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Ignatius of Antioch, Christian, Pastor, Martyr…

13/09/2021

Ignatius of Antioch – PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to this special history podcast.  It not a podcast that everyone will enjoy, or benefit from.  It is history – hopefully theological history, yet history with a pastoral perspective. It’s not purely an academic history essay, for I have included some observations and comments, and even some anecdotes, to make the work easier to listen to in podcast form, and more applicable to those who are reading or listening in a modern Christian setting, and who prefer to have their theology, and their history applied.  After all, what’s the point of learning history, if we don’t use it to avoid the errors and mistakes of the past?

An Ancient Colosseum 

Throughout the history of the church there has been a litany of deaths, – we call them martyrdoms, legally enacted by a state or authority, or through mob and individual violence – executions of people who were believers and whose only crime was believing in Jesus as their only Saviour and being faithful to Him.  As we speak, those who were tortured and who died for Christ are in heaven, and John the Apostle saw them there, in his vision.  He wrote, in Revelation 6:9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?  From the first Martyr, Stephen, in Acts 7, to this day, people have given their lives rather than deny the Saviour.  But should a Christian ever desire martyrdom?  One man certainly did, – a man called Ignatius of Antioch, who died at Rome around the turn of the first/second century AD.  In this podcast, I want to introduce you to this historical character, and some of his beliefs, and to get a snapshot of the state of the church, just 70 or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE

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So who was Ignatius of Antioch, and why is he so important for church history?  Let’s not confuse him with another Ignatius, from the 16th century, the Roman Catholic so-called ‘saint’ Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.   This Ignatius, Ignatius Theophorus, was the Bishop of Antioch, around the turn of the first and second century, and he was arrested by the Romans and brought to Rome for martyrdom.  We know for sure that on his way to Rome he wrote letters to some of the churches he would have passed on his way there.  Seven of his letters are still available for us to read, and can be found in both a longer unredacted text, and in condensed versions, and there are summaries in some of the popular church history textbooks, like, for example “A New Eusebius” by James Stevenson, published by SPCK. I’m told it is also possible get an English and Greek parallel version, but I’ve never managed to find one.   Other letters have been attributed to Ignatius, but their sources are unreliable and most historians seem to disqualify them.  Six of the seven letters are to churches, and one to his friend Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who also was martyred at Rome.  We know that he died at Rome, and that he expected to be killed by wild beasts in the arena there, an expectation that we can reasonably assume was fulfilled.  There is an account of his martyrdom, but it was written at a much later date, and is thought to be mostly legend, rather than history.

So, let’s start with what we know about Ignatius, and a little bit of what we can realistically assume.  Antioch in Syria, one of the four major cities of the Roman Empire, had a Christian Church that dated back to the earliest days of Christianity, to the dispersal of Christians after the first persecution at Jerusalem, and we know from Acts, that the Antioch Church was the mother church of most of the Greek churches across Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaia, and even Italy.  It was the church that commissioned and sent missionaries like the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, to go to the gentile world and preach the gospel.  Ignatius would have been studying for his ministry there, under people who wold have known Paul and heard his teaching. He may even have been able to listen to some of the NT authors, like Luke or John, who we know lived to an old age, and whose own disciple, Polycarp, was a friend of Ignatius.   

Of his arrest, we know nothing.  The ancient church historian, Eusebius placed that arrest during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and we know that Trajan had a well thought out policy on the arrest and imprisonment of Christians.  Trajan was, in relative terms, perhaps the best of the Roman rulers.  Under his rule, the empire prospered, and consolidated itself – and became content with the territory over which it had sovereignty.  In Asia, the governor of Bithynia, one of the areas that had been successfully evangelised by Paul and his missionary team, was Pliny the Younger.  There is a letter that was written by Pliny to Trajan seeking advice.  Some of the citizens had accused others of being Christians, followers of Jesus Christ.  Essentially, under Roman Law, these people were regarded as ‘atheists’ – a charge that sounds strange to us, but the Roman Empire required complete subservience to the empire as embodied in the person of the Emperor.  Christians refused to worship any God but Christ, so when asked to show their submission to Caesar, by burning a pinch of incense in his name, – they refused!  That made them atheists in the sight of Rome, people who would not acknowledge the divine nature of the Roman Emperor. That in turn, meant that they could be reported to the authorities, arrested and interrogated under torture.  Pliny, on hearing an accusation against some of these Christians, had arrested some of them.  He explains to Trajan, “those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”  What were these Christians up to that was so offensive? Pliny wrote, “the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath… not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food….I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.”  Trajan’s reply was that the state was not to seek out Christians, but when accusations were received, and the accused were found guilty, they should be punished.  Anyone who renounces their Christianity and worships the pagan gods should be pardoned, and anonymous accusations should not be admitted to any prosecution.  If Ignatius was indeed arrested during the emperorship of Trajan, then it is highly likely that his arrest would have followed that pattern.  As a bishop, he would be fairly open about his Christian faith, so an accusation would be made, he would have been arrested and tried, and found guilty.  He would have refused to recant, and would have been sentenced to death.  It is interesting that he was being sent to Rome for his execution.  That may suggest that he was a Roman citizen.  I wonder what the Antioch church thought abut the arrest and imprisonment of their leader?  In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius wrote, “Seeing that the Church which is at Antioch in Syria is, as report has informed me, at peace, through your prayers, I also am the more encouraged, resting without anxiety in God.”  Perhaps they had the same attitude as Ignatius himself, and thought of martyrdom as ‘attaining to Christ.”

The journey from Syria to Rome is a little clearer, for we can work out Ignatius’s progress from his letters.  We know that he travelled in chains, along with other prisoners, from Syria overland to Smyrna, where he was met by Poycarp, and members of the local church, and delegations from other local churches, Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles, who as far as possible looked after his needs.  From Smyrna, they travelled to Troas, and after a short stay embarked ship for Macedonia, passing through Philippi, to Italy and eventually to Rome.  His treatment at the hands of the soldiers seems a little erratic.  He speaks of the beatings he received at their hands, and prays that they may be to the glory of Christ in his letter to the Romans, “From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified.” Yet, along the way they allow him to receive visitors, to have fellowship with other Christians, to have companions in travel, write his letters, and even have the services of a secretary!  

PSALM 49  

12 Man despite his wealth is mortal; like the beasts, he fades away.

13 Thus the self-assured will perish, though renowned for what they say.

14 Death will feed upon their bodies; just like sheep they meet their fate.

In the grave their forms will perish, far from where they lived in state.

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Let’s look at what Ignatius believed and confessed and taught, to get an idea of what was being taught by the early church leaders, at the end of the first century AD.  Everything we know about Ignatius’ beliefs and doctrines comes from his letters, and what we can discover is quite revealing!  

1 Martyrdom.  Martyrdom is one of Ignatius’ most predominant subjects.  He writes about it in some sense in every letter.  Ignatius actually WANTS to be martyred, for he thinks that martyrdom will benefit him spiritually.  It raises questions for Christians of every age.  Is it right to seek to be martyred?  There are certainly people in this world who will hate Christ and Christians enough to want to murder them, it has always been the case.  At Jerusalem, the enraged Jews, hearing that Paul was commissioned by God to bring the good news of God’s free grace to the gentiles, cried out in Acts 22:22 …Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.  Yet faced with such antagonism, Paul had instructed the Christians at Rome, where martyrdoms happened with regularity, in Romans 12:14-18 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not…17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.  Ignatius courted martyrdom.  Writing to the Christians of Rome, Ignatius, afraid that influential Christians might try to intervene and prevent his martyrdom, wrote, “I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ…

Let’s look at Ignatius’s

2 Ecclesiology.  His doctrine of the Christian Church.  This is where we get a snapshot of how things are changing rapidly in the early church.  Let’s see an example of this in Ignatius’s theology of ministry.  When Peter and Paul wrote about the structures of ministry in the local church, they used interchangeable terms.  They spoke of a plurality of elders and deacons, sometimes calling the elders presbuteros, and sometimes, episcopes, – shepherds or overseers.  Look at Acts 20, where speaking to the elders (πρεσβύτερος) at Ephesus, Paul says, 28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, (ἐπισκοπέω) to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”  1 Peter 5:1-2 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder,(πρεσβύτερος) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (ἐπισκοπέω) thereof ….   Clearly, to the very first church, to the apostles, Elders, and Shepherds – (let’s call them “Bishops”) are exactly the same office.  Yet by the time of Ignatius, just a half century or less later, a ‘three-fold order’ is beginning to develop in the church, where there is a single bishop in each city, a council of elders (a presbytery) and a number of deacons.  Running throughout his letters, is a constant theme, of obedience to the bishop, honour for the bishop, the primacy of the bishop, the bishop to be revered, as Christ is revered, do nothing without the bishop… Here’s just a few examples,

  • Letter to Ephesus Chapter 6: 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, 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.  You won’t find anything like this in the theology of Peter to Paul!
  • Letter to the Philadelphians Chapter 2: Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.
  • Letter to Smyrnaeans Chapter 8: 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. 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 baptise 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

There is a theory, that Ignatius was in the vanguard of this pro-episcopacy ecclesiology, that his insistence upon a sole bishop in every church was an innovation, and that he was advocating for it so strongly in order to win over others to his own ecclesiological position.  If so, then Ignatius, probably for good intentions was pressing for a system of church government that was foreign to the Bible, and which, in its logical outcome would lead to serious errors.  It wouldn’t be long before one bishop would decide that his church was more important than others, and decree that he was first among equals, ‘primus inter pares’ – and that eventually would become the papacy.  But what about the rest of his doctrine on the church?  Apart from his views on the ministry of the church, which we have already looked at, what can we discover about the early, sub-apostolic church from these letters?  There are four areas of note:-

  1. Sacraments.  Ignatius mentions both sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in his letters.  There must have been schismatic groups, holding baptism and communion services, and Ignatius warns against this, with this statement to the Smyrnaeans, It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptise 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.  There’s no mention, though of the later sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, which as we know were introduced at a much later date.  But despite this, Ignatius held a view of the sacraments which is closer to Romanism, or perhaps, Lutheranism, than to modern evangelicalism, or reformed theology.  For example:-
    1. Baptism. Ignatius did mention baptism, in his letter to Polycarp, baptism was mentioned as a weapon in the Christian warfare against the devil.  “Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism endure as your arms.”  
    2. Communion. It’s his references to communion that gives us the clearest picture of Ignatius’s high view of the sacraments.  He speaks of the bread and wine as being ‘The medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying.’ In his letter to the Ephesians, a hint of a sacerdotal theology, a belief that grace is transmitted to the believer, through the agency of the sacraments.  He also believed in the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the sacraments, again, a doctrine held by modern day Lutherans.  In the letter to the Smyrnaeans, he castigates those heretics who ‘abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes.’   In some sense he seems to have seen his own body in a similar manner, – as being ‘bread’ – he was to be eaten by wild beasts and he wrote to the Romans, “…let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.
  2. The Lord’s Day.  Some time ago I went to answer a knock at the door to be confronted by two men handing out literature.  At first I suspected they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but as it happened they were Seventh Day Adventists.  When they found that I was a Christian minister, one of them began a tirade against Sunday worship, arguing that it had never existed in the church until the days of the Emperor Constantine, in the third and fourth centuries, and that he had forced it upon the church because in fact he was never a Christian, but an opportunistic adherent of the sun god!  Regardless of that last accusation, which may  or may not be true, it is totally without foundation that earlier generations of believers had not worshipped on the first day of the week, – the day when Christ had risen from the dead.,  Ignatius wrote about it just 50 years after Paul’s death, in his letters to the Magnesians, “If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a newhope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death-whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ…”. There is no doubt that the Lord’s Day was observed from the very earliest days of the Christian church.  Another early church document, written around AD96, the Didache, back up what Ignatius says, “Didache 14:1 “And on the Lord’s Day [κατὰ κυριακὴν δὲ κυρίου] gather to break bread and to give thanks, after having confessed your offences so that your sacrifice may be pure.”
  3. Christian Unity.  For Ignatius, Christian unity was an important theme of his ecclesiology, especially in the face of doctrinal assault from heretics.  Christians should be united around the bishop.  In his letter to the Ephesians, he writes, For it is written, “God resisteth the proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.  In that same letter he uses an interesting illustration.  He paints a picture of a musical recital, with a harp and a choir.  He writes, 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 do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God.
  4. The Universal Church.  There is one more very important line, in Ignatius’s letters that we should not miss.  It is found in his letter to the Smyrnaeans.  ‘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’s the first mention in historical writings of the word ‘Catholic’ to describe the church, although historical theologians suspect it was commonly in verbal use at this time.  But what does it mean?  I was asking a man how he’d enjoyed the service he’d attended at a local Anglican Church.  His reply was interesting – “It was good enough, it they ruined it when they recited the Apostle’s Creed and kept in the words, ‘Holy Catholic Church’  I don’t believe in any Catholic Church – I’m a Protestant!”  To be fair, when we say that creed we usually substitute the word ‘Catholic’ with the word ‘universal.’  Like so many others, he thought that the word ‘Catholic’; was the sole property of that church based in Rome, with the pope as it head, and with a sacramental understanding of the work of grace, and a liturgical form of worship, and scant respect for the preaching of God’s word.  In fact the idea of a ‘Roman Catholic Church’ is an oxymoron, – for how can a universal entity be ‘Roman? – Tied to a single place’. The understanding of Catholicism in the day of Ignatius, was closely related to the defence of the faith, and correct doctrine and belief.  In respect of the practice of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, he is urging the believers to stay within the universally accepted practice of the church, that it be sanctioned and enacted by the local church leadership.  The literals meaning of ‘Catholic’ – universal, is ‘according to the whole.’  There is a body of divinity within the unity of the church, which equates to a universal, Catholic position – doctrine as universally held.  Paul had used this argument too, in 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.  A universally accepted standard of doctrine or practice, outside of which we should not stray.

PSALM 49  

But the upright ones will rule them, once the morning light has shone.

15 From the grave God will redeem me; he will take me for his own.

16 Do not quake before a rich man, though his fortune grows immense,

And his outward state increases— 17 for he will take nothing hence.

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3 Christology.  What did Ignatius believe about the person and work of Christ?  Around the time when Ignatius was alive, there were repeated attacks on the person of Christ, and gad been from the earliest days.  The Ebionites, who were a Jewish sect within the church, believed that Jesus was merely a good man, the best of men, who was adopted into the Godhead because of his impeccable character.  Jesus had perfectly kept the law, and therefore is our example, that we too should try to keep the law.  It was a works religion, that didn’t work, for no-one could keep the law.  It was little more than Judaism with a human Jesus as a perfect rabbi!  But in the Greek-speaking world, among the gentiles, the continuing attack on Christ and the church mostly came from the Docetics, whose beliefs were the very opposite of the Ebionites. The Docetic belief was that Jesus was not really a bodily, human being at all, just God, manifesting himself in what appeared to be a human form, – like a spectre of sorts.  John the Apostle had written against people like them, in 1 John 4:2-3  Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.  Ignatius would have known that. He was adamantly opposed to the Docetics, denounced them as heretics, and warned the churches to mark them and avoid them.  In fact, one wonders sometimes, if in his anxiety to oppose the Docetics, Ignatius didn’t go too far in the opposite direction, over-stressing the humanity of Christ.  Still, Docetics were troubling the church, and it their false beliefs he was dealing with.  He wrote, for example in the letter to the Trallians:- 

  • Chapter 6. He likens true doctrine to Christian nourishment and says, I therefore, yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ, entreat you that ye use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different kind; I mean heresy. For those [that are given to this] mixup Jesus Christ with their own poison… like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine, which he who is ignorant of does greedily take, with a fatal pleasure leading to his own death.
  • Chapter 9 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… 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.

In chapter 10 of that letter, Ignatius makes the argument, that his own death would be futile if Christ had not come in the flesh, and died in the flesh and rose again in the flesh.  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?  His denunciations of the Docetics were not confined to that letter, but are repeated throughout his epistles.

But Ignatius’ Christological thought is not confined to opposition to Doceticism.  In his pursuit of the heretics, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, he demonstrated a good understanding of the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, …I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptised by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], … in the one body of His Church.  Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. ….  There’s some very strong statements of faith in that passage, including affirmations of the Virgin Birth, the perfect sinlessness of Christ, fulfilling the law for us, physically crucified on the cross, suffering all these things (Our own catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 15 Q37, asks, “What do you confess when you say that he suffered? During all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life).”  

Ignatius saw Jesus our Saviour as the fulfilment of everything in the Old Testament – Those were the days before the formal acceptance of the NT Canon by the church. That does not mean that the inspired writings of John and Paul and Luke and Mark and the other writers weren’t available, or were not regarded as the infallible word of God.  They were, and they were circulating around the churches.  For example, when Paul wrote to the Colossians, he advised, in Colossians 4:16 And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.  The church did not ‘make’ the New Testament,  the opposite is actually the case, for the Word brought the church into existence!  While no-one had produced a leather bound volume of all the books, the New Testament was already in existence, in its 27 parts, – and in the fourth century, the church laid down a ‘canon’ – a LAW that the universal church would recognise the 27 books of the NT and exclude all others.  So, in his Letter to the Philadelphian church, Ignatius wrote, “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… 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. … 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.”  That statement is an echo of the words of Hebrews 1:1-2, God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,  2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.  

So, Ignatius wrote about the dangers of a false Christology, saw Christ as truly born in the flesh, and that he suffered and died for us.  So, what did he believe about:-

4 Salvation.

Some of the historical theologians will insist that they see echoes of Pauline thought and doctrine in the letters of Ignatius. I can’t see a great deal of evidence for that, but then my reading of the letters is confined to English versions, and redacted versions at that.  His understanding of the doctrine of salvation seems to me to fall very short of Pauls, who wrote in Ephesians 2: And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins…  4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) 6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: 7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.  You won’t find language like that, or theology expressed in those terms in any of the letters of Ignatius.  There are two aspects of his soteriology that stand out.  I’m going to call them:-

  • “Attainment to Christ.”  The phrase, ‘that I might attain to Christ’ appears frequently throughout Ignatius’s letters, and when it appears, it is usually expressed as a result of martyrdom.  So, when Ignatius died in the arena at Rome, it was so that he might attain to Christ, or ‘attain to God.’  To GET to CHRIST or to GET to GOD.  That sounds suspiciously like a works based religion, – doing something, even dying, in order to ‘Get God.’   There is a hymn, allegedly based on the words of St Francis of Assisi, Make me a channel of your peace, that includes the words,  “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; In giving to all men that we receive; And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.” I don’t much like that hymn!  It’s just more works righteousness, doing something to be pardoned, doing something to receive from God, dying to gain eternal life.  None of these things are true, for all of these blessings are free gifts of God, granted by his sovereign grace alone.   Martyrdom or death to ‘attain to Christ’ filtered down as a theme in Roman Catholicism too.  Let’s see this idea that martyrdom – death, is the gate to God in Ignatius’s own writings.  In his letter to the church at Rome, Ignatius pleaded with the church to allow his martyrdom to take place, and not to seek any intervention on his behalf.  He wrote, “ …if ye are silent concerning me, I shall become God’s; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race. Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favour upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to Him Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.

Then there’s…

  • The ‘Bait and Hook Theory.’  This one is for those who enjoy reading and learning about the various theories of the atonement that have been held by different branches of the church.  As reformed Evangelicals we believe in the biblical doctrine of the atonement, as expressed by Paul and John and the other New Testament authors, the understanding that when Jesus died upon the cross God placed upon his sinless Son, the sins of all those who would believe in him, and in His death he atoned for those sins, bore in his own body the punishment that was due to us, and thus satisfied the divine justice of God. Simultaneously, he granted us his own righteousness, as a cloak, to blot out our sins, so that in the sight of God we are declared to be without sin.  We are ‘In Christ.’  Let’s see just a little bit of Biblical evidence…
    • John 10:11, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
    • 2 Corinthians 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
    • Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
    • 1 Peter 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
    • 1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.

But there have been other ideas put forward, to explain how Christ’s birth, sinless life and death have purchased our salvation, and one of these is the so-called ‘bait and hook’ theory.  It may have originated with Ignatius.  Because of their sin,  (in this theory) people rightly belong to Satan, so God, who loved sinners offered his Son as a ransom, a bargain the devil readily accepted.  It was only when the devil got Christ into hell, after his death, that the evil one realised that Christ’s power was stronger then death, and that hell could not hold him.  He rose again from the dead, leaving Satan without either his original captives, (Us) or the ransom itself, – Christ.  The thought that God who is sinless, – and holy – deceived the devil, didn’t seem to bother the early church fathers who believed this theory!  They used an illustration, which gives this theory its name, – they thought of the flesh of Jesus being the bait, the deity of Christ, the hook.  Once the devil took the bait – the human Christ, he found to his horror that it covered and concealed the hook that trapped him – the divinity of Christ.  Here’s a hint, and it’s only a hint – towards this theory in Ignatius’ letter to the church at Ephesus, chapter 19, Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; … Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.  Of course, we have to be careful with theories like this.  God didn’t just save us because he could, because he was stronger and smarter than the devil, and could fool the devil into taking the bait and swallowing the hook.  ‘Might is right’ is not an adequate description of what Christ did for us, especially when we consider verses like Ephesians 5:2. And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. There is a place for the doctrine that Christ has conquered sin, but we see that as part of the larger, more rounded soteriology, that God loved sinners, and gave His own son that through his death, he would overcome death for them.    

So, we have looked briefly at evidences of Ignatius’s theology of salvation, his ‘soteriology’ in his letters.   

PSALM 49

He will soon descend with nothing of the splendour he possessed,

18 Though in life he prospered greatly and they told him he was blessed.

19 He will go to join his fathers— never see the light of day.

20 Those with wealth and no discernment are like beasts that pass away.

-oOOo-

Ignatius died for Christ at Rome.  There is an account of that death, but is written later and is not generally regarded as historically sound.  We know that on his route to Rome he wrote to the Romans, describing in gory detail, what death he anticipated in Rome.  “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”   We must assume that this was indeed his fate.  We have a contemporary record of a similar death, the death of Ignatius’s friend Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, and we know for sure that he was taken into the arena, and that attempts were made to persuade him to recant, and deny Christ.  He refused, and was threatened with the animals, who would tear him limb from limb.  When the Romans saw that Polycarp was unmoved by this threat, they decided to burn him instead.  He died as the vicious mob laughed and drank and jeered and called out, “away with the atheists.”  We can assume that Ignatius’s death was similar.  The unreliable later account states, “being immediately thrown in (to the animal’s enclosure), according to the command of Caesar given some time ago, the public spectacles being just about to close … he was thus cast to the wild beasts close, beside the temple, that so by them the desire of the holy martyr Ignatius should be fulfilled, according to that which is written, “The desire of the righteous is acceptable [to God],” to the effect that he might not be troublesome to any of the brethren by the gathering of his remains, even as he had in his Epistle expressed a wish beforehand that so his end might be. For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.”  This much later account has so many elements of Roman Catholicism, such as the preservation and veneration of relics, the ‘merits’ of the martyrs etc, error which were totally unknown in Ignatius’s day, and which amply demonstrate its historical inaccuracy,  I include it only to demonstrate this!

So, what can we learn from Ignatius Theophorus, the Bishop of Antioch and martyr?  Certainly, we are inspired by his courage! A man who was so convinced of his faith, and so confident in Christ, as to have no fear of death in the face of persecution, is an example to us all.  We may find his desire for martyrdom strange, and unnecessary, and his theology of martyrdom, his understanding that martyrdom is the means to ‘attain to Christ’ a little less than evangelical, but would we be so utterly convinced that to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord, that we would write to influential people in the city of our death, warning them not to stop it from happening?  That takes a special courage.

Negatively, we think it sad that so soon after the lofty and mighty writings of Paul and the other apostles, the clear setting forth of the doctrines of grace, the church at the end of the second century had backslidden into sacramentalism and soteriological error.  How we too must guard ourselves.  1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee

© Bob McEvoy September 2021

2 Comments
  1. raymond1517@sky.com permalink

    Bob, Could you do me 5 of the CD on this topic please Many Thanks, Raymond Stewart

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