Why ya gotta read St. Ignatius of Antioch

The popular imaginings of early Christian persecution ring true for this saint. Around the year 107, Ignatius was arrested and dragged to Rome, where he was fed to beasts at the Coliseum. The pagan Empire wanted to make an example of Ignatius, who was chief leader of one of the most important early Christian centers. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, in modern-day Syria, not long after the Apostle Peter led the church there.

Ignatius of Antioch, then, is one of the earliest Christian leaders we know about.

Along the way to his martyrdom, he wrote seven letters to various Christian communities. Besides the New Testament, his letters are among the earliest Christian writings we have. His letters are therefore invaluable for learning about the state and development of early Christianity.

Every Christian should read his letters, all of which are available online and can be finished within a matter of minutes. I can’t remember when I first discovered Ignatius letters, but they never cease to inspire me and uplift my faith.

3 REASONS TO READ IGNATIUS

1. To discover what early Christianity was like

Writing from the beginning of the second century, Ignatius marks a significant link in the chain of Christian faith, passing on the teachings of the Apostles to the next generation of believers. In fact, Ignatius is said to have learned from the Apostle John and succeeded the Apostle Peter in Antioch.

Some Christians only have a vague impression of Christian history — often focused on the New Testament. But there is a record of Christian writings starting with the Apostles and continuing with their successors, the bishops. This trail of Christian tradition helps us to see how Christians first understood the faith and applied it in their own times and cultures.

2. To remember that Christianity is based in real events

Ignatius knew the Apostles, even succeeding them in ministry. The Apostles, in turn, knew Christ — the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The first disciples were real flesh-and-blood people who really saw, heard, and learned from Jesus. Unlike, say, the legends of  Zeus and Thor, the Christian faith is based in real events that have enduring consequences. Christ’s resurrection energized the first Christians to leave everything behind and risk it all — even death, as in the case of Ignatius. 

Ignatius reminds us that the Church is not of some mysterious origin from the ancient past, but a concrete institution made up of and led by humans who, though imperfect, were first commissioned by Christ himself.

3. To discover Christian discipleship

Ignatius is Christ-focused throughout his letters, constantly emphasizing the supremacy of Christ in all things. For the bishop, faith and love are the “beginning and end of life.” Throughout his letters, Ignatius constantly exhorts Christians to love, prayer, and humility. Reflecting the Sermon on the Mount, Ignatius tells the Ephesians to be meek in response to wrath and to pray for others unceasingly. Ignatius reminds us that the Christian life is a radical one, whereby we are to love even our enemies.

And even in all this, Ignatius humbly regards his own self, fully accepting his own martyrdom as the final means to communion with Christ. He regards himself as a “prisoner in Christ Jesus” on his way to martyrdom, which is none other than his final test of discipleship. He begged the Roman church not to intervene. No, he was “eager to die” so as to be an “imitator of the passion” of Christ (R6). Ignatius shows us that the extent of Christian discipleship reaches even to death for Christ.

3 TAKEAWAYS FROM HIS LETTERS

1. Defending the real Jesus

Today, the major divergence regarding Jesus is typically the orthodox Christian doctrine (that Jesus is God) vs. the secular position (that Jesus was a mere religious teacher). But in Ignatius’ time, Christians had to defend orthodox teaching from other religious groups who were also influenced by Christianity. In his day, the conflict was not whether Jesus was divine but whether Jesus was human.

To the Gnostic Docetists, Jesus merely appeared human but wasn’t actually so. He was more of an apparition. But for Ignatius, this couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus is both “of Mary and of God.” (E7). He was “truly nailed for us in His flesh” — “not that He only seemed to suffer” (S1, 2).  This doesn’t mean that there was a diverse range of belief in the early Church. While there were differences between sects, only the group that was actually led by the Apostles and their successors — the church founded by Christ — knew what the historical Jesus, in fact, taught. And remember: Ignatius learned from and succeeded the Apostles. Who better to know their teachings?

2. Following proper church authority

Some people like to imagine that the early Church was democratic, with no organized hierarchy. But if we read Ignatius, we see a Church that was governed by authorized leaders. By his day in the early 100s, bishops “settled to the utmost bounds of the Earth” (E3). According to Ignatius, the bishop is the chief authority in the local church. In fact, by the early second century, each local church was led by a single bishop and assisted by the presbyters, or priests, and deacons under him.

According to Ignatius, without this threefold leadership, “there is no church” (T3). The local bishop was essential for church unity — so much so that he “presides in the place of God” (M6). For Ignatius, unity is so important that those who create schisms “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God” (P3). Ignatius also suggests the unifying role of the Church of Rome, which “presides in love” and to whom he grants the care of his Syrian church in his absence (R1, 9).

3. Gathered around Christ in the Eucharist

Union with the bishop also represented Eucharistic communion, for the bishop was the chief presider of the Eucharist. In this way, the local church can be seen as a Eucharistic community: A group of Christians gathered together to celebrate a common Eucharist. According to Ignatius, anyone outside of this unity “is deprived of the bread of God” (E5).

And being without the Eucharist is no small matter, for it is the “medicine of immortality” (E20). Now how can Ignatius claim this — that a simple meal of bread and wine is essential for salvation? For him, the Eucharist is no mere symbol. It is the “flesh of our savior Jesus Christ” (S7). Ignatius represents the common teaching of the early Church that is also maintained by the apostolic traditions in existence today, like Catholicism and Orthodoxy: that the Eucharist is truly Christ’s presence, even though under the appearances of bread and wine.

___________________________________________

References:

E = Epistle to the Ephesians
M = Epistle to the Magnesians
T = Epistle to the Trallians
R = Epistle to the Romans
P = Epistle to the Philadelphians
S = Epistle to the Smyrnæans

All 7 letters can be found here.

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