The Image-Bearer’s farewell: The letters of Ignatius of Antioch

Posted: November 17, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Church Fathers
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Ignatius, bishop of Antich, wrote 7 letters on his way to be martyred in Rome, addressed to his friend Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and to the churches in Rome, Ephesus, Tralles, Smyrna, Philadelphia, and Magnesia.  He appears to have died as a martyr around AD 110.  In each letter, he refers to himself as “Theophorus,” which translator Michael Holmes renders “Image-bearer” and others have rendered “God-bearer.”  Holmes argues that he is drawing on the image of pagan religious processions.

As Holmes’ introduction states, we don’t know why Ignatius was arrested, but he apparently escorted to Rome by 10 Roman soldiers.  His letters are often used as sources for the history of the Church in the early centuries.  Holmes writes that his three major concerns throughout the letters are the purity of doctrine against Judaism and Gnostic teachings; unity of the Church, especially under the bishops; and his coming martyrdom.

His theological opponents seem to be two-fold: Judaizers and Gnostics (see here for Peter Leithart’s comments on the interpretation that they were actually Jewish Gnostics – from reading the letters I’m not sure that I agree).  To combat false teachings, Ignatius includes over the course of his letters four creedal statements that affirm Christ’s humanity.  Here’s an example from his letter to the Trallians:

Be deaf, therefore, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up.  In the same way his Father will likewise also raise up in Christ Jesus us who believe in him.  Apart from him we have no true life.

But if, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only (while they exist in appearance only!), why am I in chains?  And why do I want to fight with wild beasts?  If that is the case, I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord (Chapters 9 and 10).

Ignatius’ letters clearly show the importance of the bishops by the early 2nd century.  He stresses unity under the bishop and obedience to the bishop, making a famously strong statement in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans:

Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils.  You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God.  Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop.  Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.  Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.  It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop.  But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.

He also calls the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Letter to the Ephesians, 20:2).  I had seen quotations from these passages before, but had never read them in their context.

The most obvious motif in these letters is, of course, the discussion of his impending death.  Ignatius was ready to die and be with God.  This made his letters quite remarkable.  The letter that focused most on martyrdom was his letter to the Romans.  In fact, as Holmes points out, he was worried that the Roman church might help him to escape this fate and asked them to allow him to die:

I am writing to all the churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will – unless you hinder me.  I implore you: do not be unseasonably kind to me.  Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God.  I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground up by the teeth of the wild beasts, so that I may prove to be pure bread.  Better yet, coax the wild beasts, so that they may become my tomb and leave nothing of my body behind, lest I become a burden to anyone once I have fallen asleep.  Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body.  Pray to the Lord on my behalf, so that through these instruments I may prove to be a sacrifice to God. (Letter to the Romans, 4:1-2)

His desire to die for Christ is a fascinating theme throughout the letters.  Ignatius hopes that he will be found worthy to die, and he attaches a few different hopes to his death.  He wants to follow Christ’s path and to be with God after death, and he trusts Christ to empower him.  He also ties his death to the reality of Christ’s incarnation.  You can see this above in the passage from the letter to the Trallians, as well as in this passage from the letter to the Smyrnaeans (4:2):

For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only.  Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to fire, to sword, to beasts?  But in any case, “near the sword” means “near to God”; “with the beasts” means “with God.”  Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him! I endure everything because he himself, who is the perfect human being, empowers me.

Holmes’ introduction says that part of Ignatius’ goal in his martyrdom was related to a split in his church in Antioch, and that his goal may have been either to heal the split or restore his own standing as a faithful bishop (89).  Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction states that, in light Ignatius’ emphasis on the honored reception he received by the churches he visited and his request to send representatives back to Antioch,

“It is quite apparent from all this stagecraft that Ignatius wanted his heroic martyrdom to serve as an emphatic statement of his principles.  He hoped to win a moral victory by making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the version of Christianity he embraced, over against the legalists and the Gnostics” (41).

Litfin writes that many take Ignatius’ statement that the church at Antioch was “at peace” (Smyrnaeans 11:2) to mean that his plan worked.

Ignatius’ concern for unity echoes the pleas of 1 and 2 Clement for unity.  The emphasis on Christian unity that we see in the New Testament and these early documents is something that we’ve deemphasized, I think.  It seems that often we can define our spiritual purity and maturity by what we stand against, and there is certainly a place for taking stands.  But we also have such a lack of emphasis on unity in our church culture that we probably ought to be looking for ways to promote unity in the truth much more actively than we do.

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