Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 to ~110AD)
Being one of the Apostolic Fathers, the life and ministry of St. Ignatius of Antioch gives us a rich glimpse into the very early life of the Church. Church tradition reports that Ignatius was converted to Christianity at a young age. He also, alongside Polycarp, is reported to have been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. In later life, Ignatius would serve as the bishop of Antioch.
Ignatius left behind seven important letters, hastily written to various churches while being transported to Rome for execution by being thrown to the beasts in the Colosseum. These letters show us the Christian faith being expressed in the first generation of disciples after the apostles.
I would like to highlight three beliefs and practices that Ignatius champions in his letters that may surprise us. Many Christians would consider these beliefs and practices to be later aberrations from the apostolic faith. Ignatius’ letters, however, show us that these beliefs and practices are essential to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The Deity of Christ
Though the deity of Christ is clearly taught in the New Testament, this doctrine was attacked by the heresy of Arianism in the 4th century. Heretical groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to attack this belief today and regard it as a departure from the true faith. However, in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians, we see that a belief in the divinity of Christ was essential to the faith in the very early Church:
But our Physician is the Only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.” Being incorporeal, He was in the body, being impassible, He was in a passible body, being immortal, He was in a mortal body, being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts. (Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 7)
Ignatius clearly defends the belief in the divinity of Christ as essential to the faith. Indeed, he makes it clear that our very salvation depends upon this essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
The Ministry of the Bishop
Ignatius also defends the ministry of the bishop and argues that the ministry of the bishop is essential to the faith and unity of the Church:
Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end. (Letter to the Magnesians, ch. 6)
Ignatius also warned the Magnesians that they should be submissive, even to a youthful bishop:
Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father. Your holy presbyters, I know, have not taken unfair advantage of his apparent youthfulness, but in their godly wisdom have deferred to him –nay, rather, not so much to him as to the Father of Jesus Christ, who is everybody’s bishop…the real issue is not that a man misleads a bishop whom he can see, but that he defrauds the One who is invisible. In such a case he must reckon, not with a human being, but with God who knows his secrets. (Letter to the Magnesians, ch. 3)
Many Christians argue that the ministry of a bishop is a later aberration or a misinterpretation of the word episkopos (translated as overseer by some) in the New Testament. However, Ignatius shows us that the ministry of the bishop was upheld in the very early Church and that when exercised rightly, is essential to the unity of the Church and for the guarding of the faith.
Ignatius also demonstrates a high view of the Eucharist in his letters:
Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God’s mind. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 6-7)
Elsewhere, Ignatius calls the Eucharist:
…the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 20)
Ignatius warns the Christians in Smyrna to be wary of those who reject the Eucharist because they refuse to admit that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Ignatius clearly rejects the idea that the Eucharist is simply a memorial act. Now, this doesn’t mean that he affirmed transubstantiation, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church. But he did affirm that the real presence of Christ is in the Eucharist, and that the Eucharist is a means of grace.
A Collect Prayer
Anglicans celebrate St. Ignatius of Antioch this Thursday, October 17th. Ignatius’ teachings remind us that far from being aberrations, the Divinity of Christ, the ministry of the Bishop, and the Eucharist are all essential parts of the faith once for all delivered to the saints- the faith that St. John the apostle passed onto Ignatius his disciple. But we also remember Ignatius as a martyr- for giving up his life for contending for this faith entrusted to him. And so we pray:
Almighty God, you gave your servant Ignatius of Antioch boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A Collect for the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist
Anglicans also remember and give thanks for the life of St. Luke the Evangelist this Friday, October 18th. You can read a little about his life and ministry here. And so we pray:
Almighty God, you called your servant Luke to be an evangelist and physician of the soul: Grant that, by the wholesome medicine of the doctrine he taught, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.