Imagine yourself in your front yard, suddenly confronted with two huge, growling Rottweilers. One has a short length of thick chain hanging from his log-sized neck that he has clearly snapped to set himself free. They’re too close for you to make it to the door.
Pause for a second until you can feel the sweat growing in your palms, terror stealing your thoughts from you, and the creepy tingle climbing up your spine.
Okay, now that the ambience is set, let’s talk about Ignatius of Antioch.
All sorts of controversy surround the writings of Ignatius, but I think of him primarily as conqueror.
It is a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain. When he faces threats, punishments, and torture by mocking death and treading underfoot the executioner … when he yields to God alone and–triumphant and victorious–tramples upon the very man who has pronounced the sentence upon him … God finds all these things beautiful. (The Octavius 37, c AD 200)
There are others who have displayed this beauty, but Ignatius is the first whose story we know in any detail.
The story, The Martyrdom of Ignatius, is questioned as to its genuiness, but his letters are not. Ignatius knew he was being transported to Rome to die at the mouth and claws of leopards and bears. Right, he didn’t get lions. He was going to be torn to pieces by strong, small animals–like your Rottweilers. Only … he was thrilled.
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. (Letter to the Romans 4, c AD 110)
May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me. I pray that they would be found eager to rush at me, and I will also entice them to devour me speedily and not deal with me as some, whom out of fear they have not touched. If they are unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me; I know what is to my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. Let no one, of things visible or invisible, prevent me from attaining to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocation of bones; let cutting off of limbs; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the evil torments of the devil come upon me; only let me attain to Jesus Christ. (ibid. 5, c AD 110)
Ignatius was excited about being a witness for Jesus. (The Greek word marturos means witness.) The cost was incredible pain: tearings, breakings, dislocation of bones, cutting off of limbs, shatterings of the whole body.
This was Ignatius. How would you like to tangle with a guy like that!
Tangling with Ignatius
I wouldn’t want to get on Ignatius’ bad side, but there were people who did.
The early churches were not like ours. They ate together, shared their possessions, considered one another family, and were closer than most of us could ever imagine. Acts 2:42-47 was not just practiced at Jerusalem. The sharing of possessions, the brotherhood, the hunger for the apostles’ teaching, and the eating from house to house continued for centuries.
Picturing 3,000 people attending a megachurch on Sunday morning is easy for us. I live just over two miles from a “church” (more aptly, Christian club) that has 18,000 members. It’s only over two miles away because the entrance road is a mile long.
Note: This particular Christian club is impressive. I am stunned at the quality of the Sunday morning sermons. I confess an admiration for their “life groups,” a diligent, well-supported attempt to promote real Christian fellowship in the midst of a huge organization that turns in Broadway worthy performances from the choir and worship leaders every week. That organization, however, is not and cannot be a “church.” The church is a family, and it consists of people, not a 501(c)3 corporation with a building and a program.
In Ignatius’ time, churches were not like this. They had houses, yes, but buildings, no. A Christian temple would only have lasted until they irritated someone important, and the early Christians irritated the Romans enough to get themselves killed on a regular basis.
So imagine 3,000 people in Jerusalem meeting house to house, sharing their possessions, and bonding together into family.
Have you ever lived in such an environment? I have. I have done so with four or five families, and I have done so with forty or fifty families.
When you have forty or fifty families, there are going to be people in your midst with crazy ideas. Those people can be hard to spot at first, and with enough people it is easy to hide if you want to. You can go around teaching that God is actually just a 25,000-year-old, extremely wise alien. You can go around teaching that God warned you of a missile that would hit New York, just as Nostradamus predicted, and that you averted World War III by stopping that missile through prayer.
I know that can happen because it did. Sometimes it takes a while for the leaders to find out you have the most bizarre form of heresies being taught right in your midst!
That was with 300 people. Can you imagine if there were 3,000 men, as there were in Jerusalem? Or if you added 5,000 more in the next few months?
You don’t have to imagine. I can tell you what happened.
We are introduced to the gnostics in the letters of Paul and John. Paul talks about gnosis (KJV: “science”) falsely so called (1 Tim. 6:20). That was just a general reference. In 1 Corinthians 15, he discusses those who denied that there was a resurrection of the dead.
No one really doubts that these were gnostics. They were “Christians” who believed that all matter is evil. There can’t be a resurrection of the dead, at least not a bodily one, because our bodies (and trees and rocks and dirt) are inherently evil. There can only be a spiritual resurrection.
We can only guess at the teachings that surrounded this denial of the resurrection because gnosticism would have been in its infancy.
John, however, wrote decades (probably) after Paul wrote Corinthians. Gnosticism was in full bloom. It had so much influence that one church was completely subverted. John could send neither letters nor emissaries to them (3 Jn. 9).
In one place Irenaeus tells us that John’s Gospel was at least partly written to undercut the teachings of gnostics, which were far more developed nearing AD 100 when Irenaeus says the Gospel was written. (Some day, I am going to remember to write down where that quote is so that I don’t have to look it up every time I mention it.) Gnostics taught about emanations from God called “aeons” who brought divine influence to this world. Those aeons had names like Word, Light, Life, Church, Man, Christ, and other terms pulled from the apostles’ writings. John, says Irenaeus, purposely used all those words in the very first chapter of his Gospel to refer to Jesus. There is only one Word, Life, Light, Way, and Anointed, and that One is Jesus.
Ignatius died ten to fifteen years after John did. He was a respected and widely known overseer of the church in Antioch, which means he was not a new bishop. He was likely at least in his 40’s. He was seeing the same widespread gnostic problem that John was.
Free Bonus: Origin of the Gnostics
If you’re trying to hurry through this post, skip this section. It is background material, not central.
Justin, Irenaeus, and others tell us that Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24) did not repent at Peter’s rebuke. Instead, he went back to his old ways, doing miracles (probably all illusions) and proclaiming himself as the great power of God. Only now, having heard the preaching of Philip, he had a new twist: Simon was the Christ.
Jesus, he said, had the Christ spirit, an emanation from God, upon him. However, he wound up being killed, thus failing in his mission. Christ had then left Jesus and went to someone new. Surprise, surprise! That someone new was Simon.
Simon wound up in Rome, but he left a disciple by the name of Menander. Menander taught another named Cerinthus, whom John met and called the enemy of truth.
In this way Simon’s teaching spread. At the base of all of them was the idea that there was a place called “Fulness” where these aeons dwelled. They were completely spiritual. The only reason that anything physical, or made of matter, existed, is because one of those aeons, Sophia (Wisdom), left the Fulness to find and get to know the unknowable true God, Bythus (Profundity or Depth).
Wisdom could not find God, so she mourned and wept, and in ignorance her sorrows created a being, called the Demiurge. Some accounts say that Sophia didn’t know about the Demiurge, and some suggest that he was monstrous and she abandoned him. Either way, Sophia returned to the Fullness (Pleroma), leaving the Demiurge alone.
Being ignorant of everything, the Demiurge supposed that he must be a god, and the only one at that. He created the earth and the people on it.
This was the bizarre world of the gnostics, probably not quite full-grown, in Ignatius’ time.
Ignatius and the Gnostics
One nice thing about the letters of Ignatius is that they are short and packed with content. It’s easy to review them. (For those of you that follow the link, take note that the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers chose the bizarre option of mingling the accepted shorter versions with the corrupted longer versions. So rather than presenting them separately, each chapter has a short first paragraph and a longer second paragraph. You have to ignore the 2nd paragraph unless you want to read some very interesting and accurate additions, usually concerning the Trinity, from the 4th century or later. Also, only the first seven are considered genuine.)
Letter to the Ephesians
This is from Ignatius’ letter to the church at Ephesus, not Paul’s:
For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop … how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. … He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. (ch. 5)
I think all of us can read in this that there are those who are assembling separately from the church. Ignatius was trying to put a stop to this. In every one of his letters he addresses this problem, and some of those reveal to us it was the gnostics causing the problem.
Onesimus [Ephesus’ overseer/bishop] himself greatly commends your good order in God, that ye all live according to the truth, and that no heresy has any dwelling-place among you. (ch. 6)
This is the next chapter after the previous quote. Ignatius’ complaint did not stem from good Christians holding meetings in their home. His complaint stemmed from heresies that were leading the church astray, but not the church in Ephesus due to the diligence of their overseer, Onesimus, and the “good order” of the disciples.
For some are in the habit of carrying about the Name in wicked guile, while yet they practise things unworthy of God, whom ye must flee as ye would wild beasts. For they are ravening dogs, who bite secretly, against whom ye must be on your guard, inasmuch as they are men who can scarcely be cured. There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible [capable of suffering] and then impassible [incapable of suffering]–even Jesus Christ our Lord. (ch. 7)
Here is a clear reference to the type of heretics who are the problem. These heretics deny that the one Physician is possessed both of flesh and spirit, that he was God existing in the flesh, and that he came from Mary as well as from God. These are gnostics, also called “docetists” (meaning, generally, those who divide our nature into two).
Letter to the Magnesians
Knowing what we know from his epistle to the Ephesians, we can catch what is important to Ignatius in the first sentences of the letter to the Magnesians:
Having been informed of your godly love, so well-ordered, I rejoiced greatly, and determined to commune with you in the faith of Jesus Christ. … I commend the Churches, in which I pray for a union both of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, the constant source of our life. (ch. 1, emphasis added)
The Ephesians letter shows us that “well-ordered” means that they “lived according to truth” and had “no heresy” among them. The heresy is gnosticism, which denied the “union both of the flesh and spirit” of King Jesus.
Ignatius takes the time to tell the Magnesians how to avoid losing their order and finding gnostic heresy in their midst:
Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality. (ch. 6)
This quote is from chapter six, but all of chapters 2-5 say the same thing. Stick to the bishop. Do not meet separately from him, or at least do not meet without his knowledge. Your unity will protect you from heresy.
Interestingly, enough, the main issue Ignatius goes on to address with the Magnesians is not gnosticism, but Judaism: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. … It is absurd to profess Christ and to Judaize” (chs. 8, 10).
He does not leave out the gnostics, however. In chapter 8 he adds, “There is one God, who has manifested himself by Jesus Christ his Son, who is his eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence.” “Silence” here is, in my opinion, a clear reference to one of the gnostic aeons (Sige). “Proceeding forth” is Christian terminology, and one can find the early Christians saying that the Son proceeded from the Father. It is also gnostic terminology, and they loved anything that sounded mystic and mysterious. “Proceeding from” and “emanating” are phrases they loved to use concerning the aeons. (Another such phrase is “produced, yet did not produce so as to be separate from themselves.”)
For the scholars among us: The note in The Ante-Nicene Fathers says that those who think Ignatius’ reference to silence is a reference to the gnostics’ aeon, Sige, also think this proves the letter to the Magnesians is a later forgery. I am not a scholar in the sense that I have not researched the opinions of the most preeminent scholars on some of these matters. I have simply read through these writings over and over again. I cannot see that there are any sources indicating that the gnostics did not already have a full set of aeons in the early second century. I can do some more research in the gnostic writings; there are not that many of them, but I find it easy to believe that the gnostics would already have been referencing Sige in Irenaeus’ time.
I’ve given you five quotes from two of Ignatius’ seven letters showing you that Ignatius’ concern was gnosticism and that his solution was for Christians to stick close to the overseer and elders and to submit to them as they would to God and to King Jesus.
I assure you that the rest of his letters are the same, except for the significant absence of reference to an overseer in Rome. However, if you don’t believe me, I invite you to read his letters yourself, which will be a wonderful experience and well worth doing. They can be read for free online several places (e.g., here).
I will add an interesting quote from his letter to the Philadelphians:
For though some would have deceived me according to the flesh, yet the Spirit, as being from God, is not deceived. For it knows both from where it comes and to where it goes and detects secrets. When I was among you, I cried, I spoke with a loud voice, “Give heed to the bishop, and to the elders and deacons.” Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus because I knew in advance the division caused by some among you. But he is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed these words: “Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as he is of his Father.” (ch. 7)
A little pentecostalism going on here in the very early church. Ignatius prophesied in their midst. It is of little wonder, of course, that some suspected he was not prophesying, but responding to heretical behavior about which he had already been informed. He was on a crusade against such heresies, and his answer was that the overseer of each church, along with his elders, would be the place and source of unity to protect from these divisive members, whether gnostics or Judaizers.
Ignatius was not just crusading, he was conquering. After his time, we never again read about gnostics in the church. Gnostics are mentioned often, and whole books are written against them, but the gnostics are always addresses as separate groups, not part of the church itself.
I credit Ignatius for driving them out. He was fearless in front of the leopards and bears of the coliseum, and he was fearless in front of the carnal beasts who tried to devour the sheep that he had given his life to shepherd.
Ignatius the Churchman
Ignatius makes us Protestants nervous. What is all this stuff about submitting to the bishop and the “presbytery”?
Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God’s law. Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Without the bishop’s supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted. On the other hand, whatever he approves pleases God as well. In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid. (Letter to the Smyrneans 8)
It is well for us to come to our senses at last, while we still have a chance to repent and turn to God. It is a fine thing to acknowledge God and the bishop. He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service. (ibid. 9)
Them thar’s fightin’ words!
For many Protestants, this is what they ran from. The clergy of Roman Catholicism were carnal, often corrupt, and the Gospel was lost. That is why the Protestants “protested,” and that is why some of us have stayed away.
So the initial, unthinking reaction to words like “he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service” is to accuse Ignatius of being proof of an early departure and sharp break from the Scriptures, which rarely talk about submission to leaders (3 times in Hebrews, once in 1 Thessalonians).
One, we need to remember the context of Ignatius’ letters. He championed the fight against the growing problem of gnosticism in the church. Even more importantly, his advice worked. He won.
Not only did he win, but his victory was passed down in the church while his strong emphasis on submission to the overseer and elders was not. It was assumed, just as it is assumed among Protestants. We usually do not emphasize submission to church leaders, but the majority of us know such submission is taught in the Scriptures and is necessary if a church is going to function (whether it’s a real church, functioning as a family, or a Christian club, functioning as an organization).
Note: The reason I didn’t resist that jab is because I’m on a crusade myself. In defense of what used to be carnal, divided, and an embarrassing travesty of the faith of King Jesus, things are–in my opinion–getting not only better, but much better. Francis Chan, who would be sweeter and more eloquent than me, but just as blunt, would agree with me on what constitutes “real” church, and many thousands of American Christians love his message and are trying to walk in it. When I heard missionary Chuck Fielding (Preach and Heal) talk about church meetings with a few saints sitting on the floor with a guitar, sharing their lives and devoting themselves to the service of the poor, I cheered, but so did a thousand medical students around me. Those medical students were hungry to give up their potentially lucrative future salary for the sake of healing starving sick people in foreign countries. I’m more excited than I have ever been about the state of Christianity in America. Thank you, citizens of America, for growing tired of greasy grace and a purposeless faith, and searching for an inspiring and effective alternative.
Ignatius and Church Rituals
I purposely chose a word that would be somewhat offensive to many Protestants: “rituals.”
We’re going to have to be real. The early churches loved rituals: two at least, plus one yearly festival.
Baptism was an elaborate and interesting ritual even in the earliest churches. One of the earliest references to baptism, in a possibly first century manual called The Didache, says that the person baptizing, along with others who can, should fast, and that the person being baptized should fast for one or two days. It then gives explicit instructions on how baptism is to be done, with running water (river or creek) preferred over still and immersing over pouring. (ch. 7)
Justin Martyr, in the mid-second century, describes baptism even more fully. I’m going to give you the whole quote:
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” … And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable [unnameable] God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology 61)
There’s some interesting issues brought up in this quote, especially about the name of God, but none of them are the topic of this post. So, moving back to Ignatius …
The other ritual is the Eucharist, or as we Protestants would call it, communion.
Both words are excellent words. Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” and the early Christians so referenced the Lord’s table because the description at the last supper begins with Jesus giving thanks. Communion means “fellowship,” and Paul said that the bread is the “fellowship” of Jesus’ body and the wine the “fellowship” of his blood (1 Cor. 10:16).
Ignatius has some provocative things to say about the Eucharist. You who believe the bread and wine of communion to be purely symbolic won’t like this first one, but it’s a favorite among the radical Protestants with whom I fellowship here in west Tennesse:
… breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying, so that we should live forever in King Jesus. (Ephesians 20)
Oh, I love that quote! I love the thought, and it is never absent from mind when I partake of the bread that has been consecrated by prayer and by the Word of God (1 Tim. 4:5).
Ignatius had more to say on the subject.
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom the Father, out of his goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against the gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. It would be better for them to treat it with respect so that they, too, might rise again. It is appropriate, therefore, that you keep aloof from people like them and avoid speaking with them either privately or publicly. Instead, pay attention to the prophets and, above all, to the Gospel, in which the suffering of Christ has been revealed to us and the resurrection has been fully proven. (Smyrneans 7)
This is not the place for me to get into a battle about “the Real Presence” or anything like that. At least, I’m not interested in tackling that issue in this post. This post is about Ignatius, and that is what he says. I think now you have some idea who he is, and there are plenty of links above for you to learn more about him.
I am confused about why WordPress is not suggesting other blog posts to link to like it normally does. I do not know what I might have done to change that. I’d rather get this almost 5000 word post up than try to fix a computer problem, though, so no WordPress links today, even though I like that feature.