until today…

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