Inspired by Ignatius

I'm in the process of discovering Ignatius of Antioch, and what a wonderful discovery he has been.

The letters from the early-second century bishop of Antioch (not to be confused with the C16 founder of the Jesuits with the same first name) are a treasure of inspiration and insight.

The elderly bishop-martyr certainly had a way with words - think Spurgeon with a toga. The fact that his letters were largely penned on the road in AD 107 during his final journey as a prisoner to be executed in Rome, adds a powerful quality to both his content and style.

A few highlights so far, all taken from the letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians:

"It is true that I am a prisoner for the Name's sake, but I am by no means perfect in Jesus Christ as yet; I am only a beginner in discipleship."

Ignatius is often cited as giving evidence of a proto-episcopalianism in his writings, and thus providing a theological rationale for the gradual emergence of the monarchical bishops who ruled the churches by the fourth century.

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the emphasis Ignatius places on the role of the bishops in the churches is not because he is fixated on an episcopalian model as such. Rather, his focus is doctrinal. In the absence of a closed canon of Scripture, much less any universally agreed creeds or confessions by the church, the body of gospel truth handed down by Christ and the twelve was (dynamically and intellectually) resident in the lives and teachings of the overseers and shepherds of the church, some of whom had been appointed by the original apostles and prophets, or by their delegates, during the preceding half century.

His comments on the role of the bishops should, in my view be read, in this context.

"Your justly respected clergy, who are a credit to God, are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from minds that are in unison and affections that are in harmony. Pray, then, come and join this choir, every one of you; let there be a whole symphony of minds in concert; take the tone all together from God, and sing aloud to the Father with one voice through Jesus Christ, so that he may hear you and know by your good works that you are indeed members of his Son's body."

Commending the church in Ephesus for its recent refusal to entertain false teachers who had visited them, Ignatius notes:

"You stopped your ears against the seed they were sowing. Deaf as stones you were: yes, stones trimmed ready for God to build with, hoisted up by the derrick of Jesus Christ (the Cross) with the Holy Spirit for a cable; your faith being the winch that draws you to God, up the ramp of love."

Perhaps the most intense (and deservedly famous) quote of Ignatius from these letters is a comment on his impending martyrdom, in which the bishop exalts:

"I am God's wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to become purest bread for Christ."

It's heady stuff.

I'm discovering Ignatius through reading the Penguin edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.


Add Your Blog said...
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Protoprotestant said...

I think you're right on Ignatius. His letters are moving.

He wasn't trying to establish Episcopalianism per was about protecting orthodoxy. But in the end, he probably did contribute a bit to the church moving in that direction and away from the plurality of elders in the NT. Would you agree?

I've been periodically drinking from the Patristic well for years. I've got the 38vol. ante-Nicene and Nicene fathers set.

joven said...
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Steve Finnell said...
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AnnoyingJoe said...

wow, nothing say christianity like a little censorship..go ahead, remove my post

Al Shaw said...

Remind me what it was about, please Joe.

Lloyd said...

I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God's blessings. Lloyd

ian said...

Hi Al,

I came across your blog via Proto-Protestant's.

Let me dive right in and suggest that the office of Bishop (as per Ignatius), which only came into being after the Apostles died, was a corruption of the Apostles' teaching.

As you know, in Paul's teaching, Bishop - episkopos - overseer, was another term for "elder", and elders were always plural and co-equal.

ian said...


That is, Bishop - episkopos, and Elder - presbuteros, are used alternatively to describe the same office.

For example:

Php 1:1 Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

Bishops and deacons. It could equally be read, Elders and Deacons. The context tells us that a group of "Bishops" govern the church in Philippi.


Tit 1:5 For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and ordain ***elders*** in every city, as I had appointed you:

Tit 1:6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of rebellion or unruly.

Tit 1:7 For a ***bishop*** must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, not violent, not given to dishonest gain;

Clearly, in this passage, Elder and Bishop is the same office.

After the Apostles died one of the first major heresies was the "bishop heresy", as promoted by such as Ignatius.

The bishop heresy was perhaps one of the major reasons for the falling away of the church.

Another point: The Didache (late 1st Cent) spells out the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Fulfliing the words of Paul, After my departure, savage wolves shall enter and devour the flock. This was a most grave heresy. Together with the bishop heresy, it formed a clergy / priestly class to rule over the church, against the Holy Spirit.

E. C. Rhodes said...

I also find the letters of Ignatius (especially his letter to the Romans) very moving.

On Ignatius and bishops, it is worth noting that he does make references to bishops ruling in the context of a council of elders (cf Ign.Magn.2.1, Ign.Phil.4) in his letters. I do sometimes wonder whether much of the opposition to the local bishops of the early centuries (in many cases more like modern Rectors or Deans) comes from the fact that we are looking back at it through time, via the filter of the later prelates and princely bishops of the mediaeval era.

The accusation against Ignatius and other Apostolic Fathers of being responsible for a "bishop heresy" or of being "wolves" raises a wider question. Do we hold to the "Great Apostasy" view of church history, i.e. that the whole church fell into apostasy and deceit some time around the point at which the Apostle John drew his last breath (if not sooner) until the true faith was restored by ... [insert name of favourite Reformer, prophet or new "apostle" here]. If so, on what basis do we say that those who knew the Apostles got it completely wrong whereas we have it right? How do we differ from the likes of Joseph Smith or Charles Taze Russell (who held to essentially the same view) in terms of our ecclesiology and epistemology? How does the "Great Apostasy" viewpoint fit with Christ's promise that the Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16.13) and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church (Matthew 16.18)? I'm not saying that the early church was incapable of error (I would argue that Christianity has faced error and heresy in every generation) but I am increasingly doubtful that Evangelicalism (especially its more "Restorationist" flavours) has this one right.

Anyway, I hope that this contribution (or mini-rant) has been at least slightly helpful.